This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review of the episode, here.
Trojan is the first episode of the first full new series of Red Dwarf since Red Dwarf VIII ended in April 1999. As such, it arguably has a bigger job to do than any episode since the sitcom’s conception; not only does it have to establish the status quo for the middle-aged boys from the Dwarf, but all eyes are also going to be on this one for signs that Red Dwarf X can stand up there with its lesser-numbered brothers, and that bringing it back was the right thing to do.
Perhaps wisely, Trojan wastes no time at all on continuity and forgoes any explanation of where they are, why the ship looks different, and what’s happened to Holly, instead leaping straight into a seemingly classic Red Dwarf setup – four guys in space, flying in the vague direction of home. There’s a mention of Kochanski at one point (2009’s Back to Earth ended with Lister resolving to find her), but even that’s given as part of a throwaway joke rather than a nod towards any ongoing storyline.
Not that Trojan is continuity-free, mind; a couple of minutes into the episode we’re told that Rimmer has re-sat his astro-navigation exam as part of his ongoing bid to become an officer. Some minutes later, he’s received a distress call from his brother Howard, and Rimmer’s resentment at growing up in his brother’s more talented shadow is brought to the fore.
Whether intentional or otherwise, this is a really canny move from writer Doug Naylor, as both of these were strong recurring story elements during the first few years of ‘classic’ Red Dwarf; having them pop up in the series opener feels like a deliberate message to long-term fans that the show is going back to its roots, with stories based around the characters rather than the contrived plots-of-the-week which marked some of the series’ weaker later episodes.
Predictably and comfortingly, this Rimmer-centric plot brings with it plenty of classic moments and – most importantly – very funny scenes. From the brilliant ‘hey ho pip and dandy’ exchange with Kryten through to the long-awaited confrontation between Arnold and Howard, Chris Barrie is on top form, running the full range of weasel-ly emotions, and feeling the most Rimmer-like the character has in years.
In fact, this is true of all four of the regulars; whether this is due to the cast being energised by the studio audience, a concerted effort by Naylor and the cast, the addition of long-term fan Andrew Ellard as script editor or some combination of the above, it’s been well over a decade since the characters were written and performed so well.
An early example of this is the moose bunkroom scene near the middle of the episode, which sees all four actors hitting their marks as the joke builds to a superb climax – during the recording of the episode, the mere fact that Cat entered the room when he did was enough to get a huge wave of applause – because these characters feel so familiar, we know what’s coming, and when it does come it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a scene which is easily up there with some of the best in the show’s history.
And it’s not the only one; Rimmer’s confrontation with Howard, replete with nods to Star Trek but having far too much work of its own to do to waste time engaging in full-on parody, is everything you might expect it to be and more. Guest actor Mark Dexter is excellent as the aforementioned brother, perfectly embodying the condescending Howard and imbuing him with enough of Rimmer’s own characteristics that when he makes his confession to Rimmer it’s believable and even sympathetic – yet Rimmer’s response still makes for a nice moment of triumph over his bullying sibling. This scene is accentuated by some stunning work from composer Howard Goodall, who even manages to slip in a sad version of the Rimmer Song from Series VII’s Blue.
Whilst Cat and Kryten both get their fair share of gags in the episode, with Danny John-Jules stealing more than one scene, Lister’s role in proceedings does fall slightly flat in places. Lister’s subplot, involving his attempts to get through to the call centre of an android shopping channel, does have its moments, and the way it ties into the episode’s climax is very neatly done, but it veered into weak observational humour on an oft-tackled subject too frequently for my liking.
Indeed, the comedy in Trojan as a whole does feel a little too broad on occasion – such as the pig racing or the moustache-drawing scene, which sorely lacks a pay-off – and there were exchanges, such as the conversation about Rimmer’s self-help book, that seemed to continue a line or two past their natural punchline, but by and large the jokes in this episode really did hit and, as I noted in my spoiler-free review of the episode, the fight to record the series in front of a studio audience was certainly not in vain – the audience laughter really helps get the timing on many of the jokes just right.
Praise must also go to the set and costume designers on the series. The standing sets aboard the Dwarf evoke a classic series feel whilst also being something completely new, as do the costumes of the Dwarfers themselves; all four are instantly recognisable as the old characters, but with changes befitting their increasing age.
There has already been some debate about the new Kryten costume, but Kryten’s look has always been evolving – the Kryten of series three and the Kryten of series eight look very different from one another, and this is the next step in that evolution; it’s different, but not enough to detract from the character.
As previously noted, the new super-detailed model of Red Dwarf is very impressive, and the design of the sleek and sexy (but battered) SS Trojan contrasts it well and matches the slightly Trek-y feel of the ship’s bridge. These shots are used understandably sparingly, but it really helps to add a sense of scale to proceedings, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what other visual treats Red Dwarf X has in store.
Trojan is a relatively intimate plot from a show which seemingly knows – and is comfortable with – its limitations and is all the better for it. Filled with solid character-driven gags and an enthusiastic cast who seem a good ten years younger than they actually are, it’s a very strong start to the new run. Roll on next week!
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