“If that’s the penalty for toast, what the hell do you get for pizza?” – The Cat.
Airdate: 22 September 2016
Written By: Doug Naylor
Plot: In the depths of uncharted space, Starbug gets intercepted by a ship of Expanoids – a subset of Simulants. They pull a trick on the Dwarfers to obtain an artifact – the Casket of Cronos – that allows them to travel back in time to 20th-century America. There, technology beyond the Gilded Ages are prohibited, and scientists are driven underground to speakeasies. In order to free themselves, they must find a use of a machine part that was given to them by a doomed scientist.
Before I begin, I just want to say that there’s this incredible feeling I have in reviewing Red Dwarf as it comes out (in America, at least) for the first time. This, again, was the very first show I decided to blog about. As the years have gone by, I have come to admire the show more. And even though I wouldn’t place it at the top of my all time favorites (The Simpsons, Steven Universe, and Gravity Falls are a holy trinity of awesome animation), I still think it is one of the most overlooked sci-fi shows out there.
To get (virtually) brand new episodes for the first time in my fandom (Red Dwarf X came out just before I became a full-blown fan of the show) was something quite indescribable. I watched them all in a day.
With that said… I begin my (silly) analysis of Series XI.
“Twentica”, as it’s name suggests, is a portmanteau of “twentieth century” and “America” – the setting of this episode. This is the first time that Red Dwarf traveled to America – “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” was set in a TIV set in the Wild West – but it isn’t the first time that the Dwarfers have gone back to the twentieth century. (“Backwards” had the crew travel back to Manchester London Nodnol, 1989 9891.) Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I will say that the title is apropos since that’s where a lot of early speculative fiction came from – to the point where even the Dwarfers make note of the arguably hackneyed trope of “traveling to the early 20th century where the past can be changed” (“City on the Edge of Forever”, anybody?)
What makes this not hackneyed is the application of the trope in the episode. The Red Dwarf crew follow the Expanoids back to an America that resembles the Prohibition era of the 1920s – gangsters, speakeasies, and callous law enforcement ahoy. However, it’s not alcohol that’s being banned – it’s the progress of science and technology that is being outlawed. Access to scientists and bunsen burners is protected by a doorman who keeps anybody not in the know out.
Ironically, those that enforce the law are Simulants – electronic-based life forms of the highest order. Their reasoning is paternalistic – since humans are selfish and stupid, they are tasked with taking away the tools that allow them to further their idiocy. In effect, they use their paternalism to oppress humans and keep themselves in power. But it doesn’t stop the development of technology – again, it only drives it underground.
Kinda strange that, yet again, the boys from the Red Dwarf find themselves at opposition with a tyrannical government.
So far, Series XI establishes itself as far more dramatic and sci-fi focused compared to the comic antics found in Series X. In a way, this episode feels like it would slide into Series VI or VII – as a darker, more action-centered dramedy. Hell, given the technical advancements, it looks leaps and bounds ahead of VII (CGI rarely does quality TV make.) The difference is that, ultimately, the comedy does take front stage here (what with lampshading the steampunk tropes, how the Dwarfers combat the Expanoids, and the use of Einstein in this episode).
But what makes Red Dwarf truly great is the character interactions with each other. No getting around it – this episode was more focused on the plot rather than fleshing out our characters. A good chunk of the character-centered comedy is used to introduce our heroes to new viewers. Even then, their dynamic is tighter than before – even with the antagonism between them, they are far further from their throats compared to, say, Series I.
I think that, for the most part, the writing for each character hits the notes well enough. While not as much as some other episodes, there is character development on an individual level. For one, the Cat does show quite the knowledge of Prohibition-era culture – or at least is able to pastiche it well enough to pass through. Hell, he even trades his more flamboyant clothing for era-specific fashion – a clear sign of our favorite fashionisto’s very slightly less selfish behavior compared to earlier episodes. Rimmer’s educational history is also given another look – how he remembers the scientific experiments, yet not the concepts discussed the science class.
Lucie Pohl also does a rather good job as Big Bang Beryl. Her character isn’t necessarily complex or anything, but Pohl’s Long Island-accented performance does make the character stand out a bit more. It’s a clear pastiche of Steampunk-era characters and their performances, and it works. Here’s hoping for more of her in Red Dwarf XII.
Also, the episode’s plot avoids falling into just making fun of cliches, what with its various twists and turns – for example, the use of Einstein, the use of the Exponoids when they appear in 1952, and the actual use of the EMP. It makes the comedy a bit more varied than you’d expect from a plot like this.
Certainly, though, this episode does have some demerits. For one, it felt like the show was using maybe a bit too much unnecessary exposition. Granted, most of it led to jokes, but it seemed a bit too over the top. Also, the comedy and the plot weren’t the most memorable I’ve seen out of Red Dwarf – although, honestly, that’s to be expected when you’ve been on the air for 11 series.
Less of a con, but more of a thought, is that personally speaking, I feel like one of the later episodes might have also served as a better series premiere due to the very “busy” nature of this episode. Not that it’s a bad thing, but given that people tend to connect Red Dwarf with the core four and their dynamic, this could feel… different, to start.
Then again, that may have been the point – to establish Series XI as a bit of a different animal. Which, in some ways, it is. It definitely feels like what Series VII would’ve been like if production on said series was more stable and had less “shocks” against it (what with Rob leaving and Craig getting held on a rape charge that was later dropped).
Either way, I was relieved after I saw it. “Twentica” is a solid debut to the eleventh series of Red Dwarf XI. It was likely a good sign of things to come. Was I right? Well, next time, we board the “Samsara”.
- Yes, that is Rebecca Blackstone – Pree from “Fathers and Suns” – as Big Bang Beryl. Glad to see that she’s not a one-hit wonder in the grand scheme of the show.
- Again, it’s amazing just how little the cast has aged between Series X and Series XI. Yes, they’re noticeably older compared to Series I (obviously), but they still feel as tied to their roles as ever before. Ya never lost that spirit, guys.
- At the risk of spoiling anything, no, there is no Holly this series. Sorry.
Favorite Scene: The cops interrogating the toaster smugglers. Hysterical.
Least Favorite Scene: Even then, the exposition was a bit too heavy-handed, at least for my tastes.