“This is an S.O.S. distress call from the mining ship Red Dwarf. The crew are dead, killed by a radiation leak. The only survivors are Dave Lister, who was in suspended animation during the disaster, and his pregnant cat, who was safely sealed in the hold. Revived three million years later, Lister’s only companions are a life-form who evolved from his cat, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram simulation of one of the dead crew. Message ends.”
I don’t quite remember how I first came across Red Dwarf, or even when. Not specifically anyway. I know that it was a Friday night and I’d just got home from the local youth club, the same place where I’d been sent week after week for ages just so my parents could get some peace and quiet. It was definitely a Friday night because any other night of the week I would have been tucked away in bed by the time Jenna Russell’s familiar tones rocked out the theme tune. But on Friday nights I could stay up until at least 10:30 pm and my night always started with Red Dwarf.
Red Dwarf, for those of you that don’t know, and perhaps have stumbled upon this retro by mistake, is a British sitcom set aboard a mining ship in the deepest reaches of space. Its crew is all dead, except for one person, who has survived by sheer chance after being locked away in stasis as punishment at the time of the end of mankind. This person – if you can call him that – is Dave Lister, a slovenly Scouser with dreadlocks and a beer belly. Before the crew was wiped out he was the lowest of the low, but by default, he was now the highest ranking crew member on board the ship. Quite a result, right? Well, not quite. You see there’s a computer aboard the ship named Holly, and in a bid to keep Lister from going insane, Holly has reanimated (as a Hologram) the one crew member he had the most interactions with prior to going into stasis. Unfortunately, that person was Arnold J. Rimmer, a smug officer wannabe who Lister had spent years tormenting and torturing, so the prospect of drifting through endless space and time with his sworn enemy is enough to push Lister to the brink.
But Red Dwarf wasn’t just The Odd Couple in space. There were other characters too. In particular, the Cat, the humanoid descendant of Listers’ original pet cat, and Kryten, the neurotic android who lived to serve, couldn’t lie and had an assortment of hilarious and abusive replacement heads. Between them, these four icons of British humor opened my eyes to the world of alternative UK comedy, my heart to the idea of living in space, and my ears to a whole vocabulary of smut and innuendo.
I can remember laying on my bed in my bedroom imagining myself in a bunk on-board Red Dwarf. I wouldn’t say Lister was my hero, after all, he ate Kebabs (banned in our house) and drank lager like it was going out of fashion. But he was a refreshing alternative to the saps they had on kids TV at the time. I’d lay there, glued to the screen as the gang battled the likes of the Despair Squid, a creature that convinced the crew they’d actually been playing a video game all along or tried to outrun The Inquisitor, a bounty hunter who wanted them all dead for wasting their lives. There was even a beast spawned from one of Lister’s leftover mutton vindaloos. In fact, absolutely anything could happen on a weekly basis and that’s what kept me hooked.
There are some that would describe Red Dwarf as low brow and adolescent. Those people obviously never sat down and watched “Tikka to Ride,” the first episode of series 7, in which the crew travel back in time to pick up some food supplies but find themselves smack bang in the middle of Dallas just hours before the assassination of JFK. After accidentally knocking Lee Harvey Oswald out of a window to his death and altering history forever, they are forced to travel back to the same moment in time and convince the JFK of the future to be the second gunman on the grassy knoll, and assassinate himself to reset the timeline they had so royally messed up earlier. The episode is cinematic in scale, and unlike anything, the show had done before. I was used to practical effects at this point – toy models being suspended on strings to look like they’re floating in space, and terrible green screen – so a highly developed look at the principles of the butterfly effect simply blew my mind, especially when one week later the crew were back on board their ship battling bargain basement aliens. But that was the joy of being a Dwarfer. It still is.
Sure, the cast (and crew) are all getting older, and the characters just aren’t as edgy as they were 3 decades ago, but there’s still something special about seeing the show has been renewed for a further series. I think it was the Guardian newspaper that said the jokes in Red Dwarf are getting thinner than the cast’s hair, and perhaps, they have a point. Maybe, it’s time to let the crew drift off into deep space once and for all, or for Lister to finally make it to Fiji to live out his days in the sun, drinking fresh mango juice, just like the theme tune describes. But, until that happens, I’m more than happy to continue the journey with them, because like Holly once said: “As the days go by, we face the increasing inevitability that we are alone in a godless, uninhabited, hostile and meaningless universe. Still, you’ve got to laugh haven’t you”. And while ever there’s laughter, Red Dwarf ain’t going anywhere, smegheads!
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