‘You really don’t mind a hackneyed old cliché, do you?’The boys from the Dwarf are back! Spin your nipple nuts and get cat-dance crazy.
Wellll, hold on just a minute. The return of Red Dwarf is always enough to make hardcore fans lose at least some portion of their mind. But in recent series (since the ending of the original writing partnership of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor after Series 6, according to some fans), the show hasn’t really delivered on the promise of its early post-reboot seasons (3-6).
Certainly since its move away from the BBC, the quality of the storytelling has been significantly compromised, with Back To Earth being much hype, little follow-through (and a bit too much of an Earthbound gimmick, visiting the Coronation Street set for hilarious Craig Charles confusion, and the introduction of the Starbug car), and Series 10, while having some good ideas, never really coming together to amount to much (see also Top Gear/The Grand Tour, The Great British Bake Off and its immediate bout of talent-alopecia.)
So, as Series 11 launches, we watch with baited breath.
It is of course still early days, but it might be time to unbait your breath.
Episode 1 of Series 11 is genuinely, old-school funny.
Perhaps not Series 3 funny, but definitely Series 4, 5 and 6 funny.
The central idea is simple – as it was in episodes like DNA, White Hole, Gunmen of the Apocalypse and others. The Dwarfers run across a breed of Simulant who, while obeying Moore’s Law for themselves (increasing in technological capacity exponentially over time, thus earning themselves the name Exponoids), have a real bee in their digital bonnets about humans having technology. Without revealing too much, there’s a chance for the Dwarfers to get dressed up in some snazzy duds and engage in one long philosophical experiment – again, like episodes of series past, including Gunmen – The Prohibition Years of 20s America meets a kind of Tea Party anti-intellectualism and scientific illiteracy. Speakeasies-cum-science clubs. Boffins as flappers, girls whose idea of a good time is to go someplace private and talk quantum to you, and so on. They say great science fiction predicts the future. Imagine a world run by robotic Trumps and Palins, and you’re pretty much on Twentica. There are some great, solidly constructed gags, with some zippy one-liners, punchliners and at least a couple of great visual gags too, Robert Llewelyn especially continuing to earn his pay in this episode as the straight man in the rubber mask, delivering hilarity by doing ridiculous things seriously.
Kevin ‘taking over the world, one comedy at a time’ Eldon joins a long list of established actors to have played villains on Red Dwarf, with his take on an Exponoid. As villains, these hyper-advancing Simulants have more than a touch of Borg about them – Eldon’s character is ‘4 of 27’ – say no more. And it’s rather delicious to see that before they can be MacGuffined into letting the Dwarf-boys go free, their evolution towards a kind of humanity has already begun to fray their unity at the seams.
Many of your favourite Dwarf tropes are crammed into this episode – there’s a Kryten’s head gag, there’s a Rimmer knowing nothing gag or three, there’s some Cat tap-dancing, there’s a Rimmer laying down the law, only to immediately recant it gag or two, a Lister as barely-human jibe, a properly naff MacGuffin. As mentioned, there’s an excuse for the Dwarfers to get into period costume, a lovely bit of space effect, a Cat having no willpower or loyalty gag, and even a rather gorgeous riff on one of the funniest lines in Series 6. The same line, shifted from Lister to Rimmer, feels like a protocol established between the crew some five series later, a kind of safe-word for interstellar travel. None of these though it what makes this episode feel more like ‘proper’ Red Dwarf than it’s felt in several years.
That’s all down to the simple theme, thoroughly explored while a fairly straightforward solution is prepared on the sidelines. While some will mourn the lack of either variant of Holly in this first episode, the point of Kryten really was to supplant the ship’s computer when the crew were off adventuring, and he’s more than fulfilled that role for the vast majority of the show’s run so far. By all means, bring Holly in if and when it’s necessary, but here, it isn’t, as this is mainly an off-Dwarf adventure. Likewise then, the absence of skutters, vending machines or other stroppy bits of technology make perfect sense here, and what we’re left with is a Red Dwarf series opener that gets back to the basics of the show’s comedy, while still allowing for the evolution of the crew into much more of a cohesive unit than it used to be.
For the first time since at least Series 8, this feels like the Red Dwarf that garnered armies of fans around the world and simply, stubbornly refused to die. That’s Red Dwarf in a nutshell: it’s the sci-fi comedy that refuses to die because the ideas and the gags are both too good. After a few series where that reputation looked at least to be wobbling, almost teetering into self-parody, on the basis of Twentica, it really does look as though the boys from the Dwarf are properly back.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk