Welcome to the second installment of our, ahem, “monthly” series, looking at ten of the very best and five of the very worst offerings from one given area of the wider Red Dwarf universe. And the reason you’ve been waiting two months for the second installment of this monthly series is that the topic is something that’s proved very difficult to put into order – namely DVD Extras. We’ve been treated to some of the finest DVD packages that TV comedy has to offer, with hours upon hours of well-researched, fascinating and hilarious extras accompanying each series. How on Titan is it possible to decide which brilliant thing is better than another brilliant thing, or to come up with five that aren’t brilliant? Read on to find out…
Let’s kick off with some exciting caveats. We’re concentrating on unique one-off features, that have been made specifically for one particular release, rather than the regular features that are on virtually all the releases. Most notably, this means we’re not including the big series-specific retrospective documentaries – largely because there’d be very little room for anything else in the top ten. You can also take it as read that the deleted scenes, Smeg Ups, raw effects footage, isolated music cues, etc are all brilliant, and that the musical featurettes are all shit. Also, for the top ten at least, we’re excluding things that weren’t originally made for DVD – your A-Zs, Can’t Smeg Won’t Smegs, Making of Back To Earths, Comedy Connectionses, and whatnot. We’ve waived this rule for the bottom five, because otherwise there wouldn’t be five.
Anyway, enough of the chitter chatter, let the banquet begin! Well, it’s more a list of some things followed by some words than a banquet, but, you know.
10. The SFX of Red Dwarf V
Mike Tucker’s old home movies from c. 1992, with a commentary track from the man himself. At the time of release, this level of detail into the making of the visual effects was reserved for early morning Dimension Jump Q&As, or late night Dimension Jump drunken chats. It was a delight, therefore, to get the same experience from the comfort of your own home, whenever you wanted it. There’s some terrific footage of Starbug shoots, the explosion from Demons & Angels and the making of Terrorform‘s self-loathing beast, all backed up with a constant stream of Mike’s anecdotes and explanations. It’s the kind of thing that’s only going to be of interest to a fraction of Red Dwarf viewers, and so gets extra points just for existing in the first place.
9. What’s Different? Text Track
Otherwise known as The Only Possible Reason For Choosing To Watch The Re-Mastered Episodes. As the name suggests, this nine hour epic subtitle track primarily existed to describe the differences between the original episodes from series 1-III, and the Re-Mastered editions that form the bulk of The Bodysnatcher Collection. But it was so much more than that – writer Andrew Ellard fills the gaps between discussion points with general Dwarf trivia, amusing games, and a fair handful of digs at the Re-Mastered project itself. It transforms the Re-Mastered editions from a necessary evil in order for the release to happen, into something that’s actually worth the time taken to watch. It’s something that they didn’t have to do, but chose to make the effort out of a desire to create the best possible project; this ethos is what made the Red Dwarf DVDs as brilliant as they were.
8. Return To Laredo
Robert Llewellyn nips over to Kent to revisit the location for Gunmen of the Apocalypse, meet some cowboys, rehash a few anecdotes and generally piss about. Cheap, cheerful and only ten minutes long, but lovingly made, engaging to watch and full of lovely little touches – a sting of incidental music here, a well chosen clip from the episode there, and of course, Robert fading out of existence at the end. Robert has always been a great presenter, especially when he’s talking about something he cares about, and this is no exception. Part of a small but perfectly formed raft of location filming for the Series VI DVD – more on which later.
7. Building A Better Universe
Mel Bibby was more important than most in shaping the changes that took place between Series 2 and III, which of course paved the way for Red Dwarf‘s incredible success throughout the 90s. What better way to pay tribute to the man than with a succession of his contemporaries queuing up to praise his work? Behind-the-scenes anecdotes are abundant, but the highlight is the inclusion of the only known footage of the great man himself discussing Red Dwarf. Again, it’s something that the majority of productions wouldn’t bother with, and it says a lot about the about the love and affection felt for Mel that they went out of their way to do something really special.
6. Howard Goodall: Settling The Score
It’s a very simple formula: put Howard Goodall in front of a keyboard, turn the camera on, say “talk about Red Dwarf“, sit back and enjoy. The end result features such gems as extra discarded lyrics for the theme tune (“I want some sand… up my bum”), Howard playing the tune backwards and a snatch of the original demo for Tongue Tied – later included in full as part of The Bodysnatcher Collection. Like Robert’s documentary elsewhere on the Series VI DVD, it’s just great to see a likeable man talking about something they care about. Plus, seeing Howard actually at the piano gives you an insight into his genius and the way he puts his work together. It’s utterly joyous.
5. The Bodysnatcher Collection‘s commentaries
The cast commentaries are not eligible for the top ten list, as they’re a regular feature rather than a one-off. But also, they’re a bit of a mixed bag. There are plenty of laughs to be found, but very little insight, which tends to only be captured from the cast in the calmer atmosphere of a documentary recording, aided by judicious editing. Consequently, they can get a little grating after a while, when the force of those personalities leaves you exhausted and slightly irritated. Not a bit of that on The Bodysnatcher Collection, though, which turns to those behind the scenes to fill in the gaps. Three of the funniest people ever to sit in a recording booth – Rob Grant, Doug Naylor and Ed Bye – turn up in various combinations to commentate on a select few episodes, the recreated scripts and even an archive Alan Titchmarsh interview. They’re great when they’re discussing the finer points of Dwarf, but they’re just as brilliant when they’re rabbiting on about the history of comedy, telling old anecdotes from other shows, or making vague references to this very website. I could listen to any of these three banging on for hours on end without getting bored, and it’s only a shame that we don’t have commentaries from Rob, Doug and Ed on every single episode ever. Even the ones that Rob and/or Ed weren’t involved with.
As we will see across the next few entries, Red Dwarf documentaries are at their best when they’re discussing the less successful, more controversial or more testing aspects of the show’s production. Re-Dwarf covers all of these bases, plus – with its twenty minute running time and dedication to a single topic – is also one of the most succinct, tightly-edited and well-produced pieces across the range. The interviews are great – as they always are – the highlight being the fact that absolutely no-one will accept responsibility for the inclusion of the two skutters running across the screen in the opening scene of The End. But it’s also full of fascinating found footage, such as rushes from the Re-Mastered shoot, glimpses of the edit paperwork and, best of all, a model shot of the embiggened ship by The Mill, which was done as a test for The Movie. The tone of the doc is honest and even-handed, with Doug and Ed more than willing to admit their mistakes, but also defending some of the things they’re proud of, even if it goes against popular fan opinion. It’s a comprehensive and objective account of a strange time in Dwarf‘s history, and you can’t ask for anything more.
3. Dwarfing USA
Similarly, all of the above also applies to Dwarfing USA, the incredibly frank and fascinating account of the production of the American pilot. The main draw at the time of release was the inclusion of clips from the pilot itself. We’d obviously all seen the thing in full, but only as a heavily compressed encode of a tenth generation VHS – to have a version where you could actually see the actors’ faces was extraordinarily exciting. But naturally, the thing that makes you want to watch the docco over and over again is the quality of the interviews with Doug and Robert in particular – a first hand account of one of the weirdest things to happen over the last 25 years, and a comprehensive guide to exactly why it was doomed to failure. There’s a lot of brand new information revealed, and it’s done in the usual amusing and compelling way. This is what made the Red Dwarf DVDs so successful – taking topics that everyone is aware of but not many people know much about, and going through them in extreme detail without alienating any casual viewers. Utterly superb.
2. We’re Smegged
OK, we said we were excluding the big retrospective documentaries, but this is an entirely different beast. It’s not a retrospective, it’s a contemporary accompaniment to the series, with unparalleled access to all areas of the production, following the same schedule as the series itself, and designed at every step of the way to tell a full story. But back when Nathan Cubitt and Andrew Ellard were shooting that first script readthrough, they couldn’t have known that the story they’d be telling in the documentary would be so unusual, emotional and complicated. And it tells this story with the exact same level of honesty and candidness that we’ve come to expect from interviews that take place ten years after the event – it’s remarkable that some of the revelations within the documentary ever saw the light of day, especially on the official DVD released just days after the series finished airing.
But it’s not only the serious stuff that makes the whopping two hour running time go past in a flash. Because Nathan and his monopod were there for every step of the way, we get to see so much more of the production process than ever before. This ranges from the cast pissing about between takes, to Doug directing a smoke machine, and even the man who who believes that the garbage crushers from Fathers & Suns are the sexiest things in the world. We’re Smegged is a rollercoaster that flits between hilarious and shocking, and simultaneously leaves you with the feelings that Series X was a joyous return to form and that it was a miracle that the bloody thing got made in the first place. In fact, the only thing more unlikely than Series X getting to air after all the cock-ups that are detailed here, is that a two-hour warts-and-all documentary should pop up within weeks to tell everyone how unlikely it was. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting accompaniment to Red Dwarf‘s return to the screen.
For any show other than Red Dwarf, it would be near impossible for something like We’re Smegged to only be the *second* best DVD extra. But if there’s one thing better than talking about new episodes of Red Dwarf, it’s actually creating new episodes of Red Dwarf. It is with a sense of sheer inevitability that we reveal that the greatest DVD extra of all time is…
Identity Within and the script extracts from elsewhere on The Bodysnatcher Collection can count themselves unlucky not to have been included on this list, but despite the brilliance of these recreations, Bodysnatcher trumps them both easily. For a start, it’s a whole episode, and an almost mythical one at that. And while Identity Within – as a script – is fascinating for all the wrong reasons, Bodysnatcher is actually a hugely entertaining episode in its own right. It’s a really strong script, which holds up well against many of the Series 1 episodes that made it to screen. Its body horror and dark undertones represent an alternative path that the show could have taken in its earliest days, but it’s also incredibly funny – the comedic stand-out being the skutter fight that Rimmer orchestrates.
It’s also a fantastic production in itself. The storyboards are excellent, as is Chris Barrie, who adds delightful touches such as impersonating John Lenahan and Tony Hawks when performing as toasters and machines. The script was also tightened and slightly amended by Rob and Doug. That’s ROB AND DOUG. Together. And you can tell from the accompanying commentary that there’s still a spark between them, which just adds to the heart-warmingly lovely feeling you get from The Bodysnatcher Collection as a whole, and Bodysnatcher in particular.
Four of the ten features from this top ten come from The Bodysnatcher Collection, which also contains two of the best series-specific documentaries, along with all kind of little nuggets dug up from the archives or omitted from previous DVDs. After eight increasingly-brilliant DVD releases, it was an opportunity for Andrew Ellard and co to finish the job with style, improve anything they weren’t happy with, and generally take every last opportunity to give the fans what they want. It’s been five years now since we started thinking of Red Dwarf as a current TV show once more, and with everyone aching for updates on Series XI, maybe we’re starting to take that for granted. But between 2002 and 2007, it was up to the DVD releases to keep the flame alive. It wasn’t enough to just chuck the episodes out and take the money – Ellard and GNP instead took the time and effort to create Red Dwarf‘s legacy. They could hardly have done a better job.
So please, ingest at least one pinch of salt before delving into the contrived depths of this: the entirely arbitrary Worst 5 Red Dwarf DVD Extras Ever.
5. Red Dwarf Mobisode
And already we see just how contrived this list is. It’s not a fault of the DVDs that this thing is so bad, and it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to put on a disc. It’s just that the mobisodes are so bloody rubbish that they infect everything they touch, with their shitty animation and needless existence. At least whichever clip it was that ended up on DVD wasn’t as bad as Red Christmas.
4. Fan Films
The paper-cut-out Polymorph thing is alright, but the vast majority of this feature’s running time is taken up by some shoddily-made, dimly-lit, self-congratulatory piece of shit. It looks like the whole thing was filmed in a halls-of-residence kitchen by a first year TV Production student, with no idea of how to operate lights or microphones, and then edited in awful resolution on a knackered old PC. You can’t even make out what’s written on the fax that’s supposed to be a punchline of the whole thing. And did the cast really need to be so relentlessly ugly?
3. Backwards – Forwards
It’s not a bad idea, and it certainly causes some level of amusement. But it’s a bit of a slog to watch the whole thing in one go, when only tiny snippets of it are interesting. I can certainly see why they did what they did, but it might have been a more rewarding experience if it was just a series of clips of the relevant backwards dialogue.
2. Japanese Version of The End
Again, it’s a perfectly valid inclusion, and there’s no reason why it’s inherently a bad thing to include. But like its backwards brethren, it’s hard to make it through the whole thing. It would have been great to see a series of different scenes dubbed into other languages, but that’s a much tougher edit job and presumably more difficult to wrangle the rights. As with everything else on this list, it’s not a problem that it’s there, but it’s not something that you go back to when you’re in the mood for some Red Dwarf extras.
1. Ace Rimmer – A Life in Lamé
It was a very nice idea. A selection of clips from Ace Rimmer episodes, combined with some brand new Holly dialogue from Hattie. While it was great to see Hattie back in the role, unfortunately neither she or the script were at their best, and a lot of the jokes fell flat. It wasn’t the success that it could have been, but then again: it’s not completely shit, and it’s entirely harmless. I’m glad it exists – it’s not as if it was a choice between doing this and making a brand new episode or something. So what if ten minutes out of three hours’ worth of extras are a bit ropey? It wouldn’t be Dwarf if there wasn’t some bits that people aren’t keen on, and it’s a testament to the quality of all of the DVD releases that the only criticisms are “it’s not quite perfect, but it’s alright”.
Next time on High & Low, we’ll be looking at the very best and very worst Guest Characters from Red Dwarf 1-X. Taking into account both the performances of the actor and the quality of writing, we’ll be examining which guest slots have stood the test of time, which of the recent efforts are up there with the best, and just how many of the bottom five spaces will be occupied by Kerry Shale. Why not do some comments about my choices in this article, and what I should include in the next one? Go on.