Gateways to Geekery: RED DWARF

The Cast of Red Dwarf(This post originally appeared in longer form at Comic Related)

Sometimes, geeks and nerds are looking to get their laugh on, and want to search far and wide for a comedy that tickles their nerdly funny bone. For many fans of British science fiction, Red Dwarf, the BBC comedy that began in 1989, ran intermittently until 1999, and then made a slight “comeback” in 2009 and 2011, fits the bill. For many fans, Red Dwarf replaced the then-cancelled Doctor Who as “their” science fiction show, serving as a one of the first-independently produced shows for the BBC, and a “flagship” show for BBC Manchester. At its peak, Red Dwarf integrated sharp character-based comedy, a sparkling verbal wit, an ability to integrate science fiction tropes in a subtle, clever manner, and some flat-out hysterically funny moments.

Created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, Red Dwarf focused on the misadventures of Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), a general everyman who liked drinking lager, eating curries, and generally avoiding manual labor. Due to his smuggling a cat on board the mining ship Red Dwarf, Lister was placed into stasis, finding himself released three million years later….after the radiation lessened. It turns out that his bunk mate/nemesis, the needily neurotic Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), failed to repair a drive plate, and Rimmer ended up being revived as a hologram after his death as a “companion”. Soon, lister was joined by “Cat” (Danny John-Jules), the lone survivor of a race of beings evolved from cats, emerged as a second companion, as well as a slightly insane computer named Holly (Normal Lovett) and a neurotic service droid named Kryten (Robert Llwellyn). Most of the first two series of Red Dwarf take place entirely on the ship, and serve as “two handers” between the slovenly Lister and the more uptight Rimmer. (As you can expect, the production values lean slightly more on the cheaper side).

But Series Three to Five of Red Dwarf are must-viewing for fans of British comedy, science fiction, and just plain fun television. There isn’t a bad episode in the bunch: a great verbal wit that easily avoids clichés; references and homage that don’t feel forced, and science fiction concepts which are wedded to sharp character observations, resulting in nine hours of the best television comedy ever produced and placed on television. (Just don’t worry too much about continuity – yes, the show tries at times, but quite honestly, it’s best to just sit and enjoy the shenanigans. And yes, there were two American pilots – if you’re really curious, you can check out the Dwarfing USA documentary on the Series Five DVD; otherwise, head straight to You Tube. But watch the British series first – you’ll thank me later.)

It’s Series Six where we see cracks begin to form in the production.. Tensions were mounting between writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (Grant would leave after the completion of Series 6), and several of the scripts were…well, two were recycled ideas, two were just plain OK, but the two highlights – Gunmen of the Apocalypse and *Out of Time *are dead-on must-watches. However, Series 7 on is a case study of how a great concept can decline and wither. Shifting in tone, Rimmer was replaced with Christine Kochanski (Chloe Annett), Lister’s one-time flame. Although there are some great moments, Series 7 is probably best viewed once you determine that you enjoy Red Dwarf. Series 8 is the absolute nadir, with two two-part stories (and one three-parter) that reflected Naylor’s desire to make Red Dwarf into a big-budget picture.

It would be ten years – 2009, to be exact – before Red Dwarf returned to television, not just on the Dave Channel in the UK, but also as a miniseries entitled Back to Earth. The premise was simple: the crew of the Red Dwarf returned to Earth to find that they were a television show…but the damage had been done, the series falling flat due to repeated callbacks to the past. Series Ten in 2009 was a return to the episodic, more sitcom-oriented format, but there was something lost in translation. The crew looked old, the jokes second rate, and not even an all-night coffee-and-donuts brainstorm with JJ Abrams, Joss Whedon, Steven Moffatt, and Christopher Nolan would revive this once-great series.

So in short, with Red Dwarf

  • Definitely check out Series Three through Five in their entirety
  • Gunmen of the Apocalypse and Out of Time from Series Six
  • Series One or Two if you’re curious about the show’s beginnings
  • Series Seven if you’re very curious and/or eager to watch more
  • If you absolutely, positively must check out moments from Series Eight, head to YouTube.
  • And you’ll be forgiven if you never catch Back to Earth or Series 10.

But Red Dwarf is well worth an investment of time (and available on DVD via BBC Home Entertainment)…just know that it’s a very acquired taste for some nerds.

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