Red Dwarf: the Dave era, Series XIII, and beyond

With more Red Dwarf on the way, Mark ponders how the sci-fi sitcom's revival on Dave has secured its future...

Red Dwarf

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

For a show that’s three million and 31 years into deep space, Red Dwarf is in pretty rude health. It’s been just over a year since the programme came to the end of its 12th series, the second of a two-series production block shot in early 2016, on UK TV channel Dave, and it looks as if there’s still plenty more to come from Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and the Cat.

Having originally gone away after its eighth series aired on BBC Two in 1999, the long-running sci-fi sitcom was brought out of stasis ten years later by UK TV. While few fans would claim that the three-part special Back To Earth is Red Dwarf‘s best outing, these episodes were the most-watched original programmes in digital broadcasting history at that point, paving the way for a proper revival in 2012.

Red Dwarf X, XI, and XII represent a gradual return to form over the course of 18 back-to-basics multi-camera episodes, which largely go back to the characters for laughs. It’s a welcome approach following the continuity-heavy sci-fi escapades that characterised the last two runs of the BBC era. Co-creator Rob Grant departed the series with Red Dwarf VI, with Doug Naylor continuing on and becoming the chief creative force behind the series.

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As of XII, Naylor has run just about as many series of the programme solo as he did with Grant. Over the course of the last five-and-a-bit series, the show was cancelled by the BBC, a potential movie spin-off became stranded in development hell, and the cast were all working on various other projects.

Even with all of these broadcasting and scheduling issues taken into account, Red Dwarf has found a second lease on life in the multi-channel age of television. With a 13th series and other possible projects still somewhere on the horizon for now, it’s impressive to look at what this sci-fi sitcom has achieved in the Dave era so far and what’s still to come…

Dear Dave

The Series VIII finale Only The Good ends with a cliffhanger and the simple caption “The End? The Smeg It Is”. However, having accrued a syndication-friendly package of 52 produced episodes, the BBC would then turn down Naylor’s proposals for a ninth series. Instead of another series, Naylor began to write Red Dwarf: The Movie.

Originally announced for a 2002 release, the film was set to feature the original cast, in an adventure where they’d run up against a race of ruthless cyborgs bent on wiping out the last of humanity. But as planned, the film required at least a £13 million budget and over a five-year period, the financing kept falling apart.

In the quest to get the film funded, at least one financier asked Naylor if he would consider recasting the characters with high-profile movie stars. Although there have been episodes without some of them, some of the time, a new Red Dwarf without Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn, and Danny John-Jules would be unfathomable, and Naylor rightly “ran from the building”.

Another incident involved a would-be financier claiming to be “the Duke of Manchester”, in a not-especially elaborate hoax that would apparently have landed the production £60 million to play with, if only they’d stump up for their benefactor’s airfare to Australia. After writing 35 different drafts of the script for different potential budgets, Naylor and his team were unable to get the film funded and green-lit.

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While Naylor had big ideas for the film in comparison to other British movies released at the time, this was still the era where the UK film industry was turning out anaemic, over-extended TV-to-film adaptations like Kevin & Perry Go Large and Ali G Indahouse. Red Dwarf: The Movie wouldn’t have had to do much in order to better those films, but even with the best intentions, it doesn’t feel like it would have survived contact with the film industry at that time.

All in all, Dave commissioning Back To Earth was a blessing. With a new high-definition look, improved production value, and an ambitious creative homage to Blade Runner, the specials might give us some idea of what a Red Dwarf movie might have looked like. Keeping this in mind, the de-facto “Series IX” isn’t all that great.

Aside from financial considerations, Red Dwarf is quintessentially a sitcom, so Dave commissioning further series, which once again corrected from the single-camera sci-fi format to the time-honoured multi-camera format, was the making of the revival.

In fact, in an interview for Red Dwarf X in 2012, Naylor told us: “Craig [Charles] said something interesting to me which was if we were to do the film, he wouldn’t want to leave the TV series. Because that’s where Red Dwarf really works best. Originally we were advised to do something with a really big budget whereas if we kept to a smaller budget we could have got something made.”

Additionally, having worked on so many drafts of the script, Naylor had plenty of ideas to go on. Red Dwarf X features a number of gags, scenes, and concepts that were originally conceived for one version of the movie or another, but more importantly, it’s a run that zeroes in on the original concept of the last human alive, lost in space with his misfit mates.

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To cap off this victory lap, The Beginning shows a learning curve from Only The Good. Adapting much of the basic plan for the movie, it’s the standout of the run. As well as being jam-packed with great gags and character moments, it serves as a properly satisfying series finale, just in case they don’t get to do this again.

However, Dave commissioned the series for a further 12 episodes, comprising Series XI and XII. With the exception of Timewave (an uncharacteristically topical episode that definitely would have had more to grab onto if it had been written and shot at the end of 2016 rather than the beginning), they’re all pretty good ones too. By the time we get to the back-end of XII, with a blinding run of Mechocracy, M-Corp, and Skipper, the series is arguably back its very best form.

In the best way, any one of those three scripts could have been made 20 years ago, (with the possible exception of M-Corp and its Black Mirror-esque pisstake of in-app purchases) but the episodes still benefit from Naylor’s experience (plus the input of the programme’s webmaster-turned-script-editor Andrew Ellard) and the general uptick in production value afforded by TV-level visual effects.

As good as it looks, Red Dwarf still doesn’t have the budget of a Doctor Who, but the way in which the series has offset this by reviving the formula of sci-fi chamber pieces based around four spacefaring smegheads means that the show has yet more potential to be fulfilled.

Lucky XIII

We’ve been hearing for a while that Series XIII will start shooting at the beginning of 2019, but aside from the release of the new Blu-ray boxset of the first eight series, there’s been no more Red Dwarf news this year so far.

The cast have all variously confirmed that they’re raring to go on another series, but at the time of writing, the most recent word on what’s happening is Naylor’s. As far back as when Red Dwarf XII was going out on Dave, he told the Express that another series was in development.

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“It would have to fit in with everyone’s schedule. Craig’s very busy and Danny’s very busy as is Chris and Rob. Danny is in Guadeloupe for half a year, so we need to get something that works for him and also we’re quite keen to do a tour.”

In keeping the original cast intact, scheduling has been an issue. However, John-Jules’ commitment in Guadeloupe, playing Officer Dwayne Myers in BBC One’s Death In Paradise, came to an end when he left the show after seven series. Moreover, Dave confirmed in April 2018 that the new series would be filming early this year, meaning that the rest of the cast must also be booked.

Going back to shooting one series, as opposed to the back-to-back production of XI and XII should mean that we get some new Red Dwarf within the next 12 months. However, post-production on the episodes shot in 2016 reportedly lasted eight-nine months, so even if doing one series halves that time, then we’re looking at the end of 2019 at the very earliest, or possibly early next year.

Wait though, what was that about a tour? In the same interview, Naylor clarified: “When I say a tour, I mean do a live show at the O2, so we need to get a schedule that works for the O2 and certainly for Red Dwarf XIII. Probably if we did a Red Dwarf XIII and XIV, it would make the O2 live show more difficult.”

He added: “So we’ll probably do Red Dwarf XIII, live show and come back and probably do XIV after that.”

It’s hard to even imagine what Red Dwarf Live At The O2 (absolutely not an official working title) would look like, but it’s the sort of mad new idea that feels on brand for the show’s digital renaissance. The mentions of two further series afterwards don’t go unnoticed either, because the Dave era has left us in absolutely no doubt that they could do it.

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The End is The Beginning is The End

What’s most impressive about the post-Back To Earth series is that they haven’t relied on warm nostalgia for the show. Granted, we’ve had running jokes and callbacks galore, but they’ve largely been framed within new stories, in episodes which are markedly more characterful than conceptual. Somehow, somewhere along the line, Red Dwarf turned back into a really solid sitcom.

The audience figures for the series show that it’s still popular, and although we’ll leave the consideration of whether you could fill the O2 with the Dwarf faithful to those who have to sell the tickets, a progression to the stage feels like a more natural extension of what we’ve got at the moment than a big-budget movie could have. But moreover, it’s got a cast and crew who are raring to make the time to make more.

As we said at the start, that’s not bad going for a 31-year-old sitcom that has kept the same core cast throughout most of its run. Mathematically, we must be closer to the end of Red Dwarf than we are to the beginning. But in Red Dwarf, The End was the beginning, and having breezed past the just-in-case finale The Beginning with flying colours, it feels like there’s still lots more to come.