Red Dwarf XI: 2 “Samsara” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
After a strong opening episode last time out, Red Dwarf XI continues with another solid showing, Samsara, which feels, even more so than Twentica, that it could quite easily slide into the classic series of the show.
Samsara sees the Dwarfers come across an escape pod from the titular SS Samsara, which once brought on board they discover holds two human survivors – the only problem being that there’s two neat piles of dust where the survivors should be, which Lister promptly sneezes across the science room of the Dwarf. The Dwarfers make their way down to the ocean moon where the Samsara crashed (and has been stuck for 3 million years) and are promptly trapped there with the ship threatening to sink even further into the deep.
The Samsara holds a secret which the episode revolves around, a “karma drive”, a device that judges all those aboard (and affects their experiences thus) on how they act. Sounding familiar? In fact, the Justice system this episode is clearly tipping the hat to from Series IV’s Justice, is explicitly namedropped by Kryten early on. Samsara is very much an episode like Justice and Series V’s The Inquisitor, in that it is an episode very much interested in tackling moral and philosophical themes and playing with them. It’s a slower, more methodical yet still supremely silly episode and a welcome change of pace from the fast paced and plot heavy Twentica.
The episode cuts back and forth between the Dwarfers investigating the Samsara and flashbacks to 3 million years previous before the ship crashed, namely focusing on the two survivors from the escape pod, who were having an affair. Their doomed romance drives the plot and the non-linear narrative doesn’t detract from the episode at all – rather, in the short space of time you spend with the flashback couple played by Maggie Service and Dan Tetsell, you actually grow rather fond of them and become invested in their fates. That in turn gives great strength to the themes the episode explores and the discussion that is had, in ways that Red Dwarf has always done very well. The balance between comedy and drama is struck very smoothly.
Samsara opens with Lister and Rimmer in classic bunkbed situation, playing a game of “Mine-opoly”, where of course Lister is cheating with every move. Some of Red Dwarf’s finest scenes of pure comedy in the past have come from the scenes between Lister and Rimmer interacting in their living quarters, and this scene can easily sit proudly amongst them – Chris Barrie consistently showing why there are few better actors at pulling off facial expressions than him.
We’re back on the Dwarf properly for the first time this series, and it looks just as good as last series if not better. Samsara is beautifully shot and has some fantastic VFX, the stand-out being the initial crash of the Samsara at the front of the episode. The science room is a very nicely created set which you would hope (and expect) will get plenty of airtime this series, and the living quarters are looking better than ever, with the little details (like Rimmer’s timetable and paper cut-outs) adding invaluably to the look.
The cast all get their moments in this episode, but there’s one true standout. Danny John-Jules last time was great, and in this episode in the relatively closed setting he gets an even bigger chance to shine. The Cat has always had one of the most fascinating backgrounds of any character on the show, with all of the lore around “cat culture” that we discover in Series I about their God, Cloister (Lister) and their promised land, Fuschal (Fiji). Yet, he has only ever had one episode entirely devoted to him and his history back in Series I in 1988, Waiting for God. Any further insight into his character is always very welcome and we get some nice moments involving him in Samsara including his devolved cat inability to see in the dark (which we learn in a hilarious exchange between him and Lister, who spend the majority of the episode trapped together giving us further insight into their relationship) and plenty of typical Cat-things, one of which is his reaction to the Boys from the Dwarf coming across a skeleton orgy aboard the Samsara- and yes, that really is just like it sounds. Be prepared!
The episode does end rather abruptly however – just when you’re expecting a final punchline or a wrap-up, we roll into the closing credits wondering if we’re missing a scene or two. Still though, Samsara is a very good slice of Dwarf, with a strong, so very Red Dwarf concept as its core and some real belly laughs throughout. More like this please!