It’s generally thought that British shows, especially comedies, don’t translate particularly well to American audiences, and while I’d like to think that I’m one of the exceptions to the rule, I unfortunately find it to be the case with Red Dwarf. Some of my all-time favorite comedies are from the UK (The Office, Extras, Look Around You, Spaced, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), so I’m not exactly biased against the British, but after having watched the first two series and bits and pieces from later episodes, I have to say that Red Dwarf just doesn’t click with me. Now, that’s not to say that Red Dwarf isn’t worth watching, in fact, it has a huge, dedicated cult following that would argue otherwise, but what I am saying is that if you’ve never seen or heard of the show, then Red Dwarf: Back to Earth will likely leave you feeling a little confused and unfulfilled. Make no mistake: this one is strictly for the fans.
Let me take a second to give those of you who haven’t seen the series a brief overview. Red Dwarf is a sci-fi/comedy that ran for eight series (seasons in US terms) on British television from 1988-1999. It follows Dave Lister, the lowest ranking crewman on a mining ship who, after smuggling a pet cat onboard, is placed in suspended animation as punishment. When he emerges, he discovers that 3 million years have passed and that he is the last surviving human on the ship, and perhaps the entire universe. Setting a new course for Earth, Dave makes the best of his lonely existence accompanied only by Holly, the ship’s all-knowing computer, the hologram of his old bunkmate Arnold Rimmer, Cat, a life-form evolved from his pet cat, and Kryten, a well-mannered service android.
Red Dwarf: Back to Earth is a three-part miniseries that picks up where the show left off, reuniting the cast after 10 years. Dave and the rest of the crew, still aboard the Red Dwarf, discover an alien creature that’s contaminating their water supply. After a close encounter with the squid-like beast they find that it has the ability to open portals to alternate dimensions. Using the creature’s tissue, they harness this ability with the hope of getting back to Earth, or least a version of Earth similar to the one they once knew. They open and jump through a time portal, but arrive on our Earth, where they are merely fictional characters in a TV show called Red Dwarf. Realizing that they are imaginary, and thus as expendable as an afterthought, they go in search of their creator to beg for more life via an extension of the Red Dwarf television series.
Back to Earth is intriguing and entertaining in the sense that its story is complex and metaphysical, but in a way that’s approachable and fun even for those who haven’t seen the show. If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good ol’ fashioned meta-adventure that breaks the 4th wall with style and sophistication. Though the concept might seem confusing in theory, it’s actually executed quite well. I think everyone can relate to the idea of characters from a TV show begging their creators to extend the life of their series. There are a lot of witty moments of self-awareness that play out in the story, for example, when the character Dave Lister meets face-to-face with the actor who plays him or when the gang interacts with the fanboy comic store owner or when Dave finds that everything he types on the creator’s typewriter happens in real life. It’s apparent the writers had a lot of fun making overt commentaries on the Red Dwarf series, but I have a feeling a lot of the jokes and references will fly right over the heads of non-fans and non-British viewers. Still, it’s definitely a unique storytelling approach that is at times mind-bending and wickedly clever.
However (and here’s where the fans will hate me), though I greatly enjoy the metaphysical and sci-fi aspects of Back to Earth, I feel like it regularly lacks comedic clout. The British are known for two things when it comes to comedy: dry wit and slapstick; and while I personally prefer cleverness to cheap laughs, Red Dwarf, more often than not, shoots for the latter. A lot of the jokes feel very formulaic and juvenile, which may appeal to a broad audience, but won’t impress those with more refined comedy tastes. The series always struck me as being more of a sitcom with a sci-fi backdrop as opposed to a sci-fi show with some comedy thrown in, so the fact that the show fails to produce any genuinely hilarious moments is a greater detriment than if it were to fail at being convincingly futuristic. In other words, if Red Dwarf had poorly executed sci-fi elements, it could potentially still succeed as a comedy, but without the funny, it’s just another passable sci-fi series.
Part of the problem is that the characters come off as very one-dimensional. Lister is a textbook dunce, Cat, a 70s African-American stereotype, Rimmer, an incompetent supervisor, and Kryten the C3PO-esque coward. They rarely reach beyond their archetypal boundaries or display any semblance of emotional depth and as a result the humor comes across as superficial and our emotional investment in them is limited.
So, what’s left when you have a genre mix of sci-fi and situational comedy that isn’t very funny? The good news is you still have a halfway decent sci-fi show, but one that’s not exactly going to blow you away. The same holds true for Back to Earth: it has scattered moments of impressive sci-fi ingenuity, a mostly intelligent plot, and a fascinating premise, but don’t expect to be rolling in the aisles with laughter. But, just to reassure all the fans, Red Dwarf: Back to Earth definitely stays true to the spirit of the series so if you absolutely loved the show, you probably won’t be disappointed.
Love it or hate it, one thing’s certain: Back to Earth looks pretty darn good on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 widescreen VC-1 codec picture is relatively flawless, no grain or noise to speak of, and the colors for the most part are vibrant and true to life. This is particularly noticeable in scenes that showcase Cat’s over-the-top pink/purple pimp suits. The only thing that prevents the image from being perfect is the flat sitcom-style lighting that’s used throughout most of the miniseries (as well as the television show). It takes the sense of depth out of the picture and it’s not exactly helped by the cloudy, foggy England setting.
Also, the special effects are relatively impressive for a television show, but often look a bit cheesy. There are plenty of moments, especially on board the Red Dwarf, where it’s pretty obviously everyone is standing in front of a giant green screen. Not to mention, the CG robotic arms that work on the ship look pretty heinous; like something straight out of a 90s video game cut-scene. Luckily, the the miniseries, like the show, doesn’t rely to heavily on effects, so you’re not constantly distracted or removed from the story.
The quality of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is clean and crisp, but doesn’t make much use of any effects. It’s pretty much just sound evenly divided between all the speakers. Because it’s a sci-fi, there are a few redeeming booms and bangs here and there (for example, when the portal opens up) but because the show is also a sitcom and mostly dialogue driven, it’s a forgettable experience overall. Fans will, of course, love the nostalgic intro/outro jingle music that has defined the series, but I myself find it to be pretty cliche and dated.
There’s a ton of included features divided over two discs totaling in at about 140 minutes not counting the commentaries. Extras include:
- Cast and Director Commentary
- The Making of Back to Earth
- Deleted Scenes
- Smeg Ups (Bloopers)
- Photo Gallery
The commentaries are pretty interesting; the director gives a lot of informative history on the series and the making of Back to Earth and I found the cast commentary to be the funniest part of the whole release. The deleted scenes and bloopers are exactly what you’d expect, but the featurettes actually offer a good deal of entertaining footage including a behind-the-scenes look at the CG effects, an inside look at a cast party with actors wearing their wardrobe from the show, and an autograph signing session with the cast. It’s clear a lot of time and thought went into providing a set of extras worthy of the devoted fan base.
Red Dwarf: Back to Earth is a tough release to review. On one hand, I’m not particularly fond of the series, but on the other hand, Back to Earth had a mostly well-written story that was surprisingly entertaining. On one hand, the show has a pretty significant and dedicated cult following, but, on the other hand, you have to take into consideration viewers who have never even seen the series, and how well this release stands on its own. That’s a lot of hands to consider. So what’s the verdict? Red Dwarf: Back to Earth is a must-buy for fans, a maybe-buy for sci-fi junkies, and a pass for everyone else.