Here’s a BBC show that became a surprise smash hit. It still runs to this day and features the last human alive, a hologram of his dead bunkmate, an evolved cat, and a neurotic robot. Huzzah!
Righto, the plot is a bit out there so brace yourselves. The show is about Dave Lister (Craig Charles), who ends up stranded in deep space millions of years in the future.
After a nuclear accident on the deep space cargo ship Red Dwarf, he’s the only survivor.
This is because he was in suspended animation (a lenient type of prison sentence) at the time, for smuggling a cat on board the vessel.
The ship’s AI computer Holly (alternating between Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge across series) keeps Lister suspended for three million years so the radiation can sod off.
Once he’s brought back, Holly (who’s suffering from computer senility and has gone a bit peculiar) informs him the entire crew is dead.
Lister, who was a low ranking technician—the lowest on Red Dwarf—now finds himself deep in space, three million years from Earth, and very much alone.
That’s except for Arnold Judas Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the second lowest ranking technician on the ship. And Lister’s bunkmate.
Rimmer was killed in the explosion. But, despite their volatile relationship, Holly reanimates Rimmer as a hologram.
It’s uploaded with Rimmer’s personality and, although can’t touch anything, is as close to human company as Lister will get.
However, there’s also the Cat (Danny John-Jules). Very much human in form, he’s a descendant of the heavily evolved cat Lister smuggled on board the ship.
Although vain, a diva, and fashion-obsessed, Lister and Cat hit it off.
From series three, the crew is joined by Kryten (Robert Llewellyn). A robot, they rescue the obedient and lovable being from a crashed ship on a planet.
The series—of which there are now 11 seasons—follows the various misadventures of the Red Dwarfers. Which typically involves blundering from one surreal mishap to the next.
However, the scope of the show advanced as it grew in popularity.
Although something of a high-concept, goofy sci-fi comedy to begin with, Red Dwarf went on to try out more cinematic, dramatic themes.
But we’ll take a look back at the start of the series, which was modest and low-budget fare filmed at the BBC here in Manchester.
Central to the show is the strained relationship between Lister and Rimmer. Despite the fantastical concept, Red Dwarf is very much grounded and relatable.
The two can’t stand each other and face the absurd situation of, deep in space, spending most of their time arguing.
Craig Charles and Chris Barrie at that stage also got on very badly, so the tension between the two actors helped ramp up the believability of the performances.
Rimmer is disturbed by his death and seems convinced he can find super intelligent aliens to bring him back to life. Meanwhile, he’s enormously bureaucratic, obsessed with the military, and heavily neurotic.
His inferiority complex stems from his difficult childhood, which involved an overbearing father who took out his life frustrations on his sons.
Rimmer is paranoid and misguided, channelling his obvious intelligence in the wrong directions. So he makes silly errors that cost him the chance of promotion (in his former life) and peace of mind (in his new form).
Despite his antagonistic and uptight nature, he’s also a ready wit and provides some of the best scathing putdowns in the show.
Lister, meanwhile, is a total slob. Although he convinces Holly to turn the ship around and head back to Earth, he resigns himself to his fate—by eating lots of curry and drinking beer.
He does, however, suffer from loneliness and regret over his lost life. Something that becomes easier for him when Kryten turns up on series III, as they hit it off.
The Cat, meanwhile, drifts in and out of the show dancing, screeching, and seemingly bored with the human presence. In later seasons he becomes more sociable with the others.
Holly is also omnipresent, although is slightly out of its mind and makes many bizarre errors.
Kryten arrives later from series III, but has a limited presence. But due to the character’s popularity, from season IV “he” is a main character.
Initially servile and amicable, Lister talks him into breaking his programming.
As the series pass, his behaviour becomes increasingly human. Although continuing to look after the crew (particularly loving Lister), he’s fussy. And also displays signs of arrogance, jealousy, fear, and self-preservation.
Kryten is also extremely intelligent and noble. He has a humanitarian approach whenever the moment is required and always happily takes the role of protecting the Red Dwarf crew.
Series I and II
The first two series largely take place on Red Dwarf, overcoming the tight budget by relying on the extremely clever scripts.
Series I aired on 15th February 1988 through to March. Series II followed in September 1988 through to October.
We’ve segregated these off from the others as they’re notably different in style. Simply because the budget was rather low.
Filmed in Manchester, the crew had to use all manner of creative ideas to get around how little money they had.
Given the limitations, it’s impressive stuff. But what stands out are some of the radical ideas they come up with. They even impressed Stephen Hawking, who became a big fan of the show.
The pilot (titled “The End”, rather ironically) hastily gets the main elements of the story in place. Then from episode two, Future Echoes, the ideas hurtle in.
As the ship hits light speed to try and get back to Earth, they begin seeing visions of their future selves.
Elsewhere, in Me2, Rimmer creates a holographic duplication of himself for company.
The two Rimmers end up falling out spectacularly. Whilst Rimmer acknowledges to Lister the absurdity of having an argument with yourself, he’s also left roaring fabulous lines such as, “Shut up, you dead git!”
Series II keeps this going, with more advanced ideas that take the crew off the ship.
That includes Better Than Life, a virtual reality video games that Rimmer ruins with his paranoia.
And there are various other activities, involving time travel, stasis leaks, and Lister’s efforts to bring back to life Kristine Kochanski. The love of his life.
But there’s also the very touching Thanks for the Memory, where Lister tries to cheer Rimmer up on his birthday (the two aren’t always at each other’s throats).
It backfires and Rimmer is left emotionally distraught, so the crew wipe their memories of the last 24 hours.
With the budget growing as the show took off in popularity, so writers Grant and Naylor could advance their ideas.
Series III features several of our favourite Red Dwarf episodes, such as Marooned.
This is a writing masterclass and touchingly cements the strange relationship Lister and Rimmer have.
They’re trapped together on Starbug (an interplanetary ship introduced from season III onward) and spend all episode bickering and finding common comradery.
It really highlights that these two are the stars of Red Dwarf. Their awkward hatred of each other having to cave in to mutual respect.
Even if they can’t acknowledge it. As it’s better (and probably healthier, given their predicament in deep space) to just argue and release tensions.
That comes out in the next episode Polymorph, where a shape-shifting alien infiltrates the ship.
The beast changes people’s personality. Lister turns into a Bruce Willis type, eager to go on a rampage. Rimmer turns into a hippy. Kryten doesn’t give a damn. And Cat becomes a no good bum.
The series also began with the highly innovative Backwards, a world where everything runs in reverse. It’s this sort of stuff that quickly ensured Red Dwarf became a smash hit.
To a greater extent than the overrated Rick and Morty, we think (we’ll get death threats for that).
And it just maintained that going forward, ramping up each season with new and more engaging ideas.
Series IV, V, and VI
After III, Red Dwarf was even taking off in America. Which led to knowing nods to popular sci-fi films of the time, such as RoboCop.
There was a failed US version studio execs destroyed with relentless interference. It even featured a pre-Frasier Jane Leeves as Holly.
Annoyed by the failure, Grant and Naylor returned to focus on their UK creation.
At this point, the Manchester studio was under refurbishment. So filming moved down to the famous Shepperton Studios in London. It stayed there permanently.
All three series followed in quick succession from 1991 through to 1993—one year after another. An incredible hit rate given the quality of the episodes.
V features one of our favourite Red Dwarf episodes in the form of White Hole.
That’s a black hole in reverse, spewing time back out into the universe. It’s a fun little nod back to Future Echoes, involving the expanded cast.
But season VI sticks with us particularly, as the production values high, the ideas great, and we were kind of the age were it could all sink in.
We vaguely remember watching an episode of season I around 1988, but were so young it seemed positively alien and awe-inspiring.
By 1992 our brains were advanced enough to totally dig all of it. And there’s something about the season that’s timeless.
Although the addition of a canned laughter wasn’t welcome, parts of the show were still filmed before a live studio audience.
Craig Charles noted that in early seasons, the crew had to round up Mancs at nearby pubs to watch the live recordings for season I and II.
In time, people started to get the warped concept and humour. After a few years, fans were queuing up to get in there.
Series VI ended on a cliffhanger, but there was an odd gap from 1993 through to 1997 before Red Dwarf returned.
Although season VII has its high points, it certainly marked the end of the show’s ascendancy.
It never quite hit the same remarkable heights, instead choosing to up the dramatic factor.
Series VIII was a particular lowpoint in 1999. And we resigned ourselves to the fact the show was likely, for the best, finished.
But it’s pretty successfully rebooted itself there. And continues on, as we mention below.
Rob Grant and Doug Naylor came up with the idea in the early ‘80s. They spent years pitching it, only to receive endless rejections.
Initially it was a BBC Radio 4 show called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet and ran in 1984. He was a hapless space traveller marooned with nobody except his ship’s computer Hab (actually voiced by Chris Barrie).
That became Dave Listen after a footballer called Dave Hollins became successful.
Their perseverance did pay off and the BBC commissioned the show in 1986, with filming for the first two series in 1987 up in Manchester.
The Madchester scene was in full flow at the time. Charles and John-Jules would often take off to the Hacienda to have a bit of a rave post-filming.
Although a pre-fame Alan Rickman auditioned for roles, in the end he wasn’t cast. Chris Barrie was a professional impressionist at the time and starred on Spitting Image and Jasper Carrott’s shows.
He stunned Naylor and Grant with his audition (he’s seriously bloody good in Red Dwarf) and they happily gave him the part.
Craig Charles was a punk poet from Liverpool at the time, sent the script by the show’s creators for social criticism.
Charles really loved the script and asked if he could play Lister. After he auditioned, he got the role.
Danny John-Jules bagged it effortlessly as he seemed custom made for the role—despite arriving an hour late to the audition. A professional dancer and singer, his athleticism made him a natural.
Writing duties were between Grant and Naylor for the first six series. However, Grant left in 1995 and Naylor took over sole duties.
The show’s iconic theme tune was written and performed by Howard Goodall—Jenna Russell sang it.
The Promised Land
Red Dwarf is still very much indeed alive! After a disappointing season VIII in 1999, there was a long hiatus.
The series seemed finished, but in 2009 it reappeared with the middling Back to Earth series. These were three episodes that were of extended length.
In 2012, season X arrived. It grounded the show back in its roots, removing all the fancy stuff, and there’s a marked improvement in quality. Series XI and XII followed in 2016 and 2017.
A much-discussed film was on and off for years—and now it’s here! Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is a TV film and will likely launch in April 2020.
So, over 30 years on from its inception and it’s still going strong.
For sure, its peak was back in the first six season run. But we still find it enjoyable—especially as the cast of characters is so memorable. All hail, Red Dwarf!