Red Dwarf is a show that should have died on its way into being. Its premise is that one man survived the extermination of his spaceship crew, living 3 million years in stasis until he is presumably the last human. Oh, and that one man, Lister (Craig Charles), is the least competent person on the spaceship, and among the least competent people ever to emerge from the gene pool. His main companion is a hologram of his anal-retentive and egotistical supervisor, Rimmer (Chris Barrie), who was picked because the computer noticed that they talked most with each other. The fact that they were always fighting was not taken into account. They are joined by the descendant of his cat (Danny John-Jules) who has evolved to humanoid levels, the ship’s computer (Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge), and, later, a robot named Kryten (Robert Llewellyn).
The first season was weak, and almost led to the show’s early cancellation, but thankfully the British are fans of carrying on, and Red Dwarf got another shot, and did it well. On average, at least one episode of each season of the show would be awesome enough to merit the show’s continuation, despite some weaker ones. The best episode, however, is “Back to Reality.”
After finding a star craft which has been seeding a marine moon with life, all of which committed suicide (including a haddock which suffocated itself by shutting its gills), the crew awakens to find out that, rather than actually being on a spaceship, they’ve actually been playing “Red Dwarf- The Total Immersion Game.” Also, they’ve been playing it badly. Apparently, they managed to completely screw up the tutorial level, and it all just cascaded down from there.
They missed out on finding true love, planets of nymphomaniacs, getting superpowers, basically every possible dream scenario. It’s the ultimate Matrix-style reality check: Not only can you be in a fake reality, but you can also be a failure in both the true and false versions of it. The crew then tries to adjust to their “real” lives, which, for the most part, suck. Every character finds out that the “real” them is the exact opposite of the part they’d been playing for the past four years. All of them are miserable in their new lives, to the point that they decide to kill themselves, before being awakened by the ship’s computer. Apparently, they’d been poisoned by a “despair squid,” a predator that catches prey by making it kill itself with existentially challenging illusions.
While the episode ends back in the regular show, the best part of the original airing was that it was the last Red Dwarf in production at the time, so there was no way to guess how the episode was going to go.
This episode, while not the first to come up with the “it wasn’t real” premise of the show, was one of the first to have it serve as a means by which to show exactly how unique and flawed their characters were. They’re all losers, but at least in the regular world they work to overcome that fact. As this kind of thing was the wheelhouse of the Red Dwarf writing staff, the episode plays it out perfectly.
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Here’s a scene that perfectly encapsulates the episode, featuring both the hallucination and what the crew is doing in reality: