Critical Contrast – Sci-Fi Comedy : Red Dwarf


So series 11 of Red Dwarf has began to air on channel Dave, proving that death really isn’t the handicap it used to be in the olden days, and doesn’t screw your career up like it used to, even if that career is watering down the legacy of your cult classic sci-fi comedy show far beyond its sell-by date.

I’m sure series 11 is fine, just as series 10 was fine, but to me Red Dwarf has lost the spark that made it a classic: the writing partnership of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and their ability to comprehensively blend situation comedy and science fiction.

Whereas most science fiction comedy keeps the science soft; mere set dressing for standard situation comedy tropes to be layered on top of, Grant Naylor’s best scripts used scientific theorem as a jumping off point; as the situation from which the comedy emerged, bringing both elements together into one glorious whole.

So this is what we’ll be looking at for this run of CC- science fiction comedy where the science is intrinsic to the comedy, starting with a few choice episodes of Red Dwarf.

Note: this is a broader analysis of the series rather than an episode by episode breakdown, so familiarity of the show along with the embedded clips will be more intrinsic, partially to illustrate my points quickly, partially to let the comedy speak for itself, and frankly for less of a word count, so spoiler warnings etc (you should watch all of Red Dwarf 1-6 anyway, it’s really rather good!).

If your new to the series and wish to continue though, some background:

“This is an SOS distress call from the mining ship Red Dwarf. The crew are dead, killed by a radiation leak. The only survivors were Dave Lister, who was in suspended animation during the disaster, and his pregnant cat, who was safely sealed in the hold. Revived three million years later, Lister’s only companions are a life form who evolved from his cat, and Arnold Rimmer, a hologram simulation of one of the dead crew. I am Holly, the ship’s computer, with an IQ of 6000. The same IQ as 6000 PE teachers.”


Messing with time has always been a staple of science fiction, travelling through time of course being the favourite, and although Red Dwarf does have a plethora of these more standard sci-fi tales, it also played with time in more unique ways, often eschewing the use of a time machine plot device in favour of exploring scientific theory through its unique blend of sitcom and surrealism.

Even in the show’s earlier, more character driven series (the second episode in fact), Grant Naylor begin to play with time, sending the crew of the crimson short one travelling at light speed and beyond, causing them to start catching up with forthcoming events before they’ve actually taken place, basically experiencing visions of the future.

Or, as the show puts it: Future Echoes.

Future Echoes delivers it’s vision of faster than light travel to its audience by building key scenes as thought exercises, but its strong characters, sharp writing and clever editing techniques presents them as a bizarre farce- a winning mixture of surrealist humour and traditional character comedy. For example:

Series 4’s White Hole uses similar techniques in this scene to explain its titular theoretical phenomenon the opposite of a black hole spewing time back into the universe instead of out:

Whereas Future Echoes plays off the mystery of the phenomena before explaining what’s been going on the whole time, White Hole (or more specifically when the concept is first introduced in the second half) is more indicative of Red Dwarf’s winning writing formula: introducing the episode’s sci-fi concept to the audience in a concise and  understandable manner, and then playing off that understanding to comic effect.

This formula is used in many episodes, but the best example of its use is also its first- series 3’s opening episode Backwards.

Inspired by Doug Naylor’s reading of Stephen Hawkins’ “A brief history of time,” Backwards drops the crew into the middle of a world where time runs, well, backwards. Holly explains, in a scene which I sadly cannot find a quick clip of:

“Everything starts with a Big Bang, right? And the universe starts expanding. Eventually, when it’s expanded as far as it can, there’s a big crunch, right? And everything starts contracting. Perfectly possible that time starts running in the opposite direction, as well.”

Throughout this, this concept is masterfully demonstrated with a montage of backwards traffic, a man sucking smoke from the air and back into his cigarette, and coins leaping into people’s hands from a busker’s guitar case (reading more like theft).

The rest of the episode explores this theory to comic effect by making the familiar utterly surreal, rightfully splitting the crew to let the scenes with Kryten and Rimmer (who understand what’s going on) apply the theory through strange newspaper headlines (“Three brought to life in bank raid”) advertising (“roll off deodorant: keeps you wet and smelly for up to 24 hours”), and the gross spectacle of a woman sloppily uneating an éclair, whilst Lister and The Cat (who believe they’re in Bulgaria) blunder after them backwards on a tandem bike.

Things eventually click into place for the latter, and with the crew reunited, the episode culminates in a set piece bar fight- in reverse naturally:

More so than the other examples, Backwards’ realises its concept with its visuals, direction and video editing, and it’s worth considering that even what seems the easiest process today (the reversal of the shot) was only achievable on two video tape machines in the whole of the BBC circa 1993. But director Ed Bye rises to the challenge, capturing the mundanity of the 20th century earth setting and warping it with the simple but surreal premise, whilst keeping it visually comprehensive and understandable to the audience.

To better understand this task (and also for the fun of it), heres that same fight scene before it was reversed:

Grant Naylor’s interpretations of Faster Than Light Travel, White Hole Theory and Kinematic Relativity (Big Crunch) are both obscure and well researched, allowing them to create strange but intellectually stimulating plot lines and use them as foundations for comedy- to be poked at and parodied- contrasting the vast, ineffable awe of the universe and how little we know of our place within it with the Red Dwarf’s crew of crude, slobby, and most of all relatable misfits.

This is the genius of Red Dwarf as a series- going beyond the soft sci-fi set dressing of many and making hard science accessible, and most importantly, hilarious.

Red Dwarf didn’t just mess with time of course. It also dipped its toes into a multitude of alternative universe plots in order to leverage and explore multiple interpretations of Lister, Cat, Kryten and Rimmer, creating a unique kaleidoscope of character comedy. I’m tempted to explore this further. If you would be interested in me doing that though, leave a comment below, or on the Facebook, or whatever seems appropriate. Otherwise in the next CC I’ll be moving on to Rick and Morty, how it uses scientific theory to create its comedy, and what being an animated medium allows them to achieve.


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