Red Dwarf: The Promised Land spoiler-free review
The 90-minute special on Dave is epic in length but endearingly familiar in tone
Red Dwarf XIII, which airs on Dave on 9 April, has a number of things in common with Red Dwarf IX. Both debuted on Dave. Both are one story, 90 minutes long (though IX was split into three 30 minutes episodes). Both have official subtitles rather than regnal numbers.
But there’s one major difference. Fans pretty much loathed the meta misfire that was “Back To Earth”, which saw Lister and co on the set of Coronation Street meeting Craig Charles, who was playing a regular character in the Weatherfield soap back in 2009. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Red Dwarf: The Promised Land, while far from perfect, is Red Dwarf playing to its strengths, continuing the back to basics approach the show has employed since Series X.
Of course, back to basics for a channel like Dave also means handily cheap to produce. Production-wise the show has looked time-locked in the ’90s for its Dave incarnation. Its all-male leading cast – something the BBC would have all kinds of self-flagellating kitten over today – also feels like a relic of a bygone age.
And yet, Red Dwarf was one probably the only show on mainstream TV back in the late ’80s that had a 50% non-white main cast. So while current Dwarf may exist to some degree on a level on nostalgia, let’s not forget that it’s a nostalgia for a series ahead of its time in some ways.
But there’s little denying the Dave era Red Dwarf has been cheerily preaching to the converted. It hasn’t needed to reach a new audience, because its loyal old audience is big enough to make it a hit on a channel like Dave. So, yeah, characters don’t evolve, the reset button is hit regularly (often between episodes with no explanation) and some gags have been running so long they’ve worn their comedy legs to stumps. And yet, being able to guess exactly how Cat’s going to react to the latest threat to Rimmer’s existence (a thoughtful smile and a wistful look, usually) or when Kryten is going to have trouble saying “smeg head” all becomes part of the fun if you’re in on the joke.
So while Red Dwarf: The Promised Land’s 90-minute running time might have you expecting something epic, it’s really not. It feels like a standard episode of Red Dwarf with some leftover ideas that have never made it into other episodes thrown in to pad it out. Sure, there are some special FX sequences that are more ambitious than in recent years, but while they’re visually impressive, they’re not actually that much more visually accomplished than, say, the dinosaur or the dancing Blue Midget from the latter years of the BBC series. (On the other hand, none of them are as excruciatingly unfunny as the Blue Midget dance scene, either.)
There are some great moments, some very funny gags, wacky concepts and lots of nostalgic nods to the past. There are also some misfires, gags that are stretched way too thin and wasted opportunities. Pretty much business as usual, then.
But if you have any affection for Red Dwarf at all, The Promised Land is well worth a watch. It’s not vintage Red Dwarf, but it’s perfectly palatable bargain supermarket plonk. Or a six pack of foreign-sounding lager, if you’re Lister.
I’m not going to give away any specific spoilers here (hell, that officially released publicity photo we’ve used at the top of this story is more spoilery than anything I’m going to reveal) but here are a few teasery titbits:
• Amongst all the quickfire gags, there’s one delightful, low-key, rather poignant scene between Lister and Rimmer that real old-school fans will no say, “That’s what the show used to be like back in the first two series!”
• Rimmer goes through a lot of different looks, but his most striking one is also his most low-tech – a simple special effect that has an almost impressionist effect on the character.
• Oddly, considering the main plot, Cat doesn’t play a bigger role than usual.
• There’s a triumphant return, though it takes a while to be triumphant as the returnee in question isn’t themself for a while.
• There’s a brilliant silly outsized prop – and a brilliantly silly outsized hole for it to fit into – that will probably mystify anyone under 30.
• There are some familiar pieces of artwork, though updated.
• Kryten has some dubious relationship advice for Lister, that you’re genuinely surprised he hasn’t considered before (or that hasn’t been made into an episode already – maybe Doug Naylor considered it, then decided, “Nah, we can’t go there…”
• There’s a storm coming. Oh, hang on, there are two storms coming.
• There’s a REALLY annoying earworm.
• The opening titles use the same format as the show’s been using since Series III – lots of clips from the current series. Which, since the current “series” is one, long episode, means the opening titles feel less like opening titles and more like a rapid-fire series of spoilers, a bit like those “coming up this episode” sequences that used to piss off Battlestar Galactica fans.
• Cat has a very shiny new jacket. Just don’t ask where he got the material from.
Red Dwarf: The Promised Land airs on Dave at 9pm on 9 April