Let’s face it, Blade Runner is passé. Countless films have borrowed its neon-lit, gritty metropolis, its rain-soaked landscapes. But where others have aped, Red Dwarf: Back to Earth patently steals (and does so with a wink and a smile). Entire scenes are ripped verbatim from the Ridley Scott film. It’s pastiche, of course, but of the highest homage. In one cameo, writer and Red Dwarf co-creator Doug Naylor gushes to the cast, “Blade Runner is the film which inspired both your creation and your death.” And like Roy Batty, contemplating his own untimely demise, the characters of Red Dwarf, a decade after we’ve last seen them, come to contemplate their own mortality in ways both meta-fictional and literal.
Nine years have passed since we last saw Dave Lister (Craig Charles), the slovenly, curry-loving sole survivor of the human race, as he travels through deep space inside the mammoth mining ship, Red Dwarf. The usual suspects are present: the priggish Arnold J. Rimmer (Chris Barrie), hologram of Lister’s dead bunk mate with a Napoleonic complex; Cat (Danny John-Jules), the vanity-obsessed descendant of a kitten Lister smuggled on board the ship three million years prior; and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), the box-headed mechanoid who finds nothing more pleasurable than ironing socks.
Notably missing in this new series is Holly, the ship’s daft computer, who has been switched offline because Lister apparently left a bath running in the officer’s quarters for nine years, flooding her mainframe. (I suspect that Hattie Hayridge and Norman Lovett, actors who both played Holly, were unavailable for filming.) Though noticeably older and possibly botoxed, the cast looks not too shabby after a decade hiatus.
A budget increase and a decade of improved CGI wizardry has given Red Dwarf a face-lift too. One might say an entirely new body. The ship’s halls, Lister’s quarters, and even the stars shimmer with newly packaged realism. At first, I felt a little homesick for the cheap BBC sets and filmed-on-a-soundstage feel, but once Rimmer and Lister started verbally sparring, I put all that behind me. This is the real Red Dwarf, the one you imagined but never saw; this is what a ship of the late 21st century should look like.
Also changed is the laugh track, now conspicuously absent. Without the canned laughter to mask the silence, lame jokes fall eerily flat, but the zingers (and there are tons of them) had me making my own track.
In the opening, we soon learn there’s a water shortage on Red Dwarf (Lister has been using his snot to iron shirts). A squid-like creature of unknown origin has infiltrated the ship’s water supply, clogging the pipes. The crew investigates, descending deep into the water tank inside a bathysphere. After a ridiculous fight with a part CGI, part rubber tentacled monster, a sexy female hologram appears to take command of Red Dwarf. She is Katerina Bartikovsky, resurrected science officer, played firmly tongue-in-cheek by actress Sophie Winkleman. The hyper-intelligent, Russian-accented beauty seems, beside this group of undesirable men, wish-fulfillment on the part of the writers, a sleazy attempt to gain ratings by sex appeal a la T’Pol or Seven-of-Nine. But wait, hold your opinions for now, because this hologram ex machina has a purpose beyond the obvious eye candy for nerdy boys.
Katerina informs the crew through a perfectly enunciated litany of technobabble that they can travel home, back to Earth, through a dimensional portal that she can easily create. But something goes wrong as soon as the portal opens; Katerina’s computer tells her that Lister’s universe — the Red Dwarf universe we have come to love — doesn’t exist. What’s on the other side of the portal is the true universe. As the dimensional vortex spins, the crew get sucked through, leaving Katerina behind.
Flying out of television screens, the crew find themselves inside a home electronics section of a department store. It’s Earth, our Earth, present day England, some three million years in the past for the crew. Seeking clues to their whereabouts, they find Red Dwarf DVDs in the store’s video section which recount every one of their adventures.
“We’re characters from a TV series who have somehow escaped into the real world,” Lister realizes.
“I’m not real,” Rimmer says. “Fantastic!”
Among the DVDs, they discover a soon-to-be-released special entitled Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, whose back-flap synopsis describes the very same events that we have just witnessed. It’s a beautiful moment of meta-fictional frisson. Then, to add insult to injury, the synopsis reveals that all of them will die in the final episode. The plot thereafter follows their attempt to stay alive a la Roy Batty’s quest for more life.
The meta-fictional romps that follow are brilliant, capital B. Remember, this is a show whose characters have traveled back in time because they ran out of chicken vindaloo, only to accidentally prevent the assassination of JFK.
Taking cues from the DVD synopsis (in essence, creating the plot that they are reading about), the crew travels to a science fiction shop, whose thick owner doesn’t seem to recognize the crew, even though his store is full of Red Dwarf paraphernalia. They then seek out the help of the “real” Craig Charles, the actor who plays Dave Lister, but Craig thinks he’s having a flashback and rebuffs them. Children approach Lister on a metro bus, having seen his television show, and suggest his missed opportunities with deceased crew member Kristine Kochanski may not be so missed after all.
“Tell Rimmer he’s a smegger!” one boy says.
Red Dwarf has always been camp, but camp with a loving reverence for deep science-fictional tropes that other campy shows like Doctor Who seldom capture. The characters of Red Dwarf: Back to Earth contemplate their demise, both as real figures, and as characters in a teleplay. In one fantastic scene, the characters discover they are merely acting out their lines from the teleplay; they have no free will.
These mind-twists call to mind Philip K. Dick’s best works, and it’s no coincidence. Nearly the entire second half plays as an homage-slash-mockery of Blade Runner, which was based, of course, on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
After a visit to the refrigerated “Nose Works,” to prod the owner for information, the proprietor squeals, “I don’t know such stuff! I just do noses!”
The plot culminates in a tense meeting between the crew and Doug Naylor, co-creator of Red Dwarf. He dwells, like Blade Runner‘s evil Tyrell, in his lofty tower above the rabble, dressed in a white robe and (in mockery of Tyrell’s ostentatious trifocals) safety goggles. Strangely intimidating, perhaps because Naylor is not himself an actor and comes off as stiff, he tells the crew, revealed to be fictional characters in his teleplay, that he grew bored with them. Their time has come to die.
“Nothing lasts forever, not even banks,” he says, in a wink to the economy of the times.
But Lister won’t have it. Stepping ominously towards Naylor, Lister defiantly says, “I want more life, smegger!”
And, in perhaps the greatest meld of two worlds since Spock neck-pinched the punk on the bus, Doug Naylor hunts down the crew through a futuristic Chinatown in a completely silly yet strangely affecting homage to the scene in Blade Runner where Deckard shoots Zhora in the back. The crew splashes through glass and neon, falling still, silent. But all is not over. In a series whose pilot episode was titled “The End,” did you really expect the series to finish like this? This is meta-science-fiction after all.
Back to Earth is full of little winks and nods to SFdom, Nayor’s way of showing how much he appreciates his audience and the material. It’s a grand encore, worthy of entry into the Red Dwarf canon. Back to Earth resolves in a way that is both unexpected and satisfying, returning to what the show has always done best: made us laugh. No laugh track needed here.
When it was all over for real this time, and the credits scrolled across my screen, I was sad because I knew I’d probably never see a new episode of Red Dwarf again. I too wanted to stand up to Doug Naylor and shout, “I want more life, smegger!”
But like all things that burn so brightly, I guess it was its time to die.
• Red Dwarf: Back to Earth will be released on DVD on June 15th. The back copy, it would seem, has already been written.