Of all the difficult tasks I have faced whilst writing Ganymede & Titan, this has to be one of the most difficultistestist. Even more difficult than writing an article which doesn’t manage to be spectacularly rude about somebody for very little reason. How the bloody hell do you manage to boil down the quite staggering amount of amazing special effects work for Red Dwarf into one easy-to-digest Top 10 list?
Answer: with a lot of kicking, screaming, self-doubt as to the worth of my entire life, and general dissatisfaction. Hopefully that’s sold this article as something well worth reading. Let’s get on with it, shall we?
10. Starbug Leg
The kind of forced perspective shot that Dwarf rarely attempted – in fact, the only other example which springs to mind is the corridor shot near the end of Back to Earth. By means of clever camera angles, a relatively small model of a Starbug leg looks bloody huge. Combined with the excellent location work, the result is very nice indeed.
What I especially love about this is that even after you know exactly how it’s done, you still can’t really see it in the final shot. The illusion remains intact.
9. Planet Wide Shot
Thanks for the Memory
Oddly enough, as we shall see later, Series 2 contains one of the best examples of Red Dwarf combining live action and models in one shot, and one of the worst. Surprise: this is the good one. The first time we see our heroes on the actual surface of a planet, and this shot sells it perfectly – in fact, the show never really bettered it.
The Hologrammic Projection Cage does win the award for “most obviously going to be dropped idea in any programme ever”, though.
8. The Holoship
One of the great things about Red Dwarf is that it looks like nothing else on television – and this is one of the greatest examples. The obvious way to have done a hologrammatic ship would perhaps be to take a normal-looking ship, make it transparent, and add a few sparkly effects on top. Instead, Dwarf creates this beautiful perspex model. Stunning.
(But thank God they cut out the shot of it opening up, as seen in the raw effects footage on the DVD. The magic is well and truly broken.)
7. Exploding GELF Icon
Emohawk – Polymorph II
If there’s one criticism that can be made of Dwarf‘s model work, it’s that each shot tends to do only one thing. A ship flies past, or takes off from a hanger, or explodes… but generally only one thing at once. A churlish thing to complain about perhaps, when the shots end up so good, but it’s one of the few things about Dwarf‘s effects where the money limits the ambition.
The beauty of this shot, then – in an action sequence which is one of the best Dwarf ever did – is that we see the GELF icon exploding… and then the flaming Starbug flies through the wreckage. A bravura shot, which could have pointed towards where the effects work could have gone in VII… if that hadn’t been such an absolute disaster.
6. Cat/Cat High Five
To be honest, I could fill this entire article with just split screen shots and justify every single one. From the amazing scene in Future Echoes where Rimmer walks out of one door and walks in from the other, to Me² with its long, ambitious dialogue scenes between the two Rimmers, to the double Lister scene in Psirens which moves beyond the normal straight line split to produce a scene you blink at and wonder how the hell it was done… there’s no shortage of them.
But to represent them all, I pick Cat high-fiving himself in Camille. Not only is it perfectly executed, but it’s also the perfect example of a piece of effects work enabling a joke pretty much no other show would ever do. It’s the essence of Red Dwarf, in fact.
(As an aside, the confidence in which the show was doing split screen work by this point is exemplified by the second picture here. The showy main shot is the standout… but in the same scene, Ed Bye quietly frames the other shot with Camille Cat in the corner. An unexpected way to do a split screen, but an entirely natural shot if it was two different characters. The result: you totally buy the idea of two Cats in the room… and the subtle confidence of the secondary shot helps sell the main shot and accompanying gag.)
5. The Polymorph
OK, OK, yes. It’s a massive Alien rip-off. There’s the odd dodgy shot here and there. (Yes, final shot of the episode, with your crappy wipe and weird change in background when the second Polymorph is revealed, I’m thinking of you.) So why pick the Polymorph?
Simple: because for the majority of the time, it’s one of the best examples of Red Dwarf selling us a non-humanoid creature. For all that, say, the mutton vindaloo beast in D.N.A. may be better in some respects… it is also very obviously A Man In A Suit. So is the Camille blob, for that matter. The Polymorph avoids this entirely. And the shot near the end of the episode with the Polymorph appearing behind our heroes is one of the single best CSO effects the series ever managed.
Ironically, despite wearing its influence very much on its sleeve… with the Polymorph, the series felt like it could do anything. Arguably, Red Dwarf was never as experimental again as it was in that autumn of 1989 – every aspect of the show pushing at the boundaries. A series where it felt audience sitcom could do anything, if given enough imagination.
Even – occasionally – somebody else’s imagination.
4. Ocean Crash
But I’m going for this: the spectacular crash onto the ocean planet in Dimension Jump. Why? Because despite being amazing, most Starbug crashes are very obviously model shots. Excellent model shots, but model shots nonetheless. What I love about this one is that it’s the closest Dwarf got to looking like they built a full-size Starbug and smashed it into the sea. As great as the crash onto the snow planet was in Marooned the previous season, nobody could say those soap flakes truly looked like snow. The additional fact that water is very difficult to get right in model shots due to scale issues means this is fully deserving of the official title Best Starbug Crash Ever. Maybe Tucker & Co deserve an official G&T certificate. It’d go nicely next to their BAFTA.
3. Developing Photos
Let’s be honest: variations for most shots in this list are created for many, many SF films and TV shows. Sure, a shot of Starbug crashing might be an absolutely beautiful shot, and a beautiful ship design… but look in the right places, and ship crashes are ten-a-penny.
However, some shots are true one-offs. And this particular one – a slow pan across many different photos, come to life through mutated developing fluid – is so well done, that it almost looks normal. It doesn’t even look like an effect. Which is, of course, the whole beauty of it.
What’s amazing about this shot is that it’s exactly the kind of thing that was bloody difficult to do in 1989. If you want to go and shoot a spacecraft model, then the basics are fundamentally the same, whether it’s now or 25 years ago. But a shot like this is so much easier these days with computerised motion tracking. It would be a great shot for a movie to pull off in the late eighties, let alone a BBC sitcom. To be honest, I still don’t understand how they got it looking so perfect.
The final piece of brilliance? The show didn’t even need to do this particular shot. It would have been far easier to just lock-off the camera and done a stationary shot – in fact, it would clearly have been the obvious thing to do. But Red Dwarf at its best specialises in the non-obvious.
2. Starbug Take-off
Demons & Angels
This list wouldn’t be complete without a hero shot of Starbug that didn’t involve an enormous crash. I’ve always had a soft spot for the overhead beauty pass (first seen in Series IV, and used all the time in VI), or the very opening shot of Psirens (where memorably, the script describes as Starbug “beetles across the disc of the sun”.)
But instead, I’ll go for this: Starbug taking off from a self-destructing Red Dwarf in Demons & Angels. As hero shots go in Dwarf, it’s hard to beat. It’s no surprise that this shot was reused in Back to Reality, where the new, movie-style crew flex their muscles and kiss the girl. This is film-quality work. (Just ignore the fact a variant of the shot was also used in Rimmerworld, where Starbug takes off from the doomed simulant ship… despite this clearly being Red Dwarf’s hangar. There’s a fanfic to be had in that. A really fucking rubbish one.)
1. Closing Credits
Red Dwarf Series 1 – Red Dwarf IV
But how else do you describe Red Dwarf‘s closing credits? A beautiful, swooping shot across Red Dwarf – a motion control shot that is as good as any effects work the series ever managed. (The decision to get rid of this closing sequence in Red Dwarf V in favour of a starfield and some badly-animated blue blobs is one of the few questionable decisions that particular series made.) It’s a perfect showcase for that first Red Dwarf model itself – one that has had the odd bit of flack over the years, but I still think looks absolutely superb. Somehow, this shot takes a great hulk of a mining ship – that’s had random bits and pieces stuck all over it (both in-universe and in real life)… and makes it look graceful. No mean feat.
It’s also a good example of how taking care of the smaller things when making programmes is hugely important. Take a look at the end credits of most sitcoms. It’s a rare one you’ll find these days which matches what Red Dwarf achieved – an image etched into the memory, popping up in your head long after the programme has finished. Just imagine what fun other shows could have, if the time was taken to create memorable end credits. (And if channels gave them time to play them, and didn’t spray graphics all over them… but that’s a rant for another day.)
The hilarious thing is, as part of Red Dwarf X‘s back-to-basics approach, an attempt was made to recreate the shot – and, as can be seen on the “We’re Smegged” DVD documentary, it just didn’t work, as they didn’t have access to a motion control rig. Maybe it’s foolish to draw too many wider conclusions from that… yet the fact Red Dwarf in 1988 had access to full motion control, and 24 years later they didn’t, strikes me as a good example that television doesn’t always move forwards in the way we’d all like.
But enough of my own personal agenda. Red Dwarf‘s closing credits. Iconic. Seriously. Unlike the following… yes, it’s time for the dregs of Red Dwarf‘s effects work. And if you skipped all the above because you wanted to know what I thought of the bad stuff first, then you are clearly a terrible person. I like you.
5. Space Corps External Enforcement Vehicle
Emohawk – Polymorph II
As I said above, the chase sequence in Emohawk is one of the best action sequences in Red Dwarf of all time. But out of brilliant effects shot followed by brilliant effects shot, one stands out like a sore thumb: that of the Space Corps External Enforcement Vehicle warping next to Starbug… by way of a 2D spinning disc. (Which looks far worse moving than in this accompanying picture.)
What’s even worse is that a later shot shows that they did actually build a proper model for the ship, rendering this even more ridiculous in comparison. Occasionally with VI, the sheer amount of effects work required means the odd dodgy shot peeks through the gaps. This is one of those gaps.
4. Cat in Blue Midget’s Hangar
Most of the time when looking at the first two series of Dwarf, the series proves that the cliched idea of what a BBC North West production would look like in 1988 is just that – a cliche, with no basis in fact whatsoever. Then a shot like this comes along, and it’s somehow even worse than that cliched idea. Even Doctor Who during its most cash-strapped days rarely managed a CSO shot so blurry, fuzzy, and generally manky.
What’s worse is that it spoils a rare – and lovely – shot of Blue Midget’s hangar. It makes you wonder why they didn’t realise the shot wasn’t working in the edit, and just used the model shot as it was without Cat inserted into it (and without his accompanying wail). It’s not like the story requires it, after all – you’d lose nothing, and you’d be replacing a shitty effects shot with a good one.
3. Legion’s FACE
Or, more specifically, one single shot of Legion’s FACE. Most of the shots of the Dwarfer’s faces melded together work fine – it was never one of my favourite effects. but it just about works most of the time. But the shot where Legion reaches for his mask and the face has to move stretches the effect past breaking point. Again, I would have just cut the shot; you don’t really need to see the effect quite as much as we do.
It’s interesting to ponder what other ways the effect could have been achieved in order to have a) a more convincing effect, and b) allowed the actor to move. Part of me wants to suggest some kind of hideous makeup job. Done right, it could be really creepy and grotesque. Done wrong, however, and it could have been even worse than what we ended up with. But frankly, expense would kill it: three different versions of the makeup would have been required for different character combinations.
Off the point somewhat, but something I’ve always wondered: why does Legion just stand there whilst Kryten tries to knock everyone out, instead of stopping it like he threatened? And WHY IN THE NAME OF HOLY FUCK does he take his mask off? Purely for the benefit of the viewer, presumably.
2. Ace Rimmer’s Pods
Stoke Me A Clipper
Ah, the holy grail of bad effects shots: the sweeping ambition, the soaring music, everything selling to you that this is a big moment… except for the fact the actual effect is pretty shitty. I’m reminded of this hilarious scene from Lost.
Still, this is very much the opposite issue compared to the previous two entries. They could have easily been fixed in the edit by just dropping the shot: but this shot is vital to the episode. It’s also not a shot that you could point and laugh at and say “should have done it with models”. It’s a tricky shot for anyone to do convincingly, let alone for a sitcom in 1997.
But it still stinks. Sorry. And it’s topped off with the appearance of the umpteenth crappy 2D Starbug in VII. Oh, speaking of which…
1. VII Starbug
All of Series VII
What can I say? At this point, complaining about the effects in VII feels like kicking a puppy. A rather ugly puppy which was born prematurely, and was a last minute replacement for a family that wanted another dog but realised that the puppy they had purchased wasn’t suitable for the house any more after they’d had some renovations done, so they took him out and buried him in the back yard, only to dig him up years later and sell the remains for people to gawp at.
Still. We know they’re crap. GNP know they’re crap. It’s been well-established that the entire mess is down to problems with production that GNP would never let happen again… wait a minute. Still, none of this stops a fair few contemporary interviews and reviews saying that VII had much improved effects work. I can only imagine an awful lot of people suffered some form of temporary blindness at the start of 1997. Or, just possibly, that they had heard the effects included a lot of CGI, expected it to look better… so their brain magically told them it was. Just a theory.
The ironic thing about the terrible Starbug shots in VII of course, is that there are occasional glimpses of something far better: the most prominent example being the opening shot of the VII title sequence, which actually showcases a pretty good CGI Starbug – and, of course, the split Starbug in the Xtended version of Tikka. So the terrible end result of a lot of the Starbug shots in VII is a double kick in the teeth. If only the budget had existed for the excellent replacement effects on Tikka To Ride Remastered as seen on the DVD release to be extended beyond one episode… which leads us neatly into our next article.
Yes, we’re taking a break from High & Low next month, to be replaced with a brand new, one-off feature: Low & High, where I’ll be taking a look at the worst and best changes in Red Dwarf Remastered. YES HA HA WHAT A VERY FUNNY JOKE WE HAVE DONE. Suggestions below please, whilst I summon up the courage needed to watch all nineteen episodes in a row whilst staying away from sharp household implements.