The Beginning

Back to The End. With the DVD due out soon, we take a retrospective look at Red Dwarf: Series I.

The Beginning

Look out Earth, the slime's coming home. Eventually. Yes, despite spending years drifting through space, Lister and his crew are a long way from making it back to terra firma. It all started with a cat, a stasis booth, and an incompetent technician with a Napoleon complex.

It's interesting to note just how the first series differs from those which followed. Minimal budgets kept the crew confined to the studio and the cast to an absolute minimum, and this had a curious effect on the storylines. Whereas later episodes of Red Dwarf would be about one specific thing - often announced in the episode title, e.g. Polymorph, Camille, The Inquisitor, Psirens, Epideme, Cassandra - many episodes of the first series have A and B plots.

For example, Waiting for God is about both Rimmer's investigations of the 'alien pod' and Lister's delving into cat history. The two parallel storylines are designed to comment on one another and have similar themes, but exist almost completely separately - Rimmer and the Cat share only one scene ("It's a yo-yo you modo").

The Beginning

Waiting for God is also at odds with later series in that its priority is the cat species, felis sapiens. In fact, it's the closest we have to a 'Cat episode' - later series would feature many classic cat scenes, but never again would he be the central figure in the story. (Although, of course, Waiting for God is really a Lister episode; the story is told mostly from his perspective.)

Balance of Power is again an episode that, at the time, seemed to be very much in the shape the show was taking, but ultimately was never replicated. It features a pre-accident flashback - Red Dwarf wouldn't view the 'inside' of a person's head again until the dreams and memories of Blue in series VII (unless we count the Cat's recorded-and-played-back dream in Parallel Universe, actually a computer recording) and even then the flashback was still only to post-radiation-leak times.

The glimpses of Red Dwarf past were frequent in the first series and we became very familiar with the dead personnel. After establishing them in The End, we saw Petersen's arm, Kochanski's body and a flashback in Balance of Power, Kochanski's picture in Confidence and Paranoia (the title characters, we are told, were based on an idea Lister and Chen shared) and Hollister in Me2.

The Beginning

Not a bad set of credits for a collection of dead characters. But consider how little they were heard from after this series. Stasis Leak brought back Hollister, Kochanski and Petersen, but it was for a very definite 'guest appearance' - this wasn't a subjective memory of the past but rather a literal journey through time. We have never seen Petersen again (he rates only quick mentions in Polymorph, Out of Time and Krytie TV), and when Hollister returned it was not in some abstract vision, but via full resurrection by nanobots.

Kochanski - prior to the character's return from an alternate dimension in series VII's Ouroboros - was only seen again, as a hallucination, in Psirens. Chen and Selby managed a brief, edited-down cameo in Back in the Red - Part 1, and poor Todhunter has never come back at all.

All this shows writers who rapidly learned that the real momentum was in going forwards - even if that meant moving their characters forward into the past occasionally! A Lister who sits around thinking is never going to be as interesting to watch as one who grapples with shrinking boxer shorts, evil doubles and rampaging dinosaurs.

The Beginning

Series I is, ironically, more successful precisely because of the later series. As the show progressed, the actor-character divide came down and the writers began to play to the strengths of their cast. There is no mention of curry in the first season. Lister was originally written as being 40-something. He, as with the other characters, was developed in later series - but we watch him then with the memories of all he will do. Series I becomes a flashback for us - past events that have greater meaning because of what will later happen.

Until Me2 (an episode written some considerable time after the rest of the series as a late replacement), Rimmer was a bastard and loser without context. His history - bonkers father, cruel mother, over-achieving brother - emerged later; but we watch the first series now with that knowledge. We're not watching a group of characters form, as we did in 1988; we're watching established characters interact.

But for all the differences of series I, what is perhaps even more remarkable is how many seeds for later stories were sown. The themes of some of Red Dwarf's best episodes are toyed with from the very first six episodes.

Balance of Power, for example, contains the very first example of a body swap. 'Kochanski' appears at the climax of the episode... but the way 'she' is acting gives away the fact that Rimmer's mind is inside her hologrammatic body. Later episodes would walk similar territory - especially in Bodyswap, in which Rimmer and Lister exchange bodies. Obviously.

The Beginning

Illness, meanwhile, is given a sci-fi twist in Confidence and Paranoia, and limb removal/replacement with Petersen's arm in Balance of Power and Lister's metal limb in Future Echoes. From the space mumps in Justice to the various injuries suffered in episodes such as Dimension Jump, Thanks for the Memory and Epideme/Nanarchy, they are ideas Grant and Naylor would repeatedly return to.

Future Echoes is the first of Red Dwarf's many time conundrum shows. Later examples include Stasis Leak, The Inquisitor, Out of Time and Tikka to Ride. And all except the last include split-screen or alternate versions of the crew, just as Echoes did.

But the ultimate split-screen came from Me2, the final episode of series I, and perhaps the most important to the show's future. As in Echoes, there is a second Rimmer around - but this time he's fully interactive. This alternate Rimmer begins as being 'identical' to the original, but spending time with Lister has apparently changed Rimmer One, and the two just cannot get on.

The Beginning

The most famous alternate Rimmer, Ace in Dimension Jump, also doesn't care for the original, and has also had a life-change which makes him different. Other alternates - Duane Dibbley, Kochanski in Ouroboros, Rimmer again (though we never meet him) in Only The Good - are also thematically similar. And they all owe their existence to Me2... as well as to Confidence and Paranoia, whose title characters are extrapolated version of Lister's psyche, not so very different from the concept of Demons and Angels.

So while the structure of the series I shows differ greatly from what was to come, a lot of Red Dwarf's key concepts were born here. The only one missing is the idea of questioning reality - a concept made famous by Back to Reality and revisited in Back in the Red, but actually created in series II with both Better Than Life and Thanks for the Memory.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Red Dwarf's first series is its first chapter, The End. The Red Dwarf pilot episode has both a huge amount going on, and very little.

It's busy in as much as three million years pass, we're introduced to the key players, the cat species evolves, we learn about holograms, stasis and the nature of Grant and Naylor's future.

But what actually happens? A great many pilot storylines - from The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Jonathan Creek- do their best to contain a stand-alone story. Sure, you may learn about Buffy's arrival in Sunnydale and see the 'Scooby Gang' form... but there's also an apocalypse to prevent.

The Beginning

Red Dwarf's pilot doesn't deal with a time conundrum, alternate reality or rampaging GELF tribe - it just sets up what is to come. This is unusual to us now because Red Dwarf is a plot-heavy comedy; it has forward momentum now, more akin to 'dramas' like Buffy or Star Trek than to sit-coms.

Of course, in the mid-80s, while trying to sell their script, the writers were told to play up the sit-com and play down the sci-fi. In this respect, The End belongs more with the opening stories of Friends or Spaced. Stories that line their players up before moving them.

So, if Red Dwarf were being made as a pilot now, would there be a blend of episode story and establishment? With its promise to tell the original story in a new way, while still retaining the characters and situations we love, Red Dwarf - The Movie might just show us how it could have been...

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