In the episode “Me2” (Bye, 1988) of the classic British science-fiction comedy show Red Dwarf (1988 to 2020), it is revealed the Arnold Rimmer’s (Chris Barrie) last words were “Gazpacho soup!” and that he made a point to celebrate November 25th as “Gazpacho Soup Day” after a particularly traumatizing visit to the Captain’s Table. Accordingly, this seems like the perfect date to celebrate the long-running cult phenomenon.
Air Date: 9 April 2020
Original Network: Dave
Stars: Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Norman Lovett, Lucy Pearman, Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett, and Ray Fearon
Red Dwarf was the brainchild of creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who originally produced a similar show, Dave Hollins: Space Cadet for BBC Radio 4 in 1984. Influenced by sci-fi classics such as Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Adams, 1978; Bell, 1981), the duo’s concept of a comedy set in space featuring relatively ordinary characters in an extraordinary setting was initially a hard sell but quickly became a cult hit among audiences. The show remained consistently popular and the duo became experimenting with more outlandish sci-fi concepts up until the seventh season, when the two parted ways, before disappearing from broadcast altogether following the eighth season.
In 2008, the show was revived in a three-episode special that aired on Dave, which led to the commission of three more seasons that returned the four principal cast members, now understandably much older and far more jaded. After years of rumours, a feature-length instalment of the series finally saw the light of day in 2020 ahead of a comprehensive retrospective on the popular series. As a life-time fan of the show who had noticed an unmistakable dip in quality since the eighth season, I wasn’t too surprised to find that Red Dwarf: The Promised Land was met with mixed reviews as I remember being mostly unimpressed with it at the time of airing but let’s take another look back and see if it holds up on a repeat viewing.
While exploring Red Dwarf’s cargo bay, Dave Lister (Charles) is able to finally reboot Holly (Lovett), the ship’s computer, who promptly forces the crew to flee for their lives. In the process, Arnold Rimmer (Barrie) discovers technology to upgrade his hologramatic form and the crew stumble upon remnants of the Cat’s (Jules) race of felis sapiens, who worship Lister as God and are being relentlessly hounded by the ruthless Rodon (Fearon).
The Promised Land finally delivers on a concept the Red Dwarf creators had been kicking about years ago by returning to a long-forgotten plot point of the series revolving around the felis sapiens race; in all the length of the series history and the many bizarre plots and characters Red Dwarf has employed, the show never delved into this aspect beyond the first series despite the fact that it would have been pretty easy to have the cat race be recurring antagonists or characters. Instead, all we really know about felis sapiens comes from the Cat (who has little to no interest in the religious teachings of his race and is more obsessed with himself and fashion), an elderly priest (Noel Coleman), and the rough translation of the Cat Bible in the episode “Waiting For God” (Bye, 1988). It goes without saying that the focus of Red Dwarf has shifted quite drastically from the identity crisis Lister suffered in that episode, and which was peppered throughout the first series, and his status as the Cat’s God and saviour of his race was downplayed to the point of nonexistence in favour of him being a slobby, reluctant hero and developing a far more equal friendship with the Cat.
The Promised Land, though, finally comes full circle back to these long-forgotten threads and shows that the felis sapiens race (or, at least, part of it) roams the universe on a fleet of warships under the command of Rodon. Rodon is unimpressed that three of his crew, Brother Sol (Bennett), Sister Luna (Dhillon), and Sister Peanut (Pearman), refuse to submit to his rule and, instead, prefer to embrace the antiquated teachings of “Cloister”. They dress like Lister (at least, they dress like he did in the first two seasons) and believe wholeheartedly in the teachings of the Cat Bible; when they meet Lister, they bombard him with the big questions of life (male genitals, the agony of child birth, why people smell. You know, the usual) and are resolute in their belief that Lister is capable of working miracles since Peanut wondrously regains the ability to speak upon meeting her idol.
Lister, meanwhile, has taken to hording junk, eating and drinking more than usual, and seems more distracted and slobby than normal, to the concern of Kryten (Llewellyn), who believes that Lister is having something of a mid-life crisis due to the pressure of being the last man alive. Eager for Lister to procreate and thereby ensure the survival of his species and give him something to focus on, Kryten suggests that the Cat undergoes a sex-change operation, much to their horror. This discussion is interrupted when Rimmer orders Kryten to investigated an unidentified object that appears to be on a collision course with the ship; when the object turns out to be the cats’ ship in need of aid, Rimmer decides that they’re all too old and too past it to go gallivanting off on some rescue mission and so has Kryten erase his memory of the entire event. This exchange goes on for some time before Lister and the Cat reveal that they found Holly’s back-up disk. However, upon rebooting Holly, they find that he’s returned to his factory settings and no longer recognises or remembers the crew or their many misadventures; believing them to be a group of stowaways and criminals, Holly decides to decommission Red Dwarf and drives the crew from the ship.
Fleeing in Starbug, the crew plan to catch-up to the ship Rimmer picked up earlier, the Iron Star, and stumble upon advanced hologram technology; Rimmer, excited at the prospect of his form being vastly upgraded, decides to overrule Kryten’s concerns and (after cycling through his various costumes from previous series’) is granted a new “diamond-light” form and transformed into a veritable superhero. Sporting a glistening new uniform, Rimmer is now able to manipulate the density of objects around him, phasing through matter while still retaining his hard-light invulnerability, and even transforming into pure light energy at will…for about two minutes as his Light Bee is drained by the resulting energy surge.
While exploring the Iron Star, the crew stumble upon the cat escapees, who are immediately in awe at meeting their idol; as in “Waiting For God”, Lister is reluctant and uncomfortable at being worshipped as a God and insists that he’s simple a normal, unremarkable man. While he wants to tell them the truth, as he did with the Cat, Kryten and Rimmer discourage him from destroying their faith and he begrudgingly decides to play along while also vowing to protect them from Rodon’s pursuit.
Rodon is unimpressed to find that their God is actually real as is concerned only with the rebels and the Anubis Stone they possess; he’s easily able to acquire the stone thanks, largely, to Lister not actually being the all-powerful deity the clerics believe him to be and orders his lackeys to throw them all out of an airlock as a message to those that would defy his authority. Thanks to Rodon’s impatience to destroy the Iron Star, the crew are able to elude their captors and make a harrowing escape in Starbug, though Lister impulsively jettisons the ship’s engines when they catch fire, sending them into an uncontrollable death dive to a desert moon. Thankfully, the hitherto-unknown Starbug owner’s manual reveals that the ship possesses emergency parachutes (as well as being a hybrid and having a hovercraft mode) and, while the Cat fashioned himself a jacket and mittens out of one, the back-up parachute is deployed, and the crew makes a successful crash-landing.
Marooned on the moon with no food, water, fuel, or hope of escape, the crew are driven into a sandstorm when Rodon attacks and Lister begins to question the decision to keep the truth from the cats in their midst. Similar to when he worked to help Kryten break his programming, he is uncomfortable with the cats being so dependant upon him rather than thinking and acting for themselves and ultimately decides to break the truth of to them. When Kryten is unable to speak a bad word against Lister, Cat volunteers to do the deed but is quickly (and amusingly) reminded of everything Lister has done for him and briefly joins them in their worship of Lister, so Rimmer steps up to the task. Unfortunately, while he relishes the opportunity to tell them the awful truth about Lister, he is interrupted by a crashed piece of debris that may hold the key to their escape; in order to catch up to the piece of debris, Kryten is forced to conserves all available power, reducing Rimmer to low power mode. Thanks to being in mono and greyscale, and Cat’s goading, Rimmer begins to question his relevance and existence as he faces both his impending end and questions his identity. This does, however, give Lister an opportunity to show just how much he’s grown over the years; at one time, it would have been him criticising Rimmer and tearing him down but, instead Lister snaps at Cat for harassing Rimmer and is ultimately able to convince his long-time frenemy that he is a relevant and appreciated member of the crew with a heartfelt analogy comparing Rimmer to moonlight.
After being buried by the sandstorm, and with little options available to them, Rimmer comes up with the crazy idea to have Kryten establish contact with Red Dwarf and convinces Holly to load up his last save file, thus restoring his memories to the full. However, now suffering from three million years’ worth of computer senility, Holly’s only suggestion is to use one of Red Dwarf’s thermonuclear torpedoes to dislodge Starbug, a tactic which succeeds…but also destroys the entire moon in the process! However, Rodon and his fellow ferals managed to beat them back to Red Dwarf and, when he takes Luna hostage, Lister is forced to admit the truth about who he is, much to the disappointment and heartbreak of his devoted followers. Disgusted by these revelations, Rodon is satisfied to order Red Dwarf’s destruction with a time bomb; it’s also randomly revealed that Rodon is the Cat’s older brother and that the cats purposely left him behind for being “uncool”, thus spurring him to devote his life to being fashionably cool.
Facing certain death, Lister performs one last miracle by revealing that the seemingly useless Anubis Stone in fact houses an incredible power source. He then uses this to power Rimmer back up to his diamond-light form, which allows Rimmer to save the ship from destruction by flying the bomb out into space. After a brief fake out where Rimmer appears to die (it’s already been established that his hard-light form is invulnerable to harm so it’s pretty obvious his diamond-light would be equally impenetrable), the crew fly head-first towards Rodon’s ship and Rimmer projects a beam of light into the bridge, turning Rodon’s crew against him and forcing them to crash into a nearby asteroid. Rimmer then reluctantly sacrifices his superpowered form to repower Kryten with the Anubis Stone (though he isn’t shy about rubbing this act in Kryten’s face) and the cats are returned to their people, their faith reaffirmed but now placed in Rimmer after witnessing his heroic actions.
Being a lifelong fan of Red Dwarf, I’m always excited to see the guys back on screen and getting up to all kinds of wacky hijinks and, ever since series eight, I’ve been continuously disappointed. You can really feel the absence of Rob Grant; ever since he left, the show hasn’t been the same and slowly, but surely, fell back on recycling the same old jokes and situations whilst sweeping all of the character progression under the rug. Thus, by the time the series came back on Dave, the Cat was right back to being a shallow, self-obsessed egomaniac rather than an independent and strong-willed character; Lister went right back to being a slobby layabout; Kryten regressed into a neurotic wreck; and Rimmer acted more like his season one incarnation than the developed and fleshed out character he was by season seven. To make matters worse, what little interest in continuity the show had was completely thrown out of the window, with sets, models, and outfits continuously changing with each of Dave’s productions and the show constantly dodging the unresolved cliffhanger of season eight in favour of random wacky shenanigans in space.
Sadly, Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is no different in this regard; the only character who appears to have grown a little bit is Lister, who is now much more sympathetic and understanding to Rimmer and far more pragmatic and capable in tight situations thanks to his years of experience in dire scenarios. Yet this is never fully capitalised on and is massively downplayed in favour of random gags like Kryten’s sex change suggestion and laborious exposition and call-backs to previous episodes. Even the chemistry between the returning cast members is notably awkward; there’s a number of obvious pauses after they deliver lines where they wait for the laugh track or for the next line, which really interrupts the flow of their conversations and the few moments of genuine humour in the feature.
The Promised Land puts a lot of its eggs in one basket, that being the depicting of the cat race. Accordingly, Rodon’s fleet resembles a cat’s face, the door to his private chambers is a cat flap, he and his minions all have exaggerate cat mannerisms similar to the Cat in the first series, and they’re all easily distracted by moving lights. Unfortunately, this all quickly outlives its charm; it’s one thing for one character, the Cat, to act this way but even he dropped the more annoying aspects of his personality by the second series and seeing a whole bunch of new characters take on the worst aspects of his character gets old very quickly. Equally, I found the call-backs to previous episodes and events more aggravating than anything else; Lister sings the Om Song, the crew run through a very truncated version of their past misadventures when bringing Holly up to speed, and Cat even drops a mention of the backwards world at one point and all this does is make me wish I were watching one of the earlier, far superior episodes of the show.
It’s not all bad, to be fair. There are a couple of funny gags, such as Holly’s back-up disc being a gigantic floppy disc, Rimmer’s deep and overly dramatic voice when in his diamond-light form, Rimmer racing around with extension cords to prolong his lifespan, and Cat joining in with the cats’ “Listey-Listey” song. There’s also a definite sense that the crew are older and more world-weary (maybe “space-weary” is a better word) now: Kryten’s suit (which looks the worst and fakest it’s ever been) is all cracked and patched up; Lister’s rant about not finding the Cat attractive alludes to the possibility of him being impotent; and Rimmer asserts that they’re all too long in the tooth for any elaborate hijinks. Yet, once they are in the heat of their latest misadventure, the crew are still able to get by on the last few remnants of that old spark they had in season six, surviving through a combination of dumb luck, the stupidity of their enemies, and a modicum of competency on their part.
Unfortunately, though, it’s just not enough to really capture the old magic of when Red Dwarf was at its peak. I was really excited when Red Dwarf first came back on Dave and was hoping for one last event to tie up all the loose ends and bring the story to a close. Instead, it feels as though Dave put the show on life support and has been dragging it out ever since. I would have much preferred to see maybe three one-hour specials that brought the story full circle, maybe even bringing the crew back to Earth or using time travel shenanigans to bring their story to a close. Instead, we keep milking the same gags and treading the same ground in a series of self-contained, meaningless episodes that, rather than celebrating the long-running cult show, merely serve as a bleak reminder of how great it used to be.
What did you think to Red Dwarf: The Promised Land? Did the jokes and gags work for you? What did you think to the inclusion of the cat race and Rimmer’s new diamond-light form? Are you a fan of the Dave era of Red Dwarf? Do you agree that it lost a lot of its magic after Rob Grant left or have you enjoyed the show regardless of the obvious dip in writing quality? Which character, season, and ship is your favourite and why? Would you like to see another feature-length special, maybe one that finally closes the book on the Red Dwarf story, or do you think it’s best to leave it be for now? How are you celebrating Gazpacho Soup Day today? No matter what you think, feel free to leave a comment about Red Dwarf: The Promised Land, or Red Dwarf in general, down in the comments.