A man. A hologram. A cat. And a computer slightly slower than a Sinclair ZX81. With this nifty set-up, a cosmic comedy is born. Welcome to Red Dwarf.
Ready to feel older than one of Lister's unwashed socks? Then just consider this: Red Dwarf first appeared on our screens back in 1988. That's right: 1988. To put this into perspective, Ronald Reagan was the US president, the Berlin Wall was still up, and Justin Bieber hadn't been born yet.
Into this world came a little show about a man. A heroic man. A man of deep inner strength, integrity, and bowels ravaged by extra-strong mutton vindaloo. Dave Lister, one time lead singer of Smeg and the Heads, reduced to the status of chicken soup dispenser repairman on the mining ship Red Dwarf.
As the series begins, we see Lister having to cope with two awful situations. One, being lorded over by his utter gimboid of a supervising officer, Arnold Judas Rimmer. Two, having a hopeless infatuation with lovely Scottish lass Kristine Kochanski. But things swiftly get considerably smeggier when Lister is sentenced to 18 months in stasis after smuggling his cat Frankenstein on board. Which doesn't sound so bad, except for the fact that a terrible radiation leak wipes out the entire crew while he's in suspended animation, and he's released three million years later with only the senile ship's computer Holly for company. You've got to laugh, eh?
To stop Lister from becoming a cabin feverish wreck of a man, Holly wisely decides to bring back one of the dead crew members in the form of a hologram. Unfortunately, the crew member he selects is Rimmer. Displaying the sort of twisted, doomed-to-fail forward planning an England football manager might be proud of, Holly does this believing Lister's utter contempt for the smeghead Rimmer will actually keep him sane.
Luckily for Lister, there's another… thing on board the ship. The thing in question is the humanoid descendant of his cat Frankenstein, helpfully called The Cat. True, he's a shrieking mix of James Brown and Liberace, but still – he's not Rimmer. What follows is the greatest space voyage since 2001: A Space Odyssey, only with less classical music and fewer grunting apes. Unless you count Lister. Which you should.
It's not all existential dread, crushing boredom and bickering. There's a LOT of that, to be fair, but there's also big heavy dollops of proper sci-fi type stuff as well. Such as the "future echoes" which happen as a result of the ship breaking the light speed barrier (yeah, so Einstein said that was impossible, but what did he know?). Being haunted by fleeting images of their future selves pretty much does everyone's heads in, particularly when Lister has a vision of himself holding his two future infant sons. That particularly plot point doesn't get explained until series two – when the truth turns out to be far, far more sexually disturbing than even Rimmer could hope. Speaking of sexually disturbing, a later episode also sees Rimmer impersonating Kochanski to screw with Lister's mind – a moment which goes from amusing to vaguely traumatising when Rimmer starts groping his own Kochanski-breasts in a state of clear, naked arousal.
Moving hurriedly on, the series also sheds more light on the culture of the Cat. Well, not the Cat himself – he has about as much culture as a pair of wraparound shades – but of his long-vanished civilisation, who evolved in the nether-regions of Red Dwarf over the past few millions of years. That’s when we learn that Lister is worshipped as their God, an admittedly misguided notion, but at least they gave him a fairly appropriate name: Cloiser the Stupid.
Later on the ship gets an unexpected visit from the medieval mayor of Warsaw, which is a pretty unexpected turn of events. In fact, he's one of Lister's hallucinations made flesh, and is quickly followed by his Confidence and Paranoia – incarnated as a stupidly enthusiastic Lister-worshipping maniac, and a scuttling black-suited neurotic. All of which is fairly nightmarish, but not quite as nightmarish as the prospect of two, yes TWO Rimmers on the ship. Which is the unbelievably bad outcome of Rimmer duplicating himself. At first they get on teeth-gnashingly well, but before long even Rimmer can't stand Rimmer anymore – resulting in such memorable exchanges as "I can't see through the back of your stupid, curly-haired, sticky-out-eared head" and "Shut up you dead git."
But, hard as it is to imagine, things only get more tangled, strange and smegged up in series two…