To be honest, I thought long and hard about how to kick off the writing process for this blog. The initial plan was to write an inaugural post detailing my past blogging experience, my decision to eventually quit blogging and my later decision to eventually (eventually) return to it, interspersed with personal musings on blogging as a whole and its relevance in an increasingly opinionated, over-blogged society. It would have been a work of bloggy genius to rival Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ in terms of sheer poetic beauty. It really would have been. Then I thought, “eh, this is hard, I’ll just write something about Red Dwarf instead and see if anyone takes notice.”
Red Dwarf I, episode 1: “The End”
Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally aired 15th February 1988.
Let’s talk sitcom, shall we? Specifically, first episodes. Let’s agree that the role of the first episode of any sitcom, for the most part, is to set up the premise, characters and setting of the show. Futurama did it subtly, introducing a few core characters and the rough premise of the show by the end of its pilot, then developing that premise (while introducing more characters) in episodes to come. By contrast, 2012’s Anger Management does it by throwing every character and setting they have at you in the pilot and moving them about until a plot happens. So there’s no one way of doing it; and, as a big fan of both these shows, I can see the value in each method. So how about a show that quietlysets up a premise, setting and cast of characters, only to pull the proverbial rug from under your feet by killing most of the people you’ve just met halfway through the first episode? Enter Red Dwarf.
For those who aren’t familiar with how this goes down, here’s how it goes. Down. In the year… I’m not sure if it’s ever established, but sometime in the future, on the Jupiter Mining Corporation ship Red Dwarf, chicken-soup machine repairman Dave Lister is sentenced to six months in stasis for smuggling a cat on board. However, while in stasis, a radiation leak causes the entire, not-comfortably-in-stasis crew of 169 to sort of, well, die; so Holly, the onboard computer, keeps Dave in his state of suspended animation until the radiation levels have reached a safe enough level. Due to the half-life of the radioactive material this mild inconvenience takes three million years, at a time when the human race has either gone extinct or evolved beyond all recognition. For the remainder of his life Dave has three companions: the aforementioned Holly; his old bunk-mate and bug-bear, Arnold Rimmer, resurrected as a hologram; and the descendant of his old cat, evolved to a humanoid species much as homo sapiens evolved from apes. Got all that? Champion.
I can only imagine what the television-viewing audience of 1988, coming to this episode with no knowledge of what was about to happen, must have thought after it finished, particularly as Lister doesn’t even reach the stasis booth until about the halfway mark. I certainly didn’t expect it to take so much time, either, especially as very few, if any clues are dropped as to what might happen – though the funeral of the deceased crew-mate, George, and his subsequent resurrection as a hologram does set the tone somewhat, along with setting up Rimmer’s return. So plot isn’t too important here; instead, “The End” chooses to build character, focusing on what might just be this show’s greatest strength – the relationship between Craig Charles’ Lister and Chris Barrie’s Rimmer. Antagonism plays a big part in sitcom humour (something that’s been thoroughly lost on the writers of The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men in recent years) and the aloof resentment between this two lets the jokes just slip out naturally. The scene where they sit in their room after George’s funeral is relatively simple in execution – it really is just the two of them talking to each other – but it allows the two to build each others’ characters by the slings fired at them. Rimmer’s hard truths show Lister to be naive and simplistic in outlook, whereas Lister’s taunts and barbs reveal just what a petty individual Rimmer is. It’s those subtle shifts between dislike and hate that help to keep things tense and claustrophobic despite the sheer size of their two locations – the ship; and the empty universe. Which is what this show is about, really: very personal relationships on a very impersonal cosmic plain. But more on that later.
Of course, the result of the twist is that the first half of the episode is dedicated to setting up said premise and the second half reels in its aftermath; to that extent, not much else happens in the episode that doesn’t fit into this narrative vein. More time is spent on planting seeds for the show ahead – the Cloister story, for example, which gives Cat a bit of back-story whilst setting up the future episode “Waiting for God” – with little wiggle room for rumination on all the death around them. It could be said that Lister acclimatises to his situation pretty quickly, actually: he walks about, registers some shock, eats some person-dust, then holo-Rimmer shows up and the great tragedy at the core of the show is largely forgotten about (for now). Which might be a good thing, to be honest – instead of dour reflection on his situation, we get an optimistic promise of heading back to Earth and, more specifically, Fiji, assuming either of them are still there. The concept is pretty ridiculous in and of itself, but it does provide a focus to the show, which is nice. The wonderful Cat is also introduced, but his presence in this episode (and much of the first series) is more of a comic relief to the relative tensions between Lister and Rimmer. More on him later as well.
Of course, this is a sitcom, so there’s always that big question that often (you’d be surprised) gets overlooked: is it funny? Well, kinda. There are a few chuckles, but once the first scene and initial (and very funny) conversation with Lister and Rimmer ends, the jokes are kept to a minimum while the plot slowly puts itself together (though Rimmer’s incident in the exam room is an inspired bit of wordless comedy-acting from Chris Barrie that really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated). Once the twist arrives, there are a few more jokes while the Cat gets some time to shine (even if his quirks take time to get used to – time we aren’t really rewarded with in the minutes remaining), but for the most part this is a formative episode. It makes sense why many sitcoms these days premiere with two episodes rather than one.
Still, here’s to the future. In Red Dwarf‘s universe there’s precious little else to look forward to.
Well, that was a bit long, wasn’t it? Now for some of that bloggy run-off we love so much – the bloggy depot, if you Jerry Cantrell fans will:
- “Lister, D. Third technician. Offence: obstructing a superior technician by humming, clicking and being quiet.” Of course the show would open with Lister and Rimmer getting on each other’s nerves like that: perfect introduction to the core relationship of the show. Sheldon and Leonard have nothing on these two (last Big Bang Theory slam of the post, pinky swear).
- 169 people on board Red Dwarf? I would have thought a ship that size would have required more people to run it, especially if they can afford to have two people on board just to fix the chicken-soup machines.
- Does anyone know what Rimmer calls Todhunter at the very end of the first scene? I’ve watched this episode about a dozen times and I still can’t decode it.
- I wonder how many viewers expected this to be a charming little workplace sitcom when it first aired, about a bunch of mates having wacky adventures together in space? Aaaand boom, they’re all dead. This ain’t The Big Bang Theory, man (though the decrease in quality over time is comparable – I might write something on that someday. And oh yeah, I lied).
- Speaking of Futurama back there, the two shows have some startling similarities in terms of premise that I’ve never noticed until now. I wonder if anyone’s written anything substantial on that?
- “Three million years?! I’ve still got that library book.” A very sitcom-y reaction to complete and utter time displacement, but I buy it.
- I’ll have to check at precisely what point in the show the whole Fiji thing is dropped completely from the storyline. I don’t think it’s very far in, actually.
So thanks for reading this first post. Sorry it’s a bit unfocused and rubbish. I’ll be writing about the rest of the episodes in this series, followed by series II, III and so on. There’ll be other stuff as well – music posts, mostly.