Co-cre­ator Doug Naylor looks back on the show’s his­tory.

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In most uni­verses, sit­coms aren’t gen­er­ally known for their longevity. But Red Dwarf’s 28 years (and count­ing) is an ex­cep­tional haul for any TV show, es­pe­cially one that ex­ists in the far-from-crowded area of the Venn di­a­gram where sci-fi and com­edy over­lap. So how is it that nearly three decades af­ter it first blasted onto BBC Two in 1988, Red Dwarf is not just alive, but thriv­ing – with two new se­ries in the can, (one due in Septem­ber, the other in 2017)? It’s a re­mark­able feat con­sid­er­ing that, back in the mid-’80s, even get­ting one se­ries was some­thing of a mis­sion.

Rob Grant and Doug Naylor started writ­ing Red Dwarf over a week in North Wales in 1984. Their script picked up early in­ter­est from two of the hottest pro­duc­ing tal­ents in Bri­tish TV com­edy – John Lloyd (Black­ad­der, Spit­ting Im­age, The Hitch­hiker’s Guide To The Gal­axy) and Paul Jack­son (The Young

Ones). “We showed the first script to Paul Jack­son,” re­calls Naylor. “He said, ‘Don’t bother. I promise you, you’ll never sell it. They hate science fic­tion!’”

The BBC had al­ready passed on the script a cou­ple of times when Grant and Naylor had a crack at pitch­ing it to the big­wigs at the BBC them­selves.

“We went to see the BBC’s head of com­edy, but he just flat out didn’t get it,” Naylor re­calls. “He said, ‘Peo­ple won’t be able to re­late to peo­ple on a space­ship, be­cause that’s not any­thing in any­one’s life, whereas a sofa and French win­dows, peo­ple can re­late to. So if you could some­how start the show off with a sofa and French win­dows and

“i thought it was go­ing to be the big­gest com­edy on TV. that was un­til i walked on set and re­alised peo­ple wouldn’t be blown over”

then it turned out to be a space­ship, to ease peo­ple in, that might help.’

“We pointed out that you don’t of­ten get so­fas and French win­dows on space­ships!” Naylor laughs. “He wound up com­mis­sion­ing us for a science fic­tion com­edy, but not Red Dwarf – which we still [haven’t] writ­ten!”

Chan­nel 4 also sug­gested mak­ing it into a one-off for their “Film On 4” strand, but Grant and Naylor turned them down. “We said no, be­cause we wanted it to be a TV se­ries. The balls of it now!”

Over the next three years outer space went quiet, as the duo con­tin­ued to write for Spit­ting Im­age, and “kind of for­got about Red Dwarf a lit­tle bit”. But, in a mo­ment of good for­tune that sug­gested some­one might have re­leased a luck virus into the air ducts, Jack­son came back to them with an op­por­tu­nity. It turned out that BBC North had a slot for a com­edy free in Manch­ester af­ter Ben El­ton had de­cided he didn’t want to do a sec­ond se­ries of Happy Fam­i­lies. Jack­son pitched Red Dwarf along with two other scripts.

“They said, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll do Red Dwarf,’” ex­plains Naylor. “I think one of the rea­sons BBC Manch­ester com­mis­sioned it was be­cause they thought what­ever they did would prob­a­bly fail – most com­edy does – and wanted to pro­tect them­selves by do­ing some­thing weird so they could say to BBC Lon­don that at least they were try­ing some­thing orig­i­nal and new.”

First broad­cast in Fe­bru­ary 1988 and pop­u­lated with a cast of then-un­knowns, de­but episode “The End” got over four mil­lion view­ers on BBC Two – an im­pres­sive start, though view­ing fig­ures for that first se­ries soon dropped off, a fact Naylor puts down to the show’s low-bud­get aes­thetic, light years away from the sci-fi TV com­ing from the other side of the At­lantic.

“I’d been con­vinced it was go­ing to be enor­mous,” he admits. “I thought it was ab­so­lutely go­ing to be the big­gest com­edy on TV for three se­ries. And then ob­vi­ously you’d only ever do three se­ries, and that was it. That was un­til I walked on set for show one and re­alised peo­ple weren’t go­ing to be blown over. I thought, ‘Okay, we might need a bit more time to get this right. We asked them not to re­peat it

“i got a call from a jour­nal­ist in amer­ica say­ing it was the big­gest thing on Pbs tele­vi­sion since Monty Python”

be­cause we didn’t think we’d got it quite right.”

They got a chance to have an­other crack at prov­ing them­selves with a sec­ond se­ries...

“The sec­ond se­ries then took off in a small way,” Naylor re­calls. “When it was re­peated, it got the ex­act same fig­ures as the first time. We were al­ways in the top 10 for rat­ings on BBC Two. Though BBC Two at the time had a se­ries of con­trollers, some of whom, we un­der­stand, hated it. But they couldn’t get rid of it be­cause of the rat­ings!”


Se­ries three came with big changes. “That was when Rob and I be­came pro­duc­ers. We wanted it to look dif­fer­ent, to look bet­ter.”

Rim­mer’s uni­form be­came less vend­ing ma­chine re­pair­man, more star­ship of­fi­cer. The open­ing cred­its were funked up, with a new rock­i­fied ver­sion of the end cred­its theme. A new craft, Star­bug, was in­tro­duced to get the boys off the Dwarf more of­ten. Holly the com­puter gave him­self a head sex change in hon­our of his par­al­lel uni­verse coun­ter­part, Hilly (with Hat­tie Hayridge tak­ing over from Nor­man Lovett). And per­haps most im­por­tantly, Kry­ten – the mechanoid who’d been a guest star in the se­ries two episode that bears his name – be­came a reg­u­lar mem­ber of the crew.

“We’d thought we had enough char­ac­ters, and then we re­alised that we didn’t,” says Naylor. “Rob in par­tic­u­lar didn’t want to have a ro­bot be­cause he thought it was a real cliché. Al­though I ac­cepted it was a cliché, I ar­gued it de­pends on what you do with it. I thought Kry­ten was a great char­ac­ter and would be great in the mix. It was a three-, four-month dis­cus­sion, and fi­nally we agreed that was the way we were go­ing to go.

“The idea orig­i­nally was to bring back David Ross, who played the orig­i­nal Kry­ten,” Naylor adds, “but he wasn’t avail­able. It was Paul Jack­son who said there was a guy in Ed­in­burgh who does a thing about robots called Mam­mon, and it might be worth see­ing him.

“‘Why, be­cause he’s played a ro­bot?’ It sounded like the most lazy idea! But Robert [Llewellyn] came in for the au­di­tion and I don’t think we saw any­one else af­ter that. Hav­ing said that, we started shoot­ing, and he didn’t have the voice at all. It was English at that point, and then it sort of evolved over the first week of the shoot that he be­came Kry­ten.”

The show be­came a rat­ings smash, break­ing records for BBC Two, and spawn­ing spin-offs galore. There were nov­els; a monthly “Smegazine” that ran for 23 is­sues and fea­tured a Red

Dwarf comic strip; lots of mer­chan­dise (the Red Dwarf t-shirt was an es­sen­tial part of a ’90s teenager’s wardrobe); and two pi­lots were also made for a po­ten­tial Amer­i­can spin-off (one of which fea­tured Star Trek: Deep

Space Nine’s Terry Far­rell as a fe­male ver­sion of the Cat). While it’s tempt­ing to put the suc­cess down to iconic and mem­o­rable sto­ry­lines like “Back­wards”, “Poly­morph”, “Di­men­sion Jump” and “Back To Re­al­ity” in those glory years of se­ries III-VI, Naylor puts it down to some­thing else.

“I think the pro­duc­tion val­ues were great in III and IV, but I think some of the ideas, like ‘Thanks For The Mem­ory’ or ‘Fu­ture Echoes’ which were in II, were re­ally good. I think maybe the ex­e­cu­tion got bet­ter in III to VI. It was good times. It was great fun writ­ing those shows.

“The real turn­ing point, I think, was when we were half way through shoot­ing se­ries three, I got a call from a jour­nal­ist in Amer­ica say­ing it was the big­gest thing on PBS since Monty Python. So when I did pub­lic­ity I just threw this in and sud­denly it was in all the pa­pers, say­ing Red Dwarf is a mas­sive hit, be­cause they love those sto­ries where a Bri­tish thing is a huge hit out­side the UK. That co­in­cided with sea­son three, and we took off from that point, re­ally.”


When Red Dwarf re­turned from a four-year break in 1997, it looked very dif­fer­ent – on both sides of the cam­era. Co-cre­ator Rob Grant had left, Chris “Rim­mer” Barrie ap­peared in just a few episodes, Lis­ter’s ex, Kochan­ski, was now a reg­u­lar char­ac­ter (played by Chloë An­nett) and the show had a more cine­matic look. And for the first time, it wasn’t filmed in front of a live stu­dio au­di­ence.

“[Direc­tor] Ed Bye’s view was, ‘If we were go­ing to make a film we should shoot it sin­gle cam­era and not have the au­di­ence, be­cause it would look more filmic. And if do end up do­ing a

film, it would be good prac­tice for the guys. The ar­gu­ment made sense to me. But then what hap­pened was, there were never enough gaps for the laugh­ter, be­cause you can’t ex­pect the cast to ac­cu­rately guess ev­ery gap. It wasn’t the best thing to do, but I only re­alised that af­ter the event.

“So we got the au­di­ence back on VIII. They were a bit rau­cous that au­di­ence. It was like hav­ing a rock and roll night! But the cast love work­ing with an au­di­ence. It brings them alive.”

De­spite 1999’s se­ries VIII top­ping eight mil­lion view­ers, it would be the last run the Dwar­fers would get on the BBC – and their last new episodes any­where for a decade.


But Red Dwarf never went away – through much of that “lost” decade Naylor was work­ing on the long-mooted Red Dwarf movie. “We were try­ing to get the film off the ground for ages,” he ex­plains. “There were so many drafts of the movie. There isn’t a defini­tive script, be­cause I was con­stantly be­ing asked ei­ther to re­write it to make it more ex­pen­sive, or to then re­write the rewrites to make it cheaper. It kept look­ing like it was get­ting very close, and then we had the money fall through so it all fiz­zled out, and it looked like that would be it.”

But in the mean­time, re­peats of the show had be­come some­thing

“i was con­stantly be­ing asked to ei­ther re­write the film to make it more ex­pen­sive, or to then re­write the rewrites to make it cheaper”

a phe­nom­e­non on UKTV’s Dave chan­nel. So pop­u­lar, in fact, that UKTV ap­proached Naylor about get­ting the cast back to­gether – in cos­tume – to pro­vide a frame­work for a clip show. Those plans were even­tu­ally aban­doned in favour of an all-new three-part se­ries, “Back To Earth” (2009), a fourth-wall-bust­ing story that saw Lis­ter, Kry­ten, Rim­mer and the Cat com­ing back to present­day Earth, find­ing out they’re char­ac­ters in a long-run­ning space-set sit­com (they even see them­selves on the cover of SFX), and meet­ing Coronation Street star Craig Charles, who, er, looks kind of fa­mil­iar. The bud­get was small, with just “three proper sets”, lo­ca­tion shoots and CG back­grounds (film school stu­dents helped out with some of the ef­fects), but it was a huge suc­cess, break­ing records for a dig­i­tal-only chan­nel.

“I knew where I was go­ing, and I knew I had to prove to UKTV [it could be suc­cess­ful],” Naylor says. “I just thought, we’ll just get some­thing made in the best way we pos­si­bly can with the lim­i­ta­tions of this mi­cro bud­get. But equally, once it’s out there, then I can change things. That’s thank­fully what hap­pened. It got fan­tas­tic fig­ures!”

“Back To Earth” opened the door for an all-new, six-part se­ries X, which de­buted in 2012 – and re­ally was a re­turn to the feel of the ’80s and ’90s. “I told them, I want it to be like the BBC Two show, 30 min­utes, with the four boys pri­mar­ily on Red Dwarf and with com­plete sto­ries. And I want an au­di­ence. So that’s what we did.”

Like its pre­de­ces­sor, Red Dwarf X was again a big rat­ings suc­cess, prov­ing pop­u­lar with fans and crit­ics. SFX de­scribed it as “a tri­umphant re­turn to form”, and pointed out that “peo­ple wanted it to be good and were happy that it deliri­ously was.” There seems to be plenty of life left in that gi­ant red space­ship.”

“Even now there’s new gen­er­a­tions watch­ing it,” says Naylor. “Peo­ple watch it and like it. They have kids, and the kids watch it.” So if you find your­self wak­ing up from sta­sis in three mil­lion years time, it might be worth see­ing if Red Dwarf is still out there...

Red Dwarf XI airs on Dave from 22 Septem­ber.

Rim­mer and Lis­ter with the first in­car­na­tion of Kris­tine Kochan­ski (Clare Gro­gan).

The crew you’ve known for all these years…

The Holly Hop Drive un­for­tu­nately doesn’t get the boys back to Earth “in sec­onds”.

Doug Naylor in­tro­duces a live record­ing.

The crew with Holly’s new head.

Cov­ers from Red Dwarf’s very own Smegazine.

Red Dwarf is only 28 years younger than Coronation Street!

A bit like be­ing on Fif­teen To One.

The se­ries X vin­tage, and SFX’s uber-rare guest-star cover.

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