This is going to be another of those essays that crop up every now and again where I am 1000% confident my readers know far, far more about the subject matter than I do.
I never watched Red Dwarf. In fact, I’d never even *heard* of it until I started hanging around niche sci-fi analysis blogs four years ago. Apparently, this is something that’s been a huge part of a lot of people’s lives for many years now though, and given there are ten (going on eleven as of this writing) seasons of this show plus a fair amount of tie-in material, there’s no way I could be expected to put together a comprehensive retrospective of this thing, so, sorry in advance. What I’ll try to do instead is briefly take stock of some observations I’ve made about Red Dwarf‘s fandom and how they feel the show fits into the larger narrative of voyaging starship stories.
The curious thing I’ve noticed about Red Dwarf fans, at least the ones I’ve read and from what I’ve been able to discern through my admittedly limited interactions with the fandom, is that they seem to spend more time talking about Star Trek than they do talking about their own show. I have seen Red Dwarf labeled more than a few times as an explicit parody of Star Trek, or as “Britain’s answer to Star Trek: The Next Generation”. The general argument seems to be that while the USian Star Trek: The Next Generation concerned itself with the pretentious, po-faced navel-gazing of a bunch of upperclass neo-colonialists, the British Red Dwarf follows the adventures of two chicken soup machine repairmen (one of whom is actually dead), a malfunctioning AI and the descendant of of race of hyper-evolved cat people stuck together on a ramshackle mining ship three million years from anywhere who are not particularly concerned with terribly much, and certainly not Seeking Out New Life and New Civilizations.
To me, this argument is merely an extension of a pre-existing cultural tension that separates the United States from the British Isles: The unflattering comparison to Star Trek: The Next Generation is typically accompanied by a(n at least implied) statement about the difference in values between the US and the UK, with a tacit premise that UK values are superior due to their self-effacing modesty and lack of jingoistic expansionist fever dreams. It is also, in my opinion, what we would refer to in modern parlance as a “humblebrag” and further evidence of the inane, self-conscious, warlike factionalism of science fiction fans that is but one reason among many that I hate science fiction fans. As much as I’d rather not, I’m going to take some of these accusations seriously, as there is at least one level at which they have something resembling merit.
Star Trek does, in fact, have something of a class problem and it’s one the future creative teams on Star Trek: The Next Generation do actually and explicitly make worse. This first becomes most evident, in fact, in the second episode of the fourth season, “Family”, which, as we discussed last time, generally fails at its attempts to make Captain Picard relatable by making him even *more* privileged and aloof-seeming. Irritatingly, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: It is, after all, the series’ Original Sin that it curses itself with after its spectacularly toxic inability to make Tasha Yar work. But it’s always dangerously easy in hindsight to assume everything is teleological; inexorably leading towards the present day and the connotations the artistic works of our past retain in our memories, and that’s what we should be careful to remember here.
There was nothing conceptually wrong with Star Trek: The Next Generation from the outset that would have rendered it unable to be more egalitarian in this regard: There’s no reason a Vasquez-type character couldn’t have worked on the show, or that Captain Picard *had* to be an academic from wine country. Those were all conscious decisions made during the course of the show’s material production that left it lesser off as a result. Indeed, just last time we saw a fascinating alternate history take on the same concept that seemed at once tantalizingly fresh and retroactively obviously fitting. There’s no reason the fundamental idea, the original spark, was doomed from the start. So when people slag off Star Trek: The Next Generation for being too clinical, too imperialistic and too privileged, it does set my teeth on edge a bit, because not only is it judging the entire show by its worst moments, but it’s dismissing the entire concept because certain creative figures at certain points in its history may not have been able to fully realise its potential for any number of reasons.
You know, it almost sounds like the same sorts of people who would dismiss, say Red Dwarf or Doctor Who for their camp and bad special effects.
Red Dwarf is also interesting as a near-textbook example of the sorts of things that happen to long-running franchises, in particular science fiction franchises, with a strong connection to cult fandom cultures (well, the ones that aren’t called Dirty Pair anyway). At its heart, this is pretty much nothing more than a bog standard British comedy that just happens to take place in a science fiction setting. As it goes on, however, the show starts to play more and more with traditional sci-fi narrative tropes and archetypes and becomes increasingly concerned with issues of continuity, with frequent fanwanky call-backs, retcons and retroactive grafting of heavy significance onto what were once mere throwaway gags (albeit ones that were good enough to be memorable). From what little I’ve seen, I tend to think Red Dwarf works best as a straightforward comedy and when it tries to go beyond that to do “proper” science fiction, even just to take the piss out of it, it’s punching above its weight class a bit. But either way, you’d never see this stuff happening to any *other* sitcom: Just *try* to picture Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, Red Dwarf X or anything having to do with Kristine Kochanski happening on, say Keeping Up Appearances.
Another way Red Dwarf plays into this archetype though is through the concept of the reboot or reimagining, an altogether more positive and complimentary outgrowth of its science fiction heritage that reminds us that, no matter how incestuously fannish this type of show can become, it can also serve handily as modern myth. There are a number of soft “in universe” reboots in the show itself, but the one everyone wants to talk about is, of course, the failed US remake from 1992. There were actually two pilots commissioned (wow, deja vu): One that was a more-or-less straightforward retelling of the first episode (the cheekily named “The End”), and another that featured direct involvement from the show’s original creators.
I only care about the second, because it’s a brilliantly mad little thing: Cobbled together at the last second after half the cast had been replaced on a budget of apparently negative dollars, it’s basically an outsized trailer comprised of footage from the first pilot, effects shots from the original show and vignettes recorded with the new cast with enthusiastic and ambitious assurances that they come from “future episodes”. This Frankensteinian aberration is stitched together by linking narration by Craig Beirko, replacing Craig Charles as Lister. Beirko actually does a good job with what he has and is pretty likable straight away, though the character he’s playing isn’t really Dave Lister as originally conceived (for one thing it’s a bit unfortunate that Beirko is white and Charles is Afro-British, though the original show’s handle of race and gender did strike me as a bit…odd).
Holly is played by Fraiser‘s Jane Leeves instead of either Normal Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, and I have to say I adore Leeves in the part: She strikes a perfect balance between dry, sardonic snarker and scatterbrained, ditzy cloudcuckoolander and seems like a ideally distilled version of the character: She’s fully aware she’s spent three million years slowly growing senile, but she ran out of fucks to give somewhere around the first two million. So sure, the second pilot has issues (for one thing it’s pretty obvious Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s style of comedy writing doesn’t translate too well to a United States context and cast, but that’s not necessarily the cast’s fault) and then there’s the minor issue the pilot is only ten minutes, which does somewhat drastically cut down the amount of time you have to set up and sell your premise. And yet it’s also easy to see that, with more appropriate writing and a more competent production, this was a setup that did have some potential for success.
But of course the main attraction for me, and the entire reason I’m doing Red Dwarf at all, is Terry Farrell as Cat. Once again, Farrell is not at all playing Danny John-Jules’ character: The original Cat was a very self-absorbed and vain person programatically fixated on his appearance and fashion sense. Terry Farrell’s take, by contrast, draws influence from other stereotypes of cats, being a keen and relentless (and borderline sadistic) hunter instinctively built for the kill. On the other hand, she’s a fierce and loyal protector of her turf and her family and is always the first to take charge and leap into action. She also really, really gets around, openly and casually chatting about her sexual interests and exploits (she can’t understand how human women are satisfied with just one partner a night). Farrell is an absolute knockout in the part (in more ways than one: Her *fantastic* 1980s glamour model hairstyle, Cats eyeliner and street punk tiger skin bodysuit do her quite a number of favours) and decisively steals the whole show (which is admittedly not too hard when your show is ten minutes long and comprised of disconnected skits). I daresay this might even be her definitive, or at least defining, role: Star Trek would have seemed a *lot* less tame had she been allowed to show her feline side as Jadzia Dax more often.
On the whole, Red Dwarf‘s saga reminds me of how an argument could be made that science fiction and professional wrestling both are viewed as soap operas for men (except in Japan, of course). Just like soap operas, they cultivate and reward long-term viewers with continuity fanservice that, after a time, becomes the only reason anyone bothers to watch these things. And yet perhaps counterintuitively, this is also the very thing that prevents so much science fiction from actually being successful and accessible: Whenever it frees itself from these constraints, it gives itself breathing room to cut loose, play and be imaginative. And as for the gender component…Well, that would explain a lot about science fiction.
If you’re a Red Dwarf fan and haven’t seen the second US pilot, or even if you’re not, you can watch it here. I definitely recommend it from an academic perspective, and it’s worth watching for Terry Farrell alone if for nothing else.