It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere: that was the feeling I had, alone in lockdown, during my government-enforced stroll in the fresh air, wondering what future awaits us in a few weeks’, as opposed to – say – three million years’, time. Thirty years prior, I had been trying not to fail my driving test, just like Kryten 2X4B-523P, the forever-worrying nervous robot had been on board the mining ship Red Dwarf, as it hurtled through space with no particular place to go, but hopefully not into too much smeg. But now, just like me, Kryten and the rest of the Boys from The Dwarf have found themselves in a whole new world, with the arrival of feature length episode The Promised Land.
Series co-creator Doug Naylor has always had his eye on making a Red Dwarf motion picture, and this is episode probably the closest we are going to get. His last go at a one-off special – 2009’s two-part Back To Earth – was more a love letter to Ridley Scott, and not really what Dwarf fans wanted… so is The Promised Land worth the journey or just a stop gap before finally smegging off for good?
In recent years, there has been frequent talk of Red Dwarf finishing. Do the crew finally return to Earth? Maybe Rimmer finds true love, Cat marries himself, or Lister renounces curry… all of these would be a shocking end to a most inventive and loved series. So, considering The Promised Land might be the end, what revelations occur in this special? Quite a few, actually: Lister has become a hoarder of junk, Kryten has become rusty, Rimmer has an existential crisis, and Cat …. is Cat. Did you really think he’d change? Really?
Cat’s lack of growth is actually of importance here, because this episode focusses on one of the few unmined story threads: Lister’s best mate being his pet cat’s too-many-greats-to-count grandson. Back in the first series, in 1988, we were told the remaining Cat race were killed off in a great war about the colour of hats at a fastfood store, and since then the idea hasn’t really had narrative consequences. But now, at last, without a great detail of explanation, we are introduced to Rodan, the new leader of a feral cat race hunting out all who don’t follow him.
The story starts with two Cat creatures escaping execution and looking for salvation in their great Papadum, Cloister – aka Lister – who currently is knee-deep in ‘great finds’, like pineapple-shaped mugs and boy band badges. Keeping the show’s original premise – the last human alive being a slob, trapped with his worst mate, and a creature who evolved from his Cat, on a massive spaceship going nowhere – fresh is tricky, and going back to its roots, with the return of the Cat race, really helps – as does the reinstallation of Red Dwarf’s supercomputer Holly (Norman Lovett), who is reinstated in a nice sight gag about old tech.
Unfortunately, Holly is not the lovable loon that made the early shows so rich. Instead, he has reverted to his original, much more sensible and strict personality from before the accident that killed the crew and drove him senile millions of years ago. Lister and co are quickly kicked off the Crimson Short One – and what follows is a selection of fun set pieces, action sequences and nods to the past, and some fresh material that the seasoned actors relish in.
Rimmer gets to indulge being a hologram hero, complete with complimentary costume and whizzing around as a glowing dot, but as always for him, the luck doesn’t last, leading to him awkwardy requiring needing to be plugging in with couple of short extension leads. This brief glimpse of being an ‘Ace’ hero followed by a biting remark by Cat sends him into low feelings, both literally and figuratively, as he is reduced to a fuzzy sounding and monochrome image. Whilst Lister has always been the heart of the show, a lot of pathos has surrounded old Arnie J, even in the early seasons, where he was the ultimate smeg head.
Meanwhile, Cat and Kryten are also given a number of fun moments, but for a special that purports to be about Cat’s legacy and his lost family of sorts, it might have been better to give Danny John Jules – though excellent here – more to do.
Although not every line is a classic, the later half of this 90 minute special does pause for some heartfelt moments. Whilst this special does not have the shine of my own golden age of the show – Series I to VI – it’s the scenes of Lister and Rimmer’s awkward relationship that remind you why you stick with the show even through the smeggy bits. If this turns out to be the final Red Dwarf adventure, it’s a good one to go out on. It’s not “Better Than Life”, but it certainly distracts from what is happening right now, more than three million years before.
Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is currently availabe to watch online on UKTV Play