IT. IS. HERE. Less than a fortnight after the final episode of Red Dwarf X aired, the DVD and Bluray have been released into the loving embrace of fans throughout the UK – just in time for Christmas. Despite the tight turnaround, nearly three hours of extras accompany the release, most notably the epic behind-the-scenes documentary We’re Smegged. Having set a precedent for incredibly comprehensive, entertaining and value-packed releases for the earlier series, will this latest offering stack up?
The short answer is: yes. The longer answer requires an unhealthy level of detail, chronicling every aspect of the release in far too much depth. Get comfy.
The main cover image is… functional. It’s the familiar publicity shot that was plastered on the walls of railway stations up and down the country for months, and while it’s presented neatly and efficiently here, I’m simply not keen on this image. There’s far too much of a filter on the cast, with Kryten and Cat in particular looking far worse than they actually do in the series. On the back, we’ve got the standard episode list and series synopsis, along with a handful of screengrabs (three on the DVD, two on the Bluray) and the extras listed in a boxout that also expands briefly on the content. This works very well – only having three individual special features, rather than the dozen or so on previous releases, is used to its maximum potential.
This version of cover art is by far at its best on the steelbook edition sold exclusively throughout HMV. The full height and width of the box is used, with a shiny finish to the material complementing the artwork beautifully. The Bluray doesn’t look great, however – I can’t stand the big blue borders that dominate Bluray releases, and the reduced surface area means that the logo on the front and the text on the back is compressed in a way that makes it look busy and cluttered.
The alternative cover art – sadly only available on the standard DVD – is far superior. While the bunkroom background on the front cover isn’t quite as effective as the iconic ships that grace Series I-III, it’s possibly better than the previous set-based ones used for Series IV and The Bodysnatcher Collection. Having Jesus on the side is a little strange considering that I-VIII all contain ‘main’ characters, but they were limited to either picking a guest or repeating one of the regulars, and Jesus is certainly the guest character that’s most central to his particular episode. The only problem with this is that Back To Earth wasn’t given the same treatment, so the spines don’t look quite as good on the shelf as they could do.
And yes – there’s a sticker. White on red: “brand new with over 2 hours of exclusive extras”. It’s even got its own little serial code – “STICK059”. Lovely stuff.
The discs themselves are printed with a version of the cover art, and they look smashing. They’re labelled “Disc One Episodes 1-6” and “Disc Two Extras”, but it’s a shame that the artwork doesn’t vary between the two in the same way that the majority of former releases do. Save for the format logo, the discs are of identical design across DVD and Bluray. But enough of this jibber jabber, let’s stick the bloody things in the machine.
The main menu on disc one comprises of a CGI recreation of the drive room, with a massive kebab in the foreground and snippets of the All Droid Shopping Network playing on the screens in the background. These interruptions are a tad annoying, but then I’m never a fan of noisy menus, and the visuals look great. Clicking on episodes takes you on a walk through the corridors – past a box of paperwork precariously placed near the airlock – to a bank of six vending machines, each representing a different episode. The vending machines talk to you too, with dialogue used from the nympho/stalker one in Dear Dave, and thankfully not Taiwan Tony.
Each episode sub-menu takes you to a close-up of the vending machines, and presents eight chapter points for your selection. There’s an irritating and unnecessary electrical noise from the vending machine every now and then, but it looks lovely. Perhaps it’s best to just keep the menus muted as you’re navigating through them. My favourite chapter titles are probably ‘The Last Lunch’ and ‘Finger-Licking Machine’, but I’m not too sure about ‘Pain in the Asteroid’. Additionally, the Bluray provides quick menus during episode playback, allowing you to jump to any chapter of any episode. This is beautifully done, and is a very exciting – although largely useless – development. The same functionality is used on Disc Two, but without the chapter skipping element.
And speaking of Disc Two, the main menu is a recreation of the bunk room, which is fairly unspectacular, but packed with elements from the show including a big pile of bog roll, some lemons, an empty guitar case, Lister’s jar of whiskey (which bubbles unnecessarily noisily), some flat pack furniture and noodle boxes. The only bit of animation is a push in to the sofas for the deleted scenes menu – this gives you the option to play all or select a specific episode. No chapter menu for We’re Smegged surprisingly, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to plunge straight into it rather than faffing around with extra button pushes.
Well, you already know whether you like the episodes or not. Personally, I’d summarise them as GOOD, MOSTLY GREAT, GREAT, MOSTLY GOOD, A BIT RUBBISH, GREAT, in that order. As for how they’re presented here, they look perfectly acceptable on the DVD, and every bit as good as the initial HD broadcast on Bluray, possibly even better.
The shows are presented seamlessly, with no gap where the ad break was previously situated. It’s a stylistic choice that I don’t necessarily agree with – in theory, the pace of a sit-com episode is inherently linked with the placement of the ad break, and I usually prefer a set of break bumpers and a moment of black on my DVDs, to simulate the pause that was provided on initial broadcast. While the bolting together here is done extremely well, I do miss the moment of reflection, and the pacing is consequently a little off for a few episodes. On the other hand, Lemons really benefits from the initial meeting with Jesus being restored to one big scene, and the continuous model sequence in Entangled offers the best of both worlds, as it provides a seamless and natural moment of respite.
It’s a strange experience to get a new Red Dwarf DVD where the main feature is still so new and fresh. With the possible exception of Back To Earth, I’ve never been so compelled to dive in to the first disc and watch through the episodes so soon after getting my hands on the goods. But make no mistake, there’s no way you should delay inserting Disc Two for a nanosecond longer than necessary. The reason?
Well, where to start, other than simply saying “wow”. It’s the tried and tested format of discussing the series as a whole – with particular focus on the audience, set design, scheduling, costumes, and the camera setup – before taking each episode in turn, with a whole section on the model effects throw in. The result is a solid two hours that uses the massive running time to its advantage, whilst maintaining a smooth pace that never allows the experience to feel like a slog. It’s funny, insightful, shocking and extraordinarily candid.
The stall is set out with an early soundbite from Doug stating that “it was a very difficult ride”. No shit. The sheer number of near-catastrophes catalogued is mindblowing. From the very start, Doug was up against it from having six weeks fewer than initially scheduled to write the scripts. Things never really improved – the location shoot for Lemons was nearly scuppered by dropped frames and the wrong script being issued, the entire ending of Entangled had to be thrown out because of monkey business, Dear Dave was still being filmed when the cast were interviewed for the documentary, there were quality control issues in Trojan, and – most shockingly of all – they completely lost ALL the rushes at one point. It’s astonishing that the series was made at all.
The most illuminating segment is the one on the model shoots, with Doug wearily running through all of the thousands of problems faced, and footage of the frankly inadequate initial attempts. Seriously, those asteroids are abysmal. But the documentary throws into focus the fact that as great as the final effects are, they still could have been a whole lot better. Model DOP Deane Thrussell reveals that the whole thing was done using trial and error, and that he approached the job simply by reading up on what had been done for the likes of Blade Runner and Star Wars. When the models supplied by Bill Pearson are so good, it really needed a specialist model director assigned to the filming, rather than being improvised by people without nearly as much experience. I fear for Peter Tyler’s telly, as he’ll definitely be throwing things at the screen if he watches this.
Elsewhere in the documentary, we kind of get the impression that Doug had plenty of internal battles to fight as well as the later problems that came from outside the production. There are a lot of instances where clips of Doug and Charles Armitage are juxtaposed to suggest conflict between them, on subjects as wide-ranging as the use of the audience, the concept of religion being explored in the show, the approach to the miniatures shoot and the necessity to build new sets for The Beginning. It’s also apparent that there was a separate interview session with Doug recorded long after production had wrapped, which is used to clarify and contextualise statements made in the main sessions. We might be reading too much into this, but Doug is wearing a Fahrenheit 451 t-shirt in these shots – a coded message about censorship and revisionism?
It’s shocking and fascinating to have been given such a warts-and-all account of the series this soon after the production. It’s one thing to discuss Norm leaving or Juliet May’s direction a decade later, but for a documentary of this nature to come out while Red Dwarf is still a ongoing concern is surprising and refreshing. Richard Naylor tweeted recently that there was a danger that the documentary wasn’t going to make it on to the DVD at one point, and quite frankly, you can see why.
Despite so much of its running time being taken up by the discussion of monumental cock-ups, We’re Smegged doesn’t lack the joy, the humour and the fun of the previous documentaries. It’s particularly brilliant at capturing the atmosphere of the recording nights, with footage of the warm up, the cast greeting the crowd, and – best of all – shots of the cast waiting in the wings, pacing nervously and looking scared to death. There’s fascinating glimpses of readthroughs, rehearsals, make-up tests and pre-records; the fact that the behind-the-scenes camera was there throughout the entire process lifts We’re Smegged head and shoulders above all the other feature-length documentaries.
We also get tons of interviews with all the key guest cast, along with various producers, many of the camera team, Howard Burden, set designer Micheal Ralph (a cross between Rolf Harris and Ringo Starr), Andrew Ellard and many more. The key to its entertainment value, however, comes from just how much of the cast we get to see – not just in interview form, but in candid glimpses of how they interact with each other on set, or even in corridors around Shepperton Studios. It’s always funny to see Danny soliloquising to Nathan Cubitt’s camera, or everyone taking the piss out of Craig’s swagger, or – most joyously of all – finally getting to see the traditional ceremony of Danny peeling off Robert’s nose after the final shot of the series is wrapped.
There are so many stand-out moments that it would be fruitless to try and mention them all, but here are a few of my particular favourites: shots of Doug directing smoke machines with a wave of his hand, Geordie Jesus talking about shitting himself, a flu-addled Doug Naylor standing next to Tom Price and somehow not being able to see him, Dominator actor Gary Cady being unsure as to whether he was shooting a comedy, and – best of all – a rather eccentric props maker talking about the trucks in Fathers & Suns as if they were beautiful women.
I could go on and on and on. I can’t state emphatically enough that We’re Smegged is categorically the best documentary feature on any Red Dwarf DVD, and I dare say that there’s nothing on any other British TV DVD that comes anywhere close. Our hats are well and truly off to Nathan Cubitt and Andrew Ellard for this two hour masterpiece that’s a testament to the hard work, dedication, eye for detail and narrative know-how that they’ve ploughed in to this job; qualities that shine through each and every brilliant sequence.
Deleted Scenes (with commentary)
We’re treated to an ample portion of deleted scenes, and their nature reflects the fraught atmosphere of the writing and the production; there’s whole plot threads that have been dropped, things that were removed so that episodes could be restructured via pick-ups, and scenes that had to be retaken in their entirety at a later date. The result is a collection of scenes where the main entertainment comes from their interestingness rather than their inherent comedy value; where vast swathes have been lopped out – such as the Rimmer dyslexia plot, extra appearances of Lister’s call centre troubles, and further ‘Jesus’/’Yes?’ business – there’s no denying that it was the correct decision to excise them from the final episode.
That said, there’s a fair few laughs to be had, and for me the comedic highlights all come from Dear Dave – surprising, given that it’s my least favourite episode. It’s mostly individual moments that made me laugh, namely the shot of Cat on the photocopier, the line about sperm swimming into a womb and forgetting why they’re there, and Rimmer’s Subbuteo-related finger gymnastics. The most satisfying full scene has got to be the full take of the drive room scene from The Beginning, acted out largely by a bespectacled Robert reading from his script. The unused model shot of the fly-by over the top of the ship is a must-see too – it’s absolutely rubbish, and the entire thing is on the wonk.
There’s a problem with the way the scenes are presented, though – they lack the little explanatory captions that accompanied the deleted scenes on the earlier releases. This makes for a confusing and unsatisfactory initial viewing – the lack of context makes you distracted from the meat of the scene by the need to figure out what exactly it is you’re watching, and why this version of the scene is being shown to you. The commentary from Doug does provide a lot of this context, but watching with the commentary on isn’t something that’s usually done as your first experience of a feature. Perhaps the best way to view them is with this page from TOS open, but not having these summaries as captions on the DVD is a glaring omission.
The commentary itself is informative, entertaining and amusing, although Doug does sound like a very tired man throughout. It’s interesting to hear him talk through his decision process on certain scenes, as well as musing on such topics as the Shepperton Studios canteen.
Now, this is superb. Obviously, any collection of Red Dwarf cock-ups is going to be funny, but this feature has been put together superbly well. They’d have been forgiven for just combing through the rushes and plonking any fluffs down willy-nilly on a timeline, but rather than a plain chronological run through, these clips have been expertly ordered for maximum entertainment value. Similar types of fluff have been lumped together, each actor has their own little segment of ineptitude, and the whole thing is dotted liberally with bits of buggering about in front of the audience.
And it’s very, very funny. My favourites are where we see the cast joke around after a series of fluffs, particularly Craig’s riffs on sending yourself a Valentine’s card, and how he’s written a novel in the time it’s taken Chris to deliver his lines. There’s also some impeccable swearing – the likes of ‘bollocks’ and ‘shit’ have been allowed through unbeeped, and there’s a fantastic example of the latter from Simon Treves as Lecturer Rimmer. The fact that they’ve bothered to comp him in to the hololamp setup is another example of the care that’s gone in to this compilation, which makes it the most satisfying collection of out-takes from one particular series that we’ve ever seen.
One more thing – there’s an out-take in here from a scene that’s not in any of the final episodes, nor the deleted scenes. It’s from Dear Dave, where Rimmer says “she was too stuck up to wear the other pair of le-” before fouling up. If memory serves me correctly, this exchange concerns the parking ticket that Rimmer received, and his excuse for why it was issued. It was too long ago for me to remember anything within that scene that would have made them choose to omit it from the DVD, so perhaps it’s been left off accidentally. Either way, it’s a real curiosity.
What’s Not There
This is one section that I never thought I’d ever include on a Red Dwarf DVD, and it seems churlish to spend a couple of paragraphs complaining about a lack of content when there’s so much brilliant stuff on the discs. And it’s true that the majestic beast that is We’re Smegged renders some potential extras unnecessary; there’s no need for a separate feature on the model shots, or the costumes, or the sets, because they’re all covered so comprehensively and brilliantly elsewhere.
However, there’s a big glaring gap on the contents list where the commentary tracks should be. Ten years ago, the cast commentaries were the headline feature on the Series I and II DVDs, and they’ve always been a hotly anticipated feature. It’s disappointing, yet completely understandable, that they’re not present here – it was a very tight turnaround between the episodes being finished and the DVD being compiled, and Craig and Danny were in Weatherfield and Guadeloupe respectively. It’s more of a shame that we don’t have a Doug commentary, however; he was superb on Back To Earth, and there’s so much for him to say here. He’s so busy recounting production woes in We’re Smegged and contextualising on the deleted scenes that in-depth analysis of the stories and the characterisation is the one thing the overall package is lacking.
We’ve been spoilt rotten by previous Red Dwarf releases; there’s so many things that we categorise as being “standard” features, which would never be seen on 90% of comedy DVDs in a million years. Even with this in mind, there’s no ignoring the fact that a few simple additions would have vastly improved this release. Isolated music cues, for instance – Howard Goodall did some terrific work on this series, and there’s no acknowledgement of this at all. Raw visual effects footage would have been fantastic for many reasons – we only see brief snatches of them in the episodes and I’d love to see the results of the disastrous of the first model shoot. Trailers? Continuity? Photo galleries? All of these things have been dug out of dusty archives for past DVDs, and they’d have been incredibly easy to come across for a contemporaneous release. A booklet would have been lovely too. Sigh.
Despite all of this, there’s no denying that this is an outstanding product. We’re Smegged is easily worth the cover price alone, and there’s plenty more value added by the deleted scenes and – in particular – the smeg ups. Plus, you know – six brand new episodes of Red Dwarf, presented in their definitive form on the Bluray version. No matter what you think of this extraordinarily divisive series, the quality and the size of the main bonus feature means that everyone with even a passing interest in Red Dwarf would be advised to get their hands on a copy.
The curious beast that is Red Dwarf X is more than just the six final episodes. Only when you know the full story of its troubled production do you fully understand why certain things turned out the way they did. It doesn’t absolve any faults in the series – if something doesn’t sit well with you within an episode, it’s probably never going to – but it does make you look at the imperfections in a different way. More so than ever, this series of Red Dwarf seems to belong on DVD/Bluray, and the joy of watching We’re Smegged for the first time is equal to that of watching a brand new episode. Without these shiny discs, you’re missing out on the full Red Dwarf X experience. It’s the vital final component in ensuring you’ve taken in a full new series of your favourite show – an opportunity that we haven’t had for far too long, and may never have again.