Fourth Right

How Series IV changed the face of Red Dwarf forever.

Bringing Red Dwarf to the half-way mark (to date), Series IV represents a fascinating point in the show's history. Where all other series made very immediately-obvious strides in new directions, the fourth series appears to change very little, instead showing a clear confidence in the format established by the revolutionary Series III.

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On the surface, certainly, we are without the radical alterations that have otherwise become traditional. Series I was a revolution in terms of what was being done with sitcom. II's scripts sizzled with a massively different style, far stronger characters, dialogue and plotlines. III, obviously, overturned everything - new sets, new costumes, new characters, new spaceship. The same is true of what came after - with Series V trying a far darker tone and more dense storytelling and Series VI, VII and VIII all trying, in different ways, to reformat the show.

But Series IV felt like a genuine continuation, without upheaval. Not fixing what wasn't broke. The characters, set-up and production design all have much in common with the previous season - although John Pomphrey's lighting is far more striking this season, no doubt due to the set not being taken down and reassembled on a weekly basis. The production was able to remain permanently erect (ahem) on the new filming location of G stage, Shepperton Studios.

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Still, with the main characters and their dynamics mostly unchanged - Rimmer is a tolerated nuisance, Kryten is still adjusting to human-esque behaviour, Holly is still female and dotty - and the situations, as with Series III, based on a combination of new arrivals (Hudzen and the polymorph, the simulant and Camille) and self-made problems (travelling to the Backward Earth or Waxworld), it could feel like Series 3b.

Or so one might think. Look a little closer, because our two main characters go through a tiny revolution right in front your eyes...

Rimmer was never into telegraph poles or Hammond organ music, not before now, not as far as we knew. Series IV introduces someone beyond the angry, scheming man we already knew and lays bare the inner nerd. Entire scenes became constructed about this new-found trait - how long was that Risk story?! And how many were killed in the radiation leak? Series IV adds a full thousand to the body count.

But it is Lister's back-story that is most irrevocably changed. Series IV officially brought the universe of the TV show and that for the novels a little closer together. That meant resituating the character's past in the 23rd century, rather than the 21st seen in Series I and II. But, far more significantly, Lister's novel past was grafted onto his TV incarnation's past.

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It's not entirely surprising that the book universe was such an inspiration to the retooling. After all, Grant and Naylor were fresh from their second novel, Better Than Life, to the point where it was cannibalised for not one but two scripts. (Only one, White Hole, made the screen, the other - set, at least in part, on Garbage World - was deemed unfilmable.)

Lister dated Kochanski, we learn. Casual viewers couldn't have cared less - in fact, they have no idea who she was. They saw Series III, where she's no more mentioned than the date of Lister's origins. And that's the kicker - after six episodes of being 'come as you are', of being unconcerned with the fictional universe beyond the current episode (including Rimmer's virginity reveal, which contradicts previous statements), Red Dwarf came back to the continuity game. New balls, please.

You don't have to buy into the fan theories - that every series or pair of series existed in separate dimensions (!), something the writers have never embraced - in fact it may be better not to. (Though this is, of course, the series that kicked off an interest in dimensions, building, albeit without acknowledgement, on the parallel dimension of the perhaps retrospectively mis-titled Parallel Universe.)

The shift in continuity at least shows a renewed interest in such things. The show is once again starting to be posited as a 'saga'. Kochanski gets a couple of nods, as do the twins, Jim and Bexley (now the children of an alternate Lister in Ace's dimension). The radiation leak takes a later toll. Rimmer's mother puts in another appearance - here less a comic tool, as she'd been in Polymorph, more an established aspect of the history. Hell, even the damn Toaster comes back!

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Indeed, Justice even has A and B plotlines that intersect, something the show really only did for the first season. Now, although continuity might not be employed to the extent of I and II (Lister's future echo in I coming true at the end of II has to be one of the most impressive pieces of inter-series plotting the show's ever had), while the individual stand-alone stories continued much as III, IV wanted you to know that the history was starting to matter again. You might want to pay attention.

This would pay off massively in later series. Back to Reality stunned audiences, not least because of the way it tore at existing Dwarf icons. Did Lister get Kochanski? What secret lies behind Rimmer's swimming certificate. Even Rob Grant cheekily marketed the episode to some journalists as providing the reason for all Red Dwarf's continuity errors.

And yes, as each new series came and went, more and more reliance was placed on the ongoing saga. Episodes would cease going out in an order decided late in post-production, with VI, VII and VIII's scripts all leaving little margin for movement. The climax to Nanarchy in VII asks you to recall that the Red Dwarf ship was lost just after the crew's adventures in Back to Reality. Remember?

All because of Series IV. Which may come as a surprise to those who know what a shuffling that series' episodes took. Filmed in one order, given a different order for broadcast and given a third when it became clear that the Gulf War would make screening two episodes difficult. But this was a series that could be shuffled without difficulty, unlike the final three.

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As planned, it would have gone: Meltdown, Dimension Jump, Justice, Camille, White Hole, DNA. Poor old Robert Llewellyn - whose Kryten was left human at the end of that series schedule - even hoped he would return sans make-up the next year. Fat chance, especially once DNA moved to second place in the run.

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But a stronger memory wasn't Series IV's only contribution to the continuing success of Red Dwarf. It brought the now-familiar GELFs back to the programme - another shape-shifter, a pleasure GELF, following the last series' polymorph, and leading in time to the similar Psirens and the less similar (but equally grotesque) Kinitawowi. Here it was proved that even non-violent GELFs in the Dwarf universe were, to a beast, ugly buggers. That hasn't changed.

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More significantly, simulants were introduced into the equation. Their origins were left until Gunmen of the Apocalypse two series later, but the first of their kind cast his red eye on our boys after thawing out in Series IV. Turns out, they're all as angry, all as crazy...though sometimes they're less nasty to look at, depending on how you feel about twin eyebrows.

These were concepts the series could grow on. Something... well, something to remember.

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