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Blu-ray Review: Red Dwarf – Back To Earth

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Back during my grade school years, my friends (all two of them) and I discovered a science fiction BBC Britcom via the wonders of public television. It was entitled Red Dwarf, and it soon became one of my all-time favorite British television series. The premise (inspired by classic sci-fi films like Silent Running, Alien, and Blade Runner) featured a complete slob of a man named Dave Lister (Craig Charles) — an incompetent, low-level technician aboard a massive mining ship called the Red Dwarf. Sentenced to six months in suspended animation for smuggling an unquarantined (pregnant) cat on board the massive, city-sized ship, Dave is released one day only to learn that the entire ship’s crew was killed in a radiation leak — three million years ago — leaving him the last human being in the universe (presumably).

Much like the tagline for the various incarnations of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Lister soon discovers that the last man alive is not alone. The ship’s computer, Holly (played by Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge throughout the show’s run), had brought back Dave’s ultra-annoying and ultra-anal roommate, Arnold Judas Rimmer (Chris Barrie), as a hologram — to keep him sane. Also on board is The Cat (Danny John-Jules), the last of a long line of humanoid creatures that had evolved from Lister’s pregnant cat. Later in the series, a cleaning mechanoid named Kryten (played for the most part by Robert Llewellyn) joined the crew of space bums, followed by the character of Kristine Kochanski (Chloë Annett), Dave’s former girlfriend.

Despite being a great show, Red Dwarf has had its share of setbacks. The general public always seems to have “issues” with sci-fi/comedies; the original pair of writers (creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor) had their differences (to which Grant left); and actors’ schedules were often complicated (Chris Barrie left briefly during series seven). Most importantly, though, Red Dwarf managed to yield only eight series (or “seasons” as we might call them in America) from 1988 to 1999. Series seven (the last series produced) left us all hanging with a cliffhanger — one that we had always hoped we would see the conclusion of.

In late 2008 it was revealed that the “Boys from the Dwarf” would be back in early 2009 on British television network Dave. We, the faithful fans of the small rouge one, were terribly excited — and the result, Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.

In keeping with the show’s smartass sense of humor, writer Doug Naylor sets Back To Earth nine years following series eight — after the non-existent series ten. Kochanski is dead. Holly is nowhere to be seen, thanks to a flooded floor that put him out of commission (Lister’s fault, naturally). And, because of the flood, the water supply on Red Dwarf is very low. Discovering that the ship’s one remaining water supply tank is inhabited by a large dimension-hopping squid, the boys decide to investigate. Soon after their encounter with the creature (which hops to another dimension), the hologram of former Red Dwarf science officer Katerina Bartikovsky (Sophie Winkleman) appears, intent on setting the crew straight since none of them have been able to do it during the last 20 years.

Using DNA from the vanished squid, Bartikovsky assembles a dimension jumping contraption-thingy, hoping to find Dave a mate somewhere so that the human race will not be extinguished altogether. Unfortunately for all, they soon discover that their current dimension is invalid, and neither it — or they — exist. Seeking the nearest valid reality, the contraption-thingy hurls Lister and his fellow crew members to present day Earth in the year 2009. There, they learn the shocking and horrifying truth: they are nothing more but characters in a TV show called Red Dwarf. Worse still, the crew learn that their creator is planning to kill his characters off in the upcoming final episode of the series, “Back To Earth.” And so, “in best Blade Runner tradition,” Lister and Co. decide to track down their creator and plead with him for more life.

And that, my friends, is the storyline of Red Dwarf: Back To Earth. It’s most assuredly a delight to see Charles, Barrie, Llewellyn, and John-Jules return to their roles after all these years. Sure, they may have added a few pounds and wrinkles since series one, but they’re all just as fit as they ever were. Writing-wise, Back To Earth is more on-par with series seven and eight (which were written by Doug Naylor) than the earlier episodes (written by both Naylor and Grant). Over the course of the three-part “reunion” special, Naylor and his actors poke fun at themselves, the series, the modern world, and the British series Coronation Street (a reference that a lot of American viewers may not get). Some of the jokes really fall flat, while the much meatier ones will definitely succeed in tickling your funny bone.

Originally broadcast on TV in three separate parts, Red Dwarf: Back To Earth is presented on DVD and Blu-ray in a two-disc “Director’s Cut” set, which combines all three episodes but omits a few lines in the process. Both releases give viewers the option of watching Back To Earth in its feature-length form, or in its original episodic format.

Presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen ratio on Disc One, the Blu-ray’s solid 1080i transfer shows off the TV Special’s rather vibrant color scheme quite well, and allows for the fancy (for British TV) CGI effects and numerous green screen moments look that much fancier (if perhaps more noticeable) in the process. The contrast is considerably better than anything we’ve seen in the Dwarf Universe before, which is understandable since Back To Earth was filmed in High Definition. The “Director’s Cut” version comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. All-in-all, it’s a pretty good mix, if a little light at times. The separate episodes boast a Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack. Both versions include English (SDH) subtitles.

The “Director’s Cut” includes an audio commentary with Doug Naylor, while the episodes feature a commentary with the four main cast members. In terms of entertainment, the cast commentary is the better of the two: anyone who has ever listened to the actors’ commentaries on past DVD releases knows how truly lively and silly (not to mention sidetracked) these four Brits can get. If you’ve never listened to one of their combined commentaries, you’re missing out.

Disc two of this set boasts additional special features, including an all-new documentary; The Making Of Back To Earth special that aired following the final episode on TV; a few deleted scenes (a few of which are in a raw format, without the post-production special effects); the proverbial collection of Smeg-Ups (bloopers); several featurettes; promos for the show from TV; web videos; and a photo gallery.

After a ten-year hiatus and a lot of rumors involving a big-screen version (which never materialized), Red Dwarf: Back To Earth has certainly been a long time coming. It may not be the ideal “reunion” special, but any Dwarfer will have to see it. Plus, with there being whispers about a new series once again, this is the perfect time to get caught up.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.