Being episodic got it made but at last this feature film can be enjoyed as such. Red Dwarf: Back to Earth wasn’t a huge success with me when first broadcast but the main problem back then was it being chopped up. Released to disc, it's now possible to watch the movie – and it is a movie – properly.
In the far future aboard spaceship Red Dwarf lives likeable slob Dave Lister (Craig Charles), whose only companions are the officious Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the flamboyant Cat (Danny John-Jules) and the bumbling mechanoid Kryten (Robert Llewellyn). Transported back to Earth in 2009, they get more than just culture shock: their lives are being sold to their forebears as a fictional TV programme.
A long-suffering Red Dwarf movie project evolved into Back to Earth and its 2009 broadcast over three consecutive nights seems like a compromise now. No third of this tale is very satisfying when viewed independently; as a single feature, it raises expectations and satisfies them in ways that were lost over those three evenings.
The broadcast premiere felt like the last shout of the programme and as such, I’d hoped for more resolution in the story. As a midpoint between 20th and 21st century Red Dwarf, I feel now that the story is right for its time. The 'fiction within a fiction' element externalises writer/director Doug Naylor's search for the essence of Red Dwarf. Properly presented, it invites fans to re-evaluate why we've loved it and gives us more to love.
One bit of that essence is Red Dwarf's live audience, something Back to Earth lacks. Chris Barrie notes in a series eight commentary how audiences bring energy to the comedy. Such crowds are usually given a stand-up comedian's ‘warm up’ so that when the show proper starts, they’re super receptive to it. For us at home, that early laughter graces the programme with a distinctively festive atmos. Maybe an audience wasn’t an option when Naylor got the chance to bring Red Dwarf back from its decade hiatus.
The high-def, blu-ray release looks gorgeous. The Dave HD channel wasn't ubiquitous in 2009 so there's loads of new detail for many of us to enjoy. The adventure is visualised on a grand, cinematic scale not seen in Red Dwarf before or since. On disc it's called 'the director's cut' in a nod to Blade Runner, the movie that popularised that phrase. A Blade Runner motif runs throughout the film, including a parody of its photo-zooming Esper machine and a gorgeous homage to the character Rachael.
Knowing that Back to Earth isn’t the end for Red Dwarf made its ending (no spoilers) more satisfying to me. The 70-minute feature plays like a funny, surreal drama rather than a sitcom: a laugh track prolly wouldn't suit. The self-analysis of the storyline gives the performers some reflective moments that are lovely to watch even if they aren't bog-standard Red Dwarf.
And the age that the decade put on those faces? Give over mate, it's been longer than that since and they're still smashing it. Boyz from the Dwarf forever.
Red Dwarf: Back to Earth is available here. If you take interest in earlier series of Red Dwarf whilst shopping, do please read first Andrew Orton's helpful article 'The Great Red Dwarf Blu-Ray Smeg Up.'