It’s been over two years since the posse last soared onto our screens, but now Red Dwarf is back on Dave – in place of a standard series, though, comes a feature-length episode that’s slightly flashier than the norm and attempts to serve as both a celebration of the 32-year-old show and a soft reboot for newcomers. Like a kipper vindaloo, it’s a strange combination of things, though not unpalatable.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a show that’s run for over three decades and has a cult following to play entirely to its loyal fans – and indeed, there are plenty of fun nods to Red Dwarf‘s past in The Promised Land, most amusingly a sequence that sees Rimmer (Chris Barrie) “going through the gears” as he experiences a few physical changes.
But this 90-minute episode also seems at great pains not to alienate outsiders. Given the central premise of the special – the boys from the Dwarf meet a band of cat clerics who worship Lister (Craig Charles) as their God, as well as their feral overlord Rodon (Ray Fearon) – it’s understandable that there are repeated references to Lister’s refusal to have his contraband cat put down and how this led to him being placed into stasis, which in turn led to him surviving the radiation leak which wiped out the crew of Red Dwarf…
But even beyond the opening caption and various bits of dialogue that reference this, there seem to be efforts to have The Promised Land serve as a new pilot of sorts.
The return of Holly (Norman Lovett), now reverted to factory settings, even gives the Dwarfers an opportunity to reintroduce themselves, and recap how Cat (Danny John-Jules) and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) came to join the crew. Early parts of the episode also see Lister oddly pre-occupied with his situation as the last human being alive – something that’s been the status quo for quite a long while now.
Part reboot and part Greatest Hits, it’s difficult to imagine The Promised Land winning over newbies – 32 years in, Red Dwarf is a very particular show, one that might not be for everyone but that continues to mostly satisfy fans by delivering more of what they’ve come to expect.
It’s just as well, then, that the stalwarts of the series are still on board and on top form. Craig Charles still brings a cheeky charm and the odd burst of real pathos to slobbish survivor Dave Lister, Chris Barrie not only nails his standard self-important schtick as Rimmer but also gets to explore sides of the character we’ve rarely glimpsed before, Robert Llewellyn continues to draw big laughs with Kryten’s unrelentingly earnest nature, the Cat’s vanity and entirely unconcealed loathing of Rimmer is still as funny as when Danny John-Jules first trotted it out in 1988, and the return of Holly actor Norman Lovett’s hysterically deadpan line delivery is also most welcome.
It helps too that a good chunk of the special is spent with the boys bantering in Starbug’s cockpit, recalling arguably the show’s original peak of Red Dwarf VI. Just spending time with these characters is fun and it’s when The Promised Land capitalises on having its four fantastic leads trapped together and firing zingers at each other that it really soars.
It’s just as well that the old magic is still there, that the old jokes still land, because the standalone story of The Promised Land doesn’t amount to much. Red Dwarf is at its best when putting a comic twist on genuinely intriguing sci-fi notions – parallel worlds, doppelgängers, the idea that our own life might just be a dream – but the story of the cat clerics and their feral overlords isn’t all that interesting or amusing, with the exception of a couple of decent sight gags.
Though we learn a little more about his early days, there’s the feeling too that this is a missed opportunity to dig deeper into the character of Cat – he gets one standout moment in the final act, but this is very much a story about Lister and how he deals with being hailed as a god, with Cat’s feelings about being reunited with his fellow felines going largely unexplored.
The end result is a good-but-not-great first stab at the feature-length format for Red Dwarf – The Promised Land is unlikely to convert anyone who’s found themselves immune to the show’s charms thus far, but it’s a reasonably rewarding outing for the faithful.
Red Dwarf: The Promised Land airs on Thursday, 9th April at 9pm on Dave – check out what else is on with our TV Guide