I’ve an enormous fondness for Red Dwarf, and have done ever since when aged 13 I spotted a new sci-fi programme listed in the Radio Times and couldn’t wait to see it as the genre wasn’t at it’s healthiest back then, especially on British tv. It turned out to be bloody great too, a smart funny, sometimes daft but nearly always lovable comedy with a selection of characters it was easy to fall in love with.
Over the years the quality has fluctuated more than a little but it’s pretty amazing that thirty two years on the show is capable of some really strong episodes still, like Officer Rimmer and Mechocracy, there’s been the odd weak moment of late but it’s recovered from the horrendous dip that was series 7 and 8 (and the first comeback for the show, Back To Earth) in an admirable manner.
Now after many attempts we’re being given a Red Dwarf (tv) film, and yes, I am ignoring Back To Earth and the Back In The Red three-parter because they were rubbish, and pretending they don’t exist brings me much joy. Advance reviews were quite mixed though, with the Radio Times giving it 3 stars and boy was there a lot of damning with faint praise, so I lowered my expectations and went in hoping it just wouldn’t be a disaster.
It certainly isn’t that, which is a relief, but I came away thinking that maybe two hours of Red Dwarf is an hour too much, at least back to back, and that it’s a show which works better in thirty minute parts. Which is perhaps also a sign that it’s not as funny as engaging as it should or could be, that while fun it’s not inventive or smart enough to keep you gripped over the course of one hundred and twenty minutes.
The first hour did largely keep me pretty hooked at least as the storyline was established during that time, including reminding viewers about the sentient cats who have been bouncing around the universe after having evolved from Lister’s pregnant cat from the very first episode, though we’d never met them before as they’d buggered off before the series began. The opening scenes were the funniest too with a lot of genuinely smart and funny gags as we saw the Cat King upset that certain cats still worshipped Lister and not him, with a giant cat flap and a laser pointer visual gags being the kind of inventive silliness that Red Dwarf often excels in.
Oddly enough the cats were then ignored for the next thirty five minutes (if you include ad breaks), but it wasn’t initially to it’s detriment, there were a number of very funny scenes including Kryten’s suggestion that Cat should have a sex change so that Lister could have sex with him/her and produce a child, and there was also a strong sequence where Rimmer and Kryten got in to a repetitive conversational loop when Rimmer made Kryten delete his memory.
Red Dwarf’s always been an inconsistent beast however so unsurprisingly there was the odd weak or frustrating moment, and the idea that Holly was stored on an enormous 3.5 inch disk was a joke that just didn’t work for me, and neither did a pop culture reference with the Cat rambling on about The Incredible Hulk’s butt crack. And though it was initially lovely to see Norman Lovett back as Holly it also felt a little frustrating as it was an old version of Holly with no relationship with the crew, and one who soon decides they are pointless and that the ship needs to be decommissioned.
That lead to a fair bit of rather bland action as Lister, Rimmer and co had to flee the ship, I know Doug Naylor likes his big cgi set pieces but most of the time they’re the most boring element of the show and I’ve always been fondest of the series when it’s about the main core characters and how they interact. At least once they found a new ship to briefly stay on there was a great sequence as Rimmer was briefly upgraded and we got the chance to see his various looks over the years (with some amusingly rubbish wigs) until he was in Diamond Light form and almost Ace Rimmer-esque, declaring himself as a superhero “The Mighty Light” as he could transform in to a glowing white ball and flew around.
Around this point we finally got to meet the cats who ran away at the beginning of the episode, but surprisingly this led to it suddenly becoming a lot patchier again. There’s a really weak (and slightly embarrassing) song about “Dave Kloister”, and then when the evil cats tracked them down there was more boring action scenes and explosions, and sure it looks expensive and impressive but it’s just not that funny. It’s also the point where I was starting to get Red Dwarf fatigue, and felt that if this had been separated in to two parts it might have worked better.
Thankfully after a lull of ten minutes it began to improve, perhaps unsurprisingly as it centred around Rimmer going in to “Existential Crisis Mode” and contained some proper character exploration, with it also being genuinely sweet for a change as Lister explained to Rimmer why he’s needed, why he’s important to the crew. And even better was the proper return of Holly, and everything being resolved in a fairly brutal manner.
I’ve still very mixed feelings about it as a whole, as a tv movie it had enough going on to entertain the majority of the time but in some ways it feels like a missed opportunity, having reintroduced the cats they’re barely used and during the first hour and forty minutes they probably only got about 15 minutes screen time. Cat hardly having any interaction with the other cats (and not being desperate to have sex with them, which is surely out of character) felt odd too, and I wish more time had been spent examining their lives and what they’d been up to over the years. We have had twelve series centring around Lister, Rimmer and co after all and even just an extra ten minutes with the new characters would have made it feel fresher and more interesting, especially as the most creative gags tended to revolve around cat life.
Still, judging it on what we actually got, it mostly worked. The dialogue and interactions felt mostly sharp and fun, and though there were some callbacks to old running jokes like Rimmer getting a space corp directive wrong, or Holly proving that he’s not quite the sharpest tool in the box, they weren’t over done or over used. The pace of it while a little inconsistent only briefly sagged, and there were enough strong jokes to keep the laughs coming on a mostly regular basis. But despite all of that I do hope that what we get next is a return to an six episode series, as it’s a show which this tv movie suggests definitely works better in shorter bursts.