The British Broadcasting Corporation has some international gravitas when it comes to news, sports coverage, wildlife documentaries and the continuing trend for talent shows. It has a rich history of commissioning science-fiction shows with the notable mentions of Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and Torchwood, and adaptations of The Tripods and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In 1988 the BBC commissioned an idea by writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor called Red Dwarf. It has been 30 years, and the show is still going strong with the original cast. Not bad going for a sci-fi sitcom set millions of years in the future with only four main characters and paper-thin sets.
Rob Grant and Doug Naylor both attended the University of Liverpool and began working together as writers in the 1980s, on radio and TV. On television they worked on the puppet-based satirical comedy Spitting Image, and on radio they created a sketch called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, which was the genesis of Red Dwarf. They pitched the idea to the BBC, and cult success soon followed. The Grant and Naylor writing partnership continued until Season VI of the show when Rob Grant decided to leave and pursue other projects, wanting his legacy to not just be Red Dwarf. Although both writers would continue to write novels based on the show. Red Dwarf continues under Doug Naylor and in 2017, Season XII was broadcast on digital channel Dave in the UK.
Red Dwarf is set in the 22nd century and is the name of the Jupiter Mining Corporation’s mining vessel. The entire crew of the ship was wiped out by a radiation leak when Second Technician Arnold Rimmer failed to repair a faulty drive plate. The only survivor was the lowest ranked crew member, Third Technician, Dave Lister who was in stasis as punishment for smuggling a cat on-board and breaking quarantine on his last shore leave. He was kept in stasis for 3 million years to allow the radiation levels to subside and on release, discovers what has happened to his crew mates.
Dave is not all alone though. The ship has an on-board AI called Holly who maintains the ship. To keep Lister sane, Holly used the ship’s hologram system to upload his deceased colleague Arnold Rimmer to keep him company. The first episode also introduces another character in the form of Cat. The result of Lister’s cat and 3 million years of evolution. It is not until Season Two episode ‘Kryten’ when a mechanoid is introduced, and from Season Three onwards, Kryten becomes the fourth crew member of Red Dwarf. Their mission to get Dave Lister back to Earth.
Dave Lister (Craig Charles)
The last human is not the greatest example of mankind that we could have hoped for. He doesn’t wash, eats his toenails and recycles his clothes by turning them inside out. He is a slob. His idea of a good diet is eating a vindaloo curry washed down by lager. The premise of Red Dwarf is Lister’s desire to get home and the success of the show is based on the interactions and adventures of the crew.
Lister is played by Craig Charles from Liverpool. Starting off as a performance poet and following a number of appearances on TV, he was cast as Lister. The success led to him getting gigs on Robot Wars and Coronation Street. When not filming the show he is a successful Funk and Soul DJ on BBC Radio.
Arnold J Rimmer (Chris Barrie)
Lister’s closest friend (loose use of term) is Arnold Judas Rimmer, his direct superior. A spineless failure of a man who has never been able to achieve the success of his family and could only reach the heights of Second Technician, with a specialty in cleaning the soup dispensers. Brought back as a hologram to keep Lister company, Rimmer resents Lister. He blames him for being in stasis and causing the radiation leak that killed him and the rest of the crew. Rimmer is the opposite of Lister and the two make an Odd Couple dynamic.
Rimmer is played by Chris Barrie, who met Grant and Naylor when providing celebrity voices on Spitting Image. Following Dwarf’s success, Barrie appeared in the BBC’s The Brittas Empire and was the butler Hillary in the Angeline Jolie Tomb Raider films.
Cat (Danny John-Jules)
The evolution of Lister’s domestic cat through 3 million years has brought about the humanoid feline, Cat. A shallow, fashion addicted fish lover. The Cat may have low intelligence, but he comes out with the best one liners and his cat senses save the crew from a number of disasters.
Cat is played by Danny John-Jules, an actor, singer and dancer. He has had a long career in British television appearing in BBC Children’s Maid Marian and Her Merry Men and more adult fare with Death in Paradise, which he alternates filming in Guadeloupe with filming Red Dwarf. As Barrie, Jules has also toyed with Hollywood when he appeared as a vampire in Blade II and was in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Kryten (Robert Llewelyn)
The mechanoid, discovered marooned in Season Two, was soon added as a full cast member for Season Three. The maintenance/domestic robot Kryten with the head that looks like the child of a trash compactor. Kryten would become the servant for the crew, the whipping boy of Rimmer and with Lister’s help, attempts to break his programming. Kryten is used as a resolution device like The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver. If the crew are in a jam, Kryten will come up with some idea to get them out of it.
In Season Two Kryten was originally played by Dave Ross. When the character was introduced again in Season Three he was played by Robert Llewellyn. Although Llewellyn has not had as much exposure as the other actors on the show, he did host the UK’s Scrapheap Challenge and was the only cast member to reprise his role in the American pilots. When not acting or writing, he is a prominent figure in the emerging transport and renewable energy sectors along with a YouTube show and frequent travels around the world to talk on the subject.
Holly (Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge and back to Norman)
The final substantial crew member is the ships on-board tenth generation AI computer Holly. With a IQ of 6000 he drives the ship. Unfortunately after 3 million years alone, the computer has become, ‘a bit peculiar’. Although it has moments of genius, it is subject of ridicule from the other crew members due its failure to compute basic commands.
Holly has been played by two actors, the original actor Norman Lovett appeared in Season I and II but Holly undergoes a sex change for Season III-V, where it was played by Hattie Haybridge. Holly has appeared intermittently since Season VII where Lovett reprised the role. Both actors that have portrayed Holly have been stand-up comedians on the UK comedy circuit, which must be beneficial when their screen presence is a floating head on a computer screen.
The lasting success of Red Dwarf is that the actors have fully immersed themselves in their characters and the show also gave them the opportunity to create new characters. Chris Barrie is able to break away from the hapless Rimmer to portray the ‘everyone loves’ super successful Ace Rimmer, the Rimmer from an alternate universe who gets the women, men and crocodiles. The Cat also has an alternate identify in the form of Duane Dibley, the Duke of Dork, the Cat’s geeky, flask loving, human alter ego. First appearing in Season V’s ‘Back to Reality’, the success of that character and that of Ace Rimmer ensured they would be brought back occasionally.
As of November 2017 there has been 73 episodes aired on the BBC or from 2009 on digital channel Dave. There is no way I can do the show justice without pointing to some episodes to just get a taste of the show. The five episodes below are the top five rated episodes on IMDB and one additional episode which is my personal favourite. If you want to try Red Dwarf and see what it is about, start here:
#1 – ‘Back To Reality’ Season V, Episode 6 (1992)
The Red Dwarf investigates an ocean ship, The Esperanto, where they find the ship’s crew have all committed suicide, and are attacked by a sea monster called The Despair Squid. Later, they wake up to find they are not who they thought they were and have been playing an artificial reality computer game for four years.
#2 – ‘Quarantine’ Season V, Episode 4 (1992)
After investigating an abandoned research complex on an ice planet, Lister, Cat and Kryten return to Red Dwarf only to find Rimmer has been infected with an electronic virus and he has taken over Red Dwarf. Lister, Cat and Kryten are sentenced to Quarantine for three months.
#3 – Legion Season VI, Episode 2 (1993)
With Red Dwarf shipjacked and the crew chasing them on the smaller Starbug, they are taken over by a tractor beam which takes them to a deep-space space station. There the crew discovers Legion, a life form conceived from an experiment by famous scientists. Only to learn Legion is composed from the minds of each member of the crew whom he won’t allow to leave and continue the search for Red Dwarf.
#4 – ‘Polymorph’ Season III, Episode 3 (1989)
The Red Dwarf crew encounter the Polymorph, a genetically engineered space mutant that drains the emotions from humans.
#5 – ‘Queeg’ Season II, Episode 5 (1988)
Red Dwarf’s back-up computer Queeg 500 takes command of Red Dwarf when Holly allows a meteorite to damage the ship and Rimmer to malfunction. The crew encourages Holly to challenge Queeg to a game of chess, where the loser gets erased from the system.
My favourite episode is Season VI’s Episode 3 called ‘Gunman of the Apocalypse’ (1993).
Starbug stumbles upon a battleship carrying on-board murderous cyborgs called “Simulants”. When the “Simulants” infect Starbug with a virus, Starbug begins a collision course with a volcanic planet. Lister, Cat and Rimmer connect Kryten to an Artificial Reality game and enter Kryten’s dream of the wild-west to help fight the virus.
Quotes and Merchandise
The cult following of the show has ensured that it is a staple at Sci-Fi Conventions around the world and also holds its own Dimension Jump convention which is entering its 20th year. The show has also launched new phrases in to geek culture including, ‘Smeg Head’, ‘Smoke Me A Kipper, I’ll Be Back For Breakfast’, ‘Novelty Condom Head’ and ‘Boys from the Dwarf’. The show has its own industry in clothing, toys, games and merchandise.
Like any show that has had such a long history, there is always a chance that a number of famous actors have appeared in the background as a guest. Here are just a few that may have went on to bigger things.
Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, Stryker in X-Men 2 and also appearing in Planet of the Apes and The Bourne Identity. Dundee born Brian Cox appeared in episode, ‘Stoke Me A Kipper’, playing the King of Camelot. Having been keen to play a comedy role he approached show producer Ed Bye for a role.
Former US TV The Late Late Show Host, Doctor Who fan and stand-up comedian. Craig Ferguson appeared in Season 1’s ‘Confidence and Paranoia’ playing a manifestation of Lister’s sickness.
In ‘Back to Reality’ Spall appears as the video game engineer who brings the crew back to the ‘real’ world with a bump. Spall has appeared in numerous TV shows like Auf Wiedershen Pet and played Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films.
Another Harry Potter alum to appear is Arthur Weasley actor Mark Williams. Williams appeared in the very first episode as one of Lister’s doomed friends. Williams also appeared in BBC’s The Fast Show which is another comedy you should try and track down.
Evolution of the Show
With the success of the show and the cult following at conventions, it was not long until an American channel thought they could recreate the very British sit-com style that would later work with The Office.
In 1992 NBC, Universal Studios and Grant and Naylor got together to create two pilots for US television. Due to restraints and ideas forced on the team by the American producers, Rob Grant quickly left the project and it was down to Doug Naylor to continue. The only survivor from the UK version was Robert Llewelyn playing Kryten. The rest of the cast was made up of Americans, except for Holly who was played by a pre Frasier Jane Leeves. The pilot was not picked up and a second pilot was filmed replacing Cat and Rimmer and taking more of a lead from Grant and Naylor’s script. Again the pilot was not taken up and the desire for a US version died. The pilots have never been broadcast but bootleg versions are available on the convention circuit. There is a documentary on the US Pilots called ‘Dwarfing USA’ which can be found on the Season V DVD.
When Season VIII ended in 1999 following the BBC’s lack of interest. This would lead to an absence of a decade until the show was revived on digital channel Dave. In the hiatus, Doug Naylor had been trying to get funding for a Red Dwarf movie. A script was written, actors were signed, locations were scouted in Australia in 2004 with filming to start in 2005. Unfortunately funding did not materialise as no one would fund the £15 million budget. After a few years in development hell, the movie was shelved and it was back to TV. With the BBC showing no interest in the show, it was digital channel Dave who had bought the rights to show re-runs of the show that funded 3 new episodes in 2009. The show was a ratings hit for the channel while setting new viewing records. It was a no brainer that they committed to a full revival with Seasons X followed by XI and XII. The show is a great success for the channel and it is their highest rated show.
Following the success of the new seasons and the cast and crew finding that they still enjoyed working together, in November 2017, Doug Naylor announced that he was working on scripts for Season XIII and also looking at a possible stage show to be announced at London’s O2 arena. This was depending on the filming of the TV show and the availability of the cast with their other commitments.
So the show continues to thrive after three decades and has plans for the future. Hopefully you are already a fan or I have now convinced you to give the show a try.