Back in 2008, when Red Dwarf turned twenty, it was very much a former television programme. The last new series had finished almost a decade earlier, fans had finally accepted that the long-proposed Movie was never going to happen, the regular DVD releases had come, gone and done a lap of honour with The Bodysnatcher Collection, Dimension Jump attendance had fallen off a cliff, and while there were still regular updates from The Official Site and the odd dribble of merch every now and then, the general feeling was that Red Dwarf was a show that should be talked about in the past tense. And that was sort of ok. We’d come to terms with it, although we were all more than a little worried about what the fan community would look like at the next milestone anniversary without any fresh stimulus to keep us going.
But when Red Dwarf hit 25 in 2013 and 30 in 2018, the landscape could barely have been more different, thanks to what happened towards the end of that twentieth anniversary year. There had been muted whispers that maybe some new stuff was being planned, then the cast started dropping hints, and before we knew it, it was official: Red Dwarf was coming back for four new specials on Dave. It didn’t quite work out like that, of course, but from that moment on, a dormant but never dwindled fanbase woke up.
It was on 2nd February 2009 that the wider world started to pay attention too, a date that would go down in history as Headfuck Monday. It became apparent that whatever it was we were expecting from this new venture, we were wrong. The following months were crazy, confusing but most of all incredibly good fun. Rumours swirled, details leaked, location filming was spotted, the publicity juggernaut chugged into life and G&T visitor numbers exploded, including, we’re reliably informed, members of the cast and crew checking in on location during breaks in filming. Millions of fans began making preparations to come together – whether physically or online – for the big day.
Friday 10th April 2009 was the day when the experience of being a Red Dwarf fan changed forever. And that was ten years ago today. TEN. YEARS. Red Dwarf has been back for almost exactly as long as it was away, and the new life that’s been breathed into the fandom during the last decade, with Back To Earth having begat three full new series and (hopefully) counting, has left me in no doubt whatsoever that it will endure far far beyond the lifespan of the show itself, whatever that turns out to be.
But push me in front of a car if those three little episodes, broadcast nightly over the course of an Easter weekend, weren’t incredibly divisive. So let’s mark the tenth anniversary of Back To Earth with an edition of High & Low, running the rule over both the very best and very worst elements of the project, whilst also looking at it with a decade’s worth of hindsight, reappraising where applicable, and pondering its place and role within the long and varied history of Red Dwarf.
As with everything else on G&T, this is very much a personal view on the topic, and not necessarily representative of the site as a whole. My opinions on specific bits of Back To Earth have varied over the last ten years, but I’ve always regarded the specials with a great deal of affection, to an extent that’s slightly at odds with what seems to be the current consensus. So let me try and examine why…
10. “Nine Years Later”
One of the best decisions made in the production of Back To Earth is made apparent within seconds of the first part starting, with one simple caption that solves a whole heap of problems. When you’re resurrecting a very popular TV show, there’s a careful balance to be made between servicing the hardcore fans and attracting a more casual audience. Get it wrong and you have 1996 Doctor Who, get it right and you have 2005 Doctor Who. And while many fans may have understandably gnashed their teeth at the lack of resolution for Series VIII’s cliffhanger, the screentime required to recap and resolve it right at the front of the show would have left the majority of viewers scratching their heads and most likely reaching for the remote. Their memory of the show is a simple set up of four guys alone in deep space, not as prisoners of the resurrected crew going round kneeing Death in the balls, so Back To Earth plonks them comfortably straight in to the expected status quo, instantly laying the path for the rest of the Dave era to follow.
9. The Little Moments
Cheating with this list already, as when I rewatched the Director’s Cut for the first time in a while ahead of writing this article, I made notes on loads of funny little moments that made me smile. Unlike the original 52 episodes, every detail of which is firmly wedged into my brain due to repeated exposure as a child, when I think of episodes from this century, it’s the big scenes and wider themes that come to mind, which makes dipping into them occasionally so rewarding. So I’m grouping together all those once-forgotten moments that make me appreciate Back To Earth a little bit more, including but not limited to: the timing on “not level”; Rimmer’s nonchalant whistling while the crew are attacked; the psi-scan flashing up “bit crap”; the phrase “your stupid fat ferrety face”; Kryten going down to Dirtville; Lister’s face when he’s posing with the Too Weird For Words poster; the fact that the DVD synopsis in the show matches the actual DVD; and Rimmer wanting a sitcom in a biscuit factory.
8. Price Smashers
The first actual scene to make the list, and it’s the first scene to take place in “our” dimension. I’ve always felt that Part One was the weakest of the bunch – which was the consensus in the Silver Survey but not the more recent Pearl Poll – and that Back To Earth only really gets going after the main story kicks in. It’s certainly a strong start to the premise; even now, it’s still pleasingly unsettling to see our beloved characters exposed as the fictional creations that they are, interacting with the real world for the first time, via the excellent psi-scan based takedown of the amusingly odious Mike Mellington. Bonus points too for the camera tracking Kryten’s slide continuing after he crashes, and having to come back on itself. Incidentally, I’m only including the initial scene in the electrical department here, as I feel the rest of the Price Smashers section drags a little – once they’ve found the DVD and figured out what’s going on, you just want them to get out there and explore.
7. The kids on the bus
Lister is the de facto protagonist of Red Dwarf – it’s him who’s the last guy alive, and everyone else is there because of him – but it’s surprisingly rarely that his character is explored in any great depth. In Back To Earth, his emotions take centre stage, and his conversation with two young fans makes for a funny and unexpectedly touching scene. So many of us first fell in love with Lister as wide-eyed children, so despite the inherent risks involved in using child actors, they were the perfect representatives to tell Lister just how fondly us observers regard him, and to give him renewed hope and purpose. Plus I really like the way the little boy says “kiss her, I would”. Incidentally, if you’re wondering what the two kids have been up to in the last decade, he was a regular in Doctors for a while and later in the second series of In The Flesh, and she was in Over To Bill.
6. Landing Carbug
I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Carbug. Incongruous? Maybe. Stupid? Most definitely. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s at the centre of some of the most surreal and memorable moments of my life as a Red Dwarf fan, most notably the aforementioned Headfuck Monday, and the time it turned up in the middle of Berkeley Square with three quarters of the crew in tow. Its screentime in the show is more minimal than the pre-publicity suggested, and the highlight is undoubtedly the opening scene of Part Three, where the crew give parking a car the full procedural checklist treatment, which is more than they do with an actual spaceship most of the time, complete with Cat playing with a child’s toy steering wheel. It’s a very dumb joke, but the kind I lap up, and there’s room for any type of humour in Red Dwarf.
5. The Creator
I must admit, my first reaction when The Creator was revealed on-screen ten years ago was slight disappointment that it wasn’t the actual Doug making a cameo. But clearly, Richard O’Callaghan is great in the role, and his presence, along with his big Tyrell Building plonked in the middle of London, is confirmation that whatever dimension the Dwarfers are in, it’s not ours. As the denouement of the main story, it certainly does its job of wrapping up mysteries and moving us forward to a climax for both plot and character. The fantasy death scene, in which half the Fan Club team of the time appear as extras, is stylish and fun, and Lister at the typewriter causing the crew to speak in typos and Kryten to repeatedly walk into rakes is another example of my type of humour. But above all, it marks Lister taking back control of his own destiny, realising that he wants to live again and doing something about it. Even if that something is strangling an old man to death. Incidentally, if you’re wondering what Richard O’Callaghan has been up to in the last decade, he was in Red Dwarf X.
4. The Memorial
It’s Lister being emotional once again – the one thread that holds Back To Earth together, and this is the first such scene in the specials. It’s a bold move to put such a quiet and reflective moment so early in the opening episode, but it’s there to establish that this version of Red Dwarf isn’t afraid to go to places the old version wouldn’t – not that there weren’t emotional scenes in the show before, of course, but rarely with this kind of tone, and never with one of our heroes crying actual tears. It’s an opportunity for Craig to do new things with a character he’d first played twenty years earlier, having no doubt grown and improved as a proper actor in that time. And alongside Lister paying tribute to those he has lost, how lovely to see the show take the opportunity to remember one of its own, with Mel Bibby’s picture making a posthumous cameo.
There are often caveats when explaining one’s love for Back To Earth. Because the thing with the photo was a funny idea that went on far too long, I’m not nominating the comic shop scene as a whole, but specifically the character of Noddy, brought so memorably to life by Not Mark Benton. It was perhaps a bit route one to write a comic shop owner as an anti-social weirdo, but the performance makes the weirdness endearing and amusing, with Noddy doing very odd things with total nonchalance, such as the gag with him not listening to music when they walk in. His phone call to Reg Wharf is a masterclass in repeating a joke for so long that it starts off funny, stops being funny, then becomes funny again. And Kryten’s response of “that’s not us sir” when he references something from Star Trek is perhaps my favourite of all those little almost-forgotten moments.
2. Coronation Street
It was the single most intriguingly insane detail of Headfuck Monday, and indeed the entire pre-broadcast period. It was the centrepiece of the specials, and if the engagement figures for this tweet are to be believed, the most ambitious crossover event in history. Lots of people hated it. I don’t care. I love Red Dwarf, I love Coronation Street, and I love the Red Dwarf crew being on Coronation Street. Imagery from two of British TV’s most iconic series clashing together in the name of comedy. Simon Gregson is absolutely brilliant (top fact: the only two acting roles he’s ever been credited for on TV are Steve McDonald and himself in this), as is Kryten “chuck pal love sir”ing his way through a conversation with the now-significantly-more-famous Michelle Keegan.
But it’s Craig Charles coming face-to-face with his own face that provides possibly the most memorable moment of the whole mini-series, and almost certainly the funniest joke, as the most notorious incident in any of the cast’s post-Series VIII lives is hilariously tackled head on. Incidentally, if you’re wondering what Steve McDonald and Tina McIntyre have been up to in the last decade, he’s got married four times (twice to the same woman), sold the pub, bought it back and sold it again, while she had an affair with Peter Barlow and then got murdered by his wife’s brother.
1. Kochanski turning up
For a start, it’s a small miracle that they managed to keep Chloe Annett’s appearance in the specials a secret all the way up to broadcast, considering how much scrutiny the fans were putting the production process under, and how such surprises usually end up on Twitter within minutes of the recordings wrapping these days. She’s not actually playing Kochanski, strictly speaking, which is probably why it’s such a successful cameo – while the character as portrayed in Series VII and VIII has a great many problems, very little blame can be placed with the actress. The way she’s used here, as an unattainable icon – a living personification of Lister’s infatuation, rather than her actual self – is arguably a trickier job to pull off, but she excels.
But once again it’s Lister taking centre stage, and Craig Charles acting his chops off. There’s one main reason why this sequence is my favourite in the whole of Back To Earth, and that’s for the way it made me react on first viewing: it made me cry. Red Dwarf had only ever done that to me once before, when I was seven years old and unable to process the drama of the Out Of Time cliffhanger, and I love that my favourite show has now gained the ability to make me react in new and different ways. It still makes me well up now, partly out of empathy for Lister and partly out of admiration. It’s undoubtedly my love of the show and of the character that makes it resonate so much, but watching Lister come to terms with who he is and how he wants to live his life, while reappropriating his young fans’ description of him as a new raison d’être as he strolls back to reality… it’s joyous, heartwarming, life-affirming stuff. It’s a celebration of Red Dwarf‘s central character, and by extension, Red Dwarf itself.
And that, in a nutshell, is what I love about Back To Earth, but as always seems to be the case with modern day Dwarf, it’s not unconditional love, and there’s plenty of flies to contend with in this particular ointment…
5. The CGI Ship
The visual effects throughout the specials are, let’s face it, a bit of a mixed bag, but nevertheless an impressive feat considering how numerous they are, and how quickly and cheaply they had to be made. The virtual sets may look a bit shonky in retrospect, but they were an absolute necessity, and many of the big set pieces like the Tyrell Building, the dimension cutter and the massive hangar it’s situated in, are impressive pieces of work from Mike Seymour and his team of Australian prodiges, as are the smaller touches such as the cup that stops in mid-air and the sheer number of TV screens to comp stuff on to. But the tiny little low-res Red Dwarf, only ever seen as little more than a speck in the distance in order to disguise its shoddiness, is simply not up to scratch. It comes across as an afterthought, which is a great shame. Thankfully this was a one-off for what would subsequently become the Dave era, and at least it’s the right shape.
4. Ironing Sneezes
God, the first half of Part One is so slow. I remember thinking so at the time, but it’s even more apparent on a rewatch, when you’re waiting for the good stuff to turn up. As already detailed, I like the memorial scene, but the stuff in the diving bell really drags, and there’s not many laughs to be found in any of the various sleeping quarters scenes. The very opening sequenc is the worst, though. Our first glimpse at these beloved characters in ten years, and they’re right back at the worst extremes of their Series VIII personas, needlessly bickering about nothing and pulling stupid pranks, all while barely showing any of the warmth or depth that we know they’re capable of. It’s exactly what I feared the follow-up to Series VIII would be, and thankfully it’s an area that Series X-XII largely steered clear of.
3. Blade Runner
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Blade Runner properly. We attempted to watch it on the Saturday afternoon of Back To Earth weekend, figuring it might be an idea to bone up, but I think I fell asleep. So I don’t possess a great deal of knowledge or affection for the film, which I’m aware puts me in a minority among Red Dwarf fans, most of whom probably got a lot more out of the various homages and references than I did. But that’s the problem. Aside from the question of just how big an influence Blade Runner even was on Red Dwarf, compared to Dark Star or Alien for example, it feels at times like a big in-joke that I’m not party to, and it’s a sad state of affairs when you feel excluded from the show you’ve basically dedicated your life to. The Nose World scene is largely unfathomable if you’re not aware that it’s a pastiche, and I remember it put me in a foul mood on the night. In a one-off celebration of all things Red Dwarf, why give over so much screen time to pay tribute to something else?
2. Killing Katarina
Thematically, Rimmer needs to get one over on Katarina at some point in the story. Much like how the despair squid created a very personal idea of hell for each of its victims in Back To Reality, the joy squid gives everyone the thing they desire the most, and each character gains some sort of personal development from the experience, which is going to improve their lives afterwards. Lister goes on a voyage of self-discovery, leaving with a renewed lust for life. Kryten is able to let the truth about Kochanski out, assuaging the pervasive guilt that had clearly been causing so much stress. The Cat… erm, gets a new suit when he goes through the portal, so there’s that. And so with the squid having created the character of Katarina primarily as an adversary for Rimmer, the purpose was clearly for him to fight back and win the day. But did he have to do it by pushing her in front a car?
I’ve never bought Katarina’s little speech about murdering holograms being fine, which is used to justify what Rimmer does. If holograms shouldn’t be considered as real sentient beings, then every emotion we’ve ever felt towards one of the finest characters in sitcom history is invalid. But the bigger issue is that of a rare female character’s life meaning so little that she’s killed off the instant she’s served her purpose, and that nobody seems to care, especially considering what was to follow on that theme. Only the fact that she’s merely an hallucination saves this from being extremely dodgy territory, but we didn’t know that at the time, and crucially neither did Rimmer. Kryten killing a cop was what drove him to utter despair. Rimmer killing a woman he doesn’t like is what drives him to utter joy.
1. Well, it’s not really Red Dwarf, is it?
It is, admittedly, the biggest problem with Back To Earth. No matter how much you like it, you can’t truthfully say that it’s up there with the very best of Red Dwarf, because it shares so little in common with everything that came before and since. It can’t be the best Dwarf if most of the on-ship stuff takes place on weird virtual sets, giving it a strange other-worldly feel. It can’t be the best Dwarf if it doesn’t have a studio audience, damaging both the atmosphere and the chemistry between the four main performers. It can’t be the best Dwarf if it’s a two-part story lopped sometimes clumsily into three slightly-too-small portions, or indeed wedged together in an unwieldy and imbalanced Director’s Cut. And as much as I love me a bit of meta-fiction, and as well as I think Back To Earth pulls it off, it can’t be the best Dwarf if it’s *about* Dwarf, really.
But there’s two things to consider here. Firstly, that Red Dwarf has been many things to many people over the last thirty-odd years, and there’s not a fan in the world with the right to say what the show can and can’t be. And secondly, Doug would probably agree with the above points. Back To Earth wasn’t the type of thing Doug wanted to make as the latest incarnation of his magnum opus, it was what he had to make with the timescales and budget he was given. He said as much at the time, and he’s proven it since by making three full series that adhere much more closely to the style and subject matter of the first six. Back To Earth wasn’t the continuation of the original series we expected it to be, but Trojan was. Back To Earth was just a little detour.
With that in mind, much like how I stopped being so angry about Series VII and VIII as soon as they were no longer the most recent series, I’ve been slightly saddened by the reputation that Back To Earth has picked up in the last decade. Received opinion would have you believe that the majority of Red Dwarf fans absolutely despise it; it’s become known as an aberration that should be ignored and mocked. But that’s not what many of us felt at the time, and it’s certainly not how I feel now. I’m not blind to its many faults, and I’m definitely not denying that it’s extremely divisive, even within the G&T team, or that the negative reaction probably has outweighed the positive overall.
But given how completely and utterly it stands alone from everything else produced in the twenty years prior or the ten years since, we should see it as the curious collectors’ item that it is – a tribute to Red Dwarf, rather than something that’s necessary a part of it – and judge it in that context. It’s a love letter to the series that we all adore so much, and just look what it’s done for us as a fandom. For me personally, it was the start of something brilliant.
Back To Earth was the first time that G&T was a fansite for a current TV show, and it was utterly exhilarating. New Red Dwarf was being released into a world that now contained YouTube, podcasting and social media, and in researching this article I’ve been reminded of just how much fun we had with it. Our Twitter feed was launched in order to cover the Berkeley Square event, which also provided our first video feature, before we converged to record nightly DwarfCasts immediately after watching each ep. We even interviewed some of the cast and Doug Naylor, and more importantly, it was a great honour that G&T was the place that so many fans gathered together for to experience the build-up, the broadcast and the aftermath. It was such a special time.
Since then, we as a community have done it all over again for three glorious six-week periods, and I really really hope that we’ll do it once or twice more. But none of it would have been possible without Back To Earth and what it did: resurrecting a decade-old property on a semi-obscure digital channel that pretty much only did repeats, and turning it into a huge ratings success. Dave’s gamble paid off handsomely, and they’ve grown hugely over the last decade on the back of more and more original commissions, including eighteen further episodes of Red Dwarf. This is Back To Earth‘s legacy. The Dave era is a mad impossible dream that logically should never have happened. As much as you might want the contents of Back To Earth to be expunged from the record, you can’t deny its pivotal role in Red Dwarf‘s history.