Red Dwarf Review: Series V, Episode 6: "Back to Reality"

Airdate: 26 March, 1992

Synopsis: Starbug is investigating the wreck of the SS Esperanto, which was conducting seeding experiments at the bottom of an ocean-covered moon. Apparently, despite the success of the ship, all the members committed suicide, apparently as a result of a toxin. Suddenly, Starbug (whose members suddenly become depressed) has to evade a giant squid. They crash…

…and thus, ends the Total Immersion Videogame Red Dwarf. Final score? 4%.

The people playing the game wake up, and slowly not only realize that they outright played the game wrong, they also get oriented to who they once were. Kryten was played by half-human cyber-cop Jake Bullet, who was a mere traffic officer. Lister was played by Sebastian Doyle, the voter colonel of a fascist state who headed a secret police to take people away. Rimmer was played by Billy Doyle, a miserable failure and the half-brother of Sebastian. And the Cat? Horror of all horrors, he was played by Duane Dibbley, a geek with no sense of fashion nor grace. Despair sets in, especially once Jake Bullet kills somebody that reveals the pure horror of the world they exist in.

Review (SOME SPOILERS MAY BE AHEAD): This was the first episode written for Series V, which was thought to be the last series due to cast issues (for one, Robert Llewellyn was going to do Red Dwarf USA, and Chris Barrie was to work on The Brittas Empire. Thus, the episode was pushed back to the last one, in case it was truly the end for the Boys from the Dwarf. Juliet May, who directed this, had trouble confining to the sci-fi atmosphere of the show and resigned midway through the series.

So, how low could this go? Well, let’s just take a look at a review or two or four of this episode.

“If there is one show to watch again (and again and again), then this is most certainly it.”  – Stacy Kidd, Den of Geek’s “Top 10 Red Dwarf Episodes”.

“And so, one of the immutable laws of the universe asserts itself – poll Red Dwarf fans on their favourite episode, and ‘Back to Reality’ will win.” – Fan site Ganymede and Titan, on the episode placing 1st in the 20th anniversary survey.

“Well, this is it – the pinnacle of human endeavour. The videotape containing this one should be behind bullet-proof glass in a museum. It’s no less than perfect, with an inspired mix of ingenious plotting, brilliant writing, and stunning performances. This video could cure cancer.” Reviews by Gavrielle, taking a look at Series V. 

“It’s just shy of 1000 points ahead of it’s rival – by far the biggest margin – and it’s the favourite episode of 18% of Red Dwarf fans. It won the “Smegzine” poll in 1992, the Better Than Life poll in 1999, the G&T poll in 2008, and it’s our second non-mover. Back To Reality is quite simply a remarkable piece of television.” – Ganymede and Titan, on the episode placing 1st (again) in the Silver Survey in 2013.

(Apologies to those whose quotes I used. Shoot me an email if you want them removed.)

So, all those quotes indicate that this episode is quite popular. And you know what?

They are right.

I don’t believe that things can achieve pure perfection. However, “Back to Reality” comes pretty damn close to breaking that threshold. It is one of the most well-constructed TV episodes ever.

The reason de jure of Red Dwarf’s popularity are the well-crafted characters and the humor that revolves around them. “Back to Reality” takes this to the hilt, all while adding plenty of drama surrounding the characters.

First, there’s Jake Bullet. The centerpiece of Kryten’s character is that, no matter how much of a superego he is, he is simply unable to bring himself to kill humans; it’s in his programming. Jake Bullet has the option to stun a human with a weapon he uses. He instead kills. Thus, he is driven to the emotional brink, contemplating terminating himself (i.e. suicide).

We then have Sebastian Doyle. As much as Lister is an unambitious slob, he is also a firm believer in the goodness of the average man, as well as independence and a skepticism of authority. He is quite clearly the most moral character of the core four. To see him in an absolute dictatorship, overseeing a secret police out to kill dissenters of a fascist state, goes against every single one of his principles.

Now, Billy Doyle. Rimmer and Billy are both pathetic lowlifes who have quite clearly failed in their life. However, Rimmer has tried to justify this by blaming other people. To an extent, Rimmer has a good excuse; his upbringing was pathetic. Now that Billy and Sebastian had similar upbringings, with Sebastian being more successful in theory, he could no longer blame his past for his failures. He puts it best:

“This is a nightmare! I’m on the run from the Fascist Police with a murderer, a mass murderer, and a man in a Bri-Nylon shirt!”

On the subject of the Bri-Nylon shirt, we now go to Duane Dibbley.

Duane Dibbley?

This episode pretty much states what we have long known/feared; the Cat’s personality is as thin as a New York Pizza (relatively speaking, of course). The Cat’s focus is on his self-image and grace, as well as being the most action-oriented of the three. Duane has none of that; he wears suspenders, has an overbite, and a bowl cut. He has no sense of action or grace. With the one outstanding trait of the Cat nullified, Duane has no sense of self-worth.

Beyond character, the writing is brilliant. There is little unnecessary exposition; even Andy’s “Welcome Back to the Real World” sets the tone for the “We really suck” attitude that encompasses the characters over the next 15 minutes. The twists and turns add to the humor and character development.

Production-wise, this episode really stretches it. The acting of everybody is fantastic. The cop, played by Lenny Von Dohlen (Harold Smith from Twin Peaks), is shown with a borderline lust for his cruel job… and it is fantastic. Nothing is overt; emotions are first seen in the faces. When Sebastian realizes what his job his, his face quickly becomes pained.

It’s a very small detail, but look closely at Sebastian’s face. you can tell that he is truly shaken by the reveal that he was only a mass murderer.

The car chase that follows, well, is unique. Let’s just say it really helped with the budget. It really is fantastic and helps bring the episode to its final twist.
This episode has it all; fantastic characterisation, superb humor, sublime drama, effective special effects, awesome acting. In short, this is…

…the best Red Dwarf ever.

Favorite Scene: I should really just provide a link to the episode on iTunes. It really is that fantastic. However, since I have to pick, I will simply say that the car chase is sublime.

Least Favorite Scene: Saying this has a least favorite scene would be an insult to this episode. It’s simply fantastic.

Score: 10.

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