Isn’t It About Time You Gave Red Dwarf “Back To Earth” Another Chance?

Red Dwarf X went down a storm, but its immediate predecessor on Dave, “Back To Earth” was met with a frostier reception. But is it’s reputation as Red Dwarf’s least loved “series” unduly harsh?

Prosecution: “M’lud, this week, we throw scorn, ridicule and rotten fruit on a TV mini-series that exists as an unwanted hiccup in the television life of a sitcom classic – the unbearably smug and self-satisfied abomination that is Red Dwarf’s ‘Back To Earth’.”

Defence: “Hey, why the hatred? Nine years we waited for new Red Dwarf and then Dave, bless ’em, comes to the rescue. The commissioning editors at Dave don’t get enough credit for exhuming this series that the BBC had washed its hands of. Dave was barely past potty training as a channel in 2009 and ‘Back To Earth’ was not only one of its first original commissions, but a gargantuan gamble for the channel. ‘Back To Earth’ wasn’t cheap, and they couldn’t be sure of ratings big enough to justify bringing a 21-year-old series back from the dead. They put their faith in new Red Dwarf when no-one else was interested.”

Prosecution: “Oh, for Red Dwarf X, sure, we could kiss and cuddle the Dave team, but for ‘Back To Earth’ we could gob in their orange juice. Cost a lot it did, but the cash didn’t unfortunately stretch to having a studio audience, and Red Dwarf without an audience is like Ant without Dec or a DVD without
extras. Without the punctuation of laughter, the jokes just hit the ground with a sad thud and a silence where the reaction should be.”

Defence: “But did it need it? Given that so much of ‘Back To Earth’ was filmed on location, the noise of an audience ha-ha-ing would only have been laid on afterwards anyway. That’s how all of season seven was recorded! Besides, television comedy had evolved in the nine years Red Dwarf had been off the air and apart from a few honourable exceptions, multi-camera comedies in front of guffawing studio audiences were pretty passé by 2009. Red Dwarf was trying to move on, develop, stay relevant. Usually shows die if they keep doing the same shtick over and over.”

Prosecution: “Does that make the Red Dwarf of 2012 passé then?”

Defence:Red Dwarf X is not on trial here.”

Prosecution: “I’m actually introducing it as evidence. The fans loved it. It was a big success. This cannot be purely down to nostalgia for the old days. It was – to put it simply – better.”

Defence: “That we will not contest. But admitting that one is better than the other, doesn’t make ‘Back To Earth’ bad. Just not as good. Critics have fixated on its and not given enough credit to it successes.”

Prosecution: “Really? What, like the plot? An up-its-own-arse splat of postmodernist bilge that forgot the most important goal of any returning series, that you shouldn’t just be playing to the hardcore, but bringing in new fans, something Red Dwarf X hasn’t forgotten. Besides, The League Of Gentlemen had tried a similar thing a few years before with their ill-devised League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse movie, with similarly lacklustre and audience-alienating results.”

Defence: “But it’s a brilliantly inventive and very Red Dwarf concept: that the crew break out of their reality and into ours, where Red Dwarf is a real sitcom. It would have been insane to expect Dave’s virginal steps into big commission waters to be a budget-guzzling space-set episode – given their meagre resources, to take the crew onto the cobbled roads of Coronation Street and into the DVD sections of HMV seems a pretty ingenious idea.”

Prosecution: “But what would this mean to the average Dave viewer, who had never seen Red Dwarf before or the casual fan who tuned in curious to see what this 2009 reheat was like?”

Defence: “So what? Does every programme have to avoid continuity references so as not to terrify any curious newbies? This was a love letter to Red Dwarf’s most loyal followers and to the SF hardcore. The crew visit a science fiction shop, flick through a copy of SFX and the story is loaded with fan-stroking Blade Runner references, for Kryten’s sake! If it was so dense and esoteric for Joe and Jane Public, well, screw them! It wasn’t made for them, it was made for us!”

Prosecution: “But doesn’t making it for us involve giving us some jokes? Remember those? As every Red Dwarf fan realises but is too afraid to admit, the series lost its swagger when Rob Grant left, and as his and Doug Naylor’s separate Red Dwarf books, Backwards and Last Human indicate, Grant was the jokes man and Naylor was the plot man. And Back To Earth is all plot and no funny.”

Defence: “That”s a far too simplistic conclusion based on circumstantial evidence (which Red Dwarf X largely renders groundless). Besides the humour in ‘Back To Earth’ comes out of the plot! It’s insane to artificially divide the two things. Of course, humour is subjective and I for one laughed lots during ‘Back To Earth’. There are some brilliant, compilation-friendly bits in it, such as Lister sneezing through a colander in order to iron his shirt and the naming of the unseen fan club president as Reg Warf. There are bits of ‘Back To Earth’ that are as funny as anything in ‘Better Than Life’ or ‘Back To Reality’! Let’s take a look at this scene for evidence – it is a classic piece of Red Dwarf…”

Prosecution: “ The trouble is, there are enough good gags for one episode – they’re too few and far between. And even if you think the concept of ‘Back To Earth’ was cool, wasn’t it just a series of wasted opportunities? Yes, we have Lister meet Craig Charles on the set of the Rover’s Return, but couldn’t we have had Kryten encountering Robert Llewellyn? What would Rimmer make of Chris
Barrie? And would Cat dig Danny John-Jules? Couldn’t the three-parter have shown the actors together, all playing hilariously overblown versions of themselves and fighting like a family on The Jeremy Kyle Show? Naylor came up with an idea that, if used creatively, could have been stupendous. As it is, what do they do with the concept? Pick up a few DVDs and call Craig Charles a smeghead? Rubbish.”

Defence: “You can‘t have it both ways. You claim ‘Back To Earth’ is too long for its gag count, but the – I believe the term is – fanwank (excuse my language, m’lud) you have just outlined would have added to the running time. ‘Back To Earth’ is only 107 minutes, so cut it some slack – it can only fit so much in. Anyway, layer all that – ahem – fanwank…”

Prosecution: “Objection. Prosecution is using deliberately pejorative language to lead the jury!”

Defence: “Okay, layer on all that extra material on top of what’s already there, and it just becomes a gimmick. The trip down Coronation Street and the cameos may have grabbed the headlines, but they’re only a prop to tell an existential story in a Red Dwarf way.”

Prosecution: “So, you contend that this ‘Back To Earth’ is more than a embarrassing side note to the big Red Dwarf story?”

Defence: “We do. It’s an aperitif before the main course, but as we all know, starters can be as good, if not better than the steak and chips.”

Prosecution: “And sometimes you get Shippam’s paste served with stale bread. No, for us, the only good thing about ‘Back To Earth’ was that it gave us Red Dwarf X.”

Defence: “That’s the best thing, not the only thing. Though for that fact alone, it should be cherished. Red Dwarf X may be a proper return to form, but ‘Back To Earth’ stands as one of the boldest, most imaginative and inventive stories ever, with some really great gags. And it’s nearly feature length. For God’s sake, it’s just 20 minutes short of being the long-promised Red Dwarf movie! Relax, sit back and enjoy it, and thank Dave for being there when we needed them.”

Red Dwarf “Back To Earth” The Director’s Cut is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray

• Read our reviews of Red Dwarf X
EXCLUSIVE Craig Charles Interview
10 Things We Learnt About Red Dwarf X From “We’re Smegged”