Red Dwarf - Series VIII DVD review
For almost three and a half years Grant Naylor Productions have been slowly but surely releasing every series of their show Red Dwarf. During that period of time the quality of these releases have gone from the excellent to the utterly sublime. Now, as we see the release of Series VIII next Monday, we also see the end of the most consistently brilliant DVD sets to ever be released.
It's easy with a review such as this to get too wrapped up in reviewing the extras and never really take time out to re-evaluate the main feature of the set. In this case it's even harder for me to give the main feature the time of day because, well, I really dislike Series VIII of Red Dwarf. I've been of this opinion ever since it aired so it's hard for me to sit back and re-evaluate it. I gave it a go, though.
But, after re-watching the series, I'm afraid I'm going to stand by my original assessment. To my eyes, it's one of the biggest disappointments in British TV *ever*. And I'm not buying the old "oh, but it's better than anything on TV at the moment" argument, either, because it clearly isn't. To me, it feels a like a *totally* different show to the one I know and love from series 1 to VI. The characters are distorted, the performances have lost all their subtly, the new supporting characters are incredibly weak, the new CG is awful (yet the remaining model work is excellent, it has to be said) and the stories are, in the main, contrived and uninteresting. This may seem like needless negativity in what should be a positive piece, but this is how I view series VIII, and the passage of time has done little to change that.
This is all, of course, IMHO. And you all know this. I just wanted to make it clear I did give it all another shot, and my opinion stays unchanged. Having said that, Cassandra's quite good, isn't it? And, as you'll see later, viewing Back in the Red and Pete as complete episodes helps a *hell* of a lot. Still, I know a great deal of people out there love this series, so I'll reign in my bias from now on.
Anyway, with that painful revaluation out of the way, I think it'll be a good idea for me to nestle into the warm soft centre of the DVD - the extras.
Discs 1 & 2
As always, the first thing that really hits you in the face when you first start the DVD is the menus. The VIII menus are special in that they've been created for just one series (previous 'templates' have served 2 or 3 series at a time), which is probably indicative of an increase in budget and perhaps the desire to go out on a very high note. And they are VERY gorgeous. Especially impressive is The Brig Tower and the inspired cutaway to the Skutter making it's way across the bridge (watch out for him if you're feeling eggy). Once again, there's lovely use of metaphors, with episodes and scenes represented as files and notes in the Captain's office - complete with hilarious 'scary' music played when the file stack turns. I'm scared!
They're without doubt the most polished looking menus of the lot, helped considerably by the lovely stylised pop-ups when you select an item on Disk 3's menu. If I was to make criticisms it would be that some of the 'walk-throughs' to separate sections do take a little too long at times (disk 3 especially) and the looping Holly tracks do annoy after a while - I'm a big fan of loop friendly menus, and repeated dialogue doesn't really lend itself to that. But, other than that, lovely.
The extended and cut together versions of Back in the Red and Pete do their best to fill the Identity Within and Fan Film sized holes left after series VII, and they're certainly very interesting extras. They're FAR easier to watch than their multiple part cousins and the whole story flows so much better in each. Definitely worth doing, so much so that there's no reason why you'd ever need to watch the other versions ever again.
All pretty standard, really, but entertaining non-the-less. The addition of Mac and Norman is very welcome indeed (anything that detracts from Craig Charles has to be good) and despite the larger numbers, it all feels very nicely balanced. In fact, the whole thing seems to flow so much better than previous commentaries, with a thankful lack of people shouting over each other with "HAM" and "OOOH, LUNCHBOX" and such like. I still think it's worth saying that it's a massive shame Ed Bye or Doug Naylor didn't offer their services to the commentaries, especially as at one point Ed Bye walks into the commentary booth! Tease!
It makes perfect sense to include this BBC program on the DVD, and I'm jolly glad it's here as it includes the most special of rarities: a Rob Grant interview. The premise of Comedy Connections is to study the cast and crew involved in a given show, and detail their past work, how they became involved in the show and finally where they eventually moved on to. It's a great premise, and throws up some excellent archive clips. The show is still running to this day (series four is currently airing) yet it still has the same fatal flaw: it's too short.
Someone get me a brandy!
Documentary - The Tank
The jewel in the crown. The piece de resistance. The good bit. Or, more specifically, the documentary. Hello!
If you've seen the others, then this is pretty much business as usual. Which, as you should know, is a very very good thing. The usual frankness and honestly is present, and it serves as a brilliant record of the series from all manner of angles. I yearn for series 1 and 2 to get the same treatment at one point.
What really sticks out for me is the feeling that everyone seemed to adore this series (quite a contrast to some of the comments made against VII in the last docco), apart from perhaps Norman who picks up on some very astute points about how the show changed from when he was last in it - and I think I detected a hint of disappointment in his voice. It's obvious what era of Dwarf he prefers. It was good that Doug made a comment about how the Blue Midget dance was reviled online, too, which he seems genuinely affronted by.
As usual, the selection of clips is really spot on. They do the job of punctuating various points very well, and we still have the ever present odd unseen clip from the rushes (the highlight of which has to be, ironically, the clips of Danny and Charles Augins rehearsing and shooting the Blue Midget dance). It was also nice to have a brief glance at the second, and Deathless, ending to Only the Good... Keep it *dark*.
Always one of the best features on the DVD, due to the 'NEW DWARF!' factor. This time we have 1 hour and 7 minutes of the buggers! Although, as usual, a good chunk of that is previously seen stuff which book-end the deleted bits. Still, there's some good stuff here and, as with series VII, things I wish hadn't been cut but mostly it's stuff I'm glad to see was cut. The two most notable things here and the original shoots from Back in the Red (Lister's scenes in the old bunk room are nostalgia-tastic, especially his little moment with McCartney) and the alternative ending to Only the Good... in which Rimmer and the rest manage to halt the virus and reclaim Red Dwarf. On reflection, I'm please they didn't use this ending, as it just didn't seem to work very well. It just seemed a tad too cosy and unrealistic. Again, I'll say the darker ending scene in the Documentary is the one they should have gone with, though.
Bill Pearson Model Maker Video
This is a very nice and informative presentation (comprising of stills and film clips), narrated by the quite excellently Scottish, Bill Pearson. The pictures themselves consist of some gorgeous shots of props, models and sets he designed and built from series IV onwards - the highlight being the utterly lovely looking Landing Bay set from series VIII. The commentary itself is interesting and occasionally amusing ("it was handematically launched, in other words Steve Begg threw it"), but the sound quality is a bit dodgy and echoy at times. At the end he mentions how he built a Starbug as a prize for a major TV game show (Whatever You Want, as it happens) and I WANT ONE.
It's incredibly sad to see this once great extra reduced to having nothing to offer but the main themes and two versions of that bloody Blue Midget dance. Sad, but completely unavoidable as series VIII's (rather good, it has to be said) music was taken almost entirely from library.
As far as I can tell, these comprise totally of the Smeg Ups seen on the tail end of the VHS releases. Nothing new but there's nothing missing. In fact, these are among the most amusing Smeg Ups ever. You get a real feeling that the whole cast *really* got along well, and it shines through here.
These are just fantastic - easily the best set of trailers ever, so I'll break it on down for you.
Star Wars: The trailer which did the seemingly impossible... It made series VIII look good! (gah - sorry - I said I wouldn't do that, didn't I?). Previously I'd only seen a bootlegged copy floating about on the Net, so it's nice to see it in crystal clear quality here. And I maintain that the 'March' music used for this trailer and some of the series, is flipping excellent.
TV Spot: Even *more* astonishingly, we have a TV spot that wasn't culled from some fan's nth generation VHS recording. This particular trailer was for Back in the Red Part 2 and featured the oldish BBC style of trailing shows, before the REDNESS invaded. I can only assume either the other episodes were really badly trailed, or they've been lost.
PBS Idents: I didn't really realise the significance of these until I actually watched them. But, essentially, what you have here is 10 minutes of brand new Dwarf! Brand new! And, what makes it even better, is that it's actually really good. It's basically a montage of specially recorded pledge requests for various UB PBS stations, including some brilliant Kryten and Rimmer set-pieces. However, the highlight has to be at the end when we see a quick cutting montage of the crew performing idents for the numerous PBS regions. Great fun.
CIN: This is a mildly amusing skit from Children in Need (broadcast in 1998 - prior to series VIII) and, as with the PSB sketches, take place in the new Blue Midget set with a fully hologrammed Rimmer. A nice addition and yet another sign that series VIII really was quite well publicised before its broadcast.
This is a sketch from the fantastic Dave Hollins: Space Adventurer - as heard in the Grant Naylor radio series Son of Cliché. This clip completes the entire set (spread out over 4 DVDs) and a fantastic replacement for the Talking Book Chapters of the earlier releases. For extra observipoints, see if you can spot all the jokes they ended up using in Dwarf.
Incidentally, those of you who have never heard Son of Cliché or Cliché should get it. By any means possible. Or, preferably, the BBC should bloody well release it.
Music Featurette - Fight
You know the drill. Take a bit of music, take some clips, mix 'em together and what have you got? Well, 3 minutes of pretty inoffensive filler, as it happens. The subject is fighting, and the resulting slapstick moments certainly lend themselves well to something like this. Result: Slapstick o' humour set to a dodgy cover of Kung Foo Fighting and a message of PEACE at the end.
Raw Effects Footage
A large chunk of fascination, here. In fact two, differently flavoured, chunks; namely model work and CG. In a way, it's a crying shame to see how much the model work has decreased since its hayday. In fact, the model shots had long since become trademarks of the series and I'm still not entirely clear quite why they needed to take the CG route for series VIII. Obviously there's certain effects they needed CG for, but the elongating and and CGing of Red Dwarf is completely beyond me. Especially when they had model shots in the can from previous series. Anyway, that's besides the point, now. The model shots seen here are gorgeous as ever and it's interesting to see the various stages of the CG development, too. So it's a fascinating feature, as ever, but I do miss the good old days of 20 minutes of pure, unadulterated model shot heaven that this feature used to offer so readily.
Absolutely *tonnes* of pictures here, all of the usual types. Production shots, behind the scenes, story boards (some pretty excellent storyboards, in fact) instant snap shots and video covers from around the world. It's good to see they're displayed in a nice big frame and with minimal cutting off round the edges. At this point it's worth pointing out that some DVDs would settle for a gallery a quarter the size of this, and NOTHING else, as part of their extras package. We are lucky.
Three scenes (the Starbug Landing Bay crash and the Blue Midget dance from BITR and the introduction of Pete the Dino in Pete) shown in their finalised and storyboarded version, side-by-side. It's a nice feature, and interesting to see in how much detail each shot is planned. Plus, you can never beat a good bit of artwork to get your juices flowing. Shame that the last two scenes are actually some of the most abominable stuff from VIII (and again, I'm sorry but I couldn't help myself).
The series itself may be the wrong side of iffy, but the extras remain fascinating, informative and in sufficient quantity to make this DVD worth buying for even the series' most hardened critics. It's the perfect send off for what is one of the best DVD treatments a TV show has ever received.