“Three million years from Earth, the mining ship Red Dwarf…”
I have been a fan of Doctor Who for most of my life. But if you were to ask me what my favourite show of all time is, I would have to admit that it was ANOTHER British sci-fi institution. Namely, Red Dwarf. Like many Americans, I discovered this amazing mix of characters, concepts, and comedy some time in the early 1990s when the first couple of series were being repeated on US PBS television stations. From there, it was a personal treasure hunt (the current generation doesn’t know the struggle!) to track down the other series on copies of VHS – yes, videotapes – either by mail order or at comic book conventions.
So why did this little show kickstart my fervent fandom? For one thing, Red Dwarf is the rarest of TV gems: a science fiction comedy that is both smart, and, well, funny. Hey, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it! And now, over 30 years on, 12 series strong, the show has a worldwide cult of fans that won’t stop promoting and defending what is basically the brainchild of two nerdy comedy writers.
Created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, Red Dwarf first aired in 1988. Inspired by Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s no easy way to explain the plot, but basically, it centers around Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), who is the lowest-ranked crewman aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf (hence the title!). When Lister gets in trouble for having an unregistered animal — his pet cat — in his quarters, he is put into a stasis chamber for the remainder of the trip. While he is frozen, the whole crew is killed by a radiation leak. Red Dwarf’s sentient computer Holly (played by Norman Lovett as a pixelated face on a monitor) awakens Lister once the radiation has reached safe levels… three million years later, and three million years away from Earth.
In those Ice Ages of time, Holly has gone a little senile. In addition to accelerating the ship away from Earth in that time, he has also brought back Lister’s irritatingly uptight roommate, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), as a hologram. Lister’s cat, who was apparently pregnant when it was sealed away below deck, turned out to be the mother of a race of cats who evolved into cat people through the millennia. The last remaining cat person aboard the ship, simply known as “The Cat” (Danny John-Jules), dances his way through the ship’s halls looking for food and shiny stuff to keep for himself.
In Red Dwarf‘s first couple of series, the show played out like an Odd Couple sitcom in space, with Lister, Rimmer, The Cat, and Holly stumbling upon weird phenomena and other adventures each episode. This includes the robot-like janitor droid Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) who, after an appearance in series 2, was later added to the main cast. Once Kryten became part of the “Boys from the Dwarf” in series 3, this period of the show, through series 6, is regarded as its Golden Age.
With 30-plus years of history, the show has obviously seen some changes and shake-ups, although Charles, John-Jules, and Naylor have been involved in every single episode since day one. All of the series have been 6 episodes, with the exceptions of series 7 and 8, which enjoyed an expanded count of 8 episodes each. Series 9, titled Back to Earth, is either a divided TV-movie or a 3-episode limited series, depending on who you ask. Director Ed Bye, whose contribution to the show’s early years shouldn’t be underestimated, came and went during the 1990s.
Actor shake-ups include Chris Barrie, who did not appear in most of series 7 (but returned in 8), and actress Chloe Annett, who was added to the cast in Barrie’s absence as an alternate universe version of Lister’s former crush, Kristine Kochanski (who was played by Clare “C.P.” Grogan in a few appearances in the early series). Holly actor Norman Lovett abruptly left after series 2 (but has returned in recent years), and was replaced by comedienne Hattie Hayridge as a female version of the confused computer through series 6.
Series 6 also marked perhaps the biggest departure of the show, with co-writer/creator Rob Grant stepping away after frantic filming schedules. Some fans believe that Red Dwarf has never quite been the same since and that his leaving the show was the end of its Golden Age. This is will be debated forever on fan message boards, but a bright spot in recent times is that Grant seems to be “hanging around” the show a little more after years of absence. Could he return in some way in the future? Only time will tell…
After series 8, co-creator Doug Naylor attempted to produce a big-budget film version of the show, which got as far as cast table-readthroughs and detailed storyboards. Rumours of celebrity cameos swirled, with talk of Madonna and Jackie Chan even making appearances. But it was not meant to be. Because of funding problems, the film sputtered and started and sputtered again for nearly 10 years. As Doctor Who fans can relate, this lead to a wilderness of years with no Red Dwarf on TV screens and little hope of a big-budget spectacle.
But in 2009, the situation changed as UK digital broadcasting channel Dave stepped up and offered to bring back Red Dwarf as a proper television programme. The result was the 3-episode Back to Earth, which, although not a fan favorite, garnered blockbuster ratings for the channel. That success has lead to more “Dwarf on Dave” over the last decade, including full series 10 through 12 and the recent Promised Land 90-minute TV-movie.
With the actors and creators all middle-aged, it is unclear what the future holds for Red Dwarf and its beloved characters. Last month’s TV movie was a success, if not an overwhelming one, peaking at over 1 million viewers. With each release of new episodes, Red Dwarf consistently has Dave’s highest ratings, not to mention the added publicity and critical acclaim. Not bad for a programme that has done only 12-ish series in 32 years!
As a long-time fan, I would humbly submit that the show return for one or two more series on Dave, and wrap up the story in a satisfactory fashion. Let the crew finally find a way to return Lister to Earth in some way (worm hole jump? Time travel? Stargate? Holly Hop Drive?) and give him a happy ending to the quest to return home that he started in Series 1, whether it’s in a way we expect or not. And maybe also find out once and for all if he truly is the last human alive after so many millions of years.
Once the show has concluded and we are all full of tears and happiness, then reboot it! Reboot it like no one has ever rebooted before! Hey, an American version on Netflix or Disney+ could be great… I mean, what could go wrong?!
The End… or the beginning?