This past weekend saw the return of the highest rated show (of any kind) in BBC2 history. Space based cult sitcom Red Dwarf returned to UK screens after a nine year hiatus, not on the BBC as before, but on satellite channel Dave which has resurrected the show for a three part special, Red Dwarf: Back To Earth.
When we last saw the Boys From The ‘Dwarf back in 1999, they were in trouble. Red Dwarf itself was being consumed by metal eating space bacteria and on the verge of breaking apart. The bulk of the crew had abandoned ship and our heroes Lister, Cat, Kryten and Kochanski had escaped to a mirror universe leaving second technician Arnold J. Rimmer trapped on the burning mothership with the Grim Reaper and a cheated vending machine bent on revenge.
How did they get out of that one? Well, we don’t know yet. The first episode of Back To Earth opens with a simple “Nine years later…” and reveals nothing of what happened in the interim. Writer Doug Naylor has stated in an interview that he doesn’t want to do a “Series IX” that follows on from Red Dwarf VIII and prefers to leave a gap in the mythology, letting the viewers fill it in for themselves.
Better get your thinking caps on chaps, they’ve taken a Bazookoid to continuity and left some pretty big plot holes to fill.
So we know nothing of the fate of the crew but for the main characters everything is back to “normal”, left alone on the small rouge one. I’m happy to report that episode one is classic Red Dwarf. Lister annoys the still neurotic Rimmer and the bunk room banter between the boys is as good as it ever was. Kryten and the Cat are their old selves, but ship’s computer Holly is conspicuous by his absence, explained as disabled by a typically silly Red Dwarf catastrophe but really due to time, budget and script restraints keeping Holly actor Norman Lovett out of this particular production. It’s a shame and a tangible loss, as the deadpan disembodied head was always a key part of Dwarf and one of my favourite characters.
Near the beginning there is a touching scene where Lister visits the ship’s garden of remembrance to read Jane Austen to the grave of his lost love Kristine Kochanski, made more emotional by the real tears shed at this point by Lister actor Craig Charles. Some may say this would be out of character for Lister, but I disagree. I found the sequence entirely believable viewed it as a worthy effort to give the slob charicature that is Lister some emotional depth. An effort that continues throughout the following episodes.
These opening scenes do a good job of drawing you back into a familiar and comfortable Red Dwarf world. Naturally, it all goes horribly wrong soon after with the discovery of a giant, dimension hopping squid living in the last remaining water tank on the ship. The boys, apart from cowardly Rimmer, do battle with the monster and drive it off in a brilliant slapstick sequence that had me laughing out loud. Soon after, a new character, ship’s science officer Katerina Bartikovsky (well played by Sophie Winkleman), appears as a second hologram with a plan to dimension jump the crew back to Earth by analysing parts of the space squid that Lister lopped off in the battle. An interdimensional portal is duly opened and we arrive, headlong, in a department store on 21st century Earth.
This is where it starts to go wrong for Back To Earth. The crew discover they are actually characters on a TV show with only a few episodes left to “live”, so they set out on a mission, overloaded with Blade Runner references, to discover their creators and plead for more life. Their mission takes them to various locations on Earth including a sci-fi store, a London bus and even the set of Coronation Street where they meet the “real” Craig Charles.
These scenes are hit and miss. Parts are good, but on the whole it feels contrived, with too many in-jokes and references to Red Dwarf as a TV series that lifted me out of the programme’s universe where I should have been, and instead made me feel like I was watching an extended advert for the Dave channel and forthcoming Red Dwarf DVD sets. I know it makes sense in the context of the story, but it didn’t work. I also think this middle section suffered the most from the tight, two week shooting schedule, with more than one scene coming across as rushed and ill-rehearsed.
As I mentioned above, aside from stealing the entire plot, much visual reference is made to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir classic, Blade Runner. On the whole the Blade Runner “inspired” scenes are very well done and fun to spot for fans of the movie; fortunately they work as stand alones too, if you don’t know the source material. I think perhaps a little less may have been more here though.
After churning through a list of iconic scenes, our heroes finally confront their creator, a writer. He suggests that perhaps the Red Dwarf star that has burned so brightly for so long, has burned out and that it’s “time to die”. It’s been mooted that this is how writer Naylor really feels about the show, but I don’t accept that. He’s put too much energy, time and his own money into this new series (including buying an actual car to be converted into “CarBug 1″) for this to be true.
It’s at this point that we get very much back into classic Red Dwarf territory again.
Exactly as in the Series V episode “Back To Reality” (and I suspect the new series’ title similarity is no coincidence), the boys realise that this “Earth” they’ve been adventuring in is actually a shared hallucination, brought on by the venom of the squid monster they battled in the first episode. Upon realising this, Rimmer, Cat and Kryten awake from their dream state but Lister remains under, to lead a happy, fantasy life with an imaginary, reborn Kochanski. Although no surprise, how Lister’s resolves his dilemma – stay in a life he knows to be fake or get back to reality and seek out the real Kochanski – adds further depth to the character. Back To Earth is truly a journey for Dave Lister, with the other main characters reduced to supporting, but still substantial roles.
Back To Earth is clearly not an attempt to wrap up the Red Dwarf story, or at least I hope not because it fails miserably in this respect. Instead, Back To Earth itself achieves the metaphysical goal contained in its script by giving the characters a new lease of life in a number of ways. In the search for Kochanski, Dave Lister’s aimless wandering now has a direction and the character a reason to live. This arc will carry the show through “Series X”, should there be one.
It’s classic Red Dwarf, in the sense of being archetypal rather than forever remembered. The plot devices are familiar, the cast look good and (mostly) play their familiar parts well, with Robert Llewellyn and Sophie Winkleman giving the best performances for me. It’s visually excellent and the comedy works in parts, but other parts are truly cringe inducing. Really, I had to look away at times.
This new series has suffered many pains and it shows. Time and budget constraints, broadcast format and being driven creatively by one writer/director have all taken their tolls on the final product. Without meaning to heap criticism on the cast and crew, I suspect Back To Earth would have been a much different experience given a longer shoot and a generous dose of peer review on the script. But I also suspect they would agree with me on this.
However, if you take off your rose tinted glasses then look back on previous series with a critical eye, you’ll find much the same thing. Red Dwarf has had it’s dud jokes, bad acting and was never high class or high art, but when it did all come together it sure was fun. Back To Earth continues in this tradition and, as a long time fan of the series, I only hope Dave commissions more of the same.
Red Dwarf: Back To Earth is released on DVD in the UK on June 15th 2009.
UPDATE: ratings figures are now in (more here and here) for the specials and they’re “smegging fantastic”, according to the Dave channel. 2.66 million people tuned in for the first episode whilst the next two episodes both broke through the million viewers barrier. The show smashed the channel’s slot averages by a factor of 9 and the numbers fly in the face of stiff competition from popular shows such as NCIS, American Idol, Doctor Who (a repeat), movies Big and The Shawshank Redemption and even live golf. Will there be a Red Dwarf Series X? We don’t know yet of course, but there is clearly an audience for it.