Saturday, March 26, 2016

Red Dwarf: "Tikka to Ride"

(This post is part of the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon)

One of the recurring questions appearing in works of science fiction is the question of what would have happened had President John F. Kennedy never been assassinated. Gregory Benford's 1980 novel Timescape dealt with this question by having a high school student inadvertently prevent the assassination. Reportedly Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry submitted scripts for the second, third, and fourth Star Trek movies in which the crew of the Enterprise must stop Klingons from changing the outcome of President Kennedy's assassination. On television the assassination of John F. Kennedy figured in both the 1985 Twilight Zone episode "Profile in Silver" and the 1992 Quantum Leap episode "Lee Harvey Oswald". More recently Stephen King's novel 11/22/63 was adapted as a TV series on the streaming service Hulu. Surprisingly, among the science fiction TV shows to deal with the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a British comedy. "Tikka to Ride" the first episode of the seventh series of Red Dwarf.

For those unfamiliar with Red Dwarf, it is a science fiction sitcom created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor that debuted on BBC Two on February 15 1988. Red Dwarf centres on Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), the last human in the universe. Dave Lister was a lowly third class technician aboard the mining vessel Red Dwarf who brought a pregnant cat aboard the ship. Although the cat was female, he named her "Frankenstein".  Having brought a quarantined animal on board,  Lister is punished by being put into suspended animation without pay for what was supposed to be 18 months. Frankenstein was locked safely away in the cargo hold. Unfortunately while Lister is in suspended animation there is a cadmium II leak that kills everyone on board except for Lister and Frankenstein. The ship's computer, Holly (initially played by Norman Lovett and later by Hattie Hayridge) then kept Lister in suspended animation for three million years--the amount of time it took for the radiation to die down. By that time all humanity (except for Lister) is extinct. For company Holly creates a hologram of Lister's old bunkmate and immediate superior Arnold Rimmer (played by Chris Barrie). There is only one other living being aboard Red Dwarf besides Lister: a humanoid feline simply called "Cat" whose species evolved from Frankenstein and her offspring. Like Lister, Cat is the last of his kind. Eventually Lister, Rimmer, and Cat were joined by the service mechanoid Kryten (played by Robert Llewellyn). 

Unlike other science fiction comedies (such as the late, lamented Quark), the comedy on Red Dwarf emerges entirely from the characters. The science fiction elements on Red Dwarf are treated entirely seriously. This allows the show to explore some very serious themes, including the existence (or lack) of freewill, the extinction of humanity, the fragility of time, mythology, and religion. The comedy emerges from a disparate group of characters (some of who don't like each other very much) who are a far cry from the traditional, stalwart heroes of space operas. 

Not only was "Tikka to Ride" the first episode of the seventh series of Red Dwarf, it was also the first episode after a three year hiatus. The hiatus was the result of several factors, among them co-creator Rob Grant's decision to leave the show. With Rob Grant gone, co-creator Doug Naylor was left with the decision of whether to go on with the show or not. Ultimately he decided to do so, as eight more episodes would give Red Dwarf 52 episodes in total, the bare minimum for international syndication. For fans this was a very good thing. Not only did it mean that there would be more episodes of Red Dwarf, but it would mean that the cliffhanger that had ended the sixth series would be resolved. "Tikka to Ride" also saw the return of director Ed Bye, who had directed the entirety of Red Dwarf from its beginning to the end of its fourth series.

Aside from the departure of co-creator Rob Grant, the seventh series of Red Dwarf would see other changes. Prior to the seventh series Red Dwarf had been shot in front of an audience with multiple cameras. With the seventh series Red Dwarf was videotaped with only a single camera, much more like a feature film. While this meant that it could no longer be shot in front of an audience, it meant that Red Dwarf would have over all better production values and better special effects. The improvement in the show's production values are readily apparent in "Tikka to Ride".

The sixth series of Red Dwarf had ended on a cliffhanger in which Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, and Cat apparently died in a battle with their future selves, who had travelled back in time by way of a "time drive". "Tikka to Ride" begins with Lister making a video in which he offers a very convoluted explanation of how they survived that battle. Unfortunately, in the battle it appears that all supplies of Indian food have been destroyed. Unhappy with the loss of the Indian food, Lister proposes that they use the time drive to go back in time to an Indian take-out and order 500 curries. Unfortunately for Lister, the rest of the crew are against the idea. When Kryten goes offline to discard old cache files, Lister swaps Kryten's head for a spare one from which he has removed its guilt chip. Without the guilt chip, Kryten not only smokes and drinks, but reassures Rimmer and Cat that it would be perfectly fine to go back in time to get curries. 

Unfortunately the crew makes a miscalculation with regards to time travel and they arrive at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on November 22 1963. Ultimately they prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President John F. Kennedy and as a result alter the timeline, a fact they learn when they jump forward in time to 1966. Lister, Rimmer, Cat, and Kryten must then figure out a way to restore the timeline.

On the surface a comedy that touches upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy would appear to be in very poor taste, but fortunately co-creator and writer Doug Naylor presents a reverent, but at the same time balanced view of John F. Kennedy and his legacy. As is typical of Red Dwarf, the humour comes entirely from its main characters.  As might be expected, producers Doug Naylor and Ed Bye were concerned about how the episode would play in Dallas when it aired on PBS. They contacted KERA, the PBS station in Dallas, to see if there were any complaints. KERA informed the producers that the only complaints arose from a gag unrelated to the JFK storyline.

Red Dwarf is known for its pop culture references and "Tikka to Ride" is no different. The title is a pun taken from The Beatles' song "Ticket to Ride". When Kryten mentions he wants to discard old cache files he states that the "Ability to sing the Bay City Rollers' greatest hits is no longer a priority." The entire episode can be considered a very loose parody of the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever", which also concerned changing history through the fate of a single individual. There are a few other pop culture references in the episode, but they really cannot be revealed without spoiling the plot!

While Red Dwarf fans have long debated the quality of the later series, I think "Tikka to Ride" demonstrates that the show was still capable of good episodes later in its run. Red Dwarf takes an idea that had not yet been touched upon frequently on science fiction TV shows. At the same time it treats its subject with the sensitivity necessary to avoid offending many, while at the same time remaining very funny. "Tikka to Ride" also deals with time travel in a way that is much more serious and deeper than many sci-fi dramas. While arguably there are better episodes of Red Dwarf, "Tikka to Ride" remains my favourite.


Hal said...

Love RED DWARF (and also Chris Barrie's very underrated BRITTAS EMPIRE); it's been a Channel 13 Saturday staple for years here. "Tikka to Ride" would be right up there, though if I ever do a DWARF for the blogathon it will likely be "Quarantine". Great job!

Lisa said...

Love this episode so much! Hilarious, touching, brilliant slapstick -- this one has everything. One of my vividly recalled viewings of this episode was when I was actually IN Dallas on a business trip and this was the episode playing on Saturday night there and we had just visited Dealey Plaza earlier that day.

So much happens in this episode -- jam-packed with assorted goodness and also leaving us with a melancholy vibe that is so effective and makes this truly unforgettable. Leave it to "Red Dwarf" to have fun with such an earth-shattering historical event and yet manage to treat it with wisdom and maturity in the end.

The best!!! Thank you for this great post!

Quiggy said...

I was a member of a college sci-fi club when they started airing this. Never did figure out how the others found it, since I totally missed finding it. As a result I still haven't watched any of the series. I do love time travel and the paradox aspect of this one intrigues me. Maybe I can get it on interlibrary loan.

Caftan Woman said...

I don't know that the series has aired around here. It must have, Toronto is that kind of place, I must have been on another planet. Really feel like I'm missing out.

Unknown said...

This is the very first episode of Red Dwarf I ever saw, I absolutely love this series and this was a great piece on it. I loved that you left much of the episode a mystery, great post!

Summer (Serendipitous Anachronisms)

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I haven't watched Red Dwarf for years, but a college roommie of mine and I used to watch it every weekend on PBS :-) I never saw this one, though! One day!