I was there at the beginning, you know. Of course the beginning – episode one of Red Dwarf, broadcast on BBC 2 way back in 1988 – was actually called The End. I was immediately hooked.
Essentially a traditional sitcom featuring mismatched characters butting heads to amusing effect – that just happens to be set in space – Red Dwarf is the tale of Dave Lister, the last human in the universe, and his adventures on deep space mining vessel Red Dwarf, accompanied by his dead ex-bunkmate – the insufferable Arnold Rimmer, who’s been resurrected as the ship’s hologram – as well as a James Brown-esque lifeform who evolved from a cat that Lister hid on the ship (simply known as ‘Cat’). Also present is the ship’s computer, Holly – who’s gone a bit peculiar in the three million years that Red Dwarf has been roaming the stars.
From the simple, small scale beginnings that generally took place in just a few locations aboard Red Dwarf, later series became more ambitious in scope and setting. Along the way, the crew picked up Kryten – a service mechanoid (basically an android butler) with a few personality quirks – who’s remained part of the main team ever since. Holly changed from a male to a female AI (and back again), Red Dwarf was lost (and found again) and we even saw the return of Lister’s lost love, Kristine Kochanski (as well as losing Rimmer for a short time).
Despite all of the changes and some dips in quality at times, the show has a dedicated fan base – and it never seems to be far from the collective consciousness of those people who have enjoyed it for the last thirty plus years.
Since 2009 special ‘Back to Earth’, Red Dwarf has had a new home on UK TV channel Dave – and there have been three more seasons, as well as the recently aired feature length special, The Promised Land.
When Cat appeared at the end of The End, Red Dwarf’s first episode, he explained that he was the last member of the humanoid race of cats that evolved from Lister’s pregnant cat, Frankenstein, while Lister was in stasis for three million years. Cat briefly explained the feline story of ‘Cloister the Stupid’, who is frozen in time to save the life of the holy mother (Frankenstein). He’s prophesied to one day return and lead the cats to ‘Fuchal’, which the felines believe is paradise (in reality, this came from Lister talking to Frankenstein about settling down in Fiji).
It’s this prophecy that forms the core of The Promised Land, with the opening scenes confirming that Red Dwarf’s Cat is not the only evolved feline in the universe. In fact, the race of feral cats have been roaming the universe, with some of their number still believing in and secretly worshipping ‘Cloister’ despite it being forbidden by their ruthless leader, who is determined to wipe out all cats who worship anyone but him. After an attempt to reboot Holly goes awry, our crew run into three of Cloister’s disciples, setting the stage for Lister and co to restore harmony to cat society.
The feature length format suits Red Dwarf, at least for this particular story. Though the race of cats – and the prophecy – have been part of the show since the start, it’s odd that they hadn’t popped up before. It was good to give them – along with all the daft elements that come with the prophecy of ‘The Holy Poppadom, Cloister the Stupid’, for example – a bit of breathing room, rather than rushing through it in a normal length episode.
There’s a bit more of an epic feel to the proceedings too, with a seemingly increased budget leading to some reasonably well staged – and well realised – action. The special effects and sets have certainly benefitted from an increased budget, which is good to see.
It’s funny too; never laugh out loud hilarious, but gently, comfortingly amusing. It’s all very daft and good natured, with the cast all playing off each other really nicely – the result of 30 odd years together, I suppose. There’s a few groan inducing gags that keep popping up (the catflap gets tiresome very quickly, for example) and the audience’s laughter is initially really jarring, especially given that The Promised Land has a more cinematic look and feel than previous episodes, but it’s hard to be too down on Red Dwarf, which I have a great deal of affection for.
There’s a recurring theme of aging and mortality; given how much our heroes have aged since we first met them, it was nice that this was acknowledged – even if it is a little bittersweet. All of the characters get some decent beats and chances to shine too: Rimmer gets a fun, useful upgrade, Lister gets to be a messiah of sorts, Cat gets a bit more backstory and a chance to see his people again, Kryten gets to be a noble hero and even Norman Lovett’s Holly gets some varied stuff to do with a showcasing of his original, non-peculiar computer personality being in charge for a bit.
A long tradition with Red Dwarf are the ‘Smeg Ups’ – blooper reels for each series. Brilliantly, these have been released alongside The Promised Land and are an excellent way to see the lovely camaraderie the cast have between takes – and they’re very funny indeed.
Though The Promised Land isn’t the most memorable that Red Dwarf has been or even up there with the very best of the series, it is, however, as comforting, amusing and familiar a jaunt across the galaxy as it could be – which is most certainly not a bad thing. It might hold limited appeal for newcomers or those more unfamiliar with the charm of classic Red Dwarf, but for those of us who’ve been around since The End, it’s the TV equivalent of a hot mug of cocoa while wearing your favourite jumper.
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