on 16 April 2005
It's easy to dismiss this as not the 'best' of Red Dwarf - the characters, situations, production quality, and the writing all become more confident and more exuberant in future series. But this is the starting point. Without these ground-breaking and scene-setting episodes, there would have been no more.
The BBC was highly suspicious of anything with a 'science fiction' cachet - and couldn't accept that space travel, in the company of a dead man, could be funny. You wonder at this reluctance. Previous SF ventures - like "Dr.Who", "Blake's Seven", "Quatermas" - had become cult classics.
But the dominant television SF was American - clean-cut, moral, highly educated crews, travelling in clean, highly sophisticated space craft with the most advanced technology known to the imagination, wearing clean clothes (mini skirts and tight, tight uniforms), and pursuing a clean, glamorous lifestyle in which they made throw away allusions to science and scientific theory (and fantasy).
Red Dwarf is a mucky great space freighter ... the sort of thing you could imagine getting stuck behind just when you were planning on going into warp speed. It was crewed by misfits and rejects. No sane person on earth would employ these people, so they ended up as the crew of this hulk, enduring the boring routines and hazards of space. The best their technology could manage was a talking, existential toaster ... and other devices which made an art out of dysfunction (not least, the ship's computer). This is the working class in space - mucky slobs, boiler suits, not a Shakespearean Company accent in earshot ... and a real Scottish engineer who beamed beautifully.
The potency of Red Dwarf lies in its claustrophobia and the iconoclasm of its setting and theme. We're aboard a freighter the size of a city, wandering alone (?) in the vast infinity of space ... and we have a slob who doesn't appear to have a change of clothing, sharing a cell and bunk beds with a dead man. It stands in marked contrast to the glitz and glamour of other images of space travel.
This is a low budget production - tight sets, no special effects, small cast. "Don't make it look like a space ship", the BBC told the writers, as if a mainstream audience might be convinced it was 'legitimate' comedy. It's strength is in the interplay of the characters. Episode by episode, they will grow, become transformed. Episode by episode Grant & Naylor become more confident, more outrageous. They take the tension between Lister and Rimmer (and the two actors didn't exactly get on, off camera), and stretch it to comic extremes. What starts as a comedy of space-manners will, in later series, push the boundaries of science fiction and make ironic commentary on its themes and settings.
But there is complex science and philosophy from the outset. We start with two inept technicians - Lister the slob, Rimmer the pretentious jobsworth - who struggle even to maintain a soup dispenser ... yet we're aboard a spaceship which has the technology to restore life to the dead, to capture consciousness in a computer and keep the deceased alive as a hologram. The 'science' and the conceits which will make the series work are introduced early.
Television channels are reluctant to invest in science fiction - it sounds like an expensive adventure into special effects, and most people wouldn't understand the science! Red Dwarf proves that SF does not need special effects ... and that the television audience is more intelligent and more sophisticated than the programming experts are prepared to admit. Children and adults, alike, had no problem coping with the fantasies and 'science' of Red Dwarf.
Situation comedy is the hardest form of writing. It demands the creation of a believable situation, believable characters (who can be pushed to the extremes of behaviour yet still retain our sympathy and our conviction that they are, somehow, 'real' people), and enough variety of situation yet continuity of setting to maintain momentum and keep the audience involved. The situation can be pushed to extreme, can be utterly surreal, but as long as the audience is given a chance to identify with the situation and pick up its momentum, you can have classic comedy.
And classic comedy is precisely what you get. Superbly written, a fine, ensemble cast, and comedy which breaks out of the box.
The DVD extras? Well, the commentary is excellent - the cast talk you through the episodes, giving you a lot of insights into the making of the show. The rest of the extras contribute little, very little. But the show's the thing. Utterly riveting television which can be watched again and again and again.