When good TV goes bad: how Red Dwarf’s star faded

With the departure of co-creator Rob Grant after series six, the show lurched into comedy-drama, navel-gazing and, eventually, utter smegging ineptitude

Thirty years ago, science fiction was terminally unfashionable on British television. Few would have given a sci-fi sitcom a hope, yet Red Dwarf’s creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor revelled in their underdog status.

The premise was ingenious: defiantly slobbish Dave Lister (Craig Charles) wakes up on a mining vessel 3m years after the radiation leak that wiped out the crew. The last human in the universe, his only companions are magnificently irritating hologram Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), idiotic yet omnipotent ship’s computer Holly (Norman Lovett and, later, Hattie Hayridge) and a humanoid evolved from cats (Danny John-Jules), bearing the perceptible DNA of both Prince and James Brown.

Marrying the slacker aesthetic of Dark Star to the wry humour of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it had both the innate melancholy and odd-couple dynamic central to all great sitcoms. The wobbly staging added to the charm; Naylor and Grant had crafted a lived-in universe with a keen sense of self-awareness, refusing to let budgets act as a brake on their imaginations. Once Robert Llewellyn had joined as fussy mechanoid Kryten, the conceptual shenanigans – always ambitious and interesting – had a fully functioning ensemble to bring them to life. The array of ideas Red Dwarf explored was dazzling, from the implications of AI to the vagaries of memory, talking toasters to curry monsters. By 1990, it was the best British sitcom on TV, its catchphrases (“Smeg!”, “Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”) instantly recognisable, with an International Emmy the crowning glory. For a cult sitcom in a niche genre, such mainstream acceptance was an extraordinary achievement.

Perhaps the seventh series could only have disappointed. Grant had moved on, leaving co-creator Naylor to soldier on alone, seemingly exposed as the straight man in the partnership: an apparent lurch into comedy-drama may simply have been the result of a drought of comic invention. A disillusioned Barrie left and focused on The Brittas Empire – could a greater snub be imagined? – while (re)introducing Lister’s girlfriend, Kristine Kochanski, as ship’s scold gave Chloë Annett nothing to work with. The chemistry had been fatally undermined.

The jettisoning of the studio audience saw the actors playing to an invisible crowd while their characters either reverted to one dimension or resorted to navel-gazing that strove for poignancy but palled into dullness. Series eight was even worse, abandoning the idea of Lister and co being alone in space and resurrecting the entire crew for a conventional sitcom with an overreliance on bad CGI. It killed the franchise for a decade, by which time its moment had passed.

Or had it? 2009. Enter Lister’s namesake channel Dave, brimming with both witty banter and bullish confidence. Red Dwarf: Back to Earth was feverishly anticipated, making its utter smegging ineptitude all the more dismaying. Dave pressed on and further revivals have been much better. But, with the chances of matching its imperial phase receding faster than Chris Barrie’s hairline, it might be time to abandon the crew to their fate before the whole thing starts to resemble a subpar Red Dwarf episode about the endless reliving of one’s glory days.

Contributor

Gabriel Tate

The GuardianTramp

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