Classic TV: Red Dwarf III (1989)

Despite its unusual premise, the first two series of the BBC sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf were ratings successes. The second season built incrementally on the success of the first, developing its characters, strengthening its writing and exploring some of the possibilities of its setting. 

But the series' peak years began with the arrival of the new-look Red Dwarf III in 1989, Red Dwarf's first season to be a numbered sequel. At the time, it must have come as a shock to its regular audience. The titles were different, the theme music was different, the sets were different, the look was different and even the characters were different.

Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie) and Cat (Danny John-Jules) were all present, but a new character had now joined the crew. This was a different version of Kryten, the android butler from the first episode of series two. David Ross, the actor who played the part in that episode, was not available, so this new version of the character was played by Robert Llewellyn.

Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules, Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and Hattie Hayridge in Red Dwarf III
Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Cat (Danny John-Jules), Lister (Craig Charles)
 & Rimmer (Chris Barrie), with Holly (Hattie Hayridge) on the monitor

Llewellyn's Kryten not only looked different but sounded different, thanks to his being given an American accent, for no obvious reason. Kryten was still a bit fussy, but this version had less of the English butler affectations of the original. The character would quickly become a central part of the Red Dwarf crew and would increasingly take over the expository role previously performed by the ship's computer Holly.

One of the show's original stars had also gone AWOL. Norman Lovett was replaced as Holly by Hattie Hayridge, who had played Holly's female equivalent Hilly in the "Parallel Universe" episode at the end of the second season. 

Red Dwarf had a peculiar filming schedule at this time, involving shuttling between rehearsals in London and filming in the North of England in Manchester, an epic round of travel that Lovett (who lived even further north in Edinburgh) had been understandably reluctant to continue. He also now had his own sitcom in the works, the short-lived oddity I, Lovett, which was filmed in Glasgow. Lovett suggested that he could join the Red Dwarf cast for filming in Manchester and skip the London rehearsals, but this idea was rejected and the part recast.

Red Dwarf III evidently had an increased budget over earlier seasons. The sets were new, courtesy of new designer Mel Bibby - the makers obviously having soured on the very grey sets of the first two seasons. There were also costume changes, with Rimmer now dressed in a shiny green Captain Scarlet type outfit, complete with a natty cap with a radio antenna.

"Starbug" in Red Dwarf
"Starbug" in action

The series' action now increasingly moved from Red Dwarf itself to the smaller shuttle craft Starbug, allowing the characters to travel more to other planets. Starbug was originally going to be painted white and called White Midget, which explains the error in Lister's dialogue in the "Bodyswap" episode when he uses the ship's original name. The ship's colour was changed to green (and the name then changed) when it was realised that scenes of a white ship in a white snowdrift in the second episode would not be very visually arresting.

All of these changes, together with the outcome of Lister's "pregnancy" at the end of series 2, were sort of explained in a hurried Star Wars type crawl at the beginning of the first episode, but it was deliberately run so fast that it was impossible to read. 

The show's title music was changed to a much more upbeat rock version for this and subsequent seasons, accompanied by a fast-paced medley of dramatic clips from the series. This replaced the more melancholy ship-painting sequence in series 1 and 2. 

The first episode of Red Dwarf III, "Backwards", finds the crew exploring a planet that is a reversed version of Earth. Here people talk backwards, vehicles move backwards and a bar room brawl takes place in reverse - meaning that a man ends up throwing you through a window and back into your chair, fixing your cracked ribs and broken tooth in the process. This episode is essentially one extended backwards joke, but it does have some funny gags.

Lister in "Bodyswap" from Red Dwarf III
Lister in "Bodyswap"

"Marooned" is an effective two hander between Lister and Rimmer, with the two stranded on a snowbound planet with food and fuel supplies running low. Will Rimmer give up his prized camphor wood chest and Napoleonic military figures for the fire? Or will Lister be forced to burn his beloved guitar instead? And will Lister get so hungry that he eats the tin of dog food on board - or worse, the Pot Noodle?
"Polymorph" sees a genetically engineered shape-shifting organism let loose on board the ship. The creature feeds on the emotions of its victims, extracting from our heroes variously their fear, guilt, self respect and anger. Partly a parody of Alien, "Polymorph" was the first and one of the best of the "monster of the week" type episodes that would become popular in the series middle period. 

"Bodyswap" has the two main characters improbably agree to switch bodies, after Rimmer convinces Lister that he will get his body into perfect shape for him, reversing the effects of Lister's poor diet and lack of exercise. All he needs is a few days to work on it, while Lister takes it easy and samples life as a hologram. But Rimmer proves to be an even more careless and indulgent user of Lister's body than its original owner. Will Lister ever be able to get his body back?

Lister and Cat in "Bodyswap" from Red Dwarf III
Rimmer is reluctant to give up Lister's body in "Bodyswap"

In "Timeslides" the crew discover that they can go back in time by stepping into old photographs - leading Lister and Rimmer to both try and change their futures by becoming rich through a novelty invention of one of Rimmer's school mates. 

This episode features an appearance by Ruby Wax, the wife of Red Dwarf director Ed Bye, as the presenter of "Lifestyles of the Disgustingly Rich and Famous". The younger version of Lister is played by Craig Charles's younger brother Emile.

The series ends with "The Last Day". In this episode the crew discover that Kryten is nearing his expiry date and is due to be replaced. They decide to give him a party to remember before that happens. But Kryten realises that he doesn't want to shut down and dismantle himself. This means that they will have to fight his replacement, who has orders to do it for him. 

Kryten's replacement in this episode, Hudzen, is played by Gordon Kennedy, of the sketch show Absolutely. The robot's name is no doubt a reference to Gordon Jackson's butler, Hudson, in the TV series Upstairs Downstairs

Red Dwarf III is not quite peak Red Dwarf, with one or two episodes like "Bodyswap" that are only semi-successful, although they are made up for by the character comedy of "Marooned" and the monster antics of "Polymorph". 

There are also major changes in this series - in particular the introduction of Kryten - that really should have been explained, rather than just sprung on the audience without proper explanation or comment. But this series did fix the new format that would serve Red Dwarf so well in its next three seasons. 

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