Friday, 10 April 2020

REVIEW: Red Dwarf: The Promised Land

You've got to admire Red Dwarf's ability to continually come back from the brink. The series has appeared to be dead so many times over the years, only to pop up again a few years later. The fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, tenth and twelfth series all looked like they could easily have been the last, and yet, here we are again, with a thirteenth installment of the long-running show.

This time, though, we get a feature-length special rather than a full series. Doug Naylor and Channel Dave have tried this before, of course, with the not-so-great Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, which we got in lieu of a full ninth series (with the mythical Series IX officially the best ever, even though we never saw it in our reality). In that case, the special was edited into three half-hour episodes, and by all accounts, the shorter movie edit on the DVD release it better. Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is presented as a TV movie, although it was still broadcast in two separate parts (presumably for repeat showings). Still, run together as they were last night, it's clear that this is Naylor's chance to finally do a Red Dwarf movie.

Call me unsophisticated, but I really enjoyed The Promised Land. It's very openly trading on nostalgia, presenting something of a greatest hits compilation for the faithful. This is unlikely to win over any new fans, even as the script takes time to introduce new viewers to the basic concepts with some handy infodumps. The Cat People are the single biggest element of the series that was crying out to be explored (there's no end of fanfic featuring them, and an episode was planned for Series VII but proved too expensive to shoot). The idea of Lister being a god to people is wonderfully ridiculous but hasn't been played with since "Waiting for God" in Series I, and the impact on the Cat himself of this has gone completely unexplored.

It's a slightly schizoid script, half low-brow gags, half philosophical musings, but wasn't that always the best of Red Dwarf? We have Lister torn between his honest duty to his followers to tell them who he really is, his discomfort at being a figure of worship, and the pressure of destroying their beliefs in their time of need. There are also some pretty deep moments between the characters, with Rimmer achieving a sudden moment of clarity as to his status as a simulation of a dead man, weirdly enough after an unusually insightful word from the Cat. When he and Lister talk, Lister remains unable to tell Rimmer he likes him, even though, after all these years, they're closer to each other than anyone else. He's just incapable of actually manning up and telling Rimmer he cares about him, but then he comes out with a beautiful analogy about moonlight, and it's honestly really affecting.

Some of Red Dwarf's best moments are when it swerves from comedy to drama, particularly when Rimmer is presented in a sympathetic light. I'm thinking "Better Than Life," "Stoke Me a Clipper" and "The Beginning," all of which have their best moments giving Rimmer the chance to express how sad a character he is. (Not sad, you know, but sad. Although he is pretty sad.) Of course, all of those have hinted at character development for Rimmer, none of which has been followed up from. Dialogue in The Promised Land pretty much confirms that this is the original Rimmer from Series I to VII, to went off to become Ace, and that there's not been any real change to him as a character in spite of this. Sitcoms can often be like this, but it's a shame we can't move the characters on a little more. Doug Naylor has often given Rimmer a heroic exit (the aforementioned "Stoke Me a Clipper" and sacrificing himself in the novel Last Human), and I honestly thought Rimmer was done for here. But there he is, back again, but at least he gets the chance to give up his superhero status to save Kryten.

Oddly, there's more exploration of Rimmer than the Cat here, although he does get to be the focus of the best moment in the show, when he gets converted to the cult of Cloister. Making him Rodon's brother is a bit naff (and they have to cover the blatant age difference) but having Cat choose to stay with the Dwarfers was a gorgeous moment. I enjoyed Ray Fearon as Rodon, a suitably nasty Cat king, although the rest of the Cat People included were pretty average sitcom actors. Nothing wrong with them, ferals and acolytes alike, but nothing particularly outstanding. I was intrigued by having a signing character, but she immediately starts to talk, and the idea that her belief in Lister is what brings her to words is disappointingly skirted over. Not sure how that would have played for deaf/mute viewers, interested to find out. Please comment!

It's fair to say that a lot of the good jokes here are tried-and-tested. The memory erasure joke with Kryten and Rimmer is just the Holly-Agatha Christie joke from Series II, for instance. But then, is that so different from watching the same old episodes over and over again? If Red Dwarf is to have a future, it needs to do more and newer things, but there's nothing wrong with a nostalgic fan outing. The Rimmer upgrade subplot being a case in point: the run through of Rimmer's earlier outifts (complete with dreadful wig) is a fun bit for die-hards, but the Diamond Light superhero upgrade is something new (and distinct from the Ace Rimmer version of events). The new jokes a re a mixed bag, but I refuse to accept that the cat-flap thing is a bad move. Yes, it's ridiculous, but it's also quietly ingenious, making Rodon's followers come crawling to him as they enter. Red Dwarf is often cleverer than it looks. Although, fair, the sex change joke was awful.

Finally, a word on the return of Holly. It is, of course, fantastic to have Norm back, after his brief guest role in the last episode of 2017. Having a reset is a great idea, with the by-the-book Holly (basically Queeg) kick everyone off the ship working well as a set up, but we were all waiting for proper Holly to come back. All due respect to Hattie Hayridge, who's brilliant, but Norman Lovett's trademark deadpan performance absolutely makes all Holly's material. It's great to have all the guys back - although Norm and Rob Llewellyn have actually hardly appeared together in the series so far.

Altogether, this was a fun look at Red Dwarf in a new format, with some more breathing space. It all feels a lot less rushed than episodes have in recent years. While it's not a great template for the series going forward, it's a good starting point. If Red Dwarf is going to continue, it needs to start playing with the format and content more, but for now, this is a fine start for a new, modern Dwarf. And if it turns out this is the end of it, then The Promised Land is a beautiful send-off.

Good Psycho Guide: Three-and-a-half out of five chainsaws

Fancy Visuals: The Cat fleet turning into a pussycat face is very silly and I really like it, especially the reveal at the end .

Rimmer turning black-and-white was a nice touch; Grant and Naylor wanted to do that right back at the beginning of the series, but in 1988 the tech required was beyond their limited budget. It wouldn't really make much sense having the technology to resurrect someone as a hologram but only be able to manage monochrome, but the low power mode justifies the joke for this episode.

The best visual joke is the fag stuck in Luna's ear, just like Lister used to do in Series I.

Continuity Bollocks: Lister is stated once again to be the last human being alive, so I guess Kochanski and the rest of the resurrected Red Dwarf crew are just dead now.

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