Comedy in science fiction comedy can be a difficult task. While some movies (like Back to the Future) pull it off well, it’s rarely been attempted on television, and even more rarely has it been successful.
Red Dwarf, however, is the shining counter-example to this. Red Dwarf—about the last surviving human and his small band of misfit companions drifting through space three million years in the future—has endured for nearly three decades and is one of the funniest programs on television.
Red Dwarf premièred on BBC2 in 1988. It ran for an initial 52 episodes over 8 series (seasons) until 1999. Ten years later, it returned for a three-episode miniseries, “Back to Earth” (later retroactively considered Series IX) on the British station Dave. This was followed by a full tenth series in 2012. Red Dwarf XI just finished airing last month. A twelfth series has already been recorded and will air sometime next year.
The Premise of Red Dwarf
Red Dwarf follows the comedy adventures of Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember aboard the mining ship, Red Dwarf. Lister illegally smuggles his pregnant pet cat onto the ship, and when he is caught, is sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in suspended animation. However, while in suspended animation, the ship is contaminated by a radiation leak which kills the entire remainder of the crew. In order to protect Lister, the ship’s computer keeps him in suspended animation until the radiation clears.
When Lister emerges again, he discovers that three million years have passed and the entire human species is apparently extinct. Lister’s only companions are the ship’s computer, a hologram simulation of his dead bunkmate, and a creature who evolved from his cat (who was safely stored in the hold where the radiation didn’t reach).
The first two series of Red Dwarf are very much like a sitcom that happens to be set on a spaceship. Many of the episodes involve flashbacks to before the accident, and develop Lister’s relationship with his crewmates and his sense of loneliness being the last survivor.
Red Dwarf III changed the format somewhat, expanding the cast slightly to include the mechanoid Kryten and more frequently taking the crew off the ship to other worlds and encountering strange creatures. There were far fewer flashbacks as the series focused more on adventure stories that upped the comedy to the extreme. It is around this time that the show really hit its stride.
Over the years since, Red Dwarf has made other changes (such as bringing the entire crew back to life in Series VIII, only to have them all die off again), but the four core characters established in Series III and its brilliant brand of comedy have remained a constant.
The Characters of Red Dwarf
Dave Lister is a slob with few real goals or aspirations in life. But he has a strong moral compass and can even be somewhat brave. He is particularly fond of beer and curry.
His greatest love was Kristine Kochanski, Red Dwaf’s navigation officer. (The continuity changes regarding Lister’s relationship with Kochanski. In the first two series, he only ever had a crush on her from afar, never admitting his feelings to her. In later series, it was changed to the two of them having had a failed relationship.)
Arnold Judas Rimmer is the second-lowest-ranking crewmember on Red Dwarf and Lister’s bunkmate.
When Lister is released from suspended animation, the ship’s computer brings him back as a hologram to provide Lister with company to keep him sane.
Unfortunately, Rimmer is not the kind of person Lister wants to spend eternity with. He is self-centred, pompous, obnoxious, and cowardly, and does everything he can to lord his higher rank over Lister.
When the radiation leak kills off the crew of Red Dwarf, Lister’s pregnant cat is sealed safely in the cargo hold. Over the next three million years, the cat’s descendants evolve into a race of cat-people.
Not long before Lister is released from suspended animation, the cat race obliterates itself in a holy war, and Cat (who has no other name ever given) is apparently the last survivor, much like Lister is the last human.
Cat is vain, very much in love with himself, and not too bright.
Kryten 2X4B-523P (though he thinks 2X4B is a clunky middle name) is a service mechanoid.
He is initially bound by programming that forces him to serve humans and stick strictly to the hierarchy (which means obeying Rimmer’s commands), but Lister eventually teaches him to think for himself. Even so, he continues to enjoy housekeeping tasks such as vacuuming, laundry, and cooking.
Holly is the ship’s computer, with an IQ of 6000. Unfortunately, three million years of drifting through space has degraded that somewhat. After Lister is awakened from suspended animation, it becomes quickly clear that Holly is no longer a particularly competent computer.
Holly appears on monitor screens as just a head floating in blackness. As the head is simply a computer simulation, it does not need to maintain the same appearance or gender (thus the change in actors from Norman Lovett to Hattie Hayridge back to Norman Lovett again). Holly is absent from the show after Series VIII and it has never been explained what happened to the computer.
Kristine Kochanski is Red Dwarf’s navigation officer and Lister’s true love. In Series I and II, she appears mostly just in flashback sequences, and her next appearance in Series VI is just a hallucination. In Series VII, an alternate universe version of Kochanski (where she was the one put into suspended animation, not Lister) crosses over into this universe and gets trapped.
She becomes part of the main cast for Series VII and VIII. In “Back to Earth”, which is several years later, it is revealed that she has gone missing. Apart from a cameo appearance in that miniseries, she has not been seen since, and Lister continues to search for her.
Red Dwarf: In Conclusion
If you haven’t seen Red Dwarf before, now is as good a time as any to check it out. And if you have seen if before, why not watch it again. Series I through X are available on DVD, Series XI releases in North America on November 8 and in the UK on November 14. You won’t regret watching!