Saturday, 22 December 2012

Red Dwarf X – DVD/Blu-ray review

"That crate's slower than the speed of dark"



RED DWARF X
DVD/Blu-ray
RRP: £20.42/£25.52
BBFC: 12
Released by: 2ǀentertain
Release date: 19 November 2012




It’s not often that a show manages to return for its first full series in over a decade, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. After Red Dwarf’s eighth series aired in 1999 on BBC Two, the sci-fi comedy vanished from screens, before returning in 2009 for three Back to Earth specials on Dave (which officially formed the ninth series). Now, Red Dwarf is back once more. Six new episodes comprising the tenth series have been broadcast this year (again on Dave), and have now been released on DVD and Blu-ray by 2ǀentertain.


All six episodes are on the first disc, and the opening instalment – Trojan – is an excellent episode to kick things off. Although most of the people watching the series’ return on Dave were undoubtedly existing fans, this episode is perfectly accessible for first-time viewers. Given the length of time since the last full series, it’s entirely appropriate that this is a highly character-driven episode. It focuses on Rimmer (Chris Barrie), and the situation he finds himself in when a ‘quantum rod’ brings him into contact with his brother Howard (Mark Dexter), who is in major trouble and in need of help. But Howard – like all of Rimmer’s brothers – is an officer, so Rimmer cannot bring himself to face him at first.

Rimmer’s attempts to pass a test to become an officer (and the question which only he struggles with) are very funny indeed, and the humour in this episode is generally pitched at exactly the right level. The denouement is a brilliant twist in the relationship between Rimmer and Howard – tragic, hilarious, surprising and inevitable all at once. The episode’s sub-plot involving Lister (Craig Charles) is a parody (and an alarmingly realistic one) of the many teleshopping channels which exist today, and while it doesn’t really have a huge amount of relevance to the main narrative for most of the episode, it never feels like it’s playing for time. There’s actually a proper story being told behind all the comedy, and it’s this which makes the show such a delight to watch. With Trojan, Red Dwarf returned in style.


Whereas the first episode focuses primarily on Rimmer, the second – Fathers and Suns – gives Charles a chance to really shine as Lister. It’s Father’s Day, and in a continuation of an idea introduced in a previous series, the episode largely revolves around Lister being his own dad. The highlight of the episode for me is a scene in which Lister ends up talking to himself. Well, it’s not really himself. But it’s himself. It’s not a real conversation, either. But it is. It’s all bonkers stuff (in a way that only Red Dwarf could manage), but it does form a sort of twisted logic, which makes it all the more amusing to watch. Charles is clearly loving the material, and he brings his scenes to life in spectacular fashion.

Also in this episode, Rimmer and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) install a new computer, Pree (Rebecca Blackstone), whom they envisage as a replacement for the previous computer, Holly (last seen at the end of the eighth series). The notion that Pree can foresee entire conversations before they even happen, and thus eliminate the necessity to have the conversations in the first place, is a wonderful idea which gives rise to a number of great gags. As if all of this wasn’t enough, this episode also sees a superb running gag with Red Dwarf’s talking vending machines, which is the icing on the cake for a very clever and memorable episode, packed with laughs. Furthermore, the separate narrative strands combine far more prominently in Fathers and Suns than in Trojan, resulting in a very satisfying episode which picks up character details from earlier in the show’s history and puts them to fantastic use.


Next is Lemons, and it’s a strange one. It’s a great concept, using space/time travel to get the crew away from Red Dwarf for a while and back to Earth in 23AD. They must then spend six months trekking from Britain to India to get the components for their return journey, where they meet a very famous face: Jesus (James Baxter). Looking at the story alone, it’s great to watch. But the issue for me was that I just didn’t find this one hugely funny – save for a few bits such as the “Jesus!” moment, I didn’t really start to genuinely laugh until around ten minutes from the end. Looking at the positives, though, this episode gives all of the regular cast members an equal share of the limelight. Although the focussing of the previous two episodes on specific characters worked very well for those plots, it’s nice to see everyone getting a fair share of screen-time around the half-way point of the series.

For me, the best performance of the episode is from Llewellyn as Kryten – he delivers his dialogue in such a way that he expertly underplays the comedy. Baxter is great in his guest role as Jesus (it still feels slightly weird to type that), playing the part with conviction and lunacy as and when the script demands each. While the humour didn’t really work for me for a lot of the running time, the far funnier moments towards the end make Lemons worth a watch, even though it's not one of the best episodes of the series.


The fourth episode, Entangled, is a masterpiece from beginning to end. What starts as a parody of health and safety bureaucracy continually evolves over the course of half an hour, with a multitude of sub-plots gradually merging together. Drawing upon elements established in the series’ opener, Cat (Danny John-Jules) and Kryten find themselves embroiled in ‘quantum entanglement’, resulting in one of the greatest delights of the episode. In a showcase of the talents of both actors, the two characters speak a lot of their dialogue in perfect synchronisation. This finally gives John-Jules something more to do (after not really having a story strand of his own until now), and the two actors’ performances make this one of the most memorable aspects of this series.

Meanwhile, Charles gives another fine performance, as Lister is locked to a very dangerous (and very Red Dwarf) device. All of this leads the team to again vacate Red Dwarf for a while, to try to settle with the creatures who Lister has been gambling with. The convergence of the various plot strands of the episode is executed cleanly and convincingly, leading up to a conclusion which is both gripping and whimsical. This is without doubt one of my favourite episodes of this series, as it is strong and consistent from start to finish, with more laughs than you can shake a quantum rod at. All of the cast are on top form, and all of the main characters have something to do. The perfect example of Red Dwarf at its best.


The penultimate episode of the run is Dear Dave. Although the title exclusively references just one of the plot strands that come into play here, there is also a second in this episode which takes an equal share of the spotlight. In fact, it isn’t until over half-way through the episode that it really becomes clear exactly what gives the episode its title, and it is a sub-plot with Rimmer which keeps things ticking over until that point. This gives Barrie some good material to work with, referencing the origins of Red Dwarf and conspiring to use Lister as an excuse for the predicament he finds himself in. When Lister’s storyline really gets going, it too proves to be very enjoyable, primarily fuelled by his status as the last human being alive.

Whereas the previous episode takes place on a relatively large stage, bringing all the characters into the mix in some way, Dear Dave is a far quieter affair. Kryten and – in particular – Cat are mainly relegated to the background here, but Lister and Rimmer’s storylines work wonderfully. The vending machines reappear, and whereas their role in Fathers and Suns was entirely separate to the main plot of that episode, their part here links perfectly into the main storyline with a scene that is one of my favourites of the whole series. Although Dear Dave isn’t quite as good as the episode before it, it shines in its own way. It seems that this fifth slot in the series is one of those which encountered production problems, but the end result is a real treat.


The series began with an episode about Rimmer, and it ends with an episode about Rimmer – The Beginning reveals a lot about his earlier days. The appearance of his father, played by Simon Treves, is a real eye-opener, and goes some way towards explaining why Rimmer is the way he is today. Given the financial difficulties which this series had, production values on this episode are very impressive, with the first shots after the title sequence consisting of well-realised CG establishing shots of Io. Indeed, it would be impossible to review Red Dwarf X without referencing the effects. The model shots throughout the whole series never fail to be amazing – in this episode, many of the shots of the Simulant ships and in the asteroid belt look wonderful.

The Beginning references a number of earlier episodes of Red Dwarf – the title echoes that of the first-ever episode, and more recently, one line of dialogue brings back memories of Rimmer’s issues with exams in Trojan. But by far the best reference is the crew’s discussion about the events which ended the eighth series. The show has now acknowledged that cliffhanger, but we barely know any more about its resolution than we did to begin with, making the reference infinitely better than any proper explanation of what happened next ever could be. In a way, the ending is rather abrupt, but it works brilliantly. The things which Rimmer discovers during this episode lead to us seeing a new side of the character, and the ending is delightful and promising. When Red Dwarf returns (and it surely must be a question of “when”, not “if”), it will be fascinating to see what’s next for Rimmer and his relationship with the crew. With this episode, Red Dwarf X ends on a high. If I had to choose a favourite episode from this series, there’s a very strong chance I’d go for this one.

SPECIAL FEATURES


Over twelve minutes of Smeg Ups are included. Out-takes never fail to be a delight to watch, and there isn’t really much more to be said here! My favourite involves Kryten and a jet… At nearly twenty-eight minutes, the package of Deleted Scenes from across the series is about as long as an entire episode. There’s a wider variety of clips included than the name might suggest. As well as deleted scenes in the traditional sense, there is also some material from alternate versions of episodes (prior to reworking of the scripts), footage as it was prior to chromakeying of background plates into green-screen shots, very early drafts of CG shots, and an unused model shot intended for use as the background of the closing credits. Although it’s interesting to watch all of this excised material, and there is a handful of particularly good moments, a lot of it isn’t really missed. In fact, some of it would have detracted from the quality of the overall piece – a case in point is a deleted second occurrence of “Jesus!” in Lemons. This is a great gag, but it just loses it when repeated immediately afterwards, so it’s good that it was cut. The highlight of this feature is footage from a Drive Room scene, performed on the Blue Midget set with no intention to use the resulting footage, to get an idea of “where the laughs were”. Llewellyn is superb (especially when John-Jules forgets his lines) and if you thought you’d never see Kryten wearing reading glasses, think again. Although the footage in this feature is of varying quality, it is still an essential watch for any fan of the series. To top it all off, there is a very interesting optional commentary from series writer, producer, director and co-creator, Doug Naylor, in which he explains the origins of the material and why it wasn’t ultimately used.


But the crowning glory of the special features package on this release is We’re Smegged, a mammoth making-of documentary. At nearly two hours, this is an amazingly comprehensive feature, covering all aspects of production, from the announcement of the series and its pre-production, to in-depth coverage of every episode, plus a look at the model-work and post-production. This is by far the longest made-for-DVD documentary that I’ve seen for ages, and the long running time allows for each topic to be given the coverage that it deserves. I learnt a lot of facts about the series, such as how certain sets were sneakily re-used in later episodes to make the best use of the budget, and there is also discussion of the technical side of the series. For example, I had no idea that Red Dwarf X was mainly shot in 4K, with 2K model shots, even though the highest resolution currently required is 1080 HD. Future-proofing in practise. But while the documentary covers the highlights of making the series, it also looks at the many problems which the series encountered – from budgeting issues to script re-writes to technical problems. It is primarily these areas that make the feature so fascinating, as Doug Naylor and other members of the production team recount the issues in detail, and how they were ultimately resolved. All four primary cast members are interviewed, and as you’d expect, Barrie, Charles, John-Jules and Llewellyn all have great stories to tell about the series’ production. The documentary concludes with a gag borrowed from one of the episodes of this series – Naylor, you tease, you…

AUDIO/VIDEO (DVD version reviewed)

The episodes are presented in Dolby 5.1 surround sound, with 2.0 stereo extras. Other than that, there isn’t much to report on the audio side of things. Dialogue is audible – not overpowered by the audience laughter – and the series’ sparse incidental music sounds fine.

Mostly, the video is fine too. Everything looks as crisp and vivid as is possible on a DVD. One thing to note is that due to technical issues with the camera (discussed in the documentary), a small number of brief shots in Trojan are afflicted with vertical blue streaks and patterning across the image. After extensive work in grading and other post-processing, the makers of the programme managed to tone down this problem to a level acceptable for broadcast, and since it’s only there very briefly, it’s not a major issue.

SUMMARY

Hopefully, Red Dwarf X is the revival of the programme as a regular series again. Of course, some of the episodes are stronger than others, but the only one which I really considered to be a weak link is Lemons. Judging the episodes alone, I’d award this series a six or seven out of ten. But after factoring in the special features package (which is small by numbers, but vast by running time), this release is better than that. To define it within one sentence, it’s a must-have title for any Red Dwarf fan.

8 OUT OF 10



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