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The Answer’s In These Guns Somehow: How Red Dwarf S6 Brought Action to Isolation

Most avid television viewers can rattle off a list of their favorite shows. Many of us can take that list and narrow it down to a few classic shows that will stand the test of time to us. Then, there’s that next layer of obsessives who take things a little bit further and examine their favorite seasons of a show. What makes a single season of a series stand out? That’s exactly what we’re going to look at in this new series, “Standout Seasons.” This week, Chris Flackett looks at Red Dwarf Series VI. 


Prior to its sixth series in 1993, the great cult sci-fi/comedy show Red Dwarf had been no stranger to making substantial changes to itself. Four years earlier, in 1989, the show’s third series had given it a serious overhaul: giving the show a different visual aesthetic by seriously upgrading and changing the show’s sets and costumes; introducing the now much-beloved rock theme tune and accompanying clip montage; and introducing a more action-based tone to its stories, which allowed the characters to get off the titular ship and have more varied adventures

Meanwhile, the fifth series had tipped its balance away from the comedic and towards a more dominantly sci-fi approach, yielding one of its most popular episodes amongst the fandom, “Back to Reality”—with a guest appearance from Twin Peaks’s Lenny Von Dohlen, no less!

By this point, Red Dwarf had become BBC Two’s highest-rated show. Whilst still ostensibly a cult show, the anticipation for the arrival of the sixth series was immense. The easy option would have been to give the audience more of the same and consolidate their position in the nation’s affections. But, as proved on previous series of the show, creators and writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were not ones for keeping still and static when a good idea for something new occurred to them. And for better or worse, some of the changes that Red Dwarf VI brought in would go on to define the future of the show.

Dwarfing USA

To understand the roots of the changes Series VI brought, we have to go back to the ill-fated pilot episode of an American version of Red Dwarf, which was produced after the British Series V in 1992. American TV executives had seen potential in the Red Dwarf concept ever since the early seasons had been aired on PBS. Invited across the water to help produce the American pilot, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were optimistic that, if the American version really took off, they could achieve a level of success they could only dream of in the UK.

Unfortunately for all involved, the pilot was not picked up for a series and would not be unless Grant and Naylor were agreeable to significant changes being made, which they were not. The pilot itself, which can be found on YouTube, is admittedly quite clunky, the tension of its British origins clashing with the forced Americanisms of its humour, which forsook character development for quick-fire gags. Saying that, the pilot is worth watching at least once as a fascinating cultural anomaly, and it features in the role of Holly a certain Jane Leeves, who would shortly find fame for herself in the role of Daphne on Frasier.

But the trip itself would not be a total waste to Grant and Naylor. The concept of the writer’s room was alien to both of them, working as they had in the British sitcom tradition of the time as a writer-auteur partnership (for instance, the likes of Galton and Simpson, or La Frenais and Clement—both of whose work would influence Red Dwarf to some degree).

In the words of Doug Naylor: “They had a load of guys from The Simpsons and some guys from Cheers came in. So, there was a group of ten guys all in one room, chipping in one-liners. We were pretty tired and our nickname became ‘The Wave’: which was an abbreviation for ‘The Wave of Negativity.’ Because we wouldn’t just be chipping in one-liners, like everyone else. We would be asking really fundamental questions.” [1]

Not that Red Dwarf didn’t have a high gag rate per se, but a lot of the comedy arose naturally from the characters, the situations they found themselves in, and how they responded to those. Quick-fire gags which, with minimal changes, could be told by any character, were antithetical to the approach Red Dwarf took to comedy.

But what if the quick-fire, one-liner approach to comedy could be reapplied back to character comedy, the jokes filtered back through the characters so as to give the gags meaning, whilst making the show a bit punchier? It would certainly help to keep the show fresh. And with the imperative to push further in new directions for two key features of the show since that pivotal third series, Red Dwarf VI was shaping up to be a familiar and yet very different beast than what came before it.

The Comforts of Loneliness

Since its very beginnings, Red Dwarf had functioned as a very funny, futuristic depiction of isolation and loneliness. There are elements in the fandom who have since argued that the show has moved away from this theme and that to view the show through these themes is no longer relevant. However, what can’t be argued against is that loneliness was a major part of Red Dwarf’s makeup in the early years, particularly in the first two series.

The spaceship Red Dwarf floats though space in a lonely way
The spaceship Red Dwarf floats through space in a lonely way

Often described as “Porridge-in-space,” the reference to a prison was apt. Having awoken unexpectedly 3 million years into the future to find the crew dead, the ship’s computer having gone senile, and his remaining colleagues being composed of the hologram of his mortal enemy, a felis sapiens evolved from his cat and, later, a service droid with a passion for mopping decks and a desire to rebel, what else was the ship meant to feel like to Dave Lister? He was the Last Human, stuck on a ship he couldn’t leave, unable to return home, unable to get back the woman he loved, and stuck on a spaceship with a hologram of a crewmate he wouldn’t have even urinated on if they were on fire. Loneliness was the name of the game.

And yet, as the later series showed, the Dwarf was a big enough place to hide, a ship as “big as a city” [2] where, if you wanted to, you could hide away with as much food and resources as you could possibly need in the cargo bay, not to mention the access to all of the dead crew’s personal possessions. To paraphrase Kurt Cobain, there could be comfort in being sad, and the later series showed this by having Lister and Rimmer move into the much more luxurious Officer’s Quarters and upgrade their clothes. The ship had a cinema, a sauna, an Officer’s club, and botanical gardens. If you were going to float through space near-alone for the rest of your life, there were worse ships to do it on.

Series VI took the comforts and stuffed them in the garbage disposal unit. Rob Grant and Doug Naylor wanted to make “life more of a survival challenge” [3] for the “Boys From The Dwarf” and what better way than by removing the comforts that had sustained at least a minimal sense of civilisation for them? After all, how were they really going to get back to Earth by coasting along, luxuriating in their own loneliness? Grant and Naylor knew that their characters were going to need to work if they were going to get anywhere.

Except it wasn’t Earth they were looking for anymore.

Boys from The Dwarf

The last we saw of the ship Red Dwarf was in Series V, but it wasn’t in the last episode. That particular episode had the Dwarfers on an ocean-covered moon, fighting the perception-altering hallucinatory states of the Despair Squid. At the episode’s end, they were on the Dwarf’s tiny ship-to -surface vessel, Starbug, plotting a course for home. They never made it.

Having the crew stuck on Starbug chasing the stolen Dwarf, taken by persons unknown, helped to give the crew and the show a renewed sense of focus, as well as doubling down on the claustrophobia and loneliness of the early series. For now, they couldn’t escape each other if they needed to. They were pushed figuratively on top of each other in this tiny ship with no place to hide or escape to.

And as Holly had been left back on the Dwarf (although having appeared on Starbug in the last episode of Series V—continuity has never been Red Dwarf’s strongest point), the crew couldn’t rely on anyone, outside of Kryten, to mother them anymore. They had to maintain the ship and operate it themselves.

The Red Dwarf crew looking heroic in Starbug's cockpit
The Boys From The Dwarf

Much like the episode “Quarantine” in the previous series, under such constant close contact, the tensions on board became more than petty squabbles and moved into outright hostility. Rimmer, newly appointed as morale officer, after a cordial introduction to a weekly forum to clear the air of any issues, begins, “Do you know what it is about Lister that really makes me want to puke?” When the crew find themselves confronted by a rogue simulant on a ship that is one gunshot away from collapsing entirely, Rimmer doesn’t just suggest he’s going to abandon the team and escape, he actually does it, shooting off in the escape pod and setting off a massive ship-quake. When the Dwarfers managed to contact the pod, they suggest they bring the accelerating Rimmer down with a blast of laser cannon. In fact, the only distraction Lister has is the AI simulation machine they pick up off of a derelict ship, which Lister uses to “make love” to as many simulated, beautiful women in as many different genres as possible.

This seething pit of tension, although ostensibly a source of negative morale, did make the crew feel more like an actual functioning team than before, having to really work together to run the ship in a way they hadn’t before. Therefore, we get Kryten as ship’s cook, trying his best to deceive by making space weevil look like crunchy king prawn. We see crew members working in shifts to pilot the ship. And we get Rimmer enjoying the chance to assert his authority by forcing a fire drill (or attempting to) on a sleeping Lister and Cat. They even have set stations in the cockpit for the first time, with Lister and Cat handling piloting duties, with Kryten and Rimmer handling navigation, systems and communication at the back.

For the first time, the crew really does feel like a functioning crew, as opposed to the Left Behind, the Last Gang in Town. This will become influential on how the gang scavenge in future and how they deal with the creatures they meet in the show’s increasingly populated universe, who, as Rimmer so “elegantly” puts it in the Series VI episode “Legion,” “wanted in some way to suck out our brains, or erase us from history altogether.” In fact, when dealing with such lifeforms in future series, the crew will actually be that much more capable because of the hard learning curve that Series VI throws at them.

And talking of changes engendered by confrontations with brain-sucking creatures…

Special Skills: Ace Gunslingers

Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had decided early on in the writing for Series VI that, just like the series before it had seen a renewed emphasis on science fiction, the sixth would be more action-based in its stories.

Action at this point was nothing new to Red Dwarf. Since the celebrated revamp of the show with Series III, the “Boys From The Dwarf” had found themselves increasingly in action-filled scrapes with, amongst others, an emotion-hungry polymorph, a murderous Inquisitor who destroys those who he sees as having wasted their potential, and, of course, a genetically modified curry super-man. Of course.

What linked these confrontations to the more existentially-minded, ponderous feel of the first two series was the emphasis on character. When the polymorph attacked, it stole certain key emotions from the crew. The Inquisitor judged the character’s worthiness of life based on their past life experiences and justifications of such. The Despair Squid brought the crew to its knees by making them wallow in all that was the antithesis of what they valued in life.

In Series VI, the action expressed itself in different ways. Now actively piloting their vessel, the crew became more, in their own grungy way, like a Star Trek or Babylon 5, exploring the universe around them, as opposed to being Waiting for Godot-in-space, letting events happen to them as time passes by.

Kryten and The Cat point their bazookoids with intent
Kryten and The Cat point their bazookoids with intent

For the first time since arguably the first series, there was something really at stake. Red Dwarf had been stolen and their ongoing survival was dependent on reclaiming it. The crew were a lot more vulnerable in their tiny ship than they were back on the mothership, after all, and the supply situation was now dire. As Lister explains in series opener “Psirens,” Rimmer was on “battery back-up.  We’ve only got oxygen for three months: water, if we drink re-cyc, seven weeks. And worst of all, we’re down to our last two thousand poppadoms.” Therefore, the action came out of the crew’s fight for survival, having to scavenge to live from people who don’t take too kindly to scavengers. Or humans. Especially smegheaded humans.

A lot of action actually occurs in the cockpit as the crew come under threat at various times. As the crew weren’t piloting Red Dwarf, this is a big change in itself. The fact that they were trying to evade pursuing assailants or were actually in a battle itself gave these scenes an urgency of pace that perhaps the show didn’t have before.

So, we get the boys trying to outrun a heat-seeking missile, which turns out to be a tractor beam pulling Starbug into another ship. We get a desperate attempt to escape from a Space Corp External Enforcement Vehicle, which ends in Starbug being downed by a missile. And we get Starbug’s locked control panel ditching the crew in a desperate dive into a lava moon, only for the crew to get control back at the last second and pull clear. These sequences are treated as genuine action scenes, full of tension as well as laughs, and they play for audience suspense in a way the show had never done before.

There are also scenarios that push for the crew to get physical in ways they never had to before. In “Gunmen of the Apocalypse,” the crew, via AI plug-in, enter Kryten’s dream, a wild west fantasy, as he attempts to combat a computer virus that has locked them out of their controls. They have literally entered an action-packed, guns-blazing genre, which allows the crew to act the part of action heroes without unrealistically altering their characters (the AI machine gives them the attributes of the characters they choose to enter as—top bare fistfighter, skilled knifeman, gunslinger extraordinaire, etc.

Lister and The Cat in their cowboy characters, pointing guns at the camera
“The answer’s in these guns, somehow…”

When they enter the saloon, a major bar brawl breaks out, as in countless westerns, and which sees the crew become the “posse” by channelling their inner Clint Eastwoods and pummel the place. Lister even gets to pin a loudmouth to the door with knives and flick an apple into his mouth!

Later, in the Series VI finale, “Out of Time,” the crew encounter their future selves and are disgusted by what they find they have become. Likewise, the future crew are disgusted by the present crew’s reluctance to help further their illicit gains and so decide it is better to destroy their past selves, and therefore cease to exist rather than to lose the lifestyle they have become accustomed to.

This leads to a dramatic, action-packed climax that sees the future crew blast the present crew’s Starbug with bursts of laser, killing Lister, the Cat, and Kryten, the tension almost unbearable. Pouncing on Kryten’s last words (“there may be a…”), Rimmer picks up bazookoid and runs urgently to the lower deck to blast the time drive that their future selves want, all to a frantic, dramatic score. There are no laughs to be had here. Rimmer blasts the time drive. At the same time, Starbug is blasted and blows up in a blaze of fire. Roll credits. To be continued.

Showing that action can feed drama and yet be a genuine aspect of a sitcom, Series VI gave Red Dwarf a sense of urgency and action that it hadn’t really had before and really made this series stand out amongst the show’s history. And the icing on the cake takes us back all the way to the writer’s room in America.

Quick-fire Gags & Space Corps Directives

Whilst Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had been less than impressed with the way quick-fire gags had been written into the show, they had no issue with the gags themselves. In fact, in and of themselves, there had been some great ones. The problem had been one of how such gags had been applied to the show in the first place. But whilst there, both Grant and Naylor had become enamoured with American classic sitcom, Cheers, which showed how great quick-fire jokes can benefit a show if they are employed in service of character.

To make this work, Grant and Naylor had to utilise the streamlined approach a typical American sitcom might use to keep the pace of the show punchy and light on its feet. To this end, each episode of this series tended to follow a similar structure. It would start with a scene giving us a snapshot of life on board the ship, followed by a cockpit scene where some sort of challenge had arisen. This would lead to a conflict with another person or group, and the main thrust of the story would begin there.

Critics of this series have referred to this structure to write it off as formulaic. While I certainly can see their point, there’s something about the structure which makes Series VI distinct from what came before and after it, and which works to streamline events to make the show feel even more action-oriented and facilitates the quick-fire jokes.

While there are many snappy responses throughout the series, the most notable jokes come in the form of recurring jokes for the first and only time in the show’s history. While recurring jokes can be quite common features of sitcoms, here Red Dwarf put them in the service of the characters. For instance, Rimmer—held in contempt by the rest of the crew, he would attempt to assert his authority by citing a Space Corps directive, only to get it spectacularly wrong, as Kryten would be quick to tell him: “No officer with false teeth should attempt oral sex in zero gravity?”

The joke itself is funny, but it works even better because it plays into Rimmer’s character. He asserts himself because he is not respected, and yet he is incompetent, which is the real reason behind his drive to obtain respect. But he can’t even assert himself properly without exposing himself to ridicule. It’s funny and yet deeply tragic, like the best comedy often is.

Like Red Dwarf always was. The method and the structure had changed, but the spirit remained just the same. Much like its crew of space bums-turned-space scavengers, you just had to look at it in a different way.

Red Dwarf VI was a pivotal series. It brought a fresh, action-packed approach which proved that the show could withstand regular change. It gave us a new model of the crew as adventurers and scavengers, who were capable of flying a craft and fighting when required. And it gave us a glimpse of a much more populated universe than we had been used to at that point—a universe that would only become even more crowded as the show progressed.

These points have led to much debate amongst the fandom as to whether they are positive or negative aspects of the show, but for better or worse, the future of Red Dwarf was introduced here in Series VI.

Fan-smegging-tastic!

Endnotes:
[1] Howarth, Chris, and Steve Lyons. Red Dwarf: Programme Guide. London: Virgin, 2000.
[2] Howarth, Chris, and Steve Lyons. Red Dwarf: Programme Guide. London: Virgin, 2000.
[3] Howarth, Chris, and Steve Lyons. Red Dwarf: Programme Guide. London: Virgin, 2000.

Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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