Smegheaders rejoice for the original run of Red Dwarf (BBC series) are all now available on Netflix. Every episode from 1988’s series 1 through to 1999’s series VII can be streamed to your heart’s content. But what is it about this long-running sitcom that has kept consistently high viewing figures for over 30 years?
Marooned in deep space is the mining ship ‘Red Dwarf’. A radiation leak killed the entire crew with the sole survivor being Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a slobby and curry-obsessed lowly third technician. Frozen in stasis at the time of the accident, Lister is awoken once the radiation has dropped to non-lethal levels. Three million years in the future.
Holly, the ship’s onboard computer depicted as a bodiless head on a screen, has descended into computer senility due to the time alone. In order to keep Lister sane, Holly generates a hologram of the long dead Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) due to him having shared the most words together when he was alive. Lastly, they discover the Cat (Danny John Jules), a humanoid creature who has evolved from Lister’s pregnant cat he smuggled aboard.
And from series III onward the fussy and neurotic android Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) is added to the cast. Lister and Rimmer’s clashes initially formed the basis of the show. But as the cast expanded, their bickering became a thread that ran through their efforts to survive in deep space.
What Red Dwarf does so well is the classic ‘characters who clash in a limited setting’ approach but up to the nth degree. It doesn’t get much more limited setting than lost in deep space with humanity almost certainly extinct barring Lister. The drive to get home to Earth loosely ties together the episodes. But mostly the show plays with sci-fi tropes with hilarious results.
Back in 1988 the idea of a sitcom in space was bizarre. And to top that off most sci-fi shows were serious affairs. Red Dwarf poked fun at these standards (“Don’t give me that Star Trek crap,” scoffs Lister in one episode) and in doing so mined the rich seam of highbrow science fiction concepts without ever becoming pretentious.
Many episodes cover ponderous science fiction concepts, such as time dilation, white holes (the theoretical opposite to a black hole), the grandfather paradox, pre-destination in time travel, and the self-delusion of virtual reality. But these subjects are approached with a mixture of stupidity and selfishness, with brave action often being the last choice and not the first.
Rimmer’s abject cowardice despite being already dead and merely a projection of light is a constant gag. Lister’s character does progress throughout the series as he evolves into the show’s moral compass. Even if his messy ways can cause as many problems as he solves. Kryten’s quest to be more human and ‘break his programming’ lends to many sweet moments but also provides plenty of fuel for silly jokes. The show's hodgepodge of highbrow, slapstick, insult-laden dialogue, and twisted science fiction staples make it a unique blend not matched then or since.
The show holds a special place in the heart of fandom. And even 30 years on there is clamour for more and a new series is being filmed in 2019. So don’t be a smeghead, tune your nipple nuts to Jazz FM, and fall into the black hole of a sitcom that shows no sign of stopping.
Words by Michael Record