Worst to Best
Red Dwarf
Season One

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of Red Dwarf, the science fiction sitcom which first aired on BBC2 from 15 February 1988.


The DVD release of the series can be ordered online from Amazon. In the meantime, please join me as I rank the six episodes from worst to best...

6 Waiting For God

While there's a lot to enjoy in Waiting For God, much of Rimmer's comedy is the "instant reverse" humour that the later seasons would overrely on, and the religious satire, while commendable, can be a little "on the nose". But in terms of inspiration, Lister coming to terms with the fact that he is the God of the cat race is a strong core concept.
     Noel Coleman makes an excellent guest cast member as the dying cat priest, and, even if Danny John-Jules's accent falters at points, it's worth remembering that season one is where Cat actually acted like a cat. He doesn't get many highlights in an episode ostensibly about him, but "catch that string" has to be one of them. Rewatching these early episodes, where the character actually had drives and his own culture, it's saddening to realise that this is the same character who has been placed on a continual loop of "fashion" and "dumb" gags since the 90s.
     Those who look for continuity in the increasingly contradictory Red Dwarf should be drawn to Rimmer's line about "imagine making love to a woman"... accidentally revealing that he's still a virgin, something contradicted just the following week. (Lovers of trivia may also note that dialogue in this episode reveals that it's set on a Saturday, 18 weeks after the events of The End.)
     While Waiting For God is the weakest episode of the shaky opening season, it's far from a low point of the series... in fact, if all the Red Dwarf episodes were ranked in this article, then at least thirty episodes would fall below it, most of them from the period where co-writer Rob Grant left the series.

5 Future Echoes

Future Echoes was recorded fourth in mid-October 1987, but brought forward in the running order to air second, as it was regarded as a stronger entry than either Balance of Power or Waiting For God. It's traditionally one of the most-regarded season one episodes in fan polls, sometimes even being rated as its highest peak. It showcases Holly more than in any of the first four episodes, and contains a clever plot based around visions of time, something Grant-Naylor always did well. However, while acknowledging that the episode is inventive, and well developed as a narrative, it has to be noted that it also has more flaws than many other season one episodes, and so appears far lower here than you might expect.
     There's the fact that the writers still haven't quite got into their stride in terms of the humour of the programme. Season One is commendable because it's genuinely inspired in places, and has real thought behind it... but it isn't commendable because it's particularly funny. While Future Echoes is much-remembered due to the drama surrounding Lister's destiny, and scenes where he talks to Rimmer without him being present, what's sometimes forgotten is that great chunks of the opening minutes see desperate attempts to cram "comedy" into the show, with Rimmer in a silly wig and much mugging.
     Chris Barrie is a real asset to Red Dwarf, though is seemingly encouraged to overplay in lots of season one, where he hasn't quite found the character. He's not alone, as both Charles and John-Jules appear to be playing directly to the audience on more than one occasion in the runtime here. (In his defence, Barrie jokingly mocks his own acting on the DVD commentary as "ham salad city").
     Yet the biggest factor holding Future Echoes back is a lack of real thought gone into the plot mechanics... Lister discovers he won't actually be killed in the future by an explosion, the vision of his death was actually that of one of his yet-to-be-born twin sons. That Lister takes this in his stride and sees it as something to celebrate is a great misstep in an innovative episode that does lack a clear direction.

4 Confidence and

Confidence and Paranoia sees the characterisation of the series begin to hit its stride. It's here that Lister's sensitive and preachy tendencies are introduced, as well as Rimmer's encounter with Yvonne McGruder and the existence of Dream Recorders. It also shows Rimmer being slightly protective towards Lister, even if his lack of interest in the embarrassing tales that Lister's Paranoia has to offer is, perhaps, slightly out of character. And in an episode with many great Cat moments, you also get to see Craig Charles break character and smirk on camera when Cat finds him "unconscious" on the floor.
     Red Dwarf isn't a series crammed with high profile guest stars, although the likes of Brian Cox, Jenny Agutter and Don Warrington have had small roles. Some of the guest cast, most notably Jake Wood and Graham McTavish, have since gone on to far greater fame after appearing in the series. Another who fits this bill is Craig Ferguson, a comedian making his first acting appearance as the American-accented Confidence, who would eventually find fame in America, ironically with his real Scottish accent.
     The misguided attempt in 1998 to "remaster" the first three seasons to fall in line with the rest saw changes to three of Norman Lovett's gag introductions. The original line here that the lowest form of man is a man from the post office was changed to a meandering tale about the crew waking someone from cryogenic sleep and telling them that they couldn't help him. The original gag sequence was later reworked for the remastered Better Than Life, which saw it changed to the lowest form of life being a man with a train set.
     In fairness, the attempts to "modernise" some gags had a logical basis behind it: Better Than Life's original gag talked about Berni Inns (converted to other franchises by 1995) and Statis Leak's reference to Felicity Kendal was changed to Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, filmed ten years later and without a studio audience, Lovett's redone Holly moments fail to match up with the original footage, and contain far flatter delivery than even his normal dead-pan style requires.

3 The End

Red Dwarf season one has arguably the most integrity out of any Red Dwarf season, a time when the writers were all about ideas rather than selling T-Shirts. It's not the funniest season, of course - almost the opposite, in fact - but it has ideas and genuine charm. This isn't a series resting on its laurels and plunging into tired one-liners, it's a show trying to plough an original path. It doesn't quite come off, the production values are cheap, the editing haphazard and the sight of Lister smoking is now anachronistic, but this is a series that was trying to do something fairly NEW.
     One curious element of the early Red Dwarf episodes is the honest reaction of the audience. While the audience laughter is always genuine, in later seasons the laughter heard may not be for the take used, and set reports regularly tell tales of the production staff urging the audience to laugh louder for the recordings. Here in the first episode the audience seem unsure what reaction to give at points, most notably on Lister's "what's an iguana?" line, and the ending, which is an inspired episode in need of a genuine punchline.
     The chemistry between the cast that could sell even a lesser episode is yet to fully emerge, and while Norman Lovett's Holly is fully formed here, he's not given adequate screentime to compensate for the hit-and-miss (and surprisingly, in hindsight, aggressive) interactions between Lister and Rimmer.
     The first episode has seen a number of edits and changes over the years... quite apart from the truly appalling "Remastered" version, the version streamed on Netflix features the music to George's funeral changed from "See You Later, Alligator" to "Here We Go", presumably due to right issues.

2 Balance Of

Balance of Power and Waiting For God aren't highly regarded by the writers of the series, with both feeling they were weak scripts and inferior to the unmade, incomplete season one script Bodysnatcher. Bodysnatcher (completed as narrated storyboards for a DVD extra) is more "high concept", featuring Rimmer building a patchwork body. In contrast, Balance of Power is a study of the Lister-Rimmer dynamic, with season one Rimmer far more obnoxious than the more sympathetic version he would become.
     It's indicative of how the writers would make things easier for themselves at the expense of the core concept: Balance of Power features two characters who can't touch anything, a third who only wants to touch things if they're food (or shiny things), and a fourth who is emotionally isolated. Getting laughs out of the feeling of loneliness is hard work, but the beauty of season one Red Dwarf is that it was never about the plots... indeed, the absence of strong plots and the mundanity of ship life was the plot. It must also be noted that with Future Echoes being brought forward to second in the running order, it detracts from the narrative flow of this story... Balance of Power has to be watched very much as a follow-up to The End in order to be really appreciated.
     Another notable element of this underrated episode is how Red Dwarf is one of the few shows to begin under the shadow of the pejorative "political correctness" and then reject it later into its run, rather than the reverse. Although Lister still gets in a line about the French, his respect for women and revulsion at how Rimmer mistreats the hologrammatic Kochanski is in stark contrast to the later, horrendous season eight, where he regretted not sleeping with her under the influence of drugs, or used a special serum to try and get Rimmer anally raped in prison. Astonishing that a programme made in 1999 could be far less enlightened and inspired than one made way back in 1988...

1 Me2

Me2 is where Red Dwarf finally starts to get it right, an episode that comfortably leads in to the greater quality of season two. The idea of not being able to get along with yourself was a striking one, first mooted when Lister got his own hologram in the unmade episode Bodysnatcher. Crucially this is the first time where a softer side is seen to Rimmer, with an ending that shows him bearing his soul in despair.
     Of particular note is how raw Charles's acting still is, frequently looking out towards the studio audience (flagged up by Danny John-Jules on the commentary track), and at one point silently mouthing along to John-Jules's lines as the Cat speaks, presumably to keep track of the script. Charles admits that he was very much a novice, confessing on the commentary track to The End that "this is the first time I'd ever acted, and it kind of... shows."
     While season two features the same sets, there was a real attempt to add a splash of colour to mix things up. While the original sets add much to the feel of the programme, the season one greyness that extends even towards food and drink cartons is overwhelming. There's a nice send up of this particular bit of BBC budgeting where Rimmer argues over the Skutters decorating from ocean grey to military grey.
     Rimmer getting a double did, perhaps unfortunately, become an "easy option" for future stories, and the first sign of the focus slipping away from Lister and towards Rimmer can already be seen. Not even counting his good and bad selves in Demons and Angels, or his female self in Parallel Universe, "multi-Rimmer" stories have occurred five times. Especially notable is that Rimmer's self-praise of "what a guy!" here is run into the ground for the second "duplicate Rimmer" story, Dimension Jump. Me2 is the first and best of them, and the real start of Red Dwarf's purple patch.