Unoriginal, sterotypical, geeky – and very funny

Cult comedy Red Dwarf, set on a spaceship, is returning to our TV screens, with an injection of postmodern irony.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Does anyone remember the BBC series Red Dwarf being funny? I thought it was. But I found Red Dwarf fans even funnier.

Back in the 1990s they proved an endless source of hilarity for me and my fellow students at Manchester University. We considered ourselves to be the epitome of cool, living reckless lager-fuelled lives, missing lectures, going to all the trendy clubs, living on Marlboro Lights, amphetamines and doner kebabs, and reading a bit of Derrida and Foucault in the meantime. How we used to scorn the students at the rival college, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), what with their pasty faces, greasy hair, rolled-up cigarettes and predilection for real ale and scrumpy. How we used to find their science and engineering courses philistine in comparison to our more noble pursuit of more abstract and meaningful truth via English, History or the Classics. And you could always spot a geeky UMIST student because he was wearing a Red Dwarf t-shirt, or emerging bleary-eyed from an all-night Star Trek showing at six in the morning.

What exactly attracted geeks to Red Dwarf, which is to return to our screens next Friday (1)? I suppose it was because the show was overwhelmingly male and escapist. For those not in the know, Red Dwarf, which ran from 1988 to 1999, was a TV comedy set on a spaceship. Three million years ago a radiation leak killed all of the crew, apart from the chicken soup machine repairman, Dave Lister (Craig Charles), who had been in suspended animation; Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), who had been turned into a holographic projection; and Cat (Danny John-Jules), a life form who had evolved from the ship’s cat. The surviving crew members were later joined by the neurotic, paranoid android Kryten (Robert Llewellyn).

There was a certain solipsistic and retarded appeal to Red Dwarf – imagining that you lived in a universe where women barely existed, in which you had no responsibilities. And we were all meant to empathise with Lister, him being the only true human being on board. Lister was an ironically aspirational character: geeks loved him because he was everything they were not, and everything they wanted to be. He was a gregarious, lager-drinking vindaloo addict who was a mean hand at pool and a notoriously successful womaniser. Likewise, they also looked up to Cat. For all his veniality and selfishness, Cat was a cool, smart dresser, unlike most Red Dwarf fans, who smelt of piss. And in truth, most Red Dwarf fans resembled Rimmer or Kryten: fussy, unpopular, cowardly, awkward and anally retentive.

To be honest, I was a bit of a geek in my teenage years, which is probably why I, too, was a massive Red Dwarf fan. But in retrospect it all seems a bit derivative. I appreciate that the name ‘Kryten’ was a knowing nod to the butler out of JM Barrie’s 1902 play, The Admirable Crichton, but I think this device was used to mask Red Dwarf‘s unoriginal nature, trying to palm off its pilfering narrative as homage.

Rimmer and Lister might as well have respectively been Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau out of The Odd Couple (1968), or indeed Withnail and Marlow, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or Laurel and Hardy.

Then there is Kryten himself, who confirms to that classical android stereotype – in that he is more human than the humans themselves, with completely exaggerated character traits. Think of the neurotic and clearly homosexual C3PO from Star Wars, the replicants from Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, or Marvin the paranoid android from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – to which Red Dwarf clearly owes a massive debt. The ship’s computer (first played by Norman Lovett and then by Hattie Hayridge) is evidently mad or senile or both, another longstanding feature in science fiction, whether it be HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey or the mentally defective computer in Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. And Chris Barrie’s Rimmer is neurotic. Guess why? Because his father never loved him. Yada yada yada.

Mind you, the forthcoming return of Red Dwarf promises to inject a bit of postmodern irony. The two-part series, Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, features the crew visiting the fictional Manchester setting of Coronation Street. Charles currently plays a cab-firm boss in the eponymous soap opera, and Red Dwarf will have Lister meeting his parallel-universe alter ego called Craig Charles (2). This is exactly the kind of irony I would have appreciated back in the day in Manchester when I was a smug little git who thought it funny to laugh at the Red Dwarf aficionados from UMIST. I probably should have written a thesis on it, as, after all, taking popular culture seriously was very much in vogue in academia back then. Towards a Hermeneutical Understanding of Red Dwarf: And Some Footnotes Featuring Baudrillard and Barthes Thrown In For Good Measure Just To Convince You That I’m Not Wasting Your Time would have been a good title.

My contempt for Red Dwarf fans was unwarranted and unnecessary, and in all honesty, despite my misgivings for the originality of the series, it still stands the test of time. As the adage goes: the old jokes are the best. And Red Dwarf has plenty of them. I’ve been enjoying the re-runs on the UK Dave channel and equally look forward to Red Dwarf‘s return. But please spare us those bloody unfunny t-shirts.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Red Dwarf voyages back to Earth, BBC News, 27 January 2009

(2) The return of Red Dwarf, The Times, 30 March 2009

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Topics Culture


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