Craig Charles sat in a chair on the set of Red Dwarf season 5. “What are you doing next?” he asked Andrea Finch, who was doing his makeup.
“Oh, I’m going over to America with Robert [Llewellyn].”
“What for?” Charles asked.
“To do the Red Dwarf American show.”
It was true. Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were flying to Hollywood to sit on a team of writers working on the American remake of their cult hit show, and they were bringing with them Robert Llewellyn, who played Kryten in the original show and was now cast in the same role in the new version, and Andrea Finch to do his complicated robot makeup. But no one had told the rest of the British cast.
Craig Charles, who plays the lead role Lister in the original, hoped that it would fail. He had nothing to worry about. After two separate pilots, with slightly different casting, the show never got off the ground.
Red Dwarf is a sci-fi sitcom about the two lowest members of a space crew, two soup vending machine repairmen, one of them dead. It’s meant to be everything Star Wars and Star Trek isn’t. Instead of following handsome Hans Solo or Capt. Kirk around the universe as they rescue damsels and blow up aliens, we follow the slobbiest man in the universe around his sleeping quarters as he eats vindaloo and watches The Flintstones. The first mistake the Americans made was casting the handsome Craig Bierko as Lister. No one would believe that he was meant to be the slobbiest man in the universe. Bierko was a fan of the show and was well aware that the original was brilliant and “boy, did America crap on it” (interview with Kevin Pollack).
The second mistake the Americans made was the script. The pilot episode was close to the original: Lister is put into statis for bringing a cat on board, he wakes up to find himself millions of years in the future after the crew had been wiped out by a radiation leak, the senile computer Holly brings his annoying bunkmate Rimmer back to “life” as a hologram, and they find that Lister’s cat had bred a whole race of cat people, one of whom is still on board. They added Kryten, who doesn’t appear until season 2 of the original series, and pulled a future echo moment from a later episode. But they didn’t change the dynamic between Lister and Rimmer, which is rooted in a clash of class, very specific to the British caste system. Because they didn’t adjust it to fit the American class system, the strange relationship doesn’t quite work. Grant and Naylor recognized this. They rewrote the script overnight, fixing the clunky British-to-American translations, and presented it to the American writers in the morning. The writers refused it. Grant and Naylor went rogue and slipped the scripts under the actors’ hotel room doors. Recognizing Grant and Naylor’s script as superior, the actors rebelled against the American script, and the American writers conceded.
Filming began. Chris Eigeman played a weak, two-dimensional Rimmer that makes you better appreciate the skill in Chris Barrie’s portrayal of such a complicated character. Cat was played by Tony Award-winning singer/dancer Hinton Battle (who might be familiar to any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans out there), to match the dancing skills of his British counterpart, Danny John Jules. Although John Jules was awestruck that they cast someone so renowned to play his character in America, Robert Llewellyn once caught Mr. Battle moping because he didn’t feel he was doing as good a job as Danny John Jules. And despite being an American show, they cast a British Holly, and a female one at that (Holly doesn’t become female until season 3 in the original show). As with many productions, the script was tweaked along the way. There was so much pulling and pushing of this script that by the time it was shot, it was almost the same as the original script the actors has forced them to chuck out.
Ah well. The footage went into edit and everyone went home to wait to hear back.
When they finally did hear back, it wasn’t that NBC loved it and wanted to pick it up for a six season contract. It wasn’t that they hated it and they were going to scrap the whole idea. No. They were going to film another one. Another pilot. This time, it would work. This time, they would do it right. That meant re-casting everyone but Craig Bierko with the actors who played in the original. Unfortunately for the Americans, Chris Barrie was scared away by the six-year binding contract, and Danny John Jules was unavailable. Unable to find anyone as talented as Danny John Jules to play the Cat, they re-imagined the character as a female warrior, casting Terry Ferrell to play the part. There were now no black people in Red Dwarf. They shot teasers from episodes like “Marooned” and “Backwards,” showcasing the hilarious Wilma Flintstone scene between Lister and Cat (now Rimmer and Lister) and revealing the hilarious story of how Lister lost his virginity on a golf course at age twelve. Brilliant moments. They couldn’t possibly screw them up….right? And yet, all we have more than 20 years later are those two pilots, meant for NBC’s eyes only, leaked into fan conventions and eventually YouTube.
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Links and References: First Pilot Second Pilot USA Documentary