UK TV box set review: Red Dwarf Season XI
Mark Harrison | On 20, Nov 2016Reading time: 4 mins
Red Dwarf’s eleventh season finds Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Cat (Danny John-Jules), and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) older, but not necessarily wiser, as they tool around time and space for another six episodes, coming up against petty simulants (Kevin Eldon) in a technology-strapped America, an insane robot doctor who harvests organs and the consciousness of the universe itself, among other mad sci-fi creations.
Even the most hardcore fans would have to admit that the show’s revival by UKTV’s Dave has been a mixed bag so far. 2009’s shortened ninth season, Back To Earth, broke with the series format and went all trendy and meta, but 2012’s Season X brought Dwarf back to basics, in front of a studio audience, to greater acclaim. Season XI is made up of six of the 12 episodes filmed earlier this year (the other six are due in 2017) and there’s a renewed confidence that really benefits the series. Co-creator Doug Naylor has the same budget constraints and the same big ideas that have occasionally clashed in the past, but it all gels much better here. The cast may be older, but this run of episodes could easily have been made 20 years ago, while still benefiting from advances in special effects and the wisdom and experience of previous runs.
The first episode, Twentica, gets the season off to a solid start, pitting the Dwarfers against Kevin Eldon’s petty simulant in a parallel timeline where America never evolved beyond the 1920s. The irresistible gag of flappers doing technobabble in a scientific speakeasy is terrific, and every episode has at least one of these set piece jokes that pays off time and again. Episode 4, Officer Rimmer, is the most densely packed with such gags – the spectacle of a misprinted clone, whose face is blurred onto the top of his head like a wonky document, would be enough, but the visually inventive sequences just keep coming as the plot develops. Chris Barrie shines in this one too, as Rimmer’s egotistical and self-destructive tendencies are given a thoroughly hilarious workout. It’s by far the best episode of the season, precisely because it represents all of the best aspects of XI.
There are still a couple of missteps. Episode 2, Samsara, is comfortably the weakest of this run and looks partly like a casualty of how well the budget has been spread around elsewhere. Naylor takes an interesting concept and packages it in a predictable bottle episode, bouncing between flashbacks featuring some of the most awkward acting you’ve seen in modern television and repetitive skits with the Dwarfers. It recalls Season VII’s Duct Soup in its setup, but lacks that episode’s character development.
Its saving grace, and the highlight of most of the others, is Danny John-Jules, who is absolutely on fire as the Cat. It’s not only that he’s aged better than the rest of the cast: Naylor uses the character more throughout the season and John-Jules ups his game accordingly, coming to a head in Episode 6, Can Of Worms, which addresses Cat’s sex life in hilarious and imaginative detail, while completing a loose trilogy of episodes that goes all the way back to Season III.
For the most part, Red Dwarf gets to do all of that within its means, but funnily enough, it’s not so much the budget as the scheduling that hampers this run. Too often, episodes run out of time before they run out of story and a couple of endings are unforgivably abrupt. The gorgeous model shots of spaceships are present and correct, still accompanied by Howard Goodall’s classic incidental music, but when even the otherwise superb Officer Rimmer cuts to the credits in mid-sentence, then you have to admit that these establishing shots must throw off the pacing elsewhere.
That said, Season XI is Red Dwarf’s most consistent since before Rob Grant departed. The show’s return to form has been hard-earned, but Dave’s revival finally hits its stride here and adds one or two all-time greats – Officer Rimmer and Can Of Worms – to the long-lived sci-fi sitcom’s canon in the process. It’s almost 30 years since the very first episode and, on the strength of the laughs and big ideas on display here, Red Dwarf XII can’t come fast enough.
Red Dwarf Season XI is available now as a full box set on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.