UK TV review: Red Dwarf: The Promised Land
Mark Harrison | On 13, Apr 2020
This review contains only mild spoilers for The Promised Land, but if you don’t want to know anything at all, proceed with caution.
The idea of making a Red Dwarf movie dates back more than 20 years, with co-creator and showrunner Doug Naylor trying to take the series to the big screen for much of the decade-long hiatus between its BBC and Dave incarnations. Now, a couple of years on from Season XII, a lavish feature-length Dwarf has finally arrived, with the slightly on-the-nose title of The Promised Land.
Most of the story ideas for the unproduced film were ultimately directed into 2012’s Season X finale The Beginning, but this 90-minute TV movie delivers the same step-up in scale and accessibility from the previous seasons that a cinematic outing would require. Handily, it’s also one of the funniest outings since the show’s revival in 2009.
The Promised Land sees the boys from the Dwarf (Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, and Robert Llewellyn) encounter warring felis sapiens, the race that evolved from Lister’s pregnant pet cat and smegged off into deep space. After rebooting ship computer Holly (Norman Lovett) from an old backup disc, the crew are pursued across space by Rodon (Ray Fearon), the self-styled god of cats, in a bid to destroy the space-bum who inadvertently created his people.
The late-1990s drive for Red Dwarf to mimic the production values and storytelling of big US sci-fi shows at the time was a direct precursor to developing the movie. Given how the show’s eventual, Blade Runner-spoofing return to TV was with the ambitious but disappointing Back To Earth miniseries, those of us who have enjoyed Seasons X through XII could understandably have been trepidatious about the feature-length version finally coming to fruition.
Thankfully, writer-director Doug Naylor builds upon the success of the more recent back-to-basics sitcom runs and remembers that the sci-fi concepts are never as entertaining as the characters’ reactions to them. This 13th instalment of the long-running series feels more character-driven as a result, dispensing with loftier ideas for something that feels closer to the brilliant Galaxy Quest in both tone and structure.
You can always rely on the cast to run with whatever material they’ve been given, but the ambitious character work here feels like a reward for them too. For instance, when hitherto unquestioned aspects of Rimmer’s hologrammatic existence arise, the film leans on sight gags rather than exposition, allowing Barrie’s terrific performance to carry the story instead without Kryten talking all over it.
As a long-time fan, it’s gratifying to see that economy of storytelling return to a show that has often lapsed into reams of comic technobabble and sub-Blackadder similes. Naylor largely casts off these comic crutches here and the dividends are obvious for both the pacing and the comedy. It does feel overlong, but it’s also jam-packed with big laughs.
It is slightly odd that a story about Cat’s people doesn’t give John-Jules more to do, but the extended running time does at least give each of the returning cast a few standout moments. It’s particularly lovely to see Lovett back and enjoying himself again after a brief cameo in the previous season finale. Among the guest cast, Fearon merrily spoofs fabulous Star Trek villains like Khan, while Tom Bennett, Mandeep Dhillon and Lucy Pearman round out the funnier feline cast.
Although the special is pretty satisfying in the end, there are a couple of the usual problems too. One of the big story threads is never relevant beyond its initial setup, one of the big pay-offs seems to come out of nowhere, and there are still a couple of cringe-inducing gags dotted through Naylor’s script. But in truth, these all pale in comparison to the big gags and set-pieces that do land, including some good old-fashioned Starbug cockpit scenes and an absolute showstopper of an exchange between Rimmer and Lister, which recovers some of the pathos (not to be mistaken for the other Musketeer) of classic episodes such as Thanks For The Memory and Marooned.
Even if The Promised Land doesn’t quite prove Red Dwarf can fill a 90-minute slot – as an anniversary special, it’s lovely, but does it need to be longer than say, Doctor Who’s The Day Of The Doctor? – it brings a funnier and defter touch to its story than anything we’ve seen from the 21st-century version of the show. It’s unabashedly fan-pleasing, but it’s seldom sentimental or self-indulgent with it. There are some other modern misgivings to be had, but the show’s first feature-length outing lives up to its promise.
Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is available on UKTV Play.