Red Dwarf: An American’s Guide
We take a look at one of the funniest far-out sitcoms ever to hit the airwaves.
“Three million years from Earth, the mining ship Red Dwarf, its crew: Dave Lister, the last human being alive, Arnold Rimmer, a hologram of his dead bunkmate, and creature who evolved from the ship’s cat.”
– Introduction to Red Dwarf‘s first and second seasons.
To celebrate the arrival of Red Dwarf’s eleventh season on BritBox, the streaming British TV service recently launched by BBC and ITV, we’ve presented the following introduction to the series and its characters to show you why it is — in the parlance of the series — such a smegging good time.
Before we jump in, a quick FYI: BritBox carries all episodes of Red Dwarf to date, meaning that if you’ve somehow missed out on the cosmic comedic adventures of space bum Dave Lister and company, you can rectify that immediately.
Red Dwarf: A Primer
The brainchild of writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (who previously worked on the UK satire series Spitting Image, which is best known in America for having its puppets appear in the video for Genesis’ “Land of Confusion”), Red Dwarf‘s origins can be traced back to their work on the radio series Son Of Cliché in the early 1980s. That short-lived program featured a recurring sketch called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, which featured comedic themes that stayed with the pair over the years.
Deciding to delve deeper into concepts they first used in those sketches, they began work on Red Dwarf, a BBC TV series that would primarily concern itself with the misadventures of Dave Lister, the last human being alive, and his nemesis Arnold Rimmer, a hologram recreation of his dead former roommate. Following an arduous production period of the first season, Red Dwarf debuted on BBC Two on February 15, 1988. It was a slow burn at first, but the series gradually transformed itself from a cult sensation to a mainstream success.
When the third season went into production in 1989, the decision was made to double down on the high-concept sci-fi adventure aspects of the program and to spend more time off of the titular ship. To help accommodate these changes, Grant and Naylor decided to bring back the mechanoid character of Kryten who appeared in the first episode of the second season so that he could mix it up with the established characters and help deliver the show’s now-commonplace expository dialogue.
The fourth season saw another cast shakeup, with Hatty Hayridge replacing Norman Lovett as Holly the ship’s computer. Hayridge remained until the start of the sixth season in which the four core characters of Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and Cat go in search of Red Dwarf aboard the tiny vessel Starbug. This season, which featured several recurring gags and an emphasis on continuity like never before remains the most divisive batch of episodes of Red Dwarf ever, with many fans loving its adventure, character development and serialized nature…while others just wanted to get back to the Odd Couple in space feel of the early years. Regardless of what a high point Red Dwarf VI may or may not have been, after its airing it quickly became clear that the series would never be the same again.
Rob Grant decided to leave the show at this point, leaving Doug Naylor as showrunner. In his partner’s absence, Naylor was free to experiment with the show like never before–which resulted in considerable changes in the series’ format and production. Recording episodes in front of a studio audience was jettisoned, and the series was lit and shot as if it were a feature — given a more filmic appearance that visually suggested a grand, sweeping scope to the new stories. Additionally, the episode count was upped from six to eight. Much more drastic was the decision by Rimmer actor Chris Barrie (who was also appearing on the sitcom The Brittas Empire at the time) to only have a limited involvement in the seventh season. To attempt to fill this Grand Canyon-sized void in the season, Naylor decided to bring in actress Chloë Annette as Kristine Kochanski as a main character — replacing Clare Grogran had appeared sporadically as Lister’s would-be girlfriend in seasons 1, 2, and 6.
With the seventh season not being well received by fans or critics, a more back to basics approach was attempted for the ambitious eighth season when it went into production in 1999. Kochanski stayed on as main character, and Chris Barrie was back as Rimmer, albeit a very much alive version due to the fact that Naylor decided to resurrect the Red Dwarf crew for this season via some helpful nanobots. These creative decisions helped restore Red Dwarf to some of its former glory, and it was an interesting experiment to see how our heroes interacted with the revived population of the vessel.
With it appearing that the long-planned film adaptation of the series would never come to fruition and the BBC seemingly not interested in creating more episodes, the series was dormant until 2009. Then, the UK’s Dave network brought it back to life with the Blade Runner riffing miniseries Back to Earth. A tenth season followed in 2012, which hit the reset button by having only Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, and Cat as main characters and returning the action to a post-accident Red Dwarf. The result was a group of episodes that helped capture the feel of the early years, much to the happiness of Dwarfers everywhere and a theme that the new eleventh season continues.
Watch Every Episode of Red Dwarf on BritBox!
With the show’s 30th anniversary and a 12th season on the horizon, it seems as if the exploits of those aboard “the small rouge one” may very well continue forever. That’s fine with us.
The overall plot of the show has Lister and his space mates attempting to return to Earth even though they are stuck in the middle of deep space three million years from home. Of course, this has been jettisoned from time to time for season-long arcs such as in Red Dwarf VI and Red Dwarf VIII. But as any fan of Red Dwarf will be quick to point out, it isn’t the show’s endgame that is important so much as its hilarious characters. Let’s break down the series’ current main cast:
In the first episode of Red Dwarf, Dave Lister is seemingly unremarkable. An ambition-free maintenance man aboard the ship, he wants nothing more than to get drunk with friends, eat curry all day, watch zero gravity football, and attempt to win the heart of Kristine Kochanski — an officer who is completely and utterly out of his league. When Lister refuses to give up the cat he smuggled onto Red Dwarf, the captain puts him into suspended animation as punishment. During his time in stasis, the ship experiences a catastrophic leak of Cadmium II radiation that wipes out the entire crew. It takes three million years for Red Dwarf to become habitable again, at which point Holly (the ship’s computer who has gone somewhat senile being along for all that time) wakes Lister up. There are no signs that humanity has lasted the duration of his cosmic slumber, leaving Lister with the somewhat unwanted responsibility of being the last man alive.
To ensure that Lister doesn’t go crazy being in deep space, Holly uses the ship’s holographic capabilities to bring back Arnold Rimmer, Lister’s hated roommate/co-worker. It is the Lister/Rimmer dynamic that is at the very heart of Red Dwarf, and their interplay provides the series with the majority of its laughs. As for Lister, his most consistent traits over the eleven seasons are his general slobbish bevahior, his terrible guitar playing, an insatiable appetite, and a surprisingly heroic nature. As portrayed by Craig Charles, Lister is the sort of lovable space bum you’d love to kick around deep space with.
A chicken soup vending machine repairman with delusions of grandeur, Arnold Rimmer has over the course of Red Dwarf‘s 11 seasons illustrated why his middle name is “Judas.” As cowardly as he is unreliable, Rimmer is a constant thorn in the side of Lister, Kryten and Cat. Coming from a family of hugely successful officers in the Space Corps, Rimmer was a failure in life for his constant inability to pass the exam that would take his career to the next level. It was his incompetence that resulted in the deaths of himself and the entire crew of Red Dwarf (he failed to properly repair a drive plate on the ship that let in deadly radiation).
Following his death, he was brought back as a hologram by Holly. Although initially unable to touch things, his abilities were upgraded to a “hard light drive” in the sixth season when the Dwarfers encountered a gestalt entity named Legion that possessed the intelligence of some of history’s greatest minds. In this enhanced holographic state, he was very difficult to injure…although he still felt pain. Interestingly enough, Rimmer remains as fearful as ever throughout the series even though he has already experienced death and will llikely outlive those around him unless the “light bee” that projects his hologram is destroyed.
Despite all of his negative personality traits, Rimmer has been known to exhibit uncharacteristically honorable and even heroic behavior from time to time. The character is portrayed by Chris Barrie, an actor whose charisma and comedic delivery makes the detestable Rimmer downright lovable.
The Cat evolved from Frankenstein, the cat Lister smuggled aboard Red Dwarf…which resulted in him being held in statis and becoming the last human. As for Frankenstein, Lister hid the pregnant animal in the ship’s hold (where it was safe from the radiation that killed the crew). She safely had her kittens, and over the millions of ensuing years the offspring evolved into Cat, a fashion conscious feline who Lister first encounters when he is freed from suspended animation.
Not exceptionally bright — what with thousands of years of in-breeding and all — Cat is as selfish as he is stylish. He fancies himself quite the ladies man, despite not having the opportunity to actually get physical with another being until the show’s 11th season. Among Cat’s more lovable traits are his tendency to walk around Red Dwarf and claiming ownership of parts of the ship and his frequent announcements of what he is about to eat (i.e. “I’m going to eat you little fishie”). When the ship goes missing in the show’s sixth season, Cat proves his mettle with his ability to be an excellent co-pilot aboard Starbug and through how he uses his superior sense of smell to sniff out danger. What could be a one-note character is given multiple dimensions through actor Danny John Jules’ graceful movements and scene-stealing tendencies.
The Red Dwarf crew first encountered Kryten in the debut episode of the second season. He was a cleaning robot aboard the Nova 5, a doomed vessel whose crewmates were all dead…not that this stopped Kryten from tending to their needs and keeping the place tidy. Inspired by Lister, he learned to rebel against his core programming and took off on his space bike to find himself. At the beginning of the third season, Kryten returned to the series.
Now a regular character, he not only handled unpleasant tasks like cleaning Lister’s underwear and serving the meals (space weevil, anyone?) but his advanced intellect and scientific knowledge repeatedly came in handy as the crew encountered the variety of genetically engineered life forms and murderous simulants that roamed throughout the human/alien-free universe that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor created on Red Dwarf. Of particular interest in Kryten’s relationship with Lister. The mechanoid looks up to him as a role model, sometimes taking lessons from him on how to be more deceitful and generally Lister like. As the series progressed, Kryten increasingly realizes that Lister is far from perfect but remains caring of him nevertheless. (Sometimes with negative consequences, best demonstrated by his jealousy of Kristine Kochanski during the character’s brief time on the series).
After David Ross debuted the character in the second season, Robert Llewellyn took over Kryten duties. Llewellyn’s performance as the insecure and sometimes pretentious machine man who has “a head shaped like a novelty condom” is a crucial part of Red Dwarf’s enduring success. So much so that he was the only cast member to retain his role for the ill-fated attempts to make a U.S. version of the series for NBC in 1992. But that’s a story for another day…
Now that you know all about the Boys from the Dwarf, head over to Britbox and check out all 11 seasons of Red Dwarf!
(Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Red Dwarf VII was shot on film and Red Dwarf VIII featured the crew going back in time. The post has been corrected and updated).