This review contains spoilers. Ir originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
The history of Red Dwarf is a series of jarring transitions, with the series evolving over the years to fit in with its surroundings (and, of course, its budget). The sprawling sci-fi of Red Dwarf V was different to the claustrophobia of Red Dwarf VI and VII, which underwent a massive transformation into the populated world and broader humor of Red Dwarf VIII, at which point the show went off air until the super low-budget real-world antics of Back to Earth… You get the idea.
The shift from Red Dwarf X to Red Dwarf XI echoes the biggest (and still the most divisive) of these regenerations – that of Red Dwarf II to Red Dwarf III. When Red Dwarf X premiered in 2012, much was written – not least by us – about how it represented a ‘back to basics’ approach for the sitcom; for the most part the stories were character-driven, insular pieces with little location filming, and seemed closer in tone to Series I and II than anything that came afterwards.
Helped by the infrastructure established by that series, plus new production partner Baby Cow Productions, Red Dwarf XI has more money with which to realize its ambitions. If the new series’ opening episode Twentica (a strange title which is never explained in the episode) is any indicator, the result is a return to the plot-heavy sci-fi-based comedy of the original run’s middle years.
Twentica wastes absolutely no time in getting started; whilst many of Red Dwarf X’s tales began with character scenes aboard the ship (which doesn’t appear in Twentica until the very last scene), little over a minute has passed before the crew are under threat from a crew of Simulants, who are looking for a device in the Dwarfers’ possession. Yet despite being thrown straight into the action, the opening scene is also a gag-packed ensemble piece which effectively re-introduces the characters.
In fact, this is true of pretty much the entire episode – the main cast are together in almost every scene, and everyone gets a moment in the spotlight, from Kryten’s nipples to Cat’s dancing. It’s little surprise that the episode was chosen to air first, as it’s an ideal series opener.
The plot of Twentica sees the Dwarfers following the Simulant group back to 20th-century Earth, only to find that the Simulants have arrived much earlier and banned science and technology. It’s the sort of story that’s a sci-fi staple, something which Lister lampshades here – indeed, the way Starbug follows the Simulants to the past through their slipstream is reminiscent of the inciting event in Star Trek: First Contact.
Much of the humor in the latter half of Twentica is derived from drawing a parallel between their current predicament and the Prohibition which took place in 1920s America. It’s a fun idea, and the highlight is the scene at an illicit science club in which scientist-cum-showgirl Harmony de Gauthier outlines her list of services (“Hey, I don’t do the big bang!”). It’s a set-up that could easily have gone too far, or not far enough, with the science references, but writer/director Doug Naylor manages to tread the line well.
It’s a shame, then, that like the Dwarfers themselves at the top of the episode, Twentica fails to stick the landing. The episode builds to a pay-off that never comes; instead of ending on some big joke in Starbug, which feels like the logical conclusion, there’s a scene in which Lister makes a weak joke about humanity being too dependent on technology while Kryten undresses him. It’s a strange move, and one which seems out of kilter with the rest of the episode – it feels as though the episode ran short in the edit and something had to be filmed quickly to fill the gap.
Visually, Twentica isn’t a step up from Red Dwarf X. It’s four or five steps up. The Model Unit are providing effects for the show for the first time since 1998, and there’s some truly stunning model shots, especially now that they’re in glorious HD. The set design is wonderful too; the 1950s Earth sets have a sense of scale and realism that is hard to achieve in a studio sitcom. If anything, Twentica looks too good; the film look which has been standard for the show since Back To Earth gives the show a cinematic feel, but there are occasions when this threatens to swallow the jokes – but overall, the trade-off is worth it.
Also impressive is the guest cast for the episode, which is headed by comedy legend Kevin Eldon. Eldon has made his mark on everything from Lee and Herring’s Fist Of Fun to the Danger Mouse revival, and he brings his talents to the head Simulant with obvious relish. Elsewhere, Lucie Pohl brings appropriate sass to the aforementioned Harmony de Gauthier, and sci-fi fans may be surprised to see Suanne Braun (aka Hathor from Stargate SG-1) pop up as the police captain.
Twentica is more than just a series opener; it’s a statement of intent. It’s Grant Naylor and Baby Cow telling us that this run of Red Dwarf is going to be bigger, bolder and smeggier than the last. It’s a jarring and disorienting change at first, and it remains to be seen how it will land with the type of fan who gets outraged at changes to Kryten’s nose or the new blue tint to the Starbug cockpit, but the series opener leaves a real sense that Red Dwarf XI (and Red Dwarf XII next year) could go anywhere and do anything. And that’s a very exciting prospect indeed.
Twentica is now available to preview on UKTV Play and will air on Dave at 9pm on Thursday the 22nd of September.