The words “new episodes of Red Dwarf” remain as much of a delightful surprise as ever this October, as the ancient (by modern TV standards) sci-fi sitcom returns once more for a 12th season. After so many years and several ups and downs, you’d be forgiven for writing the show off entirely before tuning in, but Dave’s new incarnation of Dwarf has really hit its stride in recent years, as it found the balance between its back-to-basics approach and the anarchic imagination of the show’s original peak.
Red Dwarf XII consists of six episodes essentially taken from the same batch of episodes that gave us the last season, and, in that respect, this is closer to classic Red Dwarf on the show’s very wide spectrum. There are flaws, of course, that come with age: the cast have gotten a little older and wrinklier, and some of the more familiar jokes lack the fresh comic timing of their heyday, but it’s still funny – and, more importantly, still surprising.
The opening two episodes are a reassuring reminder that Doug Naylor’s brain hasn’t run out of ideas. The first chapter is a wonderfully ambitious piece of nonsense, which combines guitars, Hitler, scientists and philosophical debates about morality – while still finding time to laugh at Lister’s (Craig Charles) facial expressions. We open with a typical Dwarf scenario, as Lister and Rimmer (Chris Barrie) try to teach Cat (Danny John-Jules) how to play poker – and just seeing Cat’s excitement at being given a hand of cards is enough to make you grin.
Cat, more than ever, has blossomed into the star of the show, his enthusiasm and total self-absorption played with perfect deadpan (read: a non-stop, dazzling smile) by John-Jules. His selfish streak becomes wonderfully trivial, yet somehow charmingly important, when put into the context of a research station where evil has been cured – an experiment that has apparently cured such egomaniacs as (according to their cryogenic pods) Hitler and Vlad the Impaler (plus, unsuccessfully, Rupert Murdoch). The station was set up in response to the war to end all wars, a war started by United America, which believed in stopping war so much that they were prepared to go to war for it.
Naylor’s ear for such inherently illogical human behaviour has lost none of its acute observation, and opens up a window for some serious social commentary – but that’s balanced to just the right degree with the spectacle of Lister and guest star Ryan Gage jamming out on their guitars, a sequence that could have seemed tone-deaf in 2017 but is so harmlessly innocent it could never offend.
Robert Llewelyn’s Kryten, meanwhile, takes centre stage in Episode 2, as the group become arrested by the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front. As they find out exactly what it’s like to be an android, we spend our time in support groups for robots who have been treated like slaves. It’s another cute blend of high-concept script and character-based comedy – not bad going for a show that was first made back in the days of VHS. Every time it skips a gag or a laugh doesn’t land, it’s that ability to come up with fresh, unexpected twists that keeps Red Dwarf’s ageing engine (we learn that Starbug, in one brilliant visual joke, can only turn left) running. Throw in an impressive amount of body horror and physical effects and you have a show that is almost 30 years old, but still feels entertainingly young. The boys from the Dwarf are back – and they’re still going strong.
Red Dwarf XII premieres on Dave on 12th October, with new episodes released every Thursday. Can’t wait until then? You can watch Episode 1 online now on UKTV Play.