After watching sci-fi films gain popularity at the movies in the 1980s, comedians Rob Grant and Doug Naylor thought, as they tell Ganymede & Titan, “it was about time the working class had a shot in space.” Grant and Naylor, inspired by Alien, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Dark Star, developed a BBC radio sketch series called Dave Hollins. The show followed space cadet Dave Hollins and the ship computer, Hab. The show consisted of five sketches that ran after 1984, and by 1988 Grant and Naylor had edited the series to work for television.
In the same interview, Grant reports that he and Naylor “wanted a show about being the last human in the universe, and, as a perverse twist, [they] decided not to have any aliens in it.” The story, which would be called Red Dwarf, follows a technician named Dave Lister, who awakens from three million years of suspended animation to find that he is the last human alive and also the last person on the spaceship Red Dwarf. He has the non-human company of a hologram of his dead bunkmate, Arnold Rimmer, and Cat, a lifeform that evolved over millions of years from Lister’s pregnant cat. In February 1988, Red Dwarf aired starring Craig Charles as Dave Lister, Chris Barrie as Rimmer, and Danny John-Jules as Cat.
According to Doug Naylor in an interview with WhatCulture, five million people tuned in for the pilot and by the end of the episode, numbers had dropped to two million. Naylor says viewers expected a science fiction show and didn’t understand at first what the creators were trying to do. Grant and Naylor’s goal was to combine the atmosphere of a sitcom with the environment of shows like Star Trek and Dark Star.
The combination of high sci-fi concepts with a lo-fi sitcom environment was incredibly unique. In an article for The Guardian, Gabriel Tate argues that the “wobbly staging adds charm” and that budgets didn’t hinder the two writers. Despite the original disconnect, Red Dwarf has gone on to run for 12 successful series and has quickly gained a loyal cult following; even 32 years after it first premiered, the show was still airing new specials. Here is a look at how Red Dwarf helped create sci-fi comedy.
The Sci-Fi Comedy Influence of Red Dwarf
Aside from the Star Wars parody Spaceballs and the equally British The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and the cheesy ‘alien lifeforms living on Earth’ 1986 show ALF), a funny sci-fi comedy, situated in space or anywhere else really, was a genre mash-up that was largely unprecedented and had yet to be fully explored. Rob Grant brought the comedy writing and Doug Naylor delivered the authentic storytelling. This balance paved the way for similar concepts and showed the possibilities for situation comedies outside of Earth.
One of the first indicators that Red Dwarf was influencing other works was that Alan Rickman demanded Galaxy Quest director, Dean Parisot, to watch Red Dwarf to get inspiration for their film, as Kim Taylor-Foster of Fandom writes. Rickman was correct in stating that the new genre established by Red Dwarf was a goldmine for new comedy and stories.
Since then, popular comedies that rely upon science fiction have become incredibly standard: Futurama, The Orville, Hyperdrive, Final Space, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Men in Black, and the recent series Space Force and Rick and Morty have all added to the genre. Even Christopher Nolan’s Tenet uses the ‘backward time’ concept that Naylor used back in 1989 in Red Dwarf Series 3.
Similar Personalities In Other Sci-Fi Shows
Some of the characters from Red Dwarf have inspired similar characters. Dave Lister, in particular, was the influence for many bumbling space cadets. Lister’s behavior is often immature and undriven, and he calls himself a “space bum.” He shows glimmers of intelligence throughout the show, such as his ability to operate a major ship, but laziness sometimes gets him in hairy situations. This is a great material for comedy, because space is often associated with high intelligence and education.
The incongruity of this has established several other characters with similar behavior, including Gary Goodspeed from Final Space and Philip J. Fry of Futurama. Gary Goodspeed is immature, clumsy, and destroys 92 spaceships in the process of trying to impress a girl. He sometimes has problems articulating himself, just like Philip J. Fry, who is lazy like Lister.
Red Dwarf Proved That No Show Had To Be One Genre
As previously mentioned, before Red Dwarf, science fiction series often felt compelled to maintain a serious, dramatic tone without diving into comedy too much. The general impression of science fiction was that it had to be a high-tech prediction of the future and a look at how humanity’s problems would progress. While this serious look at technology and speculations about the cosmos once had some colorful vibrancy to it (like in Star Trek or Lost in Space), Simon Ings points out in his New Scientist article that recent science fiction has “ceased to be a playground and has become a deadly serious way of explaining our world.”
Back when Red Dwarf premiered, Grant and Naylor set up the space to toy around with intellectual sci-fi ideas and have fun. Even after the show lost Rob Grant’s comedy writing in the early 90s, the show still maintained its storytelling. Having undergone a couple of cancellations and returning ten years after being off the air, Red Dwarf shows a flexibility that many series could never achieve.
Although Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy arguably merged sci-fi and comedy first, Red Dwarf provided the critically acclaimed second chance that the new genre needed. The most recent episode, The Promised Land, landed in September 2020 (32 years after the show premiered) and follows the crew’s experiences when three cat clerics think Lister is their god. It is likely there will be more individual episodes released in the future, something actor Craig Charles has announced, but for now fans can dive into other ongoing sci-fi sitcoms such as Rick and Morty, The Orville, and the final seasons of Futurama.
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