Thursday 14 February 2013

Red Dwarf Retrospective 1

SERIES I - 1988

The End * Future Echoes * Balance of Power * Waiting for God 

 Confidence and Paranoia * Me^2

Twenty-five years ago, on the fifteenth of February, 1988, Red Dwarf made its debut on BBC2, having spent five years being rejected by the powers that be. British television wasn’t really going in for science fiction in those days. Doctor Who was almost at its end, there were a few children’s shows, and some American imports were on their way over, but that was about it. Cinema was full of it, but TV? The prevailing attitude at the BBC was that sci-fi was a dying genre, and sci-fi comedy was a sure-fire road to failure. Yet Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and their champion, agent and producer, Paul Jackson, managed to get the damned thing greenlit. Even then, it was almost scuppered by electrician strikes. It’s a miracle it ever got made at all.

The cast weren’t who the writers had originally envisioned; we’ve all heard the stories of Alan Rickman and Alfred Molina auditioning, bringing to mind some strange parallel world where they have just starred in Red Dwarf X while Craig Charles and Chris Barrie are critically acclaimed movie stars. The four main characters ended up played by an impressionist, a stand-up comedian, a dancer and a poet with no prior acting experience. The show was tragically cheap, sets painted in a dowdy uniform grey that made the khaki uniforms look vivid. It was slow, strange and clearly an anomaly in the BBC’s evening schedules. It was also an instant hit.

It was years before I saw the first two series of the show. I came to Red Dwarf with series six, and the repeats I saw were mostly from later series. Videos from the third series onwards were pretty easy to find, but the earliest volumes, which were actually released later, were harder to track down. Perhaps they weren’t expected to sell so well. It’s true that, coming to the opening episodes from this perspective, there is a marked difference in tone and production style. There’s a gentler pace, with more emphasis on character than madcap ideas and spectacle. This is something the series never completely let go of, but in these early days Red Dwarf was very much a sitcom set in space, and not, as it later became, a sci-fi series with jokes. These may sound the same, but the difference is clear to anyone who watches, say, an episode from the first series followed by one from the fifth.

That’s not to say the show wasn’t high concept, though. A vast mining ship slowly cruising through the solar system; stasis booths that freeze people in time as punishment for infringing ship regulations; the extinction of the human race but for one unworthy survivor; people resurrected as holograms, unable to touch the world around them; a man descended from cats; breaking the light speed barrier and catching up with the future; living hallucinations and the manifestations of Confidence and Paranoia… There were certainly plenty of sci-fi ideas, many of them wholly original.

At the heart of it though, Red Dwarf stuck to a simple sitcom formula: two dysfunctional blokes who can’t stand each other, trapped together. An inveterate snob and an incurable slob, with nothing to keep them going through the mindless drudgery of their lives but their own animosity. Sure, we also had Danny John-Jules as the living embodiment of feline nature, Norman Lovett at his deadpan best as the ship’s computer Holly, and occasional star spots from Mac MacDonald, Claire Grogan and Mark Williams (surely now the most famous actor from those early days, although Craig ‘Confidence’ Ferguson probably eclipses him in the States). But at the heart of it, underneath the weirdness, the one-liners and the futuristic profanities, Red Dwarf was about two lowly vending machine maintenance men who absolutely, positively, couldn’t smegging stand each other. For that, and the show’s success, we have to thank not only Grant and Naylor, but Chris Barrie and Craig Charles. The smegheads.


  1. I watched them all up to series 7 recently (couldn't bear to see series 8 again).

    I found it was really hit and miss. Some episodes were sublime, combining sci fi ideas to create situations that had the same tone and pathos as traditional sitcoms, but others were truly dreadful, with the characters just siting around making contrived jokes.

    I suppose it's hard to maintain quality over such a period of time. These days I prefer the earlier series.

    1. Did you watch Series X? Hit and miss but at its best it really harked back to the good old days.

      Series I was good but very much finding its feet - II was a huge improvement in terms of scripting, and III was an improvement in terms of everything else. I loved it up to VII - much underrated, in my opinion - but VIII and IX are going to get a battering when I reach them.

    2. Laughing with you at the Rimmer munchkin song until we nearly burst is an enduring memory of mine.