RED DWARF (SEASONS 1-3) AND A CIGAR(And frankly, some beer during the editing process): A JOURNAL

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Smoking a fairly expensive cigar that I’ve had sitting around since New Year’s seems like enough of a substance abuse pretext to also binge on another long canceled TV show and document my findings. Since I’m not actually intoxicated, there is a very small chance that this article might be almost coherent, unlike the “Knight Rider” Journal. I apologize for that in advance and I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. In the spirit of drunken revery, however, I’ll share the finest joke that’s ever been conceived. Visitors to our forum have probably heard it, but it’s been my experience that many normal people have not.

Q: What is the difference between a dead baby and an apple? (You’ll have to shovel through some of my tripe to get the answer.)

Most Americans have never heard of “Red Dwarf,” while for the British it is as much an institution as the Guy Fawkes day or blood and spleen porridge. I’d never seen an episode until today, so for folks like me, here’s the basic premise, as surmised from the first two episodes- the British have submitted totally to American supremacy once and for all. I know, that makes it sound like the show is set in 1950, but the stars of the show are the British underlings on a giant, American-captained spaceship in the future of the future. Also, everybody loves American football and soccer is a thing of the past. Even though he’s a scouser, one of the characters is a London Jets fan, which is a shame because the Liverpool Eagles is such a natural fit. On the other hand, Holly, the ship’s AI computer with a 6,000 IQ, is British and the talking toaster is American.

One of the underlings on the ship, named Dave Lister, is sent into stasis as punishment for sneaking a cat on board. Without Lister’s help, his work partner, Arnold Rimmer, accidentally releases radiation that kills everyone on board including himself. 3 million years later the radiation has subsided and Holly, by now driven somewhat to neurosis, releases Lister from stasis and generates an AI hologram of Rimmer to keep him company. The cat, which was preggers, also survived the radiation because it was hiding somewhere and it’s descendants (somehow surviving 3 million years of lethal radiation) evolved into a black, American man from the early 1940s with a fried hair and a huge collection of Zoot Suits. At this point, it seems very possible that Lister and Cat are the only intelligent life in the universe. Lister still wants to check out earth, so that’s where they are heading, but it’s 3 million light years away. The primary engine of the show is an “unusual pairing” scenario with the lazy, sloppy and thick sculled Lister and the uptight, wannabe authoritarian Rimmer, who is also an idiot but doesn’t realize it.

Let’s get some of the Brit stuff out of the way. Thanks to socialized TV, the production values are, of course, at about the “Small Wonder” level. They’re arguably even lower, as the android on “Small Wonder” is far more human-like than the androids on “Red Dwarf.” Once you get used the lack of slickness, it’s oddly satisfying because it creates a feeling of stagy intimacy that I like in British TV and the two or three black and white era American shows that aren’t terrible. Obviously, the show lacks the gloss and sophistication we Americans were accustomed to in our late 80s television, propelled to slick perfection by the free market, for example, in Lifetime movies like “Kate’s Secret.” But where is the love?

David Foster Wallace said the key thing about any great writing is that it makes the reader feel less alone inside. Maybe he wouldn’t have hanged himself if watched more TV, the medium where we have the most prolific and ongoing relationships with characters and the creative elements behind them. Why else does everyone still concern themselves with the lives of the “Diffrent Strokes” and Brady kids, while nobody gives a fuck about Eliot from E.T.? So the point is, I like the coziness of British TV and know at least one David Foster Wallace quote and it would be reasonable to infer from this that I have finished all of his books. The exception to my embrace of the more “casual” British production of “Red Dwarf” is the theme music, especially for the closing credits, seriously sounds like it was improvised over a preset track on a Casio and recorded on an answering machine. Does the BBC really not have decent facilities for recording music? And what is the fucking obsession with horns? Has anything ever been broadcast in Britain without a shitty theme song featuring a trumpet or French horn?

So, to begin approaching the point of this article, so far “Red Dwarf” is pretty funny. I know there’s a backlash against sitcoms with easy jokes and laugh tracks because we’ve totally moved past that thanks to the revolution triggered by “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.” But for old people such as myself, it’s just what we grew up with so I barely notice. You might say that my generation’s acceptance of cheap jokes and laugh tracks is equivalent to the shocking racism that you let slide when it comes from the mouth of a grandparent. It’s like when my grandma, who could not have been a better grandma, and who was rarely anything but kind to people of all creeds and colors, with the exception of my grandpa, wondered aloud if they still sold roasted Brazil nuts at a marketplace in downtown Detroit. She used a slightly antiquated term for the snack, so what she actually said was “Do they still sell nigger toes here?” But she wasn’t murdered on the spot because she was a sweet old lady. I do, however, think she might still be alive today if she didn’t address her doctor as “Dr. Chink Chink,” intending to “tease” him. Anyway, the laugh track makes a certain amount of sense because this is the theatrical tradition and, in the theater, people laugh. It’s just natural that when moving from theater to television viewed in the home, it would take a generation for people to realize that including audience reactions on television shows is usually stupid. And when “Red Dwarf” was made, nobody realized that people would be downloading TV shows and watching each episode 20 times, so it made more sense to go for a quick, easy laugh, assuming the viewer would have forgotten most of the show within a week. Plus, people instinctively laugh more when they hear other people laugh. Big fucking deal. You’re also more likely to buy a set of tires if you see a hot piece of ass standing next to them in an advertisement. You aren’t the coming of the fucking ubermensch, impervious to suggestion and conformity, so settle down, asshole. Yeah, I have a preference for no laugh track, especially when it there is obviously no studio audience, but it’s not a big deal. I’m more worried that there are an awful lot of pitch-and-catch jokes like:

Captain Hollister: Just one thing before the disco. Holly tells me that he has sensed a non-human life form aboard.

Lister: Sir, it’s Rimmer.

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And that’s one of the better ones. But for this early in a series, there are a good number of authentic chuckles. Plus, this is probably going to be a show where characters and story matter more than the jokes; more of a “Full House” than a “Step By Step.” The premise is outstanding. A sitcom about the last man alive in a godless universe, with all intelligent life on the brink of extinction. I know there’s a lot of sci-fi parody, and I’m geek enough to get more than half of it. Good start, I expect it to become excellent.

Episode 3

I’m not 100% sure if “smeg” is real slang in England, or if it’s a made up profanity for the show. If it’s the latter, as I suspect, it’s a hell of a lot better than “frak.” Every time I heard “frak” while forcing myself through the” Battlestar Retardica” pilot I’d physically wince so hard that I’d have to replace the toothpicks holding my eyelids up. Lister gets lonely and pines for the woman he loved but never approached. He attempts to create a woman hologram. Holograms can talk and have emotions but you can’t touch them. Great plan. My favorite line came when Rimmer was chastising Lister for his vulgar taste in music. “Why don’t you listen to something really classical, like Mozart, Mendelssohn or Motorhead? ” Ha ha.

Episode 4

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I thought having Cat as an ongoing character was going to be a terrible decision. Like, every episode is going to have a joke about a how he is a vain dolt who likes fish? Sounds great. But actually, he’s panning out pretty well. I like how Cat and the humans just kind of talk past each other and the cat is about as interested in human affairs as its ancestors were. Episode four also has a sacralicious bit about how the cat religion is based on misinterpretations of their actual history and Lester is their god, but Cat scoffs at the idea that Lister is the Lester from the cat bible, though they are identical in appearance. Before the disaster, Lister’s plan was to do a couple of space tours to save up money and and buy land in Fiji, where he would open a hot dog and doughnut shop and this became the cat notion of heaven, as predicted by the biblical figure, Lester. The doughnut diner uniforms, specifically, contention over whether they should have red or blue hats, led to a holy war that killed off most cats. Ha ha.

Joke punchline: I don’t come in an apple’s face before I eat it.

Also, instead of plowing through my ramblings, you could just watch this clip. It’s a pretty good indication of what the show has to offer:

Episode 5

The intros to each episode, wherein Holly gives the basic premise of the program and a recent update are often the biggest laugh of the episode. Episode 5: “Additional. Last week we discovered the cryogenically frozen body of tycoon Albert Nimble. He’d been launched into space in hope of encountering a life form who could cure his terrible disease. We revived him, explained we were the last human ship in existence, and we just wanted to let him know, we couldn’t help him. He was furious and died almost instantly. There’s just no pleasing some people.”

I used to smoke cigars in college for a while because it made me stand out and gave girls a reason to start a conversation with me, but I no longer know anything about them. This one is an Avo Uvezian, recommended by the cigar store guy. Maybe it’s because the cigar is kind of old, though it was in a protective tube, but this cigar is a bit mellow for my taste. I would have infused it with a hint of peach or a note of sour patch kids. Still, even in Southern California, smoking something heavy duty during winter is one of life’s few rewards.

Episode five takes a harder sci-fi turn that I hope continues. Lister catches a space-cold that makes his fevered hallucinations materialize, including manifestations of his confidence (a George-Hamilton-orange American football coach) and self-doubt (a pasty Brit). As I said before, the dark, kinda philosophical premise of the show is it’s greatest strength and the more it builds on that and plays with the genre the funnier, more interesting and occasionally bittersweet it gets. Please note, however, that I automatically believe that any film or TV show that is bittersweet is fantastic. Any objective observer would conclude that I vastly overestimate “Extras,” for example. I continue to enjoy the fact that, even after 3 million years of evolution into humanoids, cats are idiots.

Episode 6

Somehow a second Rimmer AI hologram comes into being. I missed how this happened, but I really enjoyed this episode. Allusion, homage and theft are a dizzying maelstrom in science fiction. Was the 2012 partially lifted from a relatively mediocre “Simpsons,” Tree House of Horror, or was it lifted from something before that, that “The Simpsons” was making fun of? In either case, I am strongly inclined to believe that Ruthless favorite, Moon, would not have been made, or at least, would not quite have been the same without “Red Dwarf,” especially this episode. We learn that Rimmer has a video tape of his death at the beginning and by the end Rimmer is hoping to happily watch Rimmer’s execution after quickly realizing that he hates himself. The tone and scenario both bring Moon to mind.

It’s also no secret that “Futurama” was influenced by “Red Dwarf.” I’m going to drop the episodic entries as I roll into season two, largely because I’m very tired at the moment. But it was the first part of the first episode when I was like “OMG Calculon!” Really, the premise of the whole show is similar to “Futurama,” though both shows are largely pastiche. Red Dwarf isn’t as funny, but it’s a lot more sciencey. I know the word ‘sciencey’ makes it sound overly serious, but the a big part of the appeal is the levity it uses for subjects like traveling into the future during cosmic contraction. Everything runs backwards, so the incalculably distant future is the recent past, but backwards. They’re looking forward to WWII, when millions will come to life and Hitler will be beaten back from the brink of empire to being a failed artist in Austria. That aspect, namely, references to the 20th century, gets kind of out of hand. I imagine Hitler will be remembered for some time, but Marlyn Monroe? I guess it’s possible. But I’m very certain that they won’t be making Brigitte Neilson jokes on interstellar flights. It would be stupid to make up too many references to fictive artists in the 23rd century or whatever, but they should have just skipped some of the 300 jokes about things that happened within the writers’ lifetimes. Also, I partially retract what I said about ‘smeg.’ It is still infinitely better than ‘frack’ but it must have become a catch phrase on or something on The Isles because as the show progresses they use it more and more and it approaches ‘smurf’ levels. “Lets go smeg some smegberries Pappa Smeg!” Fuck off.

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Of all the words the Brits say wrong, ‘condom’ is the among the most striking. It’s so awkward and takes as much effort as saying something in Chinese. Why do they say it like it’s two separate words? It sounds like you’re trying to swindle an old Italian man. Con. Dom. So much effort put into a two syllable word is especially jarring to me. As a speaker of the California dialect, with a bit of a Southern background I have one of the world’s laziest tongues. Just ask the little lady! This humorous observation transitions flawlessly to a discussion of one of the things I love about this show, namely, listening to all of the accents and all of the actors attempt them, to varying degrees of success. I was able to pick out the one actor who actually was American, rather than a Brit doing an impersonation. He was pretty ugly, so I double checked to be sure. The non-Scottish actors did pretty good jobs at faking Yankee accents, but phony accents fascinate me because it’s a little window into how other people perceive your culture. This is doubly true if they are doing the accent derisively. And, whereas a lead actor really flubbing an accent in a major film just reeks of failure, like in 21, here it’s just another layer of fun. While I might be going on about this stuff too much, the internationalism is an easily missed, but important layer of the show. “Red Dwarf” is all about differences in perspectives and perceptions and attempts to build fragile, uncertain connections from behind them. At least half of the episodes involve strained attempts to relate, for example, between artificial intelligence and organic intelligence, male and female analogs from different universes, different species and characters from time periods separated by millions of years. It all comes back to Wallace’s observation that writing or art can make us feel less alone inside. “Red Dwarf” is about trying to achieve just that. If you want to spin the fact that sci-fi, in particular, so often seems to fill this inner loneliness and that it also caters to nerds into your junior thesis, you don’t even have to cite me.

Season two is also where we meet Kryten, in episode five, which is a nice confluence of all of the things I like about the show. There’s the integration and stereotyping of various English speaking cultures and dialects: America, Britain, Denmark. Kryten is an android governed by his desire to be polite and servile, so they gave him a Canadian accent. He summons the crew to help the women he’s in charge of “protecting” though they have been dead for centuries and he prepares their skeletons by dressing them up and putting lipstick on their skulls–pretty dark, but the levity is never lost. And of course, almost by default, an android raises all kinds of issues of identity and free will. Melancholy, sweet, prejudiced, morbid and funny. What could possibly go wrong?

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Epilogue:

After that I got all the way through the third “series.” As predicted the show continues to improve and reaches the height of it’s powers when Lister breaks into a spontaneous rap, “The Red Dwarf Shuffle” which is the culmination of all of the play about the various English speaking countries because it is clearly based on the Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle.”

How English audiences were supposed to get the reference, I have no clue. So I thought I’d point it out. It’s too bad the show came out pre-internet because it deserves a nerd driven website to sort out and explain all of the references across cultures. I’ll explain things to the young/foreign this far, as I am a Bears “supporter.” The ’85 bears are generally considered to be one of the best American football teams of all time, and delusionally considered to be the single best team of all time, by fans like me. Here are a couple of points about the video- if number 45 seems somewhat out of place, that is because he came out of Yale and picked up an MBA from Northwestern in ’85 while the rest of the team was strapping prostitutes to their feet to ski down mountains of cocaine. Number 72 attempted a second career as a competitive eater. I would probably read a book that did nothing but flesh out all of the cultural allusions from this show to a ridiculous extent.

Also, when Rimmer takes possession of Cat’s body, he uses it to gorge on fried chicken and waffles. Someone involved with this show is a hard core Ameriphile. I don’t think most white people over here had even heard of the fried chicken and waffles thing until Jackie Brown came out. So if you thought I was overdoing the whole inter-anglo dynamic, you were obviously wrong.

Anyway, the series really reaches it’s potential here. Everything good about is epitomized by one of the best pure sitcom back-and-forths ever, in an ongoing exchange between Lister and Krysten over silicon heaven and human heaven, each thinking the other is quaintly ridiculous.

Lister: I don’t mean to say anything out of place here, Kryten, but that is completely whacko Jacko. There is no such thing as ‘Silicon Heaven’.

Kryten: Then where do all the calculators go?

See you for Punky Brewster and Heroin in 2012.

About Plexico Gingrich

Plexico likes to gamble. He writes for a boxing site which you can visit: here
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