On 15th February this year, it’ll be exactly 31 years to the day since Red Dwarf first blasted onto our screens. Everyone either has their own favourite series, or at least an opinion as to where exactly they think the show first jumped the shark (which, for the record, was likely around Series IV, even though you didn’t ask). Over an 11 year period, BBC Two brought us a total of eight seasons, until they suddenly decided that they didn’t want it anymore. While the show ultimately went on to find an afterlife in Silicon Heaven, courtesy of Dave, this new Blu-ray set brings us a full collection of the full run of BBC episodes in (upscaled) high-def for the first time.
As many diehard fans will have the full run on DVD already, the big question is whether or not it’s worth splashing out for the episodes yet again. Well, it really depends on what just you want out of a Red Dwarf Blu-ray set (or ‘Blu Dwarf’, as some wags have christened it). A brand new set of special features? Well, you’ll be disappointed, then. Okay, how about the show being remastered for HD viewing? Well, that’s been done, but not quite as you’d expect it; however, we’ll come to that in a bit. All in all, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, and given how long it’s taken to get the show prepped for re-release, you’d perhaps expect a little bit more from it overall as a collection.
In terms of contents, besides having all of the eight series’ worth of episodes, you’ve also got pretty much all the bonus content from the DVD releases, but you’d hope the team behind the Blu-rays might perhaps have pushed the boat out a little and put some new original content on here as well – when the BBC started releasing Doctor Who season by season onto Blu-ray, they at least bothered to put a load of new and exclusive special features on there, so it at least took some of the sting out of having to end up duplicating something that you already had on your shelves. Still, maybe they’re keeping that back for the almost inevitable 40th anniversary re-release in a decade’s time? Might just pop myself into stasis for the next decade.
Well, there is at least some relatively rare material on here, as they’ve included the ‘Bodysnatcher Collection’, which only had a relatively limited life out on DVD, and is now like trying to find hens’ teeth – there was a warehouse fire which had ended up destroying most of the stock, and it never ended up getting repressed for one reason or another. As such, if you didn’t get it on first release, this disc would have felt to a great many Dwarf fans as being as hard to get your hands on Venus de Milo’s arms or Brooke Shields’s buttocks (bonus points if you can name the episode where that reference came from). It’s therefore a rather nice touch to finally be able to get hold of this near-mythical collection, and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.
The centrepiece of this particular disc is, unsurprisingly, ‘Bodysnatcher’ – this is an unmade script from early in Red Dwarf‘s run, which has been brought to life via a combination of storyboards and by Chris Barrie’s mix of narration and impressions of the cast, as we get to see a lost episode, which has a lot of novelty value. In fact, the same treatment is given to excerpts from ‘Dad’, another abandoned story – in this case, it was due to try and bridge the gap between Series II and III. It would’ve seen a lot of exposition to cover just why Kryten had joined the crew, plus giving a reason for Holly’s sex change, and dealing with Lister’s pregnancy. Instead, they just went with a parody of a Star Wars-style crawl at the beginning of ‘Backwards’, so it’s interesting to see one of the roads not taken.
Strangely, though, the true highlight of this disc isn’t the lost stories, but rather the original assembly of the very first episode, ‘The End’ – it seems about two-thirds of the opener was reshot at the end of recording for the first series, so this is a fascinating look at an alternative start to Red Dwarf, with some very different takes and dialogue, as well as some much better jokes and performances. Perhaps as fans are so familiar with the version as transmitted, this is why it feels so fresh and vibrant, like a missing episode in its own right, as there’s more than enough to set it apart from what actually ended up on screen, including deleted material. In fact, it’s startling just how much better some of the jokes work, and it could be said that this is actually a far superior version of the pilot, as it comes across as being more worthy of being the default version of the episode.
There’s also some real gems amongst all the bonus material that’s split between the other discs in the set. For example, if you’ve not been ‘lucky’ enough to see a bootleg copy of the Red Dwarf USA pilot, then the ‘Dwarfing USA’ documentary is an opportunity to see some footage from this attempt to repurpose the show for a transatlantic audience. In addition, some specially-shot PBS promos – made for the American audience – as well as a piece for Children In Need give us a chance to see some rare material, which also gives us the only chance you’ll get this side of the ‘Smeg Ups’ to see the characters breaking the fourth wall. It’s nice that they’ve dug these out, along with original trailers for the show’s run, but it’s hard to believe the only copies for the ads seem to come from fans’ scrappy off-air VHS recordings.
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Attention to detail is something that you’d perhaps take for granted, particularly as the release date for the set was put back on more than one occasion, with the main reason for this being given that they were working on the restoration of the picture and sound, in order to get the very best possible quality. It’s disappointing, then, that there are a number of niggles with the set which stop it being essential. For one thing, a lot of individual disc menus are incredibly dated, and rather annoying to navigate around. Taking of menus, they manage to put ‘Thanks For The Memory’ down as ‘Thanks For The Memories’ on the Series II disc episode listing. So much for proofing.
It’s also odd that in a Blu-ray set, only the episodes are put out in the HD format, with the bonus features getting just DVD discs. Perhaps it’s a cost-cutting move, or maybe they thought that it didn’t make sense, but it still seems a rather curious choice. The packaging itself is quite nice, but the ‘Bodysnatcher’ disc is in a cheap cardboard sleeve which is just randomly stuck in there, like an afterthought, and not actually integrated into the rest of the set. Given they also have features in there about the controversial ‘Remastered’ Red Dwarf Series I to III, it’s bizarre that they don’t then include them in the set, given that it’s supposedly ‘complete’. It’s not as if they haven’t got room – they could’ve got them comfortably onto the Blu-ray discs in the set, without needing to increase the overall number of discs to accommodate them elsewhere.
Perhaps the most egregious error is what they’ve done during the remastering for the Blu-ray release, as they’ve messed up the whole of Series III and the last half of Series V. Basically, in layman’s terms, the picture doesn’t look right, because they’ve (presumably inadvertently) added on an effect which makes the original videotape look like film – the end result is that they don’t actually look authentic to how they were broadcast (or released on the DVDs previously), and there’s a rather distinct jerkiness to the motion. Given that the BBC’s Blu-ray release of Doctor Who’s Season 12 had to be withdrawn and new discs supplied to replace the problematic ones, it’s surprising that the BBC hasn’t yet acknowledged the issue – which has been repeatedly raised by fans – or looked to do anything about it. Poor show, Auntie Beeb. For shame.
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So, is it worth spending the DollarPounds on this set? Well, if you’ve already got the whole eight series on DVD, probably not, unless you desperately want to get your hands on the ‘Bodysnatcher’ disc in view of its scarcity as a standalone. Even if you haven’t got the whole run, or don’t mind trading up to Blu-ray, there’s more than enough minor gripes to make you wonder whether or not it’s worth waiting to see if the picture mastering issues get sorted out and the discs recalled by the BBC, or even if they’ll look to bang it out again within a few years’ time and stick in a few brand new bells and whistles to try and tempt you to part with your hard-earned cash yet again.
Still, there’s far worse ways to spend 1,466 minutes of your life.