In the episode “Me2” (Bye, 1988) of the classic British science-fiction comedy show Red Dwarf (1988 to 2020), it is revealed the Arnold Rimmer’s (Chris Barrie) last words were “Gazpacho soup!” and that he made a point to celebrate November 25th as “Gazpacho Soup Day” after a particularly traumatising visit to the Captain’s Table. While this is the perfect date to celebrate the long-running cult series, it clashed with another celebration this year so I’m a day late, but better late than never…
Air Date: 15 February 1988 to 21 March 1988
Director: Ed Bye
Original Network: BBC2
Stars: Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Norman Lovett, C. P. Grogan, and Mac McDonald
In the mid-1980s, creative duo Rob Grant and Doug Naylor created a sci-fi comedy show for BBC Radio 4, Dave Hollins: Space Cadet; this, along with influences from sci-fi classics like Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Adams, 1978; Bell, 1981), served as the basis for what would become Red Dwarf. Putting character and comedy before genre, their concept of a comedy set in space featuring dysfunctional characters in an extraordinary setting was initially a hard sell due to its sci-fi trappings. Originally, Alfred Molina was cast in the role of Second Technician Arnold J. Rimmer but, when he dropped out due to difficulties with the character and concept, impressionist Chris Barrie (who’d previously worked with Grant and Naylor) stepped into the role. Liverpudlian “punk poet” Craig Charles was cast as Third Technician Dave Lister and, despite being an hour late to his appointment, singer and dancer Danny John-Jules was cast as “The Cat”, with the actors tackling their roles as being larger-than-life caricatures of themselves. Sardonic stand-up comedian Norman Lovett was cast the the ship’s neutronic computer, Holly, and gained a bit of a reputation, insisting on appearing on camera rather than merely a voice over and refusing to work unless his confiscated football was returned to him. Against all the odds and despite a tight budget, Red Dwarf finally made it to TV screens; however, while five million viewers tuned in to watch “The End” (Bye, 1988), those numbers dropped over the course of the series. Nevertheless, audience feedback was so strong that the BBC commissioned a second series, where the show really hit its stride and became a cult hit. About ten years later, Grant and Naylor revisited the first three seasons and enhanced them with additional digital effects, replacing many model shots and even excising some lines and jokes, which resulted in these Remastered episodes being largely criticised. Still, following this first series, Red Dwarf proved consistently popular even as the duo experimented with more outlandish concepts; after they parted ways and Red Dwarf disappearing altogether, the show returned with a three-episode special, which led to a questionable revival that focused on the far more jaded principal cast members.
When the crew of deep space mining ship Red Dwarf are all killed following a radiation leak, the ship drifts aimless in space for three million years. When the background radiation dies down the ship’s computer, Holly, releases slovenly technician Dave Lister from his incarceration in suspended animation and he’s left alone in the endless void with only the hologramatic recreation of his overbearing superior and bunk mate, Arnold Rimmer, and a creature who evolved from the ship’s cat for company.
I grew up watching Red Dwarf, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. My dad was a big fan of the series and had taped each episode as they aired so we could easily just go to the shelf and shove in a VHS tape to watch it whenever we wanted, but our collection originally started from series two (Bye, 1988). In fact, I’m pretty sure that we were up to series four (ibid/Paul Jackson, 1991) or five (Various, 1992) before I had even seen the first series. This was because, back in the early nineties, re-runs didn’t really work the way they do now; we didn’t have catch-up TV or streaming services, VHS tapes were extortionately expensive and often only contained two or three episodes, and there weren’t any channels like Gold or Dave that constantly showed repeats. I remember being stupidly excited when the first series was announced to be returning to BBC2 in anticipation of the latest series, only to find that the first series was very different to what I have experienced so far, even from the technically similar second series. Of all the classic series’ of Red Dwarf, series one is easily my least favourite and, even now, I rarely choose to watch it over the second or third (Bye, 1989); while I can understand that the show was establishing itself and finding its footing, many of the episodes drag and aren’t very visually interesting to look at. You can tell from the live audience’s reactions that this sentiment was shared as many of the jokes fall a bit flat and the audience seems confused about the premise. This wouldn’t be an issue in the next series and wouldn’t reoccur until Grant and Naylor stopped working together and the show took a noticeable nosedive, but it’s unmistakable here and does somewhat stunt my enjoyment of the first series despite there being a few standout moments and episodes.
The show begins with the titular mining vessel fully crewed and out in the depths of space. According to Officer Frank Todhunter (Robert Bathurst), the ship houses 169 crew members, from dosgbody technicians like Rimmer and Lister to officers and the ship’s captain, Frank Hollister (McDonald). The dynamic between Lister and Rimmer is established in the very first sequence of the first episode; Lister, a lowly Third Technician, is a lifelong slacker and career slob who is endlessly bored by their mundane duties, which include unclogging food dispensing machines. To amuse himself, Lister likes to wind Rimmer up with singing, humming, and other annoying habits, which has earned him no less than 247 complaints from his superior and bunk-mate. Truth be told, Rimmer is equally as unsatisfied with his job, which isn’t assigned to the ship’s service robots (known as “Skutters”) simply because the machines have a better union. However, Rimmer, believes wholeheartedly in the importance of their essential routine maintenance in keeping the ship and her crew safe on their long journey and is a stickler for the rules and professionalism even though it’s earned him a reputation as a “Smeghead”. This is the primary reason why Lister is so insubordinate towards Rimmer; he can’t stand Rimmer’s stuck up, kiss-ass attitude and would much prefer he got the rod out of his ass, but Rimmer is determined to impress and advance his career to get the respect he feels he deserves. Although Rimmer believes Lister is content to simply slob around with no ambition, Lister actually has a few dreams; his first love is music and he’s an enthusiastic (if terrible) guitar player; he also plans to buy a farm on Fiji where he can breed horses and own a sheep and a cow. He believes he’ll achieve this goal since he saves money by not buying deodorant, socks, and soap and because the prices on Fiji are ridiculously low thanks to a volcanic eruption leaving most of the land three feet below sea level. While Rimmer mocks this plan, Lister is determined to make it work, ideally, with Navigation Officer Kristine Kochanski (Grogan) by his side. Unlike in later series’, Kochanski is Lister’s dream girl who he has been working on plucking up the courage to ask out rather than a former flame who he longed to get back with, and he always makes sure to flirt with her during his many trips to the captain’s office.
While Lister’s insubordinate attitude sees him getting numerous write-ups and reprimands, it’s his housing of an illegal animal that ends up with him being sentenced to the stasis booth for breaking the ship’s quarantine procedures. Refusing to give up his pregnant cat, Frankenstein, Lister is released to find that the entire crew has been wiped out by a radiation leak thanks to Rimmer’s sloppy work. Unlike in the novelisations, where Lister falls into a deep and self-destructive depression following the revelation that everyone he knows (literally everyone) is dead, Lister takes this news surprisingly well; he’s gutted that Kochanski’s dead and that his plan will never come to fruition but still coherent enough to crack jokes about overdue library books. “Balance of Power” (Bye, 1988) offers a glimpse into Lister’s despair as he sits alone in the bar, remembering the fun times with his friends; before the accident, Lister was surrounded by the equally slovenly Petersen (Mark Williams), Chen (Paul Bradley), and Selby (David Gillespie) and the three of them delighted in mocking Rimmer whenever possible, drinking, smoking, and slacking off together at every opportunity. He feels their loss deeply, but is largely ruled by his regret at never making a move on Kochanski, and his pining for her is a recurring theme throughout the series as he tries, and fails, to convince Rimmer to allow him to spend some time with her hologram. Unlike Rimmer, who believes wholeheartedly in the existence of aliens, Lister is of the belief that humanity is alone in the vast universe, but jumps at the chance to pull a prank on Rimmer when he mistakenly believes a garbage pod contains the remains of the fictional “Quagaar” race. Lister does suffer a crisis of conscience, however, when he learns that, during this three million year sleep, the cats evolved into a humanoid species, Felix sapiens, that worshipped him as a God, “Cloister the Stupid”, who would lead them to the promised land of “Fuchal”. The extent of this thread is explored in “Waiting for God” (Bye, 1988), where Lister learns from smell reading the Cat’s books and bible that the cats engaged in violent wars over differing interpretations of Lister’s dreams of opening a hot dog and doughnut diner on Fiji. Lister is distraught at having been “misquoted” but gains a modicum of catharsis when he’s able to pose as his holy self and help bring some peace to a blind, disillusioned, and dying elderly an elderly cat priest (Noel Coleman).
A huge part of the series is the love/hate relationship between Lister and Rimmer, with both despising the other’s annoying habits and accusing them of holding them back. While Lister doesn’t really care all that much what people think of him, Rimmer is obsessed by it, constantly trying to impress his superiors and pass his engineer’s exam, only to be met with a series of embarrassing failures, including writing “I am a fish” four-hundred times. So desperate is Rimmer to pass his exams and become an officer that he often resorts to cheating (either using illegal “learning drugs” or writing the answers on his arms and legs as an “aid to memory”), but it’s also stated that his tendency to self-sabotage is just as to blame for his failures as his lack of capability as he wastes weeks creating revision schedules rather than actually revising. Lister is constantly frustrated by Rimmer’s neurotic ways and insistence on following rules and procedures, but Holly explains that he brought Rimmer back as a hologram rather than one of Lister’s friends since he was statistically the best person to keep him sane. Rimmer’s newfound intangibility and sudden death only adds to his neuroses; the first thing he does upon seeing Lister is blame him for choosing the save Frankenstein and thus not being able to help replace the drive plate, before whining that any dreams he had of advancing his career or having a sex life have been forever lost thanks to him now being dead. Rimmer finds solace in maintaining his officious and aggravating personality; he goes out of his way to insult and bring down Lister for being a lazy slob, and throws his weight around as the ship’s highest ranking officer to order Holly to perform menial tasks for him and give him access to the crew’s confidential files, which always results in Rimmer being embarrassed in some way. Interestingly, while Rimmer is later personified by his abject cowardice, he actually tries to attack the Cat when they’re properly introduced and shows so co-dependency on his slovenly bunk mate; he’s distraught at the idea of being turned off when Lister plans to go back into stasis and constantly denies Lister access to Kochanski’s hologram disc simply out of fear of whatever little life he has left being snuffed out completely.
Rimmer also has little time or patience for the Cat, a suave, sharply-dressed, hyperactive humanoid with a propensity for dancing, traversing the ship via the air ducts, stopping to admire himself, and claiming everything he sees as his. Though he exhibits knowledge of his species’ reverence for Cloister/Lister, he’s not really a true believer and is more interested in sex, food, and looking good and disparagingly refers to Lister as a “monkey”. His curiosity often causes problems for Rimmer, who has restricted Lister’s access to his vices (mostly cigarettes and booze) to try and coerce him into co-operating with menial tasks; Rimmer’s horrified when the Cat finds Lister’s cigarettes and claims them for himself since they’re so shiny and manages to convince him to return the fags in exchange for being taught how to use the vending machines. This backfires on Rimmer and the Cat, however; not only does the Cat betray him, costing him some leverage in trying to talk Lister out of taking the chef’s exam and thus becoming his superior officer, the Cat gorges himself on fish and ends up suffers from stomach pains. The Cat is largely used as a comedic break; he wanders the corridors “investigating” and looking for food and showing off his “shiny thing”, a yo-yo that fascinates and excites him in its simplicity, much to Rimmer’s disgust and irritation. In “Confidence and Paranoia” (Bye, 1988), the Cat momentarily expresses concern when he spies Lister’s unconscious body but quickly moves on, more concerned with finding something to have sex with and then showing no interest in helping when Rimmer tries begging him for assistance since he’s more focused on playing with his Chicken Marengo. Later, when Lister recovers, the Cat does try to cheer him up with “presents” but ends up stealing his pillow and blanket and trying to take a nap, and even seems genuinely hurt when Rimmer snaps at him. The Cat plays a large role in the series, however, despite his comparative lack on screen time; not only is Lister deeply shaken by his influence over the Cat’s society, he’s determined to keep the Cat from losing a tooth in “Future Echoes” (Bye, 1988) in order to prevent his own inevitable and violent death. Though he’s unsuccessful, and the Cat is largely incredulous to the drama between Lister and Rimmer throughout the series, the Cat does end up socialising with Lister on a few occasions and has some fun moments, such as becoming paranoid about the presence of a dog, taking a crap in Rimmer’s boots, and roller-skating around with a megaphone and large bouquet of flowers trying to court any lady cats.
Finally, there’s the ship’s computer, Holly, who boasts that he has an IQ of six-thousand (“the same IQ as six-thousand PE teachers”). Before the accident, Holly was merely a glorified announcement system, but three million years of isolation have driven him “a bit peculiar” and resulted in him dropping any formalities and indulging in decidedly un-computer-like conduct. Despite his high IQ, Holly has quite a few limitations; he can only sustain one hologram at a time, he can’t observe or communicate with anyone or anything in the cargo hold, and he’s frequently forgetful, meaning that he’s initially overwhelmed when he has to figure out the precise calculations needed to navigate the ship when it exceeds the speed of light following three million years of constant acceleration. To properly marshal his efforts, he even sets up an answering machine to keep people from bothering him, and he’s ill equipped to handle the lightspeed trip, which overwhelms him once it occurs (as he puts it, “me bottle’s gone!”) Rimmer also makes constant menial demands of him, demanding haircuts and answers to problems happening on the ship without consideration for Holly’s feelings or duties. As a result, Holly enjoys pulling pranks on Rimmer almost as much as Lister does, messing about with his hair and image file to give him Peterson’s arm and keeping the truth of the garbage pod from him for “a laugh”. Holly’s propensity for jokes and pulling pranks also extends to Lister, however; he later tries to stave off his boredom in “Me2” with an early April Fool’s joke where he claims that Norweb have dispatched fighters to claim debts owed by Lister. He also constantly interrupts Lister’s attempts to enjoy a heart-breaking film in “Confidence and Paranoia” when he finds himself at a loose end after reading every book ever written. Frustrated at the constant interruptions, Lister agrees to erase Holly’s knowledge of Agatha Christie in lieu of the computer’s inability to create a lifelike replica of a woman, only to be exasperated when Holly has no idea of what’s happened!
One of the first things to note about series one of Red Dwarf is how long and boring the opening title sequence is; sadly, it wouldn’t be until the third series that things would get a bit more interesting and exciting in this regard, and every episode opens with a slow, dramatic, even ominous series of shots showcasing the vastness of the titular mining vessel against the endless black of outer space. It’s not particularly thrilling or engaging, and the presentation (like much of the series’ music) veers oddly towards the ominous rather than the comical. Thankfully, every episode after the first also begins with Holly providing either a bit of context to life onboard the ship, catching people up with the show’s general premise, and dropping a few jokes here and there, almost as a warm-up act to the remainder of the episode. The series also lacks a real appealing visual identity; every corridor looks the same, drab grey (there’s even a joke about this in “Me2” when Rimmer insists on repainting the walls from ocean grey to military grey) and boring grey labels cover all the food and drink throughout the series as well. Even the cigarette packets are unappealing to look at, as are the crew’s uniforms, though this does help Lister, the Cat, and the show’s other colourful guest stars to pop out a bit more with their wild attire. The show’s technology and sci-fi elements are primarily introduced in the first episode and recur in easy to digest ways throughout the series; robotic Skutters glide about the place performing menial tasks (they later showcase some amusing personality quirks, like begging Lister not to leave them with Rimmer, enjoying a movie, and flipping Rimmer off behind his back) and the ship is outfitted with dispensing machines that frequently malfunction. The stasis booth is the focus of the first couple of episodes and essentially functions as a brig for insubordinate crew members, but also allows Lister to survive the radiation leak, but the most prominent technology is Holly’s ability to “resurrect” dead crew members as holograms. We’re introduced to the concept through Flight Coordinator George McIntyre (Robert McCulley) but much of Rimmer’s neurotic behaviour boils down to him being recreated almost perfectly except for the large H on his forehead and the fact that he cannot lift or touch anything and is, essentially, a digital ghost.
Perhaps more so than any other series of Red Dwarf, series one hinges on the chaotic relationship between Lister and Rimmer. The two cannot stand each other and are constantly finding ways to either put the other down or wind each other up and, while every episode explores their relationship in some way, “Balance of Power” (Bye, 1988) goes all-in with showing just how frustrated Lister is by Rimmer’s oppressive and borderline insane hang-ups. Rimmer despairs of Lister’s hygiene, his taste in music, his lack of ambition, and his slobby nature but is also paranoid about losing his fragile existence in favour of Kochanski. To that end, Rimmer arranges to hide the hologram discs from Lister and refuses to entertain even a short switch off, so Lister resolves to force him to listen to him by passing his chef’s exam. This shakes Rimmer, not just because he believes a chef is a “white-hatted ponce” rather than a real officer, but also because of the very real fear that Lister could actually succeed, especially given that Lister showcases flashes of intelligence and capability throughout the show and he actually tries to revise rather than making excuses like Rimmer. When his attempts at reasoning with Lister fail, he assumes Kochanski’s form and tries to talk Lister out of his efforts; however, while initially crushed by her rejection, Lister quickly sees through Rimmer’s charade, exposing him with ease. Their issues finally come to a head in the final two episodes; interestingly, Rimmer shows genuine concern when Lister’s pneumonia causes physical manifestations of Lister’s Confidence (Craig Ferguson) and Paranoia (Lee Cornes) to appear. In a flash of uncharacteristic concern, and despite how similar Paranoia is to him, Rimmer sees them as dangerous and symptomatic of Lister’s illness since, as long as they exist, Lister can’t recover. Rimmer even tries to distract Paranoia so a Skutter can sneak up on him to sedate him but is unsuccessful, but his concerns are largely out of his selfish desire not to be left alone with just Holly and the Cat for company. In the end, he’s proven to be right, and then gets the last laugh by swapping Kochanski’s disc with his own, creating two Rimmers. At first, both Rimmers and Lister are happy to be rid of each other; Lister delights in being free from Rimmer’s rules and irritations and the Rimmers deck their quarters out with everything they need to motivate (procrastinate) and succeed (self-aggrandise), much to Lister’s amusement.
However, conflict soon grows between the Rimmers; one is noticeably more driven, more focused, and more demanding than the other and they eventually verbally attack each other and descend into childish squabbling. Lister is able to use this to his advantage, however, to learn the secret of Rimmer’s last words (“Gazpacho soup”). When Rimmer 1 shows up for his erasure in his finest attire and showing off his long service medals, he relates how he embarrassed himself at the Captain’s Table by sending back a bowl of gazpacho soup since he didn’t know it was meant to be served cold. Haunted by the experience, he blamed his ignorance for his subsequent lack of confidence and stunted career, raging at the injustice of such a simple mistake costing him his aspirations. When Lister wipes the other Rimmer, the series seems to end with them finally reaching a level of mutual respect…only for Lister to make a “soup-er” pun to keep their relationship decidedly antagonistic. Gags such as this are commonplace throughout the series, which primarily focuses its dialogue and jokes on grounded, relatable subjects rather than resorting to incomprehensible space jargon. This does happen a few times, however, and mostly lands quite well, but it’s just as amusing seeing Lister accidentally put shaving cream under his armpits, the crew’s interactions with the chirpy Talky the Toaster (John Lenahan), and making topical references about the French and Germans. Probably the best episode of this series is “Future Echoes” for its hilarious use of double takes and time dilations that see Lister have one-sided, out of synch conversations with Rimmer, frantically trying to prevent his death, and him and Rimmer puzzled at how they manage to get two babies on the ship without a woman.
Primarily, the show is focused on the four main characters; some fun personalities appear in the first episode before being reduced to ashy powder and the memories of them haunt both Lister and Rimmer alike throughout the series. The crew are joined by a couple of additional cast members in the form of Lister’s Confidence (a loud, outspoken, encouraging, and enthusiastic individual who compliments everything about Lister, however slovenly and unappealing) and Paranoia (a twisted little man who criticises everything about Lister and seeks to question him, bring him down, and attack every decision he makes). Frustrated by Rimmer’s overbearing nature, Lister jumps at the chance to spend time with Confidence, who’s won over by his musical “talent” and is so admiring of his “King” that he even keeps Lister’s discarded cigarette butts. Although Lister is a little uncomfortable by Confidence’s blinkered belief in him, he’s inspired by him to search for the hidden personality discs so he can finally be reunited with Kochanski. Lister’s resolve falters when Confidence reveals that he not only destroyed the medical unit but also killed Paranoia to keep them together and he’s distraught when Confidence takes his helmet off in the vacuum of space to bolster his confidence and instantly explodes as a result. Even despite some of its genuinely amusing moments and the pull of nostalgia, I still have to admit that series one is one of my least favourite of the show’s many seasons; everything’s a bit dull and lacking in visual variety and the characters and concepts would be fleshed out far better in even the following series. Even watching the Remastered version of the series doesn’t help as some of the CGI shots, additions, and changes made actually throw off the original jokes. In the end, there’s a lot of potential here; the dynamic between Lister and Rimmer is at the forefront and helps to carry series one to some funny moments, usually at Rimmer’s expense or at Lister’s slovenly ways, but the show definitely found its footing in later series and improved upon the foundations laid down by this first enjoyable, if somewhat awkward, season.
Could Be Better
What did you think to series one of Red Dwarf? Were you a fan of the show and the concept when it first aired? Did the jokes and gags work for you? What did you think to the chaotic relationship between Lister and Rimmer? Were you a fan of the Cat and his surprisingly dark history? Which episode of series one was your favourite? When did you first discover Red Dwarf and which character, season, and ship is your favourite and why? Would you like to see more seasons and specials, maybe one that finally closes the book on the Red Dwarf story, or do you think it’s best to leave it be for now? How are you celebrating Gazpacho Soup Day today? No matter what you think, feel free to leave a comment about Red Dwarf down in the comments and on my social media.
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