Despite Red Dwarf‘s futuristic off-world setting, it’s always been a show deeply rooted in reality. Rob and Doug drew their inspiration as much from Steptoe and Son and Porridge as Blade Runner and Alien, deriving humour from workplace antics, characters being trapped together and the good old British class system, all things that are far from alien to the viewer at home. As such, it’s always been intrinsically linked to the time and place in which it was made, and the fact that this time and place was up to 31 years ago now makes for some interesting anomalies between the future as predicted in the late 80s and early 90s, and what we now know about how society and technology has developed since then.
Some of them are fairly incongruous, like the cultural references. While things like The Flintstones, Marilyn Monroe and Casablanca remain widely-known touchstones for modern audiences, the same can’t be said for Teasy Weasy, Ishtar or Doug McClure. I hate the term “dated” when it comes to discussing such references in old television – the gags still work in all those cases, regardless of your familiarity with the specifics – and indeed find such anachronisms charming, which is why it rankled when some were removed or replaced in Remastered. What’s more interesting, though, is the concepts that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, and which we never question because we’re so familiar with them, but that start to fall apart as soon as you think about them from a 2019 perspective.
Like when Rimmer worked for The Samaritans, and spoke to a bloke who’d meant to phone up for the cricket scores. Why would anyone from Rimmer’s time need to call a hotline in order to find out sports results? Such a service did indeed exist in 1989, but now we have apps and websites, providing instant access to the information required. The idea of waiting for anything like that seems ludicrous now, like Lister patiently waiting for the snail mail to arrive so that he can watch Zero G Football highlights, rather than just streaming them on the Groovy Channel 27 app. And why were Holly and Gordon playing chess via post, rather than on Facebook or something?
Lister’s football highlights were famously presented on VHS of course, and it’s long been a source of amusement that the predicted future for home media would be the same fundamental technology, but triangular. This was brilliantly tackled head on in Back To Earth, of course, when DVDs were cited as a passing fad before everyone went back to VHS. But after just ten years, that too seems wrong now, as it fails to take into account that DVDs themselves would be overtaken by Bluray, or indeed that any kind of physical media would lose so much market share to streaming services.
The “what we have now will eventually be replaced by what we had before” explanation could happily headcanon away a fair few discrepancies, such as the fact that both Lister and Kryten go to the bother of developing photographs that they’ve shot on actual film. We’d best stick to that rule for this one actually, given that the premise of Timeslides depends on analogue photography still being a thing, as indeed does the entire series, with Hollister intercepting Lister’s photo of the cat kicking off the whole chain of events. Similarly, we have to accept that Polaroids also remained in use, simply because in 1988, that was the only imaginable way of instantly seeing a picture you’d taken. You could explain away all the monitors in the early series being 4:3 CRTs in this way too, were it not for the Dave era using modern flatscreens throughout.
Aside from technology, there are other instances of real life events catching the show unawares. While there’s still time for Cliff Richard to be shot, nobody involved in the production could have known that Berni Inn would shut down in 1995, or that Norweb would be merged and rebranded out of existence, or that Lewis’s would go into administration. It’s a source of perturbation that the Aigburth Arms has now been renamed The Victoria, and they don’t even have a pool table any more. Although amusingly, there was a new version of Tales of the Riverbank made, revived on Channel 4 just a year after Camille aired.
Society changes too. Hardly anyone smokes on TV any more, and these days most countries have some sort of regulations about smoking in the workplace, so it must be strange, for anyone who grew up after such things were put in place, to see the pre-accident drive room shrouded entirely with carcinogenic fog. A show with four male characters and absolutely zero female regulars probably (or perhaps hopefully) wouldn’t be commissioned today, although proportionally speaking, Red Dwarf still has better ethnic diversity than most current British comedies. And it’s perhaps unfortunate that the anger-free Rimmer in Polymorph so closely resembles Rolf Harris, but at least that’s not as bad as when the Smegazine cover described Craig Charles as “the Gary Glitter of space”. In light of recent revelations, it’s debatable as to whether the first song someone from Lister’s time learns to play would be a Michael Jackson number.
But there’s one big thing missing in Red Dwarf that once you notice it, you can’t stop thinking about how weird it is. It’s a common one with a lot of sci-fi made in the 20th Century, but set beyond it. Why does Holly have a big database of books, that Lister can go in and alter? Why does Kryten have to delete information on women’s bras or Bay City Rollers songs in order to free up space? Why are all the hologram personalities saved on easily-damaged discs? The same reason Lister gets videos through the post and Holly communicates with another computer by mail… in the Red Dwarf universe, there’s no internet.
Computers in whatever century the show is set work the same way as they did in all but the last few years of the 20th, with all information stored internally, and any networking strictly local. Granted, signal would probably be patchy in the darkest reaches of deep space, and a fair few servers probably went down when the human race was wiped out, but it means that even today, Kryten has to go around “best guess”ing everything they encounter, when the viewer at home has the sum total of human knowledge accessible via a device in their pocket. At this stage, it’s partly artistic license, of course – for the same reason, you’ll find that characters in soaps and other contemporary-set dramas will often incongruously mention that their battery has died, because smartphones and the internet can resolve a lot of plot points much less dramatically than twenty or thirty years ago.
Interestingly, while never quite addressing the issue directly, the Dave era has reflected some developments, with the JMC on-board computer providing many of the functions you’d expect online, and software upgrades being a key element of various stories. You can sort of see the seeds of this much earlier, with things like the simulants transmitting the computer virus in Gunmen, made just at the time that the world wide web was starting to get noticed. And in fairness, Todhunter does mention modems as a potential means of cheating in an exam right back in the first episode – the details are wrong from a modern perspective, but the gist is sort of right. It’s key to note that not all of Red Dwarf is a product of 1988, just the bits made in 1988. It’s always moved with the times to varying degrees, which manifests itself most obviously when Doug takes inspiration the likes of nanotechnology, 3D printing or even call centres.
And for all that it entirely understandably failed to predict about the immediate future, it was pretty spot on in other areas. Things that were a pipe-dream in the late 80s are everyday items today, such as wearable tech – not only are smartwatches a thing, but you can even customise them to have Norman Lovett’s face as the home screen should you desire. Smart luggage is also on the market, although not quite yet at the level required to wheel itself round the airport looking for you. Plus, someone’s invented a talking toaster, and it’s programmed to complain if you neglect to use it. There’s even rumours that cola companies are going to start advertising in space, although in real life it’s Pepsi doing the deed, rather than the ones being buried.
Virtual Reality, having had a stop-start development life since first being experimented with, has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years. While the frontal-lobe-burrowing properties of Total Immersion games have yet to come to fruition, current home VR systems really aren’t so different to the type of AR Lister plays, both in terms of the types of games on offer and the look of the kit itself, at least the Series VI design. Holograms are another outlandish concept that’s slowly becoming a reality, not quite in the way Red Dwarf envisaged yet, but at the very least, they can be used to insert dead musicians into concerts, and there’s even holograms that can be touched, which is either the path we follow to get to hard light, or, as with most new technology, the all time number one.
It’s still a far cry from a fully autonomous simulation of the deceased, but maybe that would be possible if combined with the main area that Red Dwarf got right: artificial intelligence. In the present day, AI is being built in to more and more appliances and devices – if we’ve got smart fridges and smart kettles now, why not dispensing machines, toilets, speaking slide rules, camcorders (yeah, they’re AI, hence them exploding when they don’t understand timeline anomalies) and little arm-shaped service droids in a few decades’ time?
Spearheading this army of computerised minds is of course Holly, and while Red Dwarf was far from the first piece of sci-fi to depict a computer you could talk to (especially considering Holly is based on Hab from Dave Hollins, who in turn is based on Hal from 2001), he or she really does feel like the natural end point that the current range of virtual assistants could evolve into. You summon them by calling their name, they can tell you the time and what it’s like outside, or conjure up pretty much any piece of information you enquire about, and they can be accessed in multiple rooms across multiple interfaces. They don’t always get things exactly right, but you can usually see where they’ve gone wrong, and you can tell them to shut up while they’re in the middle of rabbiting on, and they will. Whether it works the other way, and current devices can record and recall every conversation you’ve ever had in their vicinity, is a matter for the conspiracy theorists.
So just think how much more efficient Holly would be if he or she could access the web too. This is the fundamental dichotomy of any fiction that’s based on current society but set in the future – the older it gets, the more its content becomes a strange mix of the accurate, the archaic and the sheer ridiculous. But it’s by no means a fault; it’s all part of the charm, and Red Dwarf benefits enormously from always remaining relevant to and tailored for its contemporary audience. If the result is a computer that can navigate at light-speed but can’t order a pizza in, or a black box that captures video footage of everything that happens on board but displays tracking lines when you fast forward through it, then so be it.
With thanks to Phil Pagett, Paul Hughes, Mike Bond, Steve Weiss, Seb Patrick and Jo Sharples for suggesting examples for this article.