Despite having debuted at around the same time as Have I Got News For You, Red Dwarf has been rather less successful. While the former has been promoted to a BBC One favourite and created a widely-recognised approach, Red Dwarf continues to languish in obscurity, unnoticed except by a small number of hard-core enthusiasts. The series has comprehensively failed to appeal to a wider audience, due to the combined effect of several factors.
The slapdash approach to the programme’s scenario is the first element which weakens the series. While the show will at any time have a start of normality to which all minor plot-lines lead back, the writers frequently make alterations to this, while retaining the main formula of ‘Losers in Space’. Instead of having a set process for accomplishing these changes, for example setting out a new scenario in the first episode of a series, changes are either presented as key dramatic moments (such as the recovery of the Red Dwarf ship) or as fait accompli (such as the addition of Kryten to the regular cast). It is indeed possible to use both methods as vehicles for comedy, as shown by Dad#s Army. The first series of this programme presented a gradual evolution of the Home Guard platoon in question, with the outbreak of war being shown in the first episode, and subsequent instalments dealing with matters such as securing weaponry for the division. Following this, the status quo of the series was considered established, with further alterations being made at the end of each series (usually on the technical side).
However, in the case of Red Dwarf, the decision to make snap changes intermixed with foreshadowed events serves to remove any sense of drama which the latter may have been intended to cultivate. The initial familiarisation with the cast of characters reveals that Red Dwarf lacks the polish of more accomplished comedies. The basic clash of personalities between Lister and Rimmer is a sound concept, although initially weakened considerably by the painfully artificial device used to explain why the latter does not simply tidy up whatever mess created by the former happens to be offending him. Holly is probably the best of the creations, although this is primarily due to the capacity of the actor- witness the character’s descent into a mere narrator once a lesser performer takes over the role. Unfortunately, the need to provide Lister with another character to work with requires the addition of the Cat, a one-joke character promoted to a regular by necessity. Later, Kryten fulfils the role of a straight-man admirably, but the sight of the writers desperately searching for new traits in the Cat’s behaviour remains distracting.
Red Dwarf’s characters are frequently left attempting to fulfil two contradictory roles. On one hand, they are standard sitcom creations, embodying clich’s present in society, with Lister the archetypal slob and Rimmer the anally retentive but ineffectual idiot. However, the writers frequently attempt meaningful character drama, with the former regretting the futility of his life, while the latter reminisces over his tyrannical father. These two functions work against each other. If the audience has been enjoying the banter between the two leads, how can they bring themselves to credit psychological conflicts to figures who have recently been displaying the self-awareness of cardboard cut-outs? Alternatively, if the viewer is moved by a character’s plight, how will he react to his mocking a few seconds later? Matters are made worse by the creators’ frequently asking the audience to believe that the characters could perish in the situation confronting them. Such a notion is about as credible as requiring the viewers of Dad’s Army to fear that Corporal Jones could shoot himself through the head in an accident with his rifle. When watching Fawlty Towers, there is no fear in the minds of the audience that Sybil would ever attempt to divorce Basil, no matter how far he strays from her wishes. These are static characters, and the audience is fully aware that the status quo will be restored before the end of the half-hour instalment.This insistence that the characters’ fates are in the balance means that the already-limited potential of the format of the show is frequently wasted. While there could be mileage in an uncomplicated spoof of certain science fiction clichés, Red Dwarf spurns these opportunities, with a prime example being the episode The Gunman of the Apocalypse. Star Trek has often been ridiculed for its use of the holodeck device as a means of pillaging other genres, with the most notorious example being Data’s undertaking the role of Sherlock Holmes. Instead of lampooning this over-used plot element, Red Dwarf embraces it wholeheartedly as a means of propelling its cast into a comedy western. In fact, it is arguable that the decision to base a conventional sitcom on a science fiction setting was deeply misguided. It is often alleged that some types of drama are already so absurd that any external mockery is redundant, and science fiction arguably falls into this category. Another example of this group is the James Bond franchise, which has shrugged off all simple attempts at parody effortlessly. While the quality of the casts in Spy Hard and Jonny English cannot be doubted, given the inclusion of the likes of Leslie Neilsen and Rowan Atkinson, both fail as comedies because they rely on humorous twists to a formula which already bears no resemblance to reality. The only Bond parodies to have achieved any degree of critical acclaim, in the form of the Austin Powers series, merely use the super-spy setting as a hook on which to hang a prolonged mocking of sixties retro-chic and a reinvention of Myers’ trademark toilet humour.
In addition, the extent of the connection initiated by Red Dwarf towards its fan base may be regarded as unbalanced in the extreme. A more levelled approach to the matter is found in the first Matrix sequel, which acknowledges its followers without baffling the wider public. The main character is handed a spoon in a nod towards a line much-loved among franchise’s followers, while not bewildering the casual viewer. Indeed, the first sections of the film see a good-natured dig at some of the series’ more obsessive devotees, through the character of the ‘Kid’, whose exaggerated reverence for Neo obstructs the actions of the main protagonists. It is this evenness of approach which is sorely lacking in Red Dwarf. While catch-phrases are a necessity in some forms of sitcom, Grant & Naylor appear to have progressed towards catch-personalities, with the audience having to possess a full working knowledge of the particular clich’s embodied by Lister and Rimmer, and jokes made by the two in previous series, in order to fully comprehend much of the secondary dialogue. The reliance on the viewer’s knowledge is carried to absurd levels in the eighth batch of episodes. Here, great effort is put into reconstructing the authority scenario only previously seen in the very first episode of the programme. However, this is almost immediately discarded in favour of a more simplistic ‘prison’ set-up as the status quo for the remaining stories. If the creators favoured a prison system as the backdrop for their new episodes, why not simply create one from scratch, without shoe-horning in a selection of surplus continuity fodder that will have no relevance for new viewers? A similar situation is found in the writers’ perverse determination in basing the show’s female regular on a throw-away gag from the first episode, despite the unavailability of the actress who originally played the part in question. This parasitic tendency to regurgitate previous elements in order to construct new plot-lines leaves the programme in a creative straitjacket, devoid of the ability to reach out and welcome in fresh ideas which might increase the appeal of the series.
So, is the very idea of a science-fiction comedy not viable? By no means. A prime example is another BBC series, Doctor Who. By the time that Red Dwarf was commissioned, Who was in terminal decline. A number of creative misjudgements in the early nineteen eighties had crippled the show, and not even a remarkable rise in quality during its final seasons could salvage it. However, Who had been many things during its lifetime- a children’s series, and mild horror programme and an educational bulletin. Its flirtation with comedy came at the end of the nineteen seventies, under the helm of a man who single-handedly proved the mainstream appeal of science fiction: Douglas Adams. Like all of Adams’ work, the episodes in question do not rely on punchlines or a laughter track, but on the fundamental absurdities of the situations that science fiction presents. Two aliens and their robot dog explore the universe in a phone box, investigating a case of smuggling drugs disguised as alien monsters, the painting of multiple Mona Lisas and a retired intergalactic war criminal lying low in a Cambridge college. In truth, this approach is closer to the tongue-in-cheek tone of Bond’s latest exploits, but the results speak for themselves, with the serial City of Death attracting over sixteen million viewers. To obtain so broad a reach, a full understanding of the public perception of the base genre is vital. Conceptually flawed, indulgently written, and short on fresh inspiration, Red Dwarf never stood a chance of mainstream success.