[Retro Review] Everybody’s Dead, Dave. Red Dwarf (1988)
Some people have lofty ambitions. Become rich, famous, the best in your field. Others just want something simple. Like buying a small farm, getting a sheep and a cow and breeding horses. Red Dwarf was the story of the man with the simple dream. There’s just one problem.
Dave Lister was just another guy, taking an easy job as a technician on a mining ship. The lowest ranking member of the crew, his most challenging job was unclogging the soup dispenser whilst dealing with the intellectual black hole that was his bunk mate and supervisor, Rimmer. Lister was a simple creatire. He liked a good curry, he liked to pretend he could play the guitar, he liked a few (dozen) pints with his mates and unfortunately, he liked cats.
Life was good until he was caught smuggling a cat aboard the ship against regulation. Refusing to release his pet for termination, his captain ordered him to spend the rest of the mission in stasis; losing out on the rest of the mission’s wage packet. While Rimmer tried to cheat his way into becoming an officer, Lister was frozen in time ready to wake up back on Earth to find a new way to start saving for his dream farm.
Unfortunately for Lister, he didn’t wake up on time.
Sci fi was going out of fashion thirty years ago for the BBC, who were at the time trying to punt Doctor Who off the air. And a sci fi show that was really a sitcom was an odd prospect for anyone to digest. Yet by a minor miracle, creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor managed to capture the BBC’s attention enough to push out the first series in 1988; a low key, introspective bottle show that quickly became a cult hit that is still going strong to this day.
While later the show would find it’s groove with some weird and wonderful sci fi plots including travelling to a world where time ran in reverse, to the emotion stealing Polymorph, the show started on a much quieter level. Far from the mad-cap antics of the misfit crew, Red Dwarf started with the simple odd couple staple of comedy.
When Lister was released from Statis, the ships computer Holly told him there had been a disaster that had wiped out the crew. A radiation leak. Lister was released when the ship was safe for human life again. Unfortunately that meant he woke up three million years later, Red Dwarf itself adrift in space far from an Earth that more than likely didn’t exist any more.
Holly, after informing Lister that everyone had died, realised he needed to keep Lister sane and revived his former bunkmate Rimmer as a hologram. The polar opposite to the laid back and lazy Lister, Rimmer was an uptight, cantankerous and egotistical failure, bickering with Lister at every opportunity as he slapped his authority of being the only person higher in rank than Lister.
And of course, there was the smuggled cat, Frankenstein. The crew died before they could find her and, safely sealed in the ships hold, she gave birth to a litter of kittens that would be the starting point for three millions years of evolutionary progress that would result in a whole civilisation of Cats. By the time Lister was revived only one remained.
Unlike other sci fi shows, Red Dwarf made the point of Lister being pretty much alone in the universe. There were no aliens to bump into. No indication that humanity had survived that long and generally no hope. Lister was all that was left of us. Even when it ventured into Monster of the Week territory later on, the show made a point of those creatures being man made; such as the GELF’s and various Androids. But nothing emphasised that sense of lonliness more than the first season; especially when Rimmer spent an entire episode hoping to have finally made contact with Aliens only to realise he’d been trying to translate burned off paint on a garbage pod.
Lister and Rimmer’s antagonistic relationship would be the basis for the show, with Holly and The Cat providing additional comedic tones as they dropped in and out.
The premise itself didn’t seem like much on the surface, but it came with it’s own spark of genius. Sci fi was filled with overachieving heroes. Here we had the failures and the hopeless; the last shred of humanity being a defiant waster with the most capable companion he has being a senile computer who’d been left on his own for far too long. Working as both a comedy and a character piece, it had the elements of sadness that came with the gravity of the plot as well as the Hitchiker style wit thrown in. On a sci fi level, it did bring intriguing concepts particularly with the first season seeing Lister hallucinate very real versions of his inner fears – with it’s only down side being that the half hour format only allowing the comedy to be showcased over the sci fi.
Throughout the first series, Lister and the makeshift crew of the Dwarf experienced a time shifting phenomenon that let them glance into the future, explored Lister’s sense of loss as he tried to replace Rimmer with another revived crewmember and finished off with Rimmer’s desire to duplicate himself to create the perfect bunkmate; an episode that gave some oddly deep moments as Rimmer began to face the realities of his own unpleasantness and Lister touched on the morality of deleting one of the two holograms.
It was a small, cheap show. Unashamedly so. But with it’s character exploration, classic antagonistic dynamic and unique setting for a comedy, what could have been a footnote in British sci fi has become one of the UK’s longest running shows and the second longest running science fiction the country has produced next to Doctor Who. While most remember Red Dwarf for it’s season 3-5 adventures as they pushed the limits of adventure and storytelling while also stretching the budget as far as they could. But it all began with a few less laughs, and a lot more reflection and character.
Thirty years on from it’s February 1988 launch, Red Dwarf has evolved into one of the most loved sci fi shows the UK has produced, standing the test of time, surviving certain death after a few format changes, and most importantly; despite ageing horribly in it’s looks and style, remains timeless in it’s underrated exploration of how normal people not heroes react in the worst of situations.
This article was originally posted in SFCQ2 Comms on Red Dwarf’s 30th anniversary in 2018. All former issues of Commms are archived for members in the Membership Hub.
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