A science fiction sitcom is a remarkably tricky beast. Aside from Red Dwarf, the only other attempt that can be considered successful has to be Futurama, which itself also resides in the separate category of animated sitcom. Red Dwarf, the story about Dave Lister finding himself three million years into deep space and the last human being alive, is not inherently funny on its surface, but is clearly a science fiction concept. In different hands it could be an existential exploration of what it means to confront our collective mortality. If you make that man a complete slob and have his only companions be a hologram of an equally shitty human being, the most conceited humanoid in existence (who evolved from Lister’s cat), and an android maid, then you’ve got a recipe for comedy that is a bit reminiscent of Futurama for new comers.
The first series of Red Dwarf aired in February 1988, and in the proceeding twenty-nine years additional series were released in late 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1999, 2009, 2012, and 2016. Most fans agree that Red Dwarf creatively lost its way with Series VII when it returned in 1997, only to return to its old school glory in the 2012 Series X revival. As such, Red Dwarf has another distinction in that it’s probably the only television show that has gone through a mid-life crisis.
While Series X was concerned with the successful revival of a show that has risen more times than the Phoenix, Series XI gives us something more. Red Dwarf never makes reference to how long the boys have been in deep space, but I’d venture to say that our time is real time; that twenty-nine years have passed since Lister woke from stasis. Early seasons made a point of exploring the aspect of the boys exploring abandoned space stations and crashed ships to obtain salvage to survive on, all while being complete and total cowards. When cybernetic kill-bots or genetically engineered lifeforms showed up to cause trouble the boys fled at top speed while Rimmer changed his pants. Series XI presents us with a crew that has explored space, traveled through time, crossed into alternate realities, and battled countless terrifying beings over the course of the show. This latest series presents the boys from the Dwarf as seasoned explorers – less cowardly but each still in it for themselves. Boarding a space station just a few hours before it’s to be destroyed by an asteroid storm? Sure, why not. Making split second command decisions in battle? Oh, they’ll be bad decisions, but smeg it, they’ll make them. Even Rimmer is prepared to charge into a gunfight at a moments notice, though he’ll only do so while using Kryten as a body shield.
This change could stand to make the show lose some of its appeal, but it has the exact opposite effect. As longtime fans this feels like a natural progression. To spend thirty years surviving in deep space and not become accustomed to this lifestyle would feel fake; a lie told to the audience with a wink and a nod. In Series XI we’re rewarded with a crew that has grown more experienced while never growing up. That, of course, is why we love the boys from the Dwarf.