Twenty seven years, umpteen light years, several different realities and a curry monster later, and Red Dwarf is now officially the second longest running sci-fi series of all time (it’d be first if it weren’t for certain Doctor).
But though the Dwarf is still with us, fans have been left adrift in space for the time being – it’s been three years since the show’s triumphant return to form with 2012’s Series X, and it’ll awhile yet before series 11 hits.
Making it, therefore, as good a time as any for Digital Spy to decide definitely how those ten series stack up against each other, and rank them from truly worst to glorious best. Disagree? Let us know below…
10. Back to Earth
After so many years away, the fans finally got their way – this time via Dave rather than the Beeb. And what arrived was the Back to Earth special, three tantalising-sounding episodes in which the Dwarfers go through a very similar situation to ‘Back to Reality’, finding themselves seemingly in present-day Earth.
Sadly co-creator Doug Naylor went a shade too post-modern in the execution, and having the characters discover the show – not to mention Coronation Street and Craig Charles – feels too silly and not in keeping with Dwarf history, closer to an over-extended Comic Relief sketch than an actual series. The Blade Runner tribute is too obvious, too long and too dated, and the lack of a live audience (or even a laugh track) is the final nail in the coffin.
Charles does give one of his most moving performance when mourning Kochanski and meeting her ‘fake’ version, and the three episodes work better as a whole than as isolated parts. No version of Dwarf is all bad, but this is simply nowhere near as good as anything that came before or after it.
9. Series Eight
Ditching series seven’s attempted cinematic stylings, the rebooted eighth series reverts to a live audience setup and takes the risky step of bringing back the entirety of Red Dwarf‘s dead crew.
The show’s comedy was so rooted in the notion of an odd couple (and later an odd quartet) trapped alone in space that the shift was always going to feel strange, and while it’s fun to see Captain Hollister and co for a while, the novelty wears off fast. In contrast to previous episodes, too much of the writing here simply fell flat with Naylor clearly struggling as sole writer – It’s no fun to watch this cast struggling to elevate weak material, be it Cat’s dance with the Blue Midgets, Holly’s ‘Nostrilomo’ gag or… well, take your pick.
That being said, having Rimmer back full-time goes a long way, and there are plenty of moments – Rimmer and Lister’s visits to Hollister, drinking the hooch, kneeing Death in the balls – that remind you the magic is still there. There just isn’t enough of it.
8. Series Seven
Losing a main character is a blow for any show, but for a show like Red Dwarf – which leans so heavily on its small cast and their specific dynamics – it was crippling. The departure of Chris Barrie left a gaping void, because with him went not only Rimmer but also the odd couple setup around which the show was built.
With co-creator Rob Grant also departing, leaving Doug Naylor to steer the ship solo, the odds were stacked against series seven from the start. All things considered, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been. The episodes in which Rimmer does appear are strong – ‘Blue’ has the kiss and the Rimmer song, both classics, while ‘Stoke Me A Clipper’ works as a payoff for both Arnold and Ace.
But when season seven flops, it really, really flops. Naylor had very little choice but to shake things up and introduce some fresh blood, but Chloë Annett’s uppity Kochanski is an awkward fit, and the lack of a live studio badly hurt the atmosphere.
7. Series Ten
Looking back on Red Dwarf X three years down the line, it still feels a bit miraculous. Most fans had given up hope – after the deeply misguided meta silliness of Back to Earth – that we’d ever see a return to the Dwarf we knew and loved. But in 2012, Naylor pulled it off.
The very first moments of ‘Trojan’ felt like the show coming home, with Rimmer obsessed with passing his astro-navigation exam, and that sense continued throughout all six episodes as the Dwarfers got themselves out of bonkers situations with equally bonkers logic.
There are some inventive sci-fi ideas at play here (Cat and Kryten’s quantum entanglement is a highlight) but with a smaller visual scope and a stripped-back cast, the series is forced to rely on what made it great in the early days – in a nutshell, the characters simply talking to each other. Here’s hoping this holds true for the next two series.
6. Series One
Though undeniably wobbly (often in the literal sense – those sets wouldn’t have survived a light breeze), the early episodes of Dwarf have a charming simplicity that was lost as the show’s budgets and scope grew.
The first series is entirely an odd couple comedy, with the bulk of screen time spent on Rimmer and Lister bickering either in their bunk room or the ship’s fifty shades of grey corridors. And though Barrie and Charles reportedly butted heads in the early days their chemistry sparked from the start – every moment between them clicks. These early episodes are also the ones in which the Cat acts most like an actual cat (“Fish!”), an element which got lost in later seasons.
And despite its limitations, series one doesn’t lack for high-concept plots. ‘Future Echoes’ is an early sci-fi mindbender, while several episodes introduce psychological ideas that would be explored further in later seasons – see Lister confronting his inner Confidence & Paranoia, and Rimmer realizing he literally can’t live with himself in ‘Me2’.
5. Series Four
After series three’s seamless transition into proper sci-fi territory, the following series delved further into Star Trek-style encounters and dangers for the Boys from the Dwarf. With kickoff episode ‘Camille’, the show pulls off an elegant Casablanca spoof built around the premise of Kryten trying to learn how to lie (“I’m a small, off-duty Czechoslovakian traffic warden!”).
Though series four lacks for really iconic episodes, it does contain several of the moments that propelled Dwarf fully to cult status – most significantly the introduction of Ace Rimmer in ‘Dimension Jump’. But there’s also Lister killing the curry monster with lager in ‘DNA’, Cat and Lister witnessing Winnie the Pooh’s execution in ‘Meltdown’, Holly versus the Talkie Toaster in ‘White Hole’, and we could go on…
4. Series Six
Red Dwarf took the bold step of actually removing Red Dwarf itself for the semi-rebooted series six, reverting to its sitcom roots with four characters (now minus Holly) cramped together in Starbug.
After the Dwarfers awake from suspended animation to find the ship missing, the series shifts into a monster-of-the-week format which sees new characters introduced weekly (“True, most of them wanted in some way to suck our brains or erase us from history altogether…) to mostly successful effect.
‘Polymorph II: Emohawk’ isn’t a patch on its predecessor, and the tone sometimes veers too far away from the character comedy Dwarf does best. But there are far more peaks than troughs – most notably ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’, a sci-fi western jaunt that worked wonders and earned the show an Emmy. The series also concluded on a genuinely emotional and tense cliffhanger, which wouldn’t be resolved for several years to come.
3. Series Two
However raw and old-school you like your Dwarf, it’s hard to dispute that its second run was an improvement upon its first. The writing is tighter, the actors are more settled in their roles, and the characters’ dynamics have deepened, allowing for an episode like ‘Better Than Life’ to integrate a heartfelt storyline like the death of Rimmer’s dad alongside its virtual reality hijinks.
This is also the series where Norman Lovett’s deadpan Holly really shines, from “dog’s milk” all the way onwards to his spotlight episode, ‘Queeg’ – a classic by any Dwarfer standards. Featuring Charles Augins as a sadistic, drill sergeant-esque computer who replaces Holly, ‘Queeg’ is a classic by any Dwarfer’s standards, packed with hilarious scenes and leading up to a surprisingly poignant finale… until that glorious twist. (“We are talking jape of the decade.”)
It might be less ambitious than later series, but there’s a freshness and warmth to the character comedy in series two that became harder to sustain as the storytelling grew bigger.
2. Series Three
The spectacular one-two punch of ‘Marooned’ and ‘Polymorph’ is very nearly enough to push this series into the top spot. These are two very different but equally iconic episodes which show off just about everything Dwarf does at its best – ‘Marooned’ a simple, dialog-rich two-hander, ‘Polymorph’ a high-concept monster story relying heavily on visual gags.
Series three also marks a turning point for the show, its sets and costumes and filming style all overhauled from the drab grey era, and it sets the tone for everything to come. Robert Llewelyn’s Kryten is such a perfect, seamless addition that it becomes immediately hard to remember the show without him, although the role he played leaves Hattie Hayridge’s recast Holly at something of a loose end.
There were still a few growing pains at this stage, and one or two episodes – notably ‘Backwards’ and ‘Bodyswap’ – feel more like great concepts than great stories, but series three is still close to as good as it gets.
1. Series Five
The most balanced series in terms of character comedy versus sci-fi adventure, five is also the series that leans most heavily on Barrie, who over the course of these six episodes gets to play Rimmer as everything from puppet-wielding lunatic to romantic hero. ‘Holoship’, in which he finds love and shows a rare selfless side, might be his finest hour, although the psychological comedy of ‘Terrorform’ and the brilliantly bonkers ‘Quarantine’ (“The king of the potato people won’t let me…”) are close contenders.
And then there’s ‘Back to Reality’, which is essentially a perfect episode and could easily work as a movie in its own right. The sheer volume of stuff that Grant and Naylor work into those thirty minutes is astonishing – Duane Dibbley! Despair squid! Timothy Spall! – as the crew awakes from a crash to seemingly discover that their lives on board the ship have all been part of a simulated reality video game. No single episode better encapsulates Dwarf at its best.