The webcomic Prelude to Nanarchy details the aftermath of the events of this episode, explaining how the boys from the Dwarf ended up stranded on Starbug having lost Red Dwarf, and connecting this episode to the Series VI opening episode "Psirens".
The Dwarfers take Starbug down into the watery depths of an ocean moon to investigate the wreck of SSS Esperanto. They find that the ship's crew have committed suicide, then escape to try and avoid attack from a sea monster, "Despair Squid". The crew suddenly wake up to find they are not who they think they are, Red Dwarf and Starbug did not exist, and they have in fact been playing a virtual reality computer game for four years.
The Boys from the Dwarf don space suits and take Starbug down to investigate the wreckage of SSS Esperanto, a ship conducting marine seeding experiments at the bottom of an ocean-covered moon designed to speed up evolution. This terraforming mission was going so well that they had topped even their best projections. Despite this and the black box's final entry appearing routine, it appears that all life on board Esperanto committed suicide, either by gunshot, hanging or seppuku, right down to a haddock fish which closed its gills and suffocated itself.
The Dwarfers discover the deaths are due to severe depression caused by a hallucinogenic nerve toxin which was secreted by a giant Despair Squid to which Lister, Kryten and Cat are exposed to a reduced dosage, which simply causes them to all burst into tears. Re-boarding Starbug, the crew use a mood stabilising gas to counteract the ink from the despair squid, and discover the creature has returned and is approaching Starbug. Concluding the likely options are that the creature intends to either kill, eat or hump them, the crew try and make a run for it. However they are exposed to a massive dose of the ink, and while Lister is distracted causes Starbug to collide with some rocks, causing the ship to crash and explode.
Instead of finding themselves in little pieces, they wake to discover that for four years they have been playing the Total Immersion Video Game version of Red Dwarf the Game. Everyone now looks different; Lister has a ponytail, Rimmer has large white hair, Kryten is half-human while Cat has a bowl haircut and a massive overbite. Before their real memories have returned, Andy the Techie informs them that they only scored 4% in four years of playing, completely failing to notice the most basic of clues, and then moves them on to the recuperation lounge, whilst a new, hunky group of Dwarfers begin playing the Red Dwarf game, much more successfully than the last, with the new action-hero Lister saving Kochanski and winning her back early on.
In the recuperation lounge, The old gang learn their real identities - Kryten is half-human Cybernautics Division Detective (traffic officer) Jake Bullet. Cat is dorky Duane Dibbley. Lister is Sebastian Doyle, (whose case is filled with expensive items, including the keys to a limo), and Rimmer is William Doyle, Lister's half brother and a tramp. While anything substantial about Lister's true identity remains a mystery, Kryten is more than pleased with his new persona.
The gang begin exploring and quickly learn that the Earth they're on is ruled over by a fascist regime. They head to the long-term car park where Lister's limo is waiting for them, however they then run into a fascist cop chasing a child. They learn from him that Sebastian Doyle is the head of the police ruling over the people, and is personally responsible for murdering anyone who steps out of line. The cop then tries to shoot the fleeing child, and Kryten is forced to kill him... and at this point it is revealed that the crew are still on Starbug, hallucinating as Holly is trying without success to snap them out of their shared delusion of a high-speed car chase with the police.
Escaping down an alley, Kryten is ready to kill himself over his actions and the others, unable to accept the new world they're living in or their new identities, decide to commit suicide too by sharing the only bullet Kryten has left. Holly then manages to get through to Kryten and instructs him to open up the mood stabilising gas. After he's done so, he returns to the others but before he can pull the trigger, Holly finally manages to bring them all round, welcoming them back to reality. She explains they were caught in a group hallucination brought on by the toxic ink of the despair squid designed to attack their self-esteem and, reduce them to suicidal levels of anguish (which is what happened to the crew of Esperanto); Kryten killed a human being, the vain Cat's life had no meaning in a world where he was a dork, Rimmer could no longer blame his failures on others because he shared an upbringing with the wealthy Lister, and Lister, normally a good man of moral courage, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.
The illusion broken, and the Despair Squid taken care of with limpet mines, the crew start the long voyage home back to Red Dwarf. Lister notes that the people responsible screwed up by creating a creature that was so deadly it wiped out all other forms on life on the planet. Kryten jokes that the same could be said of humans, but the comment is not appreciated and the weary crew head home.
Available on the Series V DVD:
- As the boys become aware of the Despair Squid, Kryten states that Space Corps Directives enable a mechanoid to take charge of a situation if a human's life is in danger. As Kryten stands about discussing this, he is unaware that the others have long since ran away. Kryten's gag was trimmed to avoid repeating a similar moment from "Terrorform", when the bazookoids had no effect against the Unspeakable One.
- With Lister, Cat and Kryten in the diving bell coming up from Esperanto, and all of them feeling the effects of the Despair Squid's ink, Rimmer attempts to cheer them up over the intercom. Rimmer tells them he will put on his Reggie Dickson's Tango Treats music. Lister says that he's staying in the diving bell. As they put on their pressurised suits, and with them all sobbing, Rimmer then attempts to tell them a joke. Rimmer completely fudges the joke, at first getting it mixed up with another joke, then telling the punchline completely wrong.
- When the crew crash and initially get their "Game Over" screen and awake on Fascist Earth, they were to first appear as 2D game characters on a screen. Cat says the "I have a bad feeling about this" line from Star Wars. The scene was removed because of the unsuccessful '2D' effect.
- Holly interjects more in the imagined car chase, saying that they've all gone crazy.
- When they've all come to, Cat says that they should get out of there quickly, since the Despair Squid may have a parent lurking round who won't be too happy that "junior wont be going to the jellyfish ball."
- Lenny Von Dohlen as the Fascist Cop
- Timothy Spall as Andy (Game Worker)
- Marie McCarthy as the Staff Nurse
- John Sharian as alternate Lister
- David Lemkin as alternate Cat
- Julian Lyon as alternate Rimmer
- Anastasia Hille as alternate Kochanski
- The regular characters lost Red Dwarf for the next two series after this episode. Similarly, this was the final appearance of Holly on Red Dwarf until "Nanarchy" in 1997, five years later. According to the events of "Psirens", Red Dwarf was "stolen by an unknown party", but it was revealed in "Nanarchy" that it was actually Kryten's nanobots which stole the ship. The nanobots dumped whatever they didn't need on a planetoid. It was seen in the 2005 web-comic Prelude to Nanarchy which was released six years after Series VIII ended.
- Holly would not appear again until "Nanarchy". Norman Lovett played Holly in that episode and Series VIII on until "Only the Good...", with Hattie Hayridge making her final appearance as Holly in "Back to Reality". However, from 2004 to 2006, she did some commentaries for Red Dwarf DVD releases with Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn, and Danny John-Jules.
- The 2009 three-part Dave special Back to Earth (later ret-conned to be Series IX) revealed that Cat actually smuggled away a frozen, infant Despair Squid, possibly from during this episode or during "Nanarchy" when they returned to the ocean moon. This was because he wanted a snack later. Forgetting about it when they eventually retrieved Red Dwarf, it grew to a massive size in the ship Water Tank and caused numerous problems, such as a flood which damaged Holly's databanks. It is also the catalyst for the events of Back to Earth.
- It's interesting that Rimmer doesn't deny he can't swim when Andy says he can't, so why does Rimmer have a swimming certificate if he can't actually swim, (although the certificate is referenced in other episodes, i.e: "The Inquisitor", where Lister says ...Arnold J. Rimmer Bsc, and that stands for Bronze swimming certificate).
- "Back to Reality" was the first script written for Series V, which at the time was thought to be the last series, due to possible cast availability issues. Other projects and roles seemed to be taking over their time. Chris Barrie was starring in the increasingly popular sit-com Brittas Empire, Robert Llewellyn went to do Red Dwarf USA, which might have meant that he would have to concentrate on that instead of traditional Red Dwarf.
- Although the budget for the series had increased, certain sets were still able to double for different scenes. The corridors of the holoship, from the episode of the same name, were grunged down and made up for the Artificial Reality suite.
- Several model shots of the Despair Squid were filmed but it was decided that they didn't work well. Instead a superimposed shadow was used to illustrate the squid closing in on Starbug.
- The episode features Hattie Hayridge's last appearance in the series. According the Series V DVD documentary "Heavy Science", the writers had simply run out of ideas for Holly, with Doug Naylor expressing guilt over the fact Hayridge's role in the show was often little more than a few lines. Holly would return to the series at the very end of Series VII and become a regular for Series VIII, but would be played by the character's original actor, Norman Lovett. Nevertheless, Hayridge would stay involved with Red Dwarf fandom and also participate in interviews and commentaries for the DVD releases of her seasons.
- The other cast got to play their despair induced alter egos; Danny John-Jules played Duane Dibbley, Craig Charles played Sebastian Doyle, Robert Llewellyn played Jake Bullet, while Chris Barrie played William Doyle, Sebastian's half-brother. Duane in particular became a popular alter ego for John-Jules and would be reprised again, including during the "Can't Smeg, Won't Smeg" special, and the Series VI episode "Emohawk".
- Lenny Von Dohlen, known as appearing in Twin Peaks, agreed to appear as the cop after speaking with former guest star Frances Barber (series III's Jenny Mutant). The episode also featured a new Red Dwarf crew for the new Artificial Reality game. Anastasia Hille played an alternate version of Kochanski, David Lemkin played Cat, Julian Lyon played Rimmer, John Sharian played Lister and Scott Charles Bennett played Kryten. 'Red Dwarf Total Immersion Video Game' staff workers were Timothy Spall who played Andy and Marie McCarthy who played the Nurse.
- According to the "Heavy Science" Series V DVD featurette, Timothy Spall's performance as Andy marked the very first time the actor (best known in recent years for his appearances as Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) had performed in front of a live audience. After a disastrous set of early takes (during which Doug Naylor notes that the actor became so discombobulated he began prematurely giving away plot elements), according to John-Jules he delivered a perfect performance on the second go.
- Cat: Are you saying this fish commited suicide!?
- Lister: This is a really, really bad dream, right guys?
Rimmer: I'm not a hologram!
Kryten: I'm half human!
Cat: AND WHAT THE HELL'S HAPPENED TO MY TEETH!? I could open beer bottles with my overbite!
- Kryten: Bullet - Cybernautics. (Shows Badge)
Agent: That's traffic control.
The episode was originally broadcast on the British television channel BBC2 on 26 March 1992 in the 9:00pm evening time slot, and is generally considered to be one of the best of the entire series' run. One review stated that "it’s no less than perfect, with an inspired mix of ingenious plotting, brilliant writing and stunning performances."
At the end of 1992 the episode helped Series V gain a nomination for an International Emmy Award, and in 1995, following a BBC viewers vote, it was repeated on the 22 December 1995 as 'The Best Ever Red Dwarf'.
The episode had proved popular enough for the BBC to ignore the original running order and use the popular episodes from Series V to maximise sales of the video releases. The episode that featured on the other Series V video release being "Quarantine".
This episode was supposed to be released as the season opener but was then used as the season finale instead. The fact it was intended to open the season is made evident by the several references to Lister and his colleagues having been playing the game for four years, when in fact it had been five.
"Back to Reality" has consistently been voted the best ever episode of Red Dwarf. This includes a Smegazine magazine poll in 1992, a poll in the Better Than Life comic in 1999, and three different polls over the years on prominent fan website Ganymede & Titan.
On the Internet Movie Database, "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" has a weighted average rating of 9.2 out of 10. Out of the 73 total episodes in Red Dwarf, this rating places it as the highest rated out of all the 73.
In late 2017, prominent fan site Ganymede & Titan ran the Pearl Poll from among hundreds of fans. The aim of the Pearl Poll was to produce a "definitive" list of all 73 episodes of Red Dwarf in order of their popularity. In February 2018 the list was published, and "Gunmen of The Apocalypse" was voted the highest out of the 73 episodes.
|Red Dwarf: Episode List|
|Series I | Series II | Series III | Series IV | Series VI | Series VII | Series VIII | Back to Earth | Series X | Series XI | Series XII | The Promised Land|
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