Summer TV Club takes you back to the 80s again, only this week we're going "across the Pond" (as the tiresome saying goes) to check out the sci-fi cult comedy, Red Dwarf. It's the story of Dave Lister, a technician on a mining ship who's recently woken up from 3,000,000 years of suspended animation to find he's the only human left in the universe. His sole companions are a hologram of his former roommate and Cat, the feline-human hybrid evolving from Lister's long-dead pregnant cat Frankenstein.
The show never gained much traction over here, but is widely acclaimed among people who claim to care about such things. Then again, with 61 episodes, it may be second only to EastEnders in British TV longevity.
This week's episode was "Thanks For the Memory," in which our trio deals with the aftermath of an epic bender. And with Abby taking an allegedly much-needed vacation this week, we've borrowed John Seaborn Gray from Rocks Off. Hopefully he wasn't too bored.
PETE: While fairly respected, Red Dwarf isn't widely known over here outside of the higher echelons of geekery. This seems to be a recurring problem for all non-Doctor Who British sci fi TV. Is it a question of budget, accessibility, or something else?
JEF: Americans tend to prefer to trade comedies and reality shows from the Brits, and vice versa. I'm pretty sure Doctor Who and its spin-offs are the only really successful Brit sci-fi to make it over here for some reason. The budget of Red Dwarf at this time wasn't all that below another sit-com of similar status, and the themes appear to me to be pretty universal.
I'm guessing it's because the Midwest just can't treat that accent as anything other than Galactic Empire-speech.
JOHN: The budget doesn't look especially shabby for a British comedy of the period. I'm guessing it had a lot more to do with the fact that it was difficult to find: I only ever saw it on PBS, and they kept changing the time slot around. Plus adding an English sense of humor to a sci-fi comedy doesn't exactly make it less of a niche program.
PETE: The obvious question to ask after watching any episode of Red Dwarf is: what's the first thing you'd do after 3,000,000 years of hibernation? I'd probably check to see if the Astros had won a World Series yet, or if George R.R. Martin finished Winds of Winter.
JEF: I guess I would prepare for my murderous rampage or try to make friends with a young child. That's what happens when dinosaurs are brought back in the movies. Seems only fair that I do the same for the Future-Kind.
JOHN: First I would pee for a couple years. After that I'd probably hide and try to surreptitiously find out as much information about my present universe as I could. It's difficult to imagine a few hundred years into the future, much less a few million. For all I know, all sentient life is now evolved from intestinal flora and considers my digestive tract to be society's worst ongoing genocide.
PETE: Once again, John will go down as history's greatest monster. So "Cat" is the result of millions of years of evolution starting with Lister's pregnant cat. Is it just me, or does that whole thing sound distinctly horrifying?
JEF: It is a statistical certainly that there is a little sister-humping in us all. I approve of Cat and all his inbred-y goodness.
JOHN: Generations upon generations of inbreeding... I'm surprised Cat isn't constantly trying to push his fundamentally religious agenda onto the ship's legislative body.
PETE: I think we can recognize Red Dwarf's dedication to parodying hard sci-fi while acknowledging these are some terrible jokes, even by 90s standards. "Good thing he wasn't a gynecologist?" "I've seen people on fire move better than that?" I was waiting for "Humans drive like this, while cat people drive like this."
JEF: I dunno, I thought the food jokes were funny, and they felt like a nice nod to Hitchhiker's Guide. I think you're just to hung up on the corniness of Cat.
JOHN: A couple of the jokes were cheesy, but I thought most of the writing was pretty strong. The main flaw I noticed was the length. The story arc was way compressed. This kind of plot should've been at least hour-length to properly draw out the suspense of not knowing what happened. I would've liked a better fleshed-out Lisa Yeats, too.
PETE: Oh, yes. Tell me, how does a hologram eat a sandwich?
JEF: Quickly before the bread dissolves.
JOHN: I hadn't eaten yet when I watched this and I really wanted that fucking sandwich.
I assumed it was a holographic sandwich. Along the same lines, though: how does a hologram lie in bed? How does he become drunk? Is he drinking holographic beers and his program adjusts his holographic blood alcohol level like when you take Nico out to get shit-faced in GTA4? I think this show is meant to adhere to Mystery Science Theater 3000 rules: when the comedy is in conflict with the universe's rules or continuity, we should really just relax.
PETE: One of the things that kept me from embracing this show as much as I'd have liked to was Craig Charles. I just never warmed up to him, although I was extremely happy to see Cory Glover's hairstyle from his Living Color days survived so far into the future.
JEF: He's a hard hero to like, I admit. He's supposed to be an everyman, but he ends up just being a little too crass and disgusting. His best moments are when he's annoying Rimmer for his bureaucratic attitude. Sometimes I think the show would have taken off better if it was more like a space version of The Office
JOHN: I like Craig Charles. I liked him on Robot Wars, too. He just seems like he'd be fun to sit around with listening to old Clash albums and swigging thousands of calories worth of Boddington's.
PETE: In "Thanks for the Memory," Lister, Rimmer, and the Cat have to rely on surveillance tapes to figure out what happened over the last four days. Are we witnessing the birth of the "found footage" movement?
JEF: I think Twilight Zone did an episode like that. What amuses me now is that this is almost exactly a comedic template for Blair Witch 2.
JOHN: I think we're witnessing more of a proto-Hangover. Come to think of it, Zach Galiafinakis would make a damn fine Dave Lister.
PETE: There's nothing her can't do. Now, while implanting memories is a fairly standard sci-fi trope, for some reason, it seems even creepier here. Is that because of our innate distrust of the British?
JEF: Playing with perceptions and memories is a big part of Red Dwarf. Partly because it's a good way to have guest stars and new locations, but mostly because the show is about what being lonely will do to you. It's really a very sad series when you stop and analyze it, especially if you read some of the spin-off books like Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. No, I don't think it's creepy here. I think it's sad.
JOHN: It was disturbingly sad more than creepy, although the idea of implanting the memory of a woman into a man - including the sexy bits - without her permission is a bit unsavory. I suppose it's forgivable, since she and all other humans have been dead for several millenia. Really, the show was an exploration of whether or not it actually is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. And it seemed like the answer was a surprisingly melancholy Both are terrible.
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PETE: Thanks for bringing the room down, guys. In keeping with British TV tradition, each season (or "series") of Red Dwarf was ridiculously short by American network standards (six episodes). Now American networks like FX and AMC are running more abbreviated seasons as well. I guess what I'm asking is: what do you think is going to happen to Walter White on Breaking Bad?
JEF: I think Daryl Dixon will shoot him with an arrow when he catches him having an affair with Betty Draper... I honestly don't know why anyone watches Breaking Bad. Were we not getting enough meth in our day here in Texas?
JOHN: All signs point to an almost implausibly happy ending. Loved ones coming back from the dead, family relations healed, financial worries over... it's gonna be super life-affirming.
Next week, we're going way back in the Wayback Machine to The Dick Van Dyke Show and 'That's My Boy?", the first episode of the third season. Remember, everything we watch in on Netflix so you're free to watch and then come back here and tell us what idiots we are for our lack of comprehension skills/spelling/personal hygiene.