It’s fair to say that Back to Earth, the first new Red Dwarf story in ten years, provoked a mixed reaction across the board. But whether you felt the comedy and atmosphere were lacking, or were wowed by the metafictional plotline, it’s clear that it was a brave experiment – successful or otherwise.
Watching it back now, divorced from the excitement of its initial broadcast, certain aspects in particular jump out – notably the performance of Craig Charles, called upon to display a dramatic range for arguably the first time, and excelling in particular in a late scene that provides one of the most touching character moments that Dwarf has ever given its long-serving fans.
Elsewhere, while the first part takes some time to get going (and there’s no denying that the ship-bound scenes really would have benefitted from the audience-based,’live performance’ atmosphere of the old shows), to say that Back to Earth isn’t funny is simply untrue – the gag rate may not be as consistently high as in the show’s golden years, but there are big laughs dotted throughout, from the photo enhancement sequence (Uncrop), to the self-referential psi-scan gag, to the ‘real’ Charles’ declaration that “I need to get back to the Priory.”
Where it really excels, though, is in the story – and this is perhaps the reason why it stands as more likely to appeal to the sort of die-hard fan that reads the novels than to a casual comedy viewer. The ‘fictional characters discover that they’re fictional’ conceit is hardly original (although, as writer/director Doug Naylor points out in the accompanying documentary, nor is it the sole province of The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse), but Naylor puts a suitably Dwarfian spin on it, using it to pay tribute to the show – a fact that belies the special’s original intention as a celebratory clip show, with the ‘back to Earth’ plot as interlinking material – although it has to be said that the extended paean to Blade Runner, while making for some superb scenes and visuals, is perhaps a little overwrought. And if nothing else, if it is to be the last Dwarf ever made, its open-ended yet emotionally satisfying resolution, having used the story to reestablish Dave Lister’s faith in himself and give his life purpose and aspiration once more, is a much better way to go out than the muddled ‘cliffhanger’ at the end of the appalling series eight.
For the DVD release, Naylor has re-edited the show into a single, 70-minute ‘Director’s Cut’ – marking perhaps the shortest period of time between a feature’s original release and such a recut, although both this version and the broadcast episodes are included on the disc – and while it loses what actually worked out as a neat structural divide across the three episodes (first part ‘classic’ style ship-bound story, second part metafictional weirdness/brilliance, third part satisfying character tribute for the fans), it’s clear that an undivided whole fits better with the original intention for a ‘movie’ style feature.
Viewing on DVD also invites greater appreciation, compared to broadcast, of the technical excellence of much of the story – made on such a shoestring budget, not every effects shot is perfect, but there’s some wonderful CGI (most notably the cavernous cargo deck background), and the higher resolution also allows the viewer to take in the quite staggering level of detail in the beautiful new bunkroom set. The Blu-ray release, taking further advantage of the ultra-resolution Red cameras the show was shot on, can’t come soon enough.
On the extras front, meanwhile, Red Dwarf DVDs have always provided an excellent package, and Back To Earth is no exception. An additional fifty minute ‘Making Of’ documentary provides a companion piece to the earlier docco broadcast with the specials on Dave, and as ever, it’s a well put-together piece with much in the way of intriguing behind-the-scenes snippets (including a tantalising mention of ‘The Creator’ actor Richard O’Callaghan’s connection to the long-in-development-hell Dwarf movie, and Sophie Winkelman demonstrating a hitherto-unseen flair for accents). It’s a shame that there isn’t a little more in the way of analysis of the years the show was off the air, and the circumstances behind it returning, but these could be stories for another day.
Lacking, too, are the usual reams of rushes and deleted scenes to be found on the series’ releases – a casualty of the fact that so little material went unused during an extremely short and tight shooting period. There’s one ‘full’ scene, as such, involving Jammie Dodgers – and it’s a shame it didn’t make the final show, because it’s a genuine throwback to the classic bunkroom conversations of yore. Otherwise, the cuts are mainly for time and pacing, and are more a curiosity than anything.
There are also two different feature commentaries – a typically banterous one from the cast on the broadcast versions, and more interestingly, Doug Naylor finally steps behind the mic to talk us through the new cut. While a second voice might have broken up proceedings, and he has a slight tendency to draw out anecdotes, it’s nevertheless fascinating to hear him talk at length about the processes behind the show – and a few interesting tidbits, including the story behind Norman Lovett’s non-involvement, jump out.
Elsewhere, the obligatory ten-minute ‘Smeg Ups’ reel amuses, as ever – although perhaps even moreso than the main show, it wants for the reaction of an audience and the cast playing off it – and while assorted other features are diversions rather than essential, a twenty-minute in-depth look at the visual effects is manna for the real nerds (as is the fact that the discs’ packaging is almost identical to the box seen in the second episode itself). All in all, despite a slight paucity of available background material compared to the earlier releases, Back To Earth stands proudly among them on any discerning Dwarf fan’s shelf.