Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor. Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.
Regulars: The line-up in series one of this sci-fi sitcom has a definite hierarchy about it. At the top are two lead characters: Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles) and Arnold J Rimmer (Chris Barrie). At the start of episode one they’re crewmembers on board a space mining ship called Red Dwarf. The officious, arrogant and buffoonish Rimmer is boss to the slobby, lazy and happy-go-lucky Lister. After being caught with an illegal pet cat, Lister is put into suspended animation as punishment so survives a nuclear accident that kills the rest of the crew. Three million years later, Red Dwarf has drifted into deep space. Lister is awoken by the ship’s AI computer, the deadpan and befuddled Holly (a floating head seen on monitors, played by Norman Lovett). Holly then resurrects Rimmer as a lifelike hologram. And they find a strange creature called Cat (Danny John-Jules), who – after three million years of evolution – is descended from Lister’s pet moggy. The series is based on the bickering relationship of Lister and Rimmer. The Cat and Holly are sidekicks who drift in and out of episodes.
Episode 1: The End (15 February 1988): A decent start to the series, which tells the story of the accident that kills most of the ship’s crew. Around two-thirds of it is set before the explosion, in fact. There’s some economic plotting and a few funny lines. Chris Barrie and Craig Charles impress straightaway with a great chemistry. You want to spend time with these people.
Observations: The guest cast include a few characters who – though killed off here – will crop up in later episodes: Mac McDonald as Hollister, the ship’s American captain; Clare Grogan as Kristine Kochanski, a very pretty flight technician who Lister really fancies; and Mark Williams, Paul Bradley and David Gillespie as Lister’s crude pals Petersen, Chen and Selby. An actress called Alexandra Pigg was originally cast as Kochanski, but a strike delayed the filming of this episode and she had to be replaced. Grogan, of course, was the lead singer in Altered Images.
Best gag: Holly’s replies when Lister’s asking what’s happened to the crew: “They’re dead, Dave… Everybody, Dave… Everybody’s dead, Dave… Everybody’s dead, Dave… They’re all dead. Everybody’s dead, Dave… Everybody is dead, Dave… Gordon Bennett, yes, Chen, everybody. Everybody’s dead, Dave… He’s dead, Dave. Everybody is dead. Everybody is dead, Dave.”
Episode 2: Future Echoes (22 February 1988): A very entertaining sci-fi concept that could have come from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – the ship passes the speed of light, so time is affected and the crew experience weirdness. It’s still focused on the characterisation of and dialogue between the two leads, though. Very funny.
Observations: From now on, Holly begins each episode with a short précis of the situation then a unique joke. There are flash-forwards to Lister aged 171 and then him as a younger man holding his twin sons, Jim and Bexley (a gag not completed until the end of series two). Comedian Tony Hawks has his first of many roles in the series: voicing a vending machine. It’s also the first appearance of the ship’s sentient toaster (voiced by John Lenahan).
Best gag: The scene where Lister has a conversation with Rimmer that makes no sense at all. Rimmer’s replies bare no relation to what Lister’s saying. Then, after Rimmer walks off, a second Rimmer comes in and says the exact same dialogue as before – but this time it matches Lister’s side of the conversation.
Episode 3: Balance of Power (29 February 1988): Another good one in which Lister takes a chef’s exam in an attempt to outrank Rimmer.
Observations: We finally get an explanation of why Rimmer, of all people, was resurrected by Holly: by giving Lister an antagonist, Holly hopes to keep him sane. There’s a flashback to before the accident that features Petersen, Chen, Selby and Kochanski. Clare Grogan also plays Rimmer, in effect, when he pretends to be Kochanski. Sadly, Grogan’s pretty ropey in the scene. At the end of the episode Lister is promoted above Rimmer.
Best gag: Despite the performance, Rimmer pretending to be Kochanski has some great lines: “I’m having a woman’s period!” he says as a desperate explanation for Kochanski’s strange behaviour.
Episode 4: Waiting For God (7 March 1988): The first poor episode, with a dull, simple storyline. Lister learns about the religion based on him that built up in his absence, then meets a cat priest who’s been living on the ship. The priest is played by a shaky Noel Coleman. The subplot about a pod found in space is much more fun. It’s the series’s first specific pastiche of 1979’s Alien (Rimmer thinks it will contain aliens who will clasp themselves to your face).
Observations: Holly’s introduction tells us that Lister was only lying about his promotion in the previous episode. Talkie Toaster appears again.
Best gag: Rimmer’s zealous conviction that the pod contains aliens. He’s even decided which aliens: “Quagaars! It’s a name I made up. Double A actually!”
Episode 5: Confidence and Paranoia (14 March 1988): It’s a decent idea, but the episode falls a bit flat for some reason. A radiation leak causes some strange happenings, including Lister’s confidence and paranoia being manifested as separate men. Craig Ferguson plays the former; Lee Cornes the latter.
Observations: Rimmer practices his ridiculously elaborate salute for the first time.
Best gag: The punchline that sees two Rimmers on board the ship.
Episode 6: Me2 (21 March 1988): Good stuff. At the end of episode five, Lister was tricked into creating a second hologramatic Rimmer. Now that there are two Arnolds, they choose to move in together. However, they quickly rub each up the wrong way… The humour comes from a) Lister and Rimmer kinda missing each other, and b) the fact that even Rimmer can’t cope when trapped with himself. The split-screen shots of two Rimmers are done well, and Chris Barrie carries a huge amount of the comedy. A superb performance.
Observations: Captain Hollister appears in a flashback set right before the accident. Tony Hawks voices a cinema advert.
Best gag: Rimmer’s self-recorded video tribute to himself. It goes on a bit, so Lister fast-forwards and stops at a random point. Rimmer is saying: “…if you put Napoleon in quarters with Lister, he’d still be in Corsica peeling spuds.” (Also worth mentioning is Holly’s joke about sausages and Norweb.)
Best episode: Future Echoes. Worst episode: Waiting For God.
Alternative version: In the 1990s, this series was ‘remastered’ by writers/producers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It was an attempt to do for early Red Dwarf episodes what George Lucas was then trying to do with the Star Wars trilogy – ie, upgrade it and make it seem more modern. The title sequence was replaced with a fast-paced montage, CGI effects were crudely added, some scenes were trimmed, Norman Lovett recorded new material as Holly, the episodes were filmised and the frame was cropped into widescreen… The result was terrible and has thankfully been mostly forgotten.
Review: Compared with what’s to come, this first series certainly feels small-scale. Aside from the lovely model shots of Red Dwarf itself, we never leave the interior of the ship; the cast never leave the TV studios. A remarkably slow and oomph-less title sequence doesn’t help. Neither do some really cheap-looking sets – the ship is mostly grey and boring and drab and bargain-bin. It’s not slick television. Fortunately, the comedy (the important bit) is tremendous. For example, Chris Barrie *shines*. He’s on the money right from the word go, instantly hilarious and committed to the role. Rimmer is a monster with many, many unlikable traits… Yet you miss him when he’s not on screen and actually feel sympathy for him. Craig Charles is a lot looser as Lister, but charismatic and with a genuine likeability. The series is built on scenes of these two bickering and it’s never boring. We even ignore the fudging that sees two men who despise each other choose to share a bunkroom. Away from the big two, the Cat breezes in and out of scenes, mostly unconcerned with the episode’s events, while Holly doesn’t feature too much. All four characters are very funny, which makes the occasionally muted laughter from the studio audience difficult to fathom. Some good gags actually go unnoticed.
Seven complete and total tits out of 10