We're used to being surprised by Red Dwarf. But even viewers hardened by the sight of hairy GELF brides, Lister snogging a giant brain-sucking beetle and, er, President Kennedy assassinating himself will be questioning their sense of reality when they set eyes upon the post-modern, Coronation Street-meets-Blade Runner mash-up that is Back to Earth. But before we get to that bit of the story, what's happened to the Small Rouge One since the last series?
We left it ablaze, with Rimmer stalked by the Grim Reaper while the rest of the gang fled to a "mirror universe". Now, just under a decade later, God (or Doug Naylor, as we like to call him) seems to have hit the reset button. The classic set-up's been restored, with Lister, Kryten, the Cat and a hologram Rimmer alone on a vast and empty Red Dwarf. Kochanski's apparently dead, and Holly's off-line due to his circuits being flooded after Lister left a bath running, but are we still in the mirror universe? Is this the original Rimmer hologram (the one who went off to become Ace) or a new incarnation? You'll just have to puzzle it out among yourselves, because all we know is that there's a massive writhing squid on the loose in the water tank – meaning the gang have to go down and investigate (apart from Rimmer, who decides he'd rather read a car mag instead).
After almost being smacked to death by the squid's tentacles, the crew are met by a sudden addition to their number: a hologram called Katerina Bartikovsky (played by Big Suze off Peep Show!), who immediately starts doing actually useful things. Like threatening to switch off Rimmer for being "a bit crap" and opening a portal to another dimension so Lister can nip out to get a human mate.
Oddly enough, the dimension the Dwarfers find themselves sucked into happens to be... well, ours. As in, it's a dimension in which Red Dwarf is a popular TV show on Dave, and Craig Charles is an actor on Corrie. After coming to terms with the fact they're not real (in Rimmer's case, this is an occasion for relief and joy), and realising that Back to Earth is destined to end with their deaths, the gang head off to find their creator and beg for more life. Yes, just like the replicants in Blade Runner. In fact, much as onions are frequently strewn through Lister's corn flakes, there are Blade Runner references dotted throughout the whole story – not least the Cat's strange, sudden penchant for leaving little origami figures everywhere.
Anyway, so after a spot of hologram homicide, with Rimmer vanquishing his nemesis Katerina by pushing her in front of a bus, the lads head off to the Coronation Street set. Their mission: to find Craig Charles and get him to reveal the whereabouts of Red Dwarf's creator. Now, the word "surreal" is often overused by idiots when all they mean is they were a bit drunk last night, but there's no other word to describe the sight of Lister having a conversation with Craig Charles, inside the Rovers Return.
Then it's off to meet the creator himself, who's holed up in a massive Blade Runnerish building and surrounded by brilliantly terrifying Rimmer-faced dwarf-robot-things. Lister accidentally slays him, then realises whatever he writes on the creator's typewriter actually happens in real life – which presents him with an irresistible opportunity to slam his own groin into the table many, many times.
But then comes the real revelation. None of this is real. The Cat's origimai figures are revealed to be squid, and it turns out they're all inside a collective hallucination brought on by the rampaging sea creature in the ship's water tank – you know, just like the episode Back to Reality. At first Lister doesn't want to wake up, because in this dream-world Kochanski's still alive and in love with him. But then he discovers the real Kochanski's not actually dead either – that was just a story Kryten made up to cover up the fact she dumped Lister and departed the Dwarf. When you think about it, that's actually a massive, almost psychotically perverse lie to come up with. But it's Kryten, so we'll let him off.
And so, Back to Earth ends as it began, with the four Dwarfers adrift in space, in search of life, meaning, love and vindaloo. It's good to know some things never change.