Red Dwarf has been a lot of different shows, probably more than any science fiction show that’s kept the same principal cast in place for its entire run. Over the last 32 years it has been a zero-budget flatmate comedy with plots that could be filmed exclusively between a corridor and a bunk bed, a big old high concept episodic sci-fi show that used philosophy to make gags, it’s had a long-running ‘Hunt for Red Dwarf’ arc that lasted two seasons, then reintroduced all the crew it killed off in its first episode, then killed them all again and returned to odd-couple sitcom shenanigans.
Sometimes it is, by sitcom standards, actually pretty hard sci-fi, set in a universe with no alien life, the drama and comedy driven by the isolation of being the last human alive. Other times you can’t seem to move five feet without bumping into the technically-not-alien “GELFs” and “simulants”.
It makes reviewing a new episode on its own terms a challenge because you don’t know quite which show you’re sitting down to review. Is this supposed to be just a knock-about bit of sitcom fun, like the episode where Rimmer leads a planet of waxwork historical figures into battle? Or an attempt at doing what, beneath the jokes, is a very solid bit of character and idea-driven storytelling, like ‘Better than Life’, or ‘Out of Time’?
In the former, for instance, it really shouldn’t bother anyone that a civilisation of cat-humanoids that evolved on a spaceship over billions of years would use cat flaps for all their doors even though that spaceship would never have any cat flaps. You can point out the joke itself isn’t really funny enough for how much screen time it gets, but the world-building shouldn’t actually be irritating (yet somehow it manages to be).
Aside from any of that, you’ve got to be aware that Red Dwarf in this day and age is trading to a certain extent in goodwill. When it started out Dave Lister was an aimless twenty-something, a decent guy who was the victim of his own bad decisions and lifestyle. The central joke is that when the civilisation that constrains those decisions is taken away, the only other person Lister has to talk to is the embodiment of everything he kicked against. It’s a character dynamic that also makes for great story fuel.
But the behaviour that seems impish and relatable in a 20-something just doesn’t work so well thirty years later. When young Dave Lister has 12 beers for lunch it’s funny. When 50-something Dave Lister does it, well I felt a pang of genuine concern for his physical and mental well-being.
Plus, I hate to say it, but past a certain age that kind of blokey-ness just starts to get a bit… Top Gear-y.
Still, these are beloved characters in a show that, alongside Hitchhiker’s Guide, is basically still the measuring stick spaceships-and-jokes TV is measured by. I’ve got a lot of good memories of this show and I certainly don’t resent the cast another go-around, so when I sat down to watch this for the first time I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
I let the cat flap pass. I didn’t ask why the civilisation which had birthed the Cat, the best-dressed being in existence, was divided into people who dressed like Lister and people who dressed like a Conan the Barbarian villain.
Then seven minutes in, there’s an entire comic bit around Kryten suggesting the Cat should have a sex change so that Lister can impregnate him. It doesn’t last long and it’s never referred to again, but it just leaves you wondering why it was in there in the first place.
This is the first of a few skits before the plot gets going, and even then, the episode as a whole feels like a Frankenstein of half-finished episode ideas smooshed together without much in the way of a unifying theme.
It wouldn’t matter so much but they’re not even particularly new ideas. The Cat’s people worshipping Lister, Holly being replaced by a competent version of himself who makes the crew’s lives hell, Rimmer becoming a more heroic version of himself, while they’re all done in a slightly new way, all feel like jokes the series has done better before, sometimes more than once.
There are a couple of glimpses of light. Once Holly has his old personality restored, Norman Lovett is brilliant and gets a couple of genuinely laugh-out-loud gags, but Lovett is so good at deadpanning his material that practically feels like cheating.
When the Cat tries to persuade Lister’s disciples that Lister isn’t, in fact, a God, only to get converted, it was a nice moment and something genuinely new for the series most under-served character and would have been nice to see developed further.
Lister’s “moonlight” speech too, nears some of the great character moments between Rimmer and Lister in the old series. But again, the show seems to have forgotten that this is Rimmer, the most self-serving person in the universe, offering to sacrifice himself for the crew, a huge character-changing moment. At the same time, it’s been 32 years. Is Lister really not able to admit he likes the person who, with apologies to Kryten and the Cat, is actually his best friend?
It could be telling that, Lovett crushing it aside, the highlights of the special are moments when the characters verge on changing.
There is no getting around the fact that the biggest problem with Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is that the story and the jokes just aren’t very strong. But beyond that, there’s a deeper issue that for 32 years Red Dwarf has had characters that want to grow and develop but which must also be constantly dragged back to the shallowest version of the comic archetype they’re here to embody. It’s as if The Last Jedi had shown us a Luke Skywalker who was still moaning that he wanted to go to Tosche Station to pick up power converters.
Rimmer has become Ace Rimmer, been replaced by a living normal Rimmer, who has been killed and become a hologram again, then gotten over all his neurosis by discovering his dad isn’t who he thought he was, then seemingly forgotten about that, and has now become a diamond light superhero, and a God, and next time we see him he won’t have changed at all.
Red Dwarf at its best is a bunk bed sitcom, where four static but conflicting character archetypes clash personalities to make jokes.
Red Dwarf at its best is a proper slice of high-concept sci-fi drama, slipped under the radar by filling it with jokes.
But Red Dwarf: The Promised Land’s jokes aren’t quite good enough to sustain it as the former, and as long as Red Dwarf has to worship its own sitcom status quo, its attempts at the latter are unlikely to have enough dramatic weight.
Not a triumph then, this feature-length special, more a fond rehash of some former hits.