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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
f you don’t know what smeg is all about, the Urban Dictionary defines it as such: “A futuristic British all-purpose swear word. From ‘Red Dwarf.’” “Battlestar Galactica” has frak, “Farscape” has frell…and “Red Dwarf” has smeg. If it sounds funnier than frak or frell, that’s because “Red Dwarf” is really a comedy that just so happens to be set in the far future, on a spaceship called the Red Dwarf. It first started on BBC Two in 1988, racking up a total of eight seasons before finally ending in 1999, and it built up a pretty serious following in the process; although I suppose describing anything to do with “Red Dwarf” as serious makes me a complete and total smeghead.
Truth be told, despite being a disciple of British sci-fi and comedy, I never really got into “Red Dwarf,” which to this day mystifies me (perhaps even more so after watching this reunion special), as it should’ve fit like a very comfortable glove. The number of episodes of “Red Dwarf” I’ve seen over the years could probably be counted on one hand. I’m hardly an authority on it, but given the chance to check out “Back to Earth” – the only new “Dwarf” in over a decade – I jumped at it, if for no other reason than to see how I’d react all these years later.
The premise is more or less the same as always. Dave Lister (Craig Charles) remains the only human being onboard the Dwarf, alongside the hologram Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the android Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), and the Cat (Danny John-Jules). Characters such as the computer Holly and Lister’s true love, Kochanski, are (mostly) out of commission for this storyline; in fact, Kochanski is dead, and Lister mourns her by reading “Sense and Sensibility” to a shrine dedicated to her memory. He hopes that this particular book will have more car chases than the last one. We also discover that the Dwarf’s water supply is dwindling, and so the crew investigates, only to find a giant squid is responsible. This leads to them all getting inked, which ends up being integral to the plot, and my friend Penny, whom I viewed this with (as she is a “Red Dwarf” authority), seemed to figure out the surprise reveal early on in the special.
Through a series of convoluted (and yet efficiently expedient) events, the crew ends up sliding into an alternate universe: ours, and it’s here where “Back to Earth” really begins to take off by unveiling its hilariously meta mission. The Dwarfers emerge in the year 2009 in an electronics store and discover sets of “Red Dwarf” DVDs. Surely it’s not possible that they are characters on a TV show? Indeed they are, and everyone is staring, since it’s not every day the average consumer hanging out at the mall sees the characters of “Red Dwarf” shopping alongside them. Making matters worse, the crew finds a DVD of “Back to Earth,” and the slipcover informs them that they will die in the final episode. In order to get to the bottom of the conundrum, they decide they must find their creator, and find out how much life they have left. The sharp-witted reader may be wondering why they didn’t just watch the DVD to find out the ending for themselves, but writer/director Doug Naylor is one step ahead of you – it was a display copy, and contained no actual discs, since “Back to Earth” is merely “coming soon.”
What follows is an insanely lengthy tribute to “Blade Runner,” and much of “Back to Earth” is a parody of that film (mixed with minor samplings of “Star Trek IV”). Enough so that anyone who loves “Blade Runner,” regardless of whether or not they’ve ever seen even a single episode of “Red Dwarf,” could come away from this with an appreciation of it. It’s especially funny, too, since “Blade Runner” isn’t the sort of sci-fi fare one thinks would make for good sci-fi parody, and yet it proves to be a great, untapped resource for comedy in this story. And each time you think the story has done every thing it can do with “Blade Runner,” it manages to push it a little further. Clearly Naylor is a fan of the movie, because it’s a loving tribute, and never once does it belittle anything in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece; this is strict homage, as seen through the funny filter.
This DVD set offers up two different versions of “Back to Earth”: the original three-episode broadcast and a Director’s Cut, which assembles all three parts into one 70-minute feature. The DC offers up nothing new, and is actually several minutes shorter than the broadcast version (much like Ridley Scott’s DC of “Blade Runner”), but as Naylor explains, it’s closer to his vision, as the story was never meant to be broken up into three parts. It just so happened that was the only format that would allow for the special to be made in the first place. After viewing both versions, I have to agree with Naylor – the story works much better as one continuous tale, and that should be the first version you watch. Then go back and check out the three episodes for any minor, finer details that Naylor cut out.
The production values for this special are miles above what the series looked like back in the day. The film was shot with the Red One camera, and most everything set onboard the Dwarf was shot against a green screen, and therefore offers up a much slicker looking, computer generated ship than the series ever had the technology to produce. It must also be mentioned that “Back to Earth” lacks a laugh track, which is something that’s been present on all previous “Dwarf.” It’s peculiar how used to these things you can get, and how oddly intrusive it can seem when they’re suddenly absent. Penny, my “Dwarf” guru, noticed it about five minutes in, and commented on how it changed the texture of the proceedings. But by the end of the show, she had adjusted quite nicely, and was just simply happy to have some new “Red Dwarf” to bask in. As for me? My local video store has the entire series available for rent, and I’m feeling the need to head down there shortly and view everything that’s come before.
Special Features: Naylor has a commentary track on the Director’s Cut, whereas all four leads are given a track of their own on the broadcast episodes. The rest of the extras get their own disc, and there’s a smegload of ‘em. “The Making of Back to Earth” is a two-part extravaganza that ends up clocking in at nearly 80 minutes total. There are “Smeg Ups” (a gag reel), deleted scenes with optional Doug Naylor commentary, two photo galleries and a bunch of trailers and promotional bits. Then there are the featurettes: “The SFX of Back to Earth,” “Back to Earth Premiere,” “Cast Signing Session,” a press kit video, and behind the scenes web videos, and there’s even an Easter Egg. It was ten years in the making, and you’d have to be a major smeghead to not appreciate this DVD set if you’re a fan of this series.