Karma’s a bitch, and so is Tony.
The second episode of this series invokes the ghosts of Series 4, 5 and 6 even more strongly than did the first, with an updated chunk of the early years thrown in for extra nostalgia value. The result though, while being entirely watchable Red Dwarf, feels like rather an ‘also-ran’ episode, a bit of a mish-mash of exposition and previous elements re-hashed to new purpose.
The scenario is straightforward – the Dwarfers discover a pod that leads them to an underwater research base, where a series of initially baffling events occur. The explanation lies in a piece of kit that functions similarly to the technology of the Justice World, as seen in Series 4 episode Justice – it’s able to assess motivations and actions, compare them to its own protocols, and then punish or reward people accordingly.
Is there a fascinating, fresh, satirical sci-fi point there? Absolutely – in fact it’s a rather classy delivery of the whole ‘danger of the majority defining what is “moral”’ theme, and it’s directly applicable to the world in which we find ourselves – in a world where the majority get to decide absolutely what’s moral, for instance, prejudice would be justified simply by a lot of people believing the same thing. You could argue that it’s the system on which totalitarian regimes like those in Nazi Germany and current North Korea were based – and closer to home, it’s a system that would mean, for instance, that those in Britain who voted to remain in the European Union could be punished as immoral by virtue of being a numerical minority, and those who back the losing party in the upcoming American elections too could be punished for their ‘immorality’ in backing the wrong side.
In broader terms, Samsara (an odd episode title, merely taken from the name of the base, possibly to give nothing of the episode’s meat away in advance) is an explosion of the very idea of ‘karma.’ Karma only works if there’s a universal understanding of what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and if such concepts and such people are inviolable. Even Rimmer in this episode understands that that’s not the case, explaining that slavery was once seen as perfectly acceptable behaviour, but is now viewed as abhorrent, so the very notion of karma would change across time. And the staff at the research base too offer a cogent explanation of why karma is a kind of slavery to the interpretation of the person who believes in it – a couple having an affair suffer the consequences of not conforming to the corporate morality culture and are told to squirt whipped cream on their apple pie, rather than each other’s body parts.
Even more broadly, Samsara also argues that while majority-controlled morality (arguably, despite its potential to be misused to establish totalitarian regimes, also the kind of morality with which we’re familiar, and which is largely encoded into our legal and ethical systems) is dangerous, the concept of individual morality can be equally egregious – if, for instance, one individual gets to impose their morality on a nation, or a system, or a research base, you’d better hope they don’t operate from a position of psychopathy, or even a point of simple personal convenience. If a society is co-opted to make things ‘right’ that suit the personality of an individual, rather than the society as a whole, you can instantly get that kind of totalitarianism, as the moral compass of one is imposed on all. Essentially, Samsara argues – in a way familiar from Series 5’s Angels and Demons – that only by a blending of moralities – individual morality so long as it doesn’t harm the society, majority morality so long as it doesn’t impinge unfairly on the individual – can some sort of social and individual growth and happiness co-exist.
So it’s not the fact that Samsara doesn’t contain some good solid sci-fi social satire that makes it relatively forgettable, because it does. It’s that there’s a fine line between ‘getting back to the basics of what made a show great’ and ‘re-running the past with new words to get old laughs’ – and this episode errs on the side of the latter. There’s some ‘Series 1-3’ bickering between Lister and Rimmer in their bunks, including a Rimmer self-pity party and Lister being the king of the slobs, and it could just as easily be delivered by the twentysomething versions of the leads as by their older selves. There’s a board game sequence with Rimmer needing to avoid a particular roll that’s so similar to his famous ‘Risk story’ it feels familiar even as it unfolds. There’s a gag about a piece of technology being on the blink which is pretty much recycled from previous iterations like the famous ‘Red Alert Bulb’ moment. There’s a painful sequence with Lister and the Cat, where the Cat explains with absolute sincerity his twisted version of history and science, and while the point of the sequence is that it’s supposed to drive Lister stark raving mad, it comes close to doing the same to the audience, and also feels like a riff on the Series 5 story Marooned (where Rimmer and Lister are trapped together in an isolated environment). Even the central MacGuffin on which the plot revolves is an evolution of the Justice Field from Justice in Series 4.
You see? Lots of old elements, new words, to create a brand new episode that already feels like we’ve watched several times before. Samsara has the feel of a greatest hits collection, while still actually being entirely new and, as we said, delivering some fairly heavyweight social satire underneath its relatively cheap laughs and rehashed Dwarfisms. There’s nothing ultimately wrong with that, and certainly the relevance of the social satire puts it up there with some of the episodes from which it borrows or whose premises it tweaks, but the fact is, this is an episode that could fit happily enough in Series 4, 5 or 6, having little about it that marks it out as a Series 11 story, least of all any notion of the characters’ evolution over time. Samsara’s by no means a bad episode of Red Dwarf. It’s just not an especially good one either, leaving it in the middle ground of forgetability along with (at the risk of being controversial, and this being the only thing people read in the review) the likes of The Inquisitor and Demons and D.N.A.
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
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