Notoriously, and entirely appropriately, the original outline for Doug Naylor and Rob Grant's comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf
was sketched on the back of a beer mat. When it finally appeared on British television in 1988, the show had clearly stayed true to its roots, mixing jokes about excessive curry consumption with affectionate parodies of classic sci-fi. Indeed, one of the show's most endearing and enduring features is its obvious respect for genre conventions, even as it gleefully subverts them. The scenario owes something to Douglas Adams's satirical Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
, something to The Odd Couple
, and a lot more to the slacker sci-fi of John Carpenter's Dark Star
. Behind the crew's constant bickering there lurks an impending sense that life, the universe, and everything are all someone's idea of a terrible joke.
Later seasons broadened the show's horizons until at last its premise was so diluted as to be unrecognizable, but in the six episodes of the first season, the comedy is witty and intimate, focusing on characters and not special effects. Slob Dave Lister (Craig Charles) is the last human alive after a radiation leak wipes out the crew of the vast mining vessel Red Dwarf (episode 1, "The End"). He bums around the spaceship with the perpetually uptight and annoyed hologram of his dead bunkmate, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie, the show's greatest comedy asset), and a creature evolved from a cat (dapper Danny John-Jules). They are guided rather haphazardly by Holly, the worryingly thick main computer (lugubrious Norman Lovett).
The second season showcases the show's sardonic, sarcastic humor to perfection. The cast had gelled, the drab sets were spiced up, a little more money had been assigned to models and special effects, and the crew even went on location once in a while. "Kryten" introduces us to the eponymous house robot (here played by David Ross), although after this first episode he was not to reappear until season 3, when Robert Llewellyn made the role his own. Then in "Better Than Life" the show produced one of its all-time classic episodes, as the boys from the Dwarf take part in a virtual reality game that's ruined by Rimmer's tortured psyche. Other highlights include "Queeg," in which Holly is replaced by a domineering computer personality; the baffling time-travel paradox of "Stasis Leak"; the puzzling conundrum of "Thanks for the Memory"; and the astonishingly feminine "Parallel Universe." --Mark Walker