Red Dwarf VII Review
Red Dwarf VII was a long time coming. Arriving some four-years after the award-winning sixth series anticipation was high, but so were doubts over the series new direction. On the protracted road to the series eventual recording long-time writing partners and creators of the series, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, had gone their separate ways and not on particularly amicable terms. Another departure and one of the biggest disappointments to fans was Chris Barrie, who following several years of success with The Brittas Empire was hardly looking forward to the demanding shooting schedule of Red Dwarf and had already voiced his doubts over returning in various interviews. Rather than simply refuse however and not appear at all, Chris Barrie does return as Rimmer but in a limited capacity, appearing in a total of four-episodes out of the eight-episode run, but only in his regular cast member status in two of those four.
Other changes were also afoot, most significant of these is the arrival of Chloë Annett in the role of Kristine Kochanski, Lister's old flame who for reasons only known to the writers’ of the series is now an ex-girlfriend allowing them a greater history to draw from and exploit in the writing. Stepping into a role that carries with it a certain gravitas amongst fans and has also been filled by another in the early series outings is no mean feat. Chloë Annett does a commendable job however and despite some questionable costume and style choices (something we hear no end about in the cast commentary) which leave her looking like some leather-clad space biker chick with an Elvis hairdo to match she establishes herself quickly as an actress only too happy to muck in with the boys, even if her character's personality is played a little too uptight to begin with. She overcomes any failings in the overly physical introductory episode and goes on to become something of a relief, as the writers use her character traits to balance out the scientific exposition which usually falls on Kryten while also setting up an enjoyable rivalry with the mechanoid who sees her as a threat to his importance in Mr. Lister's life.
Another change which has one of the greatest impacts on the series is the move to a single-camera production ethos with no live-audience for the actors to play off. This decision came about with the Red Dwarf movie firmly in mind - a somewhat staggering fact when you consider that some eight years later we still appear to be no closer to seeing it enter production - with Doug Naylor and director Ed Bye using this method of shooting on Red Dwarf VII as a test bed for the movie, which of course will be shot in the same manner. On the positive side what this means for the series is that Red Dwarf has rarely looked better, with the closed sets and single-camera setup allowing for more elaborate stage and lighting design which in the opening episode for example reaps the benefits and results in some moderately impressive sequences. The negatives arrive in the form of reduced comic timing, with the actors and most shockingly the director and editor literally waiting for an audience reaction between readings, when there is no reaction to be had (other than canned laughter added in post). This ultimately leaves many scenes overplayed for laughs, with too many obvious pauses and not enough snap to the actors' rhythm. On a secondary level there is also no audience interaction, something which not only affects the actors' performances but in the case of a series like Red Dwarf leaves the comedy purely in the hands of the writers, as opposed to the instant reaction a live-audience offers and would reflect on later scripts and script revisions. These negatives tend to outweigh the benefits which ultimately defuse over the course of the series due to budget and time constraints stifling creativity, leaving the reduced level of comic timing and lack of energy to flounder amidst a slightly better looking frame.
But what of the actual episodes? Well, Tikka to Ride opens the series and is quite possibly the worst Red Dwarf episode of all time leaving this stickler for details positively choking on his own bile. Following the Series 6 cliff-hanger was always going to be a difficult task, and had Chris Barrie signed on for the entire series I'd like to think they would have taken Rimmer's heroic actions and developed the character further. Instead they wrap things up neatly using a time travel paradox, and then over the course of the episode (which involves more time travel) they not only invalidate a fact established in the Series 6 cliff-hanger but then go on to resolve the characters' actions in a way that violates the same exact paradox used earlier in the episode. A lack of continuity is nothing new in the world of Red Dwarf, but here the decision to embrace time travel as a plot device and then fail to recognise the boundaries established early on just smacks of lazy writing, and moreover a complete lack of respect for the audience as they clearly expect us to just excuse the gaping lapse in logic purely because the show is a comedy at heart. And were the episode actually funny on a regular basis that may be the case, but the character and situation jokes involving a period in history everyone has some level of familiarity with miss all too often, leaving this one to fail on all counts.
The second episode features Ace Rimmer in his weakest outing yet thanks to an overly elaborate opening set-piece that relies far too much on visual effects and stunts as opposed to the witty cynicisms of the character fans truly love. Rubber crocodiles and shoddy rear projection work aside this episode sets up the departure of Rimmer and does so by combining science-fiction concepts with character humour in the way Red Dwarf is best loved, making this a fitting tribute and send-off for the character. This point in the series also marks a new beginning, with the remaining six-episodes making up the regular series run and playing out as we have come to expect. With the exception of the character introduction of Kochanski in the third episode and the development we see over the remainder of the series, the situation-comedy we have come to love involving all manner of sci-fi creations and mishaps plays out in typical fashion only with significantly less impact due to a reduction in overall quality resulting from the factors laid out early in this review. The writing lacks discipline, as does the direction and editing, failing to siphon out the fat and tighten up the reins with the actors rarely asked to go above and beyond, as with no audience present to incite them to riot and better their rivals they simply deliver their lines and do little else to engage our attention. So when those lines fail to raise a smile (be they misplaced or as is quite often the case, overly long witty retorts that lose their impact half-way through) the actors are unaware, and subsequently are asked to do nothing to improve upon them through delivery. The single-camera direction also fails to take advantage of the format, with the director all too often demonstrating that he's asked for nothing more than a master coverage shot and then individual 'face on' shots of the actors involved, leaving for example the lengthy two-hander moments of Duct Soup lacking in visual flair, playing out all too predictably and nullifying some otherwise interesting character moments.
The characters remain the most important aspect of the series and the new dynamic Kochanski brings to the crew often proves to be entertaining, though watching a bulky mechanoid squeal like a little girl does tend to grate towards the series end. Watching Lister try to improve his ways in order to impress her never feels truly right, we know deep down he’s a decent guy but ultimately he’s not one to change himself for anyone. It does however allow for the interplay between Kryten and Kochanski to reach worrying levels of competitiveness, with Robert Llewellyn reaching new heights throughout the series as he is given the chance to play Kryten to various extremes. This leaves only The Cat to be truly left-out, a character who over the years has developed new abilities in order to maintain his purpose on the crew but is ultimately left here with very little to do, making no impression whatsoever over the course of the series. This seems to be par-the-course for Red Dwarf VII though, a series which never really hits its stride and fails to make any deep impression on the viewer, something even the hardcore dwarf alumni will have trouble arguing with.
Tikka To Ride - Lister is distraught, having discovered their entire supply of curry and lager has disappeared following the recent timeline realignment. Prepared to go to any length to get himself a curry he persuades one of Kryten's spare heads to go along with a plan that takes the crew back in history on a curry hunt. Forgetting they already established the time drive was useless in Series 6 because it wasn't able to transport them to different points of space, only different times in space, the crew relocate the time drive anyway and end up in Dallas, 1963. Upon arrival they accidentally prevent the assassination of JFK and find the subsequent effects on history are not good, so set about putting things right in an elaborate manner. A staggeringly bad opening episode the main points of contention lie with the storyline and complete disregard for time travel rules, while the comedy elements fail to raise even a smile for the most part, with only Kryten sans-guilt-chip providing any real amusement.
This episode (running 28:41mins in its original form) is also present in Xtended (37:15mins), Remastered (28:41mins) and Xtended & Remastered (37:15mins) form. The latter inserts both additional scenes and newly created special effects with a reasonable degree of success. The new effects show what Doug Naylor wanted the CGI sequences to look like, and although superior to the original versions they're hardly of the quality you would expect from a series created today. The additional scenes consist mainly of a completely deleted sequence from the end of the episode, and actually prove to be very funny with Rimmer getting some excellent lines and putting his new hard light drive to good use. Other scenes early in the episode are less effective, merely padding the already overstretched storyline.
Stoke Me A Clipper - Rimmer's farewell episode opens with some elaborate Ace Rimmer set-piece swiftly followed by Lister appeasing his libido in the AR suite, but soon settles down into an entertaining character piece which allows Rimmer to develop in the way I certainly hoped he might after the Series 6 cliff-hanger. The interplay between the two Rimmers provide some of the comedic highlights this series, with few able to deliver lines filled with such malice toward another human being in the way Chris Barrie does, and still come out the better character for it.
Ouroboros - Down a crew member the dwarfers soon come across a space anomaly which links parallel dimensions, allowing them to meet another Lister, Kryten and Cat, and much to our Lister's delight, Kochanski. Complications arise and Kochanski ends up forced to join the dwarfers we all know and love, something she's not best pleased about but when death is the other option she makes the smart choice. This episode also ties up the origins of Dave Lister and his orphaned upbringing, while introducing us for the first time to Kryten's paternal instincts toward Lister.
This episode (29:37mins in its original form) is also present in Xtended (32:44mins) form sans laugh track. Largely consisting of extended scenes in the opening quarter surrounding Lister's mishaps in the bathroom the additional minutes are welcome though hardly essential, while the lack of any audience laughter often points out how sparse the use of music is in the series.
Duct Soup - Starbug's heating system is causing havoc for those onboard and eventually interferes with the doors, locking the dwarfers in Lister's quarters with no escape. Opting to traverse through the ducts to find their way out this is as Kryten explains - a "rites of passage" for Kochanski - an opportunity for some character development allowing both her and the audience to settle into the new crew order. The result is generally quite entertaining with some effective comedy weaved into the writing while Kryten's paranoia surrounding Lister and Kochanski is once again into overdrive by the episode's end.
This episode (29:23mins in its original form) is also present in Xtended (33:31mins) form sans laugh track. The main difference is a scene completely excised from the original cut where the group take a break on their travels through the ducts and share stories. Unfortunately Lister's story sees Craig Charles descend into stand-up comic mode, building up to the punch line which sadly never comes, while the latter stories from Kochanski and the Cat are little improvement though do at least go some way to reinforce their characters. Once again the lack of a laugh track highlights the punch line style comedy often used in the series, suffering from the lack of an audience reaction and any music to fill the silence.
Blue - After missing the opportunity to rendezvous with her own time dimension and return home Kochanski is feeling blue while Kryten's increasing petit squabbles about her do little to help matters. Meanwhile Lister is also feeling blue. It seems he's missing Rimmer, leading to many strange incidents including the infamous dream sequence in which Craig Charles and Chris Barrie kiss to uproarious laughter. Indeed this is one of the best episodes from this season, featuring numerous appearances by Barrie - mostly via newly filmed flashbacks - which include situational comedy harking back to the glory days of the franchise with some stellar lines by all incumbent. The final minutes involving 'The Rimmer Experience' are another highlight of the series, showing Rimmer's own skewed take on his time aboard Red Dwarf.
Beyond a Joke - Robert Llewellyn tries his hand at writing an episode and with assistance from Doug Naylor does an admirable job, developing this episode in which Kryten literally blows his top only to be helped by a fellow series 4000 mechanoid. Involving another jaunt in the AR suite - this time via “Pride and Prejudice” world - the scenes in which Kryten snipes the inhabitants before employing a tank to make his point are priceless, while the latter half of the episode brings series six favourites such as a simulant and gelfs back into play with reasonable success.
Epideme - In the penultimate episode the Red Dwarf crew happen upon a star ship buried on an ice planet, one that holds a single life form which they bring back on board to thaw out. Unfortunately for Lister the creature to emerge from the ice has a thing for him, creeping into his bunk and planting a gruesome kiss on him before keeling over once and for all. It turns out the life form was in fact the 'Epideme' virus which inhabited the body they found, an intelligent man-made virus which Lister must reason with in order to survive. The idea of bringing a virus to life is - as discussed in the documentary - one of the darker storylines they've developed for Red Dwarf and makes for intriguing viewing as we see the argument over whose survival is more important, the virus or the body it's infected. The combination of verbal and physical comedy in this episode makes it one of the most consistently funny of the series while Kryten's paranoia over Kochanski reaches new heights which make for some great moments in the first quarter.
Nanarchy - After losing an arm to the epideme virus Lister is somewhat depressed, and while Kochanski tries to push him toward rehabilitation Kryten is on 24hr wife alert and relishing every moment. While developing ideas to create a new arm for Lister we learn about the nanobots Kryten has - or had - for self-repair. Discovering they mutinied around the same time Red Dwarf was lost the crew set about re-treading their steps and are soon on their way to getting more than just a new arm for Lister. Often cringe worthy in the opening minutes due to the sappy acting employed by Craig Charles the episode soon improves with a fine physical comedy double-act between Charles and Llewellyn before the story really starts moving and the jokes along with it. The return of Norman Lovett is surely a highlight for many long-term fans, though his stilted delivery as a result of having no studio audience dulls the impact a little.
A three-disc set, the first two hold the episodes in their various forms plus commentary and selected extras, while the third and final disc holds the bulk of the extras including the documentary. The menu system will be familiar to regulars though many will be pleased to hear it’s been refined making access to features much swifter.
Picture and Sound
Presented in their original 1.33:1 Full Frame aspect ratio this is probably the best Red Dwarf has ever looked on DVD, though like most television series it's still a long way off being completely satisfactory. Aided somewhat by the move to a closed set and the single-camera format the transfer here exhibits far more detail than previous releases, and suffers from none of the grain or dreary colours that have been apparent on the older series. Instead what you'll find are deep, bold colour levels with little sign of bleeding and impressive black levels which maintain good shadow detail. Aside from the limits of the show itself, with typically simple sets and bland staging, the only blights on an otherwise fine transfer is some unnecessary edge enhancement and an abundance of aliasing which results in jagged edges throughout the series. It's a problem you'll notice to varying degrees depending on your setup, but one that was clearly obvious on all test setups employed.
The English stereo mix comes through as clear as you'd expect for a relatively modern production, with dialogue, sound effects and music well balanced along with the recorded audience laughter. English subtitles are present on all episodes and extra features.
Discs 1 & 2
Audio Commentary: Over the course of the series the regular cast members of Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules are present to offer their recollections, musings and general banter on the show. One topic of discussion which is unavoidable when viewing Red Dwarf VII is that of the changes to the regular cast, something which is broached on more than one occasion here and ultimately affects the line-up of commentators, with Chloë Annett joining the group from episode three onwards, while Chris Barrie leaves after episode five and Norman Lovett makes his return for the eighth and final episode. Despite these changes the mood and contributions will be familiar to fans coming to this DVD release following the previous six series, which essentially means that what the commentaries lack in revealing critique and technical reference they more than make up for in lively conversation and amusing snipes and anecdotes.
Identity Within: The so-called 'lost episode' from Red Dwarf VII was dropped for budgetary reasons but can be viewed here via a series of storyboards with all dialogue performed by Chris Barrie. Highly adept at impressions Barrie carries this exceptionally well even if the actual content is lacking in comedy value. The episode concerns itself with The Cat finally getting his end away, tracking down a lady-cat to satisfy his needs over a matter of life and death (literally). Even if budget had permitted this would most likely have been a bad episode to produce, as the content is rather more sci-fi and action adventure than it is comedy, leaving me with the unshakeable feeling that it would have looked incredibly tacky if produced to the usual Red Dwarf standards.
Fan Films: A competition was held to see who could make the best Red Dwarf fan film and here presented in the form of an awards ceremony hosted by Doug Naylor we are privy to the two winners. The first and by far the most entertaining is a faux-documentary looking at the attempts to secure funding for the Red Dwarf movie, with the writing/acting team doing a wonderful job and making a fine observation on Doug Naylor in particular. One scene is hugely reminiscent of the Orange movie-pitch shorts we see in cinemas and I wonder who came up with the idea first, as they gained more than a few laughs out of this viewer. The second short is far more amateur in nature and never really held my interest, using crude animation techniques it essentially recreates scenes from several Red Dwarf episodes.
Back from the Dead: Running just under 90-minutes this documentary maintains the high standards set on previous releases with the primary cast and crew members offering their thoughts and recollections on the series as a whole, with a particularly insightful series overview prior to the episode breakdown in which Doug Naylor explains the severing of his ties with long-term writing partner Rob Grant. Despite a rather frightening looking Ed Bye the contributions and contributors are always informative and edited in a manner to highlight the difference in opinions on certain matters which always helps to maintain interest levels. I would have liked to have known a little more about the casting process for Kochanski however, a subject which is largely glossed over with no explanation as to why Claire Grogan never returned (or if she was even asked to). It's also nice to see the participants rarely hold back, in fact Ed Bye comments on those (such as myself) who complain about the lapse in time travel rules and logic found in the opening episode and makes sure we all know exactly what he thinks of us.
Deleted Scenes: Running just over 43-minutes there is a healthy selection of deleted material here from all eight episodes, even those which appear in their extended form on the first two discs. Wonderfully presented as always complete with title cards that put the scenes into context with explanations for their removal the majority of scenes are intermittently entertaining with even a few jokes that I would have liked to have seen restored (Kryten's "criminal libel" line from the episode Blue for example). Ultimately you're unlikely to watch these more than once, but their inclusion is still important and helps fill in a few of the blanks in the final episode versions continuity.
Smeg Ups: Running just over 10-minutes is this selection of fluffed lines and examples of animals misbehaving and props not working. You either enjoy these compilations or you don't, I certainly do though without the studio audience regular dwarf fans will notice the lack of playful banter between the team as they would usually try and outdo each other in the cock-up stakes.
Behind The Scenes: Two featurettes make up this section, the first and most interesting is a Video Diary made by Robert Llewellyn during the Red Dwarf VII shoot. Unfortunately he forgot to activate his camera most of the time, so there is only footage here from the 'Pride & Prejudice World' exterior location but what is available provides a light-hearted look behind-the-scenes of the series production. The second featurette is an extract from the BBC 'How Do They Do That?' series which looks at how the model shots for the series were created on a low budget. Claiming the effects look like they cost millions of dollars is the first mistake of this segment, which is rather slim in terms of information imparted but does at least provide some commentary unlike the other SFX segments on the disc.
Raw FX Footage: Purely for the technically minded dwarf fan, this segment includes thirty-minutes of raw model shots and CGI renders with no form of commentary or audio accompaniment, leaving only the text-descriptions which precede the video footage to outline what you're about to see. Red Dwarf VII was the first real push into the world of CGI for the show and other than giving you the opportunity to compare and contrast how successful this was for yourself, the footage here is unlikely to hold your interest for the length it runs.
Isolated Music Cues: In similar fashion to the Raw FX Footage this section is equally dubious in its worth for all but the most hardened fans, featuring the original music created for the series by Howard Goodall in all its generic splendour. Apparently there are many tunes here which never made it to the final cuts, so if that interests you the presentation here will make them easy enough to find.
Son of Cliché: Two scenes from a 1984 Grant and Naylor radio show highlight the original concept for Red Dwarf, and though not immediately gripping or overflowing with gags are filled with many obvious Dwarfisms such as a fascination with 20th century P.E. teachers and their IQs.
"Technically Speaking" Music Featurette: Running just over two-minutes this so-called featurette is nothing more than a series of clips with Feeder's "Buck Rogers" playing over the top. I presume the focus is on the series’ range of sound effects created to accompany the visual effects, but I could be wrong. Still, it's short and thanks to the music and choice of clips a fairly punchy affair that is often more entertaining than the technical library style extras found elsewhere on the disc.
Trailers: A short TV-Spot advertising the premiere of Red Dwarf VII on BBC Two is followed by the specially recorded introductions by Kryten for the 'Xtended' Red Dwarf VII VHS releases. Neither prove to be particularly worthy of your time, though should you be holding on to your old VHS copies for the latter then you can finally dispose of them.
Stills Gallery: An extensive selection of stills from several categories document the shoot while a design segment looks at costume sketches for Kochanski and sleeve designs from the VHS releases.
Easter Eggs: On Disc 3 I was able to locate two easter eggs, one is a special movie style trailer for the series, the other Chloë Annett's audition tape.
A collector’s booklet will also be included with the retail set, but only having check discs I’m unable to comment on its quality.
One strictly for Red Dwarf fans looking to complete their collection Red Dwarf VII remains an enjoyable extension to the ongoing adventures of the dwarf crew but fails to rekindle the winning formulas of the earlier outings. The DVD once again exceeds expectations however with numerous extra features worthy of any fans time and many more that although exhaustive in their nature, will satisfy the completists out there.