The greatest sci-fi comedy of all time delivers its final season of laughs to DVD. In an overview of the last four series, Judge Bill Gibron argues for Red Dwarf's place in the hallowed history of hilarity.
"So let me get this straight. If we board that ship and we get captured,
we're finished. However, if we board that ship, don't get captured but the
superstructure disintegrates around us, we are finished. On the other hand, if
we board that ship, don't get captured, and the superstructure doesn't
disintegrate around us, but we can't find any fuel, we are in fact
Red Dwarf definitely defies the odds. It is hilarious and heartfelt in a genre—science fiction—which usually supports very little of either, and it's speculatively sound in an arena—comedy—which cares almost exclusively if the laughs are lively. Throughout its amazing run as one of the BBC's signature satires, the series has developed a following so loyal that to call them a cult would disrespect their devotion. Indeed, it's easier to consider those dedicated to Dwarf as a faction so committed that they skyrocket into the stratosphere with their obsession (we could just call them "smegheads" and be done with it). Over eight sensational seasons (referred to as series in Brit terms), the program has maintained a level of consistency that few in the business can fathom. It hasn't been afraid to explore serious themes and ideas, tamper with a more or less flawless core cast, and introduce elements both arresting (time travel) and arcane (the infamous Dwayne Dibbly). Still, fans can't seem to get enough. The demand for more Dwarf lingers, even though the show has been more or less out of production since Series 8 ended in 1999. Now we can revisit the entire sensational sci-fi show whenever we want. The BBC, via American distributor Warner Brothers, has made all eight season available and with the first four installments dealt with previously, it's time to tackle the remaining quartet. The ride will be rocky at times, but well worth it in the end. It's the way Dwarf always intended it to be.
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 unfortunate 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. Luckily 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. Rimmer is more interested in command and duty, and all Cat cares about is whether he looks good. Thus the last man in the universe is stuck with a conceited, narcissistic feline and a power-crazed digital demagogue. Starting with the story of life on the Dwarf, the first four series then continued on, changing one character and adding another.
At the end of Series 2, a lot of loose ends existed. Without giving too much away, a "blessed event" had to be explained, 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, show creators Doug Naylor and Rob 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 continued on. The quartet of crew members took on interplanetary foes, explored freaked-out faraway worlds, and more or less spent their downtime getting on each others' nerves. By the end of Series 4, the shipboard tension was palpable. Where the series would go from here was anybody's guess. After all, Red Dwarf has a more or less open-ended deal with the BBC. They could bring the show back when they wanted, in more or less whatever configuration they desired. This allowed the creative team to mess with the show's successful formula, providing fresh storylines and more character development (one of the show's strongest points).
At the start of Series 5, the crew continues on wild, wooly adventures, including the following:
"Holoship"—The Red Dwarf comes across a holoship, a place where Rimmer can feel like a whole man again. Unfortunately, the price to pay for such luxury may be too steep.
"The Inquisitor"—A self-repairing android with a God complex traps the crew of the Red Dwarf, demanding to know if they've lived a worthwhile life. Only Rimmer fails the test.
"Terrorform"—When the shuttle Starbug lands on a Psi-moon, the planet modifies its terrain to mimic Rimmer's psychological profile. It is not pretty.
"Quarantine"—While investigating an abandoned genetics lab, the crew unleashes a psychotic hologram named Dr. Hildegarde Landstrome, who wants to infect them with a holovirus. Only Rimmer is infected.
"Demons and Angels"—After a mishap with Kryton's "triplicator," the Red Dwarf is destroyed. Retracing their actions, the crew discovers two new versions of the vessel, one good…and one very, very bad.
"Back to Reality"—Arriving aboard a ghost ship, the crew of the Dwarf are confronted by, and killed by, a despair squid…or maybe, it was all just an elaborate RPG game.
For Series 6, the crew has been cryogenically frozen and when they thaw, they discover that the Red Dwarf is missing. This leads to the following adventures aboard Starbug:
"Psirens"—As Kryten tries to track the missing starship, the crew run across a race of shape-shifting creatures bent on destruction.
"Legion"—The Starbug is trapped and taken in by an android named Legion, who has some definite designs on the crew.
"Gunmen of the Apocalypse"—After their efforts to destroy a group of killer simulants fails, the gang uses a video game to battle the bad guys, old West style.
"Emohawk: Polymorph II"—Arriving in forbidden Gelf space after an intergalactic police chase, Lister finds himself betrothed to a member of alien royalty.
"Rimmerworld"—The Starbug is running out of supplies, and Rimmer must make a perilous journey onto a simulant ship, with some very surreal consequences.
"Out of Time"—The crew of the Red Dwarf faces off against their future shelves as a time drives bring the two desperate parties together.
After the cliffhanger ending, Series 7 decided to significantly shake up the show. A favored character leaves, while a new one arrives. It all begins with:
"Tikka to Ride"—Applying the principles of time travel to save themselves, the Red Dwarf crew are soon smack dab in the middle of the Kennedy assassination.
"Stoke Me a Clipper"—Good guy Ace Rimmer returns, and he has a very interesting proposal for this holographic double Arnold.
"Ouroboros"—When a time tear offers the crew a glimpse of an alternative reality, including a living Kristine Kochanski, Lister wonders about his life, and his parents.
"Duct Soup"—Trying to flee a desperate situation, the various members of the Dwarf crew reflect on life.
"Blue"—The arrival of Kochanski has thrown everyone in a tizzy. Even Lister is starting to miss Rimmer. In fact, he's even dreaming about him.
"Beyond the Joke"—Hoping to enlighten the crew, Kochanski takes them into a virtual reality simulation of Pride and Prejudice. It's the final straw for Kryten.
"Epideme (Part 1)"—Lister is infected by a smug zombie-inducing space virus, and the rest of the crew can't find a cure.
"Nanarchy (Part 2)"—Lister, upset over the manner in which he was saved, insists that Kryten find his rogue nanobots to do a bit of bodily healing.
Series 8 decided to once again shock fans by reconfiguring the show all together. The crew locates the Red Dwarf, realizes it has been fully restored by the nanobots and, in record time, they are court marshaled and jailed. This lead to the following episodes:
"Back in the Red Part 1"—Lister, shocked to be back on board Red Dwarf with his nemesis Rimmer, tries to avoid his legal fate.
"Back in the Red Part 2"—As Lister plots escape (and Rimmer stabs him in the back), Kryten faces a crisis…of gender?
"Back in the Red Part 3"—The attempt fails and the crew finds themselves dealing with life in the brig for the next two years.
"Cassandra"—After signing up to be part of a prisoner scout squad, the Canaries, the crew comes across as a computer that can predict the future.
"Krytie TV"—Since he is confined to the women's section of the prison, Kryten has a bot's eye view of the ladies—including their showering rituals.
"Pete Part 1"—After being punished for a number of pranks, Rimmer and Lister end up in the hole, where they meet Birdman and his pal Pete, the 9-year-old swallow.
"Pete Part 2"—When Pete's accidentally turned into a T-Rex, the crew tries to get Pete back to his avian state.
"Only the Good"—When the ship is attacked by a corrosive material that slowly starts eating it, the crew must find a cure or their time may indeed be up.
This critic has previously addressed his admiration and devotion to the Red Dwarf series. If you'd like to read this massive missive, wander on over to the Red Dwarf: Series 1-4 review here on the site and dig into its dense descriptive elements. Now back to our regularly scheduled review.
Many fans know it, but it bears repeating. Series 6 would be the last to be commanded by creative partners Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. A serious falling out over direction and personal goals caused the show to lose one of its significant guiding lights and, as a result, Naylor had to hire on additional writers to fill the void. That is why this slate of episodes feels so bifurcated, divided among the consistently creative (Series 5 and 6), the odd (Series 7), and the strangely familiar (Series 8). Indeed, up until the end of Series 6, it is easy to see the continuation of the old Dwarf dynamic. Series 7 sees the loss of not only Grant, but cast regular Chris "Rimmer" Barrie. Determined to only appear in two episodes, he was convinced to expand his role to four. Obviously tensions were taking their toll, yet nothing about the installments themselves (except for the narrative and personnel quirks) indicated any issue. By the time the plot returned to Red Dwarf's cage-like prison, fans were either pleased or perplexed by the intentional grounding. Gone were the experiments in speculative fiction. In its place were the crazed character battles that highlighted the first few series. Individually, the episodes mark differing dynamics within the Dwarf world. Together they try to create an epic arc, one dealing with man's minor place in the infinite cosmic fugue. Perhaps it's easier to look at them individually, to determine how they fit within the Dwarf mythos, as well as where and when the program went a bit "potty."
Series 5: Forever the Same
Of course, popularity pitched that idea. Dwarf was still drawing fans both at home and abroad, and to alienate your audience just as they were professing their undying love for you was tantamount to show business suicide. So the series decided to keep going and more or less decided to forward the sci-fi side of things. New director Juliet May had no sci-fi experience, cutting her teeth doing stand-up showcases. Yet here she was helming perhaps the most complex and inventive set of shows in the series. She fought a constant battle with the cast and crew as they challenged her mantle and she eventually left the series when it was clear that very few people had complete confidence in her work. As a result, Series 5 feels a little loose. Plot holes that would usually be filled with directorial finesse crash and clunk along instead. Though you can barely see it, the show was starting to stumble ever so slightly.
As part of Series 5's episodes, we see storylines being drawn for distinct aspects of the cast's characteristics. Chris Barrie, whose Rimmer was usually relegated to lamentable laughing stock, found his footing here, getting to play the romantic ("Holoship"), the dopey deranged dictatorial type ("Quarantine"), and the subject of his own sullied psychological brain mapping ("Terrorform"). It seems apropos that this would happen, since Series 6 would further expand Rimmer's importance as a character and as a concept. It also foreshadowed the fallout that was looming on the horizon, something certainly created by the fractured focus on the new, more serious, shows. Indeed, Craig Charles' Lister is still a featured facet, but Cat seems lost in the shuffle of styles. Where once the series seemed a shining light of ensemble efforts, elements both inside and outside the show were poised to tear it all apart. The humor was and still is rock solid, but the foundation was fractured.
Series 6: The Big Bang
As a result, Series 6 threatens to become a monster of the moment marathon. We get the oversized insects of "Psirens," the walking monkey carpets called Gelfs of "Emohawk," the super-intelligent and psychotically self-aware robot of "Legion," not to mention the Borg offshoot known as the Simulants. About the only time a creature-feature facet isn't utilized is when the crew visits Rimmer on his clone-created planet, "Rimmerworld," or when these four distinct personalities travel from the future to visit their present selves in "Out of Time." While the gags were still hysterical and the plotlines complex and pointed, Dwarf seemed to mimic the universe itself. It kept expanding and extrapolating, running rings around its own story arc to almost undermine the entire enterprise. Fans often point to these shows as individual treasures (the Wild West excursion—"Gunmen of the Apocalypse"—even won an Emmy), but the cloud hanging over the show was about to burst wide open and the fallout was almost fatal. A familiar face behind the lens needed to return to make things right again.
Series 7: Who Goes There?
Still, Bey brought with him an idea that he was sure would save the series. He wanted to scuttle the live audience. For a long time, Dwarf was hindered by the need to stage a standard three-camera comedy. Bey was convinced that by switching to film, the full scope of the series' vision could finally be realized. Nowhere is this truer than in the startling first episode, "Tikka to Ride." What other sitcom, sci-fi or otherwise, would take on the Kennedy Assassination and an alternative future for the United States had the beloved President not been felled by a rain of bullets? With spectacular re-creations of the events in Daley Plaza, plus the logistical luck of finding a Concord engine test site to film in, the first installment under Bey's broadening horizons was majestic. Yet before they could wallow in success, Chris Barrie was saying his goodbyes.
His swansong episode (sort of), entitled "Stoke Me a Clipper," was another patented Ace Rimmer hero shot. Barrie always enjoyed the swashbuckling throwback to Hollywood adventures serials of the '30s and '40s, and Naylor made sure that he had a powerful and ingenious way of stepping away from the character. Some of the scenes are very moving, especially when you consider that Barrie was, supposedly, never coming back. Even in the minor moments where he makes cameos, his presence still permeates everything Dwarf relied on. One therefore has to feel especially sorry for Chloë Annett as the new Kristine Kochanski. In the first place, she was replacing another actress who had originated the role (former Altered Images singer Clare Grogan). Secondly, she was more or less introduced as a Rimmer replacement, a stuck-up officer with a rulebook wedged up her backside. Annett was all attitude and aggravation during those first few shows, never really reaching her stride until the two-part cliffhanger, "Epideme" and "Nanarchy." Again, no one can question the show's wit or vision, but strains of the varying creative shifts were starting to show.
Series 8: Back to the Future
Naylor, who wrote almost all of Series 8 by himself, had a fabulous response. If he couldn't make his movie for the cineplex, he would expand the TV storylines to fit his escalating ideals. Therefore we have the 90-minute masterwork, "Back in the Red." Not quite as effective broken up as a three-part piece than in its stellar, sweeping whole, the story of the future Dwarfers and their reunion with the clueless spacecraft crew had everything that made the series a sensation in the first place. There was fantastic interaction between the characters, lots of goofy, grandiose physical comedy, a smattering of sci-fi speculation, and a heavy helping of good old-fashioned camaraderie. The entire prison angle allowed for the introduction of new faces to the Dwarf fold, while original elements long missing from the later series suddenly reappeared. Like rebooting the series from a save disc, Red Dwarf was alive again, riffing away like it used to, without all the complex narratives and epic aspirations getting in the way. It was a show about people again. They just so happened to be in space.
With CGI now a big part of the production (it was used extensively in the dinosaur-driven "Pete" episodes), Naylor could realize some of the more amazing visions he had, yet these stunning set pieces never overshadowed the special bond between the blokes. Everyone here feels resurrected and reborn. Barrie even finds a way to make his antsy Arnold Rimmer even more insipid and annoying. Everything clicks again, combining to make the show the entertaining escapist fun it originally set out to be. Sure, the show had swollen and flooded over the banks of its sitcom strategies and, more times than not, Naylor and company tried to create something that no amount of expertise—big or small screen—could ever imagine or envision. One of the greatest elements of this series is that it always understood the value of keeping the audience on its toes. Sometimes it was intentional. At other moments, it was outside circumstance or budgetary blunders that caused the shake-up. Still, the one consistent thing that survived over the years was the comedy. Red Dwarf remains a clever and creative show. All eight seasons sing with unbridled cleverness and overwhelming doses of belly laughs.
It's not over yet. Naylor has always said that, even though Series 8 ended back in 1999, the show was still vital and very viable. The movie idea is still around and, with the release of these dense DVDs of each and every season, a whole new audience appreciates the effort. Fans flock to Web sites and fill bulletin boards with praise and opinions. Conventions are held and the cast members are considered eternal icons to the history of television and the legacy of the sci-fi genre. Though the original four series seem to hold the dearest place in the hearts of many devotees, the overall octet is an amazingly consistent comedy cavalcade. One would be hard-pressed to rank the individual seasons, since each one tends to reflect and reinforce the others. Even as they grow older, broader, and more wrinkled, the cast remains a perfect combination of personality and peculiarity. Under the proper circumstances, they could continue on creating season after season of sensational outer space silliness. Keep your fingers crossed that this won't be the end of this enigmatic interstellar spoof.
As a TV show, Red Dwarf remains 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 dimensional 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 series on one, or occasionally two discs, 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 are absent here. There is no haloing, flaring, or bleeding, even with all those electric lights flashing on and off. For some reason, during Series 6, bland bands appear across the top and bottom of the image, giving it a faux letterboxed effect. But the framing difference is really minimal—say, 1.45:1 vs. typical full screen. It is not really important. As the Series box sets progress, the image just gets better and better. You would never guess that Dwarf was several years old. Aurally, the shows are also handled in a first-class manner. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 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. In addition, many episodes in the series had to be truncated for time purposes. Instead of running the standard 29 minutes, they'd move into the 30-plus category. On the Series 7 and 8 discs, you will gain access to the full-length versions of these installments, along with a chance to hear Chris Barrie read the mythical Cat episode, "Identity Within" (never produced for budgetary reasons).
There is even more of this insight into the making of the show on the full-length cast commentaries. 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. Indeed, such an amazing oral history is so vital to understanding Dwarf's continued appeal that this approach should be adopted by all DVD distributors hoping to make fringe or cult programs more accessible. Another brilliant brainstorm is the inclusion of fan commentaries. On the discs for Series 5 and 6, a group of contest winners get to sit down and play expert as they walk through "Back to Reality" and "Gunmen of the Apocalypse."
Far and away the best added content here, however, are the 80-to-90-minute documentaries that accompany each series. Discussing the process of renewal and the decisions regarding show direction, and featuring almost every important face associated with the show (Rob Grant excluded), these in-depth creative conversations are, without a doubt, the reason these DVDs consistently satisfy and amaze. Warm, witty, insightful, and unafraid to point fingers, we learn more about Dwarf's highs and lows than in a library of show lore. From how the cast handled the Grant/Naylor "divorce" to the honest questioning of Juliet May's abilities (and, amazingly enough, the director's upfront responses), these are documentaries about truth and talent, not press-release-ready EPKs. In many ways, the eight documentaries included as part of the series' DVDs represent nearly 12 hours of Dwarf enlightenment. How could anyone be displeased with that?
Surprisingly enough, that's not it. Every bonus disc contains trailers, Web links, galleries, isolated music cues, radio sketch comedy in the form of the Grant/Naylor show "David Hollins: Space Cadet" (the germ of Red Dwarf), and various additional featurettes. Sometimes, these offerings are nothing more than music montage moments from the series ("Fight," "Sick," "Bad Guys"). At other instances, we get completist views of the model and CGI work, storyboard comparisons, comments on the aborted U.S. version of the series (a sore spot for fans), and material from the cast and crew (Robert "Kryten" Llewellyn's video diary is very engaging). In fact, there is so much material included as part of each DVD that, by owning all eight series, you end up with your very own Red Dwarf digital encyclopedia. It's a visual reference guide to one of the best comedies ever created and proof that companies can create interactive packaging that truly complements and supplements a show.
In some ways, Red Dwarf should stay on hiatus forever. It should leave itself, as an entity, as open ended as many of the narratives it fostered. In 2006 (or whenever Doug Naylor decides to restart the series, if ever), the TV world has changed a great deal. Sci-fi seems relegated to well-considered remakes (Battlestar Galactica), alien-invasion monster movies (the cancelled Invasion and Surface), or unimaginative retreads of already-stillborn shows (why is Stargate: SG-1 still on the air???). With the failure of Firefly and the lack of significant Trek on the tube, it looks like post-millennial fans aren't all that eager for serious speculative fiction done with character and quirks. Yet this is exactly what Red Dwarf excelled in. Certainly, the level of laughs could occasionally be aimed more at the crotch than the head and silliness snuck in under the radar of realism, but what Rob Grant and Doug Naylor did so well was mix complexity with characterization, turning what could have been a standard space sitcom (if there really is such a thing) into a work of multi-level genius. With the release of Red Dwarf Series 8 on DVD, the first "generation" of the show comes to a close. What the future holds is anyone's guess—but it will sure be fun waiting to find out. After all, the potential rewards will be staggering. This is Red Dwarf. We'd expect, and eventually receive, nothing less.
Not guilty. No way. Court adjourned. Why even waste the Bench's time with such a question.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Cast Commentaries on All Episodes
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