We open with a shot of somebody, perhaps Lister, cleaning the outside of Red Dwarf. As the camera pans away we see the full scale of the ship, and it’s enormous. This is a utilitarian view of the future, with satellite dishes and all kinds of bits and pieces hanging off the ship. It’s not sleek or pretty, but it’s certainly impressive. This one shot, for my money, establishes a level of scale and realism that is missing from spaceship models or CGI shots in most sci-fi series. Considering this is going to be a sitcom in space, that’s impressive.
An enormous amount of information is packed into this first episode, which is a masterclass in world building. Although the main focus of the episode is of course the relationship between Lister and Rimmer, other characters come to life with very little screen time. Mac McDonald is great as the captain, and even Mark Williams as Peterson and CP Grogan as Kochanski are memorable, despite basically having only one scene each. It’s to the credit of everyone involved in this that characters who will be killed off after the first 20 minutes still manage to make an impact. But most importantly, Lister and Rimmer are both great. Their characters are established incredibly efficiently. Lister is a fun-loving slob, who keeps his lighted cigarette in his ear. Rimmer is an insufferable bore, who fails at everything in life and tries to keep up a pretence of superiority. He’s a “smeg head”, an insult coined for Red Dwarf. We are also introduced to Holly, the ship’s computer, who is the funniest thing about this episode, and his “everybody’s dead, Dave” interaction with Lister has quite rightly been remembered as a classic comedy moment, and a catchphrase that occasionally pops up in other shows. The episode even finds time to introduce us to Cat, whose personality is also established efficiently within minutes. So by the end of the episode the premise for the series has been neatly set up: a human slob, a holographic nerd, a computer with a laconic wit, and an egotistical evolved cat. They are all instantly likeable and fun. In retrospect it’s not surprising that people wanted to keep watching these characters for over three decades and counting.
Watching it today, The End is a gloriously 80s view of the future. The rules in the exam are “no modems, no speaking slide rules”, and Lister’s smuggled cat is discovered when Lister sends a photo to be processed in the ship’s lab, but that’s all good fun, and this isn’t exactly a show that’s asking us to suspend disbelief anyway, so this episode has lost nothing in the intervening 33 years. The humour isn’t always laugh-out-loud, but it doesn’t have to be. A couple of good belly laughs in a half-hour sitcom is fine. My personal favourite was the sight of Rimmer being taken out of his exam on a stretcher, drenched in sweat and saying “I think I did quite well.”
So what did this episode have to teach us? Maybe that it’s better to be lucky than to be smart. Out of all the crew, the two survivors (well, sort of), are the two biggest losers on the ship. According to the bible, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth”. I have a sneaking suspicion that The End gets us closer to the truth, and that the stupid will probably inherit the Earth instead. At least life will be entertaining. Let’s all pack our modems and talking slide rules. The future’s waiting for us, and it’s going to be funny. RP
Thank you for your first Red Dwarf review on the Junkyard, RP, which makes me reflect on how I was impacted by Red Dwarf when I first saw it. For me, it thankfully started with both S1 and S2, and sometime after the cancellation of the classic Dr. Who (which on both conveniences was the same for me with Blake’s 7). S3, when Robert Llewellyn made his debut as Kryten, was where it earned my best regard for its full potential.
The utilitarian future vision, in regards to spaceships not being visually their best, may have won appreciation from SF fans starting with the Millennium Falcon, which Luke called a piece of junk, the Palomino in The Black Hole and the Nostromo in Alien. I can appreciate it more in retrospect thanks to clear-cut reviews like the Junkyard’s. But it makes me contemplate now whether I can find more realistic comfort on a pristine spaceship like the Enterprise or a utilitarian ship like Red Dwarf. So this SF sitcom is a success for mixing zealous comedy with the realism of science. It reminds me somewhat of M*A*S*H for how it dramatized humor as a survival tool for people who are stuck in an otherwise dismal existence.
Red Dwarf is not M*A*S*H. But Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten are all realistic people for the purpose of making audiences care for them and not just laugh at them. Their lives are not empty thanks to the adventures they have, the lessons they learn and the ensuing bond they share. It’s even nicer to enjoy a show like this in a time when we really need to appreciate all the things that remind us that surviving is not just about surviving, but about enjoying life in the best ways we all can even when the challenging circumstances can feel oppressive.
My cousins will appreciate your Red Dwarf reviews on the Junkyard because they are big fans of the show. Thanks again, RP.
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Glad you enjoyed it Mike and I hope your cousins enjoy reading it too. I’m planning on doing a sort of episode one series of articles on various series – so far Columbo and Red Dwarf. Variety is the spice of life! I’ll probably cover Blake’s 7 soon.
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When I saw the inevitably failed Americanized Red Dwarf pilot, I realized then and there how successful Red Dwarf was for being more British-based. Hollywood may not have learned enough from the failure of its Americanized Dr. Who in 1996 or its recreation of The Tomorrow People. Even though The X-Files was openly influenced by The Omega Factor, and Mulder and Scully by Sapphire & Steel, it was quite wisely its own series in America just as Hollywood-based SF sitcoms like Third Rock From The Sun.
I’m addressing this because it’s nice to alternate every day or two between a British SF show like Torchwood and an American SF show like Star Trek or Babylon 5. That may motivate more visits to the Junkyard in due course, when we extend our horizons even further.
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