Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.
The Promised Land (9 April 2020): Having abandoned Red Dwarf due to a reinstalled Holly deciding to decommission the ship, the crew encounter a trio of refugees from the same species as the Cat…
Regulars: Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the Cat (Danny John-Jules) and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) are still in place (it’s been 23 years now since any of them missed an episode), while Holly (Norman Lovett) makes another cameo appearance. The latter is rebooted as Red Dwarf’s main computer for the first time since series eight. The gang upload him from a giant five-foot-square floppy disc (good sight gag, this), but at first he’s at his factory settings so has no idea who they are.
* The fact the main characters are no spring chickens is acknowledged, which is a rarity in Red Dwarf. Kryten looks battered and rusty, for example, while Rimmer would rather kick back and enjoy his middle age than respond to an SOS.
* The Cat’s fellow evolved felines were established in the very first episode of Red Dwarf – 12 series, 73 episodes and 32 years ago! We learnt back then that they considered Lister to be their god because he had saved their forebear, a moggy called Frankenstein, from death and that he was fated to return so he could lead them to ‘the promised land’.
* Rimmer gets a temporary upgrade to a hyper-hologram akin to a Marvel superhero. Before settling on his new look (pictured above), the process clicks through several of his previous costumes (the bland shirt from series one, the Captain Scarlet tunic from series three, the blue bomber jacket from series six, etc).
* Ray Fearon guest stars as Rodon, the brutal, arrogant leader of the Cat’s race, while the rebel cat clerics who venerate Lister as their god are played by Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett and Lucy Pearman.
* Starbug is featured (and for the first time since the 1999 series we see more than just its cockpit).
* The Cat makes a joke about the third series episode Backwards.
Best gag: There are big laughs from the Cat race’s similarities to domestic pets, such as a door on their spaceship being a gigantic cat-flap and various cat characters getting distracted by laser pointers. (The worst gag, incidentally, must be Kryten’s speech about sex-change operations, which starts to date badly while he’s still talking.)
Review: Red Dwarf has been reliably enjoyable since its return after a long break in 2009, even if the episodes have rarely done much more than retell the same kind of spoof sci-fi stories. Now, given the canvas of a feature-length special, the show opens up the format. This one-off contains lots of good laughs but also sees moments of pathos for all four regulars and has something to say. In fact, it’s not just the running time that makes it feel like a movie. There’s a cinema-like scope and ambition too. The plot is structured across 100 minutes; there’s CGI that wouldn’t embarrass a mid-range film; Paul Farrer’s score is huge and orchestral; and many scenes are shot in a filmic style. The episode even begins with backstory-explaining on-screen captions that are suspiciously similar to those used in 1979’s Alien. (Having said all that, an actual movie would have ADR’d the guest cast’s dialogue to remove the awkward sound of actors not used to wearing fake teeth.)
Writer/director/co-creator Doug Naylor had wanted to make a Red Dwarf movie since at least the mid 1990s. Adding a female regular to the show in 1997 was an early step. It was intended to prepare the ground for a more cinema-friendly line-up. Over the next few years, various draft scripts were written and some were actually rehearsed by the cast in the hope of going into production. Investors and production deals were courted, including with Miramax in Hollywood and a shadowy figure who claimed to be the Duke of Manchester. For a while, it looked like Peter Jackson’s special-effects company, WETA, was going to work on the project. But, for whatever reason, a cinematic version of Red Dwarf was not to be.
We’re probably better off with The Promised Land. Red Dwarf is at its best when poking fun at big-budget concepts rather than competing with them and, even while the production values have demonstrably risen over the run of the show, it’s always had an underdog quality. This is a show about losers, not heroes, and it’s debatable how well a £50million movie made for a mass audience would have worked. However, that’s not to say Red Dwarf can’t have more substance than usual. Because this is Doug Naylor returning to the throwaway jokes in series one about Lister being a god to a race of cat people descended from his pet moggy, the script of The Promised Land soon features plenty of religious satire. There are subtexts (and actual spelling-things-out dialogue) about how myths can build up from mundane events; and about how acolytes can misunderstand, misinterpret, and see flukes as fate. The Promised Land is no fluke, though. Neither was its scheduling: it was originally broadcast the day before Easter. The resurrection continues.
Eight holy papadums out of 10