Red Dwarf XI: Samsara review (Spoilers)

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For the first episode of Red Dwarf XI, Dave opted to go with a showy, ambitious episode in Twentica. There were stunning visual effects sequences; an elaborate set; and high -profile guest stars. It then makes sense that episode two should be something smaller and a little more subdued – a character piece if you will. What’s hugely surprising is that this episode maintains or perhaps even betters the previous instalment, utilising a highly innovative premise. This is easily the closest episode we’ve had to classic Red Dwarf since the Grant Naylor years.

In terms of pacing, it’s fair to say that it’s a slower episode with plenty of time to let the characters converse. These moments moments are contrasted with some stunning visual effects exemplified with the opening ocean crash sequence which sets up the episode’s temporal juxtaposition nicely.

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Despite the ever-changing format of the show, many still  regard the classic bunk scenes as the cornerstone of the show, and they shouldn’t be disappointed here with Lister and Rimmer playing and betting on game of “Mine-opoly”. Rather than playing for money, the winner gets to modify the behaviour of the other – Rimmer will have to stop complaining and Lister will have to dress in an evening gown until he can play James Last’s polka party on the bagpipes. You get the best of both world’s in this scene – both a classic-style of character interplay and a foreshadowing the main plot in the very best  Star Trek fashion.

That plot kicks off properly in the brand new science room with a scene involving Cat and Kryten as they answer a distress call. This really is a beautiful set, and presumably will appear frequently as the show goes on. It both fits the new design elements, with the panels in the same style as the new Starbug, and also feels like an evolution from the science room from Series II.

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It’s fairly unusual for Red Dwarf to give the guest stars the main drive of the plot, but it’s done really effectively here with beautifully directed visual transitions between the two time periods. The dual narratives show the Dwarfers exploring the SS Samsara, crashed at the bottom of the moon while flashing back to the events that caused it to crash and the impact those events have 3 million years in the future.

This is a common storytelling technique employed regularly on shows like Lost or Once Upon a time but it feels incredibly fresh in Red Dwarf. Back in the early days of the show, the writers imagined there might be regular flashbacks to when the crew were alive but this was only deployed in the Series I episode Balance of Power. Here, Howard Burden’s costumes cleverly harken back to 1980s production design of the early Dwarf episodes and these Mega Corp jumpsuits look authentically retro and fit very much into the world of the show.

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The story of two adulterers on board an advanced space ship forced to curb their wicked ways due to a Karma drive – a variation of Series IV’s Justice technology – possibly shouldn’t be compelling but thanks to the shape of the script, it’s compulsive. This is in part thanks to the great performances from Dan Tetsell and Maggie Service as the doomed couple Green and Barker who imbue their characters with warmth and humanity within some fairly limited screen time.

To be super-critical, the scenes with the Cat and Lister perhaps overstay their welcome as these characters remain a little passive within the mechanics of the episode. However, it’s a real pleasure to see Danny John-Jules given some great material to get his pointy teeth into. Also, the ending doesn’t quite hit the mark with a fairly weak joke but structurally, it bookends the episode effectively.

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On the evidence of this episode, those claims that Red Dwarf could reclaim the glory days and provide the same joys it did back in the classic era were not just hyperbole. This is an episode that feels like it could perfectly slot into Series IV or V and not look out of place. Some might say that its derivative but that’s not the case. It’s the exploration of an idea that’s been raised before but Doug Naylor has found a new form to tell a story as well as providing some great visual and character gags. If the rest of this run maintains these standards, we’re in for something very special indeed.

Do you agree with our review? What did you think of the episode? What are you up to tonight? Maybe we could get a pizza and hang out. Let us know below where spoiler filled comments for this episode can now be made. And keep an eye on the site for a further in depth review on The Garbage Podcast next week with our full team after the episode is broadcast on Dave.