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Classic TV: Red Dwarf - The Early Years (Series I & II)

The adventures of a man, a cat and a hologram (and later on an android), Red Dwarf is one of the world's longest-running sitcoms and the world's second longest-running sci-fi series, after the BBC's venerable Doctor Who. It's also a series with a strong cult following and a legion of fans who have stuck with it through its many ups and downs over the decades. Although based on a small cast of (usually) four characters, the show has undergone many changes and much evolution - a lot of it positive, although not all of it - since it was first broadcast in 1988.

In its early years, the series was essentially an antagonistic odd couple sitcom set in a Star Trek type world, albeit one with a dash of Douglas Adams. At its heart are the two main characters, slobby slacker Dave Lister (Craig Charles) and his uptight, officious shipmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), and their very uneasy, if not outright hostile, relationship.

The terminally unambitious Lister is the lowliest crew member on the Jupiter Mining Corporation ship Red Dwarf, a vending machine technician who answers directly to Rimmer. Rimmer has been with the corporation for more than a decade and has just about managed to ascend to Second Technician - one tiny rung above Lister. Lister is therefore the only person on the ship outranked by Rimmer - and Rimmer always intends to make the absolute most of that position. 

Unlike the likeable Lister, Rimmer is a seething mass of inadequacies and neuroses, a tinpot tyrant who longs to be a great leader, but is stymied by his cowardice, incompetence and complete inability to pass any exams.

Rimmer, Kochanski and Lister in Red Dwarf I
Rimmer (Chris Barrie, left) and Lister (Craig Charles, right) with the original Kochanski (C.P. Grogan)

Having established its two main characters and its setting, Red Dwarf takes a couple of unexpected turns early on. In only the first episode, "The End", Lister is put into suspended animation as punishment for smuggling a pet cat on board the ship. In the meantime, the ship suffers from a radiation leak that kills the entire crew. When Lister is revived, it isn't months later but 3 million years later, the ship only now being considered safe for human habitation by its on board computer. 

Lister is now presumed to be the only human being left alive in the universe, and he has only three people for company. The first is the ship's laconic computer, Holly (Norman Lovett). Somewhat bizarrely, the second is a humanoid who has evolved from the evidently pregnant cat that Lister brought on board millions of years ago. He is simply referred to as "Cat" and, as played by Danny John-Jules, is a ludicrously self-absorbed peacock, who seems to be channelling the ghost of James Brown. His main interests are eating, looking sharp and preening himself. The third and last of Lister's crewmates is a hologram version of Rimmer - his old antagonist. 

Red Dwarf was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and grew out of "Dave Hollins: Space Cadet", a series of sketches on the radio show Son of Cliché. From there, Grant and Naylor developed their ideas into a TV situation comedy series Red Dwarf

The basis of Red Dwarf was originally to look at the sci-fi space epic from an unusual angle; that is, from the point of view of the lowliest people in outer space. This was a view of the sci-fi genre from the perspective of the grunts, the equivalent of the people who empty the bins on the Death Star.

The series was originally made for BBC North West (and later on for BBC North) for broadcast on BBC2. The series followed the traditional British sitcom format of seasons consisting of six episodes of approximately 25-30 minutes each, increasing to 8 episodes for Red Dwarf VII and Red Dwarf VIII. Until the seventh season, every episode was written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. 

Surprisingly, for a series that was so reliant on its very small cast, none of the principals of Red Dwarf were very experienced actors - or even principally actors. Craig Charles was a performance poet and Chris Barrie an impressionist, who supplied voices for the puppet show Spitting Image. Norman Lovett was a stand up comedian and Danny John-Jules a dancer. 

Many other actors were tested to play the main characters, including Alfred Molina, Hugh Laurie and Alan Rickman, while Norman Lovett originally auditioned for the part of Rimmer. 

Chris Barrie as Arnold Rimmer
Chris Barrie as Arnold Rimmer

The final casting, though, is very good. Craig Charles and Chris Barrie apparently did not get on very well together while making the early seasons of Red Dwarf, something that probably gave an edge to their performances as "frenemies" Lister and Rimmer. 

The most impressive performance is probably from Chris Barrie, who makes the awful Rimmer a surprisingly complex and even sympathetic character - which is no mean feat given that he is selfish, cowardly, weasely and always ready to sell his shipmates out. 

Craig Charles makes the slobby Lister likeable and human, while Danny John-Jules is not required to do much more than strut his stuff and deliver one-liners, although he does it well. Like Rimmer, the Cat is another character who could easily be irritating or dislikeable in the wrong hands. Robert Llewellyn would later make a valuable addition to the cast as the humanoid robot Kryten, from Red Dwarf's third season onwards.

The casting of Norman Lovett as the ship's computer plays on the contrast between the usual image of a super-efficient sci-fi computer and the characterisation of Holly as lugubrious, deadpan and probably a bit senile after 3 million years in space. Originally the role was voice-over only, but Norman Lovett lobbied hard for him to be seen on screen as well. 

Red Dwarf is not heavy on guest stars, but a few familiar faces do appear over the years. These include Robert Bathurst, Mark Williams and Craig Ferguson in the first season, Frances Barber (the third), Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Jane Horrocks and Lenny Von Dohlen (the fifth), Jenny Agutter (the sixth), Brian Cox and Don Henderson (the seventh) and Geraldine McEwan (the eighth). The comedian Tony Hawks pops up regularly, playing the host of the VR game in season two's "Better Than Life" and Caligula in the season three episode "Meltdown", as well as providing various voice-overs. 


The model effects work is very good for a sitcom on a budget. The ship itself was not originally intended to be red, but the model maker took that part of the name literally and delivered a big, bright red space ship model. Grant and Naylor weren't sure at first, but they got used to the idea. 

The opening of the first two series is unexpectedly grand and atmospheric, showing an astronaut painting the side of the ship as the camera pulls out to reveal its giant size, set to Howard Goodall's, at this time, eerie and epic theme music. 

The sets are acceptable, although in the first two seasons they are very very grey. Every room and piece of furniture is grey, from the examination room to the living quarters. From Red Dwarf III onwards the designs would embrace a more industrial aesthetic and the series' model effects were increasingly replaced by CGI.

There is a tension in Red Dwarf's first two seasons between creating a sci-fi space comedy - the potentials of which are almost limitless - and the writers' seeming desire to keep everything grounded and, well, a bit dull. Instead of exploring the sci-fi possibilities of the show's premise, the series focuses on the claustrophobic and enclosed settings, and on a relationship between two people who don't like each other, but have no way out, nothing to do and no future. 

The sense of melancholy and ennui is leavened by the kind of sometimes adolescent humour about curries, dirty laundry and sexual experiences (and lack of sexual experiences) that would help the series appeal to teenage boys of all ages. As with some other TV comedies, Red Dwarf had to invent its own swear words - in this case, "goit", "gimboid" and, most famously, "smeg", as in smegma.

The first couple of series have quite a lot of contemporary pop culture jokes about music and TV that now seem all the more dated. Given that Red Dwarf is set millions of years in the future, it seems unlikely that the characters would make jokes about the records of Olivia Newton-John or Felicity Kendal's bottom - reference points that already seem like ancient history. 

Rimmer and Holly in Red Dwarf II
Rimmer (Chris Barrie) and Holly (Norman Lovett)

The writers' decision to make Lister the last human alive, and their desire to avoid including any aliens in the series, meant that the story possibilities were initially quite restricted. This was something that later seasons of Red Dwarf would increasingly chafe against, requiring the writers to perform some creative somersaults. Later episodes would also add to the series' many glaring plot holes.

Grant and Naylor considered the best episode of the first series to be "Future Echoes", so this was moved into the all-important second place in the run, after the series opener "The End". In this episode, Red Dwarf travels at the speed of light, causing the crew to see visions of their future selves.

The third episode, "Balance of Power", has Lister attempt to pass the company's chef's exams, so that he will be able to outrank Rimmer and so have him replaced as the ship's hologram. 

In "Waiting for God", Rimmer believes that he has found the coffin of an alien warrior drifting in space, not realising that it is in fact a garbage pod ejected from Red Dwarf. Meanwhile, Lister discovers that the story of his bringing the pregnant cat on board the ship has turned him into a mythical god figure for the now humanoid felines. Fun fact: This is Rob Grant's least favourite episode of Red Dwarf and Doug Naylor isn't that enthusiastic either. 

In "Confidence and Paranoia", Lister contracts a virus that causes his hallucinations to materialise, in this case his own confidence and paranoia, which have taken human form. Rimmer finds an ally in the weasely Paranoia (Lee Cornes), while Confidence (Craig Ferguson), a shouty blowhard in a loud suit, almost gets Lister killed. Lee Cornes and Craig Ferguson had both originally auditioned for the series' lead roles. 

The first season ends with "Me2", in which a second hologram of Rimmer is created. The two Rimmers start off as best chums, but eventually they make each other's lives unbearable, another Rimmer being too much even for him.


The Cat, Lister, Rimmer and Holly in Red Dwarf II
Cat (Danny John-Jules), Lister and Rimmer, with Holly on the monitor behind


The Second Season - 'Red Dwarf II'

The first season of Red Dwarf is best described as promising. It was moderately amusing and involving, without rising to the heights of hilarity the series would later scale. But it was successful enough that a second series was quickly put into production. In fact, series 2 was commissioned before the first had even been broadcast, and debuted only months later. 

The production team weren't that satisfied with the first series so, unusually, they insisted that the second series be transmitted without the customary repeat of the first. This series would be the last to retain the original title Red Dwarf as, from the third season onwards, each new series would become a numbered sequel.

The first two seasons of Red Dwarf go together well, before the show underwent a minor revolution for its third season in 1989. The second season retains the same format, style, cast, sets and costumes as the first, so it is visually very similar. But the writing is generally stronger and there is now less melancholy and more humour. 

This season also shows Rob Grant and Doug Naylor beginning to explore the series' possibilities and move into traditional sci-fi subjects they had previously avoided. These include "mechanoids" (robots), time travel, virtual reality and parallel universes. The second series also introduced the shuttle craft Blue Midget, which would enable the crew to travel to other planets. 

This season, later unofficially known as Red Dwarf II, starts off strongly, with two of early Red Dwarf's best episodes. 

Lister and Rimmer in the observation dome on Red Dwarf
Lister and Rimmer in the observation dome on Red Dwarf

In the first episode, "Kryten", the crew find a crashed space ship manned by the fussy robot butler Kryten (David Ross), whose human shipmates have long since died. Rimmer decides to take full advantage of his inbuilt desire to serve, presenting him with an endless list of tasks, while Lister attempts to break his programming and encourage him to rebel. 

The robot's name, Kryten, is a reference to the butler in the J. M. Barrie play The Admirable Crichton. This episode also draws much humour from the Red Dwarf boys attempts to spruce themselves up, in the initial belief that there are three women on board Kryten's ship.

"Better Than Life" sees Lister, Rimmer and the Cat play a virtual reality video game where your deepest desires can come true. But Rimmer's self-loathing soon ruins everything, his illustrious military career, smart E-Type Jaguar and sexually voracious girlfriend soon turning into a life of drudgery with a nagging wife and seven kids.

In "Thanks for the Memory" Lister wakes up with his leg in plaster and realises that he and the rest of the crew have four days missing from their memories. Rimmer believes this can mean only one thing - aliens! But it has more to do with Lister's plan to improve Rimmer's life, by transplanting his own happy memories of a love affair into Rimmer's mind. 

In "Stasis Leak" the crew find a way to go back in time 3 million years, where they find the original crew of Red Dwarf alive and well. Can Lister find his lost love Kochanski and persuade her to come back to the future with him? And can Rimmer persuade his former self to take his advice and avoid dying in the imminent radiation leak? Or will the old Rimmer simply think he's going crazy?

Norman Lovett as Holly and Charles Augins as Queeg
Norman Lovett as Holly and Charles Augins as Queeg

One of Series 2's most memorable episodes is "Queeg", in which Holly's haplessness and the crew's continual complaints lead him to be replaced by the ship's authoritarian back-up computer, Queeg 500. 

Soon, Queeg has the Red Dwarf crew working for their food and keep, while Holly is relegated to menial duties. When the crew feel they can't take the strict new regime any longer, Holly challenges Queeg to a contest for control of the ship - with the loser facing deletion. 

Queeg is memorably played in this episode by Charles Augins, who was mainly a dancer and choreographer, known to the production team through Danny John-Jules. The character's name is presumably a reference to the ship's captain in The Caine Mutiny.

The second series ends with "Parallel Universe". Holly has invented a machine, the Holly Hop Drive, that can transport them all to - you guessed it - a parallel universe. Here Lister, Holly and Rimmer discover an alternative Red Dwarf crewed by their female equivalents.

This episode plays with and contrasts sexual stereotypes in a not particularly sophisticated way. It ends with Lister pregnant after a one night stand with his female alter ego, since in this universe it's men who have the babies. This was the first - but not last - time that Grant and Naylor would write themselves into a corner. 

"Parallel Universe" also includes the "Tongue Tied" song and dance sequence choreographed by Charles Augins. It's all a bit indulgent, but everyone obviously enjoyed doing it and Grant and Naylor would very occasionally give Danny John-Jules the chance to remind everyone that he is a dancer. The song was later released as a single. 

The second series of Red Dwarf retains the style and tone of the first, but it tightens and sharpens the writing and develops its characterisations a little more, even adding a dash of pathos. This makes it a step up on the first series, but it's still a question of evolution, not revolution. The next season, Red Dwarf III, was the first to be an officially numbered sequel, and it marked a radical change of style and direction for the series. 


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