With the exception of the classic seminal Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, funny science-fiction shows are in short supply. So much so, in fact, that I believe Red Dwarf may be the only one around — who mentioned Hyperspace? Get the hell out of here! The thing about it is that it doesn’t just lampoon science-fiction: that would be easy enough to do, as films like Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest, and even the Robot Chicken Star Wars have shown us. But it’s a lot harder to be properly respectful to the thing you’re putting a humorous slant on, and to understand and embrace it, than it is just to basically make a laugh out of it. And Red Dwarf has I believe managed to straddle the border between serious or at least semi-serious sci-fi and comedy, without totally sliding over onto either side.
Now you might say that’s wrong, that Red Dwarf is most definitely a comedy show, and to a great extent I’d be inclined to agree with you. After all, it’s the laughs that make the show, right? But just take a step back for a moment and consider what gets those laughs. Oh, for sure it’s Lister’s lazy, half-ass approach to life, Rimmer’s uptight nature and Kryten’s breaking of his programming while still remaining mostly servile, but more often than not it’s also the situations they find themselves in onboard the huge Jupiter Mining Corporation ship, and almost all of these are grounded in if not science-fiction tropes, then certainly ones that could be used in many an sf show.
Genetically engineered lifeforms. Black and white holes. Time travel. Terraforming and holograms and computers and crazed homicidal robots and men made out of curry… okay, maybe not the last one. There’s really only one show that could dream up such a being, but the rest, and more, could all find their homes on any other science fiction drama, minus the laughs. The thing is, that rather than just sneer at sci-fi or make fun of it, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor seem to have actually researched the genre while writing the show (later of course Grant would leave to go his own way, the ship then under the sole control of Naylor), looked to see what is it about it that makes it acceptable to its readers or audience? What precepts inform it, and what generalities thread through most if not all sci-fi? Faster-than-light travel. Spaceships. Time machines. Lasers. Robots. Strange planets. All of these things are accepted as being the lifeblood of much of today’s (and yesterday’s) science-fiction. But one thing is missing from Red Dwarf, an ingredient that just about any sci-fi show really has to have.
Despite the total lack of extraterrestrial lifeforms for the boys to bump into, and despite Rimmer’s almost desperate belief in them, their lives are not without encounters, and the way Grant/Naylor constantly dreamed up new adversaries for them to meet without making them alien is nothing short of genius. Genetically altered life forms have already been mentioned, but the crew also come across beings as diverse as a rogue android who can time travel, a being made entirely from the thoughts of others, wax droids and even a planet full of Rimmers! Shudder!
The science behind Red Dwarf, while nowhere near as technobabbly as the likes of Star Trek, does seem to be grounded in some sort of reality. In season two they’re talking about TIVs, or Total Immersion Videos, which can’t seem that far off now: games where you can take on any persona you want and do just about anything you like in a virtual world that feels just as real as, er, the real one. Holograms of course are nothing new, but Red Dwarf started its run only a year or less behind the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was the first show to really explore the idea of a hologram as a living being. It really, in fairness, only reached its zenith with The Doctor in Voyager, nearly seven years later, so in effect you could argue that Red Dwarf did more with humanoid holograms than Star Trek ever did.
There’s no great attempt to explain how the ship Red Dwarf flies through space: it’s a spaceship and has some sort of hyperspatial drive, but most of the time it would appear to mostly drift on through the cosmos, not really on any actual heading, almost like a nearly-deserted passenger liner of the galaxy. Over the years and seasons the crew have become more adept at running the various functions of the ship not entrusted to Holly, the vessel’s AI. And that’s another thing: in Star Trek there was a computer, yes, and it controlled the ship mostly, yes. But it was essentially just a voice that responded to commands. In Red Dwarf the ship’s computer not only has a face but a personality, and actually talks to the crew, not just responding to their queries but actually holding conversations and arguments with them, occasionally expounding on its theories about everything from the worst book ever written in human history (it’s Football: It’s A Funny Old Game, by Kevin Keegan, in case you wanted to know) to why women will have to be banned from playing the cello when his new revolutionary musical system (including two new notes, H and J) is adopted.
So you’ll find, perhaps to your surprise, that many of the ideas put forward in Red Dwarf have been seized upon, adapted or just plain robbed by other, more reputable science-fiction shows. And if they have been, well then they must have been well researched, mustn’t they? Not only that, but Red Dwarf explores many of the themes that would inform later series of the likes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and so forth: religion and its place in the world. The emptiness of space. The futility of war. Politics. Music. Pot Noodle. Okay, again, not that last one, but there were some pretty weighty topics discussed in the series. And some pretty heavy-duty guest stars, from Adolf Hitler to Mother Theresa and from Napoleon to Death Himself.
Even with the generous dose of belly-laughs the series provided, there was often quite a deal of pathos and “serious stuff” too, though usually lightened fairly quickly. When Rimmer receives a letter informing him his father has died, the sombre scene is interrupted by the Cat, who is hungry. Lister tells him, “Ssh! Rimmer’s dad has just died!” to which the feisty, selfish feline quips disappointedly “I’d prefer chicken!” And the endscene showing the final resting place of Ace Rimmer in season seven brings a lump to my throat every time I see it.
It’s rare indeed that a show will respect and yet also satirise a genre; Police Squad was one of the finest satires of a cop show, and Scrubs of course lampooned medical shows very well, but nobody ever touched sci-fi after Douglas Adams. Maybe it’s that it’s seen as the preserve of geeks and nerds, people more likely to short out your computer and destroy your internet connection if you annoy them, or maybe non-sci-fi fans just think it’s silly enough already without being made further fun of. I don’t know, but Red Dwarf got the balance just perfectly. It was funny, yet did not laugh at sci-fi. It was sufficiently clued-in to be able to survive as a sci-fi show but also uproariously funny. A hard feat to accomplish, but one Red Dwarf took in its stride.
Perhaps it was the everyman nature of the crew. We had Dave Lister, a space bum basically, Arnold Rimmer, a jumped-up technician with ideas way above his station, and a cat that walked upright and had regard really for nobody other than himself. Add in the serving droid with a conscience and a computer whose IQ had been reported as anything from 6,000 to, er, six, and you had a real cast of misfits, with not a space hero in sight (until the arrival of Ace Rimmer that is: what a guy!) and also, tellingly, for the first six seasons, no females, screaming or otherwise. We could identify with these people. Everyone knew someone like Lister, coasting his way through life on the strength of a lopsided smile and a cheeky chappy attitude, or Rimmer, who believed he was a space adventurer and so much better than Lister, but was in fact an innate coward and terrible at his job, laughed at behind his back by everyone, and to his face by many. And the Cat portrayed just about every facet of any pet cat I’ve ever had. Kryten was almost the mother, always trying to get the guys to do the right thing and more worried about whether the towels were folded properly than how many heatseeking missiles were targeting the ship.
It was an unlikely mix, but it worked, and in the process and over the course of, so far, ten seasons and over a quarter of a century, a legend was born. Not quite sure if it’s a legend of science-fiction or a legend of comedy: perhaps a little of both. But a legend nonetheless. As Lister would say: “Boys from the Dwarf!”
This article was first posted on May 7, 2013