Looking Back At RED DWARF - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At RED DWARF

Tony smokes a kipper.
When writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor first pitched Red Dwarf to producer Paul Jackson, his reaction was straightforward. “It’s funny, but I’m not making it, because it’s a science-fiction comedy. Never write a science-fiction comedy.”

That’s the thing about science-fiction comedies. Inspired by the likes of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, almost every comedy writer worth the name at some point comes up with a take on the science-fiction comedy.

The lives and careers of most comedy writers are strewn with failed science-fiction comedies. It’s a mark of the genius of Adams, and a small handful of others who make it work, that they succeeded where almost everyone fails – making funny science-fiction really, really work.

Red Dwarf has so far run for 12 series and a feature-length episode. It’s another one of those great exceptions to the rules of writing. Occasionally – just occasionally – there’s a science-fiction comedy idea where the balance between the comedy and the science fiction works. And when it works, it makes for some of the best comedy you’re ever likely to find – and some of the best science-fiction too.

But the story of Red Dwarf is not really the story of one beast, persevering against all the odds. Red Dwarf has fundamentally changed what it is at several key points along the way.

The first two series – the ones Paul Jackson eventually produced – were very British. Which is to say that, while never being slow, they had an off-beat pace and a generally unglamorous, down-at-heel feel.

They told the story of a couple of great British comedy archetypes – the chilled-out slob and the wannabe-achiever.
Dave Lister (Craig Charles), the slobbiest man in the solar system, is a bottom-rank technician aboard the mining spaceship, Red Dwarf. He has the personal hygiene of a three-week-dead sloth, a girlfriend way out of his league who’s dumped him for somebody better, some mates who are almost as worthless as he is…and a plan. Yes, even the walking pond-scum that is Lister has a plan.

To get over the heartbreak of being dumped by Christine Kochanski, he’s bought a pet cat and brought it on board the ship, against all regulations. Lister’s plan is to save up all his wages, and buy a little piece of land on Fiji. He’s going to have a cat, a sheep, and a cow, and he’s going to breed horses. (Don’t ask – the biological connotations of all this have been raised…)

Arnold J Rimmer (Chris Barrie) is a career-obsessive neat freak with father issues, who yearns with every fibre of his being to be an officer and a gentleman, and yet somehow always fails the astronavigation exam that stands between him and command, and remains the lowest rank on the ship, bar one – a technician, second class. The only life form lower on the ship than Rimmer…is Lister. Even the service robots have a better union than them. And as fate would have it, the slob and the neat freak are forced to bunk together.

So far, so Odd Couple.

But when Lister gets put into stasis for the rest of the trip for bringing the (did we mention, pregnant?) cat on board, and refusing to tell the Captain where it’s hidden, something altogether horrifying happens. With Lister sealed away from the consequences of time in a stasis booth, an engine drive plate is incorrectly repaired by (ahem) some lowly Second Technician, the name of whom isn’t important right now. A terrible nuclear explosion wipes out the crew in seconds. And Holly, the shipboard computer with an IQ of 6000, speeds the mining ship Red Dwarf out of the regular space lanes to avoid contaminating and endangering anyone with whom it might otherwise come into contact.

When Dave Lister emerges from stasis, the radiation is no longer a threat.

It’s no longer a threat because 3 million years have passed, Red Dwarf has been heading out into deep space all that time, and the human race has more than likely died out, making Lister, in all probability, the last human being alive.
Holly the computer has gone a bit…strange being alone for all those years. Meanwhile, a society of sentient, bipedal cats has risen up and left the ship, leaving only one example of the species behind on the ship, the cat…who shall be called Cat (Danny John-Jules). And Holly, who can sustain one fully-formed hologram of a human, with all their personality but none of their body, brings back not Kochanski, not any of Lister’s friends, not anyone he can even vaguely stand – but Rimmer, to help keep his human charge sane.

Taking a lead from Lister and his original plan, the four set off to return to Earth. Dave Lister, the last human being alive, the descendent of his long-dead cat, a computer with holes in its memory, and a hologram for whom being dead is actually a promotion.

All of this? Series 1, Episode 1.

When people call Red Dwarf a high-concept sit-com, they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

The challenge, increasingly, would be to find new things to do with the crew that would be funny, fresh or at least interesting.

Did we mention? It’s so far survived for 12 series and a feature-length episode.
Along the way, the show has embraced emerging scientific theory and mined inventive seams of science fiction to throw ideas into the sitcom’s engine room. Future echoes as you get close to the event horizon of a black hole? Done. Alternative dimensions? Done quite a few times, including: a biological matriarchal society, where it’s the men who have babies; a reality in which the ever-losing Rimmer is the success he believes he should be; a reality where it’s Kochanski who gets put into stasis, rather than Lister, and more.

We’ve encountered white holes – like black holes, but returning matter to the universe. We’ve visited waxwork theme parks where the presence of Rimmer turns holy men and pacifists into the Dirty Dozen, and terraforming worlds which mould themselves to the mentality of a dominant personality. We’ve met schizoid gestalt scientific entities, and swigged down the virus otherwise known as luck. We’ve explored the danger of immersive video games, visited a digital Wild West, met hard-light holograms and Genetically Engineered Life Forms. We’ve found out who killed Kennedy, built an alien killing machine out of Vindaloo, tuned a canary into a dinosaur and met Mr Flibble.

Do not. Mess. With Mr Flibble…

But while those first two series had a down-at-heel British vibe, Series 3 took things up a notch in slickness, budget, and concept. The theme became less of a dirge and more of a rock ballad. The sets got an upgrade, on the logical basis that Lister and Rimmer moved out of their dingy technicians’ quarters and set up camp in the officer’s quarters. Meanwhile, Norman Lovett, who had played Holly as just a head on a screen in the first two series, was replaced by Hatty Hayridge – the Red Dwarf computer effecting a kind of head-only transition in the blink of an eye. And, without losing any of the other cast members, an android butler named Kryten, who had appeared in the Series 2 opener, returned for Series 3 played by a different actor (Robert Llewellyn) to cement an extra dynamic in the show – Lister teaching the android to break its programming and think for itself.
Series 3 brought some of Red Dwarf’s smaller shuttle craft to prominence too – particularly Starbug, which was used to go and seek out new adventures, rather than having everything take place on the main ship.

The bigger, more explorative potential worked well to throw the crew into a range of more active, still-higher concept episodes for Series 3-5 (the second age of Red Dwarf, if you like).

Series 6 gave the show something different again – as if to recognise the degree to which they’d been gallivanting off around deep space, Series 6 had Red Dwarf stolen, by forces or aliens unknown. That did three things to the dynamic of the show. Firstly, it gave it an immediate overall arc – find Red Dwarf. Secondly, it took Hatty Hayridge’s Holly out of the show with an in-universe explanation to cover the fact that Kryten’s beefed-up role as ‘Explainer Of Sciencey Things’ had left Hayridge with less and less to do. And thirdly, it established the smaller Starbug sets as the basis within which our crew lived their lives, focusing in on them and if anything, letting them get even more on each other’s nerves than before.

Red Dwarf would not be recovered until the end of Series 7 – by which time, things would change again, with the introduction of an alternative universe’s version of Christine Kochanski to the crew (played by Chloe Annett, replacing CP Grogan, the show’s original Kochanski). Cue a new dynamic as Lister rediscovers the love of his life – only to discover that things are never as simple as that.

Series 8 changed the dynamic once more, returning the crew to Red Dwarf, but also rebuilding all the regular personnel and throwing our heroes into a giant space-jail that had apparently been in the middle of the ship all along – or at least on the plans from which Red Dwarf and its people were rebuilt by nanobots.
As a way of maintaining a bond between the core characters, and re-introducing original Holly Norman Lovett, it worked well, as well as providing a perhaps slightly forced new rationale to send them off on missions that could deliver the meat of the episodes. By the end of Series 8 though, it was clear that the format couldn’t keep its edge on a full ship for long. So, Red Dwarf was dissolved again, and some dimension-hopping was necessary.

Red Dwarf 9 is not actually Red Dwarf 9. It’s Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, perhaps the oddest Red Dwarf in the show’s history. As the name suggests, it involves the boys from the Dwarf – notably lacking Kochanski - finding a way back to 21st century Earth, and then things all getting a bit…surreal. They visit the set of Coronation Street (where Craig Charles had another gig at the time), and trade Starbug for a road car in a kind of low-budget Blade Runner riff. Interesting? Certainly, but fans were not fond of the reality-breaking potential of this three-episode mini-series.

Unsurprisingly, Series 10, 11, and 12 were a return to business as more or less usual for the Dwarfers – high-concept episodes which each more or less stood on their own merit, with less by way of an arc than the likes of Series 6, 8, or ‘9.’

Series 10-12 are perfectly good, serviceable comedy science-fiction series, but, written by Naylor and a collection of co-writers, rather than Naylor and Rob Grant, who wrote the first six series together, Series 10-12 are an evolution away from the original Grant-Naylor version – a fact which is worth preparing for when you watch them.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, came a Series 13. Except, as with Series 9, it wasn’t a series. This time, it was a full 90-minute feature-length episode, looking slicker and sleeker than Red Dwarf had ever looked – and going back to mine some of the show’s original mythos.
The civilization of cats that grew up in the Red Swarf cargo hold had developed a religion, based on the notion that the race of cats had been saved by a god named Cloister The Stupid (a corruption of Lister, the…erm…well, you get the picture). Red Dwarf: The Promised Land brought the crew of Red Dwarf into contact with these evolved, zealous cats, and asked the question – what if God came back, and was, when all was said and done, a bit of a let-down.

There was a good deal of narrative thrust in this feature-length special, and arguably, the high-concept beginnings of Red Dwarf came back to give it a new lease of life. It whipped along at speed, and gave each of the Dwarf crew just enough to do, while foregrounding Lister and the Cat.

That in itself was welcome, as the ship’s mechanicals – Kryten the android, Rimmer the hologram, and Holly the computer – had been heavily foregrounded in Series 10-12. Taking us back to elements drawn right from the original DNA of the show felt like the Series 3 re-jig, a new energy and a new focus taking Red Dwarf forward for what was by now an entirely new generation of viewers, over 30 years on from the first series.

That’s the point about Red Dwarf. For a science-fiction sit-com, it’s outlasted most if not all competition (We see you, Futurama!). It’s rarely outstayed the welcome of any iteration of its formula, and has always had human comedy and science-fiction comedy running parallel in its veins. Pound for pound, it delivers more belly laughs than a lot of other sit-coms that are 3 years old, let alone 30.

If you’ve never stepped on board Red Dwarf, do it now before you get much older – the comedy of human dynamics is timeless, and the science-fiction is such that most if not all of it remains viable to this day.

If you’re a long-time Dwarfer, you know there’s never a bad time to go back and have a rewatch – but there’s probably never been a better time than now.

Watch Red Dwarf today with a seven-day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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