Red Dwarf is a British sci-fi comedy that aired its first episode on February 15, 1988, a pilot that almost never saw the light of broadcast due to a few trivial script rejections that eventually saw the project accepted by BBC Northwest, and an electricians’ strike at the BBC that shelved the show and further delayed its filming in 1987. The series has since spawned into a multimedia behemoth comprised of eight original seasons, four universe-expanding novels, an audio book, a graphic novel adaptation, a role-playing game, Red Dwarf conventions, fan-made exploits, and an additional four seasons (and counting), spanning across three decades to merge science-fiction and the unique comedic sensibilities of creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor into a timeless series for many generations thereafter to enjoy.
… Except you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t from the UK and, even then, maybe not.
This is no Doctor Who, Red Dwarf. Where the former can brag a heavy revamping in the form of the NuWho that has cultivated a worldwide fanbase and greater popularity, with mainstream name recognition and cool bow ties, the latter remains a very grass roots endeavor that has amassed a modest cult following and has generated new buzz primarily from the continued good faith of its past series run and present revitalization. It amazes me to this day that I, an American, just so happened to be in the right place at the right time to even know what Red Dwarf is and, thankfully, not because of that short-lived attempt to produce a US version of the show in 1992.
At the time I was introduced to this insanely underrated work of British brilliance, up there with Monty Python in my book; A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder, and the Benny Hill that practically raised me, my family was homeless, in-between couch surfing and sleeping in our car. My sister and I were then staying with her best friend, a fan of the show, who popped in a VHS of three episodes to past the time. I don’t know why but, for whatever reason, a show about the bleak existence of a lone human survivor of a radiation leak and ultimately humanity itself, marooned three-billion years in deep space on a Jupiter Mining Corp vessel with only a senile ship’s computer, a hologram of his dead yet compulsory bunkmate, and a lifeform that had evolved from the descendants of his pet cat to keep him company just…clicked.
Maybe because at age 11-12 I felt like a passenger, traveling aimlessly through space, searching for my home much like Dave Lister (Craig Charles), the main character, who spends the majority the series’ original run plotting ways to get back to Earth. Or perhaps it was the show’s humble beginning, its comedy style that relied heavily on the Odd Couple-esque relationship of its two central characters, the Liverpudlian “punk poet” Dave Lister and the bureaucratic-obsessed Arnold Judas Rimmer (Chris Barrie), with bits of absurd hilarity provided by three peripheral characters who, to this day, continue to steal the show: the ship’s competently incompetent computer Holly (Norman Lovett/Hattie Hayridge), a deranged mechanoid named Kryten (Robert Llewellyn/David Ross), and the aptly named and incredibly vain Cat (Danny John-Jules).
The show eventually expands in scope, drawing from more complex science-fiction themes, philosophical, metaphysical, and existential explorations and elements, while never straying too far from an endless well of satire and situational comedy. Many of the original run’s jokes are outdated by modern standards but are enduringly endearing and whose late-80s pop culture references only require cursory Google searches to understand and fully appreciate.
I could present my “Top 20” or even “Top 10” (please don’t make me do that) but doing so wouldn’t do the episodes left out much justice let alone perfectly encapsulate what makes Red Dwarf a true gem of not just British comedy but of all modern television. This is a series that had Sir Patrick Stewart so prepared to take legal action at the idea that anyone would rip-off Star Trek: The Next Generation that it took further viewing for him to eventually recognize Red Dwarf for what it is, a farcical love letter to the more thought-provoking and “hard” science-fiction of the mid-20th Century onward that is indeed influenced by the likes of Gene Roddenberry as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey and works by John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, and Douglas Adams.
At the end of the day, Red Dwarf will always be about love, a labor of love by the likes of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, the latter of which remains attached to the show’s current run and continues to crank out new ideas for possible future installments. It’s about the devoted love of its unassuming fans that have helped it persist into the 21st Century. It’s a story about Dave Lister’s love for navigation officer Kristine Kochanski (Clare Grogan/Chloë Annett) and his unyielding quest to literally defy the laws of time and space (and death) to win her back, buy a farm and together build a life on Fiji, where they’ll “get a sheep and a cow, and breed horses”. It’s about the love of brotherhood, albeit a reluctant one, about four lost souls of some shape, form, and fashion encountering the unknown, having rows with talking toasters, playing pool with planets, contracting wise-cracking killer viruses, aiding John F. Kennedy in his own assassination, and most recently having guitar jam sessions with an evil-free Hitler (not the first and probably not the last version of Hitler the “Boys from the Dwarf” will ever encounter), all while banding together in the hopes of finding their place among the stars.
By the time my family landed a place to live I was borrowing VHSs of Red Dwarf seasons from my sister’s friend and re-watching them with gusto, until eventually piquing the interest of my father and making a lifelong fan out of him as well. In the 15+ years since first setting eyes on the first episode of its first season, my dad and I have accumulated every bit of Red Dwarf media an American fan can get their hands on and can now boast owning every season, including the three-part “special” series return, Back to Earth, and most recently Red Dwarf Series XII (season 12).
What originally started as Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, a series of five sketches that aired in the BBC Radio 4 series Son of Cliché in 1984, has turned into a slightly epic TV sitcom that’s been nominated for the International Emmy Award three times and has won a British Comedy Award for “Best BBC Comedy Series” for Red Dwarf Series VI (Season 6), voted “Best Sci-Fi Show of All Time” by readers of Radio Times magazine in 2007 and “Best Returning TV Sitcom” and “Comedy of the Year” for Series XI (Season 11) by readers of the British Comedy Guide, to name a few accolades.
Red Dwarf can now add “30 Years of Laying Low within the Cultural Zeitgeist and Still Going” among its many triumphs, which is more than many multi-season series can boast both in today’s time and back in 1988. It’s easy to watch the newest seasons and concede that Red Dwarf is running on fumes, with an ageing original cast and one-half of its original creative team still at the helm, but I think it’s a mark of durability and a testament to what Holly said some thirty years ago:
“As the days go by, we face the increasing inevitability that we are alone in a godless, uninhabited, hostile and meaningless universe. Still, you’ve got to laugh haven’t you”.
Red Dwarf is available on DVD & Blu-Ray, Dave TV in the UK, and several streaming services, including Netflix in the UK, Amazon Instant Video in the US and the UK, and iTunes in Canada, the US, and the UK.