I'm Struggling to Grow Older With My Favorite Childhood Sci-Fi Show
‘Red Dwarf’ spans 11 seasons over 28 years. Each time it returns from stasis, I've moved on a little more.
Illustration: Shaye Anderson
Once, they were a robot, a lithe cat-person, a hologrammatic projection of a dead jerk, and a 25-year-old Liverpudlian who was also the last human alive. Now, they're four aging British men squeezing themselves into their old costumes, playing the same old characters, as if little time has passed. Four years after the most recent series, 28 years after the show began, the crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf has returned to television. And for fans like me, who consider the show part of their early development, it's equal parts joyous homecoming and embarrassing display.
Their show, Red Dwarf, has all the hallmarks of science fiction: the service droids, the AI computer with an IQ of 6000, the cavernous, industrial-looking spaceship peppered with Esperanto signage. (Esperanto in wide usage? This must be sci-fi.) But it's also very much a situation comedy, right down to the live studio audience. The premise of the show, the pretext for abandoning this band of misfits all alone on a massive ship in deep space, bridges science and comedy: due to an accident, Dave Lister has been in stasis for three million years, and has returned to a universe in which he's probably the last living homo sapiens.
As a punishment for bringing a cat on board, Lister was put in suspended animation; when he stepped back into the normal flow of time, everyone else on the ship was dead and the cat's descendants had evolved into a flourishing society that eventually dwindled to a single fashionable, English-speaking cat-person. Lister wants to go back to Earth, but as his shipmate Rimmer—a hologram created from the personality of his annoying supervisor—reminds him, he's now hopelessly outdated, "the equivalent of the slime that first crawled out of the oceans." Lister shrugs. "Look out, Earth," he says. "The slime's coming home."
Red Dwarf itself has gone into stasis repeatedly. The first six series aired over five years, from 1988 to 1993. There was a gap of four years before the deeply inferior Series 7 and 8, then a full decade before the three-episode miniseries Back to Earth—a sort of metafictional postmodern take, in which the crew of Red Dwarf discovers that they are characters in Red Dwarf. That seemed like the end, but three years later there was a tenth series, and four years after that, Series 11 is now underway, with a Series 12 set to air in 2017. That's 11 series of Red Dwarf—ten-and-a-half, really—over nearly 30 years of real time.
Red Dwarf returns, once again, from stasis.
Red Dwarf pauses, and we go on, and every few years it pops back into the timestream—picking up where it left off, albeit with new costume concepts and paunchier actors. But every time it comes back, the world—and its fans—have moved on a little more. For those of us who grew up on Red Dwarf, are these periodic returns from stasis a welcome renaissance? Or are they perplexing visits from an earlier stage of our own evolution, the slime coming home?
This is reductive to the point of parody, but in general there are two kinds of science fiction: the kind that uses science to interrogate fiction, and the kind that uses fiction to interrogate science. Most "hard" sci-fi falls in the latter category: it proposes a potential future, or a technology, or a scientific premise, and uses the medium of story to watch it play out. These tend to be wonderful thought experiments with little emotional import. Think Ringworld, with its focus on space megastructures over emotional inner lives.
Then there's the kind of sci-fi whose speculative scenarios are backdrops for experiments in human nature. Think Star Trek, using alien encounters to investigate prejudice, xenophobia, and the potentials and pitfalls of communication. The science may be a little softer, but the science is just an excuse: the real project is shedding light on who we are, by showing who we might be.
The thing about Red Dwarf that made me feel visible and seen was that its characters were funny and clever and not mean-spirited but also immensely annoying.
Red Dwarf embodies that type of sci-fi: science is in its structure, but its goals are emphatically human. It's a space adventure, sure, and a comedy, but primarily it's an extended exercise in character development, each science fictional premise a new crucible for interpersonal experimentation. Steep yourself in the show, and you'll learn nothing about the rules of the universe it inhabits; they contradict themselves at every turn, often within the same episode. But you'll come to understand and love its deeply messed-up characters as if they were the messed-up parts of yourself.
For castaways adrift in space, the Red Dwarf crew does encounter a statistically improbable number of antagonists from week to week. But more often than not, the characters' main conflict is with themselves—just sometimes evil versions of themselves, or their alternate universe selves, or themselves from the future. This is a show that has visited not one but two planets literally shaped by the personality problems of Arnold Rimmer, the biggest asshole on the ship. (One had become inhabited by generations of his clones, who have built a society around his least-winning character traits; the other was actually terraformed by his mind, bringing his worst neuroses to life. That episode, "Terrorform," which ends with the crew facing the monster of Rimmer's self-loathing, made me cry so hard as a teenager that I refused to watch it again for nearly 20 years. It remains the purest expression of my psyche available on modern TV.)
From "Polymorph" (Episode 3, Series 3). For context: a monster has eaten some of their negative emotions. This is a prime example of playing with the personality flaws of Red Dwarf's characters as a plot engine.
Each futuristic technology or space phenomenon the crew encounters—time holes, dimension jumps, a brief and harrowing experiment in faster-than-light travel—is a new way to turn inward, to see their fears and ambitions writ large. Who are they in the past, or future? Who are they when uniquely evil, or uniquely good? Who are they as women? What happens when a rogue droid forces them to justify their entire lives in a sort of mock courtroom or risk being erased from time? (The Cat's defense: "I have given pleasure to the world because I have such a beautiful ass.") The sci-fi concepts are fertile ground for humor, of course—you only have to look at Rimmer, infected with a sanity-destroying hologram virus, wearing a gingham dress and bonnet and carrying a puppet penguin, to see that. But even more than that, they are excuses to bang these deeply flawed characters together in new and peculiar ways, to turn them in air so their flaws catch new light, throw off new prisms.
I discovered Red Dwarf in my early teens, the "every song on the radio is about me" years. Teenagers are invisible to themselves, like vampires; they are always straining to see oblique reflections of their own face, to put them together into some kind of plausible whole. For me, the Red Dwarf crew was a perfect mirror, each of them uniquely awful in a way I recognized. At a time when I was uncomfortable in my body, Lister was a disgusting slob. At a time when I felt incapable of courage or success, Rimmer was a pathetic cowardly failure. At a time when I worried constantly how people perceived me, the Cat was a vain popinjay and Kryten, an android they pick up in season 3, was a toadying people-pleaser. I felt a particular affinity with Rimmer, generally understood to be the most insufferable of the lot; he was anal retentive and compulsively disciplined, so in that sense I was more of a Lister, but he was a constant underachiever who couldn't take responsibility but hated himself for it, just like me.
By almost any metric, I was not reflected in Red Dwarf. The show wasn't a void of diversity—of the four and later five main characters, two were black men, a rather remarkable ratio for 1988 that was never actually remarked upon. ("Color has never been mentioned in 52 shows," notes Danny John-Jules, who plays the Cat, in a documentary about the making of series 4.) But there were no women in the main cast for the first two seasons, and the one who appears for the next four is a disembodied head on a computer screen. On the whole, in fact, the major presence of women in Red Dwarf is as the butt of sexist jokes. The Red Dwarf crew didn't look uniform, but it also didn't look like me.
And yet it spoke to me more than a woman-driven show ever had. In the early to mid-'90s, when I was deep in my Red Dwarf phase, I could have found any number of white girls on TV, having experiences that were much more relevant to my real life than "marooned on a frozen planet" or "found a hole in the fabric of spacetime." I had my pick of likable, relatable characters who, aside from being too pretty, looked kinda like me. But that was the trouble—they were likable. They made mistakes and learned lessons but were ultimately noble and well-intentioned and good, and I was a young teen with a chip on my shoulder who didn't feel reflected in anyone likable. The thing about Red Dwarf that made me feel visible and seen was that its characters were funny and clever and not mean-spirited but also immensely annoying. You wouldn't want to be trapped in deep space with any of them, but they were, and they had to make do.
As the show's early seasons interrogate the characters over and over, though, their signature flaws take on nuance and depth. You start to see the basic bravery, principles, and good heart behind Lister's slobby, rude exterior. You watch Kryten struggle to break his programming, every tiny act of rebellion made heroic by its difficulty. You can't avoid breaking your heart over Rimmer's self-loathing and resentment, the engine behind all his unpleasantness. Even the vain, selfish Cat has his moments of, well, if not nobility, then at least self-justification. Red Dwarf's characters weren't likeable, but they could, ultimately, be loved.
In a very real sense, that saved me. But then it was done. I was saved. And the show came back.
Lister goes into stasis, at the beginning of the show, because he refuses to give up his cat, Frankenstein. The cat is an integral part of his plan to move to Fiji and open a hot dog and donut diner. Three million years later, when he meets the last scion of Frankenstein's line, Lister discovers that his dream has been passed down through generations of Cat evolution as a Messianic promise of a promised land: Cloister shall return to lead us to Fuchal. The Cat religion, we learn, has suffered a violent schism over the color of the hats to be worn by employees in this paradisiacal diner: some think they should be red, and others blue, and the dispute tears them apart. It's especially sad, Lister notes, because the hats were supposed to be green.
You don't get to come back like nothing happened. The development you influence is in some sense your responsibility, but that doesn't mean it's under your control.
By that point, of course, it's too late: Lister disappeared into stasis for three million years, and the Cat religion flourished without him, and his original plan for the color of the hats is essentially irrelevant to their turmoil. You don't get to come back like nothing happened. The development you influence is in some sense your responsibility, but that doesn't mean it's under your control.
By the time the show's first stasis ended and the episodes made their way across the Atlantic, sometime in the late 1990s, I had gone off to college, bringing with me a certain grudging patience for my own slobbiness, cowardice, obsequiousness, and self-obsession. When Back to Earth became available, I was already in my 30s. Red Dwarf had helped me through some of my early development, and then flickered, and then disappeared. I'd done the rest on my own. And now here they were again, with all the same slobbiness and cowardice and obsequiousness and self-obsession, with all the same secret nobility, with nothing I needed. The jokes weren't even as funny to a grownup as they had been to a teen. The crew had come back from stasis, and I'd evolved.
There's a simple explanation for why Red Dwarf was never the same after its first long hiatus: Rob Grant, one of the creators and writers, left to pursue other projects. The other writer, Doug Naylor, has a certain gift for turning a phrase, but his humor (in my opinion) tends to be rougher and more formulaic; the jokes in Naylor-written episodes come in predictable shapes, with the funny bits filled in like Mad Libs.
Grant's departure also heralded an era of general overhaul, with the show's format undergoing several tonal and structural shifts. Series 7 did away with the studio audience, and Rimmer was mostly absent, replaced by Lister's crush Kristine Kochanski (giving the show an excuse to ratchet up the sexist jokes). Series 8, a couple of years later, brought the entire Red Dwarf crew back to life, re-created by nanobots, which also apparently restored the studio audience. Ten years later there was Back to Earth, which was more like a movie than a show—three episodes following a single Bladerunner-influenced storyline. And so on. New series also introduced new parts of the ship: a medical bay, an observation deck, a shuttle craft, a jail.
But while the ship and environs might have changed every time the show came out of stasis, the characters didn't. They were at once familiar and out of place, the actors and audience and cultural context aging around them while they remained fixed in time.
Even if the new Red Dwarf were as funny as the early seasons—and it's not—it's impossible for it to affect viewers in the same way. Each time it returns, it's coming back to a viewership it seeded with influence, then abandoned. The Red Dwarf slot in our culture, in our brains, is no longer empty. We have our own idea of Fuchal. We don't need Cloister to return and contradict it.
I'll still be watching four aging British men squeeze themselves into their old costumes, their old characters. But it's for old time's sake, recognizing what they meant to me before I was who I am: a little Lister, a little Cat, a little Kryten, a lot of Rimmer. This is my DNA, even if I've grown beyond it. The slime is home. It's mortifying. Welcome home, slime.
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