Long before "The Orville," "Avenue 5" or even "Space Force," there was "Red Dwarf" — a British sci-fi comedy that began in 1988 and has stretched over 12 seasons, four novels and a brand new feature-length episode called "The Promised Land" (now available to US fans on BritBox.)
The series takes you three million years after a radiation leak kills almost the entire crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf, the ship's sole survivor — the chicken soup vending machine repairman Dave Lister (Craig Charles), who is revived from stasis.
He spends his time on the ship with a holographic projection of his dead bunkmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Cat (Danny John-Jules) — a life-form that evolved from Lister's cat and an almost burnt-out Series 4000 mechanoid, Kryten (Robert Llewellyn). Depending on the season, they are sometimes accompanied by Holly, the senile main computer on the Red Dwarf (played first by Norman Lovett then Hattie Hayridge).
The show got off to a slow start when it first debuted in 1988, but with each passing season, they upped the ante along with the budget and the bombardment of side-splitting, hernia-inducing humor. By the time season 3 arrived, the show had accumulated a massive fanbase and provided an entire generation with epic, quotable lines.
“Assuming, of course, we’re not dealing with five-dimensional objects in a basic Euclidean geometric universe and given the essential premise that all geo-mathematics is based on the hideously limiting notion that one plus one equals two and not as Astemeyer correctly postulates that one and two are in fact the same thing observed from different precepts, the theoretical shape described by Sidis must, therefore, be: polydridocdecaehedron, a hexasexahedroadicon, a dibidolihedecadodron. Everything else is poppycock. Isn’t that so?”
Rimmer, "Holoship" (S05, E01)
In addition to the video panel at 2020's virtual San Diego Comic-Con, which you can watch above, Space.com got the chance to chat with the show's co-creator, writer and director, Doug Naylor, before the virtual, Comic-Con@Home event.
"Oh, I like sci-fi," he assured Space.com. "But I wouldn't say I'm a sci-fi nerd. I appreciate what sci-fi can give you. You can do stories that are fantastic that you can't do in a regular sitcom and make them credible. So you can have aliens and other dimensions and all sorts of other weird and wonderful stuff and people accept it because it's science fiction."
The show has won a ton of awards in the 32 years it has been on and off British television as well as an International Emmy Award for the episode "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" (S06, E03). It is, quite frankly, the benchmark standard for sci-fi comedy. However, it never really exploded in the U.S. in the same way it did in the UK. That said, a short-lived attempt was made by NBC to create a U.S. version, known as "Red Dwarf USA."
"When we were there, we were working with the 'Cheers' guys and they said — and I agreed with them — the really good stuff works in both places. And especially if it's not anchored to that particular culture so it's not limited to contemporary references that you know, people in the states would get or people in the UK would get," Naylor said.
"But also there are unfathomable things. For example, 'Seinfeld' didn't take off in the UK. God knows why. It must've been scheduling, because I can't imagine that people, if they'd actually had proper access to it, would not have thought it was a brilliant, brilliant show," Naylor added.
Sadly, the series took a bit of a nosedive in seasons 7, 8 and 9. But, thankfully, the show returned to form with 10, 11 and 12. In fact, "The Orville" even made an oh-so-subtle reference to "Red Dwarf" in its first season in the episode "Firestorm" (S0 1, E10) when a little "Space Corp Directive" mis-quoting humor makes an appearance. Additionally, the actor Lenny von Dohlen has actually appeared in both series.
Given the unusual virtual nature of this year's San Diego Comic-Con, renamed Comic-Con@Home for 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the "Red Dwarf" panel was a pre-recorded video panel featuring Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Robert Llewellyn and Doug Naylor.
In the Q&A, moderated by Kyle Anderson from Nerdist, the cast talked about the new episode and shared stories from the early days of "Red Dwarf."
The new, feature-length episode "The Promised Land" taps into the origins of the character Cat. Before the radiation leak killed everyone on board the Red Dwarf, Lister had been placed in stasis as punishment for having an unquarantined cat on board the ship.
This cat was actually pregnant and sealed off in the ship's cargo hold which, by chance, was radiation shielded. Over the three million years that passed before Lister was revived, the cats evolved into Felis Sapiens, built empires, fought holy wars and even left the ship in search of the Promised Land. Eventually, the only cat left was … er, Cat.
In the new episode, the crew of the Red Dwarf meet three cat clerics who worship Lister as their God. Lister vows to help them as they're being hunted by a ruthless feral cat leader who has vowed to wipe out all cats who worship anyone but him.
The comedy dialogue is as good in this new feature-length episode as it ever was and the throwbacks to classic "Red Dwarf" are great to see, including a cameo from the original Holly (Norman Lovett) and the cat-related storyline.
With this episode, "Red Dwarf" continues to provide a window into Naylor's hilariously warped mind and long may it continue. Where else could we ever see a monster made from the DNA of a vindaloo, a bio-printer feed jam that results in a multi-limbed "Thing"-like Rimmer monstrosity, psi-moons, brain-slurping psirens and Duane Dibley?
"A favorite episode? I hate answering that question," Naylor laughs. "I know one of the fan favorites is 'Gunmen of the Apocalypse' and 'Back to Reality.' 'Tikka to Ride' is another good one."
Looking back at Red Dwarf
The episode "Polymorph" (S03, E03) is another firm fan favorite and one that Naylor clearly enjoyed producing. "We were editing the shrinking underpants scene. I was laughing so much in the edit. I was told to go out and get some pizzas to get rid of me. And I basically left the edit, walked to the pizza place, got the pizzas, laughed all the way there and laughed all the way back. That just killed me, that particular sequence."
Our top 10 favourite "Red Dwarf" episodes:
10. Queeg (S02, E05)
9. Officer Rimmer (S11, E04)
8. Psirens (S06, E01)
7. Gunmen of the Apocalypse (S06, E03)
6. Holoship (S05, E01)
5. White Hole (S04, E04)
4. Legion (S06, E02)
3. Rimmerworld (S06, E05)
2. Dimension Jump (S04, E05)
1. Back to Reality (S05, E06)