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Red Dwarf 101

If you’ve never seen an episode of the BBC sci-fi comedy “Red Dwarf,” you’re missing out. Of course, if you start watching any random episode you might feel a bit bemused. “Red Dwarf” is British, after all, and lines like “You're about as much use as a condom machine in the Vatican” pepper the script. So here’s the lowdown on the 1988-1999 series, which ran for eight seasons. There are still rumors of a possible movie floating around or even a ninth season, so keep your ears peeled. Meanwhile, all eight seasons are now available on DVD, complete with tons of extras—the “Red Dwarf” DVDs are a great example of how to do those things right.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

The first six seasons, or Series, were filmed pretty much all together with six episodes apiece. There was a short hiatus afterwards, and season seven was to be the last, with eight episodes, until eight came along (also with eight episodes). During the course of the series there were two cliffhangers, at the end of season three and season six—and neither of them were resolved in the next season. Well, at least not the way you expect. The first cliffhanger was resolved with a scrolling text explanation in season three which went by so quickly that you couldn’t read it without recording the episode and pausing your VCR; the second cliffhanger was resolved with Lister explaining everyone’s survival into a video unit.

In 1992, an American pilot was filmed by Universal for NBC, but never went anywhere. Then creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor filmed their own pilot promo. Just as trivia, cast member Robert Llewellyn played Kryten in both American versions as well, and Terry Farrell of “Deep Space Nine” was the female version of the Cat in the second pilot. Like “Doctor Who,” “Red Dwarf” was introduced to American audiences via public television.

Some trivia notes: The word “smeg” was coined by the producers to take the place of any swear word you can think of. So blooper clips of “Red Dwarf” were titled as “Smeg-Ups” and “Smeg-Outs.” There are three novelizations of the series as well as a radio series called “Dave Hollins, Space Cadet” written by “Red Dwarf”’s creators that has no direct connection with the series except that some of its ideas were used in the TV show. Also, the BBC aired “Red Dwarf Night” on Saturday, February 14, 1998, the show’s tenth anniversary. Patrick Stewart hosted, and the offerings include a special edition of the BBC’s “Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook” show starring the “Red Dwarf” characters.

The Characters

David Lister (Craig Charles): The last human alive. When a radiation leak kills everyone on board the huge red mining ship Red Dwarf, he’s in stasis. It’s a punishment for bringing a cat on board the ship, which is never found. Lister loves a good curry and when his underwear is dirty he simply gives it new life by turning it inside out. But he's a good guy, the type you want to have a beer with on a Saturday night.

Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie): In life, Arnold was an ambitious loser who took the officer’s exam 11 times without once passing. Blaming his failure on everyone but himself, he was anal-retentive coward and hard to be around. An incident with gazpacho soup is the bane of his existence. After his death, he is much the same, only dead—a hologram, actually. As Lister’s bunkmate, ship’s computer Holly revives Rimmer in order to keep Lister sane. Lister would have preferred anyone—absolutely anyone—else. Actor Barrie was mostly absent for series seven; Rimmer appeared mostly in flashbacks and other devices. He apparently had so much fun he returned for a full eighth season.

Holly (Norman Lovett for Series I, II, VII and VIII, Hattie Hayridge for Series III, IV, V): The ship’s computer had an I.Q. of 12,000—but after knocking about in space for the three million years it took for the radiation aboard Red Dwarf to die down, he’s a bit on the batty side. At one point he gave himself a sex change and became the female version of himself.

The Cat (Danny John-Jules): When Lister stored his cat Frankenstein in the hold, he spawned an entirely new civilization. Over three million years a cat culture evolved from his pregnant feline, culminating in this fashionable, graceful and vain creature. Actually, the cat civilization eventually left Red Dwarf on a crusade, but the Cat remained on board. He loves clothes, hates work, enjoys napping and sex, and his hobby is eating fish. He also likes to make things his.

Kryten (Robert Llewellyn): The crew encounters Kryten in the first episode of the second season when they respond to an SOS only to discover its crew has been dead for eons, with its faithful android servant tending to its every need the entire time. Lister takes the android on board Red Dwarf and tries to instill rebellious qualities in him. Kryten joins the crew, cleans up after everyone else and learns to lie.

Kristine Kochanski (Chloe Annett): For the first six seasons she’s a recurring character, mostly because she’s the one woman Lister wishes would love him. Kochanski is a conscientious officer and an intelligent woman. During series seven, she meets up with the “boyz from the Dwarf” in a parallel dimension and joins the crew. It’s a match made in--well, Starbug.

Talkie Toaster: This minor character appears in some early episodes, then reappears when Kryten makes the mistake of repairing him. He’s annoying, he’s brash, he’s smarter than Holly, he cost 19.99 pounds and all he wants to do is toast. “I toast, therefore I am,” he boasts.

Note: A couple of the characters have alter egos that became popular during the course of the show. For Chris Barrie it was Ace Rimmer, the cool, handsome, brave, charming version of Rimmer. For Danny John-Jules it was Dwayne Dibbley, the bucktoothed, unhip, unfashionable, uncool version of the Cat.

The Vehicles

Red Dwarf: This huge red mining ship is at least several miles across, and it’s so large there’s an in-flight movie in the lift. All wording is listed in English and Esperanto. The crew consists of 169 people, the lowest ranking of which are Rimmer and Lister.

Starbug: For two seasons the crew of Red Dwarf actually loses Red Dwarf and goes traipsing around the galaxy searching for it in a rickety green shuttlecraft called Starbug—named so because it looks rather like a bug. Starbug has a cockpit and back sections for storage and for bunks, plus a small kitchen. But when they go to a red alert, that means someone has to change the light bulb.

Blue Midget: Blue Midget was featured in early episodes and in Series VIII, but its small size (it seated four) made it impractical for use once Kryten came on the scene. Originally it was designed like a truck or tank, with tracks instead of wheels, but a later redesign gave Blue Midget arms and legs.

The Aliens

There are no aliens in “Red Dwarf.” That isn’t to say there are only humans. We meet a polymorph, for example, a shape-shifting mutant who feeds on the emotions of others, and GELFs (genetically engineered life forms), and Legion, a being created by scientists who transforms Rimmer’s soft light hologram into hard light (so he can touch and feel things). But if they aren’t human, the creatures in the “Red Dwarf” universe are created by humans in some way. Rimmer keeps hoping for aliens, it’s true, but so far he’s been disappointed.

The Story To Date

Lister wakes up to discover that he’s been in stasis for three million years. He starts to go to pieces, but Holly reanimates his annoying bunkmate Arnold Rimmer to keep him sane. They meet the Cat, the sole representative of a race of people who evolved from cats, and Lister tells Holly to set a course for home—even if it is three million years away. As Lister contemplates returning to stasis for the trip, he and the crew start to encounter “future echoes”—since Red Dwarf has accelerated into light speed, they’re catching up to events that haven’t happened yet. This gives them a taste of what is in store for their future. They meet Kryten, who joins the crew and happily cleans up after them. Their adventures include dealing with a second hologram of Rimmer, using a stasis leak to go back in time to change the future, entering a parallel universe to meet their female opposites, and playing the virtual reality game Better Than Life. They also use a DNA sequencer to turn Kryten into a human, and find a world that operates backwards.

Eventually Red Dwarf is hijacked by unknown parties, forcing the crew to use the shuttlecraft Starbug instead. For two seasons (six and seven) they remain aboard the smaller ship, trying to figure out where Holly and Red Dwarf went. During this time they meet Legion, encounter a world warped by Rimmer’s bizarre mind, go back in time to JFK’s assassination and encounter Jane Austen World. Kochanski joins the crew at this time (portrayed by a new actress). At the end of season seven, they finally meet up with Red Dwarf and Holly again. And season eight starts up on a Red Dwarf completely reconstructed by nanobots—complete with the old crew and all equipment.

Notable Episodes

“The End,” Series I: The first episode, where Rimmer’s action results in the death of the entire crew. Holly revives Lister as the only survivor of the human race three million years later, then activates Rimmer as a hologram to keep him sane. They meet the Cat.

“Future Echoes,” Series I: As the ship goes into light speed, Lister prepares to go back into stasis to make the long trip. But then things start happening that haven’t actually happened yet, and we get a glimpse of the future—including two babies for Lister. Where do they come from? “It’s gonna be a laugh finding out,” Lister says.

“Parallel Universe,” Series II: Holly invents the Holly Hop Drive, designed to take the ship across vast reaches of space and get them back to Earth. In trying it out, the crew ends up in a universe where they have female opposites from a woman-dominated Earth. Except the Cat’s opposite is a Dog. Lister ends up in bed with himself. One of the greatest bits of this episode though, was Cat’s “dream”—a song and dance number to a song called “Tongue-Tied,” actually performed by John-Jules. This song was released as a single in the U.K. and made it to #17 on the pop charts.

“Backwards,” Series III: All the dialogue in this episode was reversed for a world in which everything happens backwards. Kryten and Rimmer accidentally land in this parallel universe and are able to parlay their forwardness into a nightclub act. Lister and the Cat go to rescue them.

“DNA,” Series IV: The crew discovers a DNA sequencer aboard a ship, and consequently Kryten is turned into a human. Lister finds himself explaining human life to the android, including the meaning of a “double Polaroid” Kryten took of himself. Though being human has been Kryten’s favorite wish, he decides to go back. In testing the sequencer, Lister inadvertently turns his mutton vindaloo into a mutton vindaloo monster.

“Quarantine,” Series V: The crew tries to find the hologram of a brilliant scientist aboard her old ship, but Dr. Hildegarde Lanstrom has a dangerous holo-virus that has turned her into a killing machine. Upon their return to the ship, Rimmer quarantines Lister, the Cat and Kryten—but has contracted the virus himself.

“Back to Reality,” Series V: After discovering that everyone aboard a ship has committed suicide, the guys encounter the despair squid. After Starbug crashes, they wake up to discover they’ve been playing a virtual reality game called “Red Dwarf” for the last four years, and they aren’t who they think they are. In fact, they’re only losers who can’t even play a VR game right. This episode introduced Dwight Dibbley, and the car chase scene is the funniest ever that didn’t actually have a car, a chase, or much of a scene.

“Blue,” Series VII: Kochanski has just joined the crew, but both she and Kryten harbor hopes she’ll be able to get back to her dimension. Meanwhile, Lister actually misses Rimmer, until Kryten takes drastic measures to cure him. This entails an amusement park ride reminiscent of the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyworld, and includes “The Rimmer Munchkin Song”—as catchy as the Disneyworld tune and a slight bit scarier.

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