Tuesday 21 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 6 - Red Dwarf

Probably my favourite series
Following my previous choice, Mr Don and Mr George, was a one series wonder, I ended up on social media, swapping the names of other one series wonders which never quite got going – or that did, and were cruelly axed before their time. Looking back, though, it feels that up until about fifteen years ago, most series were given a second chance, so that lots of sitcoms one remembers as being ultimately a failure or shortlived actually ran for two series. (eg. Joking Apart, Curls on Top etc)

With hindsight, Red Dwarf feels like it could easily have been one of those shows. The first two series undoubtedly showed promise. I’m sure one or two die-hard ardent fans think it went down hill in Series 3. But I’ve never met anyone who thinks that.

At the start (after the very slow set-up), the show had most of the key ingredients, blending brilliant science fiction ideas with extremely relatable characters, even if one of them was a hologram and the other essentially a highly evolved cat. And of course, there’s the wonderfully deadpan on-board supercomputer, Holly.

Characters are fine, but you need relationship and conflict. And you have that in Lister and Rimmer, who were just very petty towards each other, and it really worked. Lister would go out of his way to annoy Rimmer, who was very easy to annoy. And you had just enough sympathy for Rimmer to care. Just.

As we saw in Mr Don and Mr George, it’s easy for a comedy to lapse into a melange of just funny ideas, but Red Dwarf avoids that. No matter how clever or insane the ideas are – like time travel, stepping into photographs, or catching luck viruses – the show is always about the characters, their struggles, quests, vanities and vulnerabilities.

And for that reason, I’ve always preferred it to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, in which the ideas dominated and you had Arthur Dent in the middle, generally moaning about his fate, with characters around him with whom he never really connected. I never really had any affection for Ford Prefect or Zaphod Beeblebrox, much as I like the ideas and the tone. I’m sure you couldn’t have had Red Dwarf without Hitchhikers, but gimme Lister over Dent any day.

The Joy of Kryten
The only weakness in the set up of Red Dwarf, for me, was that Cat was never quite calibrated to be able to carry stories. He was always good for jokes, and proved to be the amusingly unreliable ally, but he could never quite push the show forward. So it was a stroke of genius to co-opt (and recast) everyone’s favourite droid, Kryten who has all my favourite one-liners from the show. (eg. ‘Aah. Smug mode’) Kryten is also brilliant for Lister and Rimmer’s relationship because he becomes a battleground for them, as they war over his soul – or at least Lister’s quest to find him one.

Once Kryten is in place, we’ve got four whole series of untrammelled joy before the wheels start to come off for a variety of reasons, although I’m pleased to say the wheels have been found and successfully reattached. But all my favourite episodes are in Series four, five and six. My all time favourite is probably White Hole – briefly featuring Talkie Toaster - but I also love the one with the Holovirus, the Psirens and the Emohawk.

Limitless Confinement
In those first six series, you’ve also got the confinement you need in any sitcom, where the characters can’t escape each other, but you’ve also got the freedom of the entire universe. Lister isn’t just trapped on a space ship, which is massive but largely functional. He’s trapped by being the last human alive, so no matter where he goes, or whoever he meets, he’s doomed to loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is a great recipe for a sitcom. When they begin to tinker with that (with the return of Kochanski) things started to go wrong. That said, the latest series was a real return to form, so who knows what the future holds for this truly wonderful show?


Sitcom writing advice and much else besides can be found in Writing That Sitcom, which walks you through the whole process of going from idea to script and beyond.

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It's beautifully specific and brutally honest." - Jasmine

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