A new episode of Red Dwarf has been shown for the first time in just under four years, and for the first time ever – whether you like it or not – premiered online. G&T were there, but what follows are my own personal take on the start of a new era for the show.
Those of you who listen regularly to our DwarfCast commentaries will know a common observation is just how quickly some older episodes can fly by, and how much ground they can cover in such little time. It’s one of those things we vaunt about the old series for, and it’s something that is very evident here. Twentica opens unlike any episode we’ve seen in years, as we’re thrown right into a Starbug cockpit scene, the plot immediately kicking off with an encounter with a Simulant ship, and it keeps the pace up throughout the whole episode. Plot, jokes and action scenes alike zip by, rarely outstaying their welcome and creating what is a dense and satisfying episode. Taking the opening scene as an example, there is little in the way of the waffle that X could suffer from, and instead we have immediate peril and jokes born directly out of the situation. It’s impressive that the introduction of yet another flavour of Simulant also comes with an interesting new concept in the form of the Expanoids, with a nice solid sci-fi backdrop to them. The idea of Simulants with exponentially increasing power might not make a huge amount of sense when you think about it (just ask Richard Herring about the crazy logic of exponential growth) it’s a scary concept nonetheless and their appearance in this scene is, for now at least, incredibly menacing. The timey wimey trick with Rimmer’s kidnapping is a neat idea, but also shows they’re a formidable and crafty foe.
To match the pace of the story in this scene, the jokes also come thick as fast, all of which I enjoyed. Aside from the familiar back and forth seen in Starbug cockpit scenes in series VI and VII, Kryten marching up and down to recharge his coils while continuing his normal expositional dialogue was a particular delight. It’s been a long while since Red Dwarf has felt this dense with good jokes, which is presumably a testament to Doug having a sensible amount of time to craft and tweak his scripts. The cast, also, seem at ease and comfortable in their roles here slotting back into the incredibly familiar surroundings and bouncing dialogue back and forth confidentially.
As for the new Starbug cockpit, any worries we might’ve had about the prominent blue lighting are dispelled here as this new set, and the way Doug and Ed (not that one) chose to light and shoot it, is gorgeous. Most importantly of all, it feels instantly like the Starbug we’ve always known and that is certainly no mean feat considering everything other than the chair positions and camera angles have been completely re-thought. It was also pleasing to see the episode throwing an impressive model set piece at us early on, too, and it represents the main effects set piece of the episode. While it’s by no means poor (and so far ahead of X it’s not even funny), I’m afraid things are still a little way off capturing the quality of the BBC Visual Effects Department’s era. The new model is beautiful but its movement and compositing in some shots (especially mid-crash and while travelling through the vortex) left a little to be desired. This is a definitely a case of picking at small details, though, as the crash sequence taken as a whole is very well put together, and allowing the crash to play out for a relatively long time, cutting back and forth between the cockpit and the ship, ends up being very effective.
To be honest, though, I’m more than comfortable with the fact that nothing really has a hope of capturing the consistent quality of the BBC era’s model work, and the episode uses what it has here to great effect and even includes the impressive extra effort of creating a Simulant ship for only a brief appearance at the start of the episode. Comparisons with the perfection of the BBC days aside, it’s so good to see this level of ambition in the effects work still existing in the show, and when it comes to on-set effects (such as the post-crash cockpit scene) things are as good as they’ve ever been. Since we’re talking about production value, the much mentioned outdoor set is comfortably one of the most impressive spaces the show’s ever created. All of it is created in a studio space, but the detail and lighting create a flawless illusion of this being a location, aside from a few telltale moments where the space is obviously being reused from a different angle. Taking advantage of the fact that this was the last episode recorded, the extra space generated by the removal of one of the standing sets also allowed for the creation of The Lady Be Good Club making this the first episode of the Dave era that’s had the opportunity to create a whole two episode specific sets, a far cry from the black curtains and candles The Beginning had to settle for at the same point in Series X’s production.
It’s inside said club where the episode really hits its stride comedically as guest star Lucie Pohl as Harmony feeds us an exhausting quantity of science based gags. If one doesn’t quite land then it doesn’t really matter because yet more gags closely follow. Even as the climactic scene was playing out Harmony just would not stop making science jokes, showing impressive commitment to the science speakeasy idea. It’s also great to see Rebecca Blackstone return in a small role as Big Bang Betty, and getting a huge laugh out of a facial expression and a wave. It’s all in all a very fun sequence made funnier by the inclusion of Einstein Bob with his string and potato based nonsense.
It’s at this point that I think it’s about time we talk about The Actor Kevin Eldon. Comedy fans of a certain era have held him in high esteem for decades now, and to see him in Red Dwarf is an utter joy. Not only that, but despite a relatively small amount of screen time I felt like he was used incredibly well here. Starting off as menacing and serious, the descent into the comedic bickering in the final stand-off was perfectly executed by Eldon. The decision to make the villains ultimately comic has definitely been one of the big discussion points on G&T in the last few days, but I’m firmly on the side that it was a very good move. There’s nothing to say that Red Dwarf can’t mine humour from wherever it likes, and just because it’s not been massively common in the past it doesn’t mean it’s one of the magical laws that made the old shows so good and thus should never be broken. The very funny through line that the Expanoids love a hackneyed old cliche had already set them up as being slightly ridiculous, so why not go the extra mile and give Kevin Eldon an excuse to make a face?
With an episode featuring such a dense concept and story in a short space of time, it’s inevitable that the conclusion would need to be wrapped up quite quickly, but again I think this is turned into another plus for the episode. Einstein Bob single-mindedly figuring out how to put together the capacitor, spurred on by the fact he’s been convinced by the crew that he’s brilliant, is actually a really nice heartwarming detail to the resolution and makes the inevitable quick wrapping up of the story still feel satisfying. Good for you, Bob. What perhaps doesn’t work as well, however, is the strangely tacked on coda to the episode. In Gunmen style, it would’ve been nice to see the credits roll straight after Lister takes the controls and steers them home, but instead there’s a slightly out of place but decently funny ‘thought of the day’ moment between Lister and Kryten, very reminiscent of series IV where you couldn’t move for Lister’s reflective moralising.
Twentica is clearly already a divisive episode among fans, but it’s one I enjoyed hugely. When recent episodes have been beset with the problem of thin plots having to be bolstered with even thinner B or C plots, it’s incredibly refreshing to see an episode that left me feeling like I wanted some more. A strong central idea, a guest cast that are tremendous fun to be around, the main cast in fine fettle and a plot that has so much wrung out of it in the 30 minutes gives the impression that Doug was bursting with ideas and inspiration when writing this. Absolutely nothing about this episode distracted from the warm fuzzy feeling that the tone and comedy in the this episode gave me. Twentica was unrestricted, unfettered, and showed all the love and attention to detail that clearly went into making it. We’ll have to wait to see if this is indeed a case of putting your best episode first, but even if that’s true I think what we’ve seen here is a clear statement that the show is once again capable of capturing that illusive old spirit, while still confidently striking out with its own direction and tone.
TINY TEASER: Resistance Bunnies – The name by which the group of underground scientists refer to themselves
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 14 (Series total: 14)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 1 (Series total: 1)