Regardless of your opinions on the episodes themselves, the consensus concerning the way Red Dwarf XI has been handled by its various stakeholders seems to be that certain areas have been disappointing. The decision to premiere each episode on UKTV Play was… controversial, shall we say, leaks have been taking place left, right and centre (including the accidental releases of an episode and the DVD extras), the online store has been a heavily-delayed farce, and the rancid cherry on the top came last weekend when we realised what was printed on the back of the very Steelbook I’m about to review.
It seems that Howard Goodall and Ian GameDigits are currently the only ones successfully carrying the torch, at least without getting bits of lighter fluid all down themselves and accidentally causing a series of small fires. It’s getting harder to ignore the cloud that’s gathering over this series, but there’s one area where Red Dwarf has always excelled: DVD/Bluray releases. The original releases of the BBC era remain unmatched by any other comparable show. The Back To Earth and Series X releases had a very different job to do, coming as they did so soon after broadcast, and XI is very much in the same boat. But despite the monumental cock-up affecting one of the three variants, is the content of these shiny discs good enough to distract from the recent shortcomings, and end this chapter of Red Dwarf‘s ongoing story in style?
Let’s find out. But first, we’ve got to get into the buggers…
I have all three variants of this release in front of me: the DVD, the standard Bluray and the special edition Bluray Steelbook. Firstly, long term G&T readers will be saddened to hear that there is not one sticker between them. However, the DVD and Bluray do share very similar covers, featuring the familiar promo shot of the crew below an encircled logo, with a small Red Dwarf to its right, the Dave logo in the top left, and the certificate and “2 Discs” logo in the bottom left. It all seems to fit rather attractively on the Bluray, with its smaller and squarer surface area; on the DVD, it looks a bit sparse and plain, especially as the design is considerably darker in the flesh than in the jpg published online. There’s a big gap at the bottom where the photo fades out – it looks like there should be some text there, but there isn’t anything, and it leaves it looking like a knock-off sold out of a bag in the pub, where the bloke’s inkjet printer has started to run low towards the end.
The Steelbook is a wholly different affair, featuring just the logo, over an eclipse and against a purpley starscape. This continues across the spine, which simply contains the words “Red Dwarf XI” and looks rather handsome of the shelf with its correctly-coloured Ds. The back cover features the crew photo on the same backdrop, and the whole thing comes in a slipcase that sadly conspires to ruin the whole thing. I don’t really need to go over the episode titles thing again, but amidst all of the excitement concerning the premature infodump, it’s easy to overlook just what a catastrophic error this is. The Steelbook for Series XI is simply wrong. It is fundamentally fucked. Steps are being taken to replace the offending copies, so on the plus side, a copy of the original version might be worth a couple of bob on eBay later down the line.
That big error would be bad enough, but there’s some other, smaller troubling things. The web address on the back misses the dot between “www” and “reddwarf.co.uk”. Not a massive or even particularly noticeable error, but a symptom of an overall lack of diligence. In addition to the Dave, Baby Cow and GNP logos on the front of the slipcase, there’s also a prominent BBC logo, and another on the rear. While 2|Entertain are indeed a subsidiary of BBC Worldwide, it looks very odd adorning a release of programme that wasn’t broadcast on a BBC channel. This is an oddity, and what’s more it’s strange that it’s present on the Steelbook but not the other two variants.
Oh yeah, don’t get me started on the strange inconsistencies across the range. The DVD and standard Bluray both have similar spines, whereby a tiny version of the logo appears in full, with a big old “XI” beneath. It’s not as elegant as the Steelbook, but I quite like the way it stands out on the DVD, a good distance away from the format logo and catalogue number at the top, and the Baby Cow, GNP, certificate and 2|Entertain logos at the bottom. On the Bluray, however, which you’ll remember is a lot shorter than the DVD, they’ve also added a Dave logo, complete with tiny “the home of witty banter” slogan. Why the inconsistency, and why put the extra logo on the version with the smallest amount of space to play with? It looks ridiculously cramped and totally indistinct.
The back cover of both of these editions are largely the same, with Starbug, the (correct) episode titles and a logo across the top, the same three photos underneath, then the series synopsis and list of extras. The DVD squeezes in credits for the cast and Doug, a couple of URLs and a row of logos before the technical details and whatnot, which are understandably omitted on the Bluray. That’s an inconsistency that makes sense. But why are the synopses in differing fonts, when everything else is the same? The Steelbook slipcase adds a third font, while the text on this and the DVD are fully aligned, but left aligned on the Bluray. The DVD and the Steelbook have asterisks denoting which extras lack sound, but the Bluray doesn’t. The synopsis on the Steelbook ends with a full stop. On the DVD, it’s an ellipsis. Annoying, but both are correct. The Bluray, however, splits the difference and ends with two dots, which isn’t even a thing. Argh.
Oh, and the two dots version is also used on the DVD’s alternate cover, which is otherwise a pretty decent and consistent addition to the classic oeuvre, although those with a sharper eye than I will undoubtedly spot some small inconsistencies. Asclepius is on spine duties, following in the footsteps of our lord Jesus as the second one-off guest to be awarded such an honour. The Starbug set has been given a very dark blue tint to provide the backdrop, and it looks pretty swish. The only snag is that the matte silver logo doesn’t really stand out compared to the foil-embossed renditions of the originals. Plus, it’s a bit disheartening when you consider the amount of space taken up by the list of extras, compared to releases from up to fourteen years ago. “Over 90 minutes” was expanded to “over 3 hours” from Series III onwards. That’s progress for you.
Open up any of the three variants and you’ll be greeted by the same leaflet, advertising the Official Red Dwarf Shop. The fact that it’s the same leaflet across the board means that it doesn’t quite fit the clips inside the DVD case, and it’s liable to rattle irritatingly around. The leaflet itself is pretty enough, and features various t-shirts along with the mug and lanyard, although understandably it doesn’t feature a warning about the piss-poor service you’re likely to receive. The reverse is blank, save for a small Dave logo and copyright notice, which strikes me as a missed opportunity for some additional information about the series or the extras to be included, in lieu of an actual booklet.
These follow the same basic design across the range, with the purple backdrop of the Steelbook utilised on both versions of the Bluray. The DVD gives the starfield a blue tint, which matches the reverse side of the cover and also correlates better to the overall aesthetic of the series itself. On all variants, Disc One is labelled “Episodes 1-6”, while Disc Two lists all the extras individually. Again – sorry, but this is an open goal – they wouldn’t have been able to do that for the first eight series.
After the customary copyright notice and 2|Entertain logo, both Bluray and DVD viewers are greeted by the sight of Starbug flying through a red-tinted spacescape, before the Red Dwarf XI logo is etched on to the screen, ellipse-first. The logo then whizzes off-screen towards us, and we’re pelted directly into the hull of Red Dwarf, which fades to the actual main menu. This consists of a close-up of the ship, over which a montage of scenes from the series are projected. It seems to be a specially-compiled montage – although it uses many of the same shots as the trailers and title sequence, the edits are much looser. There’s an emphasis on action and effects shots, and it shows off XI’s broad range of locations and situations well. It lasts for the length of the opening theme, which plays throughout, and it’s mercifully free of those dialogue soundbites that become increasingly irritating the longer you lazily leave the menu running after watching.
The options (Play All, Episode Selection and a simple Subtitles On/Off switch) are written on a separate section of the hull, positioned across the bottom of the screen as a banner. On Disc Two, the menu is identical, save for Episode Selection being replaced by Extras. This is the first time there hasn’t been a unique menu for the extras disc, and also the first time we’ve been given the option to play all. On the Bluray, you navigate straight to the desired episode or extra from a pop-up menu, but loveable old DVD requires an extra page. A flaming logo provides a transition to a static menu: on Disc One, it has Lister and Kryten on the left and the list of episodes on the right, while Disc Two has the list of extras on the left and Cat and Rimmer on the right. It’s unremarkable, but functional and user-friendly, and I like the little ellipse used as a cursor.
There are no chapter menus to be found on either format, and as they’re not listed anywhere within the packaging or on TOS, these are the first Red Dwarf episodes ever to be devoid of amusing and/or interesting chapter titles. In fact, each episode only has four chapters this time round, when we’re used to double that. Admittedly, I very rarely use chapter points, and often the extra menu layer is a minor annoyance, but the old method added a layer of finesse which showed how much thought and care was being put in to the release. It’s another relatively minor thing, but they’re starting to add up.
As was the case for Series X, the retail release has come very soon indeed after the initial broadcast, and so there’s still so much fresh enjoyment and intrigue to be gleaned from each viewing. I’m still not sure what my opinion is on some of these episodes, but I’m grateful for the convenience of owning them all on a shiny disc, rather than faffing about with Sky Plus menus or UKTV Play interfaces whenever I want to dip back in for another assessment. There is no point trying to correlate a consensus as to the merits of these six episodes, but for the record, I currently stand at GREAT, BIT CRAP, GREAT, GOOD, GREAT and QUITE CRAP in that order.
I’ll wager that the majority of those reading this will have first watched these episodes in streaming quality, and thankfully even the plain old standard definition DVD is a big improvement on all of UKTV Play’s renditions, even the ones that download to set-top-boxes. The Bluray tops the Dave HD broadcast, with wonderfully crisp details and vibrant colours. It’s the best medium by far for showcasing the noticeable improvement in production value since the last series.
As has been the case throughout the Dave era, it’s logical to see these as the definitive versions of the episodes – the break bumpers that featured even on the UKTV Play versions are gone, with the two parts of each show seamlessly merged into one glorious whole. This removes the problem that several episodes had whereby the same music cue would be used immediately before and after a break – these are now one continuous cue, and a lot more satisfying to watch. Samsara in particular is greatly improved by the two angles on the door closing now being placed back-to-back, without the awkward and slightly jarring gap in the middle.
Behind the scenes
Firstly, the ‘s’ should be capitalised on the back cover, at the very least. Secondly, it’s a huge shame that this documentary doesn’t have its own title, as it instantly sets it apart as being different from the others. At 52 minutes long, it’s certainly the shortest of the big series-specific documentaries, so it’s not a great first impression. Last time round, We’re Smegged absolutely spoiled us with its luxurious running time, unprecedented candidness and fascinating story of woe to tell.
The Series XI documentary is at an immediate disadvantage because it tells the tale of a production that ran pretty smoothly, and where everyone kind of just had a lovely time. There’s a temptation to speculate that the documentary has been sanitised in some way this time around, but quite apart from the fact that there’s no evidence to contradict the happy story it tells, let’s make one thing clear: We’re Smegged was a complete anomaly. Even at the time, it felt weird that such a warts-and-all portrayal was released so soon after the event, and that’s precisely because the production of Series X was so extraordinary. I’ve no doubt that had XI suffered the same problems as X, the documentary would reflect that. The fact is… it just didn’t.
So instead, this is a documentary much more along the lines of what we were initially expecting four years ago. While the original run was made with the benefit of hindsight, this effort’s main asset is the level of access, and the range of its participants, as well as their sheer number. Almost all aspects of production are ticked off the list, and you get an overwhelming sense that everyone who worked on the show this time around had a huge amount of affection for the series, and brought a huge level of detail to their work. Designer Justin Fullalove talks about how the layout of the sets were crafted to accommodate as many different set-ups as Doug could imagine. Make-up artist Vanessa White describes how she went back to the very start of the show to inform her choices for the latest incarnation, and how this approach made for a series of looks which are much more faithful to the original intentions. Kate Walshe from Millenium FX shows us the fresh approach they took with regards to the Kryten mask, as well as sharing all manner of interesting concept sketches and prototypes for their various creations throughout the series. The sheer preposterousness of the Rimmer Monster is a particular highlight.
The main cast talk passionately about how much they loved this series, and their enthusiasm seems genuine. Everyone seems so proud of the Archimedes scene from Samsara that I feel slightly guilty about not liking it. The guest cast are very well represented too, with almost all the key players interviewed about their approach to their characters. Elsewhere, there’s all manner of prop and model porn for us to gawp at, including a closer look at the various animations that adorn the sets, and an interview with their creators Jez Harrison and our very own Danny Stephenson. That’s right, look impressed. There are so many highlights, such as the curious tale of how Robert’s first day of filming was over before he’d even made it to the set, Doug describing how he contributed to the design of Snacky, along with footage of the little fella falling robotic arse over robotic tit on location, Robert discussing how he had to tone down the gurning because of his new mask, and Richard Naylor completely destroying a drone.
But it’s the little things too. The joyful face of Eddie Bagayawa, relating how he accidentally found himself playing the captain of the Samsara. Richard Naylor and Kerry Waddell throwing shade at each other’s Skutter-controlling skills. Doug helping to sprinkle snow over the cobbled streets of the Twentica set. Chris Barrie’s reaction to actually throwing a 1 and a 2 with a shit pair of loaded dice. Everyone corpsing at Dominic Coleman’s performance as Butler, and the high regard in which the main cast clearly hold him. DoP Ed Moore titting about with behind-the-scenes producer/director Nathan Cubitt’s camera. That camera was absolutely everywhere, and the man behind it has done an incredible job of picking out the highlights, and presenting us with a documentary that’s equally funny and fascinating from start to finish.
But. This isn’t quite like any of the previous documentaries. Rather than having clearly defined sections for each of the final episodes, the story is presented in an entirely linear fashion, from the first day of filming to the last. This means that the episodes are dealt with in the order they were recorded; there are captions to separate it into six blocks, but there’s a lot of crossover, and we deal with the location-based pre-records for various episodes in one go at the start. The result of this is a documentary that’s much more a straightforward depiction of the production process than it is an in-depth analysis of the finished product.
And that’s fine, because it’s a depiction that’s thoroughly entertaining and interesting. But you do feel a slight lack of emphasis on how the episodes work as pieces of fiction, with little discussion of the plots or characters. Interestingly, what bits of analysis there are mainly come from the cast and not Doug, and the lack of further extras or commentaries means that his voice doesn’t come across anywhere near as strongly as it has on all previous DVDs, which is a shame. His musings on his own work are often the juiciest part of most documentaries, and while we do get an insight into his thought processes on the bigger aspects of the production, he’s not afforded the opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty.
Which brings us back to the running time, and the sense that we’re getting slightly less than we’re used to overall. The documentary doesn’t feel short per se, as it makes the most of every last second by packing as much detail as possible, but it does feel somewhat rushed. Some episodes get more screen time than others, and there’s a period where it feels like they’re really whizzing through them. There’s also a handful of editing mistakes, such as disconcerting jump cuts, clipped soundbites and inconsistent captioning – only a small handful, but enough to make you notice.
So for the very first time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the documentary could have been better, but that barely detracts from the quality of what’s there. If your main reaction to a piece of entertainment is “I want more of that”, that reflects very well indeed. The documentary ends with a wide shot of the audience applauding at the end of the Twentica recording, which you’ll recall omitted the final scene of the episode. If you look carefully at a certain, brief point as the lights come up, you’ll see one man who’s not clapping, but is instead looking around slightly confused. That’s me. I’d loved what I’d seen before me, but was taken aback at how soon it was over. I’ve basically managed to portray my overall feelings about the documentary on the documentary itself.
Now this is another feature that’s shorter than average, but this time it definitely feels short. It’s not a satisfying experience overall, as like the Series X DVD before it, there are no captions to provide context to each scene. There’s this breakdown on TOS, but as that’s written to exclude spoilers, there isn’t much detail to go on. And of course there’s no commentary from Doug like there was last time, so we’ve got no indication as to why these moments were cut, or why the decision was made to reshoot some scenes entirely. It feels like we’re missing the full story.
The scenes themselves are a pretty entertaining bunch overall, mostly comprising of extra gags that were perhaps not right for the episodes they were written for, but are funny in isolation. There’s a great bit about testicles worn as earrings, along with a less good bit where the Cat body shames Lister for having “moobies”. We learn that Samsara initially contained a subplot whereby the ship was partly populated by dangerous prisoners. There’s also the original popcorn-not-hot-dogs version of Lister and Cat watching TV in Officer Rimmer, a version of the Can of Worms opening scene set on Starbug’s Upper Deck instead of the mysterious Starbug 19, and a small snippet from Krysis that would have paid off Lister’s earlier ingrowing toenail line.
However, these are definitely not all of the deleted scenes from Series XI. I went to two recordings, and there were highly memorable moments from both that do not appear in this compilation. From Twentica, there was a bit where Kryten mimed a Howard Goodall saxophone solo, and an extension to the Officer Rimmer scene about Lister selling his genome revealed that it had been used to produce sex workers named ‘Dirty Dave’. Neither of those are here, and we don’t know why. It’s possible, nay likely, that deleted moments from the other four episodes are similarly missing. Like I say, it feels short, and that’s because it bloody well is. We’ve got no god-given right to demand access to every scrap of Red Dwarf related footage, and there are no false claims of completeness being contradicted, but it’s just that we’re never normally denied such access, and there’s no indication as to why it’s being denied now.
At least it’s hard to go wrong with Smeg Ups, right? They’ve been a vital component of Red Dwarf on home video formats since 1994, and the customary collection of gaffes, swearing, accidental slapstick, childishness and piss-taking are present and correct here. It’s definitely a winning formula, and yet something feels not quite right. It doesn’t help that all the best out-takes have also been used in the documentary, and often with more angles and extra context provided by the behind-the-scenes camera.
Again, it’s a shorter running time than normal, and on this occasion it’s due to a very finely trimmed edit. There’s very little build up or aftermath of the gaffes included, just cock-up, laugh, cut, cock-up, laugh, cut. We’re not seeing enough of the familiar camaraderie, or the personalities of the actors coming through as they break character. It’s cut like a web video rather than a DVD extra, with a super fast pace to keep your attention, when that’s not as much of an objective for this particular medium. There’s no doubt that a lot of production value has been put into the package, but I’d happily take baggy edits in exchange for that sense of getting a peek behind the curtain. That’s what’s lacking from this feature, and it makes for an underwhelming example of the genre.
This is a series of short compilations depicting several computer generated sequences at various stages of completion. And by short, I really do mean short. One minute and thirty-nine seconds. No commentary, no captions, no context. It’s nice that it’s there, I suppose, but it doesn’t teach us anything, and I’m struggling to picture a scenario whereby I’d select this feature from the menu again.
This, on the other hand, is a bit more like it. A luxurious twenty minute running time provides the most complete and thorough feature outside of the documentary, and yet it’s the one that will appeal to by far the fewest viewers. Thankfully, I’m one of the tens who delights in things like this, and while it again lacks any sort of context, you only have to compare the footage here to the equivalent features on the original DVDs to tell the story of how things have changed over the years.
Much like the series itself, almost everything we see has a blue tint to it, with the models shot exclusively on bluescreen, rather than the physical starscapes from yesteryear. There’s also a mess of cables and wires everywhere – it looks like a slightly chaotic shoot, with harnesses and wires on display that look to my semi-trained eye like they’d be a nightmare to comp out in the edit. Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity to see the models themselves in all their glory, and they’re no less impressive close up than the ones from the golden years.
There’s some great footage to sift through, and one highlight comes right at the start as Starbug comes crashing down in the American desert only for its rear section to detach itself entirely. But the centrepiece has to be a series of shots featuring Starbug and a brand new Red Dwarf landing bay, which was not used at all in the final episodes. Will it eventually appear in Series XII, making this yet another example of something leaking early, or was a decision made to abandon the effect at some point, possibly due to the difficulty of combining chromakey and dry ice? Again, some context would be nice.
I have two main bugbears when it comes to galleries on DVDs. One is when the photos don’t take up the maximum amount of screen space due to unnecessary clutter, and the other is when they appear as a video slideshow, constantly moving and crossfading so that you lose control of the navigation. This feature avoids the first by having the pictures appear alone in a full frame, and just about swerves the second – it is a video, but the stills are indeed still, and hard cuts are used. These cuts are fast too, seemingly designed to be watched with your finger over the pause button, like an infoburst you used to get at the end of TV shows in the VCR era.
And with a running time of five and a half minutes, this technique means that a hell of a lot of shots are squeezed in. You could easily spend a luxurious hour sifting through it all. There are some photos we’ve seen before, but a majority that we haven’t, and plenty of alternate angles for familiar set-ups. Best of all, there are several storyboard sequences included – by no means a complete set, as that would take forever, but a fair number of key scenes from across several episodes. It’s going to take me ages to process all of this information.
Trailers & Promos
This is a collection of trailers and promos, although far from a complete one. It goes all the way back to the initial reveal of the “XI + XII” logo, through to the web teaser for the main trailer, and of course the main trailer. But none of the shorter versions of that trailer, or any of the variants with substituted dialogue. Three short social media clips are included, even though these are just scenes from the episodes with big subtitles over the top, but not the second trailer that debuted halfway through the series, the ‘scents of humour’ UKTV promo (which admittedly featured other shows, and so may not have been clearable), or even the promo for the merchadise and mobile game, which surely would have made commercial sense to include.
All of which leads me to conclude that there was a cut-off point for when this feature had to be finished, and that as such it only includes what was available at that point. I’m fully aware that all the missing stuff is viewable online, and that this isn’t a marquee feature, especially not so soon after the broadcast window. But surely the whole point of including trailers at all is to provide a permanent, physical archive of this stuff, to be revisited years down the line when it’s become an artifact of a bygone televisual age. Who’s to say that Youtube, Twitter and Facebook will still exist in ten or twenty years time, or even if they do, who’s to say that the same links and indexes will work, or that these clips will still be online and searchable? This is the point of completism – it’s not just about wanting everything, it’s about wanting everything kept safely in the same place.
What’s Not There
Yes, this section is making its second consecutive appearance in a G&T’s DVD review. You have to give credit for addressing some of the shortcomings of the Series X release – we didn’t have effects footage, trailers or a photo gallery last time, and while there may be issues with them, they’re a very welcome addition here. But despite this, there’s still the sense this package represents less value overall than there was last time. The two hour running time of We’re Smegged left room for a multitude of topics that would previously have been given smaller features of their own, but with this documentary running at under half the length, it’s more noticeable that the little bonuses aren’t there.
As I touched upon in discussing the documentary, it’s Doug’s voice that’s the most missed, and a commentary would definitely have helped on that score. It’s a sentiment seemingly echoed by Doug himself, who has at least tweeted that he has “a solution” for their absence. If this involves some sort of online audio release, that would be very welcome indeed, but it’s still a shame that not everyone is together in one package. Similarly, we may have Howard Goodall’s soundtrack albums to make up for the lack of isolated music cues, and even though these albums are a work of art in their own right, we’ve never had to pay extra to hear the score before.
And so, nearly five thousand words later, we’re left with the first ever regular Red Dwarf series DVD that I’d classify as “disappointing”. Even though the Back To Earth and X releases were so very different to their eight older brothers, they were produced in very different circumstances and they were both pretty much as good as we could hope for. The fact that this release is in the same vein as those two, but falls short of their quality, means that standards are slipping.
I can see why drawing this conclusion may seem ungrateful, considering how much the media landscape has changed in the 14 years since the first Red Dwarf DVD hit the shelves. Streaming and digital delivery were in their infancy at a time when half the country was still on dial-up, and the same developments that lead to the series being debuted online have lead to a decline in sales of physical media, and less emphasis being placed on the medium as a creative endeavour. I totally get why time and money are in shorter supply when the commercial rewards are worth less. But I don’t have to like it.
The frustrating thing is that Red Dwarf XI is clearly a programme with so much care put in to it, as demonstrated by the contents of this release’s main feature. So when things are incomplete, or inconsistent, or feel rushed, or when the wrong bloody episode titles are slapped on the back cover, it’s Red Dwarf XI that’s being let down. I don’t feel angry or upset as a fan, but I’m frustrated on behalf of a production that cares enough about this stuff to incorporate a full time behind-the-scenes producer in the first place. The contents of this disc are undoubtedly entertaining, and indeed essential viewing for anyone with more than a passing interest in the show. But the potential was there for so much more.