Saturday, December 27, 2008
I first became interested in Red Dwarf when I read the novelization Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. After that I watched all the episodes of the show. It’s hilarious, and well worth watching.
Red Dwarf’s premise is very simple. On a huge mining spacecraft*, Dave Lister, the lowest-ranked crew member, brings an unquarantined cat on board and is punished by being placed in stasis. While he’s there, a radiation leak kills all the rest of the crew.
Three million years later, the radiation levels have lowered to the point where Holly, the ship’s computer, releases Lister from stasis. Lister is a wee bit disturbed to find that they are three million years away from Earth and that he is the only living human on the ship to boot.
HOLLY: They're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave.
LISTER: Petersen isn't, is he?
HOLLY: Everybody is dead, Dave.
LISTER: Not Chen?
HOLLY: Gordon Bennett, yes! Chen! Everybody! Everybody's dead, Dave.
HOLLY: He's dead, Dave. Everybody's dead. Everybody is dead, Dave!
LISTER: Wait. Are you trying to tell me everybody's dead?
HOLLY: I wish I'd never let him out in the first place.
Unfortunately for Lister, things only get worse from here. To keep him company, Holly generates a hologram of one of the dead crew. That person is Lister’s former roommate, Arnold Rimmer, who just happens to be the antithesis of Lister.
The friction between Rimmer and Lister - or between Rimmer and any normal person - was enough to keep this show rolling for years. Rimmer is self-centered, cowardly, uptight and lonely, a second technician who failed the astronavigation exam no fewer than thirteen times. Once he even took drugs to augment his efforts, only to end up writing “I am a fish” 400 times before fainting. Dying and coming back as a hologram has only exacerbated all these traits, and he constantly clashes with Lister, who’s similarly an underachiever heading nowhere but who enjoys himself.
(By the way, is it just me or do a lot of old British comedies feature people living lives of quiet desperation? Though in Rimmer’s case, he’s rarely quiet about it.)
Meanwhile, Lister’s smuggled-aboard cat was safe in the hold. Over three million years its descendants have evolved into Felis sapiens, though only one of these still remains on board. He’s what you’d expect a cat in humanoid shape to be – narcissistic, obsessed with his appearance and constantly on the prowl for female cats, of which there are none.
The crew’s lack of female companionship spurs on several of the plots, such as the one where they find Kryten, a service droid who takes care of the surviving three crew members on board a crashed vessel. Since pictures of the three show that they’re female and attractive, the Dwarfers deck themselves out in their finest and rush to the rescue, only to find that the ladies haven’t moved in three million years. They’re skeletons which Kryten has been tenderly feeding and nurturing to give himself a purpose in life.
RIMMER: Our first contact with intelligent life in three million and two years and it's the android version of Norman Bates.
Most of the humor on the show comes from very sarcastic observations and comebacks, plus Kryten’s serious-to-deadpan replies.
RIMMER: Step up to red alert.
KRYTEN: Sir, are you absolutely sure? It does mean changing the light bulb.
Unlike the other famous British science fiction comedy, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf doesn’t feature any aliens. Instead, the show has human creations such as androids and GELFs (genetically engineered life forms), plus parallel dimensions, time distortions and enough space anomalies to fill an entire season of Star Trek.
My favorite such episode was where the crew met Commander Ace Rimmer, a version of Rimmer from another universe. Ace is intelligent, daring, popular and handsome, not to mention a test pilot in the Space Corps. Naturally, Rimmer hates him.
RIMMER: I bet you anything he wears women's underwear. They're all the same, this type, you know. Hurly-burly, rough and tumble macho marines in public, but behind closed doors he'll be parading up and down in taffeta ballgowns, drinking mint juleps and whipping the houseboy.
KRYTEN: Sir, he's you! It's just that your lives diverged at a certain point in time.
RIMMER: Yes, I went into the Gents and he went the other way.
The humor is often character-driven, which makes it possible to care about the crew when you’re not laughing at them. Holly’s losing a chess match to Queeg, the ruthless alternate ship’s computer, and facing deletion as a result was poignant. I also love the episode where Rimmer admits in a drunken depression that he’s never had a girlfriend and has only had sex on one occasion.
CAT: That many?
So Lister downloads eight months of his own memory – during which time he had a passionate romance – into Rimmer’s personality disks as a death-day gift. Rimmer believes he had the romance, and is very happy until he learns the truth.
Unfortunately for Red Dwarf, it’s a great series which went on for too long and the final episode simply stopped on a cliffhanger with no closure in sight. But the first five or so seasons are superb. Watch them if you get a chance.
*And I mean huge – just watch the opening section of the credits where some hapless spaceman is painting the F in DWARF.