Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for Red Dwarf XII. Scroll to the bottom for more spoilery observations on each episode.
Red Dwarf XII was filmed back-to-back with last year’s eleventh season, and while you would think that means there’s little room for the seasons to be much different, writer-director Doug Naylor has distinguished this year’s run effortlessly. In tone and execution, Season XII is simultaneously more conceptually ambitious and more willing to draw upon its own accumulated continuity and nostalgia.
Heck, even within the season, the front feels distinct from the back. The first three episodes find Rimmer, (Chris Barrie) Lister, (Craig Charles) Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) and Cat (Danny John-Jules) meeting new people and exploring societies in deep space, and the last three go back to basics, with character driven stories aboard the small rouge one.
As you might expect, the second half is more successful than the first, but the season opens strong, with a pair of gleefully daft sci-fi stories that really stand out visually, despite the show’s usual budget constraints. The opener, Cured, is wrapped up in a contemplation of evil that revisits the series’ comic obsession with Adolf Hitler.
Then Episode 2, Siliconia, in which Barrie, Charle and John-Jules’ characters are Krytenified by the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front (so named for their tittersome acronym) is simply light years ahead of anything else the show has ever done visually, This adventurous, expensive-;ooking part of the season only really hits a wall with Episode 3, Timewave, the most eminently skippable instalment, which wastes a premise with huge potential on an irrelevant pub bore ramble and boasts some of the most forced jokes this side of Ganymede and Titan.
This run also has far more guest stars than your average season, including Johnny Vegas, Call The Midwife’s Helen George and The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley, and they’re mostly well used, but the show is really at its best when it concentrates on the Dwarfers. With Episodes 4 and 5, Mechocracy and M-Corp, Naylor lets the characters draw out the comedy in his big sci-fi ideas, much more successfully.
Some could accuse this run in particular of resting on nostalgia – it’s inarguably not the show that it was in its heyday (whenever you personally believe that was) but even though there’s more than one returning character in the second half of the season, it’s not a show that’s resting on its laurels comedically. The fan-pleasing finale, Skipper, is effectively like getting a 30th anniversary special a few months early, but it’s playfully original too.
Naylor and the cast have said that they have no interest in drawing the show to a proper close for the foreseeable future, and given the success of the new seasons for UK TV and Dave, Season XIII seems like a certainty. Red Dwarf XII proves that the show is still in rude health, with a reliably strong cast and more than enough ambition to fuel the fun (fuuun, fuuun…) in the sun (suuun, suuun…) for years to come.
Season XII, episode by episode (contains spoilers)
And then there was that time Lister played guitar with Hitler. The outcome of the reformed historic monsters subplot may feel predictable to those who remember Season X’s Jesus of Caesarea or Season XI’s Bob The Bum, but it’s performed with gusto by the regulars and especially by guest star Ryan Gage.
The best looking episode of Red Dwarf ever made puts Barrie, Charles and John-Jules through the same make-up process as Llewellyn for the first time, and it’s fun to watch each of them do their best Krytens. The script isn’t all there in the end, but gosh, there’s no challenging the production value.
The worst of the season by a country mile, and worse than anything since the Dave era began with Back To Earth. Guest star Johnny Vegas is squandered in a misguided safe space satire set on a ship where criticism is illegal, that has nothing funny or meaningful to say about any of its scattered targets. Rimmer’s “spit on the wrist” joke is arguably the low point of the show’s entire history.
An irresistible set-up finds Red Dwarf’s automated population striking for equal rights and demanding political representation, and the episode knocks it out of the park. This is Dwarf at its best, confined to the ship and getting big laughs out of the characters and their petty, politicised disputes. Oh, and they dust off Talkie Toaster for good measure.
A medical emergency on Lister’s birthday brings a reckoning with ruthless outer-space capitalism, with a conceit that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Black Mirror. That same conceit also creates some marvellous physical comedy and a strong showcase for Charles and guest star Helen George.
A funny, fan-pleasing finale that nestles itself comfortably in the show’s 30-year history, but gets some surreal laughs in the process. As Rimmer skips through dimensions, bumping into Holly (Norman Lovett) again and encountering the terrors of Rat World, the season ends by reaffirming core relationships and maintaining Arn’s time-honoured inability to get out of his own way.
Red Dwarf Season 12 is available on UK TV Play, or for those looking to download or own the whole box set, on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.