Being born in 1981 in the UK, there is a certain… comfort I have from watching Red Dwarf. Despite being set three million years into the future, I understand everything. Not only with jokes about Eastbourne or Topic bars; the visual language of Red Dwarf is warm and familiar. A cross between The Young Ones and Chock-A-Block.
And part of that visual language is how BBC2 looked and felt in the 90s. Those classic idents, a bold, chunky 2. Whizzing across the screen as a toy car, flipping in the air like a fluffy dog, or being blown up by fireworks. Despite only actually launching during the initial broadcast of Series IV, for an entire generation, Red Dwarf became inseparable from those wonderful pieces of film. (Many, many years later, I got to play with those idents on air on BBC Two for real… and that toy car ident became the most metaphorical ident in the world.)
But today isn’t a day for comfort. At least, not for me. Because a big part of Red Dwarf‘s story was its overseas sales, particularly to PBS stations in America. It’s something which is so easy to forget from a UK perspective: that there is a whole language of television connected with Dwarf that I never got to see.
So let’s take a look at… Mike Frisbie’s Sci-Fi Friday Night, on Iowa Public Television. Starting in the early 90s, this was a weekly line-up of various science fiction shows, including Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and… oh, hello, Red Dwarf. And each show was introduced by Mike Frisbie in his own inimitable style.
Here’s what he had to say about Bodyswap in 1996:
What I really love about these is that Frisbie’s introductions really do brilliantly contextualise Red Dwarf for a US audience. His Bodyswap introduction above is a case in point: when it’s in a science fiction slot surrounded by Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, it’s so easy to view Red Dwarf as yet another kooky British science fiction show. To identify that the programme is also another stupid British comedy seems like a point well worth making in that context.
And while these introductions look nothing like how BBC2 presented the Red Dwarf… Mike Frisbie’s introductions aren’t really that alien to television in the UK. Sure, him floating against a psychedelic background isn’t something you’d see outside a few early analogue cable channels – but take away the silly effects, and it’s really just old ITV in-vision continuity. As ever, scrape underneath the surface with this stuff, and things end up not really being that different after all.
So, what happened to Mike Frisbie’s Sci-Fi Friday Night? In 2001 it changed to Mike Frisbie’s Sci-Fi Saturday Night, apparently to general dismay among the show’s fans. Oddly, there really isn’t very much about Mike online; this article from 2003 is one of the few extensive pieces about him, and pleasingly reveals he was a far bigger fan of Red Dwarf than he was of Doctor Who. (It also reveals that the writer of the piece – not Mike – thinks that Red Dwarf is a show about “a group of bumbling aliens”, which is literally the exact opposite of what the show is.)
Mike apparently retired from TV at some indeterminate point, and sadly died in 2008. So let’s remember him… and remember that TV works best when it obviously has actual people involved, rather than just being a soulless machine spitting out repeats in the corner.