Dave – Thursday 27th October 2016 – 9pm
Created by: Rob Grant and Doug Naylor
Written and directed by: Doug Naylor
Ten series and two episodes ago – in the hazy mists of 1988’s I.4, to be precise – was the last time Cat (Danny John-Jules) was given his own episode. “Waiting For God” established the evolution – and mass-migration – of the felis sapien race away from Red Dwarf. Since then, everyone’s favourite sharp-suited pussy has been ever-present (if not ever reliable) on ship, but more in an auxiliary role.
An episode was penned for VII (and released in Chris Barrie-narrated storyboard form on the DVD) which saw the Cat rescue a caged female of his species from a GELF village, but budget restraints saw the large scale story scuppered in favour of bottle episode “Duct Soup”. “Can of Worms” finally remedies this seemed shunning of the subject by answering that most awkward of enquiries: Is the Cat – potentially the last of his species – still a virgin?
“Contains mature themes” warned UKTV Play’s rating system, for S-E-X was high on the conversation agenda this week with the core four forced off course by a snoozing, over-stuffed Lister (Craig Charles) and forced to go the long way round in order to avoid Vampire GELF country – a community of genetically engineer bloodsuckers who feed on the blood of virgins. The other three – including mechanoid Robert Llewellyn’s Kryten (perhaps best not to ask how he popped his proverbial robo-cherry) and, yes, even old Iron Balls (Barrie) – would all be safe, but despite Cat’s harried protestations, they decide it best to avoid finding out what would happen to their fashion-conscious crewmate before he gets his, err, cream.
Their alternate route nevertheless still finds them encountering a craft in a death-dive. Scanning for passengers they discover two are on board: a superbly eeeevil Doctor Who-esque Mercanoid (Bentley Kalu) and a prisoner. Ethically unable to allow the prisoner to perish, they board the ship (minus Rimmer, who stays behind to man the coms a la “Back to Reality” and “Back to Earth”), disperse of the deadly droid and rescue Ankita (Dominique Moore), who just so happens to be… You’ve guessed it: felis sapien.
The change that comes over Cat as he shows his gorgeous new guest about the Dwarf is miraculous (“This is mine, this is mine… that is mine” a wonderfully retro callback), however as he prepares a date night involving the string game and some heavy, well, petting, Kryten makes a startling discovery about Ankita’s true nature…
Here, “Can of Worms” joins a duo of earlier episodes to become the belated third in a Polymorph trilogy, for Ankita is a shape-shifting GELF who was supposed to be destroyed in the death dive they saved her from. You could claim it’s a little lazy to fall back on an antagonist used twice before in the show’s history, however the pace of this episode – and the trajectory it spins off to following this ostensibly premature twist – is well worth a bit of established universe recycling.
It is at this stage that the episode really comes alive, upping its ante and the gag rate to an exceptional degree, from voiceover artist Daniel Barker’s spot-on David Attenborough impression over a Polymorph mating video Kryten uploads from “Red-Net” (think an on-board YouTube), to Cat’s unworldly naivety in boastfully explaining what deplorable antics he and Ankita got up to (“Cat, women don’t have a big pipe thing!” Lister dutifully enlightens), “Can of Worms” is a tour de force of wicked, wacky and wonderful woofers.
What many fans may have believed was a Doug Naylor rewrite of “Identity Within” transpires to be little of the sort, with the post-coitus Cat (“It still counts!”) now “raddled” with Polymorph eggs and donning a pink pregnancy tracksuit as his waistline expands before he delivers the shape-shifting spawn in a birthing pool! There are definitely shades of lost Series III episode “Dad” about this script. Promising to flush his monstrous litter out into deep space, a maternal Cat instead stows them all away on the diesel deck, leaving it up to an “emotion tucked” Lister – making use of a new piece of Personality Calibration Software they nabbed from a medi-station at the opening of the episode – to walk amongst the emo-hawks undetected.
Working the seemingly extraneous bit of kit (which Rimmer was planning to use to have a “coward-ectomy”, before his cowardice saw him peg it out the room) so seamlessly into the main plot was inspired writing, and as well as affording Craig Charles the opportunity to pull a “Bodyswap”-riffing expression which had be howling (“I haven’t even started yet!), also lead to an epic split screen, multi-cast finale a la “Psirens” which sees Cat become the hero of his own story (“A Mamma always knows”).
“Can of Worms” was never planned to go out last in the run. “Twentica” was filmed sixth but brought forward, so I wasn’t expecting this re-juggled ‘finale’ to end on a cliff-hanger. With Red Dwarf XII’s return to Dave already confirmed – in fact, already filmed, back-to-back with XI – this may seem like something of a missed opportunity, however in a series of stunning standalone episodes, “Can of Worms” is perfectly placed at the tail end: ambitious in scope and bold in delivery, it plays like a greatest hits of the best used (and unused) concepts from the show’s colourful history – and I couldn’t have hoped for a stronger, ahem, climax.
CR@B’s Claw Score: