I’ve been watching Red Dwarf on Netflix recently. In the process I’ve discovered that there’s actually a hell of a lot of that series that I’d never seen before, so I’ve been delighted to (re)discover it.
Red Dwarf was one of those series that That One Guy At University Who Endlessly Quoted Things endlessly quoted. Well, perhaps not endlessly – sometimes he was quoting Blackadder. I’m only just now, some ten years later, coming around to the idea that I can actually watch those shows again without hearing That One Guy At University Who Endlessly Quoted Things’ voice in my head.
That’s beside the point though. And the point is that Red Dwarf is still an excellent series, for more reasons than one.
First up, it’s quite simply an excellent comedy series. The small cast of exaggerated characters makes for some excellent comic situations. The fact that all of the characters have at least one major flaw in their personalities is what makes them entertaining, too — Lister is arguably the closest we get to a “straight man” in the show, but even he’s flawed; he’s gross, he’s selfish and his reliance on curry as his primary form of sustenance doubtless makes him rather unpleasant to live with. Rimmer, meanwhile, is by turns arrogant and crippled by self-doubt; The Cat is vain to a fault; and Kryten has difficulty with acting independently when it conflicts with his programming. Put these dysfunctional characters together and you have a recipe for plenty of comic conflict.
The less-considered side of the show is that it’s actually a surprisingly decent sci-fi show, too. While it doesn’t have anywhere near the budget of what we might be used to from more recent titles — or even shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran at a similar time — it manages to convey a convincing feeling of what Life Is Like In The Future. The show doesn’t batter the audience over the head with lengthy descriptions of what things do or how they work; rather, it simply drops things into conversation that make it clear that we’re absolutely not on 21st century Earth any more.
Part of this comes from the show’s use of language. Its use of terms like “smeg”, “gimboid”, “goit” and numerous other faux-expletives was initially to get around the fact that it wasn’t okay to say certain things on television, but over time these words became part of the show’s identity. Numerous other shows have taken a similar approach since — Firefly features Chinese swearing, for example, while Battlestar Galactica features the multi-purpose invective “frak” at regular intervals. (It’s not clear how much Red Dwarf’s use of fake swear words influenced these titles, if at all.) Initially, the presence of these words is jarring as you wonder what they mean and why they’re not simply using regular expletives. But over time, as you become invested in the worlds created by the writers, you begin to let these words wash over you and enter your vocabulary even though, in most cases, they’re completely made up, portmanteau words or “loan words” from another language.
Ultimately, Red Dwarf succeeds due to the fact it never tries to get ideas above its station. It knows that it’s a low-budget sci-fi comedy with a small cast, and rarely attempts to deviate too much from that formula. Some may argue that the later seasons do deviate from this formula and are consequently weaker as a result, but having not (re)watched them yet, I’m not going to comment on that right now. One thing the show doesn’t do, however, is rest on its laurels; each season has its own distinctive identity, and it’s quite fascinating to see the changes it goes through as the years pass by and the budget increases.
It’s still great, then, in short, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching it, then you should check it out. It’s all on Netflix (in the UK, anyway), so be sure to check it out if you’re a member.