The boys from the Dwarf are back!
It has been three years sine the last series of the British science-fiction sitcom Red Dwarf and now the crew of the the titular Jupiter Corporation Mining Vessel have returned in a new ninety-minute made-for-TV movie that stretches the boundaries of the show’s typical sitcom structure, but not enough to break free from them.
Dave Lister (Craig Charles) has been aboard the mining vessel Red Dwarf for a very long time. First as a crew member and then trapped in stasis for 3 million years while a radiation leak that killed the rest of the crew dissipated to a point where he could safely emerge. Quite possibly the last human in the universe, Lister roams space with his only companions being Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), a computer-simulated hologram of Lister’s next most senior officer, Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), a somewhat neurotic service mechanoid and Cat (Danny John-Jules), a human-appearing Felis Sapiens, i.e., the evolutionary descendant of the cat that Lister had smuggled aboard the ship pre-stasis. Although they had worshiped the in-stasis Lister as a god, the rest of Cat’s people had fled Red Dwarf several years before he was released out of his suspended animation.
In the course of their travels, Lister and the crew encounter three cat people clerics who are fleeing the tyrannical rule of Rodon (Ray Fearon) who has taken control of the cat people fleet. Not very enthusiastic about being mistaken for a god, Lister has to find a way to tell this trio of followers the truth while protecting them from Rodan’s murderous intentions towards them.
The special’s basic plot has its roots all the way back in some plot points from the show’s earliest season that outlined the history of Felis Sapiens and their exodus from Red Dwarf before Lister’s emergence from his three million years in status. Amazingly in the show’s twenty-two year history this had never really been touched on outside of that one 1988 episode, so there is certainly fertile ground for series co-creator Doug Naylor’s screenplay to explore. And of course with the inclusion of more Cat People we get more comedic moments playing off of how humans interact with cats. The three cat clerics escape involving distracting their guards with a laser pointer is a great visual gag that also sets up a moment that comes later in the film as well.
But for all that fertile new ground available, there is a much that feels familiar. Once again, the crew spend some time exploring a derelict Earth space craft. Again we see Rimmer getting an upgrade to his hologram technology. Again we see the crew crash a Starbug shuttle onto a planet/moon with a hostile environment and have to figure out a way to survive. It feels as if Naylor is just reaching into his bag of storytelling tricks and pulling out a few things to pad the plot or get himself out of a storytelling corner. He’s reclining when he should be leaning forward into the possibilities that the extended runtime of the movie could afford him.
(Another moment at the beginning of the The Promised Land calls back to the show’s initial series where much of the focus was on Lister trying to alleviate the boredom of his situation trapped in deep space. Since the special was shot back in late 2019 there was no way for all involved to know it, but the scene does contain a bit more resonance in this coronavirus-fueled era of staying at home and social distancing.)
But the familiarity isn’t necessarily entirely a bad thing. For fans, the Red Dwarf crew are pretty much old friends by now, so The Promised Land perhaps functions best as a hangout movie. It is a comfort movie in what has been an uncomfortable time. And while The Promised Land really isn’t pushing the franchise forward in any big way, it is nice to see some friends we haven’t seen in a while.