In the few days since Samsara was released online, the reaction seems to be mixed to say the least, with opinion split on whether or not it was better than Twentica. Some people are calling it a highlight of the Dave era, and some people are calling it an absolute stinker, although admittedly the majority lie somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Nevertheless, any review is naturally going to met with disagreement from one side or the other, so here’s the deal.
If you liked Samsara, then the bits that have you nodding with agreement mean that your goodwill will be punished with bits that will make you angry. And if you hated it, all the insults you fling at me for being wrong will be rewarded by the time you reach the end. For I believe that this episode is a perfectly balanced mixture of equal parts great Red Dwarf and terrible Red Dwarf. Let’s go back to the beginning to explore why…
We start with a lovely little model sequence, showing the crash of the Samsara and the escape of its pod, three million years ago. There’s been no scrimping on the special effects so far in Series XI; both episodes have featured original models and specially-shot footage in addition to the reusable establishing shots, and both the scale and quality is a huge step-up from Series X. It’s not perfect – that escape pod doesn’t quite look real, and I can’t tell whether it’s CGI or just badly composited – but it does the job, and it combines with the music to set a mysterious tone for the episode.
Much like Twentica, it’s an opening gambit that wastes no time in setting up the plot; simply by placing this set-up before the first dialogue scene, Doug buys himself some time to wallow in the comedy, with the audience safely reassured that the story proper will be starting shortly. And it’s a comedy scene that’s worth wallowing in. Ask anyone with a vague recollection of Red Dwarf, and they’ll tell you that Rimmer/Lister bunk room scenes were always the heartbeat of the show. That was really only true for the first two or three series at most, and later attempts to replicate the formula often fell flat, possibly due to the misconception that it was the location that was the magical element in those classic scenes.
But the Mine-opoly scene is the finest example of the genre for some time, thanks to several key factors. Firstly, the characterisation is spot on. Lister and Rimmer have come a long way together, to the extent that they can almost get along as friends and equals. The 25-year-old Lister would never have chosen to sit down and play a board game with Rimmer, but both characters have mellowed in the intervening years, without losing their original character aspects. Lister’s now happy to share his leisure time with Rimmer, but only if he can subvert the rules, get the upper hand, wind Rimmer up and get something out of it. Rimmer pretends not to take the game as seriously as he once would, but still has this insatiable need to beat Lister, and he can’t help but react when it all goes wrong. Chris is on particularly good form here, with his increasing incredulity at each dice roll, and the eventual childish scamper to his bunk.
But crucially, the reason that both this and the subsequent ice-cream-eating scene work so well is that the jokes are relevant as well as funny. Following Series X, I seem to have developed an in-built aversion to any scenes towards the beginning of an episode that depict a slice of everyday life on board the ship. All too often, these ‘status quo’ moments have felt like filler – sometimes they’ve been tonally relevant to the overall story, but they usually only serve to set up secondary B-plots or unrelated running gags, which in themselves end up having a negative effect on the episode.
Samsara is one of those episodes that focuses solely on one clear story, and is all the better for it, right from these opening scenes. Not only is the chat about curses and charmed lives thematically linked to the main plot, but a second viewing reveals that the plot actually starts earlier than anticipated, with the knowledge that the Samsara’s karma drive was affecting Rimmer’s dice throws. Meanwhile, Cat and Kryten are busy doing the exposition side of things whilst keeping the laughs coming. I like the bing bong machine, even if it does remind me of Norman in Re-Mastered.
Of course, with Twentica taking place almost exclusively off the ship, these scenes also represent our first proper look at the main non-Starbug sets for the series. The bunk room has a similar aesthetic to Series X, but with a blue tint to the lighting, which seems to be Ed Moore’s leitmotif. But the science room is like nothing we’ve ever seen before – it’s huge, clinical and very slick. All the various bits of apparatus seem to belong together, regardless of which previous productions they’ve been cannibalised from. It looks far more high-tech than any other area of Red Dwarf we’ve explored in the past, and far more expensive than it probably was.
Before long, after some cracking Cat lines, an amusing comedy sneeze and a model sequence that’s far too dark to see anything properly, the crew are on their way to the Samsara, and the audience are temporarily taken back in time. Flashbacks aren’t unprecedented in Red Dwarf, but they are rare, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen any that don’t involve at least one of the main characters. I am well on board with Doug experimenting with the narrative form, and finding new ways to tell Red Dwarf stories is no mean feat when you’re eleven series in.
The flashbacks themselves weren’t particular highlights on a comedic level, but then I don’t think they were necessarily intended to be; they moved the story on in an interesting way, usually pretty damned quickly before handing back to the regular cast. Dan Tetsell and Maggie Service were both enjoyable and strangely likeable, when it would have been so easy to play those characters as one-dimensional sleazeballs; both the script and the performances provide just enough nuance to flesh them out and make them feel like real people.
Doug was also able to use the flashbacks for some directorial flourishes, with some nice smooth transitions between scenes. Overall, the episode was richer for having these sequences included. Aside from being an effective way of showing us what happened to the Samsara rather than just telling us, it was fun to see scenes from the wider Dwarf universe, which are a very rare occurrence indeed outside of the novels and Smegazine comics. It made the Samsara so much more than just another derelict for our crew to explore – it was a real place, where real people lived, and a real tragedy befell them.
Of course, those real people managed to fit in some real debauchery before their demise, and the most enduring image of the episode is that of a series of skeletal orgies. These shots took me aback somewhat – not because I’m remotely prudish, but because I was surprised that the show went there. It’s a very rude joke for Red Dwarf; previous sexual references have been entirely verbal, and I can’t help but wonder what I’d have made of it as a seven-year-old. Naturally, I’m all in favour of this rudeness – the initial laughter of shock was backed up by the brilliant Cat riff on Twister, and his innocence is what really sells it.
The sequences of the crew exploring the ship, aided by the frequent flashbacks, really are terrific – the sense of mystery is strong, with the audience piecing the clues together at the same pace as the crew. By the time the effects of the karma drive really kick in, we hit a rich vein of slapstick. It’s a style of humour that can miss just as often as it hits, but again, it’s backed up and enhanced with some great dialogue, notably the Cat thinking he’s gone blind, and somehow thinking it’s connected to being stabbed in the foot.
Just as things really ramp up, we hit a rather clumsily-placed ad break. I can totally see why it’s been put there – the doors closing on Lister and Cat create a little cliffhanger, and it’s convenient to separate the story into pre- and post- the pair being trapped together. But it seems to come in the middle of a scene, which is jarring; you can see the same action of the door closing twice, either side of the break. And sadly, but admittedly conveniently for this review, it’s at this point that an extremely promising and exciting episode begins to fall apart.
Because the thing is, I don’t think the plot is as clever as it thinks it is. I mean, it’s far from dumb – the karma drive is a fun and interesting premise, there’s a lot of comedic potential to explore, and it’s the kind of silly idea that no other current comedy could do nearly as well as Dwarf. I don’t mind that it’s similar to Justice, and I’m glad that the dialogue referenced the similarity. For one thing, it saves us the job of doing so, but also it’s not a big deal. While the likes of man-made viruses, unreliable time travel devices and shape-shifters have been thoroughly mined over the years, Justice was until this point a bit of a one-off, and there was clearly more mileage in the idea. I’ve no problem with the show having a second crack at it after seven series and a quarter of a century have passed.
But there’s the crux – it’s a relatively simple concept, especially for regular viewers of the show, but it doesn’t get explored as much as it should, because too much time is spent explaining what’s happening. Most viewers will have figured it out as soon as Cat is rewarded for stealing from charity. By the time Kryten finds the karma drive and explains what it does – and certainly by the time Rimmer poses the question of why he was being punished in the Mine-opoly game – the audience have surely clocked that the drive is faulty, but it takes Rimmer and Kryten the rest of the episode to get there.
The enjoyable, mysterious drip-feeding of information outstays its welcome, and suddenly there’s much less point to the flashbacks. Every time Kryten figures out another piece of vital information, we cut to a flashback that simply reiterates what we’ve already been told. We don’t need both of these narrative devices at this stage of the episode, and the doubling up means that the momentum is lost and everything grinds to a halt.
Meanwhile, Cat and Lister are holed up in a dark canteen, and it’s at this stage that my doubts about Series XI’s aesthetic start to rear their heads. There’s no doubt that it looks stunningly beautiful. Each and every scene is composed and lit to perfection, and it’s a lot more impressive than a sitcom on a digital channel has any right to be. But is it the right look for the show? It looks like a movie, but the actors are performing to a live audience, and that sometimes feels odd. In this episode, specifically the scene where Lister goes looking for the first aid kit, there’s good dialogue to be heard, but it might be funnier still if you could see the accompanying facial expressions. And doing slapstick in pitch blackness is a bold decision.
With two characters trapped together, Doug naturally takes the opportunity to do the kind of lengthy dialogue scenes that we come to expect from whichever episode of each particular series is selected for budgetary sacrifice. And man, these scenes feel long, even though there were Rimmer and Lister scenes of a similar length at the start of the episode that didn’t drag at all. But drag these Lister and Cat conversations did, and it’s because they didn’t feel remotely natural.
The jokes were largely fine, and they were well delivered by Danny and Craig. It was a perfectly serviceable comedy sketch, but it didn’t feel like the dialogue matched the characters. I’m not talking about the roles they played in the situation; I don’t particularly like it when the Cat is portrayed as thick, but it’s hardly an unprecedented approach, and I’m on board with Lister getting just as frustrated with Cat as he does Rimmer. It’s the dialogue that’s the problem – it doesn’t feel like it’s Lister and Cat talking, just any two generic humanoids. There’s nothing about the inventors chat that tells us anything about the situation, the plot or the characters. It’s tacked on.
Someone knowing the name of the man who invented Magic Markers, or coming out with a perfect Wikipedia-style definition of Formica, is funny if it’s a one-off sketch character. But to hear those lines coming out of Dave Lister’s mouth is just a bit weird, not to mention jarring. It’s not bad comedy, but it’s not brilliant comedy either, and its presence in this episode, when all it serves to accomplish is to hit pause on the plot, makes it bad Red Dwarf.
The combined effect of this long distraction and the aforementioned doubling up of information leads to an extremely abrupt ending. The way the first half of the episode is paced and structured makes you feel like there’s more to come in the second half. When the crew reunite, the episode just ends there and then; it feels like it’s missing an extra scene or two where they use what they’ve learned to escape the ship and head home. It’s funny, Twentica feels like it had a coda that was tacked on, and Samsara feels like it could do with one.
The problem is the amount of time that’s wasted in the second half, and that continues right up to the final scene. Kryten explains everything to Lister and Cat, but that’s the third time the audience have heard the same thing. They keep telling us about the effects of the karma drive without showing them, and there was surely a much more satisfactory ending to be had whereby we got to see crew rewarded/punished once or twice more. As it stands, the episode feels unfinished; we seemed to get the set-up for a final escape from the ship, but not the pay-off.
It’s a strange one, for sure. At times it felt like a hybrid of different types of episode. The initial bunkroom scene recalled the very early days, while the scenes on board the Samsara tried to do both an action-adventure episode and a bottle show at the same time. On the one hand it makes for a disjointed experience, but on the other you do have to admire the ability to provide the cheapest episode of the series with at least some scenes with the same scope as a more traditional episode. It’s just a shame the cheap-and-cheerful bits aren’t funny enough to compensate; Marooned is obviously untouchable, but these were barely on a par with Duct Soup.
After enjoying Twentica last week, but not quite as much as I had on the night of the recording, Samsara was a bit of a disappointment this week. It improved on second viewing, when I knew to expect a slower second half and an abrupt ending, but it still dragged towards the end. But hey, if an episode’s biggest and only significant crime is to be a bit dull, then while that’s not something we expect from Red Dwarf, at least being bored is preferable to being angry or offended. It’s not going to be troubling the top half of the chart come the next survey, or even the top two thirds, but it’s nowhere near the bottom of the pile.
Two weeks in, it’s hard to get a grip of Series XI as a whole, because both of the opening two episodes feel as if they’re atypical. You don’t know what type of thing you’ll be seeing week by week, and that’s exciting. If it turns out that Twentica is the best episode of the six, I’ll be a bit disappointed. But if it turns out Samsara is the worst, I’ll be doing cartwheels. It doesn’t hit any great heights, but it covers the basics: good jokes, driven by an intriguing plot, with high production values and strong performances. It fails to make all of these elements count, but if the remainder of the episodes can take these standards as a minimum and then see them through to the end, we’re in for a great series.
TINY TEASER: Glow Sticks – there are several glow sticks hidden within this episode. See if you can spot them.
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 26 (Series total: 40)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 4 (Series total: 5)