Welcome Back to Red Dwarf: The Best Running Joke on UK Television

My earliest memories of Red Dwarf are, like the show, slightly unreliable. There’s no specific moment where Red Dwarf appears in my consciousness. Just this feeling of recognition as, in the barren, almost totally SF-free TV wastelands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I discovered something that felt designed for me. The Seventh Doctor and Ace had just walked off into the sunset and, occasional ITV show aside, there was very little genre TV making the rounds. We took what we could get—and while there wasn’t much of it, what we got was pretty good.

…Not to mention surprisingly dark. The early seasons of Red Dwarf are very nearly Waiting for GodotIn Space. Dave Lister, the last human left alive millions of years in the future, decides to go home. His only companions are the sentient (And DAPPER as hell) descendant of his cat, a well-meaning but increasingly obsessive mechanoid called Kryten, an endlessly laconic AI, and the hologram of Dave’s roommate, Arnold Rimmer.

Who he hates.

And who hates him.

Those early years still hold a special place in my heart because, like most adolescents, I was an occasionally mean-spirited part-time screw-up, so seeing a bunch of kindred spirits managing to survive (and, on occasion, win) was really reassuring. It was like the show was exactly my age and had bad days, just like me.

Admittedly my bad days didn’t tend to involve holes in time, but that wasn’t through want of trying.

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So, phase one was scrappy adolescence. That didn’t last. Season Three onwards had some serious (for the BBC) money thrown at it and you could tell. There were actual monsters, and genuinely lovely model-based special effects; things occasionally blew up. It was GREAT, even if the character-based comedy took more and more of a backseat in the new “SF with jokes” approach. The changes worked for the show, as did the production upgrade—all of which led to a huge run of episodes that rarely dropped below “good” and were often fantastic. One in particular, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” is a near-perfect mashup of classic “Holodeck gone wrong,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “Historical episode,” and “Evil computer virus” plotlines. It’s not just a great half hour of Red Dwarf, it’s a great half hour of TV and it won a completely deserved Emmy. If you watch no other episode, go for that one. Although “White Hole” from Season Four is also great. As is “Legion” and “Dimension Jump” and… well you get the idea.

The show’s constant, steady flight path of evolution and improvement was interrupted for three years between Season Six and Season Seven. Six had been rushed into production and the repercussions of that were felt for years. Chris Barrie, a lynchpin of the series as the wonderfully self-loathing Rimmer, left the show, and the story arc that had been established over Season Six was hand-waved away. Changes in filming meant the studio audience was removed, too, and Chloë Annett was drafted in as Kristine Kochanski, Lister’s formerly dead girlfriend. The show was more chaotic than ever, dangerously rushed in places, but still had flashes of brilliance even without the energy of a live crowd. In other words, Red Dwarf had survived adolescence just like its audience had—and, just like us, it had been hurled out into its twenties with more responsibilities and more potential.

So, like us, it was frantically making it up as it went along. Sometimes that didn’t work—but when it did, it was still glorious.

For all the changes, most of those two seasons still work really well. Rimmer’s send-off episode, “Stoke Me A Clipper,” is a surprisingly dignified and moving capstone for his time on the show, and Annett’s Kochanski is great. She’s refined where the others are slobs, precise where they just kind of wing it, and the culture clash is huge fun to watch. Annett was handed an impossible task and nailed it first time out, filling the void left by Barrie in the cast and making the show into something new and interesting and viable.

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Which Seasons Eight and Nine pretty much completely ignored.

There comes a time in our lives when we all make some amazingly bad choices. The longer a TV show survives, the more likely it is to do the same. Just as my late 20s were a time of terrible hoodies, a short-lived obsession with duffel coats, and a brief over-fondness for rap metal, Red Dwarf made some very bad calls at this point in its lifespan. More filming changes, greater reliance on CGI, and an interesting arc that was not only utterly fumbled but remained completely unresolved mark these two seasons as the low point of the show. “Back to Earth,” the miniseries that constitutes Season Nine is the absolute nadir. The ten-year hiatus that took place between it and Season Eight is obvious in every scene of its badly-realized, badly-executed Blade Runner pastiche, along with some incredibly unwelcome, clunky metafictional elements. The show’s worst sin is committed here: namely, writing out Kochanski in a way that promises a resolution but, like every story arc in Red Dwarf’s history, fails to deliver. The end result is the 90-minute equivalent of those tubes on the Enterprise marked “GNDN.” Goes nowhere, does nothing.

Again, the show went away.

(This time it deserved to.)

But this time, it learned from its mistakes.

Season Ten went before cameras, and a returning studio audience, at the end of 2011. Kochanski was still gone but there was a sense that the show, like its audience, was moving past the flamboyant screw-ups of its previous decade. It was still entirely too blokey, but the comedic edge and focus on character had returned, as had a slight dash of the early darkness. Plus, there was a tangible sense of everyone having fun again—the show had weathered the storm, along with its audience, once again.

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A friend of mine got tickets to one night’s filming and it was amazing. There was a real sense of camaraderie not just between the cast and crew, but amongst the cast, crew, and the audience. One set hadn’t been built yet, but the cast and crew had agreed to perform the entire episode so that we could get a sense of the whole story. Each cast member was greeted with a standing ovation—none more raucous than Robert Llewellyn’s—and there was a fun, relaxed atmosphere that carried across to the show. Although the sight of Llewellyn with his reading glasses over his Kryten mask unfortunately did not.

That episode, Season 10’s finale, “The Beginning” is one of the show’s finest. It’s a sweetly designed shout-out to the original pilot episode that serves as a signoff, an acknowledgement of past mistakes, and a promise of more to come. It’s also features a typically sneaky, and for once deserved, win for Rimmer—everything old is new again, and this time the course that the boys are steering looks much more confident.

It’s an awful cliché to say that Red Dwarf is an institution, so instead let’s think of it as the best running joke on UK TV. It’s a show that’s remained true to its core theme (four mostly-well-meaning idiots versus the universe) but constantly changed its approach through countless production, cast, and budget disasters both on-screen and off. It’s spawned some excellent novels, a surprisingly great tabletop RPG, and a legion of fans that will follow it to the ends of time (as well as to the excellent official website). Untidy, scrappy, endlessly ambitious, and always enthusiastic, it’s moved from being the near lone standard bearer of British TV SF into being something dangerously close to respectable.

But never too close.

So, welcome back, chaps! It’s great to see you for Season Eleven—although this year, maybe bring Kochanski back? She deserves it.

Now, take it away, Skutters!

[Red Dwarf XI premieres in the UK on Thursday, September 22nd on Dave.]

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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