From an ultra-low budget beginning, Red Dwarf has seen highs and lows. DAVID BUTTERFIELD charts the trajectory of Red Dwarf.
Since 1988 the Red Dwarf boys have been sporadically entertaining us with their science fiction antics, and with season 12 wrapping in late 2017 it’s high time to get out the protractor of nerdiness and see how the show measures up over its entire lifetime.
For the uninitiated, Red Dwarf is an English science fiction sit-com created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and set on a mining ship, Red Dwarf, stranded three million years in deep space.
After a fateful accident involving a radiation leak, suspended animation and a pregnant cat, there are only four remaining crew members: Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a human slob; Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), a hologram; Cat (Danny John-Jules), a being that evolved from Lister’s pregnant cat and Holly (Norman Lovett), the ship’s senile computer. Later, a fifth crew member is introduced – Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) who is an android, although in this universe he is referred to as a mechanoid.
Throughout the show’s 12 seasons and 73 episodes, the boys from the Dwarf have battled monsters, time travelled, killed older versions of themselves, lost Red Dwarf, met Jesus and generally caused chaos wherever they go. But is it any good?
The quality of Red Dwarf swerves left and right all over the comedy sweet spot. Seasons one through three, despite an ultra-low budget, have some of the best stories in the whole series – Me2 being a particular stand out as Rimmer creates a clone of himself which backfires tremendously and to great comedic effect.
From season four Red Dwarf entered its golden era. In general, the writing became bitingly funny and more assured, the sets and special effects improved markedly and the actors had settled into and, it must be said, milked every bit of their characters’ foibles.
Season six saw probably it’s best episode, Gunmen of the Apocalypse, which won an international Emmy for its writing.
It was with season seven that the inevitable decline began. The show was no longer filmed in front of an audience so for me a lot of the energy was lost. The show became more film like, primarily being shot on a single camera. New directors and co-writers (after Rob Grant left the show) meant the show deviated strongly from the tried and tested standard. Throughout all of this I stuck with it out of dumb loyalty – surely, it’ll get better soon I thought.
After ditching Red Dwarf – the ship – as a setting at the start of season six, season eight returned us to a re-generated Red Dwarf, complete with crew. I was almost heart broken. The show was now almost a parody of itself with guest writers trying desperately to draw in audiences with what the believed to be Red Dwarf style comedy, but it just came off as awkward and almost unwatchable. The season ended on a cliff-hanger and then everything went quiet for more than a decade.
In 2009 upstart UK television channel Dave suddenly announced a three-part season nine. It was slick, looked gorgeous and was actually pretty decent in the humour and drama departments. A further three seasons were commissioned, and personally I think the revived show is mostly watchable. Certainly, it’s humour leans towards either the grotesque or groan worthy ‘dad’ jokes but the plots and visual effects are sublime.
Despite the decline, Red Dwarf has been some of my go-to viewing over the years. It is funny without being stupid and delivered meaningful mini science concepts in almost every show. It’s everything I love about British comedy – low budget, condensed seasons with very little filler that at its absolute best makes me belly laugh until I hurt. I cannot wait for season 13!