Worst to Best
Red Dwarf
Season by season

2016 has seen the broadcast of the eleventh season of Red Dwarf. As result this article, originally published in 2012, is now updated to take into account the new run. The entire series is available in the site's Online Store, or clicking the various images will take you to our Amazon store where you can buy the respective seasons.
     


by
THE ANORAK
NOVEMBER 2012


UPDATED OCTOBER 2016: In the late 80s Red Dwarf was a refreshingly different show, a sitcom set in a science fiction world at a time the BBC were falling out of love with the genre. Join me as I look back through the eleven seasons, from worst to best...

11 Season Eleven (2016)

When Red Dwarf came back in 2010, it was a pleasant breath of air. Although all the episodes weren't classics, and not even all that funny, they had charm, and were better than expected. Sadly, season eleven frequently lacks that charm, adopting season eight-style obnoxious, bawdy humour, and so loses the goodwill built up around it. Not all of the episodes are bad, and there's only a hair's breadth between this and previous last place holder Season Eight as "the worst ever Red Dwarf season", but it just, sadly, manages to take the lowest spot. While it's more than easy to slate Season Eight for all its many faults, it's also worth remembering that Cassandra was actually a halfway decent episode and one that, unfortunately, was better than anything here. That alone manages to tip the balance.

10 Season Eight (1999)

Cassandra aside, this was the lowest that Red Dwarf ever sank, a show that had more class and sophistication than it was perhaps given credit for. Surprisingly for a series where one of the lead characters is named after licking out an anus and a catchphrase is based around sperm, it was capable of moments of genuine profundity and character reflection. That the series could sink so low as to have Lister cutting off his own pubic hair and sprinkling it around someone else's bedsheets, or trying to use a drug to get Kochanski to sleep with him against her will is repugnant. A "punchline" in this series involves Lister using the same drug to try and get Rimmer raped while in prison. Such "laughs" come with cutting edge takes on Beadle's About (cancelled three years before this aired) and Reservoir Dogs (eight years old when this aired, though that still didn't stop Coupling doing the same thing a year later). The "jokes" that don't trash the characters or offer beneath-itself crudity are the sort of gags that would get rejected at a Crackerjack script meeting. And because this is a "comedy", all of the support cast now have to be "comedy" characters too, with the previously amusing straight character Captain Hollister now a "zany", "wacky" guy we're supposed to laugh along with. This is to say nothing of the prison warden or the prison psychiatrist, two people who would not exist outside of a sitcom world. Ultimately there's no reality for the crew to react against, and the series reaches its nadir in terms of creative drive. Let's not even mention the Blue Midget dance. Ironically it reached its commercial peak with this season, breaking the eight million barrier, only attempts to get a movie greenlit/BBC2 indifference causing the series to be placed on hiatus. It wasn't until ten years later that it would return, for the first time not on the BBC...

9 Season Ten (2012)

The special aside, this was thirteen years since the last proper Red Dwarf season, and twenty years since it was last genuinely any good. That season ten is at least watchable is to its credit. Sure, the jokes are now so obvious that you can spot the punchlines before they've even finished the feeds, but this is a show for a youth audience where its youngest cast member is now 48. Most of season ten's low placing in this article isn't a criticism of the series itself, more an acknowledgement of how good most of what preceded it was. The show has perhaps ran out of things to say, and the staggering number of instant reverses (a character says he won't do one thing, only to immediately contradict himself) is shocking, but this is a show nearing its twenty-fifth anniversary. If the cast want to be dusted down and have a better-than-expected victory lap, then can we really begrudge them? Most importantly, the series is able to charm once more, shorn of the obnoxious, more sinister take that was season eight. Sure, Dear Dave and The Beginning may well be the single most unfunny episodes the show ever ran, and it's sometimes hard to believe that these are the same characters we've watched for years, but it has a kind of nobility in its daring to try.

8 Back To Earth (2009)

Anyone expecting the return of the series proper when tuning in for this special was destined to be disappointed. Possessing, ironically enough, no kind of atmosphere, the series was brought back without an audience or without many sets, Red Dwarf itself rendered in CGI. Not only that, but it was a metatextual, post-modern take on the series, something that was de rigueur for TV in the new millennium. However, looked at with hindsight and altered expectations, Back To Earth actually has a lot going for it. Produced in place of a 21st anniversary retrospective, the minimal budget was largely based around Craig Charles' role in Coronation Street and effectively used to test the waters for a new series. If not viewed as a comedy, but more as a tragedy, then there's poignancy in the cast wanting extra life for themselves, and despairing at growing old and fat. It's to the credit of the people involved that they didn't go the easy route and just rehash past glories and ideas - despite this being a Back To Reality sequel that homages Blade Runner - and tried something different. At the time this was an anti-climax. In 2012 it's the reflective, underrated special that got the series restarted.

7 Season Seven (1997)

Season seven was the first to be written after co-creator Rob Grant had decided to leave the series, and also saw Chris Barrie decide to take part in only half of the episodes. For the first time new writers got to have a hand in the show, with Paul Alexander, Kim Fuller, James Hendrie and Robert Llewellyn all getting co-writing credits with Doug Naylor. There's also a major change in the recording, as it was filmed on single cameras, filmised and then shown post-production to a studio audience for the laughter track. As a visual spectacle, it looks like some of the best the show has to offer, even if the decision to use CGI for the space shots is jarring. Yet it's what's in the episodes that's the important thing, and, as hard as everyone tries, the series can't cope with the loss of a major character. Although Chloe Annett is attractive and likeable, the character is an odd fit with the regulars, who have at this stage become completely one-dimensional, and there's no explanation for how she got a headswap, the original Kochanski having a cameo in only the previous season. Strangely for a season that ends with the restoration of the original Holly, then it seems intent on distancing itself from the past, with many onscreen events from the early years completely rewritten. Lister is also revealed to be his own father, which takes the series into awful sci-fi territory. Perhaps even worse is that he spends the season lusting after Kochanski, who is his own mother. No longer is the series about the search for Earth (something they're inexplicably shown capable of reaching in the first episode) but it's about Lister's quest to become the ultimate motherfucker. Blue and Stoke Me A Clipper are the so-so standouts, and some of the material is more adult than previous seasons, but when the final part of this extended, eight-episode run goes half of its runtime getting "laughs" from disability, you know that this is the show extended well beyond its natural lifespan. The majority of the "humour" comes from appallingly laboured and contrived similes, of which the Cat's "There must be more electricity out there than the surge that went through the national grid during the commercial break in the Olympic all-girls custard wrestling finals!" is a nadir. Season seven rates quite highly in this list. That's not to say that it's really any good... just that, sadly, it got even worse.

6 Season Six (1993)

The final season to have Rob Grant as a co-writer before he moved onto other projects. It's easily the weakest of the Grant-Naylor seasons, but still significantly better than what followed, and perhaps better than you might remember. Featuring an arc plot where Red Dwarf has gone missing - not resolved until the end of season seven, four years later - it's true that these six episodes see the programme tip over into a sci-fi show with jokes, rather than a smart sitcom that happens to be set in space. Biggest offender is the fan-pleasing Emohawk Polymorph II, which sees the audience whoop with delight to a sequel to three seperate episodes. Oddly, for most of this run then Rimmer isn't the obnoxious character he usually is, plot necessity making him a much more proactive character in parts, with even Cat regularly calling him "bud". Only prior knowledge tells us that he's the ostracised member of the crew, new viewers may have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. Yet if what sticks in the memory is the desperately predictable "Rimmer misquotes a Space Corps Directive" schtick, then it's worth noting this actually only happens five times, a complement to half-a-dozen similarly unfunny "someone makes a remark about the shape of Kryten's head" routines. On initial airing it seemed like an overkill of not-very-good catchphrases... but a rewatch reveals that there's some decent material in there, even if sparser than before. Oddly overrated from the run is Gunmen of the Apocalypse, which sees Red Dwarf adding itself to the list of many genre shows that have a so-so western episode. But the highlight has to be the final episode, Out Of Time, which sees the crew confronted by their own future... and the prospect is not a happy one.

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