Luke Owen looks back at Red smegging Dwarf…
With Red Dwarf back on TV screens once again [read our review of the first episode here], I’ve been revisiting one of my all-time favourite British sitcoms featuring the adventures of the last human alive David Lister, his evolved feline partner The Cat, mechanoid Kryten, holographic smeghead Rimmer (and, later, love interest Kochanski) and super smart A.I. Holly (with an IQ of 6,000, the equivalent of 6,000 P.E. teachers).
Red Dwarf ran from 1988 through to 1999 when it was cancelled after eight series. A proposed movie was in development from 2000 through to around 2004, but it wouldn’t be until Dave brought the show back for a three-part special in 2009 that we’d see the crew once again. Though Back to Earth wasn’t the show fans had hoped it would be, Red Dwarf X, which aired three years later, was much better received. Now the smegheads are back once again for Red Dwarf XI, and an already announced Red Dwarf XII next year.
Narrowing down my personal favourite episodes was extremely difficult, and there are a few I’m annoyed aren’t in the list. Episodes like “Parallel Dimension”, “Camille”, “DNA” and “Meltdown” all deserve praise but just couldn’t be fit into this rather tight line-up (although that’s all personal preference). I’ll also be straight-up and say right now that nothing from the up-and-down series eight features, nor does anything from Back to Earth or Red Dwarf X. I’m not saying they’re bad, they’re just not up with the best episodes the series has to offer.
Future Echoes (S01E02)
Part of the genius of doing a science fiction sitcom is that there is more room for creativity than the likes of Keeping Up Appearances or Are You Being Served? could ever have. Doug Naylor and Rob Grant were able to play with sci-fi elements in episodes that had been apart of their favourite stories, in this case the effects of light speed. As Holly tries to navigate Red Dwarf back to earth, the ship hits light speed a few hours ahead of time, meaning Lister and Cat didn’t have time to get into stasis. As the ship goes faster and faster, the crew experience ‘future echoes’, visions of events that are yet to happen including Cat breaking a tooth, Rimmer seeing Lister dying and a picture of Lister holding his twin sons Jim and Bexley (named after zero gravity football star Jim Bexley Speed). After setting up the series main plot in the first episode, “Future Echoes” was a perfect platform to show what Red Dwarf could accomplish as a show. It features some wonderful ideas and some perfectly timed and played scenes; including some classic lines (“It will be happened; it shall be going to be happening; it will be was an event that could will have been taken place in the future. Simple as that.”).
Red Dwarf only got a second run because the BBC had already commissioned it. Without that guaranteed second series, its likely we wouldn’t be sitting here reading about the impact the show has had. Wanting to grow the show and expand the stories they could tell, Naylor and Grant introduced Blue Midget, a spaceship that allowed the trio to leave Red Dwarf and explore new planets. Their first encounter was in the series two opener “Kryten”, which introduced us to the character before he became a regular in Red Dwarf III. Kryten, here played by David Ross, sends out a distress call from his crashed ship Nova 5 which leads Lister, Rimmer and Cat to believe they are about to be in contact with females. However they discover that Kryten’s crew are all very much dead (“there’s less meat on them than a Chicken McNugget”) and the mechanoid has just been blissfully unaware. There are some great jokes in “Kryten”, and although the character would be popularised later by Robert Llewellyn, Ross is really funny in the role (“My God! I was only away two minutes!”).
“Queeg” very nearly didn’t make the list, but a recent re-watch made me change my mind. Feeling like Holly isn’t up to muster anymore, Red Dwarf’s back-up computer Queeg comes in to take over the ship. Completely different to Holly, Queeg makes Lister and Cat work for their food and pushes Rimmer to his limits in terms of exercise and revision. Really, this episode is stolen by Norman Lovett’s Holly, whose dry delivery gets so much time to shine and virtually every one of his lines is golden (“Was there any damage?” “I don’t know, the damage report machine has been damaged”). There’s also the hilarious visual of Holly carting around as a night watchman reading The Junior Encyclopedia of Space and a wickedly funny twist at the end. It’s episodes like this that remind you why Lovett was so good in the role (he would be replaced by Hattie Hayridge in the following series), and it also highlights how much fun the ship’s A.I. can be.
Like “Future Echoes”, “Backwards” (or “SDRAWKCAB” as its sometimes known), shows just what Red Dwarf can accomplish when it pushes the boundaries of its science fiction setting. While learning to drive Starbug (which replaced Blue Midget), Kryten sends himself and Rimmer through a timehole back to earth in 1993 – only this earth runs backwards (“Santa Claus, what a bastard! He’s the big fat git who sneaks down chimneys and steals all the kid’s favorite toys!”). With Kryten as a series regular now and a radically changed production aesthetic, “Backwards” really kicks off the new era of Red Dwarf with a bang. The jokes are great, the timing is ace, and the final gag with Cat going to the bathroom is genius. Although this episode could be on this list just for the opening conversation between Lister and Cat about Wilma Flintstone (“Well, I would go with Betty…but I’d be thinking of Wilma.”)
“Polymorph” actually came with a warning at the start of the episode noting that it wasn’t suitable for children – and it really isn’t. Paying tribute to space monster movies, “Polymorph” sees a mutated experiment that can disguise itself as anything board Red Dwarf. And what does it disguise itself as? How about a kebab, or Lister’s pants? Well, this is Red Dwarf after all. There are actually some great moments of genuine tension here, lifted up by some superb visual gags (Kryten trying to de-robe Lister being the best example). It also features on of the most cult favourite gags of Red Dwarf, in the form of a non-angry Rimmer sporting a beard and a t-shirt that reads, “give quiche a chance” (“Call it extreme if you like, but I propose we hit it hard and hit it fast with a major – and I mean major – leaflet campaign.”).
Dimension Jump (S04E05)
As Red Dwarf entered into its fourth series, Chris Barrie also signed on to another BBC sitcom titled The Brittas Empire where he was, again, to play a smug git. Fearing that he would be typecast for the rest of his career, he asked the writers to create him a role where he could play a hero. Enter his parallel dimension counterpart, Ace Rimmer (“Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast.”). The episode begins with a flashback that shows Rimmer as a child being told that he might have to stay back a year, and that his decision would be a turning point in his life. Well, it turns out that was true. In this alternate universe, Rimmer is a hero who is loved by everyone and adored by more. Even Lister has a better life, known affectionately as Spanners. But this Rimmer has now jumped into the universe we know and love where Rimmer is a complete smeghead. The dynamic between the two characters and Rimmer’s constant whining is hilarious, even bettered by the reveal at the end of the episode. Ace would return again later down the line, but this is his best showing in the series. Plus, how could you not love an episode where Lister talks passiontatly about fishing back home where there are no fish (“We used to go condom fishing. I swear, one time I caught this 2lb black ribbed knobbler. It was about that big!”).
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