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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. SK
    March 24, 2015 @ 11:14 pm

    I don't think the problem people who like Red Dwarf (among whom I count myself, as long as we restrict it to series six, the first two episodes of series seven, and before: I haven't even bothered to watch any of the ones made this century) have with Star Trek is anything to do with class, I think it's that it's just too damn optimistic.

    It's all, 'oh, in the future things will be great and we'll have abolished war and poverty and oh yes all the spaceships will be clean and work perfectly, except when they break down in exciting ways'.

    Which of course is ridiculous and ripe for mockery.

    Whereas Red Dwarf is basically, 'people are shit and lazy and always be shit and lazy, everything will always be grimy, and nothing will ever work properly, except most of the malfunctions won't be exciting ones like accidentally creating sentient life, they'll be the buttons falling off the microwave'.

    It's kind of like the sci-fi equivalent of how American sit-coms are about attractive, witty people in enviable situations and have episodes where a problem threatens them which is resolved by the end; whereas British sit-coms are about people who are trapped (sometimes physically, sometimes emotional) in Hell and every episode is about how they have a plan to climb out of their pit and are humorously slapped down by the end, because that's how life is.

    Did you write about Blake's 7? That's the same kind of thing: in a universe ruled by a vast overbearing fascist Federation (ie, both the Blake's 7 and Star Trek universes), Star Trek says that the lone ship of hold-outs will be brilliant handome people with good teeth and perfectly adjusted personalities who are nice to everyone, and Blake's 7 says they will be barely-functional quasi-terrorists who can only just stand each other on a good day and half of whom would kill the other half and make off with the ship if they thought they could get away with it.

    And I think it's just a fundamental difference which one you think is the more realistic reflection of the human condition — nothing to do with class or imperialism or any of that whatnot.


  2. gatchamandave
    March 25, 2015 @ 12:28 am

    Indeed Red Dwarf at this point in the early 90s is about to make the same ghastly error that TNG is also about to make, setting out to appeal to the cult audience rather than mainstream viewers. The problem for " The Boys from the Dwarf" is that this cult audience is much too small and easily distracted to make this viable.

    There were no Red Dwarf conventions held in the UK, and when the actors turned up for more heterogeneous conventions some of them were openly disdainful of the people they encountered. This did change as time went on and audience figures and AIs dropped, but there were some bruises inflicted by both sides. Nor were there any fanzines for the show whilst the ill-conceived Smegazine crashed and burned. There were t-shirts aplenty, but this year's favourite becomes next year's embarrassment and the year after its being used to wash the car.

    Then there were the problems behind the scenes, notably a growing antagonism between Craig Charles and Chris Barrie, a situation that the mooted US version exacerbated with rumours of Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules having received the sort of offer to appear that Craig pointedly hadn't. Chris stayed tight lipped.


  3. gatchamandave
    March 25, 2015 @ 12:46 am

    At the end of season 5 came Back to Reality, and it made for the perfect final episode.

    Alas, they then went on to Season 6. And made the horrifyingly wrong headed decision to record scenes in front of a live audience. This had two knock on problems.

    Firstly this audience was made up predominantly of enthusiastic fans who received every continuity call back with relish. Look at the enthusiasm with which Duane Dibley's reappearance is greeted.

    But that very reappearance, with Danny sporting some false teeth and bushy eyebrows that he has hastily applied highlights the second problem – effects are being carried out live on-set. And that includes the explosive effects, which makes Chris Barrie very unhappy indeed.


  4. SK
    March 25, 2015 @ 12:58 am

    Alas, they then went on to Season 6. And made the horrifyingly wrong headed decision to record scenes in front of a live audience

    Um, as a matter of fact, all the series were filmed with a live audience except series seven (the decision not to do so for series seven being partly, I understand, based on the fact that the programme was becoming more effects-intensive and this was causing problems: early series don't rely so much on effects, but by the time they were doing more sci-fi concepts instead of relying on, you know, jokes, they were finding it increasingly hard to manage live).

    It's true that the audience becomes more made of up 'fans' as the series goes on, and this is a problem, but the simple presence of an audience has nothing to do with the drop in quality after series five (series five and six, after all, were both filmed with a studio audience so the difference between them can't be that) or the nosedive in quality that comes with Chris Barrie's departure.

    (Indeed, you could make the argument that it's the removal of the audience that causes some of the problems with series 7, as when writing for a live audience you have to include enough jokes to get them on side, but without one you can kid yourself that you're being funny while actually you're just relying more and more on special effects. Except that they then brought the audience back for series 8 and oh dear oh dear the least said abotu that the better.)


  5. gatchamandave
    March 25, 2015 @ 2:51 am

    So with a live audience of slightly boozy fans in front of them Craig and Robert broaden their performances notably, whilst live effects means that whatever take the effect works properly – or least poorly – in is the take that gets used, whether the actors are at their best or not.

    Then came the day that DWB writer Anthony Brown visited the set to interview the foursome in a roundtable interview. DWB was a pro-zine that had achieved notoriety in the late 80s as the spearhead of the movement to have John Nathan-
    Turner sacked as producer of Dr Who. Though it had toned down a bit over the years it was still a very opinionated production. In the run up to season 6 Brown had written an overview of Red Dwarf which made clear that he wasn't happy with the direction that the show had taken, and that Rimmer in particular was being badly written for, such that he now despised himself openly and was on the verge of being ruined.

    The interview is revealing. Brown gave them copies of his article beforehand and asked what they thought. Craig Charles is aggressive towards the sort of continuity obsessed "fanboys' who are into this sort of thing, but it has hit a nerve with Barrie. There is an underlying tension towards the US version, mocking it but they have all seen it, and it has rattled them. There is much talk about a movie that they all expect to be the next thing they do.


  6. gatchamandave
    March 25, 2015 @ 2:54 am

    …and thus a good thesis is blown apart by those annoying things called facts….

    I stand corrected. Ah well….


  7. SK
    March 25, 2015 @ 3:17 am

    Also I think you're too hard on series six: while it does represent a drop in quality, it has one classic episode, another couple that are pretty good, and the scene in Psirens where the duplicate is given away by Lister's guitar-playing which is brilliant ('How did you know that wasn't me?')

    Watched the US pilot at lunchtime (gym machines have internet now!). Goodness, it's a contest as to who has the worst comic timing, isn't it? Terry Farrell and the Lister are both pretty bad, but I think the prize has to go to the guy who decided to play Rimmer as a poor man's David Hyde Pierce.


  8. SK
    March 25, 2015 @ 3:18 am

    (Meant to say: at least there is nothing in series six that is anywhere close to the depths the programme would reach with series seven and, especially, eight (and reading the behind-the-scenes notes I am reminded there is an obvious possible explanation for that one).


  9. Jack Graham
    March 25, 2015 @ 3:24 am

    I think the comparison of Red Dwarf with TNG speaks to an interesting question to do with how SF envisages the future of capitalism.

    TNG, in my opinion, finds itself trapped in a peculiar paradox where it wants to depict a future sans capitalism but, being written by liberals rather than anarchists or Marxists, it's basic worldview is rooted in the neoliberal consensus, which assumes (to be very basic about this) that capitalism is a kind of economics to be found within democracies, rather than a mode of production which forms the basis of various kinds of societies, including Western liberal democracy. Communism, conversely, as this way of thinking goes, is a political system which suppresses the market, rather than a fundamentally different form of society in which a communist mode of production results in fundamentally different social, political and cultural forms. So, the writers imagine their post-capitalist utopia as a liberal democracy with the money edited out. The compulsion of economics is thus deducted from social relations which remain essentially bourgeois in their structure. Now, Josh has done a wonderful job of complicating this picture for me, and I accept his lovely notion that the Federation (at least in the best versions of the concept) is not meant to be a perfect, post-hierarchy, post-militarism utopia… that, indeed, that's decidely not being aimed for because part of what the Federation represents is a critique of various problems within Western democracy. The Enterprise is floating island community which embodies the best utopian aspirations of the Federation and which thus also acts as an implicit critique of the Federation when it fails. However, even when viewed this way, you can still make a good case for this being either regressive or progressive… with the best response probably being to accept the dialectical irresolvability of such a complex, contingent and contradictory mix.

    Red Dwarf, on the other hand, takes an approach far more in tune with British post-New Wave pop-SF (and here I'm happy to tie into some of the ideas mooted above about the difference between US and UK sitcoms), and which Doctor Who usually takes, which is to depict capitalism as, essentially, eternal… or, at the very least, projecting capitalism into the future. This can carry a critical charge (which we often see in Who, and occasionally in Dwarf) because it can allow capitalist structures to be explicitly critiqued within the allegorical/metaphorical/satirical 'space' that we call 'The Future'. However, in its own way, this approach is just as regressive as Trek's depiction of bourgois social arrangements as persisting after capitalism (presumably because they are part of 'human nature'). The eternal capitalism model has obvious problems, in that it ties in explicitly with the assumption that capitalism is eternally sustainable.

    I don't think there's a right or wrong approach here, nor am I sure the paradox is even escapable, even in principle.


  10. K. Jones
    March 25, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    So in another universe, Terry Farrell played a cat-lady. Which instantly makes the Star Trek in me think; "oh man, what if Jadzia was a Caitian, right?"

    It's interesting to think of pop culture art movements. All art movements are reactionary, of course. If Red Dwarf was a reaction to TNG, and then the American Red Dwarf pilot was a reaction to that, and then so on and so on. This even translates into the Star Trek universe proper, because I think it's a pretty strong element going into DS9 when we do that it's a show populated with, well, a cast of characters who come from a reflective class-standing that's a few rungs lower on the "these cats seem pretty privileged" ladder than TNG.

    This is a perspective thing, reflective of viewers of course. Look, I can see that Picard seems to be depicted as somewhat academic and aloof and I can see how when we finally meet his family this sort of almost aristocracy-lite thing might enter into it. But at the same time … I live in wine country. My family is stubbornly, painfully old fashioned. We've got a nice old house and a sizable spit of farmland and forest. My sister went on to be a professional academic (I'm more of an armchair one, and when we discuss heady topics, none of my family is ever baffled by the subject matter). And yet we are decidedly not anything more than working-class.

    On a 1:1 level Picard's family and hometown shouldn't give a vibe of stuffiness. And yet it does, and I think it's got to do more with how they're presented than how they actually behave. Because Robert's wife almost touches on (god we're not even to the episode yet, I'll stop soon) on the dignity that can sometimes come with being old school poor.

    Anyway, back to the reactionary bit – DS9 is pretty lite on aristocrats and noblemen, right? They even steal the best working-class TNG character. Jadzia's "exceptional" but it's because of merit, sort of a metaphor for a good education system. Ben grew up shelling clams in New Orleans. Kira grew up in a cave. Bashir, who could easily seem like the most "TNG" of the bunch … is a poseur. The entire show is predicated on it and it runs throughout the narrative undertow – even when they adopt the aristocratic Worf, it becomes an actual part of the narrative when he befriends Martok, another (exquisite) lowborn.

    Anyway, "working men in space" is something we talked about back during TOS a bit. It's not like TNG couldn't have presented a few characters in that light. For every daughter of the house of, or son of the house of, or "my parents are flag officers" we get. Presented in a different light, Picard, Riker, and Beverly (who we barely get any backstory for that doesn't start and end with Jack Crusher) could be total highlights in this regard. (I mean, at this point in our show history, nearly every character doesn't have a developed background yet.)

    Tasha Yar original sin indeed.


  11. tom harries
    March 25, 2015 @ 6:59 am

    It's funny, because when Red Dwarf first started, British fans of SF on TV didn't see it as a spoof of Star Trek, they saw it as a spoof of SF on TV on general – and really hated it, largely because they assumed "Well, that's it for serious SF on British TV, if they're just going to take the mickey out of everything". By which, they usually meant Doctor Who.

    Incidentally, Red Dwarf started in 1988, about two years before Star Trek started airing on the BBC, although you could get some episodes on VHS over here. So any comparisons are likely to be unintentional or merely assumed by fans.


  12. SK
    March 25, 2015 @ 7:20 am

    they saw it as a spoof of SF on TV on general

    Which is odd because at least in the early years it's not a spoof of sci-fi, any more than Porridge is a spoof of prison movies. It's a Steptoe and Son-style sitcom that just happens to be set on a spaceship.

    For a long time they deliberately avoided using the sci-fi as the basis for the jokes: the jokes are all about how Lister's a slob, Rimmer's uptight, the Cat is vain, and Holly is stupid. It's only in later series that they start actually making jokes about the conventions of sci-fi.


  13. gatchamandave
    March 25, 2015 @ 7:33 am

    I agree with you, SK, that season 6 is better than what came after, and streets ahead of the shameless rip off that is Hyperdrive – how you cast Nick Frost, Kevin Eldon and Miranda Hart and still manage to produce not a single laugh across twelve episodes baffles me.

    However, I do think it's a step down from the first five seasons, which are sublime.

    I also meant to mention the late 90s BBC2 Red Dwarf theme night. Anyone else remember that ? The debut of the "Special Editions" with their cgi footage in place of the models, the totally ill conceived quiz show where the cast members were one team, the other being the very archetype of obsessed fans, all being quizzed on their knowledge of the show. It was like watching a community build the ghetto around itself.

    Tom makes a good point – there's a lot in the first five seasons that isn't aimed at Trek at all, such as Rimmer' s Captain Scarlet uniform or Kryten' s Robocop style ( I watched the first three Robocop movies the other week and it was difficult to watch Peter Weller without a silly smirk…particularly when he has the breakdown and starts spouting daft regulations ). Moreover, interesting to speculate how much influence goes the other way, with TNG doing a tale where the crew all wake up with injuries they have no idea the origin of, and a missing day, IIRC. Anyone think of others ?


  14. gatchamandave
    March 25, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    One titbit – the parts were intended for Alfred Molina and Alan Rickman when Grant and Naylor first pitched the series.


  15. tom harries
    March 25, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    yeah, it was more the way the show was received rather than what it was – I like the Steptoe and Son comparison. British SF TV fandom in the mid-80s wasn't in a good place, really.


  16. tom harries
    March 25, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    That would have been brilliant … for about one season. And then I think it would have died. I can't see those two (amazing) actors carrying sitcom characters for more than one year.


  17. Adam Riggio
    March 25, 2015 @ 11:16 am

    Red Dwarf is another one of those odd sci-fi shows that, by mere contingency, holds a special place in my heart and my childhood memories. In the same stream of luck that exposed me to Doctor Who and Blake's 7 in my earliest years, when the Canadian youth-oriented cable channel YTV first began broadcasting, it filled its schedule with eccentric British sci-fi shows. One of those was Red Dwarf.

    Lister, Rimmer, and the Cat (they only had the first two seasons to begin with) gave me some of my biggest belly laughs of my just-out-of-toddler years. As I revisited the show later in life, I found a mixed experience. I wasn't a fan of the quip-heavy S6, found the dynamic of the show utterly wrecked once Chris Barrie left in S7, found the rejigged dynamic of S8 interesting, but it never found its comedy feet before it was upended once again.

    Those early years of Red Dwarf were my introduction to many ideas that still animate my creative work and thinking today. You could have an ordinary sitcom situation in fantastic settings: mismatched roommates stuck together on a ship in deep space. You could wrangle hilarity out of existentially bleak premises: the last human alive in a mismatched roommate sitcom in deep space. You could infuse it with sci-fi parody and surreality: I'll always remember Chris Barrie's beautifully deadpan delivery of "Why is it raining fish in my sleeping quarters?" I was falling in love with working class British humour before I even knew what social classes were.

    However much I think Red Dwarf really should have stopped by now, for all the reasons you describe, I couldn't be happier that it existed. And at least it's a pleasant cash cow for the cast and creators, if nothing else.


  18. Jack Graham
    March 25, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    I had an odd route with Red Dwarf. A friend of mine at school put me onto it, but I only caught the last few episodes of Season 2. I liked it, but forgot about it. Then I read the first two Red Dwarf novels, and fell in love with the versions of the characters in my head that I found in those books. Then I caught up with the TV, which was well off by then. I never really liked any of the TV show from Season 3 onwards. But then I went back and found the first two seasons, which were quite close to my book-based head-version. And which I loved. For me, the 'real' Red Dwarf will always be the version in my head, a combination of the books, my own imagination, and a vague memory of the last few episodes of Season 2. It has no laughter track, and is a strangely melancholy thing.


  19. Adam Riggio
    March 25, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

    And fish rain from the ceiling of your bedroom when you have a fever. 🙂


  20. SK
    March 25, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

    Hyperdrive – how you cast Nick Frost, Kevin Eldon and Miranda Hart and still manage to produce not a single laugh across twelve episodes baffles me.

    Liar. There is a laugh.

    Nick Frost: That… thing is eating my crew!

    Kevin Eldon: Only the slow ones.

    That's a brilliant gag.

    Admittedly it is the only one in the whole two series.

    (Though to be honest I've never seen the point of the painfully-unfunny-to-the-point-of being-comparable-to-Mrs Brown's Boys-Miranda Hart. I do remember for a while thinking that she had been cast as the sexy Petty Officer in Deep Trouble and thinking, 'Wow, you can get away with a lot on radio' before re-reading the cast list and realising it was Miranda Raison, which made a lot more sense.)

    However, I do think it's a step down from the first five seasons, which are sublime

    Certainly it only has one indisputable classic episode, while each of series two to five has at least two. But according to the Red Dwarf website I referred to to confirm my memory about which series had studio audiences, it was recorded in a hurry as the BBC ordered it about six months ahead for a spring airing, leaving them only about six months to write the episodes and do the recording, which might explain why it's not as polished as the previous series (the BBC in its infinite wisdom, as recently of course displayed, then held back the episodes until the autumn anyway).

    After that, well, Grant and naylor went their separate ways…

    the late 90s BBC2 Red Dwarf theme night. Anyone else remember that ?

    Nope, it aired while I was an undergraduate. I watched series 8 on a portable TV in a Fitzwilliam College kitchen (not my college, I hasten to add, mine was founded in the thirteenth century, not the twentieth) and it was so bad I have watched no Red Dwarf since.


  21. SK
    March 25, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    not my college, I hasten to add, mine was founded in the thirteenth century, not the twentieth

    Correction, fourteenth century (apologies to any Peterhousians reading).


  22. Daru
    March 25, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

    Yeah, I always saw it as a sitcom in space, often with the spacey bits being secondary and the interactions between the characters being more prominent.


  23. Ross
    March 26, 2015 @ 12:20 am

    But I think at a very basic level, the central joke of Red Dwarf was never "a blue collar sitcom like Steptoe and Son, that just happens to be in space." The joke was always "It's SPACE, but rather than being all bright and shiny and elitist a la Star Trek, it's working class a la Steptoe" (Which is basically the same joke as the short-lived '70s sci fi spoof 'Quark', only markedly funnier).

    For some reason or other I keep on thinking of the proposed-but-unproduced early 80s Doctor Who story 'Song of the Space Whale', which ultimately fell through because the writer and the producer had an absolute fundamental disagreement on whether or not it was permissable ot have working class people in space.


  24. SK
    March 26, 2015 @ 4:20 am

    The central point of Steptoe and Son isn't that they are working class, though, it's that they hate each other but are trapped together with nothing to do but make each other miserable and sabotage each other's attempts to improve themselves or their lot.

    And that's what was, for the early years anyway: a sit-com about the last two human beings in existence, and they can't stand each other.

    Apparently there's a new American sit-com trying to do the same thing, but with a man and a woman instead of two men, which will make an interesting dynamic if they can pull it off (though I doubt Americans have the necessary pessimism to pull it off properly: they'll probably want to give the characters good points, or provide heartwarming moments where it turns out that maybe they really do care for each other, which will fatally undermine the necessary cynicism of the whole thing).

    But it's not the working-class-ness that is the point, it's the 'what if you were trapped forever with no one to talk to but the person in the whole universe most designed to get on your nerves?'.


  25. Daru
    March 29, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

    "And that's what was, for the early years anyway: a sit-com about the last two human beings in existence, and they can't stand each other. "

    Yeah that's the central thing I always loved about Red Dwarf. I never myself saw it as a reaction to Star Trek (and I don't believe the authors intended that), but yes Josh I do believe that some people within fandom who enjoy creating divisions have wanted to frame it as you describe.

    The beauty of the show is that is was very simple in an 'Odd Couple' sort of way, and was always in my mind a character piece. The best moments for me seem never to be about the Sci-fi elements but are in Lister and Rimmer's interactions. When watching it as it came out and in later years, I enjoyed it on its own merits, which were many in the earlier series.


  26. Daru
    March 29, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

    Just watched the 2nd US pilot – And yeah and really do love Terry Farrell as the cat and certainly agree that it would have been so good if she had been given more latitude to be more wild and fierce as Dax in DS9. Jane Leeves brilliant as Holly too.


  27. IG
    April 1, 2015 @ 4:21 am

    A nit-pick, I know, but "Charles is Afro-British" bugs me. I have never heard or seen that expression, which seems like an adaptation of 'Afro-American'. I'm pretty sure Craig Charles would never use it to describe himself – being of a similar age and background to my wife he'd probably say 'black British' or (outdated though it is) mixed-race.


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