*This review is for the original BBC series only. There is a fuller article on the show's history in Television Heaven's Articles section.
The television situation comedy format, coupled with the established genre conventions of science fiction, have a less than distinguished history. Within the confined and mostly staid traditional environment of the sitcom universe, the science fictional element is often reduced to a one-note riff on which various comedic scenarios are played out in a more or less traditional and predictable pattern. Until the initially low-key arrival on BBC2 of a series named...Red Dwarf.
Aboard the deep space mining vessel Red Dwarf, third-class technician Dave Lister is
placed in suspended animation as punishment for smuggling a cat aboard. During this period of
'stasis', a radiation leak caused by his obnoxious and inept roommate, Arnold Rimmer, kills all
168 crew members and causes Lister to remain asleep for three million years. Finally re-animated
by the ship's computer, Holly, Lister discovers that his only company aboard the five mile long
vessel are a hologram of Rimmer; which manages to be every bit as annoying, pompous and cowardly
as the original, and Cat; a cool dude "human-like" creature that is profoundly narcissistic, and
has in fact evolved during his period of inertia, from Lister's pet.
The cast were made up of Liverpool born poet/comedian Craig Charles and former Spitting Image impressionist Chris Barrie. The two characters constant bickering and comedic interchanges were reminiscent of another great love hate relationship in another BBC classic Steptoe and Son. Whilst Lister constantly referred to Rimmer as a 'smeg-head', and derided his obvious ineptitude, he wasn't exactly a prime example of human culture himself, wearing his socks until they stuck to the wall, dining on his favourite food of Pot Noodle and constantly dreaming about his long dead fantasy girl, former crew member Christine Kochanski. Danny John-Jules played the cat character who forever preened himself in the mirror, cleaned his clothes by licking them and sprayed perfume from an aerosol to mark out his territory in true cat fashion. Holly appeared simply as a deadpan face on a screen, that face originally belonging to Norman Lovett before changing to Hattie Hayridge in subsequent series and, eventually, back to Lovett again.
This space-age sitcom originated as a Radio 4 sketch before transferring to BBC2 under the creative writing talents of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (who had been part of the Spitting Image writing team), to be greeted by indifferent critical reaction and far from spectacular ratings. However, the series did score high in audience appreciation, which was enough for the BBC to continue commissioning it, until a raising of production values and the introduction of the android butler, Kryten, lifted it out of the doldrums and into the area of 'Cult Classic'.
In 1994 the series was awarded an International Emmy, but it was to disappear for three years after Rob Grant decided to jump ship. In 1997 the crew were re-united and joined by actress Chloe Annett as the resurrected Kochanski, this was mainly to make up for the fact that Chris Barrie had decided he'd had enough. Although Barrie returned for the next season by that time the series was beginning to look a little short on ideas or comedic situations, although it did have its moments.
At its peak Red Dwarf offered a sharp and knowingly funny and imaginative inversion of the usual sci-fi/sitcom stereotypes, which had been the staple diet of viewing audiences for decades. In the process it became the fourth best selling BBC programme of all time and BBC 2's longest running sitcom. It dared to be different, and it was that very difference that made viewers sit up and take notice.
Published on January 24th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (2000) for Television Heaven.