TO say Red Dwarf was an influential part of my growing up isn’t a wholly inaccurate statement- I have extremely fond memories of being allowed to stay up late by my dad to watch the patchy syndicated re-runs of Series IV – VIII on Gold (simpler times, happier times) and remembering how enamoured with the series I was- it made sci-fi accessible and funny and I thank Rob Grant & Doug Naylor (collectively Grant Naylor to those of you uninitiated) for making such an excellent series. Proud fanboy here, folks.
The series has had its ups and downs over the years and it’s journeyed between cult classic to just ‘classic’ to dead in the water to rising phoenix from the ashes. After the lukewarm, ‘ehhhh’-fest of 2009’s Back to Earth, Series X was a triumphant return to character-driven stories and sci-fi situational comedy at its best. But the million dollarpound (yeah that’s a Red Dwarf novel reference, I’m a big nerd deal with it) question is: Is the follow-up any good?
Red Dwarf XI is- from what I can see -purely more of the same.
And that’s all it needs to be.
The latest iteration in the misadventures of David Lister, Arnold Rimmer, the Cat & Kryten begins with a bang, throwing us into its beginning episode Twentica at light speed; subdued by Simulants (between them and the GELF they seem to make up about 80% of the non-gimmicky one-episode villains of Dwarf), the crew are sent back in time (for the millionth time) And end up in an odd alternate-reality where technology is banned. The crew need a maguffin to return to the ship and, you guessed it, hijinks ensue. It’s Red Dwarf Plotline #6, rinse and repeat. We’ve all been here before.
Immediately it is clear that none of the actors or the writers have ever really left. Everyone is just as spot on as they were in the series’ heyday, the characters feel exactly as they did back then and perhaps even more on point than in the previous series and Back to Earth, having now re-cut their teeth on Series IX. It feels like coming home to see the back-and-forth between the foursome, the jokes for each follow familiar routines as always (Lister is a lovable slob, Kryten is a passive aggressive savant, Cat is cool and self-indulgent, Rimmer is a coward) but these are important character pieces central to the show’s doctrine and flavour.
As in the previous two ‘modern’ series, Norman Lovett as Holly is sorely missed- I always postulate that the quirky east-end AI was as important to the show as any of the others and had some of the best jokes in the series, but the Core Four (I’m coining that phrase right here and now) are strong enough to hold it together without his droll tones.
In our first episode we really see how the show benefits from the ridiculous amounts of money new sugardaddy Dave has been throwing at it- lavish, open sets fit to burst with extras resplendent in extensive, period-appropriate costumes. It’s nice to see the boys breathe on a level never possible in the 90’s and for most of the early 2000’s.
The jokes hit as well as they ever have, the science ‘prohibition era’ concept getting a decent amount of mileage, with a nice recurring joke from one of the episode’s ‘flapper’ girls, who offer to discuss theoretical science like a form of prostitution in this de-enlightened world.
The villains are irrelevant- as they are most of the time in these type of episodes, but they get a nice couple of chuckles and look suitably menacing (thanks, Dave) and in the end the episode is resolved easily enough through humorous deus ex machina.
The follow-up episode, Samsara, is a nice ease in after the bombastic display of Twentica- in this episode, the Dwarf crew end up heading to the bottom of an ocean to investigate a crashed ship there and end up becoming affected by odd circumstances of a bizarre piece of technology which they must disable as it plays havoc with their personalities/habits/actions. Ah yes, Red Dwarf Plotline #4, I know you well.
The episode opens with a very nice character scene reminiscent of the early series between Lister and Rimmer- Chris Barrie and Craig Charles are in their element here, hitting their character beats with near-effortless grace. Charles feels a little worn in places, but Chris Barrie is particularly excellent as Rimmer- he feels as if he really inhabits the role and comes across as if Rimmer himself has never learned anything from his time in deep space which feels delightfully right for the character.
The episode is peppered with some intermittent flashback sequences which explore the story of the weird goings-on on the crashed ship which feel a bit odd and detract from what could have been potentially more time with our principle cast. These sections are heavily reminiscent of the first series of the show (waaaay back in 1988) where lots of scenes were shown in flashback to fill out Lister’s history- but as they do not concern anything to do with the story or development of our main cast, they feel a little contrived.
Regardless, in typical Red Dwarf fashion, the odd technology aboard the ship (as always, conveniently explained by Kryten) allows for some nice gimmicky sci-fi sitcom gags including some slapstick (nice bit of slapstick in modern comedy- rare these days) which go down well. The episode altogether is funny enough, but feels a little empty, with the flashback sections feeling more like padding than relevant, amusing scenes.
Ultimately, the show is the same as it has always been- it’s silly, it’s mired in its own style and its formulaic as hell (one day I vow to categorise all Red Dwarf episodes into about 5 basic plots) but that’s what it’s always been and it works.
With Twentica as a solid opener and Samsara as a nice, standard Dwarf-style plot to follow up, Red Dwarf XI is definitely worth sitting down to watch. From beginning to end, from death to revival, from every smeg to smeghead this is Red Dwarf as it always has been.
Red Dwarf XI crash lands this Thursday, September 22nd on Dave at 9PM.