Red Dwarf 1 is slower paced and less action packed than subsequent series. This remark goes even for Red Dwarf 2 which, while it often shares the first series’ claustrophobia and colour scheme (even a supposedly tropical beach is verging on the monochrome), involves more off-ship adventures as well as temporary characters. This much we can all agree on. However, there is an orthodox view of the first series, one which is often latent and confused with the above, that it is less successful than later series at making the most of its futuristic setting. Red Dwarf 1 is usually portrayed as a stagy character study that happens to be set in space. The imaginative monsters and impressively realised worlds of later series contrast with the less visual first series in ways that seem to have encouraged the impression that the latter is pure sitcom and not at all science fiction.
This view is entirely false. Red Dwarf 1 is at least as successful as the show’s later incarnations at utilising its science fiction premise. Considering each episode in turn is enough to demonstrate this:
- The End: The pilot doesn’t so much exploit the scenario of Red Dwarf as set it up. It is, therefore, somewhat outside the scope of the present discussion. However, we should say, I suppose, that its use of science fiction is as good as the show’s premise. And we will all agree that the premise is a good one.
- Future Echoes: Here, a clever science fiction idea is expertly used to further develop the characters and set up some long term storylines.
- Waiting for God: The idea of the cat race is an interesting but neglected one. Here it is used to satirise the more ridiculous elements of organised religion. If Douglas Adams had come up with the ideas from Waiting for God it would probably be regarded as genius.
- Confidence and Paranoia: The crew have had their psyches personified more than once (Terrorform, Gunmen of the Apocalypse) but it happened first in Red Dwarf 1. It’s an ingenious device for generating character jokes.
- Me²: Introducing a duplicate Rimmer is a brilliantly clever way to use Red Dwarf’s futuristic setting so as to explore the comic potential of that character. We get insights into Rimmer’s obsessiveness, hunger for power over other’s, pettiness and ultimately his self loathing.
Which leaves Balance of Power, which is the only episode that supports the orthodox view I am targeting here. This episode really is all sitcom and no science fiction.
It seems to me, then, that the most cursory glance at Red Dwarf 1 reveals the extent to which each episode (with the noted exception of Balance of Power) is structured around a smart science fiction idea.
The degree to which the orthodox view I attack is mistaken can be better appreciated when we contrast the science fiction in Red Dwarf 1 with the science fiction in later series. Consider Series V, which is often given as an example of how the futuristic setting of Red Dwarf came to play an increasingly central role.
In my view, two episodes in Series V do not really take advantage of Red Dwarf’s science fiction premise. Firstly, Holoship is fundamentally about love frustrating Rimmer’s usually ruthless ambition. I see no reason why a very similar episode wouldn’t have been possible if the show was set on, say, a boat. I grant that many of the jokes depend on the holoship being a space craft, but the basic idea behind the episode is not a piece of science fiction. Secondly, while Quarantine involves some (extremely dubious) science, it is all used to trap the crew (minus Rimmer) in a small room, getting on each others nerves. The episode conforms quite well to the orthodox view of the first series. The remaining four episodes rely heavily on the show’s science fiction premise. I suspect that Back to Reality is as popular as it is because it is a near perfect combination of science fiction and comedy.
So, in Series 1, five episodes use the science fiction premise of the show in comparison with Series V, where only 4 episodes do so. This comparison demonstrates beyond doubt that the orthodox view of Red Dwarf 1 is mistaken.
Finally, it is worth noting that by Series V, there was a greater reliance on fantasy rather than (dubious) science. There is a distinction here: future echoes are more than a little scientifically suspect, but luck viruses (Quarantine) and the good-and-bad triplicater (Demons and Angels) make no scientific sense at all. Between these two extremes there are borderline cases of fantasy, such as the psy-moon in Terrorform. In Red Dwarf 1, only Confidence and Paranoia is fantastic in this sense. This can only help to show how that series was a successful piece of science fiction comedy.