Blightyvision: “Red Dwarf”

Created by Grant Naylor
Starring Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, and Robert Llewellyn

Among sci-fi geeks of both the Americaphile and Anglophile variety, hour-long dramas are pretty much the way of things now.  With “Doctor Who” in an hour or near-hour format since 2005, and everything from “Heroes” to “Primeval” having followed suit, the idea of a short-format space comedy seems fairly illogical.  So it should say something that the main competition for last year’s Who special “Planet of the Dead” was a continuation of a short-format space comedy.

“Red Dwarf” developed, and has maintained, one of the strongest cult followings in UK television fandom since it began its eight-season run in 1988.  Set in the far-flung future, it focuses on Dave Lister (Craig Charles, now of “Coronation Street”), once the lowest-ranking officer on the titular mining ship in the 22nd century.  While Lister is in suspended animation after bringing his cat Frankenstein on board, a radiation leak kills the rest of the crew.  Lister is awakened by the ship’s computer Holly once it’s safe for him to emerge, only to discover that three million years have passed and he’s quite literally the last man in the universe.

In order to keep Lister sane, Holly resurrects his bunk mate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie of the Tomb Raider movies) as a hologram, believing the two to be best friends rather than thorns in each other’s sides.  Accompanying them is the Cat (Danny John-Jules of Blade II), a life form evolved from Frankenstein with the sort of energy and narcissism one would expect from his origins.  The result is something of an extended boys’ day out as Lister attempts to return to Earth.  Joining the three in the third season is the robot Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), whose hobbies include ironing and being overly sensitive.

While there are occasional metaplot moments and there is something of a running continuity — it would be rather difficult to watch the series out of order — the point of the entire series is to bring the funny.  The series was filmed, sitcom-style, “before a live studio audience,” and it maintains the typical Britcom style to that extent.  More than other Britcoms, though, “Red Dwarf” is full of sci-fi homages (the drinking game involves taking a shot whenever you can spot an old “Doctor Who” prop in the cargo bay) and self-aware referential humor.  And all of said humor is played off brilliantly by its core cast, whose chemistry is evident from the get-go rather than developing over time.  This is especially true of Charles and Barrie as Lister and Rimmer, whose “Odd Couple”-esque bickering carries with it a strong undercurrent of (initially) reluctant friendship.

Late in the series, the structure of the show begins to get a bit bendy, as first the setting switches from the Red Dwarf to the smaller (albeit lovable) Starbug, then the cast of characters is shuffled about a bit.  It smacks a bit of attempting to save a dwindling viewership, and ratings were indeed down late in its run.  But as one watches, even with the late-series expansion of the cast, one finds oneself longing for the comfortable old format and cast list.  There is an attempt to return to that in the final season, but it only works up to a point: “Red Dwarf” hit its prime mid-series and, while it was never a definite beginning-middle-end show and could thus be spun out at the writers’ leisure, the viewer can feel when it’s time to go … or, at least, time to take a break.  But more on that later.

My only personal quibble with the show as a whole is the occasional bit of gross-out humor, and we can file that under “Kara’s personal taste.”  Lister is, most notably, a bit of a scumbag — physically, not as a person.  A lot of humor stems from that fact, and while some of the nasty descriptions of what he does with salad tongs can be funny in and of themselves, I found myself a bit averse to getting a demonstration one scene later.  It most certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker, though.  Unfortunately, a lot of reviewers I’ve seen consider the scatological aspect to be a defining factor of the series.  Which I never found myself thinking, but I also chose to look elsewhere when Lister was having his space mumps attended to.

Normally I would say that a show like this isn’t necessarily going to be everyone’s cup of tea and just leave it at that.  In this case, though, I will say I’ve been hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t liked it.  The show isn’t a one-trick pony (it just seemed to start considering itself one around the fourth or fifth season and tried to do something about it), and is worth a glance no matter what your taste.  The ending is not particularly … well, ending-ish … but there is a good reason for that.  A good, three-episode reason that’s going to require a column all its own at some future point.

All eight seasons of “Red Dwarf” are available on DVD in one great huge smeg-off box set. Not suitable for those with allergies to Indian food, smuggery, or bright pink leisure suits.