Red Dwarf: The Promised Land
Well, you know you're a Red Dwarf fan, when towards the tail-end of an unprompted review, you notice that you're randomly drinking a tin of fizzy mango & chilli craft pop, and realise the only place to mention it, is to cram it in, somewhere near the start. You know, drinking fresh mango juice..? Oh, forget it.
Now, typically, I find it remarkable just how much a live recording or screening can differ from its subsequent broadcast. When I was fortunate enough to catch the first and final episodes of Series X being performed, a few years back, compared to their inaugural airings, the difference to me was almost night & day. Perhaps, after the mind has initially filled in those blanks otherwise set aside to be supplemented by movie magic, any other interpretation is naturally met with unconscious resistance.
Even so, having now finally caught this completed, brand-spanking, feature-length instalment of old favourite/emotional crutch, Red Dwarf, as lovingly enabled by UKTV channel, Dave, I'm somewhat happy to report, that as experienced on the night of filming, there were several pleasing aspects to be found that I've been waiting patiently for the series to revisit, since its undeniable heyday of the early-90s.
Not all television shows have the capacity to naturally translate to the Big Screen, but those that can are often most worthy of a place in the time capsule. Arguably and inexplicably, even Ghostwatch plays... just better, when projected at a larger scale; not only as a communal event, but with the expanded format aiding in capturing the minutiae of the proceedings. It's slightly harder to miss Pipes when he's projected, ten feet tall onto a thick sheet of silver lenticular fabric; even though the piece was only ever really intended for a 24" CRT.
Although a welcome return for the lovable Smeggers, at this late stage of my lifelong fandom, Red Dwarf: The Promised Land, didn't consistently deliver on all that it pre-emptively intimated through carefully-chosen nomenclature. And, this intermittently citrus-gurning stance is based on two simple factors...
- There being no reason to suggest the resources required to make something that evoked past, mind-melting highs for the series, were not at the disposal of the production's creative parties, from the off.
- From personal experience, being safe in the knowledge that the show has the potential to consistently surprise, in both profoundly imaginative and challenging ways, even when faced with budgets that would make Blumhouse blush.
The show has always proudly worn its filmic aspirations on its recharge socket, and rightly so. By their own admissions, its creators' heartfelt admiration for classic sci-fi flicks played a big part in the shaping of the programme's own reality bubble. Many from the production's crew have considerable feature experience. Several episodes are basically mini-movies unto themselves, largely abandoning their standard sitcom parameters, in favour of Xtended special shoot sequences. Just look to, Better Than Life from Series II, or Backwards and Bodyswap from Series III, as being prime examples which ably disprove the myth that live audience reaction is necessary in garnering strong comedic and/or dramatic performances.
If you're looking for further examples, I'm afraid that's your lot for now, as I'm having to keep this percussively grandiloquent diatribe as sententiously epigrammatic as possible, if only to placate my fellow kindly and ardent fans. Or, as I like to call them, 'best mates'. How's that for wordy?
Additional: I'm still fuzzy on how such a large disk could become lost in the sleeping quarters, even when unusually cluttered, though..? Also, why does Rimmer refer to himself as "First Technician" again, when he's only a Second Tech? I mean, all cool people know that.
It soon transpires that in rebooting the ship's previously-waterlogged, mainframe computer, the process has unwittingly restored his personality and memory files to that, before the first series even began. As per his default programming, Holly brusquely orders the crew off the ship, and they are forced to scarper, pronto.
Additional Additional: Are there no measures for legal asylum, in the future? Could the JMC or Space Corps. be held criminally accountable, if anything happened to these 'stowaways', post-enforced deportation? Why not just have some skutters throw them in the brig, or even The Tank? Also, why does this newly-hard nosed, Holly seem perfectly at ease in releasing a fully-loaded, Class II, ship-to-surface vessel for these would-be renegades, to escape in? A bit like handing me the keys to a Harrier jet, or souped-up bread van at least, having somehow snuck on-board a carrier air-wing.
Then, as if no-one has really been paying attention to the show since 1993, the Dwarfers discover, yet again, that they are not alone in this scummy, godless universe. A timid trio of Cat Clerics effortlessly makes contact with their fabled saviour, and with resigned glee, declare their undying faith to Lister, first-hand. We soon learn, these clearly vulnerable devotees are escaping a savage faction of Cats, the Ferals [not seen since, Demons & Angels], who have kindly stepped-in for the Simulants, or Homo Sapienoids, or Berserker Generals, or whomever would like to vent their frustrations at the crew, this week.
With Starbug soon forced onto a barren desert moon under falling debris and heavy fire, the cockpit and mid-section are promptly buried under too much sand to shift, which handily provides some time to
Bearing the blunt brunt of Cat's harsh realities regarding the nature of Rimmer's simulated existence, Arnold's inescapable predicament compels him to rethink his second life, even contemplating virtual suicide. Lister kindly reassures him, re-instilling purpose. Then, after Kryten is somehow able to squeeze his spherical eyeball through what looks like an 8mm drill-hole [a cartoonish pop! wouldn't have gone amiss], a distress call is sent back to the Dwarf, and a memory-restored Holly is able to devise a daring rescue plan that involves physically cracking-open the planet using mining torpedoes, thereby allowing Starbug to remain behind, in empty [albeit toxically-irradiated] space. This marks a full-on return to Dark Star territory; one of the true, undoubted inspirations for Red Dwarf, and the perfect arena for Lovett's much-missed, laconic, laser-brain to legitimately shine.
It's a compelling, heart-rending moment that Danny John-Jules humiliatingly plays to, just perfectly; irrevocably shifting his uniquely-ancillary character firmly into centre-stage, and undeniably proving his crucial worth to the ensemble; much as Llewellyn was able, decades past, whilst mercilessly challenged by Jack Docherty's, The Inquisitor. The call-back to an earlier light-pen gag is also nice, witty, and of fine service to the plot. The special then closes with Rimmer reluctantly sacrificing his new super-power-supply to save Kryten, who has run out of charge, having shared it, to keep his selfish superior online. Gladly taking on the Cats' sacred godly title from Lister, Rimmer revels in the glory, as the Cat Fleet harmoniously reorders itself into a strikingly-familiar, phonemic symbol...
Granted, there are a handful of nice, perhaps classic gags peppered throughout, but these only serve to carry an altogether simple premise that is far too reminiscent of the final episode of Series X, along with its underwritten, underpowered, and under-motivated, villainous antagonist, to merit such a prestigious presentation.
Given most fans' prevalent disdain for this special's prequel episode [one of my favourites, as it happens], ironically, it is Series I's unfairly-maligned, Waiting For God that serves as the springboard for the continuing saga, in its revisiting of mostly-discarded, 'Wouldn't it be funny if the only man to ever get his money back from the Odor-Eater people was worshipped, as a god?' sub-plot ̶ which at one point, felt like a serious contender to be more comprehensively explored, later on down the line. It's a curious choice to expand upon such an overwhelmingly unpopular instalment; in some respects analogous to, Spock's Brain being cherry-picked to form the basis of the second, Star Trek feature, over, Space Seed. Ironically, the overarching consideration of misplaced hero-worship as depicted in, The Promised Land, if anything to me, more closely resembles near-perfect, Star Trek parody, Galaxy Quest, than much else closer to home.
Similarly, the close of aforementioned Series X finale episode, The Beginning, too suggested some kind of vital progression of the show's core characters; specifically with Rimmer finally admitting his true Working Class nature, and proudly declaring himself to be the same kind of 'Slime' as his fellow shipmates.
Regrettably, despite two further series and now another feature under the Dave banner, not a great deal of this alluded-to potential has ultimately been extrapolated; with the brand instead having regressed into a perpetual Greatest Hits medley on Shuffle with the wrong equaliser selected, that more often than not has felt disjointed, sketchy, and genetically-engineered to merely precede future instalments determined to prioritise quantity-over-quality of laughs, heart, or even logic.
Once too often, storylines have been hastily wrapped up, nothing much depicted has appeared to be of great consequence, and characters unfathomably remain breathtakingly-unfazed when confronted by an increasingly-populated universe, as they watch their otherwise carefully established traits & motivations, on occasion, quite literally tumble out of airlocks. [Cor, talk about, 'Catty', eh?] Thankfully, it's not quite so much the case, this time around, though the sheer weight of the runtime hasn't exactly helped things flow more smoothly, either.
My biggest gripe with Red Dwarf, post-Series VI, is that despite its core super troupe, for the most part, remaining one glorious whole, the programme has yet to progress its altogether simple premise, to the next level. Granted, much of the qualitative work rendered by its highly-capable workforce has remained as good, if not exceeded expectations, from past series. Even the wheel-rattling Series VII spearheaded the game-changing filmizing effect, whereas Back To Earth revolutionised TV visuals, care of super-duper, hi-def, Red® cameras. But, what does all this alluring gloss practically amount to, if the ongoing narrative fails to evoke much that is actually meaningful, or dare I say, even consistently amusing?
The main issue that I'm picking-up on here seems to lie somewhere between the obvious disconnect with, well... me, and what I feel makes Red Dwarf work best; plausible implausibility, absurdest genius, heroic cowardice... in fact, pretty much, either end of every dramatic continuum you could possibly think of. And, not forgetting, a healthy dollop of genuinely-intriguing science-fiction, to boot. It's not that, The Promised Land has none of these aspiring aspects to offer, it's just that sadly, they're often too far between, to always register.
Perhaps, Red Dwarf works best as an exploration of cosmic balance. The characters often represent ying yang-like mirrors for each other; no better exemplified than in the closing scenes of unbeatable Series V classic, Back To Reality; a moment the series has yet to transcend, in which Kryten boils down the character traits of his adopted family with such profound dignity, that you might feel, helplessly giggling at Lister's shrinking boxers shorts in Series III, was nothing short of a lifetime ago. [Note: I just wrote "laughtime ago", and felt bad for backspacing it].
To be fair, it must be a near-impossible situation for the show's nerve centre. The showbusiness in Dwarf resides not only in garnering new followers, but also placating those of yesteryear. I do, however, feel there is a happy medium that could be reached, with just a mite more effort. At this stage, the show could at least do with a writers' room, to generate some notional content, ahead of physical production. I'm aware that too many cooks can spoil a space weevil, but while some scripts require ironing out, it's plainly obvious even to me, that certain others need soaking in PERC.
Plus, not only is the character [occasionally] the last human being in the cosmos, he has now been rejected [off-screen, no less!] by none other than [ostensibly] the last human female in existence, too. Given what he's already lost, this alone could have been enough to break him, shredding his resolve into finality, but nevertheless, he has clearly refused to allow the pain to hold him back. Why? Is he still focused on his search for home? Is he now questioning what home is? What is Lister's passion, these days? I mean, he hasn't even talked about curry, that much of late; let alone making it back to Earth. So, what is it [... that's keeping him going]?
Encouragingly, The Promised Land at least makes some attempts at resolving this perpetual philosophy, with Cat finally displaying weakness before his families, in his noble admittance that Red Dwarf is very much where he belongs. It's easily the best moment of the entire piece, and possibly an ace that writer/director, Naylor has been keeping up his sleeve, for a while. Cat was born on Red Dwarf, after all. It's the tip of a fascinating iceberg that this special frustratingly leaves until its final few moments to explore.
Expanding on that point, the long-mooted delving into Cat mythology is a welcome one, but also far too simplistic to serve any predominantly useful purpose [other than I suppose, simulating a predominantly useful purpose]. What I always hoped to learn, as a fan, was to greater understand the mechanics of these people's infamous holy war, in which two factions each built a great ark to leave Red Dwarf in search of Fuchal [their fatefully misinterpreted Promised Land]; derived in part from a folded postcard, and erroneous extrapolation of Lister's ancient laundry list. Brilliant.
Committed to separate routes [presumably, one of the factions reasoning that Red Dwarf was heading towards Fuchal, and the other, away], one of the arks was said to have flown straight into an asteroid, but what if [Cloister forgive me] the elucidating holy book of legend that Cat shared with Lister in Series I, had been 'embellished' by clerics, or worse yet, was nothing more than a false narrative? After all, how could this bible chronicle events that transpired after the Cats disembarked, for good? Who was around to write it, other than the 'sick and the lame'? And, while I'm at it...
- How would witnessing such a cat-astrophe of the lost ark affect those populating the remaining one? Would they indeed consider themselves most righteous, having survived; perhaps fuelling the rampant superiority of the dominant Ferals? Would they regret the futility of their costly struggles?
- Are those survivors still ship-bound, or have they since settled on a new homeworld? What is the cosmic influence of the Cats in this region of space, and how far does their empire reach?
- If tracking-down Red Dwarf was as easy as hitting just a few buttons, did any of the Cats ever consider heading-back to their safe, crimson birthplace, and if so, what was stopping them?
- Did Holly ever establish contact with the Cats? And, if not, why not?
- How did the Cats glean specific details concerning Lister's pipe-dream of a donut diner on Fiji?
- Are there still 'mixed-race' Cats, as imaginatively depicted with actor, Noel Coleman's memorably 'spotted' make-up design, in Series I?
- Why do the Cats' sacred depictions of Cloister now resemble Craig Charles, as amended in Re-Mastered, as opposed to the more plausible, generic artwork seen in Series I, on broadcast? Is this a revised/alternate holy book? Did each faction push for their own distinct narrative, or was it purely the colour of their cardboard hats, they fought over?
- Exactly how long before Lister was released from Stasis, did the Cats leave Red Dwarf? Assuming, Cat was roughly 30 years old when we meet him, and given the Cat Priest's dying words four episodes in, did the Ferals abandon him and those few others, at a young age?
- What is Cat's personal take on these sacrosanct shenanigans? When the character was first introduced, he spoke of his religious upbringing, but perhaps to save face, despite dismissing his people's beliefs, did he ever privately practice his faith, outside of Kitty School?
- Between series, the Dwarfers, including Cat, have occasionally been in Deep Sleep/Stasis for extended periods, sometimes centuries, during long-haul voyages [Psirens, Out Of Time, Tikka To Ride, Nanarchy]. Unless he too has been in suspended animation for a coincidental period of time, does that mean, Rodon is in fact a distant relative of Cat's, rather than his first degree relative? Or, has he been using stasis technology to extend his lifespan?
Yes, I know all this nit-picking isn't that important, but nevertheless, with the show's overarching plot continuing to Swiss-cheese at a rate of knots, frankly, I'm growing tired of apologising for being pedantic; especially considering how much source material is already available to scrape through, in bracing-up continuity. How about a simple flashback to a group of artisan high priests reverently Bob Ross-ing Lister's ancient stasis booth, complete with an upscaled freeze-frame of his perfectly-frozen fizzog staring blankly ahead through the thick glass; bleary-eyed and polyester-swathed for countless millennia; perpetually [un]safe in the knowledge, the next time that heavy door would open, he'd promptly be tossed overboard, back to Liverpool, eighteen [relative] months younger than his best mates. Just something, anything, to bolster what has previously been alluded to.
Conceivably, Rimmer's sudden downgrade to Soft-Light is the credible spark that wreaks havoc with his self-esteem; though again, this undeniably debilitating aspect isn't really explored, or even much noted; presumably as the rotoscoping required to maintain the greyscale FX depended on actor, Chris Barrie remaining as still as possible. Not being able to physically interact with your environment, after years of flip-flopping between life, death, soft-light, and hard-light can't have been easy on old Rimmsey, but I don't buy that it only took a fleeting jab from Cat, for him to crumble.
Also, to be fair, there's little evidence to suggest that Rimmer ever took his mission of keeping Lister sane, seriously. In functional terms, Holly brought Arnold back because he was the crew-member most likely to keep Lister psychologically active, through petty antagonism. So effortless was this unthinking task, that it constitutes about as much an official assignment, as me noshing on a Singapore chow mein. Had Holly brought back Kochanski, Lister may have suffered even more, pining for a hollow projection of his lost love. In bringing back old muckers, Chen, Selby, or even Petersen, this would likely have resulted in a Me² type-predicament, and so on.
Here, Rimmer's confidence-stripping self-pity rightly manifests as depression, but his lurch into hypomania most likely stems from lugging around considerable 'always-got-a-pen'-type neuroses, as opposed to an idiosyncratic acceptance of some perceived lack of professional/personal achievement. I don't think Rimmer is capable of self-analysis, when sober. Well, certainly not this Rimmer, who is more likely, the hologrammatic restoration of his regressed, nanobot-restored copy; no doubt destined to one day, bravely stoke himself a clipper, and take on the dauntless mantle of universal wrong-righter, Ace.
As much as I'd love to see it happen, I cannot help but doubt that any absorbing aspect of, The Promised Land shall carry over into the unwritten future narrative of the series; especially its devilishly dogmatic dénouement. If anything, the special begrudgingly ruminates on the power and ubiquity of Spirituality, be it organised or personally-divined, with such vague disinterest, that I cannot fathom why it ever became the main focal point of the story, other than to serve as a simple hook.
The special neither critically, nor lovingly translates its own understanding of religious doctrine, as in Kevin Smith's masterful metatronic mass, Dogma; or shrewdly denigrates the pitfalls of blind faith and Inhumanism carefully layered throughout, Monty Python's Life of Brian, which at least reminded us to occasionally look on the bright side of life. Even in, Waiting For God, Lister mindfully agonises that his unwitting actions may have lead to millennia of unnecessary suffering, in His name. The character exudes a smattering of equivalent fretting this time around; but so little in comparison, that any internal contemplation regarding this enigmatic, lost historical era seems to have passed him by, almost entirely.
It could have been fun for Lister to have to readjust to some unconsidered tangent, as far as the Cloister myth was concerned; least of all having been described as, "The ultimate atheist" in one episode. Rimmer's questionable family tradition as Seventh Day Advent Hoppists is also passed by entirely, as is Kryten's pre-programmed hope in one day making it to, Silicon Heaven. It is interesting to note that these past notions all stem from the basis of being false narratives, too. With the perfect impasse of Starbug being entombed beneath the dunes, I can imagine a figurative follow-up to Lister & Rimmer's unforgettable, long talk from, Marooned, in which the four guys reach some sort of sage conclusion, when faced with the inevitable. Perhaps, collectively, shaking their beliefs.
In lighter news, there's very little to say on the characters of Cat & Kryten, mainly for reasons of satisfaction and consistency. Both gents' new looks work reasonably well, and John-Jules' and Llewellyn's performances are as reliable, well-tuned, and slick, as ever. I know, I keep banging on about it, but Norman Lovett's return as Holly is practically pitch-perfect, both in dialogue and place in the story. And, that's coming from a Hattie Hayridge fan. I would have appreciated the merest hint of a classic solarizing or pixelation effect, though.
The costumes are great. The visual effects are sporadically impressive [less-said-the-better regarding some of the compositing, and recycling of shots]; as is the sound design ̶ particularly, Rimmer's mono filter, on being downgraded; which was of course yet to be added to his track, on the night of recording. The score is big, yet fitting. On a technical level, for the most part, all I can ever think to say to those involved is a very sincere, 'well-done'. Still can't bring myself to ignore many of those jazzy on-screen graphics, though; which to me, persistently fail to align with the otherwise carefully-established aesthetic, from years past.
Despite my gripes, I am genuinely glad it's out there to be enjoyed. Any new Dwarf is worthwhile, for one reason, or another. In this particular instance, not only as it keeps its fascinating canvas and dazzling spectacle on the telly box where it belongs, but also in unforgettably warming my heart, on witnessing Cat finally learning to warm his own. Aw.
It may be telling that from Back To Earth, onwards, I have so often heard voices ruminating on the ultimate rhetorical, 'Will this next iteration mark the end of the series?' These portentously-ponderous predictions perhaps stem from a pervading sense of finality regarding, Red Dwarf fulfilling its obligations as a functioning linear narrative, now three decades into its operational lifespan.
So, does this special mark the end of, Red Dwarf, as we know it? Of course, it does. That's the key to its lasting success. Transmogrifying and evolving, whilst always preserving its base genome [sounds terrifyingly familiar]. That said, given the sudden solid shift into feature-length story formats taking precedence over episodic six-show runs, whether this truly marks The Beginning, or The End for how we ultimately come to regard the series, remains to be seen.
As a fan, it goes without saying, I'd be happy to see the show go on, and in whatever form, for as long as possible. However, unless its rounded premise evolves beyond the current comfort zones of followers, loyal and casual alike, and in turn, finally allows Dave Lister to discover some cosmic way back home, rekindle/clamp-off his relationship with Kochanski, choose to settle and start afresh on some welcoming S-3 planetoid, or even pitifully perish amongst those lonely stars, the most important thing is that his personal struggle ultimately amounts to something. Whether that's saving Humanity, the Universe, his friends, his soul, or even a chicken vindaloo, it doesn't really matter, to me. I just hope that fundamentally, Lister's poignant crusade at least matters, to him. Otherwise, the core notion that has so far sustained the series could theoretically tumble into oblivion, clacking off the edge of the table, right into somebody's pint of beer.
Conversely, in the oft-repeated words of my last fleeting ex, what is, Red Dwarf? A mere television programme? A complex comedy? A simple trademark? A burgeoning philosophy 'twixt orthodox doctrine for fulfilling one's life? However it is regarded, it's just heartening to know, that a handful of nobodies representing the finest our species has to offer, are still flying our collective flag three million years, down the line. So long as they're out there, surviving and believing, so in turn, shall we.
And so, this, the thirteenth stellar outing for comedy sci-fi series, Red Dwarf, arrives with a coarse, rough, and at times irritatingly-sandy thud, which as we all know, gets eevvverywhere. But, at least Norman was funny.
Last word, but I'd also just like to say Rest In Peace to legendary model maker, Bill Pearson, who sadly passed away far too soon, in March of this year. Bill was the very first person I ever saw walking about at Shepperton Studios, and was someone who made me feel so important to even be in his presence, I shall never forget being stood within thirty feet of him. His intricate and dedicated craftsmanship shall live on, for countless years to come.
Until next time, Ghostwatchers... try not to have sleepless nights. Hoping you and yours are safe & well in these difficult times. And don't say, we're gonna get through this..! xxx
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