The last remaining human has long been a source of speculation among science fiction writers, with countless authors and filmmakers exploring mankind after an apocalyptic devastation. A twist is often revealed in the story where the protagonist finds that they are not alone, with the hero of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend discovering another survivor in an otherwise decimated society while Fredric Brown’s classic short story Knock had begun with the infamous line, ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’
But what if that last remaining human was lost adrift in deep space, desperate to return home to Earth in the hope that mankind had somehow survived? And what if his companions on the voyage were a hologram of his former bunkmate and a man-like creature that had evolved from his pet cat? This was the basic premise for Red Dwarf, the cult science fiction sitcom that made its debut in the late 1980s and soon became a major success, scoring high ratings and critical acclaim over the following decade before abruptly coming to an end, leaving fans with unanswered questions that were later ignored with its subsequent revival. In typical Red Dwarf fashion it all started at the end.
The genesis for Red Dwarf came a few years earlier with Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, which told of the last surviving crew-member of spaceship Melissa V, lost seven trillion light-years away from Earth. With his companions having been killed by an alien Dave travels deep space with only his computer HAB to keep him from going crazy. Created for the BBC Radio sketch show Son of Cliché, much of the humour and themes of Red Dwarf could be traced back to Dave Hollins, which ran for a short time in the autumn of 1984. ‘Rob and I were working at Spitting Image and we wanted to do a sitcom. We’d written some radio sitcoms and we wanted to do something that would stand out and be unique,’ recalled co-creator Doug Naylor in 2012. ‘It was well received but not nearly the most successful item on the show, but we thought there might be some life in that as a format and years earlier of course, we’d seen Dark Star.’
Released a decade earlier to minor acclaim Dark Star marked the directorial debut of cult filmmakers John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon and was conceived as a spoof of the recent sci-fi hit 2001: A Space Odyssey. Developed while in film school, initially as a forty-minute short, the project would take several years to produce with the support of the University of Southern California and distributor Jack H. Harris and was centred around the premise of a group of hippie astronauts travelling through deep space, struggling with the endless boredom of exploration and the insanity of a philosophical bomb intent on detonating. It would provide the perfect inspiration for what would become Red Dwarf.
Long-time friends Naylor and Rob Grant, who had developed the recurring sketch of Dave Hollins, had already written a pilot episode for what would become Red Dwarf, yet with their Son of Cliché sketch they were given their first opportunity to test the sci-fi humour in front of an audience, albeit in radio form. Having met as children in Manchester, Grant and Naylor had embarked on a writing career in the early 1980s as a double-act, starting out on the BBC Radio 2 sketch show The News Huddlines before progressing to television with the show A Kick up the 80′s, where they first made the acquaintance of producer Paul Jackson. From there they worked on Carrott’s Lib for stand-up comic Jasper Carrott, Three of a Kind and the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, but it had always been their intention to create a sitcom of their own.
Retreating to a cottage owned by Naylor’s father in the Welsh mountains the duo spent several days fleshing out their ideas into a screenplay for the pilot episode, establishing the basic premise and principal characters in this initial draft. At the end of each writing day Grant and Naylor would relax in a local pub to discuss their progress, with many of their notes being gathered on the back of beer mats. By the end of the short getaway they returned home with a rough script for Red Dwarf that would serve as the starting point for one of the most successful sitcoms in British history. But while this first draft was completed in 1983 it would take five years for their show to make it to the screen, during which time it would undergo numerous revisions, while also facing a lot of resistance from executives at the studio.
Red Dwarf was based around the eponymous mining ship of the Jupiter Mining Corporation, operated under the command of Captain Hollister. Second Technician Arnold J. Rimmer dreams of achieving nobility and one day commanding his own spaceship, yet his spitefulness and inadequacies often hold him back. His subordinate is Third Technician David Lister, a lazy and irresponsible freeloader whose sole ambition is to save enough of his salary to buy a farm in Fiji which, due to the melting of the Polar icecaps, is now mostly under sea level. Taking the name Dave from the protagonist of their Son of Cliché sketch, Red Dwarf is told through the eyes of Lister who ranks among the lowest on the ship and often centres around his conflicts with the anally retentive and bitter Rimmer, who blames his bunkmate for his own shortcomings.
The object of Lister’s unrequited affection is Chief Navigation Officer Kristine Kochanski but due to their different social status on the ship their paths rarely cross. Lister hopes that she will join him on Fiji, where he plans to spend his retirement raising sheep and horses. On a recent stopover at Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, Lister brought onboard a cat and has kept it hidden in his quarters but after the Captain discovers that he has been hiding an un-quarantined animal he is sentenced to eighteen-months in stasis, a form of hibernation sleep in which time is unable to penetrate. While his stay in the stasis booth feels like mere seconds he is awoken by the ship’s computer Holly, only to discover that the entire crew have been killed by a radiation leak and he has been asleep for the last three million years.
But as Lister tries to cope with the fact that he is most likely the last human being alive in the universe and his only companion now is a computer that has grown senile he is informed that Rimmer has been resurrected as a hologram. Plagued by guilt for having killed the crew due to not sealing a drive plate and thus allowing the ship to be flooded with radiation, Rimmer struggles to adapt to his new existence, being unable to touch anything due to having no physical presence and being a mere projection of light.
Red Dwarf had been a difficult premise to sell, taking Grant and Naylor three years to find someone willing to take a chance on the project. Their main obstacle had been an unwritten rule on television that science fiction and comedy do not work together and that, with perhaps the exception of Doctor Who, sci-fi had no place on British television. Yet they had clearly overlooked the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which the BBC had produced in 1981 from a series of novels by Douglas Adams and a popular radio series. Dave Hollins: Space Cadet had remained the template for Red Dwarf, yet both writers agreed that a show consisting of only a man and a computer would soon run out of ideas and so they decided to expand the cast, with Rimmer providing Lister with an adversary. Although the first series featured little in the way of aliens it would be the conflicts between the two characters that would become the driving force for the show, in part due to the network’s insistence that the science fiction element was downplayed in favour of the comedy.
We wanted a show about the last human being alive in the Universe
‘It was quite a logical process, in retrospect. We wanted a show about the last human being alive in the Universe and, as a perverse twist, we decided not to have any aliens in it,’ explained Grant. ‘From that position, we were compelled to create characters around the central figure who were not living human or aliens.’ Grant and Naylor had hoped for professional actors to star in their show, with the roles of Lister and Rimmer initially offered to Alfred Molina and Alan Rickman, respectively. Having appeared briefly during the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark Molina had some professional experience but was still a struggling young actor and a potential candidate to portray Red Dwarf’s loveable slacker Dave.
Rickman, meanwhile, had built up his repertoire on the theatre stage before taking supporting roles in an episode of Smiley’s People (a sequel to the original television production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and the mini-series The Barchester Chronicles, but it would be his performance as the charismatic villain Hans Gruber in the Hollywood blockbuster Die Hard, released the same year as Red Dwarf‘s debut, that would finally land his big break. Due to its relatively low budget and lack of support from executives, Grant and Naylor, with the support of Jackson, who had taken the show under his wing, began to audition stand-up comics.
It was soon clear, however, that the writers had no clear image in mind on what their characters would be like, as often the same actors would audition for the two completely opposite roles. Chris Barrie, who had not only lent his talents as an impersonator to Spitting Image but had also provided the voice for the computer on Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, auditioned for both roles before landing the part of Rimmer, while Lee Cornes, who would make an appearance in one of the episodes as Paranoia, received a callback for the part before finally losing out. Norman Lovett, a veteran of the Comedy Store, also read for Rimmer, although he would eventually join the production as Holly, the ship’s cynical and sarcastic computer. Liverpool-born Craig Charles was known for his unique brand of comedic poetry and had appeared on Jackson’s variety show Saturday Live in 1985. Jackson had first approached him for advice on one of the show’s other characters Cat, as he feared there could be racial overtones to the role, but after reading the script Charles expressed interesting in portraying Lister.
Despite the attention the project was receiving from up-and-coming performers Grant and Naylor were becoming increasingly frustrated with the resistance that networks were showing towards the concept. ‘Paul took it to the BBC three times and it got rejected three times, they just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand where we were coming from and they didn’t think that anyone would be able to relate to people on a spaceship because most people haven’t been on a spaceship,’ said Naylor on the constant rejection the creators received. ‘The idea that someone could be evolved from a cat just finished them as far as identifiability was concerned. Film on Four wanted to make it into a movie, but we wanted to make it into a sitcom.’
The script for Red Dwarf had been rejected several times before Jackson was able to find a loophole at the BBC. In 1985 he had produced Happy Families, a sitcom for popular stand-up comic and writer Ben Elton, then known for his work on The Young Ones and Blackadder. The show had been a surprise success and executives were eager to produce a second series but Elton had little interest in writing further episodes. With a budget already allocated for the show Jackson was able to use this money to help fund Red Dwarf, which went into production at BBC Manchester in 1987. The hostility on-screen between Lister and Rimmer would be recreated behind the scenes, with Charles and Barrie taking an instant dislike to each other and often arguing while waiting for filming to commence. Ed Bye, who had started out as a production manager for Jackson on Three of a Kind and The Young Ones, had progressed to directing in the mid-1980s with Filthy Rich & Catflap and The 10 Percenters, which would feature writing contributions from both Grant and Naylor.
While Lister may have woken up from stasis to discover he is the last remaining human being he is not the only life-form on the ship. His pet cat had been kept safe during his sentence and, undisturbed over three million years, had evolved into a new humanoid creature that still flaunts many of the characteristics of its feline ancestors, such as vanity, laziness and selfishness. Lister dubs the creature Cat and decides that now he has a new companion in place of his original pet he can return home to Earth. Danny John-Jules, another veteran of the stage with a notable talent for dancing, made such an impression at his audition that he would be the only choice to play the role of Cat.
The pilot episode, though, would fail to impress the executives at the BBC, who seemed underwhelmed by both the comedic aspect and the science fiction elements. While Grant and Naylor had written a total of seven episodes for the series they were informed that only six would be produced and so a story entitled Bodysnatcher, in which Rimmer attempted to create a new body for himself by harbouring parts of Lister, was abandoned. ‘It was the second show we ever wrote. Show two is notoriously the most difficult in any series,’ Grant told the Red Dwarf site on the cancelled episode. ‘When you write a pilot you can’t know exactly where the series is going to go, all you can do is take an educated guess. You put enough plates in the air so that even when some of them come crashing down you’ve still got enough going to sustain the series. A pilot is all about promise. Show two is about delivering.’
Some further amendments were required when it was decided to relocate the fourth episode Future Echoes to second place in order to make amends for the relative disappointment of the pilot. Demonstrating Grant and Naylor’s vivid imagination, the story for Future Echoes would show the effects that the crew endure as the ship approaches light-speed, causing them to see fragments of the future. The creators of Red Dwarf have both stated that they felt this episode effectively saved the show as it raised the bar on both quality and character, while also dazzling viewers with a complex science fiction narrative, one even worthy of Star Trek. But while Future Echoes would remain a favourite among not only the creators but also Barrie, another episode Waiting for God proved to be a disappointment, with both Naylor and Charles listing it among the worst.
Exploring the history of the cat people and how Lister has been worshipped as their God, having given his life (to stasis) in order to save his pet, the episode also included a subplot in which Rimmer locates what he believes to be a small alien craft, later revealed as a garbage pod. For Charles, one of the more frustrating memories of the episode was working alongside Noel Coleman, a veteran of Doctor Who and The Avengers who, by the time of his appearance in Red Dwarf, was in his late sixties and often forgot his lines. Originally intended as the final episode of the series, which would have teased viewers with a cliffhanger, Confidence and Paranoia was instead moved up to the fifth episode. Having contracted an alien form of flu Lister is able to project his hallucinations into flesh, creating two new characters, an arrogant and charismatic charmer called Confidence and Paranoia, a cynical pessimist.
With the discarding of Bodysnatcher Grant and Naylor were able to write a new final episode to close the series. This would result in Me², in which Rimmer shares a bunk with another hologram version of himself, leading to constant arguments and fights as he slowly drives himself towards insanity. Jackson expressed concern over the practicality of the script, however, due to two Rimmers sharing the screen at the same time but Bye was able to overcome these issues with the use of split-screen. The one benefit from writing the episode midway through production was that by this point both Grant and Naylor had seen first-hand how the actors had fleshed out their characters and were able to see what jokes worked and where the show had failed and so with Me² they were able to approach Red Dwarf with a fresh perspective.
It was like our wildest dream come true
While the show had been a long and painful journey from its initial conception to finally being accepted by the BBC when the writers saw the result of their hard work it all finally seemed worthwhile. ‘It was like our wildest dream come true. It had taken so long from writing the pilot to having the show commissioned and then having the disappointment of going through the rehearsals while an electricians’ strike at the Beeb prevented us from recording any of it, we’d begun to believe it might never happen,’ admitted Grant. ‘I remember getting in the lift at the BBC building in Manchester and some extras got in, in Red Dwarf crew uniforms, which, amazingly, we hadn’t seen up until that point. And I felt I was in fairyland. I remember thinking as the lift went up, ‘I invented you.’ Even though the original sets were, frankly, drab, it was still a powerful feeling to walk into the studio and see them all laid out: like having your own space ship to play with.’
Commencing with the pilot episode, confusingly titled The End, the first series of Red Dwarf ran weekly from 15 February to 21 March 1988 and while the ratings had been slow to begin with, by the end of its initial run the BBC had already expressed interest in a second series. Due to its low budget, the actioned had been confined to the inside of the spacecraft, with no journeys to alien planets or derelict ships like others sci-fi shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation could explore. But this would prove to be a blessing for the show as it allowed Grant and Naylor to develop their characters through interaction and humour, without the distraction of special effects. The first run of Red Dwarf was ostensibly a character piece, following the tried and tested sitcom formula of trapping two or three actors in a confined location and allowing the egos to clash.
The second series would begin less than six months after the broadcast of Me², this time allowing Lister, Rimmer and the Cat to explore uncharted areas of deep space, where they would encounter all manner of deadly lifeforms, explore a parallel universes and alternative dimensions. This would also introduce audiences to a character that would later become one of the Red Dwarf crew as sanitation mechanoid Kryten is discovered on a derelict spaceship and Lister, who considers himself of a strong moral fibre as becomes determined to break the robot’s programming. This dynamic between Lister and Kryten would follow another key theme of science fiction, with many of the stories exploring Lister’s imposing of free will on the droid and thus making it a sentient being. What defines a human being and what makes their existence more or less important than the other creatures they encounter would become a major factor in the evolution of the show.
Despite all their hard work finally paying off and the success of Red Dwarf exceeding all expectations by the mid-1990s, after the conclusion of the sixth series, Grant announced that he intended to depart from the show. ‘Basically Rob wanted to go off and do his own thing and write on his own. He went off and did The Strangerers and Dark Ages and wrote some novels.,’ stated Naylor on the breakup of their long-running partnership, forcing him to continue with the show by himself. ‘It wasn’t the first time he’d wanted to go off and write his own things. The first time he wanted to go off was just after the electrician’s strike. We’d rehearsed the first six shows but none had been made and he wanted to go off that summer. I said we should be rewriting the scripts for the re-launch but we spent most of that summer with him wanting to go off on his own. He came back a few weeks before we went into production again and there was a second occasion he wanted to go off and I got offered the chance to produce Spitting Image on my own and I said that if he wanted to get together again I’d refuse the offer but if not I’d produce Spitting Image. He wanted to get back together so I turned down their offer. After the third time it became obvious, there was no going back really and that’s what happened.’