I've been watching the Red Dwarf series in order, which means I'm not getting quite the same effect as if I had viewed the series on television. So I saw Season Three a week after viewing Season Two. I imagine TV series hold up much better when they're not viewed back-to-back.
Season Three is a complete reboot of Red Dwarf, in the same way that Alias reshuffled its characters but kept the show's premise the same. So what happened? You can find out if you slow the DVD down to read the Star Wars-like credits.
We last left Season Two with Dave Lister (Craig Charles) discovering that he had two children. For the first Season Lister figured he met a great bird (to use Brit slang) eventually, even though he was on a massive ship (Red Dwarf) with no other companions except a humanoid cat (Danny John-Jules) and a hologram (Rimmer played by Chris Barrie). Lister was in for a big surprise when it turns out that it was he who got pregnant, by sleeping with a female version of himself in a reverse universe where women impregnate men. So the twins Lister saw in a picture in one of the earlier episodes were indeed his.
Season Three explains that they kids grow to maturity due to the difference in parallel universes and that eventually Lister drops them off in their mother's parallel universe. Poof! No more twins/Lister pregnant plot.
Holly (Normal Lovett), the monotone droning computer who runs Red Dwarf has changed his appearance. Strangely, he changes it to the female computer he encountered in the parallel universe. Why the creators chose to do this is anyone's guess, but we're led to believe it's because Holly really, really liked the other computer. The new Holly (Hattie Hayridge) isn't so much a deadpan genius as a dithering bimbo with a wide-eyed, vacuous stare. No more "is Holly insane?" plot.
The android Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) that was in one episode in Season Two crashes into a planet. The Red Dwarf crew rescues and reconstructs him, which explains why he looks different. Remember how Kryten had gotten over his subservient attitude and drove off in biker leathers? That plot's over too.
In fact, the only characters that remain the same are Rimmer, Lister, and Cat. Rimmer's still annoying, although less antagonistic than before. Lister's still a slob. And Cat's still Prince with fangs.
When Red Dwarf is funny, it's side-splittingly funny. But those moments take a longer build up. In essence, there are better jokes in Season Three, but there aren't as many. A lot of time is spent developing characters and plots.
Unfortunately, there's increasingly less attention paid to any sort of internal logic to the show. There are a myriad of problems with the Backwards episode, where everyone on Earth does everything backwards (but it only sporadically affects the crew). Rimmer, the hologram who cannot physically interact with anything, increasingly seems to be able to touch and smell, get drunk, and run away in fear from a killer android. At one point, Rimmer even points out how badly Lister smells and then claims he can't smell anything in the very next episode.
There's a very significant shift in the show's focus, from just going for laughs to going for character development and popular science fiction movie references. There are better special effects and more obvious plots. Whereas the first two seasons of Red Dwarf were trailblazing forays because the show seemed innocently unaware of the rest of the science fiction genre, the third season is painfully aware of every movie trope, from the Star Wars scrolling text introduction to an alien that looks like an Alien to a big killer android named Hudson.
The show suffers a bit as a result. Red Dwarf simply didn't have the budget to start spoofing Aliens or any other science fiction show for that matter, and I ended up longing for more low-budget comedy rather than low-budget action. Kryten is a great addition to the crew, but at the sacrifice of Holly, who doesn't seem to have much to say.
Perhaps most unbelievable is that the characters violate each other in deeply personal ways that you can't imagine they would forgive: Rimmer takes over Lister's body, abuses it, and when Rimmer takes it back, Lister kidnaps it and abuses it even more. It's nasty stuff, if you think about it, and it makes Rimmer out to be so utterly unlikable that it's difficult to imagine the two trusting each other ever again.
But chances are viewers who watched the show for the first time weren't keeping track from episode to episode. The scriptwriters certainly relied on that fact. There's a price to be paid in the DVD age and attention to detail is one of them.
Funny? Yes. But I can't help but feel that Season Three is a bit of a step down from Season Two, reboot and all.