This review is written by Rachael "Nova" Sheogayrath, as a substitute for a review of SMB3 that drove its writer to madness. She asked me to pass this note along: This review will cover only the seasons prior to the 2009 revival miniseries Back To Earth and all following content. I haven’t watched the latter but from what I’ve gathered critical reception is lukewarm.
For every high-concept drama with the occasional patch of comic relief there eventually comes a portion of fans who wish the writers would stop dicking around with cliffhangers and just let the series be a comedy. If you are one such fan, Red Dwarf is the answer to your cries.
The events of the pilot episode are as follows: Dave Lister- an underachieving, low-ranking crew member aboard the titular city-sized starship- awakes from suspended animation to find that the entire crew, as well as all human life, died literally millions years ago, a fact he accepts as quickly as the plot calls for. The show is not without its side characters but the primary source for funny business lies in his turbulent relationship with his deeply unlikeable crewmate, Arnold Rimmer.
Rimmer was resurrected as a hologram by the ship’s computer with the vague intention of ‘keeping Lister in line’, though the actual purpose from a Doylist perspective is clear as they immediately begin bickering. Red Dwarf is a unique science fiction riff on a classic sitcom dynamic: an uptight weirdo and a slacker are forced to endure each other’s presence to absurd degrees, in fantastical circumstances. This continues for nine seasons and one feature-length special and remains thoroughly enjoyable for most of the show’s run.
Though this dynamic carries the show, there are other major cast members. The ship itself is piloted and maintained by resident AI, Holly, depicted as a disembodied floating head on all of the monitors. Her primary function is delivering vague insults in a deadpan tone. It’s worth noting that due to a half-assed explanation for an actor replacement, this character is canonically trans. It’s not revealed tastefully, but it’s there.
The only other organic being on-board is Cat, a humanoid descended from an actual cat, who coincidentally resembles a human with fangs. Cat is your standard self-obsessed aesthete with the additional shtick of exhibiting catlike behaviours: an affinity for fish, a hatred of dogs, and, of course, six nipples. Season 2 introduces Kryten, a robotic butler rescued by the rest of the cast from a dead mining colony. Like Cat he’s an enjoyable take on a common archetype: a robot born into a life of servitude, learning to live for himself. Why the costume designers decided to paint his sharp-angled head a flesh tone is beyond me.
Of course, I can’t discuss these characters without also praising the performances. It is difficult to describe in clear-cut language the degree to which Rimmer sucks ass, as a person. He is, by design, an obnoxious heel who doesn’t know gazpacho soup is meant to be served cold. Chris Barrie’s portrayal of the character is dripping with pure negative charisma. Lister, on the other hand, is a schlub with a heart of gold and a broad Liverpool accent. In his own words: 'I’m a useless, tasteless, semi-literate space bum'- but Craig Charles pulls it off. Just look at that smile! That patch-adorned leather jacket!
The fact that this series is very much a product of its times is at once a strength and a weakness, for reasons I’ll discuss later on. The appeal of low-budget cult classics often lies in the greater leeway audiences grant it on merit of its low production value. It’s cliche at this point to praise a comedy for ‘not taking itself too seriously’, but this really is one of the major pulls here.
Unlike other mainstream science fiction, little explanation is given for plot devices in the way of technobabble. RD operates on hand waves, in conjunction with the Rule of Funny. Rimmer’s holographic nature is only brought up when necessary for a joke to work, otherwise the only reminder is a big cartoonish letter H stamped on his forehead. One minute he can’t touch solid objects or eat, the next he has no problem. Two of the main characters switched actors and it was only addressed at all in the case of Holly. Everything is handled with appropriate laxness.
Repeat viewers will start to notice that the show adheres to a formula. We open on the duo bickering about something tangentially related to this episode’s theme before being met with one of the catchiest theme tunes in television history and proceeding to encounter some kind of sci-fi MacGuffin, which either poses an exceedingly strange threat or offers something too good to be true.
It’s essentially a monster-of-the-week show, though not every episode involves a monster; usually it’s just a gimmick. Loose threads will be left in the air, never to be acknowledged again. The bare concept sounds like that of a tragedy but the execution makes for effective comfort television, the kind of show you throw on to decompress after a long day- you can rest assured knowing that, in the end, everything will go back to normal.
It exists in stark opposition to the modern Netflix original with tight continuity and high tension. Everything I just described would be perceived as a fatal flaw by a modern TV producer, but in this age of streaming entertainment it’s important to find room for low-brow, low-stakes, episodic comedy. We can’t all be Hannibal, nor should we try to be. All in all, I would recommend this series to anyone belonging to the demographic of bemused fans I described in this review’s introduction, but this series does contain some genuine flaws that I wouldn’t be surprised to see turning a few potential viewers away. This brings me to the criticisms.
RD originally aired in 1988 and the dated quality shines in the set design, fashion and pop culture references. These features are tolerable; charming, even. I personally miss the days of earth tones and shot-reverse shot, before everything was laden with green-blue colour grading and shaky cam. Some of the humour, however, has aged like a fine banana. The show is peppered with the kind of dated conservative humour decrepit comedians wish they could return to without being met with a polite cough.
Despite the fact that the only recurring female cast member is a floating head the cast still find ample opportunity to behave like sleazy pick-up artists. The most egregious example comes in when a laugh track plays over a moment of genuine sexual harassment in S2E6. The number of times the show makes jabs at various marginalised groups in the vague, flippant manner people like neoliberal late show hosts or any number of popular Let’s Players are fond of is too much to count. Like most sci-fi properties fictional concepts are used as stand-ins for real-world groups, but where a more thoughtfully-written series would use these allegories to uplift the people they represent, Red Dwarf casually pokes fun at them. If the internet were around in the age it was produced, the characters would absolutely use snowflake as an insult. I leave it up to you to decide whether any of this information is a dealbreaker.
Red Dwarf truly is to the tastes of 80’s Britain what Space Jam was to 90’s America; a time capsule. It’s acerbic and blunt with persistently flimsy plots but dialogue humorous enough to entertain an audience through a scene about paint drying. It has almost no ideological message besides those generally held by people who falsely claim to be apolitical and revels in a lack of continuity. It’s on UK Netflix and various other streaming services (ED: Amazon Prime in the US) if you’re inclined to watch it through a legal medium.
If this series doesn’t interest you in the slightest, the only thing I can unequivocally recommend is that you listen to the opening on Youtube.
experience: first 8 seasons watched for review