Anime Reporter switches slightly from the topic of Japanese animation and comic books to the almost, quite similar topic of British sci-fi sitcoms set upon a giant red mining spaceship millions of years away from Earth… well, specifically just about one of those particular sitcoms really. From a very young age, I was a fan of Red Dwarf, though I can’t pretend I understood all of its (occasionally very risqué) jokes at the time.
For anyone unfamiliar with Red Dwarf, the premise couldn’t be simpler; a young third-technician (i.e. vending machine repairman) on the mining spacecraft, Red Dwarf, is caught having brought an unquarantined cat onboard which results in him being put in cryogenic stasis (essentially a form of imprisonment during which time stands still). When this young man, Dave Lister, awakes from stasis, not six months later as originally planned, but some six million years, as, his direct superior, one Arnold Rimmer, failed to properly replace a rather vital panel, resulting in a radiation leak that wiped out the entire crew. So, Lister is brought back to an empty ship, millions of years in the future, insurmountable distance from home, with only the ship’s computer, a computer generated hologram of Rimmer and the sole remaining member of the race which evolved from his pregnant cat. Determined to reunite with the long, long, long dead woman of his dreams and make his dream of a small farm in Fiji come true, Lister and Red Dwarf set off on the long journey back to Earth… just sort of bumming around in the meantime. They’re eventually joined by a rather nervous domestic android Kryten who dreams of breaking his programming and mastering such wonderful human traits as dishonesty, selfishness and arrogance, though he rarely manages to stray too far from being courteous and thoughtful.
The series develops over the course of several seasons from a sharp and original odd-couple series focusing on the conflict between the severely slovenly Lister and the utterly uptight Rimmer, with the fairly senile computer Holly and the almost insanely vain humanoid-cat, known simply as Cat. The series wonderfully spoofs a whole cartload of sci-fi tropes and themes with the superb British sense of humour. As the series progresses, the emphasis moves from the odd-couple dynamic and onto a monster-of-the-week, high concept series with many a running-joke. There are occasional change ups in the character roster, with Rimmer briefly being replaced by Lister’s long lusted-after Kristine Kochanski though he eventually makes it back in a series that sees the entire crew of Red Dwarf miraculously brought back to life. Season 08 saw a rather prolonged hiatus as the series was off the air for quite a few years, eventually brought back in the three-part special Back to Earth made by the British channel Dave. The special switched out the live-laughter format of the series for a single feature length, rather meta story quite a few years after the events of Season 08. While this series wasn’t the most iconic nor popular thing to come from Red Dwarf, it did safely pave the way for Season 10 (Season 09 is canonically considered to have happened before Back to Earth, just without having ever been filmed or anything). Season 10 was definitely different, with an older cast, and a more HD appearance but it felt like Red Dwarf in a way that Back to Earth and even, kind of Season 08, just didn’t.
So, what makes Red Dwarf Red Dwarf? Well, in that very British way, so many of the jokes revolve around the main characters just not being very good. Whether it’s in being fairly bad at space adventuring, their general inability to function as normal people or, for most of the characters, the less than solid nature of their moral compasses. There’s also Lister’s obsession with curry and his less than human approach to hygiene.
For much of its run (so far), the series has focused on small spaces, usually a cramped sleeping quarters on Red Dwarf or the interior of the small flight crafts Starbug and Blue Midget. What’s always contrasted wonderfully with this is the high-concept nature of its monsters and plots, with everything from emotion-sapping shapeshifters to alternate dimensions and even a type of ‘Despair Squid’ that squirts inks which compels people to suicidal misery. A huge amount of the humour comes from the imaginative but very natural banter and insults between the main characters, like the kinds of insults you wish you’d thought of wittily throwing out at that rather rotten person from school that one time, oooh, that would have been great. Red Dwarf is kind of amazing because it’s doing something that most science fiction really doesn’t do; it dares to imagine a world of immense technology, of creatures and cosmos beyond anything here on Earth and it puts a load of fairly crap people slap bang in the middle of it. These aren’t the guys who can think of a witty comeback when it’s actually time to intimidate someone. These aren’t the guys who knew that you’d try escaping the teleporter so took the time to rewire it to send you to jail or the guys who can wittily charm the object of their affections at any moment. These are the other guys, the lowest ranking vending machine repairmen, their cat and the robot who irons their socks and it’s bloody brilliant.
Season XI should be coming out very soon this year and I for one can’t smeggin’ wait!