How did Britain’s beloved sci-fi comedy come to pass?
“The thing that you have to understand is – often people who work at the BBC are in these roles only for a couple of years, and then they get promoted up or go sideways. So it’s very important that they don’t make mistakes. And so commissioning risky programmes is not something that they love doing. No-one really looks ahead and goes, ‘If we plan now, we’ll have brilliant television in five years’ time.’ It’s very much a lot of individuals looking after themselves, as opposed to a business where you’re looking after the whole product.”
– Doug Naylor
The most remarkable thing about Red Dwarf is that it ever got made at all. Produced by a reluctant channel who considered sci-fi to be a dirty term, this risky sitcom defied all expectations to become an unlikely cult phenomenon. Looking back over the ten aired series, four tie-in novels, mountains of merchandise, and a never-ending supply of fan-fiction, it’s difficult to believe that it came within a gnat’s wing of permanent stasis. Written in 1982, Red Dwarf‘s pilot script was rejected by just about everyone at the Beeb. It was finally greenlit by BBC North in 1986, not because they had any faith in the project, but due to a spare budget being assigned for a second series of Happy Families that never happened.
Two questions: Why did the network responsible for thirty years of non-stop Doctor Who hesitate to commission a sci-fi sitcom? And what the smeg is Happy Families?
Red Dwarf is the creation of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, two university drop-outs who billed themselves as the “gestalt entity” Grant Naylor. They became well-known for their biting satirical humour, contributing material to TV shows Carrott’s Lib and Spitting Image, as well as writing the latter’s dubious hit single, “The Chicken Song.” But it was their earlier collaboration on the BBC Radio 4 sketch shows Cliché and Son of Cliché which would lay the seeds for their most fertile idea.
The series-within-a-series, Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, played like a comedic sequel to Alien (1979), taking place after an extraterrestrial has wiped out the crew of a starship. It followed the eponymous Mr. Hollins (voiced by Nick Wilton), the last bloke in the cosmos, whose only companion was an advanced computer in the mould of 2001‘s HAL, named Hab (played by future Dwarfer Chris Barrie). The idea was influenced by a variety of genre films that would also inform Red Dwarf, namely Silent Running (1972) and Dark Star (1974). Grant and Naylor had a similar vision for an aged, lived-in future, combining the usual sci-fi ideas with the working-class humour of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Their desire to see a similar concept in live-action attracted producer Paul Jackson, who had steered The Young Ones to great success. Despite his insistence that “no one ever buys sci-fi sitcoms,” he slowly came to recognise Red Dwarf‘s potential and gave it a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
To this day, it’s rather amazing how fully-formed and creative the pilot script is. Completed in a week, it was written halfway up a Welsh mountain in a cottage belonging to Naylor’s father, and subsequently re-drafted six times. Dubbed “The End,” it introduces us to über slob Dave Lister who is resuscitated after three million years in suspended animation to discover that he is the last person alive on the mining ship Red Dwarf. Not only that, but he’s the last human being in the universe. But he isn’t alone. Holly, the ship’s computer with an IQ of 6000, attempts to keep him sane by sustaining the hologram of his dead bunkmate, the neurotic egomaniac Arnold Rimmer. They’re also joined by a humanoid Cat, a highly evolved ascendant of Lister’s household moggy, Frankenstein, who was safely sealed in the hold. Together, they face future echoes, parallel universes, backwards realities, and the realisation that life, in all forms, is pretty absurd.
The writers also created ground rules for their universe that have remained more-or-less untarnished; the crew would never encounter an alien race, instead coming across GELFs (Genetically Engineered Lifeforms) and rogue Simulants (genocidal androids). This need for “realism” also necessitated the use of futuristic slang. It was only natural that Lister and Rimmer, who loathed each other, would curse every now and then. Spurred-on by Porridge‘s creation of “naff,” the writers formed a variety of colourful phrases for the series to pilfer, including “gimboid,” “goit,” “modo,” and “smeghead.” If you don’t know what the latter means, I’m not going to tell you, but it isn’t a line of fancy kitchen ware.
Is it any wonder that the BBC were reluctant? This was some out-there stuff, written at a time when “hologrammatic” humans were a rarity in science fiction, and humanoid felines were even rarer. Making it all work, crucially, was the cast.
“I think the most important thing with a sitcom is the actors. For the first three series, Red Dwarf was a situation comedy, with a bit of effects and sci-fi. I think our performances have made the characters live.”
– Chris Barrie
Norman Lovett was the first to be cast, a middle-aged comedian who wanted to play the weasely Rimmer. Instead, he was given the part of Holly, which was originally intended to be a voice-over until Lovett’s constant moaning convinced the producers to show his disembodied head. Could you picture the character any other way?
Next came the exuberant Danny John-Jules who arrived for his audition as the Cat late and in-character, having borrowed his dad’s old zoot suit and studied Desmond Morris’ book Catwatching for inspiration. Grant and Naylor were instantly smitten with the nonchalant dancer, who was blissfully unaware of his own tardiness. It was exactly how they imagined the Cat to be. He was the first and last person they saw for the role.
Concerned that this sharply-dressed black character might be construed as a racial stereotype, Jackson sent the script to performance poet Craig Charles who loved the material so much that he expressed interest in the role of Lister (who wasn’t written as a Liverpudlian). Despite zero acting experience and no appreciation for curry and lager, Charles won over the creators and landed the role.
“What’s amazing is that I’m recognised all over the world through Red Dwarf. In New York City, I nipped into a store on Broadway and the owner pointed to the TV, and Red Dwarf was on! The show’s enabled me to travel all over the world too, partly for fan club conventions. British fans are exceptional, but the American fans are something else. Some of them fly 500 miles to stand in line for three hours, just to meet me, then when they do they collapse. It makes you feel like a rock star! Oh, and I got to snog William Shatner when he was a panelist on Space Cadets, in which I was a team captain.”
– Craig Charles
Last but not least, Barrie seemed like a shoe-in, having worked with Grant and Naylor on Son of Cliché and Spitting Image. He was the perfect choice for the Dwarf’s forever exasperated Rimmer, using his finely-tuned comedic timing to give the low-budget enterprise a touch of class. It’s also worth noting that he originally auditioned to play Lister (the series three episode “Bodyswap” gives us an idea of how Mr. Brittas might have played him).
The characters have become so loved by the nation that it’s hard to imagine other people playing these roles, so well do Charles, Barrie, John-Jules, and Lovett work as a team. It’s amusing to think that, at one stage, Alfred Molina was cast as Rimmer, and Alan Rickman wanted to be Lister. Picture that parallel universe for a moment. With the cast in place, sets began construction at Oxford Road Studios in Manchester, and barring an electricians’ strike, Red Dwarf finally went before cameras and a live audience under the direction of veteran Ed Bye. The first episode premièred on BBC2 on 15 February, 1988, to above-average ratings and mixed reviews. It was one small step toward cult domination.
Many years after it started, Red Dwarf has constantly evolved, gaining better production values and viewing figures that most sitcoms would kill for. The creators tweaked their ethos as it progressed; they didn’t want an android on the ship at first, considering it an awful cliché, yet it’s now impossible to imagine the show without the presence of service “mechanoid” Kryten (originated by David Ross and played by Robert Llewellyn from series three to the present). Lister’s long-lost love, Kristine Kochanski (C.P. Grogan), would also re-emerge in the guise of actress Chloë Annett – a concession to the American producers who informed Naylor that he’d need a female crewmember if the proposed movie was ever going to happen. It still hasn’t.
The show grew in popularity from series to series, going on to win an international Emmy Award, and high-profile fans in the form of Stephen Hawking and Patrick Stewart. Just two of the millions around the world who have managed to keep Red Dwarf going for so long. There’s been a few ups-and-downs, sure, including the American remake, the departure of co-creator Grant, that aborted motion picture, and a three-part special in 2009 that rightly split the fan base down the middle. But nothing will keep this ragamuffin crew of space beatniks down, and I can only hope that the (largely) positive response to Red Dwarf X has convinced UK network Dave to give it another run…
- According to Patrick Stewart, the first time he saw the show he thought it was a rip-off of Star Trek: The Next Generation and proceeded to call his lawyer. But as he continued watching, he became a fan of the show.
- BBC Visual Effects destroyed their only model of Red Dwarf for a sequence in the fifth series episode “Demons and Angels”, where Kryten’s triplicator sets off a chain reaction that destroys the ship. The production team made sure that all model sequences required for the current series were completed beforehand. The ship doesn’t appear in the sixth series (the running plot being that of Red Dwarf having been stolen) and only appears in the seventh series as archive footage from earlier episodes. It wasn’t until the eighth series that a computer-generated version was used.
- As of 2014, the series is technically still in production, 25 years after it debuted. This makes it the second-longest running science fiction series of all time, behind Doctor Who (1963). Due to the erratic nature of British TV scheduling, however, only ten series have been produced.
- The plot for the aborted feature film spin-off would be set in the distant future and Red Dwarf would be hunted by Homo Sapeinoids, a fearsome combination of flesh and machine, that have taken over the solar system and wiped out the human race and destroyed space freighters that left Earth, one by one, until Red Dwarf was the only space freighter that remained.