“Choose a contemporary television series and analyse how it can be said to conform or not to a particular programme genre.”
The series Red Dwarf ran for eight series between 1988 and 1999 on BBC TWO. In this essay, I will be studying how it conforms to both the science-fiction and situation comedy genres, through discussing the characters, the influences and how the programme developed through the years, as well as studying some specific scenes and episodes.
The basic premise of the show is best explained by the introduction at the start of every episode in the first series:
This is an SOS distress call from the mining ship Red Dwarf. The crew are dead, killed by a radiation leak. The only survivors were Dave Lister, the last human being alive, and his pregnant cat, who was safely sealed in the hold. Revived three million years later, his only companions are a life-form who evolved from his cat, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram simulation of one of the dead crew.
The concept of holograms is intrinsically a science-fiction idea, and one that was originally conceived by Dwarf’s writers, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. The idea has subsequently appeared in several science-fiction programmes, most notably Star Trek: Voyager [1995-2001].
Despite it being a rather heavy sci-fi concept, Grant and Naylor ensured they explained it in a comedic way during the first episode, confusingly entitled The End. Rimmer’s (Chris Barrie) intangibility was shown by Lister (Craig Charles) swiping his hand through his torso, him falling through a table and later trying to attack The Cat (Danny John-Jules), only to run straight through him.
The Cat himself is also an ‘out-of-this-world’ idea, but it links in to existing evolutionary theory; his development is likened to mankind descending from apes. Another ‘alien’ concept that is treated in a human way is Holly (Norman Lovett, later Hattie Hayridge), the ship’s computer. Originally inspired by the computer Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey , Holly appears as a human face on various monitors. Holly’s personality is also very human, which is explained as him suffering from computer senility, and thus being prone to making mistakes and errors in the same way that humans do.
For the third series onwards, an extra character was introduced: Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), the robot. Grant and Naylor were initially hesitant to include a robotic character, as they considered it a cliché in science-fiction. However, after debuting the character as a guest in the second series, he proved popular enough to return as a regular. Like Holly, Kryten is a very human-like character, despite his non-Earthly origins. These human qualities provide the bulk of the character’s humour, especially after Kryten learns to break his programming, so that he can lie, cheat and be offensive to humans. The concept of a robot with human traits is echoed throughout the sci-fi genre, with characters such as Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [original radio series started 1978] and Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987-1994].
For the first series, Grant and Naylor envisioned the series as “Steptoe in space”, referring to the long-running BBC sit-com Steptoe and Son [1962-1974], in which a father and son team, who are constantly at each other’s throats, find themselves trapped together through their situation. This premise was at the heart of the early series of Red Dwarf, with Lister and Rimmer, who were worst enemies before the rest of the crew were killed, becoming stranded light years away from civilisation together.
Throughout the first series, the emphasis was firmly on comedy, as opposed to sci-fi. For example, the plot of the episode Balance of Power is that Lister strives to gain a promotion on-board, so that he will out-rank Rimmer, and so be in charge. This situation does not rely on the fact that the pair are on-board a spaceship; it can be used in any workplace scenario.
Even in episodes where extraordinary situations were used, they were employed as a set-up for comedic elements that were not reliant on the sci-fi nature of the show. For example, in the episode Waiting For God, Lister discovers that the long-dead Cat race formed a religion based on very mundane things that he had done. This is used as a satire on existing human faiths; reading meaning into ordinary things, using religion as a reason to go to war, and forming different denominations of the faith due to minor disagreements.
However, the first series did include some episodes where sci-fi was more vital to the plot, such as Future Echoes, where the crew see glimpses of their future selves due to the ship travelling faster than the speed of light. The success and popularity of these episodes lead to the sci-fi elements becoming much more intrinsic to the plot in subsequent series.
From the third series onwards, the sets and costumes were completely redesigned to emphasise the science-fiction nature of the series. The sets, for example, were inspired by the first Alien film , which, to this day, is seen by many (myself included) as the greatest sci-fi movie of all time.
The plots were also expanded to include more outlandish and non-Earthly sci-fi concepts. Series III saw the first appearance of a GELF (Genetically Engineered Life Form), which were essentially man-made aliens. Furthermore, Series IV brought about the conception of simulants, evil robots that serve as an enemy for the crew throughout the remainder of the series. These sorts of foes are echoed throughout sci-fi history; they could be seen as equivalents to Klingons and The Borg in Star Trek [various series running from 1966-present day], or the genetically-engineered Daleks and The Cybermen in Doctor Who [1963-present day].
However, despite the newly-founded importance of the science-fiction in the series, these concepts were always used to ultimately lead to comedic situations. For example, in the Series III episode Polymorph, a creature that feeds on human emotions makes its way on-board, eventually removing Lister’s fear, Cat’s vanity, Kryten’s guilt and Rimmer’s anger. This means that the characters become exaggerated stereotypes of people lacking in each emotion for the rest of the episode, which leads to a multitude of funny lines and situations.
Similarly, the Series V episode Back To Reality leads viewers to believe that the entire premise of Red Dwarf was in-fact the plot of a virtual reality game that the characters had been playing for four years. They emerge from the game to find that their ‘real’ personalities are intrinsically opposed to their Dwarf equivalent. The humour here comes from the crew’s attempts to cope with their newly-discovered characters, and the situations they encounter in the ‘real world’.
Interestingly, despite the balance of the show shifted from comedy towards sci-fi after 1988, the opening theme tune and title sequence changed in a way that suggested the opposite. Series I and II opened with a lengthy and impressive model shot of the eponymous ship, with music inspired by 2001, suggesting a sci-fi heavy show. However, from Series III onwards, the title sequence was a series of quickly-cut comedic highlights from the series, set to a slightly ‘wacky’ electric guitar version of the theme tune: definitely more suited to comedy than sci-fi.
To summarise, throughout Series II and VI, the comedy and sci-fi elements work in tandem. The formula was set that the writers would introduce an interesting sci-fi concept, and the jokes would flow from that for the rest of the episode, before concluding the plot at the end. Therefore, there was something for both comedy fans and sci-fi fans, or those who, like me, love both genres.
The remit changed slightly for Series VII. The production faced a multitude of problems between VI and VII; there was a three-year gap between series, in which writer Rob Grant and actor Chris Barrie quit the show, actor Craig Charles was arrested, charged and later acquitted for rape and newcomer Chloe Annett was brought in to play a new character, Kochanski.
In this series, whilst sci-fi still had an important role, a lot of emphasis was placed on the relationship between Lister and Kochanski, and how it affected Kryten. It was almost a bizarre love triangle, with Kryten jealous of the attention Lister paid to Kochanski, despite her not being interested in him. This gave the series a strong romantic drama element, which fitted in with many films and TV series of the time; the series was broadcast in 1997, in which Titanic, which became the most successful movie ever, brought romance into a disaster movie.
Ultimately, however, this new approach proved unpopular with the show’s dedicated fans, despite viewing figures reaching unprecedented heights for BBC TWO sit-coms. Many felt that the drama element pushed the comedy out, and I would agree that the series is nowhere near as funny as previous ones. This lead to Doug Naylor bringing further changes for Series VIII, which is the final series to date.
The concept completely changed: the entire crew of the ship were resurrected, and ‘our’ crew (including Rimmer) were imprisoned on-board for abusing confidential files. Naturally, this situation brought comparisons to the classic Ronnie Barker sit-com Porridge [1973-1977], which, interestingly, was another influence cited for the ‘trapped’ element of the early series.
However, just as VII downplayed the comedy elements of the series, VIII was lacking in sci-fi concepts. There were exceptions to this; the episode Cassandra involved the crew meeting a computer than can predict the future, and was a return to the ‘classic’ Dwarf formula of Series II-VI. However, the fact that our heroes were imprisoned meant that there was little opportunity to explore space or encounter other life-forms, which was the trigger for most of the sci-fi concepts in previous series. For the first time since Series I, episodes such as Krytie TV, in which Kryten sets up his own prison television channel, had plots that didn’t rely on any sci-fi concepts, and could have been utilised in pretty much any conventional sit-com.
Furthermore, the humour shifted from the established intellectual and thought-provoking concepts, which had previously been seen in the cross-media Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and the much-ignored John Carpenter film Dark Star , to more conventional sit-com situations. New characters, such as prison guard Ackerman (Graham McTavish) and psychotic prisoner Kill Crazy (Jake Wood), brought about comparisons to Porridge’s Mr Mackay and Vyvian from The Young Ones [1982-1984] respectively. The humour also became more slapstick; not quite at the level of Vic and Bob (The Smell Of Reeves and Mortimer [1993-1995], Shooting Stars [1993-present day]) or Rik and Ade (The Young Ones, Bottom [1991-1995]), but certainly in keeping with conventional sit-coms.
However, during Dwarf’s ‘classic’ period, the writers’ knowledge and affection for sci-fi was evident. This was mainly displayed through references and ‘spoofs’, though the spoofs were never as extreme as most pieces in that genre, such as Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs . Examples of this include the afore-mentioned Polymorph creature being similar in appearance and behaviour to the Xenomorphs from the Alien films. Similarly, in the episode DNA, Lister’s genetic make-up is altered to make him a ‘super-human’, and his subsequent appearance is more or less identical to Robocop .
However, as well as referencing a lot of sci-fi movies, Grant and Naylor also took elements from classics of other genres. For example, the episode Camille has the same basic plot as classic movie Casablanca , albeit a distorted, futuristic version. The eponymous Camille (equivalent to Ilsa) is a GELF who can change shape to become a personal vision of beauty to whoever sees her. She falls in love with Kryten (equivalent to Rick), who persuades her to leave him for Hector (equivalent to Victor), a fellow GELF.
The most interesting episode of Red Dwarf, in terms of genre, is Series VI’s Gunmen of the Apocalypse. As well as the usual blend of science-fiction and comedy, the episode also includes elements from very different genres. It starts with a film noir pastiche, which is later revealed to be part of a computer game. The section is marked out as fitting with this genre by being shown in black and white, with the characters wearing 1950s style clothes, as well as speaking with the sort of dialogue associated with those films.
The episode progresses with the crew being attacked by simulants. This section concludes with the ship’s navigation computer being infected with a virus, which Kryten elects to transfer to himself and attempt to create an antidote. He does this within a bizarre dream, in which he is the sheriff in a Wild West-style town. The rest of the episode is set in this town, with the rest of the crew having managed to patch themselves into Kryten’s dream.
The episode complies with the Western genre, in terms of costumes, music, locations and the plot of the dream, in which a group of bandits come to town to threaten the sheriff. The episode even concludes with a Western-style variation on the established Red Dwarf theme tune. Despite all this, the episode retains the basic tenants of the series: interesting science-fiction concepts and hilarious jokes based on them.
As well as the main series, Dwarf has spawned a number of spin-offs. These fused the established cross-genre nature of the series with various other genres. Two compilations of out-takes, Smeg Ups  and Smeg Outs , were released on video. Like television out-takes shows, such as It’ll Be Alright On The Night [1977-present day] and Auntie’s Bloomers [1990-2000], they included amusing linking material between sections of clips.
Red Dwarf Night (1998), a special evening of programmes on BBC TWO to celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary, brought with it more genre-crossing programmes. Can’t Smeg Won’t Smeg saw the characters competing in a cookery contest, based on daytime cookery show Can’t Cook Won’t Cook [1995-1999]. Also, Universe Challenge saw two teams, comprising of the main cast and a team of fans, competing in a quiz show format, based, unsurprisingly, on University Challenge [1962-1987, 1994-present day]. For both of these shows, the link to the original was cemented by using the actual presenters of the programmes, Ainsley Harriot and Bamber Gascoigne respectively.
Overall, Red Dwarf could never be seen as an entirely conventional example of any genre, but rather a fusion of at least two different ones. Even in the early and later series where the science-fiction elements were downplayed, the show was not like any other sit-com, despite similarities to its comedic influences.
Similarly, the show is unlike any other sci-fi programme, in that the sci-fi is almost always used to generate comedic situations. Even in other sci-fi comedies, such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or Spaceballs, the comedy is always viewed as significantly more important than the sci-fi concept behind it. Red Dwarf is unique in that it treated the science-fiction and the plot as of equal importance to the comedy, which is why it’s viewed as a cult classic by fans of both genres.