This review contains spoilers.
The television landscape has changed a lot since Red Dwarf made its debut back in 1988. One of the more interesting developments of the 21st century has been that, thanks in no small part to shows like Lost, non-linear storytelling is now as much a part of the language of television as the cliff-hanger or the third-act twist. In a series that has, with rare exceptions, always featured at least one of its regulars in any given scene, Samsara breaks with Red Dwarf convention in a major way.
The EPG description for Samsara will tell you that it’s a story in which the crew find an escape pod which leads them to a crashed space ship (the titular Samsara), and the Cat and Lister are forced to spend some time together. But that’s only half of the story; running parallel to this is the tale of two doomed lovers aboard the Samsara 3 million years previous, which is unveiled piece by piece as the ‘present day’ Dwarfers make their way around the downed vessel. It’s a bold move, and it goes a large way towards justifying Red Dwarf XI’s existence, demonstrating that writer Doug Naylor is still keen to try new things with the show.
The lovers in question are played by Maggie Service, who has made a couple of brief appearances in the Doctor Who universe, and Dan Tetsell, a comedy actor and long-time Richard Herring collaborator who is probably best known for his role as False Vicar in Hotel Trubble. Though neither character is particularly likeable – Tetsell’s Green in particular comes across as a bit greasy and loathsome – they are a strangely sympathetic pair, and whilst the performances across these scenes aren’t the strongest guest turns Red Dwarf has ever known, they manage the formidable task of keeping the viewers hooked even though the regulars aren’t on screen.
In fact, Green and Barker’s affair is probably the more interesting aspect of the episode. Anyone who found themselves disoriented by the plot-heavy Twentica will be relieved to find that the adventure had by the Dwarfers themselves in Samsara is quite slight: the crew explore the Samsara, Lister and Cat get trapped for a bit, and Kryten manages to get them out of there safely. Fortunately, this involves a very funny series of character scenes – the best being at the top of the episode, as Rimmer and Lister play their statistically unlikely game of Mine-Opoly.
I noted during Series X how the characters’ relationship had softened over the years, and that’s evident again here; they still wind one another up, but there’s no sense of hatred there as there might have been at various points in the past; just a mutual disrespect. Chris Barrie and Craig Charles are both on good form here, with Rimmer’s mounting incredulity at his improbable dice rolls getting the episode off to a very strong start.
The pre-publicity for this one suggested it was going to focus on Lister and Cat – an interesting notion, since Cat is still the character about whom we know the least. In the show’s first 62 episodes, he’s had precisely one focus episode: Waiting For God, back in 1988 (Though it seems that may change by the end of this year). Cat is fantastic for throwing in barbs and stealing scenes – as witnessed here in his reaction to the skeleton orgy – but eleven series in, it’s still hard to get a sense of how the other characters really feel about him, or vice versa. As it stands, we only get a taste of the Lister/Cat relationship here, but it’s an interesting one; Lister certainly has more time for Cat than he does Rimmer, and there’s a hint of a teacher/student dynamic which the show has never really explored. Perhaps it never will, as the scene is over all too quickly.
The same could be said for the episode as a whole, really; Samsara has a fantastic science-fiction idea at its heart, and one that harks back to ‘classic’ Dwarf. But the idea of the karma drive is realised all too late for the Dwarfers, and it feels like there’s as much comedic mileage in the crew trying to get the karma drive to let them escape the ship as there is in the drive’s earlier effects. It’s a minor quibble, and it’s certainly not enough to spoil the episode, but for the second week in a row there’s a sense of mild anti-climax.
Samsara is a solid episode of Red Dwarf. It may not quite be the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are outstanding. And more than perhaps any other episode in the show’s history, it benefits massively from a second viewing – the more random happenings of the episode play a lot more satisfyingly once you have the explanation. And getting a second chance to analyse some of the positions those skeletons were found in doesn’t hurt, either.
Read Pete’s review of the previous episode, Twentica, here.