Red Dwarf is a British science fiction comedy franchise which primarily consists of a television sitcom that aired on BBC Two between 1988 and 1999, and on Dave since 2009, gaining a cult following. To date, eleven full series of the show plus one “special” miniseries have aired. The most recent series, Red Dwarf XII, started airing in October 2017.
The series was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. In addition to the television episodes, there are four novels, a radio version adapted from the audiobooks, two pilot episodes for an American version of the show, tie-in books, magazines and other merchandise.
Set on the eponymous mining spaceship, the main characters are Dave Lister, initially the last known human alive, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram of Lister’s deceased bunkmate. The others members of the crew are Cat, a life form which evolved from the descendants of Lister’s pregnant pet cat Frankenstein; Holly, Red Dwarf’s computer (Series I-V, VIII and briefly in the final episodes of VII, XII); Kryten, a service mechanoid (Series II-present); and Kristine Kochanski, an alternative-reality version of Lister’s love interest (Series VII-VIII).
One of the series’ highest accolades came in 1994, when an episode from the sixth series, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse“, won an International Emmy Award in the Popular Arts category, and in the same year the series was also awarded “Best BBC Comedy Series” at the British Comedy Awards. The series attracted its highest ratings, of more than eight million viewers, during the eighth series in 1999.
The revived series on digital channel Dave has consistently delivered some of the highest ratings for non-Public Service Broadcasting commissions in the UK. The show has been critically acclaimed, and has a Metacritic score of 84/100. Series XI was voted “Best Returning TV Sitcom” and “Comedy of the Year” for 2016 by readers for the British Comedy Guide.
The main setting of the series is the eponymous mining spaceship Red Dwarf. In the first episode, set sometime in the late 22nd century, an on-board radiation leak kills everyone except lowest-ranking technician Dave Lister, who is in suspended animation at the time, and his pregnant cat, Frankenstein, who is safe in the cargo hold. Following the accident, the ship’s computer Holly keeps Lister in stasis until the radiation levels return to normal – a process that takes three million years. Lister therefore emerges as the last human being in the universe – but not alone on-board the ship. His former bunkmate and immediate superior Arnold Judas Rimmer (a character plagued by failure) is resurrected by Holly as a hologram to keep Lister sane. They are joined by a creature known only as Cat, the last member of a race of humanoid felines that evolved in the ship’s hold from Lister’s pregnant cat during the 3 million years that Lister was in stasis.
The series revolves around Lister being the last human alive, 3 million years from Earth, with his companions (initially Rimmer, Cat and Holly). The crew encounters phenomena such as time distortions, faster-than-light travel, mutant diseases and strange lifeforms (all evolved from Earth, because the series has no aliens) that had developed in the intervening millions of years. Though it has a science fiction setting, much of the humour comes from the interactions of the characters, particularly the laid-back Lister and the stuck-up Rimmer.
In Series III, the computer Holly changes from male (Norman Lovett) to female (Hattie Hayridge), and the mechanoidKryten (who had appeared in one episode in Series II) joins the crew and becomes a regular character.
In Series VI, a story arc is introduced where Red Dwarf has been stolen, and the crew pursues it in the smaller Starbugcraft, with the side-effect that the character Holly disappears.
Series VII is also set in Starbug. Early in series VII, Rimmer departs (due to actor Chris Barrie’s commitments) and is replaced by Kristine Kochanski, Lister’s long-term love interest, from an alternate universe. Kochanski becomes a regular character for Series VII and VIII.
At the end of Series VII, we learn that Kryten’s service nanobots, which had abandoned him years earlier, were behind the theft of the Red Dwarf at the end of series five. At the beginning of the eighth series, Kryten’s nanobots reconstruct the Red Dwarf, which they had broken down into its constituent atoms.
As a consequence, Series VIII features the entire original crew of Red Dwarf resurrected (except for the already-alive Lister and Kochanski), including a pre-accident Rimmer; and the original male Holly. The series ends with a metal-eating virus loose on Red Dwarf. The entire crew evacuates save the main cast (Lister, Rimmer, Cat, Kryten and Kochanski), whose fate is unresolved in a cliffhanger ending.
Series IX onwards revert to the same four main characters of Series 3–6 (Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Kryten), on Red Dwarf and without Kochanski or Holly; and Rimmer is again a hologram. It has not been confirmed whether the Rimmer onboard ship is the one who originally left, the revived version, or a third incarnation entirely; however, episodes have alluded to him remembering events from both previous incarnations’ lives.
Characters and actors
- Dave Lister, played by Craig Charles, is a genial Scouser and self-described bum. He was the lowest-ranking of the 169 crew members on the ship before the accident. Lister survived the accident, as he was in stasis for smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. He has a long-standing desire to return to Earth and start a farm and/or diner on Fiji (which is under three feet of water following a volcanic eruption), but is left impossibly far away by the accident, which renders him the last (known) surviving member of the human race. He likes Indian food, especially chicken vindaloo, which is a recurring theme in the series.
- Arnold Judas Rimmer Bsc Ssc (“Bronze swimming certificate” and “Silver swimming certificate”), played by Chris Barrie, was the second-lowest ranking member of the crew while they were all alive. He is a fussy, bureaucratic, neurotic coward who, by failing to replace a drive plate properly, is responsible for the Red Dwarf cadmium II accident that kills the entire crew (including himself) except Lister. Nevertheless, Holly chose him to be the ship’s one available hologram because he considered him the person most likely to keep Lister sane. During Series VII, Rimmer leaves the dimension shared by his crewmates to become the new Ace Rimmer. Along with the Red Dwarf ship and its crew, Rimmer is resurrected at the start of Series VIII by nanobots. He comes face to face with Death at the end of the series, whom he kicks in the groin. From the Back to Earth specials onwards, he is once again a hologram; with no explanation as to whether he is the same hologram who left in Series VII, or what happened to the human Rimmer from series VIII.
- The Cat, played by Danny John-Jules, is a humanoid creature who evolved from the offspring of Lister’s smuggled pet cat Frankenstein. Cat is concerned with little other than sleeping, eating, and fawning over his appearance, and tends not to socialise with other members of the crew in early episodes. He becomes more influenced by his human companions over time, and begins to resemble a stylish, self-centred human. It is later revealed that, unlike his human companions, he has a “cool” sounding pulse, six nipples, and colour-coordinated internal organs.
- Kryten, full name Kryten 2X4B-523P (played by Robert Llewellyn from series III onwards, and as a one-off appearance in series II by David Ross), was rescued by the crew from the crashed spaceship Nova 5 in series II, upon which he had continued to serve the ship’s crew despite their having been dead for thousands or even millions of years. Kryten is a Service Mechanoid and when first encountered by the crew, he was bound by his “behavioural protocols”, but Lister gradually encouraged him to break his programming and think for himself. His change in appearance between the two actors is explained away by an accident involving Lister’s spacebike and Lister having to repair him.
- Holly (played by Norman Lovett in series I, II, VIII, and a guest appearance in each of series VII and XII; and Hattie Hayridge in series III to V), is the ship’s computer. Holly has a functional IQ of 6000, although this is severely depleted by the three million years of runtime and lack of repairs. Holly is left alone after the radiation accident that kills Rimmer and the rest of the crew except for Lister and the Cat. The computer had developed “computer senility” before the radiation accident, rendering it functionally inert. The change in appearance for series III is explained by Holly having changed his face to resemble that of a computer from a parallel universe “with whom he’d once fallen madly in love”.
- Kristine Kochanski (originally portrayed by Clare Grogan before Chloë Annett took on the role from series VII) was initially a Red Dwarf navigation officer whom Lister had a crush on (later retroactively altered to be his ex-girlfriend) and whose memory he had cherished ever since. In one episode, the crew happens upon an alternative dimension where Kochanski survived the Red Dwarf cadmium II accident. She joins Lister and the crew after the link to her own dimension collapses. By the first episode of the Red Dwarf: Back to Earth specials, Lister believes her dead, but it is later revealed that Kryten (the sole witness to her “death”) had lied to Lister. Kochanski had instead fled the ship in a Blue Midget when it became clear Lister’s complete lack of self-respect and indulgence on excesses was slowly killing him, which greatly depressed her. Lister is advised by fans of the television series to find her in “the next series” and to make amends. However, the character does not appear in any of the later series.
The first series aired on BBC2 in 1988. 12 series have so far been produced, with a 13th rumoured to be planned for 2019.
The concept for the show was originally developed from the sketch-series Dave Hollins: Space Cadet on the BBC Radio 4 show Son of Cliché in the mid-1980s, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Their influences came from films and television programmes such as Star Trek (1966), Silent Running (1972), Alien (1979), Dark Star (1974) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981), but also had a large element of British-style comedy and satire thrown into the mix, ultimately moulded into the form of a sitcom. Many visual and character elements bear similarities to the Trident nuclear submarine BBC documentary “Defence of the Realm”. Having written the pilot script in 1983, the former Spitting Image writers pitched their unique concept to the BBC, but it was rejected on fears that a science fiction sitcom would not be popular.
It was finally accepted by BBC North in 1986, a result of a spare budget being assigned for a second series of Happy Families that would never arise, and producer Paul Jackson‘s insistence that Red Dwarf should be filmed instead. The show was lucky to be remounted after an electricians‘ strike partway through rehearsals in early 1987 shut the entire production down (the title sequence was filmed in January 1987). The filming was rescheduled for September, and the pilot episode finally made it onto television screens on 15 February 1988.
Alan Rickman and Alfred Molina auditioned for roles in the series, with Molina being cast as Rimmer. However, after Molina had difficulties with the concept of the series, and of his role in particular, the role was recast and filled by Chris Barrie, a professional voice-actor and impressionist who had previously worked with both the writers on Spitting Image, and with the producers on Happy Families and Jasper Carrott productions. Craig Charles, a Liverpudlian “punk poet”, was given the role of Dave Lister. He was approached by the production team for his opinion about the “Cat” character, as they were concerned it may be considered by people as racist. Charles described “Cat” as ‘pretty cool’ and after reading the script he decided he wanted to audition for the part of Dave Lister. Laconic stand-up comedian Norman Lovett, who had originally tried out for the role of Rimmer, was kept in the show as Holly, the senile computer of the titular ship. A professional dancer and singer, Danny John-Jules, arriving half an hour late for his appointment, stood out as the Cat immediately. This was partly due to his “cool” exterior, dedicated research (reading Desmond Morris‘ book Catwatching), and his showing up in character, wearing his father’s 1950s-style zoot suit.
Grant and Naylor wrote the first six series together (using the pseudonym Grant Naylor on the first two novels and later as the name of their production company, although never on the episodes themselves). Grant left in 1995, to pursue other projects, leaving Naylor to write series VII and VIII with a group of new writers, including Paul Alexander and actor Robert Llewellyn (who portrayed the character Kryten) .
For the most part, Ed Bye produced and directed the series. He left before series V due to a scheduling clash (he ended up directing a show starring his wife, Ruby Wax) so Juliet May took over as director. May parted ways with the show halfway through the series for personal and professional reasons and Grant and Naylor took over direction of the series, in addition to writing and producing. Series VI was directed by Andy de Emmony, and Ed Bye returned to direct series VII and VIII. Series I, II and III were made by Paul Jackson Productions, with subsequent series produced by the writers’ own company Grant Naylor Productions for BBC North. All eight series were broadcast on BBC Two. At the beginning of series IV, production moved from BBC North’s New Broadcasting House in Manchester to Shepperton.
The theme tune and incidental music were written and performed by Howard Goodall, with the distinctive vocals on the closing theme tune by Jenna Russell. The first two series used a relatively sombre instrumental version of the closing theme for the opening titles; from series III onwards this switched to a more upbeat version. Goodall also wrote music for the show’s various songs, including “Tongue Tied“, with lyrics written by Grant and Naylor. Danny John-Jules (credited as ‘The Cat’) re-orchestrated and released “Tongue Tied” in October 1993; it reached number 17 on the UK charts. Goodall himself sang “The Rimmer Song” heard during the series VII episode “Blue”, to which Chris Barrie mimed.
Red Dwarf was founded on the standard sitcom focus of a disparate and frequently dysfunctional group of individuals living together in a restricted setting. With the main characters routinely displaying their cowardice, incompetence and laziness, while exchanging insulting and sarcastic dialogue, the series provided a humorous antidote to the fearless and morally upright space explorers typically found in science-fiction series, with its main characters acting bravely only when there was no other possible alternative. The increasing science-fiction elements of the series were treated seriously by creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Satire, parody and drama were alternately woven into the episodes, referencing other television series, films and books.
The series developed its own distinct vocabulary. Words and phrases such as hologramatic [sic], Dollarpound, Felis sapiens, Simulants, GELF, space weevil, and Zero Gee Football appear throughout the series, highlighting a development in language, political climate, technology, evolution, and culture in the future. The creators also employed a vocabulary of fictional expletives in order to avoid using potentially offensive words in the show, and to give nuance to futuristic colloquial language; in particular “smeg” (and variants such as “smegging”, “smegger”, and “smeg-head”) features prominently, alongside the terms “gimboid” and “goit”.
Although the pilot episode of the show gathered over four million viewers, viewing figures dipped in successive episodes and the first series had generally poor ratings. Through to series VI the ratings had steadily increased and peaked at over six million viewers, achieved with the episode “Gunmen of the Apocalypse“. When the series returned in 1999 it gained the highest audience figures yet – over eight million viewers tuned in for series VIII’s opening episode “Back in the Red: Part I“. The series has won numerous awards including the Royal Television Society Award for special effects, the British Science Fiction award for Best Dramatic Presentation, as well as an International Emmy Award for series VI episode “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”, which tied with an Absolutely Fabulous episode, “Hospital”, in the Popular Arts category. The show had also been nominated for the International Emmy Award in 1987, 1989, and 1992. Series VI won a British Comedy Award for ‘Best BBC Comedy Series’. The video sales have won eight Gold Awards from the British Video Association, and the series still holds the record for being BBC Two’s longest-running, highest-rated sitcom. In 2007 the series was voted ‘Best Sci-Fi Show Of All Time’ by the readers of Radio Times magazine. Editor Gill Hudson stated that this result had surprised them as ‘the series had not given any new episodes this century’. In January 2017, Series XI was voted “Best Returning TV Sitcom” and “Comedy of the Year” for 2016 by readers for the British Comedy Guide. A year later Red Dwarf once again was voted “Best Returning TV Sitcom” for Series XII retaining the title from British Comedy Guide.
The sketches recounted the adventures of Dave Hollins (voiced by Nick Wilton), a hapless space traveller who is marooned in space far from earth. His only steady companion is the computer Hab (voiced by Chris Barrie).
Grant and Naylor chose to use the Dave Hollins: Space Cadet sketches as a base for a television show after watching the 1974 film Dark Star. They changed some elements from the sketches:
The 7 trillion year figure was first changed to 7 billion years and then to 3 million and the characters of Arnold Rimmer and the Cat were created. The name Dave Hollins was changed to Dave Lister when a football player called Dave Hollins became well-known, and Hab was replaced by Holly. One of the voice actors from Son of Cliché, Chris Barrie went on to portray Arnold Rimmer in the Red Dwarf TV series.
Episodes of Dave Hollins can be found on the 2-disc Red Dwarf DVD sets starting with series 5 and ending with series 8.