Dave – Thursday 22nd September – 9pm
Created by: Rob Grant and Doug Naylor
Written and directed by: Doug Naylor
BIGGER. BETTER. SMEGGIER.
“Have you been drinking the giggle water?”
Every new series of Red Dwarf has been a reboot of sorts. From the location shooting of II expanding on the grey-scale claustrophobia of the ship-set original run, to the addition of a new main character and the gender-swap of another in III. Since co-creator Rob Grant ejected himself from an airlock after 1993’s series VI leaving Doug Naylor solely in charge at the helm, the boys from the Dwarf have been testing the water with all manner of reinventions, morphing from audience-less sci-fi drama (VII) to broad laugh-prominent farce (VIII).
After a prolonged break, 2009’s quickly-shot mini-series IX (christened Back to Earth) was a glossy-looking anniversary tribute which irritated some in its prominent riffing on another genre classic (Blade Runner), but it paved the way for a full-series run on Digital station Dave. 2012’s X was rightfully heralded a return to form, focussing on the four leads (ship computer Holly’s absence explained away in dialogue) back in front of a live studio audience. It was a huge success, even if production issues meant that two – and a half – of the six episodes required hasty last-minute rewrites, with “Dear Dave” clearly requiring a further polish time did not allow.
Given the reuse of X’s wonderful rustic-looking sets, and with Doug once again taking on both writing and directing duties, I was fully expecting XI to look like a natural follow-on from impressive finale “The Beginning”. But with relaunch “Twentica” debuting a week ahead of its freeview premiere on streaming service UKTV Play, I was blown away by how advanced and expansive this return feels – a million light years ahead of X’s more static set-up.
With the budget allowing for the full return of runabout craft Starbug after its peripheral use last time out, “Twentica”’s ambitious and pacey opening immediately calls to mind the vibe and zinging character dynamic of VI, while the darker and more atmospheric lighting brings to mind the grimier look of V – both positive comparisons and definite improvements.
The appearance of a squad of simulant-like Expanoids (lead by Hyperdrive’s Kevin Eldon as “4 of 27”) – demanding the return of a “casket of Kronos” in exchange for the return of a hologrammatic hostage – wastes no time in jumping straight into the action, with the intrepid ensemble forced to follow the Borg-sendups back into the past by time surfing on the Expanoid’s slip stream.
Yes, “Twentica” (a title I still don’t quite understand… an abbreviation of Twentieth Century America, perhaps?) is a time travel episode, eschewing the opportunity to redefine the status-quo (the titular mining ship doesn’t even feature until a charming tongue-in-cheek wrap-up epilogue) with a bold and colourful romp through Earth’s past, a la VII’s “Tikki to Ride” and III’s “Backwards”. Time dilation even affords Doug a clear nod to VI’s “Rimmerworld” (“Seconds for you, but I was gone for HOURS!”).
Welcome to an alternative 1952, where the Expanoids have banned technology, making toasters, ovens, Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) and Rimmer (Chris Barrie) illegal. It is up to the Dwarfer’s to go underground to a prohibition-riffing Science Club and engage with a “white coat” who goes by the stage name of Harmony de Gauthier (Lucie Pohl) in order to hatch a plan to power-down the Expanoids and save humanity from slavery.
Wow, what a bold and entertaining half hour. Immersive sets bursting with depth, life, extras and a smoky atmosphere, a sharp script high on witty banter (Kryten explains away his blocky appearance: “I went bobbing for apples in a cement mixer”) and an elaborate plot which both acknowledges its uses of “hackneyed old clichés” and pushes the boat out with enriching characterisation (Harmony’s introductory sales pitch: “I don’t do the Big Bang!”) and some hilarious nods to history (David Sterne plays genius-turned-bum “Einie the Winey” in the biggest case of mistaken identity since “Lemons”).
Craig Charles manages to elevate a throwaway line about Lister not wanting to lose his mech mate into a humanising moment by delivery alone, while superficial show-off Cat (Danny John-Jules) shines when going “incognito” on stage. It may not pick up on “The Beginning”’s dangling thread, but for a smeg-load of reasons, “Twentica” is a prime choice for a premiere. It raises the bar high, but on this evidence, Doug, the cast, crew and new Grant/Naylor co-producers Baby Cow (of Steve Coogan fame) are more than up to delivering another five strong standard-setting instalments. Welcome back, smeeee heeeee’s!
CR@B’s Claw Score: