Oh boy, where to begin? This is comfortably the largest Red Dwarf release ever, containing not only 71.2% of all episodes ever (or Series I-VIII, as most people refer to it), but all the extras from the original DVD range, including The Bodysnatcher Collection. Not only that, the episodes have been restored, upscaled to a high-definition resolution, and given what’s been officially referred to as an “extensive” colour grade. It’s a release that was rumoured for a very long time before it was finally announced, and one that’s only now arriving some three and a half months later than the original release date.
Our attitude towards the release during that time has ranged from ambivalence to open hostility, but now that it’s finally here, is it indeed the ultimate collection of Red Dwarf – the definitive version of the episodes, packaged with all the extras you’d ever need – that it has the potential to be?
No. Not by some distance. Let’s break this down, old school style.
Many thanks to Andy Holland for providing the Bluray screengrabs used in this review.
You’ve already made your mind up on the artwork from when it was first revealed, let’s face it. Personally, I don’t think there’s much wrong with the concept, and for the most part, dodgy logo with the W and A of “DWARF” cropped aside, the outer box looks pretty damn lovely – a lovely deep shade of purple, and a nice chunky, hefty-looking shape. That is apart from the back cover, which is deeply sloppy. The blurb is a little dull, and could have done with another pass to add some missing punctuation. It’s adorned by planet-shaped cut-outs of five publicity photos from across the years, one of which is from Re-Mastered, one of the few things not contained within. Norman Lovett doesn’t appear in any of them, and the colours are all completely washed-out. Unfathomably, the pictures have been covered by a pink pixelly overlay, and the overall effect makes it look like it’s been printed on an old half-empty inkjet.
Within the box are two disc booklets, each containing four series each, the second a little fatter than the first due to VII and VIII’s extra discs. Again, perfectly lovely from the side, but the cover art on these is what caused so much consternation. I can certainly see what they were going for, but the execution is very poor indeed, and it looks worse in person than it did online, like your mum. I find myself increasingly incensed by the half-finished ram scoop on the pencilly Dwarf. The Starbug one isn’t so bad, but in conjunction with the abysmal rendition of the mothership, they combine to create a feeling that it’s all slightly off-brand.
Sandwiched between the two disc booklets is an actual booklet, which we’ll come to later, and tucked inside the Series I-IV one is a leaflet and the Bodysnatcher disc, in its own little sleeve. The design has changed from the original reveal, with the list of extras gone from the rear, replaced by a logo and a collection of planetoids.
These are all pretty uniform as you’d expect – the smaller planetoids change from series to series, but the main red one at the bottom remains the same, as does the sans-serif logo and the placement of various text and logos. I thought I’d spotted something clever when I noticed that the Series 1 discs feature a red planetoid, Series 2 a blue one and Series III green, but the pattern doesn’t continue beyond this. Semi-interestingly, the discs all display their individual BBFC ratings – almost all are 12, the exceptions being Series VI Disc 2 (PG) and Series III Disc 1 (15). Yes, Marooned is the reason the overall set is a 15, and the workaround that they used to get a 12 certificate for the Series III DVD has seemingly been forgotten about in the intervening years, as the episode on Bluray omits the post-credits easter egg that enabled its reclassification.
Of course, the other thing that varies between the disc designs is that some of them have Bluray logos and some have DVD. In principle, a sensible decision to avoid the cost of so many extra Blurays for all this SD material, and it has to be said that overall, you can’t really complain about a £40 price tag for nineteen discs that contain 26 hours’ worth of episodes and tonnes of accompanying extras.
We’ll come back to the DVD components of this release later, but let’s start with the actual Blurays for now. Plop one in your machine, and you’ll notice that the disc icon thingy features the serif version of the logo, along with a hastily-plonked on Roman numeral to denote the series, in a slightly wonky font. It doesn’t create the greatest impression, and with this being the only place on this release (other than the episodes/extras themselves, obvs) that this version of the logo is used, you have to question the attention to detail.
After the standard current copyright details and BBC logo, you come to a rather smart looking menu, with nicely-detailed spaceshippy bits framing a montage of clips from the series in question. It’s the same style throughout, but the colours vary – red for the first two series, then Starbug green for III and IV, back to red for V, green for VI and VII, and VIII is back in the red. Bodysnatcher is something different, but again, we’ll come to that later.
In terms of the montages, while III-VIII use something very close to their respective title sequences, Series 1 and 2’s have been specially created for the purpose, for obvious reasons, and they do the job well. There are a few variations in the other series; the bits where the logos normally appear have all been replaced with other shots, and model/effects sequences are used on the end to smooth out the loop.
There’s a few interesting choices: Series III’s features the “Contents 2” sign on the Polymorph pod, thus giving away the punchline to the episode; a shot of Holly materialising over a wireframe of Starbug from Demons and Angels is replaced by a similar shot of her materialising over a wireframe of a strawberry earlier in the episode; and all the extra effects shots added to VII are from the handful of actual model shots used, including that oft-reused Starbug flyby that opens Holoship. Pleasingly, they’ve taken the opportunity to excise the rogue Series 2 shot from the Series III montage, bringing Cat’s backwards-poo-reaction forwards and adding a shot of Kryten in earmuffs to cover it.
The navigation is functional and largely sensible, although it’s a shame that there’s no scene selection option. Instead, we have Play All, Episode Selection, Commentaries and Subtitles On/Off on the left hand side, with submenus appearing on the right. Each episode is represented by a screengrab thumbnail, and are listed in broadcast order. For Series VII, selecting Tikka, Ouroboros or Duct Soup brings up a simple choice of which of the various Xtended and/or Re-Mastered versions to watch, which retains the explanatory text from the original DVDs. For VIII, though, the feature length versions of Back in the Red and Pete appear as a separate option on their respective episode menus, with the explainers. Another difference for these two series is that the non-bonus-disc extras – Identity Within, Fan Films and Comedy Connections – sit on the main left-hand menu.
Let’s get it out of the way. On the Series 2 disc, episode three is listed as Thanks For The Memories. Sigh. On the scale of Red Dwarf cock-ups, it’s not quite up there with accidentally releasing an episode a day early or leaking the following series’ episode titles on a Bluray cover, but it’s still annoying, representing as it does a certain sloppiness that’s sneaked into Red Dwarf‘s commercial ventures since around the time the original DVD range finished, and has festered to such a degree that a mistake as fundamental as getting the name of an episode wrong is something that can simply slip through the net. On the plus side, Bodyswap is correctly rendered as one word, unlike on the Series III DVD menus. Although Emohawk is listed as Polymorph 2 instead of Polymorph II and Only The Good… is missing its ellipsis, both of which are UNFORGIVABLE.
Anyway, meanwhile, the commentaries have their own submenu, with a Play All function. The additional commentary for The End, manufactured from the Six of the Best CD, survives for the Bluray, as do the fan commentaries for Back To Reality and Gunmen. All of this is also accessible as a pop-up menu, with the frames coming in to surround the episode you’re watching, which is pretty neat. Overall, I don’t think I’d have a single complaint about the menus, were it not for that one glaring error.
Right, here we fucking go. Given that the release contains all eight series of the BBC era, and I need to do things like eat and sleep and go to work, I haven’t yet watched absolutely all of it; instead selecting one episode from each series to watch side-by-side with the DVD versions, and dipping in to a handful of others to look at notable scenes or things that people have noted online. As such, there’s a chance that I’ve missed something particularly brilliant or rubbish about the restoration or grade if it happens to have occurred in an episode I didn’t pick, but this should give you a flavour of how each individual series holds up.
Starting somewhat sensibly with The End, the vivid red of the ship is immediately apparent from the first second of the first episode, acting as somewhat of a mission statement for the project from the get go, although weirdly it’s not equally bright and bold in subsequent model shots, denoting the continued presence of our friend Mr Inconsistency. The grade yields mixed results throughout the episode, but the overall theme is darker shadows and more saturated colours, which is regrettably reminiscent of the treatment given to Re-Mastered – it’s basically that look but without the film effect.
Where it works is in the blacks and primary colours, which look great. The pre-accident Drive Room/Captain’s Office scene really benefits; the colours in the original look completely washed out in comparison, and Craig’s skin tone is much more true to life in the new version. But scenes like this are in the minority, and the grade seems to create more problems than it solves. Close-ups of McIntyre have compensated for his paleness, which gives the rest of the shot a somewhat pinkish tint, most evident on the previously white sign behind him. Bluescreen halos are unfortunately more noticeable, appearing darker and thus making the actors look like the cut-outs that they are.
It all feels slightly at odds with the quality of the source material, which still has plenty of grain and video artefacts in evidence. Remember that this is a transfer of a master tape that’s over thirty years old, recorded on a format that was virtually obsolete even then, and with several generations worth of analogue editing loss built in, blown up way beyond its original resolution. And it shows. To some extent, there’s little that can be done to disguise it, and when you’ve got a grade that really brings out the vertical track lines down the left hand side, making them more apparent than ever throughout the whole opening episode, it does little to put my doubts about the whole feasibility of this exercise to rest. I don’t know for sure whether stuff like that could be fixed, but the credits sequence should perhaps have been recreated for the medium (as it routinely is/was for classic Doctor Who releases), as the red text in particular looks every bit as stretched to buggery as it is.
On the plus side, I also checked the split-screen bits in Me², to see how the telltale lines that came to light on the DVD release look here, and these do seem to have been painted out reasonably successfully; either that or the grade makes them less perceptible. On balance, it’s an overall thumbs down for Series 1, but a tentatively raised thumb for Series 2, based on my viewing of Better Than Life. With the slightly improved condition of the source material, the grade is less distancing and feels more natural – more like a tidy-up of what was originally there than a new vision, which is the objectively correct way to treat archive material.
The Observation Dome scenes look particularly lovely with a darker spacescape providing a starker contrast with the actors. But again, it’s a mixed bag, as the hologram newsreader now looks even more glitchy, thanks to the lurid pink emphasising the original keying faults. The beach scene looks a little warmer, and the grass on the golf course more verdant – this extra layer of luxuriousness perhaps the closest thing to an actual editorial change – and yet the sky still changes colour from shot to shot when Rimmer turns up with his kids, an opportunity to fix an unavoidable mistake in the original declined. To do so would be to step on a slippery slope, of course, and I don’t think anyone reading this would want any changes that alter what was originally broadcast too much. But then again, the opening Holly intros throughout Series 2 are more monochrome than there were on DVD, losing the blue tint. Is that not a change that reverses a conscious decision made in 1988? Shall I prepare the guest room for Mr Inconsistency?
Elsewhere in Series 2, chatter online has drawn attention to the “My Other Spaceship Is A Red Dwarf” sticker on the back of Blue Midget. I’ve compared it side-by-side with the DVD version, and it’s not massively clear in the original, it has to be said, but the Bluray grade does make it even harder to make out, as the extra saturation on the white background flares out over the black text. The difference between the two versions has perhaps been overstated a little, but then it could be seen as a missed opportunity to make a subtle improvement to the episode by tinkering a little further to aid legibility. I also had a look at Tongue Tied, just for a laugh, and the model shot at the top of the sequence is considerably duller than the vibrant red that opens the previous eleven episodes. Pfffft.
Onto Series III, which has always looked completely different to all other series anyway, and is perhaps the most difficult, on paper, to bring up to scratch for Bluray. Some improvements have been made to the sharpness, but the motion looks particularly blurry on this version, bringing the spectre of Re-Mastered back into view once more. There’s speculation that there’s a frame rate problem here, but to my eye it looks like just a case of the grade emphasising the low quality source material. It’s still watchable, but then that’s not a particularly high bar to clear. I chose The Last Day, and can report the film dirt all over the Jim Reaper inserts is still there, as is the big red line that appears down the left hand side of one of the studio cameras (most noticeably in the scene where Kryten is packing himself away).
The question of whether its in the remit of this release to fix things like that can be argued either way; nobody wants another Re-Mastered, and you can see why they’d be wary of making too many changes for exactly that reason, but my view is that you’re on much safer ground if you’re merely correcting something that was an unintentional fault in the original. Anything that someone’s decided to put in the broadcast episode – a model shot, a line of dialogue, a music cue – leave it the fuck alone, but I don’t see any harm in fixing a technical error, especially when you’re paying forty quid for the best possible quality version of something you’ve paid for several times before.
So the Manchester years were always going to be a struggle, but Series IV saw the move to Shepperton with its less antiquated equipment, and when the source material is better quality, so is the upscaled version. Other than a bit of extra colour saturation, the grade is much more subtle, and the overall feel is pretty much how I’d pictured it beforehand: it looks decent, if not remarkable. However, I watched DNA and noticed for the first time in what must be hundreds of viewings that one of the cameras in the double polaroid scene has a slightly warmer white balance than the others. It’s there on the DVD version if you’re really looking for it, but it’s barely perceptible – here, the grade has really brought the difference out, and it’s another missed opportunity to fix something accidental. At least the new style of credits introduced in IV translate to Bluray a lot better than the glitchy old red ones.
With slightly more confidence in the picture quality and a determination to stop nitpicking quite so much about technical errors, I plumped for Back To Reality to represent Series V, hoping to see the best possible version of the best ever episode. What I got was an abomination. It seemed off right from the beginning, with the title sequence looking abysmally grainy compared to the DVD version playing on my laptop. Then as soon as the episode proper started, it immediately became apparent that something was horribly wrong with the encoding. I thought at first it was the frame-rate, but it can’t be, because the running times match across the versions. I don’t have the technical expertise to diagnose the cause of the problem – to my semi-trained eye it looks like it’s something to do with the field order settings – but the end result is that it looks like progressive scan (like the Dave era) instead of interlaced video (like all but VII from the BBC era).
Holoship, The Inquisitor and Terrorform are fine, but Quarantine and Demons & Angels are similarly affected. Best guess: they exported their edits in half-series batches, and there was a mistake in the settings for the last batch of V. Still, not like there’s any decent episodes in there, eh? I’ve checked and double checked, cross-referencing the Bluray and the DVD versions, and it’s a difference that may pass viewers who are less sensitive to this kind of thing by, but for me it was painful to watch the undisputed best ever episode of the somewhat-disputed-to-be-fair best ever sitcom in this sorry state. A huge layer of artificiality has been placed between the action and the audience; we’re supposed to think they’re in “our” world now, but they’re more distant than ever.
Admittedly the colours looked really nice in the recuperation lounge scene, but that was scant comfort. Instead I turned to one of the unaffected episodes, The Inquisitor, and that was much more like it. It’s evidently a better transfer of the master tape than the DVD, with a subtle but effective grade bringing out Series V’s distinctive colour scheme and bold lighting style beautifully, as well as revealing details like the wrinkles on Kryten’s neck in sharper contrast. The self-judgement scenes particularly benefit, the richer blacks emphasising the themes of duality. The first half of Series V can safely be considered the definitive versions of these episodes; for the first time, you can really see what they were aiming for with the restoration, and the project seems a little more worthwhile. But the second half deserves to be feathered, tarred and thrown in a big burning bin.
There’s less to say about Series VI, from which Psirens was its representative, which is probably in its favour given what’s gone before. The big red letterboxes in the title sequence still look crap, but we now have the full 4:3 frame intact, with whatever error that required the tops and bottoms of the picture to be cropped on the DVD release now seemingly fixed. For this reason alone, we’re back into “definitive version” territory, but also the picture is sharper – a much bigger improvement than on any previous series – and the grade a good one.
As for Series VII, dare I say it, the film effect looks pretty damn good compared to all previous, lower-resolution versions. Perhaps this is the one series of the original eight which has a look that lends itself best to the medium. That said, the scenes that are a bit mucky or grainy in the original, mostly ones that are fairly low-light, are still just as mucky and grainy here, except each individual grain/muck is now bigger. I watched the Xtended and Re-Mastered version of Tikka, just to get my money’s worth, and can report that the one non-film-effect shot is still non-film-effect. The re-mastered effects still look the same – although watching it now more than a decade on, they’re beginning to look their age in the same way that physical model shots don’t – but the motion blur on the original CGI throughout VII is now worse than ever. The Ace Rimmer coffins in Stoke Me A Clipper are somehow even more laughable.
And finally, the most recent series should logically be the one that looks best of all, but the difference between the DVD and Bluray versions is barely noticeable in Series VIII. The purple prison uniforms are perhaps a bit more vibrant, but that’s about all I’ve got. I chose to watch Back In The Red (Part Three), which is not something I’ve ever said before. The CGI Blue Midgets in the dance sequence look a little better than before, sharper and more detailed. The claymation sequence is still covered in film dirt and blighted by inconsistent lighting.
Overall, I’d say about four and a half series look good on Bluray, one looks alright, and two and a half look terrible. Hey, on one hand, you can say that more than half of it passes the test. But the size of the majority is about the same as the Brexit vote, and in both cases we’re left frustrated, a bit sad and out of pocket.
But hurrah for the mere presence of said extras, and the almost absolute completeness thereof. With home video budgets the way they currently are, brand new additional material was never a likely prospect when there’s so much old stuff that could be included, so at least they have included all of it in the end, after it was initially announced that a handful of DVD features would be missing. But the reason that the collection is so complete is very simple: these are literally the same extras discs from the original DVD releases. It’s the same master file, as they all have the contemporary copyright warning and BBC/2 Entertain logos at the start, which varied throughout the original run and are all entirely obsolete now.
As much as it pains us to admit that we’re all getting older, the fact is that those DVDs are a product of their time; we’re further away from the Series 1 DVD than it was from Series 1. The style and length of the animated menus, the slightly clunky navigation and the aesthetic of the fonts and colours are all deeply rooted in the early-to-mid-2000s – not a criticism of them in the slightest, but it’s completely at odds with the actual Bluray components of this release, giving the overall impression of something that’s been bodged together rather than a bespoke package. Honestly, do something you haven’t done for at least fifteen years, and click the weblink option on the top menu. It’s a historical document at this stage.
Also, switching between the main feature on Bluray and clips from the episodes in the extras on DVD emphasises that the difference in quality is… not that huge, really, at least not in the early series. Obviously the grade sets it apart, but in terms of how well it holds up on a big flat screen some thirty years after it was shot, you’d think the contrast would be clearer.
Of course, a by-product of duplicating the exact same DVDs is that the few extras that were originally featured on the same discs as episodes (ie. for the three-disc VII and VIII sets) are included on the corresponding Bluray in SD. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the temptation to watch my own fan film on Bluray, and would like to apologise for everyone for how shit it looks. There’s nothing they could have done – it was originally submitted in about a sixteenth of the resolution of Bluray – but I did note with some disappointment that the subtitles have been amended in the intervening years so that “shut up, Andrew” is no longer given as “shut up, Patrick”.
Which just leaves one last disc to explore, and it’s more SD material on a Bluray disc, but so much of it crammed in. The Bodysnatcher Collection is named in full on the disc icon, which is nice – the legacy of that release lives on. It also retains its uniqueness, with the menu specially tinted blue, and simply featuring a static shot of the ship in place of a series-specific montage. Bodysnatcher itself is given its own headline spot on the menu, with the rest of the Collection weirdly sub-divided into “Extras” (The End Original Assembly, The Beginning, It’s Cold Outside and Re-Dwarf) and “Bonus Material” (everything else). This is to do with how the extras were distributed across the original discs, and while it does make sense to distinguish between the big original features and archive footage, the problem is that “extras” and “bonus material” mean the exact same thing, and so the labels seem arbitrary to fresh eyes.
The next option on the menu is Audio Commentaries, and they’re just that – the audio only. I get why the Re-Mastered episodes weren’t included – they’d have undoubtedly upped the disc count, and while they are without question a noteworthy part of the Red Dwarf oeuvre, the Re-Dwarf doc is probably enough to satisfy most viewers. And while I’m glad that they commentaries were included in some form, I can’t see myself plumping to listen to them without the accompanying visuals. Here, they play out over static close-ups of various CGI elements, as do other audio-only extras, the Tongue Tied archive and the full-length Bodysnatcher script). Brilliantly, they choose Starbug to use for the Better Than Life commentary.
And finally, there’s an Easter Eggs menu, compiling all the bits that happened to be hidden on the main episode discs originally, and avoiding doubling up on the ones on the extras discs that come with the set anyway. Ironically, the Marooned model shot, which was only ever included on a DVD because of the aforementioned BBFC rating thing, is included here, whereas if it had been left where it was the whole set would be one certificate lower. It’s a great little archive though, and it’s neat that the Bodysnatcher disc of this set has the same function as the Collection itself in relation to the main DVD range, rounding up every possible last scrap of extras, the ones would otherwise have fallen off.
Although there is one thing still missing – the What’s Different? text track that originally played out over the Re-Mastered episodes. Unlike the audio commentaries, it’s not really possible to port this across without the episodes themselves in any even vaguely satisfying way, so don’t go chucking away your DVDs just yet. One solitary feature missing for unavoidable reasons is not a bad record. The only other material that could have been included is Smeg Ups/Outs and Beat The Geek. The latter is even more a product of its time than anything else, but I’ve always thought that Just The Smegs was a vital component of the DVD collection – while the fluffs themselves are of course included elsewhere, having them in their original mid-90s form too really completed the set.
None of the extras seems to have been altered for Bluray in any way as far as I can tell. There’s still a promo for how to subscribe to the Red Dwarf mobile service at the end of the mobisode, for example. This is a good thing of course, that archive material is presented in full wherever possible, but a few years ago, when people were actually paying attention to stuff like this, some of Kryten’s links got chopped out of Just The Smegs in order to avoid inaccurate commercial information being included on a new release. I’m not saying they should have changed anything this time, merely highlighting that the change in approach compared to earlier projects can sometimes have unexpected advantages.
Something that’s been sadly missing from the Dave era releases, here it’s a necessary tool for any newcomers to Red Dwarf on shiny disc to navigate the myriad episodes and extras and figure out where everything is – let’s face it, there’s no logical reason for the A-Z to be filed with the Series 2 extras, or Can’t Smeg Won’t Smeg to be intrinsically linked to Series IV, we just already know where to look for them. Those newcomers won’t know that you could previously expect a beautifully written treasure trove of trivia and analysis in your collectors’ booklet, so they’ll probably be happy enough with a plain list of contents. I’ve scoured forensically for typos and spelling mistakes, and it seems to pass the test. The only snag is that it fails to list the isolated music cues and talking book chapters, so you can see how erroneous information ended up on TOS. That and referring to the extras on the VII and VIII episode discs as “VAM”, which makes me vom.
Unexpectedly, I discovered when attempting to get screengrabs for this article that the original booklets from the Series I-VIII DVDs (but not The Bodysnatcher Collection) are included on their respective series disc as PDFs. This is a lovely little touch, which makes it all the more baffling that they’re not listed on the box, in the booklet or online.
No G&T review would be complete if we didn’t analyse even the most throwaway of components. No stickers this time, for the record. The leaflet is there to implore you to “complete your blu-ray collection” with the four Dave-era releases, complete with a display of awards credentials and a number of press quotes, although none of them are clear as to which series in particular they’re talking about. It’s adorned with the logos of 2 Entertain, Dave, Grant Naylor and Baby Cow, and is the only place that three of those appear anywhere on the package.
In conclusion, then…
Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t. My inescapable feeling is one of disappointment. This review tells the tale of poor attention to detail, missed opportunities, a lack of consistency, a few baffling choices and at least one major, enjoyment-ruining mistake. And yet when it comes to what matters – the quality of the newly-upscaled and regraded episodes themselves – I did conclude that the majority of them pass muster. But only just, and shouldn’t we expect better than a half-decent job?
I guess it comes down to whether, for you, forty quid is a good price to pay for a chunky box, the convenience of having everything in one place, and a slightly better viewing experience than what you’ve already got for just-about-most-of the episodes. So buy it if you want, but don’t feel like you’re hugely missing out if you don’t, and for goodness sake, don’t replace your original DVDs with it. You can’t even say “you might as well get this if you haven’t got all the individual releases”, due to the encoding errors on Series V resulting in three episodes ending up less watchable than a duplicated off-air VHS.
I wanted this to be the definitive Red Dwarf collection, I really did. But it isn’t. It does a lot of things right, and the effort to collate as much material as possible, as well as the attempt to bring the quality up to a higher standard, is admirable. But the execution falls well short.
Thanks again to Andy Holland for providing the screengrabs.