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All things considered, curry-obsessed Dave Lister (Craig Charles) isn't the greatest representation of the human race. It’s slightly unfortunate then, that he’s all that's left of it; stranded light-years from Earth and thousands of years since the virtual extinction of the species. Home is now a dilapidated space-craft named Red Dwarf which is being driven, possibly in the wrong direction, by an increasingly incompetent computer named Holly (Norman Lovett, then Hattie Hayridge, then Lovett again).  

If that wasn't bad enough, company comes in the form of a fashion-obsessed humanoid that is descended from cats (Danny John-Jules) and a hologram of Lister's least favourite person; his deceased bunkmate Arnold J. Rimmer (Chris Barrie). Later, the crew are joined by an android named Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), who specialises in cleaning lavatories.

Red Dwarf VII
This is the basic set-up for the British TV sitcom Red Dwarf, which was first screened in 1988 and gradually built a large audience who were appreciative of the strong character-based comedy and decidedly bizarre plot-lines. After all, not many other sitcoms can boast episodes that take place on an Earth where time runs backwards or in a virtual-reality landscape where your every wish can be granted.

When the sixth series of Red Dwarf arrived, the fans were rather shocked by the absence of a rather crucial element. The eponymous spacecraft itself, together with Holly, had apparently been stolen by persons unknown. The sixth series would detail the crew’s attempts to track it down and, with the six episodes tied together by this ongoing plot-line, Red Dwarf VI was quite a departure from previous years. There were numerous running jokes, a greater emphasis on the plots and a fairer share of dialogue between the cast of four.

In the final episode of the series, Out of Time, the Dwarfers were treated to a surprise visit from their future-selves. Separated by fifteen years and a severe difference of opinion, a large argument swiftly turned into a dogfight in space with the outcome being the destruction of Starbug. The scattered fragments of the exploded ship were replaced by the legend 'To be continued'.

Viewers didn't realise that it would take quite so long for that promise to be fulfilled. After three years of complications and set-backs, Red Dwarf VII finally began production in 1996 for screening the following year. In the long hiatus between VI and VII, the production of the show underwent many changes. Perhaps the most important incident was that co-creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had dissolved their long-standing writing partnership. When Grant had expressed a desire to write other things, Naylor became the sole custodian of the show and decided to bring in other writers to help pen episodes. He had his work cut out too; there would be eight stories as opposed to the usual six.  

The casual viewer might not have picked up on these changes, but they would have certainly noticed the lack of everyone's favourite anal-retentive hologram in four of the stories. Chris Barrie had declined the opportunity to return in all eight episodes and so Rimmer's role in the show would be greatly reduced. How does Red Dwarf VII compare to previous efforts? Well, the series has finally arrived on DVD in the form of a three-disc set, so let's take a look...

The Series


Red Dwarf VII consists of eight episodes...

Tikka to Ride
After being resurrected by a paradox so complicated that it makes camcorders self-destruct, the formerly dead crew of Starbug decide that a jaunt back in time is the order of the day. The mission? To replenish the ship's supply of curry and poppadoms. The outcome? The biggest conspiracy since Roswell.

A promising start to the series with the show returning to 'business as usual' on the back of that old stand-by: the faithful time travel story.  Fans will find the continuity errors a minor irritation but this shouldn't detract from the fact that Red Dwarf has never looked quite as polished as it does here. Beautifully shot and with a movie-style score, it's a good indication of how the film would look if it ever materialises.
Tikka is also presented in an extended version which incorporates scenes that were exercised from the broadcast version but made it to a special VHS edition. Because Red Dwarf VII was filmed without a studio audience (a laugh track was added in post-production), there's some awkward moments where the actors leave pauses for the laughs that will be dubbed in later. Together with a few jokes that shouldn't have even made this unabridged cut and a slow ending, it's hard to recommend this as the 'definitive version'.

Hopefully, you're not too tired of the episode by this point to skip over the 'remastered' Tikka to Ride. That's right; there's a third version on the disc. As discussed in the documentary elsewhere on this set, Doug Naylor was dissatisfied with the special effects used for this series. This remastered episode, with new CGI replacing old, gives viewers an idea of how it should have looked had budget and time allowed; even going so far as to re-edit the credits sequence. It's a definite improvement, but only compared to dodgy CGI. Meanwhile, the trusty models which were used extensively in series I to VI, may never be bettered. Oh, and just to round things off; you can also watch the episode in remastered and extended form!

Red Dwarf VII
Stoke Me A Clipper
The dashing Ace Rimmer is reality's best hope against the injustices in countless universes. Unfortunately, when he suffers a mortal wound in a daredevil mission he must recruit the services of his counterpart from a parallel dimension to carry on his good work. Trouble is, that counterpart is currently onboard Starbug...

An imaginative parody of the Bond films opens a lively story which is faced with the challenging task of writing Rimmer out of the series. There’s a question of whether occasional 'guest star' Ace is actually more insufferable than regular Rimmer and this was, perhaps, one appearance too many. As one of the funnier episodes of the series, there are some good laughs, including Rimmer's 'funeral' which is attended by an inflatable widow.

Ouroborus
The Dwarfers discover a link-way to a parallel reality where they encounter Lister's old flame, Kristine Kochanski (Chloë Annett). When the link-way is broken, Kochanski is stranded aboard Starbug; much to Krytens' distress.

Notable for containing a bizarre revelation about Lister's parentage (which would be very clever were it not wholly unoriginal), the weakest episode on the disc struggles to re-establish an old character while telling an original story. Contrived laughs, such as Lister dressing in a pink dressing gown and bunny slippers, are decidedly un- Dwarfian but, on the flip-side, there's a nice chase sequence on an ice planet courtesy of the visual effects crew. We are afforded a glimpse of Kryten's more neurotic personality traits when the droid obsesses over Lister's relationship with Kochanski but, although initially interesting, the sight of a blubbing robot gets very irritating very quickly. Ouroborus is also available in extended version which includes a few moments that add very little to the story.

Duct Soup
Lister, Kryten, Kochanski and the Cat must travel through Starbug's labyrinth of service ducts when a malfunction locks them out of the cockpit.

An attempt to recreate the spirit of a much loved 'talkie' episode from series three, namely Marooned. The emphasis is firmly on character comedy over action as our heroes exchange stories from their pasts. The problem is that the comedy is just not funny enough and, barring a few wonderful moments from the Cat, it's all a bit of a disappointment.

As with Tikka to Ride and Ouroborus, this episode can also be viewed in extended form. The restored scenes are up to the standard of those that made the cut, although this is not exactly a glowing appraisal.

Blue
When Lister reaches the conclusion that he's missing Rimmer, Kochanski and Kryten both work on remedies for this disturbing turn of events...

On paper, Blue sounds like a promising idea for an episode, especially as it would mark a, brief, return for Rimmer. Unfortunately, the laughs fail to materialise. The two flashbacks utilising the hologram are weak and the overlong dream-sequence exists just so we can see the pair share a fan-friendly kiss. Since the rest of the episode concerns Kryten and Kochanski continuously squabbling, it's up to a dazzling musical finale to redeem a weak episode.

Beyond a Joke
Kryten blows his top when Lister, Kochanski and the Cat choose an evening in 'Pride and Prejudice world' instead of celebrating the anniversary of the day he joined the crew.

Kryten underwent some significant changes in Red Dwarf VII and it can't be said that any of them were for the good of the show. Following on from his hysterics in Ouroborus, here he contracts the Android equivalent of PMT. While this actually leads to one of the more adventurous stories in the series, the comedy falls a little flat. Matters aren't helped by the arrival of Kryten's brother Able (also Robert Llewellyn), a substance-abusing droid who manages to irritate in just a few minutes of screen-time. The basis of the storyline is neat enough, as is the sequence where Kryten hunts down the Bennet sisters in 'Pride and Prejudice world' but, in those moments when it should be making us laugh, Beyond a Joke feels, quite aptly, rather forced.

Red Dwarf VII
Epideme
After being 'tongue-hockeyed to death' by a disease-ridden zombie, Lister is infected with an intelligent virus named Epideme who politely informs him that his days are numbered...

A nice idea, and one that is well-executed. Gary Martin's flamboyant characterisation of Epideme may divide audiences, but this is a distinct improvement on the last few episodes. The comedy does not feel quite so strained here, and the final scene is one of the funniest of the series.

Nanarchy
The crew of Starbug finally manage to track down their mother-ship when the epic search for Red Dwarf leads them to Lister's dirty laundry basket.

A mercilessly slow first scene does no favours for the final episode of the series which, at times, gets lost in appealing to fans rather than a more general audience. Norman Lovett returns as Holly, although it's clear that, as with series eight, the writers had yet to find anything for him to do.

The screenings of Red Dwarf VII were presumably populated by overly enthusiastic fans who wished to greet the return of their favourite show with whoops, cheers and hollers. We're not yet in Happy Days territory where character's entrances are welcomed with standing ovations, but it's still slightly over-whelming when even the lesser jokes (and, sadly, these are in abundance) are greeted with roars of laughter and rounds of applause. Of course, this would be forgivable if the series was at the top of its game but the jokes are considerably weaker than previous years. Although the comedy is still rooted in the characters (an accusation that cannot be levelled towards the following series), it's a shame that one cannot appreciate it on the same level as the laugh-track audience. Of course, you can view three of the episodes sans laughter track, but those aforementioned 'pauses for laughter' mean that this isn't exactly preferable.

Suffice to say, Red Dwarf VII is quite a disappointment, especially when compared to earlier episodes. It's still a hugely watchable show but quite a lot of the magic has left the building, presumably hot on the heels of co-writer Rob Grant.

The original focus of the programme was that of two people (Rimmer and Lister) living in cramped conditions and failing to get on with each other. With the departure of Rimmer, this premise was renewed by focusing on the dynamic between Kochanski and Kryten. Unfortunately, this was not nearly as interesting and, as a consequence, vastly altered the characterisation of Kryten. Meanwhile, forced to hastily saddle Kochanski with a personality to match her peers, she's painted as a distinctly uptight women. While this worked in the favour of Rimmer from day one; back then Chris Barrie could rely on inspired character writing. Unfortunately, Kochanski is rarely given anything truly funny to do–instead spending episodes giving advice or simply whining about her predicament. This is a shame because, in the rare moments when the material allows, Annett shines and had the potential to nix any pretensions that Dwarf is 'boys only' territory.

It would be incorrect to state that the substitution of Rimmer for Kochanski is what led to a downturn in the quality of the programme. Despite the fact that the two strongest episodes ( Tikka to Ride, Stoke Me a Clipper) feature him prominently, his presence in Ouroborus and Blue certainly can't salvage things. No, it's clearly the writing where things had gone a little awry. The weaker jokes now seem to go on for far longer than necessary, with a tendency to try and pull multiple punch lines out of the same thin set-up. There also a worrying reliance on the torturous similes that populated Blackadder. Depending on the tired formula of  "you're about as x as y" does get a little tiring after a few near-identical jokes; even more so than those pesky ‘Space Corp Directives’ that populated the last series.

It's not all downhill though; Rimmer's exit is surprisingly well handled and stories such as Epideme and Tikka to Ride illustrate that the show still has some clever storylines up its sleeve. While a move towards more dramatic direction does the comedy no favours, it's certainly extremely groundbreaking for a BBC sitcom.

Video


A common misconception is that Red Dwarf VII was shot on film. In fact, the usual videotape was merely treated to appear as such (according to Robert Llewellyn in the commentaries, this involved removing one frame in every twenty-eight).
Although the series looked superior to earlier episodes when transferred to VHS, the advantages of the effect are slightly lost on DVD which, with clearer presentation, allows the occasional artefact to be visible. The picture occasionally lacks sharpness and clarity, particularly in the CGI sequences which all suffer from a nasty blurring effect. It should be noted that none of this is direct fault of the DVD; rather the fact that the less-than-perfect stock material is now eight years old.  

Red Dwarf VII

Audio


Red Dwarf VII is presented in that ol' faithful; 2.0 Stereo.  In the previous DVD releases, this wasn't a huge problem and more than catered for the limited means of a comedy programme. However, Red Dwarf VII is slightly more than just a comedy programme and does have quite a bit of incidental music. These cues sound passable, but not outstanding through two speakers; occasionally over-shadowing sound effects and dialogue. When the show is on more familiar ground of providing punch lines, the audio mix is a lot better. Commentaries and other sundry extras are also well balanced.

Extras


Perhaps the main starting point for many fans when they trawl through the extensive list of extras will be the documentary Back from the Dead. Clocking in at around ninety minutes, this offers a fascinating look at the numerous problems that producer Doug Naylor faced in the gap between series VI and VII. As with the previous documentaries in this collection, Naylor is a remarkably candid interviewee and talks frankly about the break-up of the Grant Naylor writing partnership. Rob Grant, as with the other Red Dwarf discs, declined the opportunity to appear, although there is archive footage from the BBC programme Comedy Connections where he discusses his reasons for leaving the show. Chris Barrie's departure is also covered by the man himself, before each episode is extensively discussed by the cast and crew.  It all adds up to an entertaining and enlightening production; far superior to the flimsy featurettes of communal back-slapping that can be found on Hollywood discs.

Audio commentaries are available for all episodes and, as usual, they're well worth a listen. Craig Charles, Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules (the only cast member to have appeared on every other episode commentary) are present on each of the episodes. Unfortunately, the commentaries do get slightly 'samey' after a while; with the, initially lively, banter of the cast becoming a little repetitive. Fortunately, a couple of new arrivals (Chloë Annett in episode three and Norman Lovett in episode eight) make things a little more interesting.

Despite being written out in the second episode and only popping up for cameos in two others, Chris Barrie stays in the recording studio until the end of Beyond a Joke. Although he's understandably quiet for many of the episodes in which he does not appear, he does occasionally offer his own critique, even asking at one point whether Red Dwarf was still a comedy following his departure!

Of course, in an ideal world we'd have a writer and director commentary on the episodes as well but at least the Beyond a Joke co-writer is present in the form of Robert Llewellyn. He reveals a little of the writing process, detailing the number of drafts the story went through before Doug Naylor was happy with the script.

When Doug Naylor commissioned several writers to pen potential stories, one of the scripts that came back was John McKay's Identity Within; a Cat-centric episode where the feline will die if he does not procreate. Due to an ambitious storyline which involved an alien civilisation, the episode was scrapped and replaced with the, more budget-friendly, Duct Soup. Fans now have the chance to see how the episode would have looked, as this special 'episode' has been produced for the DVD by means of cartoon storyboards accompanied by voice-overs and sound effects. Those, ever present, budget constraints never seem to disappear so much of the cast are absent from the proceedings but Chris Barrie is on hand to read out stage directions and dialogue. Barrie is no stranger to this type of affair, having performed uncanny impersonations of the cast for the audio books of two Red Dwarf novels. The script itself is something of an oddity; reading more like a piece of fan-fiction than a 'proper episode'. To be fair, this is an early draft which was always intended to be rewritten and this small bugbear can't detract from a worthy accomplishment that is over forty-five minutes long. For the DVDs of the Star Wars prequels, Lucasfilm went to the hassle of treating deleted scenes to a CGI polish, but it pales in comparison to the efforts shown here. This is, after all, the first 'new' Red Dwarf adventure in several years.

There's a large amount of deleted scenes and these can be found on disc three. Often it's not too difficult to see why they were omitted but it's still fascinating stuff. Among the hidden gems, are more detailed back-stories for Ace and Kochanski from Stoke Me a Clipper and Duct Soup respectively. There's also a, frankly bizarre, alternate ending to Epideme and a slightly expanded role for Holly in Nanarchy.

‘Robert Llewellyn's Video Diary’ is, more specifically, seven-minutes of camcorder footage from a couple of days of filming the series. Due to the casual nature of the way this was shot, it turns out to be a very funny featurette with a good look at the camaraderie that was present on set and location.

Red Dwarf lineage can be traced back to ‘Dave Hollins: Space Cadet’, a series of sketches from Grant Naylor's radio show Son of Cliché. The DVD contains two of these mini-episodes.

Despite the fact that much of the visual effects from Red Dwarf VII were achieved with CGI, the nineties BBC programme How Do They Do That? saw fit to do a short exposé on the making of the model effects. It's included in its entirety on disc three and should be of interest to anyone who’d like to make space-ships out of gardening equipment. In a similar vein, the ‘Raw FX Footage’ is an acquired taste but a nice inclusion; especially as it contains lots of unused model-shots which were ultimately replaced with CGI.

The ‘Smeg-ups’ will be familiar to long-term fans of the show that have previously collected on VHS. This collection of bloopers can be a mixed bag but there are some funny clips. The lack of a studio audience in this series means that the cast are slightly less lively when the mistakes occur.

One of the mainstays of this DVD series has been the musical featurette. Definitely one of the lesser extras, ‘Burning Rubber’ incorporates vehicle-themed footage from the show, accompanied by Feeder's 'Buck Rogers'.

‘Music Cues’ may sound like a dull extra but this is actually rather intriguing as the majority of those heard here were ultimately replaced with library music. There's an opportunity to imagine how episodes would have played with a different score, particularly Howard Goodall's work on Tikka to Ride, which would have made the finale vastly different in tone.  

The official Red Dwarf website recently ran a fan film competition and the two winners, as chosen by Doug Naylor, are presented here in all their glory. If you've ever witnessed obscure late-night TV programmes which feature amateur film-making, you should know what to expect. These short-films are bizarre, occasionally very funny and a far better way of getting the fans involved than the special commentaries on the previous two discs.

Finally, there's a rather large photo-gallery. Even this, usually rather dull, extra is spiced up for this DVD with previously unseen photos and publicity material.

Red Dwarf VII

Overall


While attempting to move in a new direction had never harmed the show in the past, Red Dwarf VII was a definite mis-step in the show's history. It's pretty lucky then, that the series is accompanied by what is perhaps the finest selection of bonus material to ever grace a Digital Versatile Disc. Showcasing a huge amount of commitment and effort from everyone involved; the extras are comprehensive and, more importantly, extremely watchable. Special mention too, for the wonderful 3D menus which have improved with each set in this collection.

Casual collectors of the show may feel inclined to give this lesser series a miss, but the fantastic features (which often acknowledge the shortcomings of series VII) should make this hard to resist. DVD producers everywhere, take note; this is how it should be done.


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