Red Dwarf Series XI Episode 2: Samsara
Written & Directed by Doug Naylor
Starring Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Chris Barrie
Review by Billy Seguire
There were four years of anticipation leading up to the first episode of Red Dwarf that aired last week. With the burden of those high hopes lifted, it’s fair to say viewers can have a more objective view of Samsara. Luckily, that view tells me the eleventh series of Red Dwarf is going to be objectively hilarious, as there is a tremendous amount of laughs to be had in the second episode of the series. With the plot of the episode boiled down to one central sci-fi concept, the humour becomes a focal point. Jokes that are entirely character based help make this feel like an all-time great episode, succeeding on the strengths of the actors involved.
Even after commenting on my love for Red Dwarf’s new model-shots and effects last week, I’m still blown away by how good Red Dwarf looks. Visually, there’s something special here. The dark innards of a ship lit only by cheap neon glow sticks is somehow so beautifully macabre and authentic to the spirit of the show. But it’s the jokes and performance that deserves all the credit here, making Samsara something genuinely worth watching.
The first shots we see are set three million years in the past, with an escape pod escaping a ship before it crashes into the waters of an ocean moon. The crew of the Red Dwarf fly by that moon, receiving a pre-recorded warning from the escape pod only to find the crew members predictably dead for the past three million years. The small piles of dust are a hilarious call back to The End, instantly recognizable and iconic to the series. When Dave sneezes, blowing the dust all over the ship, you can tell Craig Charles hasn’t changed one bit since the pilot was filmed. Likewise, the skeletons found on board the ship call to mind the bodies in Kryten or Back to Reality. It’s dark humour, but something Red Dwarf has never shied away from and has had great success with.
The premise behind Samsara is sufficiently enthralling. Run by a “morality drive”, the ship is responsible for the moral actions of the crew. Every morally good action is rewarded and every morally wrong action is punished. Of course, this is Red Dwarf, so we only experience the results of this drive after it’s been put in reverse. If there was ever a time for Rimmer to be the hero of an episode, this is it. It works in a great way that goes unexplained for the first half of the episode, allowing the incidents to, at first, seem random before the audience begins to piece things together for themselves. A series of flashbacks also helps to fill in the gaps, telling the story of the two crewmembers who fled on the escape pod and how the drive came to be reversed in the first place. Though the boys never hit any real moral lows in this episode as I originally anticipated, there are some great moments wringed from the sci-fi premise.
Without doubt the standout player of Samsara is Danny John-Jules as the Cat. The unrelenting barrage of idiocracy becomes more than one can handle. You can’t help but laugh as Dave grows more and more frustrated at the inane conversation and Cat simply continues to press forward with the most ridiculous mixups with a straight face. This is a far funnier episode than last week’s offering, and I attribute that mainly to Danny John-Jules’ stellar scenes. I also lost myself laughing when Kryten came in to rescue the pair. Dave is so genuinely happy to be rescued and Craig Charles plays it so authentically that the fact that Kryten just starts unrelentingly punching him in the face is maddeningly funny.
The only genuinely disappointing aspect of Samsara is that it feels like it ends too short. I was fully expecting Rimmer to pull out a really great bit of smegheadedness to give the boys the karmic boost they need to escape the ocean world. Instead, it just ended. I chalk this up to the inclusion of flashbacks in the episode that help explain the concept to the audience. Not to knock these sections, but while Dan Tetsell and Maggie Service deliver very solid performances, I think letting the audience figure things out for themselves would have been the stronger choice if it meant a more solid ending.
Watch It. While an intricate sci-fi plot soared in Twentica, the humour still wasn’t quite there. Samsara puts my mind at ease with an outright hilarious episode that finally gives one of Red Dwarf’s most underrated players a real chance to shine. The fact that it looks downright gorgeous is a bonus. Don’t just get lost in how good things look in Samsara, the script is absolutely tight and filled with jokes that make it feel like classic Red Dwarf.