Red Dwarf: The Promised Land Review
The Boys from the Dwarf are back, in this feature length story The Promised Land.
Red Dwarf has had several iterations over the years with the style, look and production of the show changing with time – but it has always been fundamentally an episodic sitcom. Some series have had a vague through line of plot points (usually finding Red Dwarf) but with the majority of series the episodes are pretty self-contained. Series eight changed that a little with several two parters and when the show first shifted to channel Dave it presented a one story, three episode mini series. The last few years at Dave have a returned to the traditional threat of the week stories but after a little break we’re presented with The Proimised Land, a full two hour story (with ad breaks).
We’re treated to a pre-titles sequence with an on screen recap of Lister’s cryogenic freezing and the evolution of the Cat People, followed by the introductions to the new ruler of the Cat People, Rodon, a tyrannical warrior who looks to punish anyone still following the old religion. It’s a great sequence that introduces our protagonist well and includes a couple of especially good cat based sight gags – ships flying in formation, giant cat-flap doors and an ingenious way for the cat prisoners to escape their guards. It’s tricky, I can’t decide if these gags are too silly, even for Red Dwarf. They certainly push it to the edge
When we join our gang, after a nicely edited title sequence, they’re staging a bit of an intervention for Lister who has started hoarding and not looking after himself. We get an especially fun scene of Rimmer trying to get Kryten to erase his memory of a distress signal so they don’t have to go and help but a gag about a giant floppy disk with Holly’s backup doesn’t quite land. The initial sight gag is very funny but the follow up gag with a giant disk drive to insert it into feels more forced.
Holly is back! But… I don’t know how I feel abut Norman Lovett being back? The audience give a cheer when he appears on screen but personally, I’m not that fussed. Lovett has been publically disparaging of the show and his involvement across the years and he’s already had two triumphant returns (at the end of series seven into series eight and at the end of series twelve) and personally, I’d rather see Hattie Hayridge come back, especially since she clocked up more hours as the character in the original BBC run. It isn’t helped by the fact Lovett gives a very flat, muted performance.
The use of Holly in this episodes is great though; first as an antagonist when his rebooted program starts running the ship by the book and the gang have to leave and then when they re-install his back up memory files so he returns to the Holly we know and love (triumphant return number four?) and saves the day. Even with a slightly detached performance from Lovett, the scene where he calculates hitting a moon with a torpedo is a great moment of Red Dwarf writing.
While looking for a new home, the Dwarfers discover a far more advanced ship and decide to give it a go. On board they find a holographics department hundreds of years advanced of their own that will allow Rimmer to take on super-hero level powers. There’s a great sequence of Rimmer re-booting his hollomatrix and cycling through his previous uniforms. The resultant gag of Rimmer burning out his battery in this advanced mode, so having to reduce his setting to black and white, with mono sound AND stay plugged in, is fantastic. Rimmer running down corridors carrying several extension leads to plug himself in is a classic Red Dwarf gag and its written and performed really well.
It’s also on this ship we meet the three Cat People who escaped in the pre-titles, who have come looking for Cloister, their God. Lister, in true Lister form, tries to tell them he’s not a God and they should live their own lives but Kryten convinces him it would be too much for them to handle, so they take the three Cat People with them. This results in these slightly redundant characters just hanging around with them on StarBug for the rest of the episode. Its quite funny that, every time they escape danger using luck, fluke or science, one of the Cat People pop in to the cockpit to say “Nice miracle” but other than establishing the threat and plotline for the main characters, they don’t bring much to the episode.
The whole special has an odd sort of feel to it. It feels very much like an episode of Red Dwarf - I’d argue a classic episode - but just longer. There is no extra scope or scale to the thing; its movie length but doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like a threat of the week episode. That’s not in itself a bad thing but you feel like in the BBC run we could have had this entire story in 29 minutes. Its all very Red Dwarf;Rimmer as Superhero, Lister as God. All the beats are very old school and I really enjoyed that about it but I don’t know if it needed to be so long – or perhaps what I mean is, since it was so long I would have liked to see more scale. Most of the episode takes place in a couple of sets; the StarBug cockpit, a cramped hanger on the Cat Ship and a few corridors. Things like Back to Earth, probably the nearest comparison to this in terms of a single story, feels very expansive; Large extended sets, several locations, wide reaching scope. The Promised Land is fun and funny but just feels small and if I’m dedicating two hours to a Red Dwarf event I want something just a little bigger.
Considering it’s a story about the Cat People, The Cat actually doesn’t have a lot to do. We don’t really get to see much of the Cat People civilisation, which is a shame as it would have been nice to see more of their society and people. Obviously, that would have been expensive even with their usual creative use of production budgets but I think it further highlights the small scale of the whole thing. I real let down for me was the music which is a bit over the top at times; it really goes for huge, epic cinematic film score tones but just comes over a little silly in places, especially with the setting and scale feeling quite restricted at times. Its not that the score is bad, it just doesn’t always fit. A slight shift in musical beats and direction of shots might have tightened up the feeling of grandeur without needing bigger sets and locations. The choice to shoot this in front of a studio audience might not have been the best option as there were times you feel like the scene needs more dynamic camera work than the format, or Naylor’s directing, can deliver.
The story and episode, in its style at least, borrows a lot from the Red Dwarf books. Rimmer having an existential crisis was a nice part of the second act – though I don’t know why The Cat suddenly became so cruel towards him, it felt a little out of character for him to be so nasty; he’s stupid and insensitive and hates Rimmer but he’s never usually that cruel. The Rimmer stuff, showing his worst self, then admitting his self-loathing before actually saving the day, is very in line with Doug Naylor’s treatment of the character. Far more than Rob Grant ever seemed to, Naylor sees the potential for depth and redemption in Rimmer and I always enjoy watching that on screen.
The whole cast shine in fact; the main Dwarfers seem able to drop back into their characters with ease. Only Kryten seems a little different from his earlier days but I’d argue that’s because he’s been evolving across the years (mostly into a more fussy, mother hen type). The supporting cast are good, if a little under used. Ray Fearon is especially good as the key antagonist, feral cat overlord, Rodon. Tom Bennett, Lucy Pearman and Mandeep Dhillon are charming but dopey as escaping Cat People who come to Lister for help, especially Dhillon who has a nice wide-eyed innocence and wonder to her performance.
The special effects look great, a nice mixture of models and CGI and the sets have their usual flair for design, even if there are only a few of them. Post Back to Earth, which had the best visuals the show has ever had, the Dave area has settled into a nice equilibrium of practical and CGI. There are some people who hold onto an old fashioned view that shonky effects and wobbly sets are part of the charm of Red Dwarf. They’re wrong, of course. As with Doctor Who, Red Dwarf has always and should always strive to present the best visuals available with the current technology and budget they have and here they do great job.
This was, over all, some good Red Dwarf, funny and thoughtful and for the most part well executed. Doug Naylor’s directing style isn’t always as dynamic as some previous directors, but he knows these characters and actors better than anyone and gets the best performances from his team. The pacing is where it feels a little off, mostly in the add breaks. They feel a bit jarring and unexpected with no real lead into them. Dave Red Dwarf has always felt like this with its ad breaks and you do wonder if production just ignores them, focusing on the story and just stops and starts when ads need to go in? I’ll be very interested to watch this as one whole piece when it comes out on DVD/Bluray.
I’m always happy to spend time with these characters and as a fan I really want to see bigger and better things for them. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t go down the more comedy-drama, single camera, no audience route on Back to Earth as I think it would have been a natural and fruitful evolution for the show but if we were to settle into a new format of one, 2 hour special once a year that might be a nice, interesting path to go down. If this was an experiment to see how well it works and is received by the audience, I’d hope it leads to a slightly bigger budget allowing slightly more scope for genuinely bigger stories but if this is the future of Red Dwarf, I’d say the future looks good.