British TV comedy has a standard historical hierarchy. At the top, usually, is Monty Python's Flying Circus. Next comes either Blackadder or Fawlty Towers (your choice)...and then there's the rest, everything from Are You Being Served? to Yes, Prime Minister, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to any number of limited laughfests. Somewhere in the middle rests the resplendent Red Dwarf, and unusual combination of science fiction and comedy that transcends both genres to deliver a unique and often surreal slice of speculative jests. Having lasted for more than two decades (the first episodes premiered in 1988!), it's left an impression on all who've come across it. Still, it's been over 10 years since the last series aired, and since then, there have been rumors about a return. Now comes a three-part production known as Back to Earth, and while spotty in certain regards, it illustrates why this unusual program probably deserves a place higher up on the UK comedy hit parade.
It's been nine years since we last visited with the remaining crew of the massive starship known as Red Dwarf. In that time, little has changed: human Dave Lister still longs for home, and is heartsick over having recently lost love of his life Kristine Kochanski; hologram Arnold Rimmer is still an arrogant jackass, preferring protocol over human emotion and interaction; anthropomorphized Cat is as freakishly fashion conscious as ever, while robot Kryten has decided to take a vacation...in a broom closet on one of the upper decks. Sadly, Holly the computer is out of commission, the result of Lister letting the bath continuously run and overflow for nearly a decade.
When Cat discovers a monster in the last remaining on board water reservoir, the gang appears doomed. Then a Russian efficiency hologram named Katerina Bartikovsky arrives with some unusual news. Rimmer is to be permanently decommissioned while Lister is to be saved and restart the human race. Of course, that's almost impossible without a mate, so the crew creates a time rift using part of the creature's DNA, hoping it will lead to solution. Instead, it propels them back to Earth circa 2009, where they learn they are merely characters is a popular cult sci-fi TV show.
As a huge fan of Red Dwarf, ever since its earliest PBS days, this critic has been waiting for the next chapter in the comedy sci-fi series to finally make its way to some medium. For years, a movie was the rumored return for the crazy UK satire, all four members of the cast wanting to expand the scope of the show while retaining its typical anarchic amiability. For a while there, it looked like every attempt to bring the fervent fan favorite to the big screen was thwarted by one issue or another - no script, limited studio interest, no financial backing, perceived audience ennui - but remaining creator Doug Naylor (fellow founder Rob Grant having left the show between series six and seven) kept plugging away. And then a funny thing happened on the way to your local Cineplex. Special Effects technology went digital, decreased in cost, and became something even an upstart channel like Britain's Dave could achieve with relative ease. Naylor found a way to reconfigure his 'big' ideas for the home flat screen, and with a deal for a three-part mini-season of the show, Down to Earth was born.
And it was worth the wait. Of course, there are a couple of factors you will have to get over before jumping in, especially if you are a purist who prefers the older episodes of the series. First and foremost, the laugh "track" is gone. Instead of an appreciative British audience chortling along with most of the humor, Back to Earth was filmed sans spectators. That means that it takes a few minutes to get used to the "joke/beat" set-up of the dialogue. As seasoned performers, Craig Charles (Lister), Chris Barrie (Rimmer), Danny John-Jules (Cat) and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten) know comic timing, and regularly offer the slightest pause in between perceived gags to guarantee their impact. The empty space where guffaws and giggled will be again takes a bit getting used to. So does the Blade Runner inspired meta-narrative. Naylor has purposely gone back to a certain episode of a previous series to set-up his narrative, and without some knowledge of both Dwarf and the Ridley Scott opus, you'll miss a great deal of the references and ironic inside jokes.
Still, as an attempt to both resolve issues from the past as well as prepare the series for a possible post-millennial reinvention, Back to Earth is brilliant. The Blade Runner stuff just sings, clearly the work of dedicated fans of the 1982 future shock classic. Equally intriguing is the intricate story-within-a-story byplay between Charles and his fictional life friends from Dwarf. When they catch up with the actor on the set of Coronation Street (a UK soap where he's been a consistent presence since 2005), his reactions are just priceless. All is not flawless, however. The odd element out is the sudden arrival of Sophie Winkleman as the specious efficiency officer with a jones for Rimmer's hard drive. While we fans expect the unexpected with the show, having an element like this literally drop in and determine the fate of a popular program is a risk - and one that doesn't always pay off. Still, when we get to the penthouse apartment of The Creator, complete with magic typewriter that can alter the destiny of everyone in the series, we anticipate the creative chaos...and Back to Earth delivers. While the actors are a tad older and more "husky", they can still take a serious science fiction premise and turn it into farce - and we wouldn't want it any other way.
Technology really has come a long way since the first videotaped Dwarf shows hit the DVD format way back when. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for Back to Earth is sensational, teaming with colorful details and F/X fascination. The image is bright, clear, and very contemporary. While it is clearly still taped rather than filmed, the post-production polish given to the picture provides a cinematic quality that other installments of the series definitely lack.
While everything else - extras, standard three part mini-series - is offered in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, the "Director's Cut" (see below) is given a magnificent 5.1 Surround Sound mix. It really comes alive during the diving bell sequence, as well as during the more ambient moments meant to mimic Blade Runner's ethereal tone. The dialogue is always discernible, and the musical scoring by series stalwart Howard Goodall is, as always, great.
The one thing a Red Dwarf DVD never lacks, is added content. This presentation starts off by giving you the option of watching Back to Earth in either its original format (three separate episodes), or in a Doug Naylor-approved (and commented on) "Director's Cut". So, what's the difference? Well, outside of the three installment style, we loose a bit of linking dialogue and some minor callbacks to previous Back to Earth story points. That's it. In fact, the new version acts more like a movie than the divided up TV edit. It is on the original Dave experience where the four main cast members sit down to reminiscent and regale each other with anecdotes and memories of bringing these characters back to life - again. Both alternate narratives are insightful and wildly entertaining.
The rest of the bonus features are found on the second disc. They include another amazing hour long documentary on the making of the mini-series, as well as a great bit of Behind the Scenes insight. There are also deleted scenes, bloopers (known as "smeg-ups" by devotees to the show), additional featurettes, trailers, web videos, a photo gallery, and a few fun Easter Eggs. The result is just like every other digital presentation of the series - as entertaining in its backstage antics as it is as a feature.
Is there really a question, especially for a glorified gimboyd like yours truly, over what the final rating for Red Dwarf would be? After all, the four main cast members could sit around reading the Daily Mail and we crazed fans would sit back in abject awe of their previous comedic genius. Of course, that doesn't mean that everything they do is a Picasso or a Da Vinci. Sometimes, even the best shows stumble. In this case, Back to Earth is a rousing return to form, a clever cock-up of the past and the present to set the stage for future Starbug goodness. As a result, this one-off effort deserves a Highly Recommended rating - and not just for the show itself. The DVD is so packed full of additional material that it functions like yet another volume in a continuing Red Dwarf encyclopedia. Along with the other digital packages of the series, you get the entire sci-fi experience. While it's true that the adventures of four unlikely space travelers will never mimic its mid-'90s brilliance, Back to Earth is still a wonderful reminder of how fascinating and funny Red Dwarf can be. It is not to be missed.
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