This review contains big spoilers.
Lemons is, I am sad to say, everything I expected Red Dwarf X to be, and everything the first two episodes weren’t. Lemons is a cartoony, clumsy episode that evokes the worst moments of the Back to Earth specials and reeks of trying to be far too clever. Worst of all, Lemons subscribes to that “and after that” school of writing that seems to be ruining all the best shows these days.
Let me sum this up for you.
Lemons opens with the crew discovering a flat pack “rejuvenation shower” that makes the occupant young and healthy, they make some jokes about flat pack furniture while doing a poor job assembling it. The shower sends them back in time to 23 AD by mistake, where they discover they don’t have the means to return. Their only option is to travel to India to find lemons so they can make a battery. And after that they meet Jesus, and after that they take him back to the ship, and after that they perform surgery on Jesus, and after that Jesus gets disillusioned about his future as the messiah and travels back to 23 AD. The first half plays out reasonably naturally, but the second half isn’t a tidy flow of events. Instead one tired development turns up after the other, with little thought as to how, or why, the episode is progressing.
This episode just does not work. The initial gag about a flat pack sci-fi gadget is naff. This kind of 90s observational humour doesn’t suit the show, and the gags have all been done to death. On top of that, the basic premise is so poor. Kryten tells the crew that the rejuvenation shower rewinds your genes, but he says nothing about it sending your genes back in time. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky, but even if you’re happy to accept that the machine has gone wrong and is sending people back in time, why Britain in 23AD? I’m not questioning the scientific accuracy so much as the pulled-out-of-our-bottoms quality it all has. It’s an awkward and unfunny opening that doesn’t feel like cause and effect. The shower feels very much like a late addition, any bad gag gadget that could send the crew to 23AD would do.
This wouldn’t be so bad, except the plot that follows isn’t worth the effort. It looks promising when they’re talking about potatoes, lemons and batteries. We are led to think this is where the episode is going, a gag filled romp through the past while they attempt to find a way home, but this is soon forgotten with the introduction of Jesus. From here on it all gets coincidental and stale. Sure, they’re in about the right time period for Jesus, but why is he in India? They say that it’s during the missing years in the Bible when Jesus travelled, but it makes no sense. The sets don’t look much more like India than the middle east, the only reason seems to be the location of the lemons. Sure, the show goes to great lengths to convince you that it’s possible Jesus would be in India at the age of 23, around the same time as lemons, but it all seems so pointless. Why is it set in India? Couldn’t Kryten think of a fruit you could make a battery from that’s native to Jerusalem?
From there it just gets worse. They take Jesus back to the ship and he reads about all the wars Christianity has caused, but it never really goes anywhere and none of the gags are worth the very lengthy setups we’ve had to endure over the course of the show. Couple this with the absolutely feeble pokes at Christianity that could only entertain a very militant atheist. I watched this episode with my partner who was raised an evangelical Christian and is now a happy non-believer. Her response was that it all felt too easy, and wasn’t particularly funny.
Red Dwarf can be a very funny show. When it’s at its best, it takes a science fiction concept that isn’t funny in itself, and then explores all the humour possible in the situation. This has been a trend from the very early episodes. Take Future Echoes in which the crew witness small snippets of the future that can never be changed. This isn’t a naturally hilarious concept, but the episode is one of the best. Watching Lister trying to stop the cat from breaking his tooth to prove that he can avoid his own death has the comedy and depth that sets the show apart. Most of the very best episodes follow this formula: Backwards, Justice, Back to Reality. Even last week’s Fathers and Suns, takes two basic premises, being your own father and a computer that can predict your behaviour, and then explores the humour in them. In years to come Fathers and Suns will probably be remembered as the standout episode in Red Dwarf X
Lemons isn’t like those great episodes of Red Dwarf. It doesn’t establish a scenario and then try to find the humour in it, it flits from routine to routine, desperately trying to create humour. When you couple this with Ikea jokes and bad religious satire, the effect is just embarrassing Three episodes in to a series that is already on pretty shaky footing, it’s not what the show needs. What doesn’t help is that the episode has clearly been hacked to pieces in the edit. I don’t know how much longer the original must have been, but there are clear gaps. At one point Rimmer remarks that they need a battery, it is delivered like a joke and the cast even seem to leave a gap for the audience laughter, but we have no frame of reference. Lister discards are battery as unimportant earlier in the episode, but it’s a throwaway line in the middle of a list and isn’t described in the same detail. We’re clearly getting half a joke, and it’s not the only time this happens.
Lemons suffers in the same way the first episodes did. The actors don’t have as strong delivery as they used to, the setups are a little more cartoony than they used to be and the characters all seem a little dumber. There’s a real BBC Three feel that doesn’t help the show much, and everyone, from the cast to costume and set designers, seem to be producing a parody of Red Dwarf rather than the genuine article. However, this has been balanced out by some of the best story outlines in years, some very funny jokes and a real sense that the show is trying its best. Lemons has none of this balance, it just feels rushed, cheap and stupid. Many of the cast and crew have come out and sold this episode as their favourite, if that’s the case then I dread to see what’s yet to come.