To celebrate a new season of Red Dwarf, here is an excerpt of the new book Britcoms FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Our Favorite Sophisticated, Outrageous British Television Comedies in which author Dave Thompson points out that while the sci-fi sitcom is chalk full of non-human lifeforms, there aren’t actually any aliens.
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Lister: “Oh God, aliens . . . Your explanation for anything slightly peculiar is aliens, isn’t it? You lose your keys—it’s aliens. A picture falls off the wall—it’s aliens. That time we used up a whole bog roll [toilet tissue] in a day, you thought that was aliens as well!”
Rimmer: “Well, we didn’t use it all, Lister. Who did?”
Lister: “Rimmer, aliens used our bog roll?”
Rimmer: “Just ’cos they’re aliens, doesn’t mean they don’t have to visit the little boys’ room. Although they probably do something weird and alien-esque, like it comes out of the top of their heads or something.”
Lister: “Well, I wouldn’t like to be stuck behind one in a cinema!”
In fact, they never meet any actual aliens. But there are plenty of robots, androids, holograms, doppelgängers, simulants, GELF (genetically engineered life forms), future selves and a Curry Monster, most of whom seem rather hostile; and there’s a magnificent encounter with a Despair Squid, which lives up to its name with morbid abandon. Unlike Rimmer’s alter ego, Ace, who turns out to be quite a nice chap.
Holly undergoes a metamorphosis, changing his appearance from male to female (played by Hattie Hayridge), and his personality too; and in case anybody wonders where’s the sci-fi in all of this, there are few genre staples that do not get explored at one time or another, from the paradox of time travel to the future of mankind (rather grim, if you need to know).
What does enthrall is the sheer hopelessness of it all. For all the laughter and humorous situations, for all the Cat’s hijinks and Lister’s curry burps, Red Dwarf is actually a very thoughtful show. And what it thinks is dark. Darker than dark. Darker, even, than space.
Bleaker, even, than Rimmer’s knowledge of company law.
Rimmer: “We can remove him from duty as per Space Corps Directive 196156.”
Kryten: “196156? Any officer caught sniffing the saddle of the exercise bicycle in the women’s gym will be discharged without trial? Hmm. I’m sorry, sir, that doesn’t quite get to the nub of the matter for me.”
Again, it is human nature to look at the future as a glimmering, sparkling beast, bristling with possibility, hope and jet packs. Red Dwarf, however, paints one where life really isn’t much different from what we have today, except it is now all but extinct.
With the exception of space travel itself, and the admittedly rather handy hologram technology, the greatest cultural advances appear to be confined to fresh linguistic constructs and mass-marketable sporting events (“smeg,” and variations thereof, as an all-purpose expletive; “dollarpound” as a new form of currency; and Zero-Gee Football); while the relics of past human exploration that the crew find tend to be shattered, and more like disused present-day railroad cars than the latest in twenty-third-century luxury.
In many ways, there was no reason for Rimmer and Lister to have ever encountered the Despair Squid. Their lives were certainly drab enough before they joined the mining corps, and they only became drabber still. Could things really have seemed any worse?
Yes. There could have been an attempt at making an American version of the show. Which there was. Twice. The first pilot featured Craig Bierko as Lister, Chris Eigeman as Rimmer, Hinton Battle as Cat and Robert Llewellyn reappearing as Kryten; the second was partially recast, but fared no better than its predecessor.
Bootleg copies circulate. It is smegging unwatchable.
This has been an excerpt from Britcoms FAQ (c) 2016 by Dave Thompson. Published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Dave Thompson, ex-pat British writer, is the author of over 100 books on rock and pop culture, including Doctor Who FAQ, Sherlock FAQ, as well as rock bios of David Bowie, Robert Plant, Kurt Cobain, and more. He lives in Newark, Delaware.