An Anatomy of Red Dwarf in 12 Episodes
Red Dwarf celebrated its 30th anniversary by winning British Comedy Guide's Best Returning Sitcom award for Series XII. Using one episode from each of its twelve series, we look back at the sitcom's long history
Red Dwarf: The End
Broadcast: 15 February 1988
In the future solar system, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) is a second technician on mining vessel the Red Dwarf. He's also a neurotic smeghead about to fail another exam. Unclogging chicken soup from vending machine nozzles, one of his few pleasures is pulling rank over bunk-mate and eternal slob Dave Lister (Craig Charles). Meanwhile, Lister has hidden his pregnant cat, Frankenstein, onboard the ship. The captain orders Lister to hand her over, or spend the rest of the mission without pay in a 'stasis booth'. Lister chooses the booth. Time cannot pass into the stasis field, so Lister hasn't experienced a second go by when he's released. But as Holly (Norman Lovett), the ship's computer, informs him: everybody's dead.
The crew's death was due to a radiation leak, and the level of radiation means Lister was away longer than expected – three million years. And things gets worse when, revived as a hologram, Rimmer walks in. On the bright side, Lister still has a cat (Danny John-Jules), albeit one who is no domesticated moggy but an evolved descendent of Frankenstein.
This first episode of Red Dwarf packs in a lot for a half-hour sitcom originally pitched as 'Steptoe and Son in space'. Red Dwarf's longevity goes beyond its ideas, writing and comedy, as the audience has to ask one still-unanswered question that drives a classic story: will they ever get home?
Influenced by: Dark Star (1974), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Now watch: Series I's best episode, Future Echoes.
Red Dwarf II: Thanks for the Memory
Broadcast: 20 September 1988
An 'odd couple' sitcom needs more than bickering. In the standout episode of Series II, Lister plants eight months of his memory into Rimmer's mind. It's intended as a gift: Rimmer wakes believing he once had a passionate romance, only he has an inkling something isn't right. He can't understand why he started treating 'his' old flame Lise Yates so badly. Lister, who was actually in the relationship, has never given it much thought.
Soon, Rimmer discovers Lister must have been seeing Lise at exactly the same time he believes he was. His devastation leads to some sublime comedic dialogue: "The girl I loved most in the whole world had her tongue down your ear." Thanks for the Memory gets its humour and pathos right. Underneath Rimmer's oceanic-sized resentments there is a heart. As Lister acknowledges: "You loved her in a way I never did."
Influenced by: Blade Runner (1982)
Now watch: Previous episode Better than Life, which introduced the fictional Better Than Life video game to the series
Red Dwarf III: Polymorph
Broadcast: 28 November 1989
Red Dwarf's universe is populated with Dr Frankenstein-style creations, and Polymorph is a glimpse of what the human race were up to – then up against – in the years Lister spent in stasis. The polymorph is a shapeshifting monster that possesses the seemingly magical ability of sucking out its victim's emotions. Rimmer loses his anger and becomes like a young Jeremy Corbyn. But the Polymorph, however alien it seems, is genetically engineered and fits into the cold, lonely, godless multiverses the series is set in.
There are purists that argue Red Dwarf III is a different show to the previous two series, with its acceleration towards a more action-based sitcom. A recast Holly (Hattie Hayridge) and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), a new set design, wardrobes and opening credits, do all draw attention to this, but the claims are overstated. The series' best episode, Marooned, and The Last Day have the melancholy of previous years.
Influenced by: Alien (1979)
Now watch: Marooned, with Lister and Rimmer stuck on an ice planet.
Don't watch: The re-mastered versions of Series I-III. In the 1990s, Red Dwarf became harder to distribute to new international audiences because of its dated look. The varnishing that ensued turned out to be an exercise in turding-a-polish, and included: replacing dignified model shots with dodgy CGI, adding non-sensical sound effects and substituting decent gags with flat ones.
Red Dwarf IV: Camille
Broadcast: 14 February 1991
In a series which includes Dimension Jump and White Hole, it is no surprise that Camille gets overlooked. It's a shame because it is the best which revolves around Kryten. When he rescues another android, he falls in love. But Camille is actually a 'pleasure GELF' and can assume the form of whatever form beauty happens to take in the eye of the beholder. That is, until Camille transforms back to 'her' natural appearance – then Camille looks like a bogey-splattered Dalek with an eyestalk made from caterpillar and penis.
Yet Kryten's care for Camille, and Lister's seminars in "advanced rebellion", have taught him to break his programming and lie. This 'droid meets blob' story becomes a sweet Casablanca parody, and the episode gets to the essence of Kryten's character when he puts learning to deceive to good use.
Influenced by: Casablanca (1942), though the future remake starring Myra Binglebat and Peter Beardsley is the definitive version.
Now watch: Dimension Jump – Ace Rimmer arrives from an alternate dimension. What a guy!
Red Dwarf V: Back to Reality
Broadcast: 26 March 1992
On a planet experimenting with evolution, a giant squid has bumped off everything else and tops the animal kingdom. The Dwarfers game seems to be up, and in a literal sense too. While trying to outpace the squid they wake to discover they've been playing a video game titled Red Dwarf. It is to the writers' credit that, five series in, there seemed a possibility that everything Red Dwarf's viewers had witnessed within the sitcom was an artificial reality – within which the heroes had scored a dismal 4%.
Back to Reality also immerses itself into mental health. It's unlikely it was written with this in mind, but the episode can be viewed as part of a changing dialogue about depression at the time. Depression is not presented as a self-induced flaw, but as a chemical process prompting a downward psychological cascade. At least until Holly and a mood stabiliser save the day.
Now watch: Series V's other remarkable episode, Quarantine, is also on a medical theme.
Red Dwarf VI: Emohawk: Polymorph 2
Broadcast: 28 October 1993
Series VI is often bracketed with a golden period of Red Dwarf. But the whole premise of the series, that the crew have lost the ship, doesn't work for more than an extended storyline. Not because that couldn't be a good story, but for the more elementary reason that the show is titled Red Dwarf. Dispensing with Holly is also a reckless move. Apparently the creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor couldn't find enough lines to go round the cast; given they were putting this much thought into the situation, it is odd that no character's dialogue improved in Series VI.
In fact there is an increasing reliance on the formulaic. With quality episodes like Legion and Gunmen of the Apocalypse (which won an Emmy award) it is easy to miss that Red Dwarf was running out of ideas. Emohawk: Polymorph II finds a way to bring back Ace Rimmer from series four's Dimension Jump as well as Duane Dibbley from series five closer Back to Reality, and plonks Polymorph in the title despite never seeming like an actual sequel. A hat-trick in reminding viewers of three better episodes.
Influenced by: Red Dwarf
Now watch: For Holly withdrawal go back to Queeg (Series II) and White Hole (Series IV), the best of Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge's respective takes on the AI computer. Lovett defined the role but he gets better lines and more screen-time in comparison to Hayridge, who creates an impact with less material to work with.
Red Dwarf VII: Ouroboros
Broadcast: 31 January 1997
For the non sci-fi faction of Red Dwarf fans, Lister is like a gateway drug into the genre. His ordinariness and underprivileged background give the show its heart. Ouroboros is bookended with Lister's 'origin story', in which he fathers himself and leaves baby Lister under a pool table in the Aigburth Arms, Liverpool. There's a lofty idea here, but it tangles his existence into pre-ordained back-storied nonsense, and this is only one of Series VII's problems.
Ouroboros should be about Kristine Kochanski (Chloë Annett), Lister's unrequited love who the crew 'rescue' from an alternative dimension. In fact, any of the next five episodes could centre on Kochanski, but the ways she upsets Kryten always seem to be more pressing than establishing her character. She isn't written as a high-ranking Navigation Officer, lost from her own dimension, trapped into a confined space with an infatuated bloke who has never got over her. Instead she's a one-note nag concerned with her appearance.
Many people feel the implosion of the co-creators' writing partnership during the show's mid-1990s hiatus is culpable for the disappointment of Series VII. But storytelling issues predated the split. Doug Naylor, writing alone, also introduced an ambition to the show, such as in opener Tikka to Ride's JFK scenes. And he had to work out how to handle Rimmer's departure, for which spreading out pre-recorded scenes with actor Chris Barrie must have seemed a way to lessen his absence. Unfortunately, it doesn't pay off. Rimmer leaving is not the reason Series VII falters, rather it's the fact that Kochanski never truly arrived.
Watch on: Stoke Me a Clipper. With Chris Barrie departing part way through series VII, Rimmer himself gets a buoyant send off. Tasked to become the next Ace Rimmer, the plot's implausibility almost dimension-jumps the shark, but manages to be good fun.
Red Dwarf VIII: Pete (Part Two)
Broadcast: 1 April 1999
Do you know what happens to a long-running series when it bloats the cast by resurrecting the original Red Dwarf crew, its regulars get next to no lines, and character-based humour gives way to dinosaur skits and cringeworthy jokes? Pete (Part Two) is emblematic of series VIII. Having turned pet bird Pete into a T-Rex with some sort of 'time wand', the dinosaur goes on a rampage. Attempts to soothe Pete with a cow vindaloo only backfire from his backside...
In Series VIII, the cast clearly enjoy being back in front of a studio audience, but the performances are so bombastic, and the comedy so broad, that even without the infamous Blue Midget dance the series feels like some West End parody. It's Red Dwarf: The Musical. The three-part opener Back in the Red could have made a good special, and the series finale was at one stage meant to land the crew back on earth. If only the thought, time and budget hadn't gone on that goddamn dinosaur...
Watch on: Cassandra
Red Dwarf IX: Back to Earth
Broadcast: 10-12 April 2009
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Red Dwarf found a new home on digital channel Dave. Broadcast as a three-part special, Back to Earth, thankfully, left the loose threads from Series VIII dangling. The boys find themselves in a close approximation of our universe, as stars of a sitcom called Red Dwarf. There has been one additional series to what we know, in which Kochanski took flight from Red Dwarf leaving Lister believing her dead; and Kryten is keeping the truth from him. This information is conveyed to Lister by a young fan on top of a London double decker. It is difficult not to conclude this off-screen story sounds much better than the one we're watching.
A little like Series VII, Back to Earth is ambitious but flat. There's an eerie tumbleweed quality which seems to knock the comedic timing off. The best jokes don't land, the bad ones are exposed. The whole thing is meant as an homage to Blade Runner but somehow the gang find themselves on the set of Coronation Street. It is logical within the story, but when an homage to Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic ends up in the Rovers Return, something has gone badly wrong.
Now watch: Coronation Street, in which Charles starred as cabbie Lloyd Mullaney from 2005 to 2015.
Red Dwarf X: Trojan
Broadcast: 4 October 2012
When Series X arrived the sheer wave of relief caused by opening episode Trojan had viewers checking they'd not been breakfasting on Titan mushrooms and hallucinating their way back to 1992. Trojan was the best show Red Dwarf had offered in at least 15 years.
The sets looked good, performances in front of a live audience now enhanced the comedic timing, and the episode has a weightlessness missing from the ham-fisted clunks of the previous three, maybe four, series. It's a good story too, with a visit from the past forcing Rimmer to reassess his family history. With or without a diet of mushrooms, GELF hooch and otrazone, it is possible to get carried away on this. There is a creeping old codgerism about the episode in Lister's troubles in a phone queue, but Trojan at least turned the debate from defensiveness about how bad Red Dwarf had become, to defending it on the grounds of quality.
Now watch: The Beginning ends on another family revelation for Rimmer.
Red Dwarf XI: Samsara
Broadcast: 29 September 2016
Three millions years have elapsed since two colleagues on the SS Samsara engaged in an extramarital affair. This hardly seems relevant to the Red Dwarf crew now, but when they find the crashed Samsara the infidelity unravels a mystery about the ship's karmic drive which dispenses punishments and rewards. Maybe they can get to the bottom of the debauched arrangement with which the skeletal remains of the rest of the Samsara's staff are found?
It is a peculiar kink of the latest Red Dwarf series, as if some karma is dealing out in the opposite way it should, that guest stars are written with a fresh creativity and regulars we've known for three decades occasionally slip out of character. The flashback narrative and non-judgement towards the affair makes Samsara's story compelling and authentic, but it is frustrating that a conversation between Lister and Cat slows the episode down and doesn't quite catch who they are.
Now watch: Series XI's standout episode, best of the Dave-era, and seems both classic and new: Twentica.
Red Dwarf XII: Cured
Broadcast: 12 October 2017
Cured is straight from the Red Dwarf genome. Specifically it shares genes with episodes Meltdown, Justice and the aptly-titled DNA. A 23rd century research station holds a cure for psychopathy, and its research subjects include a selfie-taking, guitar strumming Hitler. But the episode throws up something more unexpected as it probes a little of Cat's character. If he were a cat among the psychopaths, whose side would he be on other than his own? Danny John-Jules brings such screen presence and timing to Red Dwarf it is a curiosity that his character has only been brought to the forefront in the Dave years. While Cured recalls past echoes of Red Dwarf, it also shows there is still time for novel takes on old characters.
Now watch: The lost Cat episode Identity Within, never recorded but storyboarded and read by Chris Barrie (available on the Series VII DVD). This starts with a ridiculous premise – Cat needs to get his end away or he'll die – but ends exploring what 'domestication' on-board Red Dwarf has cost him.
Now Read: The accompanying novels released with the first few series Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better than Life. Both rival A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for quality. The panoramic universe created, impossible to capture completely in the restricted budget of a sitcom, may even make the books the essential version of Red Dwarf for future civilisations to ponder.
Series 1 to 8 of Red Dwarf are streaming now via Netflix; series 10, 11 and 12 are available to stream for free via UKTV Player (registration required)