Debuting in 1988 on the BBC, Red Dwarf chronicled the adventures of Dave Lister (the last human being alive), Arnold Rimmer (a hologram of his annoying bunkmate), the Cat (a fashion-conscious creature who evolved from Lister’s pet) and Kryten (a clean freak mechanoid). From its cash-strapped early days through to the slickly produced sixth season, the series showcased smart sci-fi concepts and lowbrow humor in a manner that was downright eloquent at times (think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with curry jokes). Then came a falling out between creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor that would leave Naylor overseeing all aspects of the show’s production, which marked the beginning of a turbulent time for the “boys from the Dwarf.”
The tonal shifts of the Grant-less years alienated many hardcore viewers who felt the show had become a shell of its former self. In the decade since the last episode aired, plans for a feature film fell apart and the BBC announced that it would no longer be making any new Red Dwarf. Just as things seemed hopeless, upstart UK network Dave revived the show for a three-part adventure that finally had Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and the Cat returning to Earth. More on that in a bit. For now, let’s take a look at the best — and the worst — episodes of Red Dwarf.
5) Back to Reality
Lister is the head of the fascist secret police? Rimmer is his bum half-brother? Cat is a nerdy slob named Duane Dibbley? Kryten is a half-human traffic cop? In this fifth-season finale, the rug was pulled out from underneath viewers by suggesting that the entire series was nothing more than a virtual reality video game the guys were playing in order to escape from their bleak lives. By the middle of the episode, it is revealed that they were all experiencing a group hallucination brought on by the awesomely named despair squid. For awhile though, it seemed like Grant and Naylor changed the game, leaving the audience with one huge mindfuck.
The Lister/Rimmer dynamic has always been the heart of Red Dwarf, and never has it been explored better than in this episode in which the duo become stranded on an ice planet. With seemingly no hope of rescue, they must do the unthinkable: communicate. The talking leads to some insights on Rimmer’s tortured relationship with his dad and Lister’s youthful trips to the golf course. In the hilarious denouement, Rimmer praises Lister’s selflessness only to discover that his vindaloo-loving shipmate is just as much of a bastard as he always thought he was.
3) Parallel Universe
Opening with a brilliant song-and-dance sequence (unlike the execrable one in “Back in the Red”), the second season finale had Rimmer, Lister and the Cat visiting a parallel universe with the aid of the Holly Hop Drive. Once there, the guys encounter female equivalents of themselves — and the Cat meets his canine parallel. Holly makes out with his alternate self, Rimmer gets a lesson in how creepy his pick-up techniques are and Lister is disgusted and aroused by the lady Lister. Comedy aside, the episode illustrates how continuity obsessed early Red Dwarf was by paying off the Lister fatherhood gag from the first season installment “Future Echoes.”
2) Out of Time
After Kryten salvages a time-drive from a derelict spacecraft, the Starbug crew gets an unpleasant glimpse at their future selves. Disgusted with what the years ahead hold for them, Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and the Cat decide to stand up to their fat and bloated doppelgangers. But when his shipmates are killed by their future equivalents, Rimmer discovers that he’s “better dead than smeg” and he unexpectedly grows a pair. Following a hilarious first act in which Lister, et al experience trippy “unreality pockets,” this episode balances laughs and action as the menace of the future Starbug crew becomes more realized. If you thought the reveal of Captain Picard as Locutus was a great WTF? cliffhanger moment, just wait until you see Arnold J. Rimmer’s heroic side.
The first (and best) Holly, Norman Lovett, was given his chance to shine in this second season episode. After Holly makes one too many mistakes, Red Dwarf’s backup computer Queeg takes over and proceeds to make Lister, Rimmer and the Cat’s lives hell. Spoiler alert–Queeg was really just Holly all along, playing a joke on the Dwarf crew in order to get them to appreciate just how fantastic he is. The episode’s best bit? Holly’s attempts to challenge Queeg in various board games instead of a more intellectually stimulating chess match.
Hit the jump for the five worst episodes of Red Dwarf ever made.
What if Westworld featured a shitty Elvis impersonator instead of Yul Brenner? Wonder no more by checking out this fourth season episode in which the crew gets transported to an amusement park planet whose wax inhabitants have declared war on each other. And comedy.
4) Confidence and Paranoia
Noted sheep joke enthusiast Craig Ferguson made his television debut in this rare first season clunker which has various aspects of Lister’s personality coming to life after he contracts a space virus while snooping around Kochanski’s quarters. Admittedly, “Confidence and Paranoia” features a great premise and a final scene that sets the stage for the episode “Me?.” But an interesting story idea that falls flat quickly and a future late-night TV host doesn’t quite cut it.
3) Beyond a Joke
If you’ve read Robert Llewellyn’s Red Dwarf memoir The Man in the Rubber Mask, you’re probably aware that he is a gifted writer as well as a comedic performer. So why did this episode from the seventh season turn out so badly? Co-written with Doug Naylor, “Beyond a Joke” has Kochanski trying to introduce culture to Lister and the Cat by taking them to a Jane Austen-themed Pride and Predjudice virtual world (one that had an unfortunate la
ck of zombies). After that subplot grinds to a screeching halt, Kryten meets his mechanoid “brother,” and unfunny Cain and Abel metaphors ensue.
2) Back in the Red
“Back in the Red” is the three-part, feature-length episode that resurrects the entire Red Dwarf crew (including Chris Barrie, who left midway through season seven to pursue other projects — most notably his role as the butler in Tomb Raider). This new direction for the show meant that fans already pissed at the Chlo? Annett’s addition to the ensemble as Kochanski now had to deal with such supporting players as Mac McDonald as the boorish Captain Hollister taking screen time away from established characters. In lieu of a coherent storyline, Doug Naylor peppered the three episodes with everything from a Reservoir Dogs parody in which the entire cast donned Duane Dibbley outfits to an inexplicable claymation sequence. In the midst of these slapdash attempts at humor, the Cat was lost in the shuffle. During the show’s final batch of episodes, the Cat was given little more to do than make the occasional punch line, a sharp contrast to the dynamic figure he had become in the sixth season. There is one notable exception to this though: the infamous Blue Midget dance sequence. Watch it in the embedded clip above and marvel at what a tremendous douche the once cool Cat has become.
1) Back to Earth
Spoilers abound, so if you have yet to see this episode you might want to head on over to YouTube and get brought up to speed. Much like its predecessor on this list, “Back to Earth” is intended to be viewed as a 90-minute adventure. Split up into three parts for its initial broadcast, it lacks a cohesive rhythm, but that’s the least of the problems here. The story begins with Lister winding up a now dead-again Rimmer and pining for the (not really) dead Kochanski. The rest of the crew isn’t mentioned, with Holly’s absence being explained in a throwaway joke. After the Cat is attacked by an squid that has been residing in the ship’s water tanks, the hologram of a senior science officer inexplicably appears and tells the guys she can get them back to Earth through the use of an inter-dimensional portal. Upon their return to 2009 London, they learn that they have entered a reality where Red Dwarf is a TV show and that they will be dead soon. Shameless plugs for the upcoming “Back to Earth” DVD and the Dave network itself abound (check out the above clip for an especially painful look at the horrors of synergy) before the show slumps into a Blade Runner riff. In a denouement lifted from “Back to Reality,” the guys realize they have been experiencing a group hallucination the entire time. Cue theme music and endless Internet griping.
Produced quickly on a limited budget, the show looks fantastic. The CGI backgrounds and Carbug prop are especially noteworthy. As for the actors, they easily slip back into their most iconic roles after a decade away. One of the special’s most cringe-worthy moments — and there are many — is when Dave Lister meets TV actor Craig Charles. Thanks to Charles’ brilliant performance and a self-effacing joke about his troubled personal life, these scenes are far more successful than they really ought to be. These compliments aside, the biggest problem is that “Back to Earth” is full of malformed ideas that never really go anywhere. The scant jokes featured are mainly throwbacks to classic Dwarf episodes or references to current events that will have all the timelessness of a Jay Leno monologue. There’s also the matter of fan disservice: this episode is said to be taking place after two unseen seasons of Red Dwarf. This may be a convenient way to avoid resolving season eight’s cliffhanger, but it’s also a slap in the faces of viewers who have waited a decade to see how Rimmer saves the day after kicking death in the balls. The entire affair is ultimately nothing more than a plea for the Dave network to produce more episodes of the show. Missed opportunities are one thing, but unless Rob Grant somehow decides to return, Red Dwarf is going to continue to smeg up its legacy.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.