How Red Dwarf blends sitcom with sci-fi in just 10 smegging episodes

How Red Dwarf blends sitcom with sci-fi in just 10 smegging episodes

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

At first glance, science fiction and comedy seem like natural partners, if only because the inherent ridiculousness underpinning many of science fiction’s most popular tropes means an awful lot of the genre is already unintentionally hilarious. And while there have been a handful of inspired fusions of the two genres—with Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy towering over all—there aren’t many examples on television, particularly when it comes to shows that explore the entire spectrum of the science-fiction genre. When looking for shows that are comedies first and foremost, that are actually set in the future, that build into their narrative fabric all the iconic sci-fi tropes, and that achieve some measure of success, then there are really only four shows, and one of them is The Jetsons. Another, Mystery Science Theater 3000, mostly uses its sci-fi trappings as a pretext for riffing. That leaves just two long-running, full-fledged sci-fi sitcoms. One is Futurama, with which most Americans are likely familiar. The other is Red Dwarf.

Created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, Red Dwarf premièred on BBC2 in 1988. The show tells the story of Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a lazy, curry-obsessed slob who works as a lowly technician on the Jupiter Mining Corporation starship Red Dwarf in the 23rd century (or the 21st, or possibly the 22nd—the show never makes its mind up). Caught smuggling his pregnant cat onto the ship, Lister is sentenced to 18 months in suspended animation. When an explosion causes a radiation leak that wipes out the entire crew, the ship’s increasingly senile computer Holly (Norman Lovett, later Hattie Hayridge) takes Red Dwarf as far away from Earth as possible and waits for radiation levels to return to normal. 

Three million years later, Holly finally revives Lister, who is now almost certainly the last human being in existence. To keep Lister sane, Holly revives his old bunkmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) as a hologram, despite the fact that Rimmer is an unpleasant, unlikeable bastard—a total smeghead, in the show’s parlance. Joining them is The Cat (Danny John-Jules), a fashion-obsessed humanoid who evolved from Lister’s cat. With nothing better to do, the crew decides to return to Earth, and en route they pick up a fussy but loveable android named Kryten (Robert Llewellyn, originally David Ross). The show observes a strict no-aliens policy, and the crew has technically never made it back to Earth, though it flouts both rules via technicalities (a robot here; some time-travel there).

Red Dwarf isn’t in the absolute top tier of British sitcoms. It’s too rough around the edges and has a few too many missteps for that. But when the show is firing on all cylinders—as it is for much of seasons three through six—it’s hilarious and thought-provoking in equal measure, with a surprising amount of insight into the characters of Lister, Rimmer, and Kryten. (The Cat, on the other hand, remains proudly shallow to the last). Part of what makes Red Dwarf so daunting is that the show has never been afraid to change its format or even its continuity to fix things that aren’t working. Major characters will be added and subtracted with only the flimsiest of explanations; three of the six principal parts have been recast in ways that significantly altered the characters’ personalities; and the key details of the show’s backstory are frequently rewritten. While each episode tends to be reasonably consistent in terms of its own internal logic, this is a sci-fi show that is best enjoyed with a relaxed approach to its overall continuity. 

Red Dwarf has proved indestructible in a way that trumps even Futurama. After its initial six seasons of six episodes apiece aired between 1988 and 1993, the show went on seemingly permanent hiatus before returning with a pair of new seasons in 1997 and 1999, then came back from what seemed even more like a permanent hiatus with a three-part miniseries in 2009. These later seasons, which jettisoned many of the elements that made the first six seasons such a success, are a significant step down from what came before. Still, these late entries kept the franchise alive and left open the possibility of an eventual return to the format that made the show so great in the first place. Judging by last week’s very solid season premiere, the new 10th season represents that long-awaited return to form, even if the actors are showing their age and the show’s comedic sensibility now feels like a throwback to an earlier era of sitcoms. The 10 episodes discussed below demonstrate what the show was capable of at each stage in its constantly evolving existence.

“Future Echoes” (season one, episode two): The entire first season of Red Dwarf is a work in progress, as the writers and actors—none of whom had much prior television experience—get the hang of the characters and how best to wring laughs from the show’s byzantine premise. The show’s low-energy vibe isn’t helped by the drab gray costumes and sets. “Future Echoes” is the strongest episode of the first season, and even rehashes most of the salient points of the première, essentially functioning as a second pilot. In particular, the episode sheds light on what it means to be a hologram, with Lister and Rimmer debating whether being dead screws up a career like it used to. “Future Echoes” is the first episode to embrace Red Dwarf’s ability to go absolutely bonkers in its treatment of sci-fi tropes, offering a hugely satisfying treatment of these concepts, both intellectually and emotionally. Though the laughs aren’t all there yet, they soon will be. 

“Thanks For The Memory” (season two, episode three): The second season is a more confident effort than the first, even if it still feels a little drab compared to the big revamp coming in season three. Season two’s greatest strength is in its exploration of what makes Lister and Rimmer tick. “Thanks For The Memory” devotes nearly half the episode to a conversation between Lister and Rimmer, who celebrates the anniversary of his death by getting hideously drunk and voicing all the great regrets in his life. Rimmer hits rock bottom, then the episode mysteriously jumps ahead four days, and the crew has no memory of the intervening time, why they’re in a completely different part of space, or why Lister and The Cat have broken legs. The episode doesn’t quite know how to wrap up the story, leading to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying conclusion—a frequent issue with second-season episodes—but “Thanks For The Memory” is still a vital step in the show’s evolution.

“Marooned” (season three, episode two): Arguably the simplest—and the strongest—story Red Dwarf has ever told, “Marooned” finds Lister and Rimmer stranded on an ice planet after being forced to temporarily abandon ship. With no way of contacting their shipmates and no guarantee of rescue, Lister is forced to eat anything remotely edible and burn cherished possessions just to stay warm enough to survive. The episode’s tight focus lends it the feeling of a particularly hilarious one-act play. Underneath the sparkling dialogue is the show’s clearest exploration of the complex, contradictory relationship between Lister and Rimmer, which can best be termed “affectionate hatred.” The episode also ends on one of the greatest callback gags in TV history. This is the half-hour that best demonstrates why Red Dwarf is a show worth sticking with.

“Timeslides” (season three, episode five): Lister’s situation in Red Dwarf is unbearably grim. He’s stranded 3 million years in the future, with little to no hope of ever seeing another living human again and no particular reason to keep on living. “Timeslides” finds Lister at his most depressed, bored out of his mind at the endless drudgery onboard ship. He receives a way out with Kryten’s accidental invention of timeslides, photographs that the crew can enter and use to change history, so long as they stay within the pictured scene. It’s a convoluted notion even by Red Dwarf standards, but it’s best to not worry about logical gaps and continuity errors, because the timeslides conceit is a perfect opportunity to explore Lister and Rimmer’s characters as they are, as they once were, and as they might have been. 

“Camille” (season four, episode one): Despite featuring such a small ensemble, Red Dwarf tends to keep its focus squarely on Lister and Rimmer. Kryten, however, does get the occasional spotlight episode as part of Lister’s continuing efforts to break his programming and make him act more human. In this episode, that mostly means two things: calling Rimmer a smeghead and, almost as importantly, falling in love. Answering a distress call from a downed starship, Kryten rescues what appears to be another series 4000 mechanoid—specifically, a female version called Camille. The romance brings out the human side in Kryten, with Robert Llewellyn nailing both the pathos and the surreal humor in this star-crossed love affair. It’s all deeply silly, but it’s often brilliant. The episode even fits in a perfect character moment for The Cat, as the revelation of his perfect mate says more about him in 15 seconds than even a dozen Cat episodes could.

“Dimension Jump” (season four, episode five): In Rimmer, Chris Barrie has created one of the most self-loathing, contemptible, pathetic, and strangely endearing characters in sitcom history. As Ace Rimmer, he gets to gleefully turn all that on its head, complete with preposterous blonde wig and mid-Atlantic accent. “Dimension Jump” introduces Ace as an absurdly dashing test pilot from another dimension, one that diverged from the familiar universe at some point in Rimmer’s childhood, splitting the two versions onto diametrically opposed paths. Ace is gallant, generous, and gregarious; really, any positive adjective probably describes Ace. A sequence set in the other dimension gives the rest of the cast a chance to get in on the character-swapping fun. The show has frequently paired Rimmer off with himself to throw his self-hatred into high relief, but “Dimension Jump” offers something for him that is far worse. Ace represents everything he could have been. The final twist of just where Ace and Rimmer’s paths diverged serves as the perfect encapsulation of why Rimmer is the architect of his own misery.

“The Inquisitor” (season five, episode two): At first blush, Lister might seem like a lazy, idiotic slob. In reality, he’s a lazy, ignorant slob who could better himself if he only put in the effort. “The Inquisitor,” in which the titular android arrives on Red Dwarf to assess whether the four crewmembers have lived worthless lives, finally holds Lister responsible for his failure of ambition. In an inspired twist, the terrifying android takes on the form of his accused during the trial, meaning Lister is criticized for wasting his potential by himself, Rimmer is tried by the only person equally self-loathing, and so on. At its best, the characters on Red Dwarf are more than joke-delivery mechanisms, and “The Inquisitor” features a string of scenes that get to the heart of each of the quartet. 

“Back To Reality” (season five, episode six): Perhaps the most iconic Red Dwarf episode, “Back To Reality” reveals the events of the previous five seasons were all part of a Total Immersion Video Game called Red Dwarf, in which four men were simply pretending to be Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, and The Cat. The four men awaken to a horrific fascist dictatorship, one in which Lister is really a genocidal Voter Colonel, Rimmer is a drunken vagrant, and—most horrifyingly—The Cat is a total nerd called Duane Dibbley. Originally written as a potential series finale, “Back To Reality” remains so well-constructed that there’s legitimate doubt which reality is fake and which is real, even though viewers have known the answer for 20 years. 

“Rimmerworld” (season six, episode five): Like a lot of great science fiction, many Red Dwarf episodes can be reduced to a single, intriguing what-if question: In this case, what if there were an entire planet populated exclusively by clones of Arnold Rimmer? Especially in later seasons, these ideas couldn’t fill up an entire half-hour’s worth of material, with episodes often running through much setup and disconnected plots before getting to the featured setpiece. The shaggier storytelling doesn’t prove much of a problem in season six, because the jokes and the characters are still sharp enough to compensate. “Rimmerworld,” for instance, expertly paints Rimmer as both a weirdly sympathetic victim and a sniveling bastard who deserves every horrible punishment that befalls him, all while offering a gleefully disturbing view into a world composed entirely of identical backstabbing weasels.

“Ouroboros” (season seven, episode three): After more than three years off the air, Red Dwarf returned for a seventh series without co-creator and co-writer Rob Grant, but with a more cinematic style and an increased emphasis on heady science-fiction concepts. Barrie’s work conflicts led to the departure of the hologram Rimmer and the introduction of Chloë Annett as an alternate-dimension version of Lister’s old girlfriend Kristine Kochanski, a role originated by Clare Grogan. Annett’s posh, neurotic interpretation is jarringly different from Grogan’s more easygoing, very Scottish take on the character, to the point that it seems silly to even pretend the two actresses are playing the same person. “Ouroboros,” Kochanski’s introductory episode, isn’t a bad episode, but the effects budget is strained, and the jokes don’t land like they did in previous seasons. That creeping sense of staleness suffuses much of the seventh season. Many of the elements for a strong Red Dwarf episode are present, but they aren’t blended together with the same skill of previous seasons.

“Cassandra” (season eight, episode four): In the final episode of season seven, nanobots rebuild Red Dwarf to its original specifications, complete with resurrecting the entire crew. The bulk of the eighth season finds the main cast—plus a resurrected, human version of Rimmer that undoes all his character growth from the previous seven seasons—imprisoned in the ship’s brig alongside a gaggle of unpleasant, uninteresting psychopaths. It’s a weird setup that largely makes for episodes that are either tired, tasteless, or both. (“Krytie TV” is a particularly nasty entry.) Although the “Pete” two-parter has its charms, the season’s strongest entry is “Cassandra,” in which the heroes and a bunch of other prisoners are sent to explore the derelict SS Silverberg, home to Cassandra, a computer that can tell the future with seemingly perfect accuracy, which informs Rimmer he won’t make it off the ship alive. A final twist about the nature of predestination makes this one of the rare late-period Red Dwarf episodes that’s both funny and thought-provoking. 

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Confidence And Paranoia” (season one, episode five), “Better Than Life” (season two, episode two), “Polymorph” (season three, episode three), “Holoship” (season five, episode one), “Terrorform” (season five, episode three), “Quarantine” (season five, episode four), “Legion” (season six, episode two), “Gunmen Of The Apocalypse” (season six, episode three), “Tikka To Ride” (season seven, episode one), “Trojan” (season 10, episode one).

Availability: The first eight seasons are all available on DVD, with the Back To Earth miniseries (which is now counted as season nine) also available on Blu-ray. The show is available for digital purchase on Amazon and iTunes. The 10th season is currently airing on Dave in the UK and on select PBS stations in the U.S.

Next time: Todd VanDerWerff distills The Sopranos down to a perfect 10.