Bigger. Better. Smeggier.
So has proclaimed the poster campaign advertising Series XI of Red Dwarf. On the basis of Twentica, it’s a statement that seems more than just hyperbole.
It’s been well documented that both Back to Earth and Series X were made under a whole host of restrictions that hindered some parts of the production, but with Series XI however, the production process appears to have been much smoother. What we are presented with in Twentica is what the show can do when given the support, budget and expertise to achieve a proper realisation of Doug Naylor’s ideas.
Given the largely ship bound nature of Series X, the switch from to the open scope of this series is almost akin to the change from Series II to III. In fact, barely any time is spent aboard the small rouge one at all, with the script malong the most of the revived Starbug cockpit set to allow the Dwarfers to reach the destination of the plot.
The episode wastes no time in getting straight down to business, and in many ways feels like we’ve carried on from the end of Series VI and run straight into a cockpit scene from the next episode. The slower build ups that made some episodes of Series X more labored are gone entirely here, and instead replaced with snappy exchanges that feature some wonderful moments for Danny John Jules to jump in and steal the scene.
The fact that his episode was recorded last in the Series XI recording block is evident in the performances of the cast. Chris Barrie’s scenes aboard Starbug and later at the door to the club are pitched perfectly, and while the share of the jokes seem to be heavily in favour of Danny and Chris in this episode, Craig and Robert do an excellent job of providing the support for them to do this.
You only need to look to the band scene at the end of the episode, where Danny’s punch lines would have far less effect without a good set up from Craig. This in an ensemble episode of course, and there is still plenty of time for everyone to get their chance to raise their woofer count later in the series.
But for all the gags, the plot also gets underway in remarkably quick fashion. With the crew encountering the Expanoids, we are quickly introduced into a plot that seems to take some knowing cues from Star Trek: First Contact. But instead of following a straight line of parody, this set up is used from some great subversion, both in pointing out the use of plot cliches and in terms of who we expect the hostage to be.
This also introduces us to the first of the episodes guest cast in Kevin Eldon. A stalwart of British comedy, Eldon has appeared in so many truly great comedy shows that his inclusion into Red Dwarf shours have us applauding the casting director.
Always reliable to provide an absolutely solid performance, his take on the new strand of simulants, the expanoids, is a perfect blend of the classic and sinister simulants from Series IV-VII, and the versions as seen in The Beginning which allowed for an expanded range of humour. It means we can have Eldon pull a face of disgust that is so comically perfect that you’re instantly reminded why he’s been in so many big shows. I only wish that we could have seen more of him, and would highly welcome a return performance.
If his inclusion is pleasing, the effects work that follows with the spectacular Starbug crash is equally as satisfying, and offers every bit of the dynamism fans have longed for since Series VI. Given the amount of times that Starbug has crashed like the Hindenburg, it’s genuinely refreshing to see that the crash sequence is unlike any previously, and the combination of models, cgi and footage looking out through the Bug window work in perfect harmony to create an arresting sequence.
It also gives us a chance to see jump leads attached to Robert Llewellyn’s nipples; something normally reserved only for the highest levels of backers on Unbound.
It’s not just the model sequences however, as the look of the show as a whole has stepped up quite dramatically since Series X. Neither overly bright and static as in that series, nor cold and removed from the sitcom look as with parts of Back to Earth, Twentica shows the show sitting in the sweet spot between the two. It is visually in line with the show of the past, but the colour pallet and choice of shot show so much more inventiveness that the result in many sequences is highly filmic in nature.
All of which is supported of course by some excellent design work in terms of sets. The alternate streets of America are surely one of the most impressive sets the show has ever seen, and that so much of it was created in studio in the space of a week is an impressive feat.
It’s every bit the believable world, even given the differences that the plot imposes from our expectations of the period. As a central idea, the idea of an altered history is a sci-fi staple that the show is all too willing to acknowledge. What separates it in this case however it the subtle satire at play.
In presenting a world where technology has been outlawed, Doug appears to be making a comment on the madness of the rejection of science and how this can set us back. It also allows for a rather nice little line about obtaining research funding.
That’s not at all to say that the premise is presented in a dry way however, and is instead mined extensively for laughs. Harmony’s dialogue with the cast and Rebecca Blackstone’s brief but perfect interaction provide some big laughs by playing on the cultural reversal, and the mistaken identity affair with Einstein takes what could have been a ‘celebrity historical’ and turns it into a far more Dwarf-esque affair.
The performances of these guest actors should very much be praised, and there is no denying that from ‘I don’t do the big bang’ to ‘Bob the Bum’, some of the biggest laughs of the episode fall squarely in their court. Our time with them, as with Eldon, is perhaps all too brief. The episode speeds from one scene to the next, but doesn’t hit a lull to make it uneven. If the pace seems strange, it’s from the amount of ideas being crammed into thirty minutes rather than there being an unbalance.
On the subject of ideas, it’s particularly nice to see Doug continuing to explore plots and ideas that have expansive consequences for the world the crew find themselves in. This isn’t to say that a series should be made up of these types of stories exclusively, but seeing it on display here reminds you how these expansive episodes were largely missed in Series X. It’s also a joy to see Doug link some jokes directly into the concept of the episode, with the density gag being a particular favorite.
With the Expanoids defeated, the plot draws to a rapid close, and perhaps this is my main criticism of the episode. Matters resolve themselves quickly and give us slightly less time with the guest cast than we would happily have seen, but this would be less noticeable were it not for the rapid way the plot closes after this.
The triumphant departure of Starbug from the planet feels like it should be a Gunmen-esque punch the air moment, but is instead undersold by a quick model shot followed by a short scene aboard the Dwarf. The scene itself is fine, but in an episode that has been so packed it feels slightly odd to shift gears right at the end, and perhaps could have worked better as a coda aboard Starbug. This really is to nitpick however, and would also be perhaps to make the episode more of an end of series affair than a start.
In choosing Twentica as the debut episode of the series, the production are making a clear statement of intent. It’s fast paced, packed with ideas and guests and the look is realistically not a million light years away from how the Red Dwarf Movie would probably have looked had it gone into production at the start of the century as originally intended.
Twentica is certainly one of the more solid outings the show has seen in a long time, and in terms of an expansive off ship opener fits nicely along with the like of Backwards and Tikka to Ride. The combination of a good central concept, strong visuals and a high gag rate that often have a scientific basis make the overall episode one of the more Grant Naylor akin scripts that we’ve had since 1993. It may not be an exact copy of those episodes, but had the show not developed at all it wouldn’t have survived, and Twentica gives us the start of a new period of the show that can happily side alongside its predecessors.
Do you agree with our review? What did you think of the episode? 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.