Throughout the now-32 year history of Red Dwarf, the show has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to be encumbered by its own past. Dave Lister (Craig Charles), the last human alive, had always admired Kristine Kochanski (Clare Grogan, then Chloe Annett) from afar, until the writers found they could mine more comedy from their relationship having been a failed love affair. The character has had his appendix removed, until the writers wanted a situation where it needed removing again. Arnold Rimmer was dead, until he wasn’t – until he was again. Kochanski became part of the crew, in order to advance the funding requirements of the film; yet once that fell away, the character was removed and has rarely been mentioned since. As with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the lore has varied, not only between the different series and eras of the show, but across different formats, as the books have many events occurring differently, in a different order, or not at all. The show is interested only in what works and what is funny in the here and now.
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It is a surprise then that The Promised Land, the thirteenth instalment of the show (after eight BBC series between 1988 and 1999, then Back to Earth followed three further seasons on cable channel Dave), leans heavily on the show’s history to bring us a further tale of the Cat species. In both series one, and in the book Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, viewers were told that Cat (Danny John-Jules) hailed from a species that had evolved from Lister’s pet domestic moggy (the cause of his being put into stasis for thee million years in the first place). The Felis sapiens race had developed a religion where Lister (known in their lore as ‘Cloister’) was their God and would one-day return to lead them to the promised land of Fuchal – a garbled reading of Lister’s desire to live in Fiji and run a hot dog and donut bar. Their holy texts were based on Lister’s laundry list, and the species eventually departed Red Dwarf (long before the events of the show) to search for the promised land. It should be noted that this backstory has been barely mentioned in the subsequent 31 years since the first book.
The Promised Land begins with text explaining the events that led to Lister’s incarceration, the wiping out of the crew, and the development of the Felis sapiens race. It then notes that the species still exists and roams space, as per the books, and hinted at in the show. The race are now under the rule of Rodon (Ray Fearon), who punishes any cat who worships anyone but him – effectively challenging the existence of the Cloister religion. Three cat believers, escaping from their death sentence, set course for the birthplace of their people (Red dwarf itself) and in search of their God.
Back on Red Dwarf, Lister is investigating long forgotten recesses of the ship, where he finds a back-up disk for Holly (Norman Lovett), the ship’s computer, who has not been seen (outside of cameos) since series eight. Restored to factory settings, Holly does not recognise any of his former friends, and proceeds with his pre-programmed instructions to dispose of the ship, now it is all but empty of crew. Rimmer, Lister, Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) and Cat are forced to flee in Starbug. Following a distress signal (which takes them several months) they happen upon a ship with the technology to upgrade Rimmer’s hologram to ‘Diamond Light’ technology – effectively giving him super powers. Using the tech without first testing it properly, Rimmer’s battery is drained, and he is forced into a low power mode (making him colourless, his voice less clear, and requiring him to be plugged into a power socket at all times. Shortly, they happen upon the three fleeing cats, Sol, Luna and Peanut (the first two Tom Bennett and Mandeep Dhillon from David Brent: Life on the Road, the latter, Lucy Pearman). They explain that Rodon seeks them and the Anubis Stone, a religious relic believed to have been used by Cloister to strike down his enemies (though Kryten determines the stone is in fact embalmed beetle dung).
Now, the first issue with all of this is that the lengthy plot description above represents only around the first third of the 90 minute running time. The biggest problem with The Promised Land – by a distance – is that it is far too busy and disjointed. Writer Doug Naylor long pursued several attempts to put Red Dwarf in cinemas – failing through finding himself unable to secure the necessary funding. From the opening crawl giving backstory such that newcomers can enjoy this episode, to an attempt to create space-based action sequences on the small budget afforded to the show, it feels like this impulse is still with him. Rather than spread the jokes and set-pieces across six episodes (or even a three-part miniseries), Naylor has gone for something as cinematic as he can muster with the funding available to this ageing property, and the results are very mixed indeed.
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On the plus side, the most important factor is that the show is still very funny. Most of the issues here are structural. Kryten trying to convince Cat to have a sex change in order to provide Lister with a child is delightfully wrong-headed (and avoids any of the pitfalls inherent to mining comedy from that subject). The crew taking turns to try to explain to the escaping cats that Lister is not their God is a terrific set-piece, with Cat providing a perfect pay-off to the sequence. Rimmer in ‘Diamond Light’ mode is a well-worked alternative to simply reprising the Ace Rimmer persona. Fun is had with the cat race displaying extrapolations of present day cat behaviour, down to being fascinated by laser pointers. All of the cast slip back into their roles with consummate ease, and still clearly adore working on the show. On a pure laughs basis, this instalment is as strong as anything post-series six (a full 27 years ago). Where modern Dwarf struggles compared to its heyday is that however funny episodes are, they simply aren’t as memorable as some of the earlier series, where plot lines would stick with the viewer. It is difficult to name the episodes of any of series 10-12, beyond perhaps two or three from each run, despite being very enjoyable when revisited.
The Promised Land is just a bit of a mess of ideas that work really well in isolation: most of the jokes land; the cast are on top form; the idea of exploring cat lore is interesting; Rimmer exploring his sentience, and his capacity for independent thought – one of the very few times he has ever looked inward – displays an ability for the show to find a new angle on a long-established character (similarly, with Cat’s essential vanity being shown as a correction to having been one of the uncool members of his species left on the ship as his race departed). So we are left with a story that walks the line between greatest hits (Rimmer’s erroneous space core directives from series six even getting a reprise), and a fresh start with which to entice a new generation of viewers. As such, it is unclear whether we are saying goodbye, or gearing up for more. The show has life left in it, but as with Back to Earth in 2009, this extended format is not the optimum way to enjoy Red Dwarf.