After the triumphant return to form of Red Dwarf X, the sci-fi sitcom is back for not just one but two new series. Richard Edwards heads on set to find out more...
As the team return once more, we’ve been sneaking around behind the scenes.
SFX’s 13-year-old self could be
here now, he’d be so excited his head would explode with the gooey, pus-filled force of Dave Lister’s space mumps. We’re sitting in the pilot’s seat of Starbug, and we’re not ashamed to admit that, in our mind, we’re actually flying the ship. We are stopping just short of making the sound effects, though – let’s show a modicum of professionalism here...
A short walk around the corner we’re in Lister and Rimmer’s quarters on Red Dwarf. Alongside the ubiquitous guitar, closer inspection of Lister’s bunk reveals a picture of Kochanski (the Chloë Annett vintage) and a poster for his favourite zero-gravity football team, the London Jets. Rimmer’s bed below, meanwhile, boasts framed bronze and silver swimming awards.
We wander into the next room and, we have to admit, it’s starting to feel odd that so many key parts of a vessel nearly 10 kilometres in length sit so close together. This is the Dwarf’s science and medical centre, where an errant Skutter – one of the ship’s dogsbody droids – sits alongside a medpod that’s been repurposed from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (yes, really), and wonderfully analogue control panels populated with knobs, dials and switches. They’re so real and tactile it’s a mission to resist the urge to fiddle with them.
Just behind is the sort of shadowy spaceship corridor usually frequented by Xenomorphs and – producer Kerry Waddell tells us – decorated with spare parts from Guardians Of
The Galaxy. We knew all about the “used universe” aesthetic beloved of Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner, but this approach to recycling is taking the idea to a whole new level.
“Yeah, it’s that retro feeling – and our logo has gone retro and analogue-y as well!” says
Red Dwarf’s multi-hyphenate writer, director, producer and co-creator Doug Naylor when we catch up with him in the edit suite a few months later. “It’s the ‘change the light bulb’ gag, really. I do like that. It speaks volumes about what Red Dwarf is, and where they are.”
Make no mistake, at 28 years old, Red Dwarf is embracing its history. Series X, broadcast in 2012, took things back to basics – just an ordinary guy, a hologram, a mechanoid and the distant descendant of a pet cat living on a spaceship three million years from home. And – crucially – the return of the live studio audience that had been a key component of the show’s first six (and eighth) series.
Despite a tricky journey to the screen that involved major rewrites, shifting production
The series took some time to evolve because we had a couple of false starts
schedules and entire episodes being dropped – “Anyone who’s watched ‘We’re Smegged’ on the DVD of series X will know the difficulties we had,” admits Naylor – it was widely hailed as Red Dwarf’s best outing in years, arguably the best since the show’s early ’90s heyday.
So like Red Dwarf itself, Starbug, Naylor, and stars Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn, the audience are, unsurprisingly, back for the new shows.
The biggest change this year, however, is arguably the decision to film two series back-to-back – six episodes shooting before Christmas, half a dozen after – with Red Dwarf XI launching this month, and series XII airing in 2017.
“Just in terms of the workload, obviously it’s been twice as much, and we’ve been really keen to keep the standard up,” Naylor explains. “It’s been great fun. It’s like the old days, really. And all the cast have said that – what a great time they had – which really is interesting, because we made 12 shows pretty much on the run. Apart from Christmas, there was no real break.”
Although more Red Dwarf always seemed a no-brainer for the show’s current home on UKTV’s Dave, 12 wasn’t always the magic number – not least because, when discussions began, Charles was still part of the Coronation Street cast.
“The series took some time to evolve, because we had a couple of false starts where we thought we could get Craig out of Corrie,” recalls Naylor. “I’d started writing even before the series was fully commissioned. And then it turned out we couldn’t get Craig out of Corrie. And then it looked like we could. Then I’m A Celebrity… came along, so we were foiled again – and then Corrie didn’t want to let him out at all.
“Throughout that period, I was expecting to write six. Then it became apparent that Craig would have to make
the decision whether he was going to leave or not leave – and I was always very confident that he would leave if it came down to having to make that decision, though I don’t think he wanted to make that decision at the time. I think he would have loved to have taken another sabbatical from Corrie, come and done this and then gone back. But that was not to be. So Craig said, ‘Look, if I’m going to leave, I don’t think we should do six. I think we should do 12.’
“It’s easy to say on the phone, ‘Yeah, that makes total sense!’” Naylor laughs.
“Craig was going, ‘Surely it’s going to be cheaper? You’ve got the set-up, and we just do the whole 12.’
“I was saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right! I’m sure it must be cheaper. And UKTV will probably buy that because it means they’ve got two series…’
“Then I thought, ‘Hang on a minute – now I’ve got to write 12!’”
old but new
While Naylor’s staying tight-lipped on plot specifics and guest stars in series XI, we do know that the six episodes will feature an alternative America where technology is forbidden, Lister getting his kidneys stolen, Rimmer finally becoming an officer, a midlife crisis for Kryten, and Cat meeting a female member of his species. In the classic Red Dwarf tradition, it’s more about standalone episodes than serialised storytelling – though Naylor hints that we’re likely to see new sides of the show’s lead quartet.
“It’s always a great advantage if you can put the episodes out in any order,” he says. “We’ve always kind of avoided series arcs – though it’s not that there aren’t things that are a little bit arc-y. They’re more internal things – seemingly, giving the characters what appears to be good news at the beginning of the episode and fulfilling their dreams, and then confounding that. So you think, for example, ‘God, I can’t believe we haven’t done this with the Cat.’ And
The boys’ dress sense is about the same as before.
Life is much easier with a bazookoid in your hand.
The Cat’s getting a female friend.
Is Rimmer getting delusions of grandeur?