Released in three one-hours slots on UK Cable Network Dave, the current home of Red Dwarf, comes Red Dwarf: The First Three Million Years: a documentary detailing the entire 33-year history of the show, along with talking heads from celebrities and fans, as well as the thoughts of the cast, writers and crew of the various seasons. It is something along the lines of the I Love the 1980s-type shows with which we are all familiar, with a little of VH1’s Behind the Music thrown in for good measure.
Narrated by David Tennant, the first episode by far the most interesting, as it has the most chronological focus. Introducing each character in turn, a primer on the people that have made the show is cross-cut with the writers’ history as head creatives on the legendary Spitting Image, their early attempts at a prototype version of the show, with radio’s Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, and taking us through the influences that shaped the idea. Red Dwarf was always envisaged as a cross between Alien and The Odd Couple, something seen both in the essential loneliness of life in space, as well as the mismatched nature of Lister and Rimmer, with one unambitious and slobby, and the other uptight and all frustrated desires.
The show could have looked very different. Lister could have been played by Alan Rickman, and Alfred Molina was approached to play Rimmer (though we are told Hugh Laurie was also considered). In the end the core four of the first two series comprised a poet, an impressionist, a dancer (in Danny John-Jules) and a deadpan stand-up comedian (in Norman Lovett). There is good discussion both of the influences brought to bear in how they approached their roles (with James Brown a huge influence on John-Jules, who was best known for working with Lena Zavaroni at this point).
From there episode one takes us through to around series three, and the addition of Kryten and a female Holly. We hear from David Ross, the original Kryten, and from everyone from Peter Ridsdale-Scott, the producer who fought to get the show remounted after a strike, to Tony Hawks, a stand-up who appeared in a number of episodes and worked as the warm-up man on recording nights. It is a lot of fun seeing the actors ribbing each other in a roundtable filmed during production of The Promised Land, playing on decades-old in-jokes, and clearly so grateful to be working on the show. This episode is about a series of happy accidents: the strike improved the end result by giving them extra time; the casting wasn’t as planned,, but led to magic. Much of this appeared on the DVD releases, but this is the first time it has been assembled for general public consumption.
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The second episode cross-cuts the first by starting in series three, with the upgrade of the sets, and the brightening of the costumes, with more colour for Cat, and leathers for Lister. All good so far, but then comes the padding, as we see Danny revisit his old outfits in a section that goes on too long, and planting the thought that maybe their weren’t three episodes in this. We have time with Robert Llewellyn as he discusses the iterations of his make-up and the reduction in time taken from the original five-six hours. In fact he would leave his hotel to go to make-up just as other cast members were coming in from a night out at the Hacienda in Manchester. It’s all a bit aimless, but fun enough.
From there we move on to alternative versions of the characters we have seen over the years. It is enjoyable, but simply doesn’t have the narrative drive of the first episode. Where we might have expected a focus on the enforced three-year break in the mid-90s, Chris Barrie burning out and leaving the show temporarily, and the BBC pulling away, leading to a focus on the film that never happened, this is just a case of “remember this?”. It’s fine, but the first instalment probably set the bar a little high.
The final episode commences with a focus on the science concepts behind the show, dealing with the mixture of real, hypothetical, and plain made-up. Obviously, chief amongst these concepts will the The Big Crunch of ‘Backwards’ as well as the White Hole idea of the episode of the same name. Again, much of this – such as Arthur Smith’s backwards dialogue reversed – has been seen in bonus features down the years, but this does take the legwork out of tracking it all down, and introduces it to new fans. Unlike the second episode, at least there are themes to the content here, but it has become a very different focus from where this three-part celebration began.
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The channel has made a real effort to assemble everyone, from writers, cast, music department, costuming, former cast members and fans. To make such an effort on an ageing property, for a small and lowly-funded network is commendable. The episodes flow well, are each interspersed with contributions from a core cast that have wonderful chemistry, in or out of costume. It’s also great to see coverage of the US pilot. In general though, this would have played better as a single 90-minute show – effectively the opposite problem from that found with The Promised Land, which this might have been better, also, being released closer to. It is definitely worth a watch on the UKTV Play app though, where all episodes are now available.