Comedy doesn’t always translate well across languages, let alone cultures. Which is why British sitcoms (occasionally called Britcoms) sometimes have a hard time here in the states. There are a few exceptions however, Monty Python is probably the most well known even though that’s more sketch comedy rather than situational, The Office is a recent example, and there’s today’s pick, Red Dwarf.
Red Dwarf is the story of Dave Lister. He was the lowest man on a mining ship when, after bringing a pregnant cat on board against regulations, he was put in stasis. The ship’s computer, Holly (who is male), revives Lister three million years later after the radiation from a leak that killed the crew has dissipated. Holly then informs Lister of the crew’s deaths and introduces a holographic version of Lister’s immediate superior (and total smeg-head) Rimmer. Lister and Rimmer then run into a cat person who evolved from the pregnant cat that Lister brought on board who was sealed away in the ship’s hold and thus avoided the radiation. Lister orders Holly to turn the ship around, and thus begins the long, strange trip of the Red Dwarf.
Red Dwarf is a wonderful send-up of the classic sci-fi situations and tropes. It takes everything that you know about a typical science fiction story and set-up, and turns it on its head. The premise itself is a good example of this; typically, the protagonist of a story like this, would be a smart, take charge kind of guy, not a lazy, slobby, chain-smoking bum. Dave Lister is anything but the hyper-competent protagonist we’re used to, which allows the writers free reign with the jokes that would naturally come out of a situation where the idiot is in charge. But the real comedy gold comes from the relationship between Lister and Rimmer. In a lot of ways Rimmer is just as stupid as Lister, but Rimmer has far more ambition and drive than Lister will ever have. But their ability to find the weakest parts of each others character is where the best comedy comes from. Lister and Rimmer know how to push each others buttons so well, that the lengths they’ll go to to annoy the other are some of the best parts of the series.
That’s not to say that Holly and Cat are treated as afterthoughts, while they may be in the background for most of the first series, they do get some pretty funny bits for themselves. Holly functions as part exposition dump and outside commentary on Lister and Rimmer’s actions. Cat is Lister’s partner in crime and provides a non-human perspective on the situations that the crew finds themselves in.
There are flaws that need to be addressed however. First of all, the humor will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s very british in its rhythm and timing, which not everyone will get. It’s also very slapstick, so if that isn’t your thing it’s probably best to stay away. There’s also the accents to consider, Lister in particular has a very strong accent which might be hard for some people to understand. Also, the first series feels kind of lackluster to me. There’s some good ideas, Future Echoes is one of the best of that series, but the rest of it feels kind of dull. Things do pick up as the show goes along, but you have to have patience with it.
Overall this is a solid parody of Science Fiction and the kind of stories that are commonly told in that genre. There is actually quite a bit of character development from about series two onwards, but the wait to get there might be a little much for some. But it’s still a funny, enjoyable ride with some of the biggest idiots in the galaxy.
Overall rating: 6.5/10
2 thoughts on “Netflix Picks: A Ship of Fools”
Red Dwarf was still fresh and young when I was in my teens, and so I have a huge fondness for it. After all, how many sci-fi sitcoms were there to watch in the 1990s? What I didn’t appreciate at the time, and you rightly highlighted here, is just how important the relationships were to making it work. The humour was great, but it was the characters and their dynamics that made it so addictive.