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Red Dwarf (1988-99)

Courtesy of Grant Naylor Productions

Main image of Red Dwarf (1988-99)
Paul Jackson Prodns / Grant Naylor Prodns for BBC2, 15/2/1988-5/4/1999
52 x 30 min eps in 8 series, colour
DirectorsEd Bye
 Juliet May
 Andy De Emmony
CreatorsRob Grant
 Doug Naylor

Cast: Chris Barrie (Ace / Arnold Rimmer); Craig Charles (David Lister); Danny-Jules John (Cat); Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge (Holly); David Ross, Robert Llewellyn (Kryten 2X4B 523P)

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The crew of the spaceship Red Dwarf have been killed by a radiation leak. The only survivors are grease monkey Dave Lister, a holographic projection of his dead superior, Arnold J. Rimmer, and Cat, a humanoid life form evolved from Lister's pet feline.

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Having endured BBC dogma (one executive famously rejected this sci-fi sitcom on the grounds that it didn't feature a sofa), as well as an untimely technicians' strike, Red Dwarf (1988-99) narrowly made it to a second series. It went on to become one of the longest-running sitcoms on BBC2, with a cult fanbase to rival that of Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 2005-).

Although influenced by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981), as well as sardonic sci-fi movies like Dark Star (US, 1974), Red Dwarf initially resembled a sitcom: a group of characters who cannot stand each other must share the same inescapable dwelling, which in this case happens to be a vast depopulated spaceship. Developing ideas from their own series of radio sketches, 'Dave Hollins: Space Cadet', co-creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor wisely put character before genre, no doubt encouraged by a tight budget and the BBC's distrust of sci-fi paraphernalia. This yielded such memorable episodes as 'Balance of Power' (tx. 29/2/1988), 'Thanks for the Memory' (tx. 20/9/1988) and 'Marooned' (tx. 21/11/1989), which use classic sci-fi tropes (Artificial Intelligence, recorded memories, space travel) as a means to articulate the characters' antagonisms.

Cowardly, obnoxious, incompetent, the series' core characters were a cynical response to the fearless space explorers of American sci-fi shows like Star Trek: Dave Lister, a rancid slob and the last surviving example of humanity, officious yet low-ranking peon Arnold J. Rimmer, Holly, the ship's unflappably gormless computer (played variously by Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge) and Cat, a feline humanoid who only cares about the cut of his clothes. Several variations affected this roster from series three onwards, among them the welcome addition of Robert Llewellyn's cheerfully servile android, who first appeared (played by David Ross) in series two's eponymously-titled 'Kryten' (tx. 6/9/1988).

Having produced a pilot for a never-made American version of the show, as well as winning awards for series six (a British Comedy Award and an Emmy), Grant and Naylor parted company in 1995. Naylor remained and made controversial adjustments, among them repopulating the ship with its original crew of 169 for the duration of the eighth and so-far final series. Whether or not the extended storylines and flashy special effects that characterised later episodes of Red Dwarf were preferable to the forlorn, self-contained character comedy of earlier series remains a matter of serious debate among hardcore 'Dwarfers'.

Alec Worley

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Video Clips
1. Kryten's explanation (2:25)
2. Game Over (4:04)
3. You are hallucinating (2:22)
Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The (1981)
Jackson, Paul (1947-)
Race and the Sitcom
TV Sci-Fi