Judge Bill Gibron reviews the best sci-fi sitcom ever. Wait, isn't it the only sci-fi sitcom ever?
Smeg off, you gimboyd!
As a generic rule of thumb, certain things just don't mix. Back when the caveman tried to combine dinosaur squeezings with the local brackish bog, he learned the age-old adage (or for him, brand new maxim) that oil and water don't and won't blend (even if both were in the decidedly pre-processed stage). Additionally, it is a safe bet to register that avarice and the truth don't quite want to see eye-to-eye. Indeed, money seems to not only be the root of all evil, but the basis for several non-amalgamatable ideas. It doesn't get along with fools, it should never be passed between friends and ethics usually beat feet when there's a change purse around. One could also point to the legally sound statement of never combining drinking with driving, but the successful careers of Senator Ted Kennedy, Kelsey Grammer, and numerous sports figures seems to circumvent that automotive performance choice.
Perhaps the most universal mandate in the entire parable parlay is never, ever mix science fiction and comedy. It just won't take. Make light of a light year or jest about a supernova, and audiences abandon ship for the safety and security of a genre that won't offend them. For a long time, media minds respected the volatile nature of basting outer space with slapstick and kept the futuristic funnies to Spock's cocked eyebrow. So leave it to NBC, who had killed classic Star Trek because they thought America wasn't ready for science fiction to foist Richard Benjamin as an interstellar garbage man carrying a crazy crew of cretins on the Buck Henry-helmed Quark. Kids got equally unfunny fracases in shows with such stupid names as The Far Out Space Nuts and The Lost Saucer. Big screen attempts have also been shoddy. Fan favorite Spaceballs may be someone's idea of manna from a meteor shower, but for most the spoof is nothing new in the Mel Brooks canon, more Borscht Belt than asteroid belt.
Leave it to the Brits then to finally find a way to mesh wit with hi-tech wizardry, to explore the "ha-ha" in holograms, and the nuttiness in nanotechnology. Applying a formula of ironic inquiry about the nature of man and his relationship to space, UK comedy veterans Doug Naylor and Rob Grant (of the infamous Spitting Images variety sketch show) used their love of Alien and other lost-in-laser-beams cinematic fiction to formulate the first (and to date, only) successful merger of the dork with the delirious to deliver the futuristic farce called Red Dwarf. Arriving on DVD in complete series sets, here's your chance to catch up (or finally become acquainted) with this stellar sci-fi funny business.
Facts of the Case
The Jupiter mining ship Red Dwarf has been traveling the galaxy for over three million years. A fatal radiation leak in the ship's main drive has killed the entire crew except for one unfortunately bloke: Dave Lister (Craig Charles), Third Class Technician and for all intents and purposes the lowest ranking member on board. He has been sealed away in suspended animation for smuggling his pet cat onto the ship. Three million years later, Lister is thawed out and discovers he is the last living human. Lucky for Dave, the computer, named Holly (Norman Lovett), has formed a holographic companion for the lonely man. Unfortunately, it turns out to be his irritating supervisor, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie). Another living thing on the ship is a creature that evolved from Lister's pet (Danny John-Jules). Arrogant, vane, cocksure, and stubborn, this Cat creature's main goals are eating, sleeping, and eating some more. Followed by more sleeping. Desperate to get back to Earth, Lister tries to get Cat and Rimmer to help him. But Rimmer is more interested in command and duty and all Cat cares about is that he looks good. Thus the last man in the universe is stuck with a conceited, narcissistic feline and a power-crazy digital demagogue. Starting with the story of life on the Dwarf, the first four series of the show contained the following episodes:
• "The End": Life aboard the Red Dwarf is
disrupted when radiation kills everyone. Everyone but Dave Lister, that is. He
has been in suspended animation. But when he meets his new shipmates, he may
wish he were dead.
• "Kryten": The crew answers a distress call from a
downed vessel, where they find the fussy, fidgety robot named Kryten. Brought on
board the Dwarf, he becomes Rimmer's servant. But Lister wants him to rebel
against the hateful hologram.
At this point in the show, a lot of loose ends existed. Without giving too much away, a "blessed event" had to be explained away, a change in Holly's outward image had to be addressed (the previous actor had literally jumped ship), and the business decision to bring back Kryten the robot (Robert Llewellyn) had to be clarified. So, being the purveyors of pulp sci-fi that they are, Naylor and Grant used a Star Wars-style scroll at the start of "Backwards," the first show in Series 3, to spell out and further convolute the changes. With a new female Holly (Hattie Hayridge) and the Herman Munster-meets-mannequin android along, the new adventures of a revamped Red Dwarf looked a little like this:
• "Backwards": Kryten and Rimmer take the Red
Dwarf shuttlecraft, the Starbug, through a rip in time. They end up
on a planet just like Earth, except everything is backwards. Lister and Cat must
come to the rescue.
• "Camille": Answering yet another distress signal, the
crew of Red Dwarf discovers a beautiful woman named Camille. Or is she an
attractive robot? Or a sensible gal with an eye for Rimmer? Seems everyone sees
this supposed beauty in a different way.
You've got to hand it to the British. Even without a viable space program of their own, they have managed to create a rather warped view of science fiction and our volatile technological future. One of the clearest examples of their schizo sci-fi gone schism is the classic of the callbox, Dr. Who. Now before Dalek lovers and all manner of Whovians scream slander, this is not meant to be an insult. Indeed, for many years (including the seminal Tom Baker period from 1974 to 1981), the good Doctor and his various companions have time-traveled the galaxy, recording their adventures for a grateful group of fans. And for many Americans, the shape-shifting alien explorer was their first introduction to the ingenious English version of speculative television, a mixture of proper English manners with mind-bending monsters.
But behind the good Doc's back, there was a different kind of tension developing among the mod and pre-punk set. Wanting to take the piss out of such intergalactic claptrap, they decided to use satire as a means of making the illogical intellectual incontinence of most science fiction seem funny. Perhaps the best-known examples of this ironic ideology were the radio/ TV/novels of Douglas Adams and his five-part trilogy (?) known as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams proved that complex scientific ideas and esoteric technological leaps could be explained away with wicked satire and good-natured cleverness. Inspiring an entire generation of would-be geeks, Adams anarchic style and "sod it" sensibility touched a chord with young comedy writers. Indeed, there was someone else waiting in the wings, hoping to stretch insane interstellar premises to hilarious ends. And the beer-soaked brains belonged to Doug Naylor and Rob Grant
Using one of their old radio shows ("Dave Hollins: Space Cadet") combined with a pilot episode's plotline sketched out on the back of a lager mat (how apropos), the idea for Red Dwarf seemed destined to underwhelm everyone who came in contact with it. Yes, executives understood how funny, clever, and confident it was. But they thought there was no way a half-hour sitcom could be fashioned out of an abandoned ship, a lowly service technician, and his idiotic non-human companions. The script shuffled around the BBC for a while, with everyone praising it (and no one touching it). Thanks to young hotshot Paul Jackson, who had just wowed the comic cosmic universe with his own hyper-surreal sitcom about a group of university students on the dole in Thatcher's England (The Young Ones), Red Dwarf finally got the go-ahead. When casting was completed, noted UK comedians Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett were hired to play Rimmer and Holly, respectively. Accomplished musical comedy and stage actor Danny John-Jules was brought on to find the right balance between the suave and silly for Cat. But the role of Lister seemed a tough one to personify. When the creators saw Craig Charles' comedic skills showcased on the British version of Saturday Night Live, they realized they had found their man.
As a sitcom, Red Dwarf takes time to warm to. It lets go of its pleasures in incremental, measured doses, mixing more subtle humor with crass, sophomoric hijinks to offer an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to comedy. So obvious that it resorts to bodily functions for a great many jokes, but so insular as to milk Esperanto and their own private language of curse words (smeg, git, goit, gimboyd) for laughs, it's the most densely packed paragon of clever wit and gross-out gags ever created. Many could argue that Red Dwarf goes all out to win you over from the very start, hoping you hang to the typical cliffhanger shenanigans before you possibly opt out. But Naylor and Grant also know that it will be characters and their interaction that will form the basis for the show's longevity. Fail to establish the personalities and the flawed nature of your leads, and the laughs and the ratings will soon dry up.
In the beginning, Red Dwarf was fighting an uphill battle when it hit the airwaves. Based in the "alternative comedy" craze that swept through Britain in the early '80s, folks in the UK were just getting used to a rapid-fire, in-your-face style of free-form humor (many were still mired in the ancient misunderstanding of manners that filled the airwaves). And it featured a multicultural, ethnically diverse cast with two black men in the lead roles. But Dwarf had something that shows like The Young Ones failed to understand. If you give the people characters to care about and get involved with, they will respond with loyalty and love. Then, you can do all manner of surreal and stupid comedy and the audience will follow along willingly. Vivian, Rick, and Neil may have been filled with wicked witty venom, but their personal repulsiveness made them a platform of limited appeal.
Red Dwarf, as a series, was looking to fry any big social fish. It wanted to use sci-fi to champion the proletariat while snickering at the bourgeoisie. It wanted to explore social issues, mixing them with ultramodern favorites like time travel and parallel universes to cement their symbolic points. And it wanted to be funny and fresh. Amazingly, in its first four series, it managed to do all this and much more. Red Dwarf is humorous, heartfelt, experimental, and obvious. It introduces us to characters whose lives and loves we are truly interested in, and paints the pantomime with enough future shock silliness to keep the inner geek inside us excited. Grant and Naylor, using formulas we are all familiar with, managed to invent a rogue's gallery of ripe comic kooks, and then populate them in a world which allowed the "situation" in situation comedy to be anything their impish hearts desired.
If there was ever an everyman perfectly created for the English working sod, it was David Lister. A minority class clod of confused emotions and simple desires, he makes the far out fantasy aspects of the show (like aliens, robots, and curry) easily accessible to the non-nerd audience. He's a mate and a bit of a boozer. But he's very decent and exceptionally loyal. And like any good "odd" couple, Naylor and Grant created the Establishment stooge, the perfect foil for Lister's "great unwashed" persona. Indeed, Arnold Judas Rimmer (gotta love that middle name) is perhaps the very heart and soul of Red Dwarf. While Lister is the obvious choice to express the human nature of the series, Rimmer is the unchangeable career man, the sad sack simpleton in servitude to an ungrateful organization. Sure, he drips egomania, but he is also struggling with a total lack of identity. Rimmer is unable to change, stuck being the same old computer creation until the CPU warrants a makeover. His struggle with self, channeling his anger into hypocritical indignation, makes for one of the most telling and terrific aspects of the show.
As the series went on, both Cat and Kryten the Robot were exploited for their "wacky neighbor" potential, but the skill in which Naylor and Grant worked the two characters into every show (or individual showcase) indicated that they were not just afterthoughts. Their non-human characteristics function to facilitate and complete parts of the Red Dwarf universe. Cat's cool vanity and his slick sense of style and fashion never fully hide the fact that he is merely a big, humanized feline. And Kryten was the last piece in the puzzle to perfection, the Greek chorus as mechanical man who questions the lunacy around him in hopes that it will make sense.
Looking at the show Series by Series, one can see the progression from standard sitcom to sci-fi extravaganza, from cult favorite to worldwide phenomenon (and, oddly, back again). Also, by looking at it in an incremental way, we can see how the show developed, changed, and occasionally tracked off course to become one of the best, most one-of-a-kind British sitcoms ever.
Series 1: Getting Off the Ground
Otherwise known as the start of the gray seasons, since the original sets had been painted an appallingly dull gunmetal color that seemed to sap the very life out of everything that came in contact with it. Without much clout to tell the boys at the BBC what they wanted, Naylor and Grant simply made do with what they had and pressed to make the episodes the best they could. Yet even then, the creative element was additionally hampered by a mandate from the media moguls. Naylor and Grant had to keep Red Dwarf on as linear a story arc as possible, so the audiences at home would not get lost in space, so to speak. But this proved difficult, since the creative duo's imagination couldn't be bothered to address, week in and week out, issues like what had happened to the crew of the Red Dwarf, the dynamic between Lister and Rimmer, and why Cat was the way he was.
While the growing pains are obvious (so much so that for years, Naylor and Grant would NOT allow the first series episodes to be shown again) the installments of Series 1 contain some classic moments and excellent writing. As a matter of fact, when looking back at the shows from this series, it's hard to see the guys' embarrassed point of view. Between "Future Echoes," "Balance of Power," and "Waiting for God," there are some fantastic, funny moments in this initial output. "The End" sets up the show quite nicely, balancing the importance of crewmembers with the circumstances necessary to set up the rest of the show. "Future Echoes" is a classic, with a mind bending and complicated script that references itself and anticipates the next scenes (as well as several far-off events in the show's run) to formulate the first-ever must-see storyline. Following a sci-fi vehicle with a character-driven diversion, "Balance of Power" does a great job of fleshing out Rimmer and Lister, showing how isolation in space and from each other has created a deep (and comic) crack between them. "Waiting for God" can be considered Red Dwarf's first "message" piece. It attacks the randomness of religion while it addresses ideas like faith and belief. If there is one show in Series 1 that doesn't quite live up to its premise, it's "Confidence and Paranoia." The idea of materializing one's emotions into living entities is ingenious. But nothing much is done from a comic standpoint once the sentiment sentinels are free. A much better exploration of inner self is found in "Me2." Forcing Rimmer to "live with himself" again enhances his character, but it also gives us as an audience a chance to laugh at Arnie as he scoffs at his own real reflection.
Unlike other comedy series that needed a few shows to get their laugh legs under them, Red Dwarf came out swinging from the start, and almost immediately began reaping the riotous rewards. Indeed, it's interesting how rapidly we buy into the premise and accept the fact that we have been thrust three million years into the future. The actors have their characters down from the opening scene of the first show. This allows us easier access to the series' more eccentric delights. A good comparison to the relative success of Series 1 of Red Dwarf is to look at Season 1 of The Simpsons. Those original shows are well crafted and very clever. But Homer and the gang, just like the crew of Red Dwarf, would get better, and more outrageous, as future seasons arrived.
Series 2: Houston, We Have a Hit on Our Hands
With the show now a certified hit (it had been picked up for a second series before the first had officially ended—very unusual for a Britcom), Naylor and Grant felt confident enough to express their dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the show and its production. Most noticeably, the sets in Series 2 are now flecked with random explosions of color, hoping to overthrow the still too gloomy ever-present gray. Locations were used for the first time as the Dwarf crew entered a virtual reality video game and traveled off ship. And you can see major themes beginning to take center stage, after only making the rare appearance in Series 1. Love, death, gender, and humanity all show up to help deepen the comedy chaos. And not to worry, time travel and parallel universes (something Dwarf would wallow in throughout its entire run) still have a place onboard.
The desire for change can be seen from the first episode of Series 2, "Kryten." It features the crew's first foray off the ship, the introduction of a soon-to-be-star character, and a chance to explore the special effects of the show more formidably. The scenes of Lister getting "gussied up" are priceless, and the conversations about being your own 'bot (read: person) are excellent. Even better is the next episode, named, interestingly enough, "Better Than Life." The video game/VR aspects of the show are spectacular and the resolution is almost perfect. Even with their limited budget, Naylor and Grant manage to make the most of the premise and the presentation. Again, like a finely tuned machine, a character-driven piece makes up episode three. "Thanks for the Memory" gives Rimmer a chance to show a softer, simpler side, and the funeral procession finale is quite moving.
But somewhere between this creative achievement and the following week's installment, something must have snapped. If there is one flat near-fiasco in Red Dwarf, it's "Stasis Leak." The decision to go back to the fully functional Dwarf is fine. And the attempts by the future crew to talk to their past counterparts is cleverly handled. But when time continuums cross and Lister sees himself married to Kochanski, the payoff is paltry. Thankfully, "Queeg" sets everything right again. A showcase for Norman Lovett as Holly, and proof that new characters can easily move in and out of the Red Dwarf universe with ease and acceptance, this is a fine example of standard RD daffiness. "Parallel Universe" ends Series 2 on an incredibly high note (even if the resolution references back to the strange "Stasis Leak"). The twist on gender roles is great and the casting of the female version of the Red Dwarf crew is excellent. It's a great combination of comedy and consciousness-raising.
Almost all of Series 2 shows growth and experimentation. It digs deep into the characters' pasts to provide moments of joy or jaundice. Both Craig Charles and Chris Barrie accentuate their roles with little nuances, personality traits, and scripted tics (love of curry, the famous Rimmer "salute") to expand their interpersonal dimensions. Cat is even offered a few clever catchphrases ("How 'm I looking?") to further flesh out the feline. With a successful first Series behind them, Naylor and Grant really jack up the science, flail about with the fiction, and test the limits of lewd, crude comedy. The smeg/git level is enormous in Series 2 (and about to get a lot worse) and lowbrow lunacy rules. As Dwarf continued to find fans, it was also about to possess its ultimate ensemble, a cast and crew that would place this series into a classic sitcom overdrive.
Series 3: Warp into a New Reality
By the time the order for another Series came along, Dwarf was coasting on a fluffy cloud of critical acclaim and audience adulation. The BBC was shocked at how popular this sci-fi comedy was and wanted more episodes immediately. But Grant and Naylor knew they had to shake up the format. They felt that another season of Rimmer vs. Lister would result in story stagnation. They wanted to open the show up more, give it an expanded look and a greater reliance on interacting within the cosmos. Looking back on the previous twelve shows for inspiration, they struck upon Series 2's opening episode, the story of a strange robot named Kryten and his journey into rebelliousness, for their first major modification. The android was recast with stage actor Robert Llewellyn, and instantly, a new classic cast member was created.
The other alteration more or less landed in the producers' laps. Norman Lovett was unhappy with his lack of creative outlet in the shows. He also didn't like the trips to the rehearsal hall and the Manchester studio. So he left the show and, along the lines of "Queeg," the creators decided to turn Holly into a woman. Hattie Hayridge (she had played the female doppelganger Hilly in "Parallel Universe") was hired, and with her, a new female dynamic was added to the show.
Wisely, Grant and Naylor relegated Kryten to the back burner for most of the new shows. He is literally Rimmer's straight-man sidekick in "Backwards" and that's fine, since the real stars of the show are the camera effects and creative writing. Trying to make a universe where everything happens in reverse is tough enough, but to have it also seem sensible and logical is near impossible. But Naylor and Grant excel here, and the episode is a real amusing mind warp. The personal story after spectacle story switch is back in full bloom with "Marooned." Rimmer and Lister are left alone to reminisce and reflect on their lives and, again, their characterization becomes more complete. With "Polymorph," it's time for some good old-fashioned Alien-inspired monster movie goofiness. If the scene with Lister and Kryten "removing" his shrinking underwear doesn't have you in fits of laughter, then Red Dwarf is just not for you. With Rimmer's constant complaints about not being able to touch and feel, it's nice to see an episode like "Bodyswap." It gives the actors a chance to explore each other's roles, and Chris Barrie a chance to work some of his famous mimicry. The British preoccupation with space and time continues with "Timeslides," but for once, a recognizable approach is taken. Going back in time to give yourself a key to wealth is a dream for many. But the way in which Lister and Rimmer handle the chore is pure situation comedy and makes for a funny, intriguing episode. "The Last Day" finally begins the descent into Kryten's kingdom that will eventually overwhelm the rest of the Series. Having stayed around the perimeters of the first few shows, Robert Llewellyn is given a chance to shine as the robot with only a few hours to "live." The approach taken here is novel, and highlights how this open-ended comic creation will be handled in the future.
There are growing pains present throughout Series 3 of Red Dwarf, the pulls and tears for any show that is changing and evolving. The addition of Robert Llewellyn's Kryten is a definite boon for the cast, since it gives the whole shipside dynamic a welcome, fresh face to play off. While Kryten will soon seem to be everywhere in the show, stealing scenes from the other characters, he is still a hoot here. Holly, on the other hand, is more of a tricky difference. Norman Lovett did not want to return, and you can occasionally sense Grant and Naylor taking in out on Hattie Hayridge. It's not until midway through Series 4 where she gets a chance to shine—her role here is mostly as expositional plot pusher. But with such instant masterworks as "Bodyswap" and "Polymorph," Series 3 continued the uphill rise of Red Dwarf.
Series 4: Coasting on Overdrive
Several things influenced and modified Series 4. A "Fonzie" ideal developed regarding a recently-added character. A comment by a journalist that Red Dwarf was "huge" in America spurred an additional creative flurry. The desire of a longtime castmate to shake his craven image was examined, and a chance to create a location-oriented sci-fi spectacle developed. When the cast and crew arrived to shoot the series, there were a lot of ideas floating around. Experimentation was met with further flights of fancy and it wasn't long before budgets and technical limitations were pressed. Yet Grant and Naylor knew on what side of their crumpet the butter was basted. So they found ways to continue showcasing the new talent and to honor one established performer's desire to reimagine himself. But someone was left out when all was said and done.
From the beginning, the incredibly popular Kryten is given the starring role in "Camille." Indeed, the final half of the show centers on his careful, considerate treatment of this alien entity that can shape-shift to be anyone's ultimate desire. It's a nice showcase for Llewellyn's talent, and provides him with an opportunity to flex his acting chops in a more dramatic fashion. Then "DNA" does it one better, turning Kryten human. The transformation issue is addressed with cleverness and humor and the payoff (the creation of a curry monster) is fantastic. Rounding out the trilogy of robot-specific episodes, "Justice" is again one of Dwarf's best. It incorporates the past seasons within a courtroom countdown that leaves one speechless with its well-written repartee. The closing argument that Kryten delivers for the defense of Rimmer is priceless, and shows that not all of Red Dwarf's gags were based on the similarly named reflex.
With "White Hole," Hattie's Holly is finally given a chance to shine solo, moving from moron to super genius and all points in between. The show itself is fairly tame, since most of the material deals with IQ points and timeframes, but it is still nice to see the ancillary characters addressed. Taking perhaps the biggest risk in Dwarf history, "Dimension Jump" focuses on a "good guy" Rimmer from another plane of existence who encapsulates everything that the Dwarf's hologram lacks. The peril is that audiences would find Ace a more acceptable Arnold and abandon the original. Thankfully, Naylor and Grant manage to balance bravura with a hint of buffoon to keep Ace from becoming too endearing. As a series finale, "Meltdown" represents everything Naylor and Grant were striving for when they remade the show over in Series 3. Utilizing the great figures from history ideal to address war and peace, the sheer number of guest stars and scope make for a less funny, but definitely more thought provoking installment.
You have to feel sorry for Craig Charles in Series 4. Asked to carry the majority of Dwarf for the last 18 episodes, he is unceremoniously cast aside as Kryten and old standby Rimmer are given classic, comical showcases. While Lister holds his own through most of the shows, he is almost never the center of attention here (you could argue that his Robocop-meets-Rasta role as the Curry Monster killer in "DNA" elevated his status slightly). But it's all part of Naylor and Grant's design. As full producers, able to decide on direction, set, and story choices, they strove to paint the show in their own image once and for all. So this version of Dwarf perhaps represents the most personal view of the duo's creative vision for the show. Series 3 and 4 are what Dwarf would have looked like had the BBC and Paul Jackson had not exercised complete control of the show. And it's interesting how profound and philosophical the series became. All effects aside, Dwarf proved that it was more interested in ideas than visual variety.
It seems like an obvious thing to point out, but the reason that Red Dwarf is so consistently clever and always witty is that, unlike American sitcoms, this show was scripted by only two people: Doug Naylor and Rob Grant. Typical of most British comedy (AbFab is Jennifer Saunders' baby, Mr. Bean was the brainchild of a trio of scribes), staying with the same writing team meant that every aspect of the show was quality-controlled and manipulated by the individuals who originally conceived it. They were in charge of the characters. They were responsible for the changes. They had such a handle on their product that they knew when they could push the boundaries and when they needed to rein things in. Such an insular invention organization can—and occasionally did—result in some very strange storylines and circumstances (how many times can someone travel back in time and not mess up the continuum once and for all?), but the creators always understood when to back off and reestablish order.
But Naylor and Grant aren't solely responsible for Dwarf's success. Equally important to the show's uniformity and creative cleverness was its unsung hero, director Ed Bye. Here is a man who had to create a lavish production on a British budget and still try to avoid the cheesy and the fake. While many times Dwarf devolves into goofiness, it's not because of how the show is presented. Bye understands the old tricks of misdirection, forced perspective, and miniatures, and the effects he has to work with end up looking realistic and believable. But he manages to keep the pace brisk and the reality cogent even when Naylor and Grant are sending the show into the great unknown.
As a TV show, Red Dwarf is timeless and loaded with talent. But the DVD presentations offered here transcend the tube to become the best TV series box sets ever, by a dimension leap. If you want to understand why, sometimes, certain DVDs are referred to as "reference quality," then one overview of the Red Dwarf series presented by BBC America through Warner Brothers is all you'll need. Frankly, these are great packages. Not only do they provide an entire six-episode series on one disc, but they throw in a beautiful image, a sensible soundtrack, and a second disc featuring more extras than any human fan of the show could possibly consume in one sitting. Beginning with the visual and audio side of the ship, Red Dwarf looks great on DVD. Each 1.33:1 full screen installment is clean, bright, colorful, and remastered in appearance. The usual problems associated with video transfers of old shows (this series is almost 16 years old) are absent here. There is no haloing, flaring, or bleeding, even with all those electric lights flashing on and off. As the Series box sets progress, the image just gets better and better. You would never guess that Dwarf was several years, not months, old. Aurally, the shows are also handled in a first class manner. The Dolby Digital Stereo highlights Howard Goodall's peppy theme song (with some of the most arcane lyrics since "schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated"), and the dialogue is never lost among the copious audience responses. Though one could argue that the television technology of the time sells both the sound and vision short, lifelong fans will attest that these box sets offer the best looking Red Dwarf ever.
But nothing, and I mean nothing can prepare you for the comprehensive, contextually sound bonus packages that accompany each series set. Taking up an entire separate disc (and this is not counting the goodies to be found within the episodes) and running three to four hours in length, "all inclusive" doesn't begin to describe these amazing bonuses. They're inventive and informative. They highlight each and every aspect of the show and address some things you didn't even know. It answers all the questions one could have about the series, then anticipates ones you haven't even thought of and addresses those as well. Anyone who knows and loves the series will be instantly drawn to the "Smeg Ups" (otherwise known as "bloopers") and Deleted Scenes offered as part of each box set. Dick Clark understood that nothing is funnier than watching professionals foul up, and the goofs and gaffes committed by the Red Dwarf cast are indeed sidesplitting. While most of the language is bleeped, there is an occasional expletive that sneaks by to prove that "smeg" or "git" weren't the only curses employed by the cast. The Deleted Scenes are insightful because they show how certain exchanges between the characters are modified and trimmed, sometimes by just a line or two, to tighten and focus the conversations and storylines. It's also fascinating to see the original pilot material that was completely rewritten when it bombed in front of an audience (Barrie and Charles look lost as line after line dies without even a whimper).
There is more of this insight into the making of the show on the full-length cast commentaries that accompany every episode on each disc. One of the first things you have to remember about commentaries for series television is that most actors aren't rabid fans of their own work and don't know each episode as well as you do. So when Charles or Barrie approaches a show, they are usually seeing it for the first time in decades. The cast is detached enough from the program's making to have them reliving it as a show only all over again. That makes for a fun, but occasionally frustrating, narrative. There are times when the actors merely stop to watch and enjoy. The other thing you learn about the early episodes of the show was how hung over and drunk everyone was during filming. Apparently, Craig Charles and Danny John-Jules would tie one on the night before a shoot and spend the rest of the next day, heads throbbing and smelling like "smeg" but still expected to perform. These anecdotes permeate the first two series commentaries and are as prevalent as jabs at the first Holly, Norman Lovett. Obviously embarrassed that he acted like an ass during his short time on the show, Lovett is full of excuses and pleasantries. But the rest of the cast constantly ridicules him, commenting on his hair loss (or lack thereof) and overall attitude at the time. By Series 3, we move into much more profound, plot-oriented territory. Since these discs feature documentaries that discuss each episode individually, the cast is more up on their homework and the commentary reflects this. Many are still experiencing the show all over again, but they have more specific, insightful things to say—that is, when they are not making fun of each other. This cast loves to ridicule and undermine each other for the sake of a joke, and this makes the commentaries that much more fun. With the addition of a documentary in each series set, the wealth of behind-the-scenes information is staggering.
Speaking of documentaries, the makers of the Red Dwarf DVDs have taken the opportunity to treat each box set as a chapter in the saga of the show, and have created fact-filled pieces about the making of the show and history surrounding the series. Series 1 features "Launching Red Dwarf," which is simply packed with backstage intrigue and television pilot dos and don'ts. Series 2 gives us "Red Dwarf: A-Z" a chance to understand all aspects of the show presented in an alphabetical guide. Series 3 attempts to explain all the changes that occurred between the second and third season and is incredibly detailed. "Built to Last" from Series 4 discusses the difficulties in keeping the series fresh, and how each actor started to demand more attention to his role in the show. With nearly six hours of information packed into these interview features and with the additional 12 hours of commentary (there is a writers/directors commentary on the series one episode "The End," which repeats much of the information in the documentary), the life and legacy of Red Dwarf is well covered.
But the makers of the DVD don't think it's enough. They just continue to ladle on the material like marmalade on toast. We get random featurettes about such subjects as the alter ego characters the cast have "played" throughout the run of the show (Series 2: "Alternative Personalities" Featurette), how important foods like curry and lager have become to the show (Series 3: "Food" Featurette), the significance of sex (Series 4—"Lurve" Featurette) and a heroic alter ego in a parallel universe (Series 4: Ace Rimmer—A Life in Lamé Featurette) when it comes to being marooned in space. For the most part, these featurettes are really music montages showing highlights from all the shows in the entire series. Some of the references will go over the heads of those coming to Red Dwarf for the first time via these DVDs. But the featurettes are well put together and genuinely fun to watch.
But there are other special offerings that are even more mad and magnificent. For those with a desire to see Rimmer and Lister speak like Asians, the Series 1 DVD bonus disc features the entire Japanese version of "The End." Danny John-Jules got to showcase his musical talent when his character, Cat, dreamed he was a pop star. The Series 2 DVD bonus disc features the full, uncut version of the music video "Tongue Tied" so you can witness the frisky feline and his bumbling backup "singers" in action.
One of the best shows of Series 3 is "Backwards," where the crew lands on a reverse Earth. Now you can see all the crazy footage the right way around when the bonus disc offering, "Backwards" Forwards, plays the entire show from last closing credit to first opening image. Some of the incoherent dialogue becomes very funny when finally "translated." But without a doubt, the most humorous bit of direct connection Dwarf is the Series 4 Disc 2 presentation of Can't Smeg, Won't Smeg. Ainsley Harriott, a popular TV chef in England, used to have a daily morning cooking competition called Can't Cook, Won't Cook, where normal people came to show off their kitchen incompetence and have Ainsley teach them how to make a proper meal. Well, in this Grant and Naylor takeoff on the series, Lister and Kryten compete against Rimmer and "Duane" (Cat's human counterpart. It's a long story) to make a tasty chicken curry (what else?) and Harriott is along for the ride. It's rude and randy. It's tasteless and tawdry. It's foul and fetid. And it's about the funniest thing this side of a regular Red Dwarf episode. It is always tricky to bring "fictional" characters into the real world and have them interact with a famous personality. But Harriott is an excellent foil for the celebrated cast and holds his own quite well. With Naylor and Grant onboard to give the cuisine showcase a good Dwarf dunking, it's a wonderful surprise and indicates the commitment to make these DVDs as comprehensive as possible.
And there's still more. Even with all the above artifacts, the producers still find room on each two-disc set to place trailers (BBC show promos for Dwarf), FX footage in various stages of shooting, all the musical cues from each episode isolated, chapters from the incredibly popular Red Dwarf novels as read by cast members, photo galleries, weblinks, booklets featuring write-ups on the shows and each episode, and a wealth of DVD-ROM and Easter Egg material. Be sure to look out for these sometimes hard-to-find hidden features. A couple offer the creative team behind Red Dwarf discussing the show and/or individual episodes. The clever conceit here is that they are rendered in Clutch Cargo-style cartoons, computerized black spot moving in sync with the discussion to make the immobile caricatures of Naylor, Grant and Bye appear to be "discussing" the issue among themselves. Along with the Commentary on Series 1 show "The End," this is the only time you'll hear Rob Grant speak about the show (his absence from almost all of the Red Dwarf bonus material is odd).
For all the history and backstage gossip, cast changes and focus fiddling present within the show's legacy, there is one undeniable fact about Red Dwarf. It is one of the best-written, most wonderfully acted sitcoms of all time. It is right up there with Fawlty Towers, The Simpsons, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. It took a premise that shouldn't have worked (sci-fi show) tossed in a cast of relative unknowns, mixed in a little complicated plot lining, and garnished with a big fat helping of humor to create something that, 16 years later, is still going strong (while a ninth Series has yet to be commissioned, a major motion picture is in the works). From the pitch-perfect performing to the clever writing and direction, it is a show that leaves a lasting impression once it has been experienced.
Many who watch Red Dwarf for the first time don't quite get it right off the bat. They fail to understand the strangeness of the setting, the laughable nature of the characters, and the rapid-fire frenzy of the storylines. One minute the crew are all alone in space, the next a figment of Lister's fevered mind is having a lager with him. Technology seems to be both helpful (Holly) and annoying (the talking toaster who always asks if anyone wants his grilled bread delights…over and over again). But for those who press on, who plow through the eccentricities and catch on to the mad tea party pleasantries encased in each episode, the rewards are overwhelming. Like discovering a new favorite "anything," watching Red Dwarf for the first time is an evangelical experience. You'll immediately want to know everything about it. And that's why these DVD are so fantastic. Anyone who is a fan of Red Dwarf will want to own them immediately (even if they feel some of the bonus material is recycled from other Dwarf video incarnations). And all studios looking for a benchmark in the production of television series titles should look no further than the work done by the BBC and Warners. But it will be the newcomers who will be most positively affected by the digital dioramas here. Unlike most recipes for unmixable merriment, Red Dwarf satisfies like a cold beer after a fiery hot curry. And it stays with you just as long.
This case should have never been brought to this court. All charges against Red Dwarf, BBC America and Warner Brothers are hereby dismissed and the Series 1-4 Two-Disc DVD sets presented here are given a special commendation by this Judge.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Series 1: Cast Commentary on Each Episode, Writers and Directors Commentary on Episode 1, Deleted Scenes, Smeg Ups (Bloopers), Original BBC Trailer, "Launching Red Dwarf" Documentary, Japanese Version of "The End," Raw FX Footage, Isolated Music Cues, Audio Book Chapters, Photo Gallery, Weblink, 12 Page Collectors Booklet, Trading Cards, Hidden Easter Eggs
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.