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Non-Trek Worldbuilding. Part 3: Red Dwarf

By Tom Anderson

The picture editor is an idiot. That's an abutilon red dwarf, which has nothing to do with this article.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the Red Dwarf Night event put on by the BBC in between the release of series 7 and 8, Sir Patrick Stewart (who, of course, played Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or TNG for short) recounted his original exposure to the show. Stewart had happened to channel flip to an episode part way through while watching television in the UK, and initially believed he was seeing a parody of his own programme. Supposedly he was about to call his agent, before being interrupted by a joke that made him laugh out loud and forget all about it. In the end, he became a huge fan of the show and introduced the aforementioned celebration night.

Just your average Red Dwarf fan, Captain Picard.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect that any successful sci-fi comedy in the 1990s might draw upon parodying TNG. It was easily the most popular sci-fi work on television and was widely known to the general public, despite the fact that this was also the age of smug cynicism and a time when lazy, rather dim comedians would bash people for being unironic fans of sci-fi in general and Trek in particular. As Terry Pratchett observed, apparently there seemed to be a difference to these people between someone sticking on a pair of Vulcan ears and a Starfleet uniform versus someone having a Manchester United bedspread and filling their bedroom with team memorabilia. But I digress.


My point is that while there are some ties between the shows, Red Dwarf was never really written with Star Trek in mind. Its authors, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (“Grant Naylor”), were much more influenced by a cocktail of Blade Runner and Alien; cyberpunk dystopia coupled to the “used future” aesthetic, in contrast to the shiny utopianism of most previous TV and film science fiction.


I should say that there are some plot ideas shared between Trek and Dwarf; for example, the TNG episodes Clues, The Game, and A Fistful of Datas bear some resemblance to the Red Dwarf episodes Thanks For the Memory, Better Than Life, and Gunmen of the Apocalypse respectively. However, in some cases the Dwarf version actually predates the Trek one, leaving open the question of who was copying from whom!


More generally, Red Dwarf explored the idea of intelligent holograms as members of the crew long before Trek delved into that question in Voyager. Lister does namedrop the show when he interrupts a technical explanation by Kryten, telling him “not to give him any of that Star Trek crap.” Despite that, as we’ll see, Red Dwarf is often surprisingly willing to give detailed scientific explanations.


However, as I said, thematically as aesthetically Red Dwarf is quite different to Trek in the first place. It is also an unusual case for worldbuilding, in that we mostly hear about how the future used to be, rather than how it is.


The series originated in a series of comedy radio sketches: Dave Hollins – Space Cadet! This was partly a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, hence the use of the name “Dave” and it featuring him and the ship’s superintelligent computer, Hab – a parody of HAL 9000 – which eventually became Holly. Though the concept mutated considerably before becoming Red Dwarf, the “Norweb Federation” joke from the sketches was recycled into the TV version. In the original sketches, Dave has been frozen in time, first for hundreds of trillions of years (which is pretty much impossible as it’s many times the age of the universe), then seven billion years, and finally reduced to a more reasonable three million for the TV series. Now called Dave Lister, he awakens from stasis to find that the rest of the crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf died in a radiation leak which has taken this long to fade, that Holly has taken the ship far from Earth in the process, and that the human race is probably extinct and he is its last surviving member. As well as Holly, his other crew members are a life form who evolved from his cat Frankenstein (whose smuggling on board was the cause of his being sentenced to stasis in the first place) and a holographic (or “hologrammatic”) recreation of his unlikeable immediate superior and bunkmate Arnold J Rimmer. From series 3, they are joined by Kryten, an android (or “Mechanoid”) whom they rescued in series 2.

The cast of Red Dwarf. Presumably reading fan mail. Episodes available on BBC iPlayer.

Picture courtesy BBC.

Red Dwarf is an excellent comedy and scarcely needs my recommendation. In this article I’m going to focus on the worldbuilding, which is surprisingly deep. The YouTube channel “Spaced Out” does documentary-style episodes on everyday life aboard fictional spacecraft, such as the Enterprise-D from TNG or the Liberator from Blake’s Seven. It has produced three episodes about Red Dwarf and its ancillary vessel Starbug to just the same level of serious rigour. As with GalaxyQuest, many people would assume that merely being a comedy would lead to being slapdash with the sci-fi setting, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Grant Naylor” were sci-fi afficionados as well as comedy writers and drew upon their own interests.


For example, one early episode featured Rimmer making another doomed attempt at the astronavigation exam he has failed many times (in amusing ways), yet the question quoted: “What does the red spectrum tell us about quasars?” would be a perfectly reasonable one to find in a real astrophysics exam. (For the record, it tells us that they are receding from us at high speed, which is evidence for the universe’s expansion and therefore the Big Bang theory).


Nor was this foundation lost in later series as the show was repeatedly retooled and reimagined. The third series opener Backwards features driving test jokes and Cat describing a time hole as an “orange swirly thing”, but its core conceit is actually closely based on a paragraph in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time about time running backwards if the universe began to contract. Dimension Jump from series four is a fun introduction to the absurdly heroic alternate universe version of Rimmer, Ace, but it’s also a serious exploration of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum theory. Nanarchy in series eight features a discussion about nanotechnology in which Kryten suggests that nanobots could rearrange the atoms in carbon to convert graphite into diamond. And so on. You take my point; Red Dwarf is as worthy of serious analysis as any piece of sci-fi that happens to come with fewer laughs.


In terms of such “straight” sci-fi, as far as the present day is concerned, the original setting of Red Dwarf is probably most comparable to The Expanse – which it predates, but The Expanse draws upon a number of tropes from earlier sci-fi from the 1980s. Both feature humans starting to colonise the solar system, but where the colonial miners on the outer planets’ moons (and the Asteroid Belt) are getting exploited by Earth. Both lack faster-than-light drive (at least in “the present” before they begin) with craft using slower-than-light fusion drive. In The Expanse, this is partly handwaved by the existence of the Epstein Drive which allows superior acceleration and rarely mentions fuel, whereas Red Dwarf typically assumes slower and cruder fusion drives, and ships like Red Dwarf have a huge hydrogen ramscoop on the bow to collect hydrogen to refuel.


I should add at this point that Red Dwarf’s continuity has shifted over time in an oddly inconsistent way. What I mean by this is that the writers typically went to some pains to try to reconcile problems with character backstories – for example, the fans pointing out that Lister had had his appendix out twice – but were much more relaxed about retconning things about the broader setting. For example, in series 1 and 2, the show was set in the 21st Century (at one point we explicitly see the date 2077 on a clock) but from the third series it was retconned to be set in the 23rd Century. In addition to inconsistencies in the show itself, a lot of Red Dwarf worldbuilding was done in the spinoff novelisations, especially the first one: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. These were more serious and bleaker in tone than the show, playing a lot of cyberpunk dystopia tropes straight. Even more confusingly, after the first two books, Grant and Naylor split up (future TV series were produced by Naylor) and both wrote their own, mutually incompatible third book in the series.


What makes things tricky is that sometimes ideas were introduced in the novelisations but then seeped back into the TV show, even if they contradicted things that were said before. One example is the fate of the Nova 5, the ship from whose wreck Kryten was rescued. The original episode features the crew having died and Kryten obliviously continuing to pretend their skeletal forms are alive, but there’s no suggestion he was involved in the crash or their deaths. The novelisation introduces the idea that the crash was caused by Kryten being overzealous with his cleaning and damaging the computer – as well as the very dark idea that the ship’s mission was to blow up suns so that their supernovae would eventually spell out a Coca-Cola advertising slogan in Earth’s sky! This was then casually fed back into the show in series 7, with Lister stating that Kryten was (accidentally) responsible for the crew’s death.


The point is that I will often mention ideas only explicitly mentioned (or introduced) in the novelisations rather than the TV show. With that in mind, let’s move on.


Red Dwarf, the ship on which the show is mostly set, is a Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel approximately six miles long, described by Lister as “a big, red clenched fist of metal… clutching a huge shuttlecock” (the hydrogen ramscoop). Visible in the very detailed model on the TV show is an asteroid slug embedded in it, though it’s not clear whether this was deliberate as a way of mining it or the result of an accidental collision.

Available as a Lego model. Of course.

Picture courtesy Lego.

Originally the ship was said to have a crew of 167 and four service robots, but then Grant Naylor realised this was very low and retconned it to 1167. As I said above, it is limited to slower-than-light acceleration, though it reaches lightspeed in the early episode Future Echoes. The novelisation more reasonably portrays this as an unexpected event that should be relativistically impossible, whereas the onscreen version isn’t clear about how expected it is. In particular, after Lister signs up with the Space Corps as a way to escape the dystopian colony of Mimas (where he ended up after a drunken bender), he is horrified to learn that because Red Dwarf is an older, slower ship, it will take four and a half years to do the round trip and get back to Earth. In fact, in the novelisations he deliberately engineers being caught with Frankenstein in order to get put in stasis as punishment, in the hope he won’t age during the years between then and the return to Earth. Of course, it doesn’t quite work out like that…


Stasis is one of the more interesting ideas in the series – though it’s not treated very consistently. In the novelisations we learn that Rimmer, as part of his pathetic workaholic nature, actually spends much of his downtime in stasis so as to shave time off his ageing, not realising that this just means he is perpetually worn out. Presumably its original purpose was to facilitate long-range sublight travel.


One way in which Red Dwarf differs from a lot of sci-fi is that we rarely hear about explicitly military things, and Red Dwarf is supposed to be a mining ship. Thus, when hand weapons are introduced later (“bazookoids”), they are explicitly described as repurposed mining tools. They fire what look like energy bolts, which somehow manage to act as heat-seekers. Oddly, this is described in detail in the novelisations, which usually try to be more scientifically rigorous.

Bazookoids. Don't try this at home.

Picture courtesy Digital Spy.

On boarding the ship, crew members have a recording of their mind copied and digitised onto a ‘data slug’ (a disc in the TV version) which would allow a holographic simulation of them to be produced if they die in the line of duty but they could still contribute to the mission. Holly is only capable of sustaining one hologram at a time. At the start of the first episode, we are introduced to this concept when the ship’s flight coordinator, George McIntyre, dies but is “reintroduced” at his own funeral service as a hologram.


This is, of course, an unspoken dystopian moment – that the JMC company can literally call on its employees to work even after they’ve died! In the darker novelisations, supposedly George engineered his return as a hologram after committing suicide in order to escape the Ganymedian mafia – as they couldn’t kill a man who was already dead. Of course, this opens the question, discussed a few times in the show, whether the hologram simulation is truly the same person as the flesh-and-blood original. Generally, they come down on the side of treating Rimmer as though he is a continuation of the same person. Later, we also encounter the futuristic holoship Enlightenment (which is, on the other hand, something of a light parody of TNG in places) where both the ship and its crew are holograms. Interestingly, as they lack any solid matter, this allows them to travel at lightspeed.


One way in which Red Dwarf differs from a lot of sci-fi is that it lacks aliens (Dune is another example of this). Initially Grant Naylor were also reluctant to involve robots or androids as being cliché, but changed their minds when they introduced Kryten. Because the human race is supposed to be extinct and there are no aliens, one might imagine this doesn’t leave much room for potential antagonists. However, restrictions breed creativity, and Grant Naylor came up with a number of interesting ideas. In particular, besides Mechanoids like Kryten, there are the (Rogue) Simulants, a group of artificial life forms “bred as soldiers in a war that never took place” and which hate humans, humanity, and anything beginning with “Hu-”, possibly including the third largest city in Vietnam. The show is never entirely clear on exactly what Simulants are – I suspect from the name and Grant Naylor’s stated Blade Runner influence that they are probably intended mainly as a homage to the Replicants from that setting, which is also ambiguous about how ‘robotic’ they are (which is the point!)


Besides the Simulants, another source of antagonists are the GELFs – short for Genetically Engineered Life Forms. In the show, we only get occasional glimpses of them, starting with the episode Polymorph, in which the titular shape-shifter is described as an attempt to breed the ultimate warrior (again). The novelisations flesh this out (no pun intended). Supposedly the GELFs began after an attempt by humanity to prevent war by channelling its energies into international sport instead. Genetic engineering was used to produce human variants more and more optimised for certain sports, with the regular human Olympics soon being overshadowed.


As a by-product of these developments, genetic engineering based on the human genome also began to replace technology, such as creating biological cars with bone on the outside instead of a chassis and which ran on food rather than petrol. Eventually, the GELFs rebelled (“like the Mechanoids before them”, though we don’t hear any more about this) when they demand human rights such as voting, leading to a destructive war. In the TV show, as well as a couple examples of the Polymorph, we also see more regular humanoid GELF tribes – which definitely feel like a cunning way to get around the “humans are extinct and there are no aliens” rule!


A further development of the idea of genetic engineering appears in the episode DNA, in which the crew encounters a very alien-looking ship, but it turns out to be a far-future one in which the crew were affected by a device that could rewrite their DNA. Amusingly, the way they prove that a multi-headed corpse was human is that it has a Blockbuster video card in its pocket. While this was meant to be a deliberately banal gag at the time, one does wonder about the timeline in which Blockbuster is robust enough to survive into the era of genetic transhumanism!


Interestingly, considering how central individual human holograms are to its setting, Red Dwarf doesn’t have anything like Star Trek’s holodeck. Instead, perhaps more realistically, ‘total immersion video games’ work by people donning VR headsets and gloves, not a million miles away from what we have now. Despite this, they still manage to do the “trapped in the holodeck” plot a couple of times, though more realistically they are able to prise the headsets off by main force. In the novelisations, the wish fulfilment game Better Than Life is considerably darker than it is in the show, presented as an addictive drug in which people become lost, forgetting they are in the game and then starve to death. There are also other more conventional fantastic-setting drugs like ‘Bliss’ which makes the user briefly hallucinate they are God.


Like many sci-fi productions of its era, Red Dwarf is very wedded to the idea of physical media – I maintain that the decline of such was perhaps the most unexpected (and unwelcome, to my mind) development of the 21st Century. Despite using “disc” terminology a lot from the start, Red Dwarf often featured VHS tapes (including triangular ‘futuristic’ ones). Amusingly, the Back to Earth special suggested that humanity collectively returned to tape after realising DVDs are too easy to lose and not put back in the case!


Perhaps surprisingly given how many other things about the setting are dystopian, Red Dwarf rarely delves into the idea of a hostile AI – perhaps because Grant Naylor thought it was cliché. Holly, with his alleged IQ of 6000, is almost entirely benign (unlike his ultimate inspiration HAL 9000). They worst they ever get is Talkie Toaster constantly badgering them about eating toast (and in the novelisations, he basically force-feeds it to them as his price for releasing vital data).


The concept of faster-than-light drive (referred to generically as “star drive”) is often referred to in the series but rarely appears. In the novelisations, the Nova 5 is said to have a “quantum-drive duality jump” that runs off uranium-233. Lister discovers it can be produced from thorium-232; at this point, it should be no surprise to the reader that this is, indeed, real science, even if the drive isn’t.


There’s a whole amusing sequence in Out of Time where the crew discovers a time machine but, on using it, realise they can only travel to the same place in deep space in other historical eras – at least until they can find a star drive as well. Disappointingly, this is forgotten in Tikka to Ride which, like a few other episodes, seems to forget that Lister would probably be OK with going back to Earth in any era rather than being lost in deep space; the earlier Timeslides got it right by having a time travel method that didn’t allow one to stay there or explore a wider world, only to affect the course of history.


Transporters and replicators are some of the technologies most associated with Star Trek, so typically other sci-fi series have to decide whether they’re going to avoid them or come up with their own spin on them. Teleportation technology doesn’t exist in the starting setting of Red Dwarf, but Kryten discovers a “matter paddle” being worked on in one of the ship’s labs which he is able to complete – this allows instantaneous travel across many light-years. He later redevelops it into a “triplicator” which can produce two copies of a single object at the cost of destroying the original. However, it turns out that one is inherently “good” and the other inherently “bad”, such as one delicious strawberry and one filled with mealworms. Trying to reverse the process instead inverts the beam and does the same to Red Dwarf itself, blowing up the ship and replacing it with a “good” counterpart (where all the crew are naïve pacifists and the Pot Noodles are edible) and a “bad” one in which they’re all deranged, perverted psychopaths.


I would like to point out at this point that this is a clever way of doing what is basically the Mirror Universe plot from Star Trek except a million, billion, trillion times better, because these versions of the ship and crew were only created just now and thus don’t have to have logical consistency or make sense as a recurring setting.


Teleportation reappears in the episode Rimmerworld, again with a handheld device, but this time rather disappointingly referred to as a generic “teleporter”, which Kryten finds on a Simulant ship. It is responsible for my single favourite joke in the entire show. Rimmer has taken an escape pod but been stranded on a planet for 500 years, able to terraform it and populate it with biological clones of himself, who then ironically turned on him and locked him in a dungeon. Consigned there with him on their arrival, the other three (whom he misremembers as “Derek Custer, Kit, and Titan”) now plot an escape. Lister comes up with an elaborate escape plan involving loosened bricks, a pulley system with ropes hewn from hessian strands, a tripwire, uniform swapping, and sword fighting. Kryten listens and then adds: “Or we could use the teleporter,” holding it up. Brilliant writing, timing it just as the viewer has forgotten about it.


Finally, I will mention a little about culture in the Red Dwarf setting. One amazing bit of paleofuture is that in the early episode Balance of Power, we see a flashback of Lister hanging out with his mates in a bar on the ship, and in the background is a poster detailing the event they’re attending is a “1990s Nostalgia” music night. Seems perfectly reasonable now, until one remembers the episode came out in 1988! Music is infrequently mentioned, including Lister’s own unrealistic ambitions to make it as a guitarist.


An interesting background aspect of the TV series is the use of Esperanto. Signage in the background is bilingual English/Esperanto, such as “Nivelo” for level and “Kspress Liftoj” for Express Lift. A minor running gag is Rimmer’s inability to learn the language, which is an expected but not required skill for JMC officers, despite his best efforts. Even in the 1980s, this felt like a deliberate evocation of old sci-fi paleofuture ideas rather than something that seemed like a reasonable future prediction at the time. Though Esperanto does also appear in the novelisations, it’s mentioned at one point that tannoy announcements (when Lister is waiting to board the ship for the first time) are also in French, Spanish, and “three dialects of Chinese” – an idea that now seems outdated.


A recurring reference is the sport of Zero-G Football, with Lister being a fan of the London Jets (despite being a Liverpudlian) and in particular their “roof attacker” Jim Bexley Speed. A few images shown of videotapes imply that it’s more like American Football than Association Football. Another sport mentioned is Zero-G Kickboxing. Both imply the existence of gravity manipulation, which is also occasionally brought up (for example, that Titan, where Rimmer grew up, has an artificial field that results in it having Earth-normal gravity). Of course, the ship itself clearly has artificial gravity as well, as its gravity does not seem to be related to its acceleration. This is a rare bit of relatively advanced sci-fi technology in an otherwise more basic setting, which is probably driven in part by plot considerations and filming limitations.

Naturally, the tee-shirts are available.

Picture courtesy Quite OK Comedy.

This concludes my brief look at the worldbuilding of Red Dwarf. Join me next time for another exploration of worldbuilding in a non-Star Trek sci-fi series.

Discuss this article Here.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West Series;

among others.




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