Red Dwarf: “The Promised Land” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Red Dwarf has had a rollercoaster. From mismatched misfits bantering in deep space isolation to high concept irreverent slapstick, poking fun at sci-fi concepts as much as considering (or equally mocking) philosophical, theoretical, religious and historical musings- always with heart- every obstacle thrown has been overcome. Now aged 32, in surprisingly rude health, no mere budgetary or scheduling concern has ever kept the cast, crew and fanbase’s commitment and passion down. This feature-length 90-minute special, The Promised Land, is mostly a comforting, prime Dwarf blend- as the gang finally come across the race of Felis-sapiens that spawned 3 million years ago, from Lister’s pet cat Frankenstein while he was in stasis- and are tasked with the safety of a sect of clerics, on the run from their domineering tyrant of a leader, Rodon.
The Promised Land is truer to the idea of an episode planned, but ultimately too expensive for Series VII than the originally planned plot for the feature-length film, long ago. This feels like aspirational Dwarf though, in looks and stakes- and while occasionally an uneven transformation, it functions supervisory as a (rather late) stepping-on point as well as a crowd-pleaser for hardcore fans- early segments lay out the show’s premise, and Holly (hello again, Norman Lovett and that cheeky smile!) is very literally rebooted- with dial-up tone. His eventual true return is celebratory, with typically deadpan dialogue.
The budget is befitting- yet impressively, restraint is exercised. There are flashy set-pieces, that mix sweeping VFX with traditional practical work, however, they primarily service character and scenario. Gorgeous shots of wide planetary vistas, to advanced-tech corridors (the production design providing each location distinct looks, tones and a plethora of detail) expand the show’s universe. The score is duly dramatic, flitting from orchestral choiring to droning Hollywood trademarks (special props to that chortle-worthy meow missile SFX!) Even with the cat’s absurdity- with their feline Star Destroyers (among plenty Star Wars pastiches…), there’s a sense of an established world- residents cramped, living in fear. It’s stewed nicely with customarily wobbly sets- even providing an excellent oversized floppy disk gag in line with that technology.
The use of the actual length extension is mixed. Running and visual gags are consistently funny- even if the cat flap- though ingenious to have Rodon’s (Ray Fearon) subordinates crawl to him- and silly laser pointer moments are obvious gimmes. However, early gags overstay their welcome. The sex change bit might show how ludicrously stir-crazy this masculinity pot is becoming, but it drags. The idea that a cleric’s belief in Lister gifts her speech is largely avoided- and may play poorly with deaf/mute viewers. Top gear narrative thrust takes time- plot threads jostle for attention in the zany, packed script. After a spiteful Holly kicks the crew- who outwit *themselves*- off the ship, it sparkles, when streamlined and plots converge in later acts. Jokes and action land in tandem regularly during the classically desperate situations- flying with that witty, delightful chemistry, including a line about insurance that’s surely a nod to a recent ad campaign…
The Promised Land is a swashbuckling, space-faring adventure, with fan-service aplenty (even name-dropping *that* Backwards scene). The filmmaking is more polished and creative, though the direction and editing can be flat, functional or odd- the fork fight in particular. Considering this is still a Dave show though, they’re outweighed by far more genuinely thrilling scenes- the desert moon escape whizzes by. The additional time allows deeper character development, and explorative debates into faith, religion, and identity. The show has oft struggled to fit its enthusiasm into television comedy’s required format- so concepts or dramatic beats are rushed, or not fully traversed. Within that, The Promised Land feels elevated by the extension, and there’s glee in ideas coming to life, full circle- no less the main plot, one of the very base, forgotten story elements of the whole series. Explored in-depth long after Series I’s Waiting for God in 1988, Lister wrestles again with his discomforting religious worship identity- caught between his honest truthful duty and this “God lark”, while not wanting to break the faith of his devotees- feeling the pressure of expediency in their time of expectant need.
There’s an irony that even though the dimwitted preening clerics (who are mostly functional characters- though their musical chanting of Lister is amusing, as are some thoughtfully placed cat traits) are misguided in following Dave, he does prove rather worth it- as the reluctant hero, with acts of selfless kindness. His climactic reveal is jubilant, consequences years in the making. Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn can do the bouncing barbs easily, so it’s engrossing to watch when their characters break beyond archetypes. They’re older, battered, a bit…catty…and The Promised Land allows them to analyse their places in the posse, and themselves.
Lister’s claiming junk (rather like a cat…) and reaching new slobbiness heights, in his ongoing wrestle with his monomyth status as the last human. The whole crew appears to have reached self-destructive wisdom, an existential acumen. Rimmer is willingly embracing his advanced age’s extra-git ability (some feels like meta-commentary). Kryten is emotionally open (a proper swear!) as he reflects on thinking for himself, his “greatest lesson”, while still being easily led- and a physical comedy titan (his creaking head nod is farcical). Cat finally considers his faith in divinity, and what he believes in other than himself, being- hilariously- converted. Cat’s vanity nearly kills the crew- and it’s habitually self-centered (cruel?) how he sets off Rimmer’s dramatic orbit- but the humour is part of his personality. Cat appreciably again shows his evolution beyond true selfishness- past his disdain for Arnold, he does care about his friends, deep down.
It’s strangely charming that Cat is most motivated, vowing to never be uncool- a mirror image to Arnold, who blamed his parents as an excuse for never achieving. Cat propelled himself into coolness, both using their trauma- Cat was just too suave to discuss. In the cat religion, it’s a sin to be cool (this show…), so he was a heretic- just like our guest crew- to spite those who left him, not just accepting his circumstances and forcing himself to be better. So, he’s even more like Arnold- only due to cultural differences, it worked out better for Cat. There’s definite maturity, even if he’ll always be narcissistic. He has a chance to rejoin his people- and chooses the Dwarf. No grandiose speeches, his actions speak. There are unexplored opportunities perhaps- how did he feel about being reunited with fellow felines? Some disdainful or wary reaction maybe, to give resonance to the climactic abandonment revelation, rather than Cat suddenly being Rodon’s brother (the age differences are even explained). He doesn’t try to impress a female cleric either!
Rimmer finds himself questioning his own AI nature, existence and reasoning for being- does he think, or are his thoughts determined? It’s conventional free will debating and recontextualises some old behavior (including never questioning the drive plate order while living- maybe never having thought for himself) as Arnold finds actuality, clarity as a simulation. The contrast between his new “diamond light” and low-power modes to match moods- representing isolation, then togetherness- is a wonderful touch. His cable battles as a metaphor for his persistent importance struggles are a hoot. It’s Rimmer- this leopard can’t change all his spots- but that such a smarmy, self-serving man debated shutting down, offering to sacrifice himself, is hugely notable temperament- putting the needs of others first (even if he desired to keep the powers and needed persuading!) It’s the right choice to elevate his arc with a sizeable, important, effect. There’s usual Arnold abound anyway, from the golden too-clever distress call evasion to his final smug coda.
Our opposing, but symbiotic, yin and yang relationship in the soul of Dwarf reliably provides fascinating drama- Lister and Rimmer. Lister’s “moonlight” analogy- a new acceptance found, all these years later- is emotionally sincere, speaking volumes to the show’s ethos. It’s affectingly heartfelt without being mawkish- even if Lister is unable to tell Rimmer he likes him, incapable of saying he cares in words, despite having the closest connection. Lister defends Rimmer, making him feel better. Intriguingly also, that Rimmer outright claims he was returned as a “mentor” for Dave- given he’s the incarnation of everything Lister grated in opposition to.
The Promised Land exceeds when examining what it means to be on this ship of fools, a Boy from the Dwarf- there’s a vulnerability, growing concern, and kind-hearted need. Rimmer- beneath all that pretention- has self-revulsion, recognises he’s foilable, seeks value and can be capable of super-heroic, sacrificial acts (even if he can cling to the moment…) Lister might be a nobody, but he’s seriously quite brave, reasserting his agency again. Kryten can be ambivalently dopey, yet he’s loyal. Cat, even with all that uncharitable bravado, understands where his true home is. Sure, the sitcom playbook might demand occasional character resets, but this feels like authentic growth- a humbling outing.
Touching philosophical theming runs this story. Believing in what matters to you, family, and self-determination. There might be no “real” promised land, your God may be a chicken soup repairman- your existence is other people, the caring relationships you build, on the journeys that change you. It’s in your heart, whether you believe in miracles or flukes, coincidence, and science- no matter who you are. Even the charismatic Rodon (shame he’s offed rather suddenly, even while climactically playing with the “ingenious escape” trope) rejects the idea of an all-controlling deity, claiming that such ideas only bring suffering. Unlike Rodon, our heroes discover togetherness, the Dwarf morale, is the spirituality worth finding, not division- there are greater treasures outward. It’s fittingly satirised with the inversion of Rimmer, new almighty.
The Promised Land might have a peculiar place in history when all is said and done. You feel we’re reaching the final curtain now- but playing with format and content like this, is key for the posse’s future- whether more series or specials. Whatever stage of life, bringing a strand full-circle from 32 years past- in such rewarding, joyful fashion, while somehow having a sense of rediscovery (we’ll see if it converts more than the already faithful)- is triumphant. This is ambitious Red Dwarf, blending eras- yet staying true to the offbeat, earnest Dwarfer camaraderie, of the stalwart smegheads tramping through space. The feature-length transition is unsteady, with plotting and humour taking time to settle- but when it does, old magic is abundant in the satisfying storytelling and antics. I could watch this cast smegging forever- and while they, the crew, and fans feel the same- stoke me a clipper, I’ll always come back for more.