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 life form who evolved from his cat, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram simulation of one of the dead crew.
It was thirty years ago today that Red Dwarf debuted on BBC Two. Creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had been warned against doing a science fiction comedy, but they did it anyway. Although actors like Alan Rickman and Alfred Molina auditioned, the roles ended up going to a performance poet (Craig Charles as Lister), an impressionist (Chris Barrie as Rimmer), a dancer (Danny John-Jules as the Cat), and one actual career comedian to keep up appearances (Norman Lovett as Holly).
Like a number of young American geeks of the 1990s, I first saw Red Dwarf on my local PBS station on a Saturday night, where it was often accompanied by Blackadder and other British comedies. I’ve always thought PBS’s programming strategy was cruelly precise there: “We’ve crafted a programming block to cater to nerds, but when oh when can we be fairly certain they will be home to watch it?”
(As an aside to British readers, you may have wondered what it is about American geeks that so often causes us to have anglophile tendencies and a particular love of British comedy and sci-fi. But I will remind you that American geeks who have spent a goodly amount of time thinking about the trope of the “parallel universe” can find in Britain an uncannily approximate real-world equivalent of the concept. Not a totally alien or exotic culture, but one that merely goes left when we go right—quite literally in the case of electing a side of the road on which to drive your car. The language is largely the same but with lots of alternative terms, spellings, and pronunciations. The cultural positions of “the North” and “the South” are sort of reversed. You have a monarchy—which is something we understand but will never truly know—and the metric system and nationalized healthcare—which are things we should know and understand but still don’t. Both our realities have James Corden and Gordon Ramsay, but you seem to have had them first. So I hope you don’t scorn us for fetishizing your culture based on a limited understanding of it and frequently perpetuating stereotypes, which I do feel apologetic about on behalf of my countrymen. It’s just that we all want to be Sliders, even if we never watched that show.)
I actually sought out Red Dwarf, but not because I’d heard good things about it. It was entirely based on the episode synopses in the TV section of the newspaper. I may be misremembering, but I could swear that “Parallel Universe” was described as “The Cat dances; Lister thinks he is pregnant.” You can see how curiosity might be aroused.
So I watched it and got hooked and tuned in every week. They originally played two episodes a week, and in those pre-Series VII days, that meant you could cycle through the whole series just under three times a year, which was good because in those days you will recall that buying a complete run of a TV show was prohibitively expensive on VHS. Even so, somehow I kept managing to miss “Justice,” and as a result the episode took on a sort of legendary status in my mind, fueled by readings of episode guides on any one of dozens of Angelfire and Geocities websites. (You want MIDIs of the theme song in multiple versions? Of course you do. You might also be interested in spending an hour and a half downloading a .wav of a treasured ten-second dialogue exchange.)
Anyway, this charmingly clumsy approach seems like one of the better ways to get into the show. I am of course completely biased by personal experience, but it seems strange to me that someone could love Red Dwarf if they hadn’t first been exposed to it at a young age. I’m only three years older than the show (do the math), and I guess I could imagine just finding this show now and appreciating it, perhaps even really liking it. But the fan who grows up with Red Dwarf is programmed by the show, instinctively appreciating the rhythms, the way it flits between high-concept sci-fi and broad, anything-for-a-laugh-even-at-the-expense-of-good-taste humor, the look and feel of low-budget filmmaking on video. Spaceships never look quite right unless they’re models shot at high speed, do they? I could say what I am doing here is romanticizing indoctrination, but then I remember I am talking about a TV show that is often very beautiful and also once had a monster disguise itself as underwear and try to crush a dude’s junk, so maybe I ought to tone down the pretension before the pointing and the laughing begin.
The first two series were a sitcom set in space, based around the standard comedy premise of “two people who can’t stand each other forced to live or work in close proximity,” and if I’m honest, it’s the iteration of the show I love best; it’s the version that hooked me. Series III introduced Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) to the crew and replaced Norman Lovett’s Holly with Hattie Hayridge’s, and for the next four series, the show became sort of “Next Generation, but slobby and funny.” These first six series (1988-1993) make up the first, “classic” run of the show. Red Dwarf came back in 1997 for a wrongfooted Series VII, then again in 1999 for an even wrongerfooted Series VIII before vanishing for ten years. In 2009, Dave (a network with a terrible name) brought the show back for a three-part reunion special, Back to Earth, which was perhaps the wrongest foot of all.
I was quite prepared to accept that new Red Dwarf could never be as good as the old Red Dwarf. I could try to reason it away by saying that the show never recovered from Rob Grant’s departure from the writing after Series VI, but the truth is, I had internalized those first thirty-six episodes from the first run, and new stuff just wasn’t the same because it hadn’t been there for me on the Southeastern Wisconsin Saturday nights of my youth. It’s the reason why The Simpsons can’t ever truly feel right again, nor Star Wars, nor the Marvel Universe.
But lo and behold, Dave picked up three more series of Red Dwarf (the last of which aired late last year), and the new episodes were…pretty good, actually. Purposefully going back to basics an embracing what worked in the past while trying new things and different types of comedy, Series X, XI, and XII were very uneven and occasionally embarrassing, but scattered highlights actually cracked my own personal top thirty-six (“M-Corp” and “Give & Take” come in at #19 and #20 in my estimation), which I know because I recently ranked every episode for the website Ganymede & Titan’s anniversary poll, and I’d like to share my top ten with you.
#10 – The Inquisitor (S5E2)
Featuring the best “villain” the series ever had, this episode takes a sci-fi concept you could play perfectly straight (a time-traveling mechanoid that forces individuals to justify their existence or be erased from history) and injects our characters. I like Series III-and-onward Red Dwarf best when there’s not much funny about the threat of the episode itself, and it’s the characters that bring out the comedy.
#9 – Dimension Jump (S4E5)
In “The Inquisitor” we meet an alternative Lister and Kryten, and in this episode we meet an alternative Rimmer, a devil-may-care, sexually magnetic test pilot called “Ace.” Chris Barrie getting to play against type is a fun treat, but it’s the twist at the end where you find out where the two Rimmers diverged that makes this a thoughtful classic.
#8 – Marooned (S3E2)
A classic bottle episode marries the “Rimmer and Lister bicker in close quarters” character-driven comedy of Series I and II with the Series III+ production upgrade.
#7 – Quarantine (S5E4)
This one is just silly fun. No introspection, no philosophical business, just a straightforward comedy adventure as Rimmer is infected with a hologrammatic virus that turns him into an insane, psychokinetic killing machine wielding a penguin puppet.
#6 – Queeg (S2E5)
Holly is replaced by a stricter, no-nonsense computer, giving Norman Lovett a rare and enjoyable shot in the spotlight. One of the purely funniest, most enjoyable episodes of the entire series, I think.
#5 – Balance of Power (S1E3)
This is the first episode I ever saw. This doesn’t tend to rank high on many fan lists, but I find this episode a perfect summary of the contradictions that entranced me about Red Dwarf. Take a high-concept science-fiction show and then dedicate an episode to one character trying to pass a chef’s exam purely to irritate another character.
#4 – Polymorph (S3E3)
More silly fun. The first “Dwarfers vs. a giant monster” episode features two of the series’ all-time biggest laughs (Rimmer “walking in” on Kryten and Lister, and Rimmer voicing his concern about the acronym of the Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society).
#3 – Back to Reality (S5E6)
This one almost always gets named the best episode in the entire series, which is funny because by design it’s one of the episodes least like the rest of Red Dwarf. This one manages a lot of great character work without ever stopping the action and an all-time great guest star in Timothy Spall.
#2 – Holoship (S5E1)
Rimmer is the show’s richest and most interesting character when the writers want him to be, and we get to see Chris Barrie pull at the edges of the character a bit as he attempts to join a crew of intellectually advanced holograms. It’s not as flashy as Ace Rimmer, but his one turn as a romantic lead is genuinely touching and suggests a Rimmer we’ve not seen before and never will again.
#1 – Thanks for the Memory (S2E3)
This is everything I love about Red Dwarf (particularly the first two series) firing on all cylinders. Rather than injecting humor into sci-fi, “Thanks” injects sci-fi into humor. Possibly the best pure acting turn for both Chris Barrie and Craig Charles, it’s rooted entirely in real human emotion and uses science fiction concepts to explore those emotions and situations in ways a realistic sitcom couldn’t.
Anyway, happy thirtieth, Red Dwarf. Feel free to wallow in slobbiness with me in the comments.