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Everybody’s Dead, Dave – The Maiden Voyage of Red Dwarf

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, while Fredric Brown classic short story Knock began 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 would somehow have survived? And what if his companions on his voyage were a hologram of his former bunkmate and a man-like creature that had evolved from cats? 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. 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 lightyears 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.

Long-time friends Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who had developed the recurring sketch, had already written a pilot episode for what would become Red Dwarf, yet with Dave Hollins they were given their first opportunity to test their 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 their 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 often 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 would 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 time 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 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, 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 what 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. With the first series featuring 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.

Chris Barrie and Robert Bathurst

Chris Barrie and Robert Bathurst

Grant and Naylor had hoped for professional actors to star in their show, with the roles of Lister and Rimmer 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.

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 he 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.

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.

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 another 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 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. 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 held up 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 forgetting 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. This episode is worth noting for an appearance from Craig Ferguson, then a stand-up comic but later known for his popular talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, in the arrogant role of Confidence.

With the discarding of Bodysnatcher, Grant and Naylor were able to write a new final episode to close the series, Me², in which Rimmer shares a bunk with another hologram version of himself, resulting in constant arguments and fights. 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 also 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.

Chris Barrie

Chris Barrie

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 in later episodes.

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 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, to encounter all manner of deadly lifeforms and to even venture into parallel universes and alternative dimensions.


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