The Lazy Geek’s Guide to: Red Dwarf

Never had the joys of Red Dwarf before? Let Seb point you in the right direction...

Look up “cult” in the dictionary, and you’ll find the Red Dwarf logo, so often is the word used to describe this space-set sitcom, which ran for eight series on BBC2 between 1988 and 1999, before being revived by digital channel Dave in 2009. It also spawned a successful series of tie-in novels and a long-in-development-hell movie, made stars out of Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn, and introduced the word “smeg” to an unsuspecting world.

The Premise

“This is an SOS distress call from the mining ship Red Dwarf. The crew are dead, killed by a radiation leak. The only survivors were Dave Lister, who was in suspended animation during the disaster, and his pregnant cat, who was safely sealed in the hold. Revived three million years later, Lister’s only companions are a lifeform who evolved from his cat, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram simulation of one of the dead crew. Message ends.”

Starting out as an ‘odd-couple’-style claustrophobic sitcom that happened to be set in space (series I-II), Red Dwarf would subsequently develop into a broader comedy about space adventuring (series III-VI), then into a slightly darker comedy-drama (series VII) and finally an even-broader-than-before, prison-set ‘wacky’ sitcom (series VIII. Just… don’t ask).

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Main Characters

Chicken-soup-machine repairman, and the lowest-ranking crew member on Red Dwarf, Dave Lister (Craig Charles) had been placed in stasis as punishment for smuggling a cat onboard when a radiation leak wiped out the entire crew. Revived when the radiation reached a safe level, three million years later, he sets himself a mission to get back home to Earth. Initially an ill-educated slob, Lister develops over the course of the series (and, notably, the novels) to become a capable “astro”, and shown to be possessed of good moral character and sense.

Revived as a hologram (of which only one could be sustained by the ship’s power) to “keep Lister sane”, deceased former bunkmate Arnold Judas Rimmer (Chris Barrie) is neurotic, obsessed with becoming an officer, and cowardly in the extreme. In the early series he’s essentially the antagonist to Lister’s lead, but while the contrast between the pair remains at the root of the show’s dynamic throughout, as time goes by viewer sympathy for him is fostered by gradually revealed information about his bizarre upbringing and pathological loneliness. Rimmer is also contrasted sharply with his alternate universe double, the heroic space adventurer “Ace” Rimmer.

The last member of a race of cat people that evolved in the ship’s hold during Lister’s three million years in stasis, The Cat (Danny John Jules) was initially a preening, self-obsessed and downright cat-like figure, rarely engaging directly with the other characters in the early series. As the years went by, he became more human-like by virtue of spending his time around them, and became a more generic ‘dumb’ character.

After a one-off appearance in series II (where he was played by David Ross), the sanitation mechanoid Kryten joined the crew permanently in series III, now with Robert Llewellyn under the rubber mask. Kryten’s distinguishing feature is that as a mechanoid, he’s programmed to serve, and never take on human traits such as selfishness, lying, cheating and so on. Via Lister’s encouragement, however, he gradually breaks this programming, although he never quite shakes his overactive guilt chip.

Other characters include Holly, the ship’s computer whose IQ of 6000 was severely damaged by computer senility (played by Norman Lovett in the first two series, before a “head sex change” to Hattie Hayridge for three to five, left entirely out of six before returning – factory reset – as Lovett for seven and eight), Kristine Kochanski, Lister’s retcon-friendly old girlfriend, played in early series flashbacks by Clare Grogan before an alternate universe version (Chloe Annett) joined the crew in series seven, and Frank Hollister (Mac McDonald), the portly captain of Red Dwarf, resurrected along with the rest of the ship’s thousand-strong crew in series eight.

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Why We Like It

The thing about Dwarf is that it’s both great sci-fi and great comedy. While not really sci-fi writers by trade (prior to Dwarf, they’d worked on radio sketch comedy and Spitting Image, including writing The Chicken Song), creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor packed the series out with cracking concepts – some clever reworkings of existing ideas, but some genuinely original, and it was this that helped elevate it above being a simple, one-dimensional parody.

Simply put, there are occasions when even if the comedy weren’t there, Dwarf would still be a supremely watchable sci-fi show in its own right (and the novels, particularly Naylor’s Last Human, were especially good at this).

But, of course, it’s the comedy that really makes it. A superb character dynamic between Lister and Rimmer hits the ground running right from the start, and throughout the first six series it maintains a delicate balance between wit, puerility and slapstick without ever losing the knack for a killer insult or one-liner. Oh, and it’s also worth noting (since it’s rarely discussed outside of fandom) the absolutely magnificent work of the BBC’s Model Unit. The same team that crafted so much brilliance on both Classic and New Doctor Who really went to town on Dwarf like it was their own pet project, coming up with some wonderful and unique ship designs, breathtakingly detailed in their realisation.

Why It Sucks

Ignoring the later series for a moment (see Nuke the Fridge, below), it’s fair to say that even the early series of Dwarf aren’t without their (staunchly incorrect) critics. Often the series is dismissed as overly broad and puerile (which is nonsense to anyone who’s actually seen, say, series II), and for some reason its creators and main cast (made up of a poet, an impressionist, a dancer and a standup) never quite seemed as fashionable as their alternative comedy peers. And although, again, largely inaccurate, there is a certain stereotype about the greasy-haired, black-t-shirt-wearing Red Dwarf fan. And, no, the whole “smeg” thing probably doesn’t help the show’s cause.

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Best Episodes

Back To Reality (series V)

The crew are apparently killed in an underwater crash, before waking up to discover that they are, in fact, a bunch of losers who’ve been playing the artificial reality game, Red Dwarf, for the last few years. Coming as it did right at the end of the show’s fifth series, this was genuine in its teasing that everything viewers had seen up to that point was a lie, and that the main cast might be replaced by new players. Out Of Time (series VI)

The Dwarfers discover a time machine on a derelict space station, but before they get the chance to properly use it, their future selves arrive. Wealthy, bloated and corrupt, the future crew demand vital data on the time machine from their past selves in order to continue bounding through history – but ‘our’ crew refuse, leading to a tense standoff and a cracking cliffhanger. The entire episode has a wonderful, dark, ominous atmosphere hanging over it, but still manages to break out the laughs.

Thanks For The Memory (series II)

Also known (by about three of us) as ‘the Steven Moffat-esque one’, the crew wake up to discover a pair of broken legs, two days missing from their memories and a completed jigsaw. Piecing together events, they discover that as a ‘deathday’ present, Lister had planted six months of his memory into the mind of the perennially-lonely Rimmer, giving him a passionate love affair to remember. Of course, it doesn’t exactly go to plan…

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Future Echoes (series I)

The second ever episode, and the one with which Red Dwarf stamped its mark as intelligent idea-driven sci-fi that also happened to be bloody funny. The ship breaks the light barrier, and consequently the crew find themselves overtaking events before they’ve actually happened, seeing them as “future echoes”. The time-disjointed conversation between Lister and two versions of Rimmer is about as clever as the show ever got.

Gunmen Of The Apocalypse (series VI)

Winner of an International Emmy Award, Gunmen sees the crew enter an artificial reality simulation (yes, another one) in order to fight a virus attacking Kryten’s brain. The scenario they wind up in – a cheesy old Western – makes for a brilliant bit of format-breaking, and some truly inspired set pieces. Also infamous as the episode that legendarily had Patrick Stewart on the verge of calling his lawyer (so similar was the setup to TNG‘s A Fistful Of Datas) until he realised it was a sitcom.

Nuke The Fridge Moment

It’s oversimplifying it a bit to suggest that the departure of Rob Grant after 1993’s series VI was the single unavoidable catalyst for the show’s decline, but, well, as both writers’ subsequent catalogues have shown (dare we mention Grant’s ITV sitcom Dark Ages and the intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful The Strangerers?), the whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. Essentially, Naylor spent series VII indulging a tendency for sci-fi plotting over pure comedy (not entirely without success – the JFK episode is still a cracking piece of telly, just with too few jokes in it), and then following negative fan reaction, overcompensated with the often downright offensive series VIII.

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What Happened To It?

Although the eighth series enjoyed the show’s best ratings yet and ended on a cliffhanger, production of the TV show was put on hold while Naylor sought funding for a long-awaited movie version. By 2007, however, he’d still had no joy, and in the meantime, the BBC had decided that they’d no longer be interested in producing a new series.

Enter Dave, who commissioned a three-part Easter special in 2009, originally intended as an anniversary celebration of the show, but which turned out to be a full-on continuation titled Back To Earth. Breaking all sorts of records for digital-only ratings, the success of BTE (which divided fans, but which was actually a significant improvement over the last two ‘proper’ series of the show) has led to the ordering of a new six-part series, due to record and air some time in 2010.

You’ll Like Red Dwarf if you like:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Doctor Who Dark Star Blade Runner Silent Running