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'Red Dwarf': Tube Talk Gold

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On paper, there's absolutely nothing about Red Dwarf that should have worked. Between its cast of unknown and largely inexperienced performers, its essentially bleak premise – last man alive trapped in deep space – and the dreaded "sci-fi" label, it's a minor miracle the series was ever commissioned in the first place, never mind renewed for seven subsequent runs. More than 20 years on from its debut in 1988, the show is arguably more popular than ever and gearing up for a hotly anticipated revival.

Red Dwarf: Originally broadcast from February 15, 1988 to April 5 1999

The cast of Red Dwarf


Adapted by former Spitting Image writing duo Rob Grant and Doug Naylor from their own radio sketch, the 22nd-century set Red Dwarf centred on a low-ranking technician onboard a mining spaceship, who through a fluke becomes the last human left alive after a radiation leak wipes out the rest of the crew. Dave Lister (Craig Charles) couldn't exactly be described as representing the best the human race has to offer – he's a lazy, resolutely aimless slob with non-existent hygiene habits and a diet comprised solely of curry and beer milkshakes. Trap him with his officious, compulsively ambitious bunkmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), and the show's aforementioned bleak premise becomes fertile ground for character-driven comedy.

Awakening three million years after the disaster, by which time the entire human race has become extinct, Lister finds himself trapped with only three companions: a hologram of the dead Rimmer, a vain human-like creature evolved from his pet cat (Danny John Jules) and the ship's deadpan computer Holly (Norman Lovett and later Hattie Hayridge).



Although the show began to explore more ambitious sci-fi based plots as expanding budgets permitted, the odd couple dynamic between Lister and Rimmer was always its core. Ask any viewer what image comes to mind when they think of the early series, and odds are they'll say the pair's grey-on-grey bunk room, a functional yet oddly charming set in which countless classic scenes between the two would unfold.

The chalk and cheese contrast between Lister and Rimmer – one redefines the word slob, the other keeps his underwear on coat hangers – is mirrored in Charles and Barrie's markedly different comic acting styles, which nonetheless gel beautifully together. The pair allegedly butted heads in real life during the show's early years, but any genuine tension only compounded the comedic spark in their on-screen sniping.



While it wouldn't be unfair to call the Cat a one-note character, it's a very, very funny note, and one that's employed with such skill that it never wears thin for a moment. Rimmer, and to a lesser extent Lister, changed significantly as characters throughout the show's run, while the Cat stayed absolutely unchanged: he's vain, airheaded and self-obsessed, and John-Jules is so blithely charming in the role that we wouldn't have him any other way.



From the third series onwards Red Dwarf enjoyed higher production values, and along with them better sets, more high concept episodes and a new character in the form of Robert Llewelyn's neurotic mechanoid Kryten, who swiftly became so integral it was hard to remember the show without him. Plots introduced in the first two series – notably the idea of a character's psyche being made flesh, and notions like time-travel and dimension-hopping – were explored on a grander scale, while episodes like 'Back to Reality' and the Emmy-scooping 'Gunmen of the Apocalypse' allowed the show's trademark intimate comedy to play out against a much vaster and more thrilling genre backdrop.

The show straddled the divide between sitcom and sci-fi adventure series with more success in some episodes than others, but at its best it could incorporate drama without sacrificing a moment of comedy. Series six finale 'Out of Time', which many fans choose to consider the show's "real" ending, is simply a deftly executed piece of science fiction with a near-perfect final cliffhanger.



That being said, by the time the sixth series rolled around the show had lost something of its character focus, favouring plot-based comedy over the dialogue-heavy material of earlier seasons. In this writer's opinion, the show's best episodes were generally those that could be most easily reproduced as a stage play. Case in point: series three fan favourite 'Marooned'.

A talky bottle episode that saw Lister and Rimmer trapped together on an ice planet, 'Marooned' capitalised on their endlessly enjoyable dynamic while simultaneously highlighting how much it had developed from the early series. The pair's relationship was never really so much love-hate as affection-irritation, and in this episode there's distinctly more tenderness than tension – the generally gutless Rimmer even gets to be noble – while their conversation is classic line after classic line.



This episode brings us, in a roundabout way, onto just why the seventh series was so wretched. Several things changed at once when the show returned after a three year gap – co-creator Grant left Naylor to run the ship alone; the episodes ceased to be filmed in front of a live audience, and Barrie (owing to the workload from his other sitcom The Brittas Empire) effectively left the show, appearing in only three of the series' eight episodes.

Chloe Annett, who was cast to play Lister's long-lost love interest Kristine Kochanski, is often unfairly scapegoated for the generally flat and humourless episodes in which she appeared, but it was just unfortunate that her arrival coincided with Barrie's departure. Robbed of its key dynamic, its richest character and arguably its best comedic actor, Red Dwarf dragged itself painfully through most of its seventh series like an animal half-caught in a trap.

The eighth series was an improvement purely by virtue of having Rimmer back in every episode, but its rebooted premise – the ship's entire original crew are resurrected – fundamentally changed the 'sit' part of the sitcom, making it at once less unique, less funny and less interesting. The best comedy is also vaguely tragic, so 'the last human alive' fits the bill, while 'several hundred human co-workers who happen to be on a spaceship' doesn't. The good news is that the show's upcoming tenth series goes right back to basics: Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten alone in deep space, in front of a live audience. And it's pretty smegging good.

There's way, way too much ground to cover in discussing just what makes Red Dwarf gold – we haven't even touched on Ace Rimmer, Dwayne Dibley, changing the bulb, shrinking underpants, Mr Flibble, dog's milk, double polaroids, Queeg or any number of other classic moments. Suffice it to say, it's one of a kind, and up there with Blackadder, The Office and Father Ted as some of the best, freshest small-screen comedy Britain's ever produced. We'll leave you with a clip from oft-voted fan favourite episode 'Back to Reality', and you can let us know your personal favourites in the comments.



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