Well, it’s time for my first DVD review, with the release of Series V. This was an eagerly-anticipated disc, not just for the quality of the episodes but for the amount and quality of extras packed onto it, most notably the Dwarfin’ USA documentary. But what is it like in the flesh, as it were? Read on…

The Packaging

Bit disappointed with this, to start with. BBC have decided to switch from having the discs in separate holders on facing sides of the case, to having one of those annoying flaps that holds one DVD above the other. These flaps would be alright were they not so damned flimsy – it feels like it’s going to snap off any moment. I don’t like them on games, and I dont like them on films. On the plus side, this means that the booklet is now held more firmly, by clips – rather than moving about in the case as it did with series I-IV. But therein lies the crux – changing the style of packaging halfway through the releases seems a bad idea to me. I like a bit of consistency, and it’s bad enough that we’ve gone through a number of different logos and had to put up with two series without picture discs. Still, it takes a certain kind of sad git to get annoyed about something like that.

If you’ve got the limited edition version, meanwhile, the Starbug model is lovely. It’s amazing to actually see the damned thing released, and the mucky, burnt paint scheme works quite well.

Oh, and there’s the cover, of course. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the Esperanto is a strange choice given its lack of screentime, but the way it’s been done is superb. It’s a lovely colour, and perhaps the prettiest DVD cover of the lot. That said, I wouldn’t have used the high Rimmer and Lister – I’d have gone for the Doyle brothers, although perhaps that would have been a bit too obvious.

The Menus

Again, a disappointment, insomuch as for the first time, the same basic menu has been spread over three releases rather than two. Given that they’re presumably coming up with something new and Starbug-based for Series VI, couldn’t they have got it out for this one? After all, the series spends more time on the ‘bug than in the ship, a fact echoed by the fact that it’s this series that has the Starbug model free with it. Still, having the “low” ship is a good variation on it, I suppose. It’s just a bit dull. Also, worryingly, the music seemed to be playing rather slowly when the menu came up for the first time – perhaps this was just my DVD player, but it sounded a bit odd. But the use of music in general is better and more varied than on series IV, with particular emphasis on Goodall’s high/low music. Ace. The bunkroom for disc 2, meanwhile, was a more interesting variation, with the introduction of the feature to switch between two parts of it. This made things less cluttered, and the actual pointers themselves had been smartened up, so it’s an overall improvement; however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what each item links to, without actually highlighting all of them. It took me ages to find the music cues…

The Episodes

Many people say Series V is the best of all. I can’t say I agree, I still think II is untouchable. But I’ve often held the view that V is half the best series, and half the worst (alright, not counting VII and VIII there). That is, Holoship, Quarantine and Back To Reality are all classic, fantastic, and demonstrative of Dwarf at its finest, but that Demons & Angels, Terrorform and The Inquisitor, while by no means poor, are weak by comparison. Watching them all again for the purposes of this review, I’m pleasantly surprised to find my opinion changed. I still think there is a definite fifty-fifty split, but now it’s between “brilliant” and merely “good”. I still don’t think much of Demons and Angels, mind – I think there was a lot more potential in the episode’s premise than was actually exploited. Terrorform, meanwhile, flags once we actually get into Rimmer’s psyche, but has some great stuff in the first act, including one of my favourite ever scenes (the “taranshula” bit). And The Inquisitor, while it again has its moments, is still a quite underwhelming and unmemorable episode, notwithstanding one of Rob Llewellyn’s finest ever moments during the “trial”. Still, the “high” half of the series (see what I did there, ho ho ho?) really does elevate it somewhat. Holoship is magnificently-written, one of the best purely character-based episodes that the series has had (yes, it’s built around a sci-fi conceit, but it’s not about the Holoship, it’s about Rimmer) and contains plenty of lines that make you laugh out loud every time you hear them (most notably “Quick, let’s get out of here before they bring him back!”). If only there was an option on the DVD to actually splice in the missing footage, however, as Rimmer and Nirvana’s liason and subsequent conversation feels hollow and incomplete to one who’s read the scriptbook. Quarantine, of course, is a Barrie special all the way, with his best performance since Thanks For The Memory. It’s also quite scary in places. And then there’s Back To Reality, which frankly I don’t want to like, simply for the perverse reason that it’s always voted best episode ever. But, the thing is, unlike Gunmen Of The Apocalypse, it’s almost worthy of the accolade. It’s a riot, from start to finish, and it may have indirectly led to the painfully unfunny Dibbley family bit in Series VIII, but we can’t hold that against it. Worth it for the Timothy Spall scene alone, and source of the funniest ever smeg up (Chris Barrie falling off a box). An interesting thing to note about V as a whole is that, even though some of the episodes are a bit weaker script-wise, the whole thing still feels a lot more polished and assured than anything that’s gone before, which works wonders in its favour. Two more curious points about this series, though – first of all, precisely half of the episodes in the series are almost entirely about Rimmer (I feel an article about character-weighting coming on…); secondly, V is perhaps the first series in which all of the episodes go some way towards exploring the psyches of the main characters, whether through showing us possible alternate versions (D&A, BTR), showing us what they could become or achieve (Holoship, The Inquisitor) or doing it in an actual, literal sense (Terrorform). Even Quarantine shows the starkest example yet of the characters’ relationships being pushed to breaking point. A testament, one feels, to the continuing development of Grant and Naylor’s writing, which would continue through series VI before coming to an all-too-abrupt end. But that’s another story.

Before this reacquaintance, then, I’d have put series V squarely in the middle, below II, VI and IV, but above I, III, VII and VIII. Now, though, I might just marginally place it above IV. But it’s a close-run thing.

The Extras

Dwarfin’ USA
This was what this DVD was all about, frankly, and it didn’t disappoint. Well, it disappointed slightly, but only because they couldn’t get the rights to show footage of the craptacular second pilot. What this was, however, was candid, brutally honest and very enlightening, even to those of us who’ve already read Robert Llewellyn’s book. It was probably the best interview I’ve seen Doug Naylor give on any of the DVDs, and his forthright views were interesting to behold – at times, the assessment of just what was wrong with the pilot but the acknowledgement of what was good about it (and there were good lines, and Craig Bierko was a pretty good lead) was absolutely dead on. What pleased me was to hear him reminiscing in quite affectionate tones about him and Rob Grant – you could be forgiven for thinking, given whatever it is that’s happened between them, that he’d either not mention him at all, or not be very complimentary, but the affection that comes of such a long-term writing partnership is clearly still there when he thinks about the past. The whole documentary perhaps lingers a bit too much on the all-too-easy stereotype of the sharp-suited studio execs who just go round telling everyone they’re wonderful and laugh too loudly at the wrong points of the script, but it was still a fascinating insight. What might have improved it would have been to try and get interviews with some of the Americans involved – particularly the ones talked about the most, such as Bierko, Battle and Boomer. And given that she’s recently presented Have I Got News For You, how hard would Jane Leeves have been to get hold of? Anyway, the lack of presence of such people is easily made up for by the presence of actual, decent quality footage from the show, which is an amazingly stark contrast to what we’ve all seen before. What it serves to highlight is the ridiculously low budget of the thing – the production values are poorer than even Dwarf‘s first series. Kryten’s mask is particularly ghastly, as is his spare head (I was put in mind of an even cheaper Zaphod Beeblebrox). But it’s intriguing to watch, and you can see that there was potential there. What is perhaps most striking about the whole thing is that Red Dwarf USA would have stood far more chance of survival if it took all the good bits from the pilot that weren’t just copied from the UK series, and made an entirely different sci-fi sitcom, without the weight of expectation and unfavourable comparison that comes with any remake. As it is, RD USA is an at best an amusing curiosity, an experiment that didn’t quite work but drips with what-might-have-beens. For any fan, it’s a quite important part of Dwarf lore, and this documentary served it extremely well.

Deleted Scenes
As usual, there’s a mix of good and not-so-good here. There’s the brilliant bits that there sadly just wasn’t time for, and the stuff that didn’t really work that you can see why they cut. In the former camp is most of the Holoship stuff, which of course most of us have read in the script book, and the episode really would have been greatly improved with the expanded conversations between Rimmer and Nirvana, not to mention the scene with Holly (even if it would have slowed the pace down) and Rimmer’s fantastic “salute” gag (which, as has been said, is far funnier than essentially the same gag in series VIII). Back To Reality offers us a few expanded bits, including Rimmer’s attempt at explaining just why the rich William Doyle would be wearing the eau du yak urine coat, but the “Game Over” scene, which could have been brilliant, just doesn’t work, and you can see why it was cut. Rimmer’s “attempted joke-telling”, meanwhile, is fantastic, and another of those “Oh, why wasn’t that kept in?” moments. Elsewhere, there’s little that massively excites, although it’s amusing seeing a different version of the closing scenes of The Inquisitor, namely because you get to hear Jack Docherty’s unaltered voice… As per usual, then, the deleted scenes are worth a look, partly for some brilliance you’ll never have seen, and partly for the invaluable behind-the-scenes look at why some stuff just doesn’t make the cut.

Bad Guys
Yawnarama. Whether or not you like the musical featurettes – and I think they’re alright, myself – this is clearly the poorest of the bunch. It’s, um, a load of baddies. The music, for no reason that I can fathom, is “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”. And it ends with the closing scene of Series VIII, which as we all know is The Worst Moment In Red Dwarf History. Shoddy, frankly.

Smeg Ups
Same old, same old. Well, not quite. I don’t normally watch the smeg ups, having seen ’em all before on the video, but after watching the episodes my girlfriend couldn’t remember some of the classic smeg ups that come from this series, so we stuck them on – and there are indeed some classics, from Craig’s “I can’t believe I ****ing ate that cigarette”, to Rob’s “I’ve just cacked me pants” and the classic Chris-falling-off-a-box. If you like having the smeg ups on the DVD, then this is one of the best batches.

Music Cues
Marvellous, as ever. The way the cues work has been vastly improved – they’re now grouped by episode, and you can skip between individual tracks within an episode (although nothing onscreen indicates the skipping). No Terrorform music, but some good stuff from the other episodes, Holoship in particular. It’s a shame the same quality of presentation wasn’t present for series I and II, the two series that in my opinion highlighted Goodall’s genius at its very best (“Space Walk”, the Ganymede Holiday Inn music, etc.). Still, it’s good to see what is an essential feature of these discs getting some more recognition and attention paid to it.

Dave Hollins Radio Sketch
Essential listening if you haven’t already heard any Son of Cliche. Showcases, among other things, the dropping-present-day-references-into-the-future that would become a hallmark of Grant Naylor’s writing. It also has a gag that wound up in the US pilot (“He came from Earth…”), strangely. It’s a pretty amusing sketch, actually. A nice idea putting this on the DVD, although it should probably have come earlier in the run.

Trailers etc.
Erm, wow. The trailers are usually boring, right? Not this time. As well as two TV adverts (including a good Back To Reality one that uses one of the episode’s best lines), there are, suprisingly, two BBC video ones. The first one, which ties the release of Series III into Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven videos, isn’t much cop, but the second one is fantastic. It’s actually an advert for the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy release, but has that series’ narrator talking about the crew of Red Dwarf (represented in green outline, just as they would be in the Guide) and their lack of space knowledge being down to them not having a copy of the Guide. Genius, and a very surprising thing to find on the disc.

Then we have Craig Charles’ “Best Episode Ever” introduction, which is alright, but basically just like any of the Smeg Ups links, and the skutter/BBC TWO logo idents from Red Dwarf Night, which were pretty funny at the time, but seem strange without an announcer talking over them. As the “best episode ever” was Back To Reality, it makes sense for the former to be on here; but the addition of the latter is strange, as they aired after Series VII – surely that series’ disc would be a better place?

SFX, model shots, picture gallery
Lumped together because they’re the things I don’t tend to care for on the discs, the SFX stuff is nevertheless incredibly interesting if you actually care about that sort of thing. I know plenty of people do, and for those people, the Dwarf DVDs do it extremely well. The picture gallery, meanwhile… meh. Did I even click on this at some point? I can’t remember. Anyway, it is, like these things normally are, like a broken pencil. Pointless.

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Craig Charles. Sure, he’s obnoxious, he’s arrogant, and he frequently gets his facts wrong, but if there’s one thing his absence from this disc shows it’s that he’s the one who actually drives the commentaries forward – he’s the one who always has something to say. All too often, Messrs Barrie, Llewellyn and Jules are just left silent, watching what’s going on, before catching themselves and trying to think of something to say. And you can’t blame Hattie for not being the most active participant, it’s consistent with her role in the series. Getting Doug Naylor in on this would have been a great idea (although that would have meant they couldn’t talk about him), as it would have added an extra dimension and something to help drive the thing along. That said, Chris Barrie’s Craig impressions are a delight, and when the guys do talk, it’s as entertaining and enlightening as ever. The fan commentary, meanwhile, I’ve yet to watch, and I feel it would be unfair to comment on it on a fansite anyway.

Heavy Science
Oooh. They’re getting good at this now. There’s not a lot that can be said about the documentaries, especially when there’s another one on the disc that’s made in the same way and to the same standard. All that’s true is that everyone’s getting more and more at ease, whether it’s the documentary makers and editors, or the cast and crew themselves warming to talking about it. A wider range of talking heads than we’ve seen before, slicker editing, and a much better contribution from Doug Naylor (who with each passing disc seems to become less cold, distant and arrogant) add up to the best doc yet, and encouraging signs that The Starbuggers (which I presume to be the title of Series VI’s, and if it isn’t, it should be, for reasons you should all be familiar with) will be even better. And that’s even before we get to the cast and crew trying to justify (or maybe they won’t) the last two series. The documentaries are almost incidental to the DVDs now, but that’s not to say they should be ignored – they’re pretty much the best thing about them.

The Verdict
It’s another class act – but did you expect anything less? The episodes are among the best of the lot, the two documentaries are the best so far, and the quality and depth of the presentation is upped yet again. Only the commentaries lack verve compared to I-IV, and the lacklustre musical featurette suggests that the idea is quickly becoming tired. But overall, this is a worthy addition to the canon, and further evidence that, when complete, Red Dwarf will be the finest and most comprehensive television comedy DVD set out there.

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