Red Dwarf: A Retrospective

For no other reason than ‘It’s a Pandemic’ I decided to binge a TV show recently. Anyone who knows me will realise how strange this is as I am generally not a big fan of TV shows and certainly not ongoing serials but the one I chose was the British sitcom Red Dwarf, as the first 8 series are available on UK Netflix at the moment and I wasn’t sure I’d seen them all.

Red Dwarf was a staple of BBC scheduling in the 90s when, if there wasn’t a new series on the way they would consistently show repeats/reruns. Consequently it was never something I would watch consistently as a kid but I would watch if it was on. It was a post-watershed show too (for the uninitiated the Watershed was 9pm when UK TV shows switched to adult programming, nothing before 9pm was allowed to include sex, drugs, violence, adult themes etc, it might still be in place today but is much more relaxed if it is) which meant it was risqué viewing for a kid but also one of the few British made sci fi shows that filled the void after Doctor Who disappeared, not to return for 16 years. (Thankfully though Blake’s 7 never got any repeat showings…) As such it was core viewing for a kid like me who loved sci fi but it also meant I never saw all of it. Repeats back then were inconsistent, the Beeb ran whatever episodes they felt like at the time, but the most regularly shown Red Dwarf series was VI which I saw the most of as a kid. But recently I had the time (like everyone) so I decided it was time to go over the whole thing, or at least the majority of it, and see what I’d missed. Turns out, not much. I remembered the majority of series I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII but almost none of series III and V. Watching every episode in a row, however, was a dizzying experience and watching it with fresh, adult eyes a few things really stood out.

The first and most glaring thing that stood out was the bizarre inconsistencies. Characters appear and disappear without much ceremony (Kryten being the most notable example, though Cat can also go episodes with only a line or two) the production design of the show shifts gear violently between seasons (more to do with increase in budget as the show progressed) and a totally absent sense of continuity (backstory and future setups/foreshadowing are dropped without any mention). Back in the old days of broadcast television — I’m afraid it is the old days now, kids — consistency wasn’t much of an issue, the need for it has only become more prominent with binge culture thanks to the rise of ‘boxsets’ and all access streaming, so introducing new plots and characters and dropping others back then wasn’t much of an issue.

What was a real shock to discover was that it isn’t funny. At all. Over the course of the six series I watched I can count on one hand the times I laughed out loud and the rest of the time the humour fell totally flat. Some of this can be attributed to it being rather dated now but not all. There are plenty of comedy shows that are far older and have stood the test of time far better. “Smeg head” and “Goit” were probably hilariously innovative insults back in 1988 but now they just seem woefully limp. Also the humour kind of sits adjacent to the rest of the show. There will be whole scenes and conversations that are put in place purely to make jokes and having no bearing on the characters or plot. If they were as hilarious as the studio audience thinks they are it might have been worth it but whether its age or understanding or context or whatever these sections just seem to get in the way rather than make me laugh. By contrast, I watched the equally unfunny Final Space recently, basically an animated version of Red Dwarf, and while that also only got one or two full laughs from me, I could actually see the function of the humour, not so with Red Dwarf. Initially I thought this was because it is a show ostensibly about boredom and that humorous conversation was all there was for the main cast but as it got more adventurous with its plot the comedy still didn’t integrate. Consequently it was a strange viewing experience that despite every punchline getting a round of loud canned laughter blasting along with it to signal where to laugh, I would probably have missed the jokes entirely. I realise though this is perhaps just me. I was far happier when The League of Gentlemen ditched the studio audience format for series three, for instance. Interestingly, however, Red Dwarf tries the same thing in series VII by trying to give it a filmic look and removing the laugh track. They did however chicken out of this and reinstate the laugh track on some episodes in repeats. All of which creates a weird effect that further alienated me and probably did for a lot of other people too because series VIII returned to the Multicam, studio audience format without any fanfare. Given all this, its inconsistency, its datedness, its lack of laughs and so on, why did I keep watching? Well this was the other big surprise: it’s one of the best sci fi shows the BBC ever made.

Red Dwarf’s sci fi chops are strong. Its initial setup, that Humanity’s worst slob is the only human left alive after surviving for three million years in stasis abroad a mining vessel that’s been adrift the whole time, is already solid stuff but then it subverts standard sci fi expectation. Where Star Trek: Voyager uses the same premise to go on all sorts of adventures with a well stocked fridge and well staffed crew, Red Dwarf isolates its main character entirely. Lister’s only companion is an evolved descendent of his pet cat (making him their God) and a Hologram, an officious bureaucrat who can’t interact with the world around him. And that’s the first two seasons. It assiduously avoids rote sci fi topics like aliens or space ship battles, in favour of more existential fare. Space in Red Dwarf is vast and empty. From the outset Red Dwarf is far more interested in high concept ideas like White Holes, Future Echoes, physically manifesting elements of the psyche and reversed entropy (a topic untouched until Tenet and I’m certain Nolan must have watched the SDRAWKCAB episode). Even the more generic topics like living in a simulation are given interesting spins like the subconscious affecting conscious decisions and how the simulation reacts, all years before The Matrix, Rick & Morty and Ready Player One et al. There’s even a fantastic episode at the end of series II set in a gender reversed parallel universe where where Lister gets pregnant and Rimmer gets treated the same way he treats women. It’s the sort of episode that would draw complaints today from your average UKIP candidate about liberal bias in BBC or something so christ knows how radical it appeared back then. Though I’ve griped about its consistency, one thing that does remain consistent throughout the show is how adventurous its concepts are. Even on the woefully thin budget they started with Red Dwarf goes out of its way to create interesting and unique science fiction scenarios for its underprepared crew to navigate. Where Doctor Who had meandered to a close just as Red Dwarf started, retreading old ground and relying more on (genuinely terrifying) monsters of the week, it left a gulf for a good mainstream sci fi show that could take up the mantle Douglas Adams had left to be so sadly neglected for so long. Unfortunately, Red Dwarf is nowhere near as funny as Hitchhiker’s Guide but it is almost as inventive. Given that it was also being broadcast at the same time as Star Trek was to become the all network juggernaut it became in the 90s, Red Dwarf offers a far more stark, and more probable, space faring future for the human race. While The Next Generation portrayed a hopeful human race, exploring the stars at The End of History, reflecting the naive optimism of a certain proportion of society at the time, Red Dwarf depicts a bunch of low paid workers forgotten and abandoned in the desolation of mining areas now bereft of any need for human intervention. It’s a stark and bleak, uniquely British, take on sci fi in the post-Thatcher age.

I admit I gave up the binge at series VII. The laughs were too few by then and I remembered the last two BBC series better than the others and the revival a decade later has proved truly cringeworthy, but looking back on the show’s heyday was full of surprises. It showed me how much TV has changed in the last 30 years, for good and bad, it reminded me nostalgia goggles might be best left on for some things, but most of all it made me long for a true blue UK sci fi show to return. The Beeb has heaped all those eggs in its Doctor Who basket, and for good reason given how lucrative that has been for them, but the technicolour Liberalism of ‘New Who’ has never had the same tang as the stark and grim quarries of Pertwee and McCoy for me. I was delighted that Devs was BBC produced but watching Red Dwarf has made me long for a low-budget, on-going uniquely British sci fi show. As much as I think Blake’s 7 is rubbish it is so quintessentially British with its all-out-nihilistic finale and its a tone I think is missing from modern sci fi. It’s all very well researched and plausible today but it’s never as fanciful and silly as Red Dwarf was and its rarely as adventurous or inventive. Given the politics of today and the mainstream prominence of science fiction (that was once only a niche market and the bastion of nerds back then, remember) there’s a huge hole in the market for a new British sci fi show. I mean, if anyone from the BBC is reading this, hit me up, I have plenty of ideas. Meanwhile, Red Dwarf is still worth watching but not if you’re expecting laughs.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.