BBC Two’s (and later, UKTV’s) sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, is one of my favourite things in the whole world. It was thrust upon me in November of 1989, when I was 11 years old, and 25 years later it has a hold on my heart that will never let go.
The first episode I ever saw in full was Series III’s “Backwards”. There was something about this surreal, insane, gimmicky show that just immediately appealed to me, even though I knew nothing about it. Why was that man called a cat? Why did that man have a blocky head? Why did that man have a H on his forehead? It didn’t matter. It just made laugh and laugh. I recorded all of Series III to VHS, and watched it religiously, memorising each line, every aspect of delivery. I watched those six glorious episodes to death, and to this day Series III is just… wonderful. It’s warm, nostalgic, I still laugh at it, and it feels fresh to me even a quarter of a century on.
After Series III my friend Aaron revealed that a book of the show existed – I devoured that novel, and soon, it’s sequel. Red Dwarf IV and V appeared, and by now I was in the mad grip of pure obsession. VHS releases had started, and I remember eagerly watching Red Dwarf II at my friend Leonard’s house – 6 new episodes! Well, new to me. They looked so much more primitive than the later shows, but I didn’t care. The characters, the writing, the humour, it was all there.
I was 14 now, and I’d subscribed to the Red Dwarf Smegazine, and eagerly awaited it’s arrival each month. I loved the comics, and especially the art by Nigel Kitching, and the emergence and familiarity of other die-hard Red Dwarf fans. I pored over the set reports of the sixth series filming, and loved every second of Series VI upon broadcast. I remember sitting, numb with shock, as Series VI ended on a cliffhanger with all the crew seemingly killed by their future selves. For a fourteen year old, the three and a half year gap between Series VI and VII was torturous.
I killed that time by joining the Red Dwarf fan club. Contributing regularly to the Better Than Life magazine, I encountered other fans like me, and got swept up in this wonderful community. People like Andrew Ellard, Phillipa Drakeford, MJ Fouldes, Ian Symes, Simon Bromley, Seb Patrick, and countless others all influenced and amused me, and I treasure those fanzines. I still have a folder stuffed to the brim with my crudely drawn and hand-lettered Red Dwarf comic strips. It sits next to my equally-crammed folder of Red Dwarf news-clippings from Starburst, SFX and TV Zone magazines.
At this point in time there was a definite air of shakiness to the return of Red Dwarf – Craig Charles had been held on remand for a (thankfully baseless) rape charge, and Chris Barrie had been vocal about his dissatisfaction with Series VI production issues. The writing team of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had also parted ways, and it all seemed a bit… final.
I was also into a full blown obsession with the show at this point, even occasionally calling the production company to ask for updates on production, and could I get audience tickets please. I may have been the most irritating person in the world at this point.
As it happened, Red Dwarf VII came to pass, albeit with changes. Doug Naylor now ran the show, original director Ed Bye had returned, Chris Barrie would only appear in four episodes, and Kochanski would return as a regular cast member, now played by Chloe Annett. The whole show would be pre-filmed, then shown to an audience, and as luck would have it, I had secured three tickets to go and see the first showing! I was ecstatic – I was going to be on the laughter track for Red Dwarf! A fan’s dream come true.
Me, my dad, and my friend Johnny drove to Teddington Studios, and watched the first showing. I was chuffed – after waiting for years, I’d find out how they resolved the cliffhanger ending for Series VI! Er, no. They showed us episodes 2, 3 and 5. So I would still have to wait for the actual TV broadcast… pah. But either way – I was IN the audience. I was chuffed, “Stoke Me A Clipper” was the first ep I was in the audience for, so it’ll always hold a special slot in my heart.
A year or so later, and I was ending my sixth form year, and my final project focused on, naturally, Red Dwarf – a chunky little thesis comparing and contrasting the set designs from Series I & II, and Series III – VI. I was extremely fortunate enough to have an in-depth interview with Mel Bibby, the production designer for Series III – VIII, and he was just the nicest guy, god rest his soul. He even provided me with copies of set designs and blueprints. What a guy. Around this time Series VIII was filming, and I’d again been lucky in grabbing tickets to go and see it at Shepperton Studios. This time, I got tickets to the first recording, and got to see what would eventually be “Back In The Red part 1” and “Back In The Red part 2”. I really enjoyed the experience, but it’s fair to say the episodes themselves start off well and decline in quality pretty quickly, sadly. Mel Bibby also managed to nab me a ticket to go and see the final recording – confusingly, ALSO “Back In The Red”, this time re-doing scenes and recording additional material to make the episode into a three-parter.
I was so disappointed with Series VIII upon broadcast. I think I lucked out seeing the episodes I saw being recorded. Series VIII just didn’t work for me, and time isn’t helping it. I never even owned the VHS tapes of that series… just my off-air copies. It ended on a damp fart of a cliffhanger, and that seemed to be it for Red Dwarf on the telly.
Red Dwarf’s fan community still thrived though, and I was still an active part of it. I managed to attend the Dimension Jump conventions, meeting yet more friends, and dressing up as the Blue Midget spacecraft… Good times! I made penpals across the globe, and Red Dwarf was directly responsible for me meeting my first wife, and therefore moving to the United States for a few years until the marriage eventually didn’t work out.
Upon returning to the UK I began collecting DVDs of Red Dwarf as they were being released, and was blown away by the level of excellence of the extra content – as fans we were well and truly spoilt, and those DVD’s and their documentaries are still the bar to be attained by other DVD’s and Blu-Rays.
I’d re-joined the Red Dwarf fan club when the Dave channel announced the return of Red Dwarf in the guise of the ‘Back To Earth’ special, and I had started drawing (much better looking) comics based on it, and also drew a comic that my fellow fan Ben Paddon wrote. They even got name-checked on the official Red Dwarf site eventually too, which I was crazily over-pleased about.
With the success of ‘Back To Earth’, Series X followed, mere years later. I’d managed to nab tickets to two recordings ‘Entangled’ and ‘Dear Dave’, and eagerly lapped up more studio audience shenanigans, even though the episodes were both unfinished at those recordings. Everyone at these recordings now knows to cherish them more than most things, as they’re always potentially the last…. and it was gratifying to see a solid return to form for the boys from the Dwarf.
Following another few years of waiting for the official announcements, the back-to-back recordings for Series XI and XII have now started. I’ve only been able to attend one recording this time (now at Pinewood Studios), for the fourth episode of Series XI, but I enjoyed it immensely, and I can’t wait to see the rest of the two new series. It really feels like a Red Dwarf renaissance.
One of my goals is to contribute something to the show in an official capacity at some point, ideally on a comic of the show, or (pipe dream) to the show itself – which I kinda have, albeit as a laugh lost in the cacophony of the studio audience. But I’ve been a complete nut for this show for 26 years and counting, and even if I never achieve my goal, I know I’ll be a fan forever. Through good and bad, through long waits and bursts of frantic happenings, Red Dwarf has helped shape my sense of humour, and how I create my own stories and comic books. It’s helped define me as a person, and brought such happiness to me over the years it’s unreal.
Thanks Red Dwarf. You’re amazing.