Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 2: “Samsara”

Red Dwarf XI, "Samsara"

“Twentica” seemed to be a pretty divisive episode. I don’t read other reviews until after I post my own, so I was pretty surprised to learn this. To me it was a clear return to form, and it measured up pretty well to the show’s glory years. I resisted the urge to nitpick because anything I could have pointed out would have paled in comparison to the much more important takeaway: this was an episode of Red Dwarf that I genuinely enjoyed. I’ll take a few dumb lines or sloppy edits any day if the overall product is strong enough.

“Twentica” was strong enough. “Samsara,” bless its well-intentioned little heart, is not.

I’ll say this right now: it wasn’t bad. It was also far better, and more enjoyable, and funnier, than the weaker episodes of series X. Should “Samsara” turn out to be one of the weaker episodes of XI, then that marks a kind of progress, and a welcome one.

The concept behind “Samsara” is…well, it’s not bad, but it is a bit clunky. Whereas “Twentica” took one idea and ran with it, “Samsara” takes one idea, explores it for a bit, reverses it, talks about the consequences of that reversal, and frames the entire thing as a sort of mystery about what happened…with digressions into a mini-bottle episode featuring Lister and The Cat and a few dips into a story that took place three million years ago with a completely different crew.

And yet, I’ll give “Samsara” credit for not feeling overstuffed. If anything, some of these ideas get too much breathing room rather than too little.

Maybe it’s worth comparing this to “Justice” as well as “Twentica,” as that episode gets a nod here in Kryten’s explanation for what’s happening. That episode could also be described as narratively busy. Lister has space mumps, the crew pick up an escape pod, they take it to a prison world in case it contains some crazy robot, the prison world automatically scans for evidence of past crimes, Rimmer is convicted of murdering the crew, Kryten discovers that the computer actually detects feelings of guilt rather than culpability, any crime you try to commit happens to you instead of your victim, Lister squares off with a simulant…

Okay. Those are a lot of ideas, but they all feel natural. Watching “Justice” we slip fairly organically from one concept to the next, and a few of them come together in the climax. Also, we’re laughing, which helps.

“Samsara” isn’t as graceful. It might not be graceful at all. There’s a nice bit of visual artistry when one image in one timeline serves as our pivot point into the other, but beyond that it’s two parallel sequences of events trying very hard to tell just one story.

“Justice” is an instructive point of comparison. That episode, in theory, could also have hurled us back in time to show us what life was like on Justice World, how the Justice Field works, the kind of impact it had on prisoners, the ways in which they (potentially) could have exploited it…but it doesn’t need to do that. It makes all of this clear enough just by having the Dwarfers explore it, face the consequences themselves, and work out everything else from there.

“Samsara,” I think, resorts to the dual timelines because it can’t think of another way to convey all of the information it thinks the audience will need. That’s evidenced by the fact that the second, earlier timeline doesn’t seem to have had as much effort invested in it. Each cut to it feels something like a tutorial pop-up in a video game; Doug asks himself, “What will the audience need to know next?” and then cuts to somebody who tells us, after which we get back to the action.

The story is good, but I think I prefer episodes like “Justice,” “DNA,” “Back to Reality,” and so forth not just because they’re better episodes, but because it’s more rewarding to piece together the puzzle alongside the crew than it is to see a set of guest characters actually going through the motions. Any previous episode could have done that in order to spill its mysteries, but this, I think, is the first time one has resorted to it.

I could explain the specifics of the plot here, but anyone who watched the episode already knows, and I don’t think it’s worth the spoiler for those who haven’t seen it yet. Giving the game away wouldn’t really add to what I’m saying here anyway.

On the bright side, the performances by the main cast were great. “Twentica” showed us that the four actors were back to being comfortable in their roles, and that’s true here as well. The writing isn’t as strong, but the performances certainly elevate it. Danny in particular tried his damnedest to elevate some truly ropey material, and sometimes he even succeeded. Robert was reliably good, as ever, even if he did seem to be left out of the comedy for the most part.

Chris Barrie and Craig Charles were both at their best, but, again, at times the material failed them. Chris was let down by overlong repetitions of a singular gag in the opening, and Craig by an overlong dialogue with The Cat later on. In neither case were the jokes strong enough to warrant their length, and they both felt like odd padding in an episode that had no shortage of better ideas.

We’ll deal with each of those scenes separately.

The Cat / Lister pairing was an inspired idea. I’ve always enjoyed how well these two characters play off of each other. Typically The Cat’s jokes are just for The Cat. Pair him with Kryten and Kryten will just roll his eyes. Pair him with Rimmer and Rimmer will just roll his eyes, and sometimes grit his teeth at an insult. But pair him with Lister and Lister will try to engage with him. He’ll explain things to him. He’ll let the dialogue develop. So putting them together here was a great idea, and I love how much room they’re given to just talk.

But what they talked about didn’t do it for me, and at some point I was wishing we did have Rimmer or Kryten to shut him up. This is no reflection on Danny at all, but the conversation about inventors, in which The Cat mistook Newton for Archimedes…and misunderstood what Archimedes did anyway…and then talked for a while about bathtubs sliding out of airplanes…it just got dull. Not to mention the observational comedy about in-flight service, which gave me nightmarish flashbacks of the phone support gags in “Trojan.” How would The Cat even know about in-flight service anyway, let alone have such fiery opinions about it? See, that’s what I’m doing when I’m not laughing; I’m questioning the point of what we’re watching.

It’s a great idea — a mini-Marooned with Danny in the second chair — but this isn’t talk of virginity and culture and reincarnation. This is Peabody’s Improbable History.

The opening scenes fare much better, I think. Doug has had a bit of trouble writing back-and-forth dialogue between Rimmer and Lister overall, but it felt correct here. It was funny. It was well-handled. The “charmed life” exchange being especially well performed, and something I could easily imagine slotting into the classic series of your choice.

But the gag with the dice rolling…my goodness. This one was giving me nightmarish flashbacks of the psychiatrist asking Kryten if his chair was screwed to the floor. It tied into the rest of the plot, sure, but by no means deserved the amount of screentime it got, and I began to feel bad for Chris Barrie at one point, as he had to keep finding different ways to make the same action and outcome feel like they were worth watching. And I don’t mean rolling with his hands versus the cup, or switching seats…I mean having to find different ways to express through his voice and his face that Rimmer was not going to give up on this.

By the time Rimmer finishes rolling, we’re five minutes into the episode. The scene could have easily been half as long and had the same impact. Heck, we could have cut to the two of them arguing later about how unlikely it was that Rimmer rolled a two and a one seven times in a row. Hearing about it would have been a lot funnier than seeing it.

It’s also odd that the punchline of the entire episode is that Rimmer finds out the Karma Drive was rewarding Lister. This is odd because a) we already know Lister was cheating, so it doesn’t surprise us and b) Rimmer figured this out in an earlier scene anyway, so it shouldn’t surprise him. What’s the point of ending there? It makes the game of Mine-Opoly (hohoho) feel, structurally, like the most important thing in the episode.

So, whatever. “Samsara” wasn’t “Twentica.” But it had some great ideas, even if they were just evolved forms of something we’ve already seen in a superior episode. I really did like the idea of pairing up Lister and The Cat. The bunkroom dialogue was better than it’s been in ages. And there were a few pretty good jokes (and plenty of great character moments) sprinkled throughout.

XI still has every chance to be good. “Samsara” is flawed, but nowhere near bad enough to write off entirely, and it’s not an episode I’d see myself skipping over in the future. It’s just that I was really hoping for another great episode, and instead I got one that was only pretty good.

You know what? I’ll take it. Let’s see how episode three plays out.

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