“How many times have we seen that before?” moans Rimmer (Chris Barrie) in Episode 1 of the new season of Red Dwarf. Yes, the show is back for another six-part run, courtesy of UKTV’s Dave, and little has changed. Well, actually, quite a bit has: the show has shifted course over the years several times, from a low-budget sitcom set on a spaceship to a bolder piece of sci-fi featuring new worlds and alien races. Season 11, or XI, sets the dial firmly to “ambitious”.
For science fiction, it arguably doesn’t get more ambitious than time travel – or more familiar. That’s what Rimmer pipes up about five minutes into the episode, as it becomes clear that some timey-wimey silliness is on the cards. Self-aware digs at the programme’s own unoriginality? Regardless of the budget, that’s classic Red Dwarf.
In fact, much of this season’s opening two episodes feels like a welcome burst of nostalgia, as Craig Charles’ Lister, Danny John-Jules’ Cat and Robert Llewellyn’s Kryten reunite for more space-hopping escapades.
In Twentica, our time-travelling takes us immediately to an alternate version of the USA, where technology is outlawed – making both Kryten and Rimmer illegal. It’s a neat little premise, primarily because it takes the focus away from Lister, whose longing to return to his home planet has been the subject of many an episode over the decades. It’s not as if anyone else gets much of a character arc to work with, but the ensemble make the most of sharing the spotlight with an even distribution of one-liners and insults. (“He couldn’t be more fried if he was a Mars bar living in Scotland,” quips Lister, after Kryten gets an electric shock.)
The delivery of some of the lines, and some of the jokes themselves, occasionally feels a bit forced, but they mostly stick the landing with the easy chemistry of a group of performers who know each other well; Chris Barrie’s self-centred, perpetually outraged Rimmer remains the perfect counterpart for Charles’ laidback Lister and John-Jules’ equally selfish Cat. Llewellyn’s Kryten appears to have a different costume (his gloved hands are larger than normal), which may irk some, but his physical slapstick is as charmingly jerky as ever.
But all that’s for nothing if the script is poor and, to Doug Naylor’s credit, he’s still capable of coming up with the goods – the alternate America gives us a Prohibition-style backdrop, which boasts not just impressive sets and costumes (the budget appears to have been bumped up considerably for this run), but also some stellar supporting roles. There are barmaids who beg punters to give them money so they can go somewhere private to discuss relativity, an amusing take on Einstein and, best of all, the excellent Kevin Eldon as a delightfully petty evil robot.
That storytelling wit is just as strong in Episode 2, which introduces the inspired idea of a Karma Drive, a device that punishes people for doing bad things – and inevitably malfunctions. The cast clearly enjoy playing with the material, which, without being the best the show’s even been, still manages the difficult trick of playing smart and dumb at the same time. The result is a harmless and generally enjoyable reunion. There’s little in the way of the more existential musings of the show’s initial seasons, but if Dave’s step up from the lower key Season X to this more ambitious Season XI marks a similar leap from the promise of Season 1 and 2 to the peak of Season 3, then this is a welcome reminder that there’s nothing wrong with something we’ve seen before.
Red Dwarf is on Dave at 9pm on Thursday nights, starting on 22nd September. Episode 1 is already available to watch on UKTV Play.