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Revisiting: Red Dwarf

It was something a bit, well, different. In 1988, science fiction TV at the time was more than a little serious. Red Dwarf bucked that trend. Inside the immaculate corridors of the USS Enterprise-D on Star Trek: The Next Generation, enlightened human lived next to enlightened alien in blissful harmony, with a hearty chuckle and a shade of pastel never far away. In the grimy corridors of the Jupiter Mining Corps ship Red Dwarf, unhygienic human existed next to subservient mechanoid, fashion obsessed feline humanoid and the most worthless hologram you could ever wish to meet – or, as one episode put it, “a dead git”.

Red Dwarf was the British antithesis to the likes of Star Trek, swapping Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future for one in which everyone is pretty much the same, with their own insecurities and filthy habits – just they were doing it on a spaceship instead of being in the comfort of their own home.

Spinning off from a radio drama in 1984 called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet (which starred Chris Barrie), creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor quickly came up with the idea of a TV show. That came after seeing the 1974 film Dark Star, which was also an influence on the original Alien movie. The atmosphere of the grimy, dirty future that appeared in both Alien and Dark Star would be a feature of Red Dwarf, imbuing the adventures of the crew with the sort of lived in surroundings that people could identify with more than the pristine interiors corridors of the Enterprise.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Red Dwarf very nearly didn’t happen. The BBC rejected it at every turn, mainly because it was believed a science fiction sitcom couldn’t work. The comedy part of it wasn’t a problem – but science fiction? That wouldn’t work, under any circumstances. So Red Dwarf stagnated, without anywhere to call home, until it was handed a lifeline by a BBC sitcom called Happy Families. When the budget for a second series of that show was set aside by the Corporation, producer Paul Jackson offered up Red Dwarf as an alternative, and thus, the adventures of the intrepid quartet of Lister, Rimmer, The Cat and Kryten were born.

Therein lies the next part of our story. Originally a three man band with Kryten added much later, casting calls for Red Dwarf called for a trio of diverse and unique characters: The last human being in existence, Dave Lister, with questionable personal hygiene, a mistaken belief he could play the guitar, and a penchant for the strongest of curries. Arnold Rimmer, a dead man, reincarnated as a hologram to prevent Lister from going insane, with enough neuroses to cover the entire Earth five times over, an overinflated sense of self importance and the only remaining photographic collection of 20th Century telegraph poles in the universe. Rounding things off was The Cat, descended from Lister’s pet cat Frankenstein. Vain, fashion conscious and occasionally a little insensitive, his sense of style often made up for his shortcomings, as did his Wolverine-esque sense of smell.

Image via BBC

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

When it came to casting, there was an appetite to cast “proper” actors for the roles, hence the interest of both Alfred Molina and the much missed Alan Rickman in the role of Rimmer. Craig Charles was asked to comment on whether the role of The Cat could be construed as racist and asked to audition for the role of Lister. Rickman and Molina’s interest aside, Chris Barrie got the role of Rimmer – fitting given his role in the radio comedy that would eventually birth Red Dwarf – and Danny John-Jules won the part of The Cat. It’s said he was an hour late for his audition, but so impressed were the producers with his research into the role (he’d studied Desmond Morris’s Catwatching book, and learned how not to blink), and the fact he turned up fully suited and booted in what would become the character’s trademark outfit, it was hard not to give him the job.

Rounding off the first season cast was Norman Lovett as Holly, the ship’s computer. Lovett, a stand up comedian, had originally auditioned for Rimmer, but, when landing the part of Holly, the role was expanded to give him more lines, accommodating his deadpan delivery.

Image via BBC

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

Premièring on the 15th February 1988, Grant and Naylor’s creation immediately began to garner plaudits – if not the audience figures. Despite the first episode getting over four million people to watch it, the first series saw relatively poor ratings. That said, the “odd couple” dynamic between Lister and Rimmer made people laugh, and the chemistry between Barrie and Charles was more than likely the main reason – but let’s not forget it was fundamentally different to most other sci-fi shows of the times – and that’s what it was marketed as. Star Trek, Babylon 5 etc were all very serious dramas, willing to showcase human emotion and CGI on a grand scale. Series one of Red Dwarf concerned itself mainly on showing how flawed the human race was, using basic sets, and relying on the injection of comedy characterisation from its two main leads.

Series two saw a slight deviation from the previous one, with the addition of the Blue Midget transport ship, allowing the team to stretch their minimal budget by going off planet, but the majority of the episodes remained purely ship based – apart from the opener, which introduced the character of Kryten, who would eventually become the fourth member of the crew. Played here by David Ross, and not his later incarnation of Robert Llewellyn, he lacks the wit and delivery that Llewellyn would later bring to the mechanoid’s psyche. He wouldn’t become a regular until series three. The traditional themes of parallel universes, time travel and insane artificial intelligences popped up in this series, and while they were given somewhat of a fresh spin, it was only with the third series that things settled into a groove that would herald the show’s true success.

Image via BBC

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

Rob Grant and Doug Naylor formed Grant Naylor productions, and took full control of the show, leading to some changes. Kryten returned, this time played by Llewellyn, as Ross wasn’t available due to stage commitments. It also meant that now the cast had an extra person to bounce off, and the potential arrived for new interactions, new stories and, with a larger budget thanks to series two’s success, the opportunity to make things a little slicker. Improved opening titles and the introduction of the exploration craft Starbug meant that the era of Red Dwarf that many people have now become familiar with had arrived.

 

Series three saw some of the classic episodes of the time, like “Backwards” (where Rimmer and Kryten become stars on a parallel Earth where everything moves in reverse), “Polymorph” (featuring an emotion leaching creature in homage to Ridley Scott’s Alien), and “The Last Day” (a poignant if ultimately pointless farewell for Kryten). It also included some sharper dialogue, parodying some more “upper class” sci-fi while it was at it:

Kryten: What about the Space Corps Directive, which states, “It is our primary overriding duty to contact other life-forms, exchange information and, whenever possible, bring them home”?
Rimmer: What about the Rimmer Directive, which states “Never tangle with anything that’s got more teeth than the entire Osmond family”?

Red Dwarf continued to thrive, and the interaction between the cast reached levels that showed each was both comfortable with their own character and those around them. The low budget look was retained, as was filming in front of a studio audience (for interior scenes at least), which helped the cast both with their comic timing and the way in which episodes would naturally evolve. If series three was the starting point for Red Dwarf’s golden period, series four and five built it up even further. Even when tackling thorny, political issues (such as the episode “Meltdown”, featuring warring historical waxworks who ultimately wipe each other out at a despotic Rimmer’s urging and misguided military tactics), the show retained both the comedy and the heart that set it apart from some of its contemporaries. For instance, would this exchange, from series four’s Justice, ever happen in Star Trek

[Lister takes the witness stand]
Kryten: Name?
Lister: Dave Lister.
Kryten: Occupation?
Lister: [looks bewildered for a moment, then answers] Uh, bum.
Kryten: Sir, would you describe the accused [Rimmer] as a friend?
Cat: Take the Fifth!
Kryten: Sir, please answer the question. Remember you are under polygraphic surveillance: Would you describe the accused as a friend?
Lister: No, I’d describe the accused as a git.

Series five, and to a greater extent series six, are accused of being lacklustre “Monster of the Week” archetypes – and there was some degree of disruption behind the scenes. Regular director Ed Bye departed for series five, replaced by Juliet May, but she reportedly wasn’t keen on the science fiction aspect of the show. Leaving midway through the season, the remaining episodes were directed by Grant and Naylor. Episodes “Holoship” and “The Inquisitor” explored was it was to be human (or a hologram), while “Quarantine” is a tour de force for Barrie’s increasingly loony Rimmer.

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

The final episode, “Back to Reality”, would serve as an insurance policy in case the cast couldn’t get back together for series six. After being affected by the hallucinogenic effects of the so-called “Despair Squid”, the crew think they’ve been playing a virtual reality video game, and that their turn playing the characters of Red Dwarf has ended. Going back to their apparent “real” lives, they eventually realise they’re under the squid’s spell, and recover before heading off into the sunset. It earned a critical response after being aired in March 1992, gaining a nomination for an International Emmy Award, and in 1995, following a BBC viewers vote, it was repeated on 22 December 1995 as “The Best Ever Red Dwarf”. It also featured the creation of one of the show’s best loved alternate universe characters (the other being Rimmer’s heroic duplicate, “Ace” Rimmer), in Cat’s cowardly, unstylish, bowl haircutted Duane Dibley.

Series six was rushed due to the BBC wanting the series done quickly, and many fundamental changes were made, including the crew losing Red Dwarf, thanks to some over eager nanobots stealing it then de-constructing it (the series being set aboard Starbug), Holly being absent, and the introduction of a series arc that would culminate in the final episode, and the show’s eventual hiatus. All that aside though, series six is generally remembered for Red Dwarf’s crowning glory, the episode “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”.

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

In a nutshell, the ship’s computer contracts a virus from a group of rogue simulants, and Kryten hooks himself up to it to purge it. The only problem is, the virus is incredibly powerful, and Kryten needs the rest of the crew to help him. They enter a virtual reality video game and the whole thing turns into a Western. It mixes that genre with sci-fi, as well as a hearty dose of comedy, paying tribute to classic Westerns like Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven and more. Add to that composer Howard Goodall’s adaptation of the usual score to incorporate Wild West themes from Ennio Morricone’s Dollars Trilogy, and it became a favourite. It won the show an International Emmy Award in 1994, and is regarded as perhaps the best Grant and Naylor ever came up with. You can find our more about it here.

Sadly, series seven was to feature more changes – not necessarily for the better. Rob Grant left to pursue other projects, and Chris Barrie, reportedly unhappy with the extra workload that series six brought, decided not to carry on. He was replaced by the returning Christine Kochanski, Lister’s erstwhile love interest. Gone also was the practice of filming in front of a live audience, with the decision made to film with one camera, much like movies were being made. It led to a somewhat hit and miss collection of episodes, with “Ace” Rimmer’s return and death, leading to the other Rimmer’s departure in “Stoke me a Clipper” probably being the highlight. The series’ attempts to try and encourage a degree of animosity between Kryten and Kochanski over Lister’s attention rapidly wore thin, and not even a comedy dance routine in the episode “Blue” was to save this series from being one that promised much, but failed to deliver.

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

Image via BBC/Grant Naylor Productions

Perhaps realising that the previous series hadn’t lived up to expectations, series seven saw more changes, including the return of Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett. The biggest return though, was that of Red Dwarf itself. The production team felt bringing back earlier elements of the show’s success, including recording in front of a studio audience, would bring back the viewers. The explanation that the nanobots who had stolen the ship in the first place had now rebuilt it, along with resurrecting the crew (including a human version of Rimmer). A three year hiatus between that and series seven didn’t seem to put people off, with the first episode attracting more than eight million viewers to their TV screens in 1999. There was though, something missing. The show had become a series of sketches linked together by flimsy plot threads. With the quartet, along with Kochanski, now imprisoned in the ship’s brig, the innuendo, in the past suggested, now became overt. Episodes like “Krytie TV”, about around Kryten installing cameras in the ladies showers, were quite a jump from the earlier premise of what it was to be human. Viewing figures also declined, and by the time the last episode of the series aired on the 5th April 1999, the number watching had nearly halved. The series relative lack of success scuppered any chance of a movie franchise that had been previously mooted, and despite there being now plenty of episodes to go into syndication both in the UK and US markets, the BBC was to turn down the chance to commission a ninth series. Doug Naylor went into some detail (which you can read here), but the harsh truth is the BBC just didn’t fancy it any more. After backing a show which lost half its viewers over the course of an eight episode run, it decided to look elsewhere for success.
It meant another hiatus for Red Dwarf, but one that was to last far longer than last time. Ten years went by before UKTV channel Dave commissioned a three episode, 21st anniversary special to be screened over the Bank Holiday Weekend in 2009.

Image via UKTV/Dave

Image via UKTV/Dave

“Back to Earth” was much different than what had gone before, and entrenched itself in knowing winks to its fanbase, then going as far as to include them. The thrust of the story, where the crew travel to an alternate dimension (ours), and interact with fans of the show and the actors who play them (Dave Lister talking to Craig Charles is a nice moment), was a spin on many a familiar Dwarf trope, but the end, finished up a homage to Blade Runner, with both it’s look and themes of setting a destiny for yourself outside of what society had intended. The first of the three stories attracted a high for Dave at the time, bringing in around 2.6m viewers, but inevitably, that was to drop off – more than half didn’t watch the second. Although it held it’s numbers for the third episode, and the figures of people watching the +1 repeat an hour later was strong, it couldn’t hide the fact that with each new dawn, people stopped watching as time went on. While Back to Earth brought a welcome blast of nostalgia back to screens, it failed to capture the claustrophobic nature of the show’s most successful seasons. Some would argue setting it in the actual “real” world took away some of its more successful sci-fi elements – despite the dystopian-set ending.

The people running the Dave channel though, had seen enough to warrant bringing back the cast and crew for a tenth series – even though it would take another three years to get it on UK TV screens.

Series ten was announced in 2011, and had the backing of the cast, with Craig Charles, the returning Hattie Hayridge, Chris Barrie and Robert Llewellyn all talking it up prior to it even being greenlit. Reuniting the cast from its most successful period, and now working on a budget similar to that of series four, it bred innovation again. Written again solely by Naylor, it brought back the themes that had first brought it widespread acclaim: Lister’s quest to find meaning, Rimmer’s desire to better himself undermined by his own hubris and arrogance, the Cat’s vanity and Kryten’s relentless subservience. Exploring these factors made the show loved again after years of missteps, and while numbers again declined after the first episode, they then steadied, averaging around the 1.5m mark, proving that the Dwarfers had reclaimed some of their past glories.

Image via UKTV/Dave

Image via UKTV/Dave

More new series are planned, with plans to screen them in 2016 and 2017. Dave obviously feels there is enough of a following for Red Dwarf to keep the show alive for more – but what of the show’s legacy? Is there still room for a sci-fi comedy that takes the time to explore the human condition, while at the same time debating what type of lager went best with a vindaloo? In short, both science fiction, and comedy, have moved on since, and what once made Red Dwarf such a success would not now capture the same level of appeal as it did during it’s heyday. With comedies encompassing the “family unit”, or fourth wall breaking character (see the likes of Gavin and Stacey and Miranda for the shows that garner critical acclaim now), four lads in a spaceship doesn’t seem the stuff to capture audiences now – not that that’s a good thing. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and let’s face it, how many of us really now love pratfalling, self deprecating fat people and expletive laden monologues, in the same way we did Rimmer misquoting Space Corps Directives? On the flipside, science fiction has also changed. Once, parodying the likes of Star Trek made people laugh – now, daring to laugh at the way Doctor Who works creates foul mouthed ire from fans who love the show so much, they hate any form of criticism, even in jest. Bigger budgets also raise expectations. Part of Red Dwarf’s look was its willingness to use practical effects – at a time when CGI was in its infancy. While the computer generated effects often looked expensive, they didn’t always look realistic. Now, convincing CGI can be done with a relatively small outlay – and people expect it when they tune into any show set beyond the stars. With its proliferacy in both TV and movie projects, it’s now expected that every show uses it. Red Dwarf using practical effects now would make it look dated, and even though it was ahead of it’s time using CGI, only now, with a renewed emphasis on characterisation has the balance been struck. Red Dwarf can work now, but not on the level it once did. It was of it’s time, but in a show that called its first episode “The End”, and the last, “The Beginning”, who’s to say its time won’t come again?

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