Across fourteen years, nine series and fifty five episodes, Red Dwarf has cemented its place as one of Britain's most loved sitcoms. From the first series’ humble beginnings, with its limited sets and wonderfully shoddy effects, it has developed into a far more intricate and clever comedy with marginally less shoddy effects. Red Dwarf infuses its basic premise, which sees a ragtag bunch of space bums trying to survive the tedium of forever rambling through space, with a quintessentially British type of comedy.
Trying to narrow down the numerous excellent episodes to just ten choice nuggets is extremely difficult. The first six series in particular, each distinct in terms of their sets, cast and production values, are all incredibly strong. Each contains several episodes which have helped to cement Dwarf’s place in British TV comedy history. Some episodes have incredible individual scenes, but perhaps aren’t as strong as others overall. On the other hand, some episodes are just so completely brilliant it would simply be a crime to leave them out. After much soul-searching and quiet contemplation, here’s my choice of the ten best Red Dwarf episodes. I hope it won’t leave you completely un-grippered.
Series 1: 'Future Echoes'
As with any series, it takes a short while for the cast and crew to really bed in. The show's creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, delivered a solid opening episode but, while 'The End' has its moments, it was still burdened slightly with the need to act as a scene-setter. 'Future Echoes' was the difficult second episode, the one where Grant and Naylor really needed to show what they were all about. With a clever sci-fi concept and some choice dialogue (“You can't just whack Death on the head!” “If he comes near me, I'm gonna rip his nipples off!”) it’s fair to say that 'Future Echoes' does just that.
The plot sees Red Dwarf (the ship, not the show) break the light barrier, a feat which results in the crew seeing glimpses of their own future occurring in the present. Rimmer appears to witness future Lister being blasted to smithereens in the control room, a vision which seems to please Arnie, but which leaves Lister understandably troubled. The plot device, which is based on part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (apparently), is most definitely a novel one and it was a bold move to utilise it in only the series' second outing. However, Grant and Naylor pulled it off brilliantly. The whole episode does a great job of developing our understanding of Lister and Rimmer’s characters and the complicated dynamic between them.
Series 2: 'Thanks for the Memory'
After a raucous celebration of Rimmer’s deathday, the crew wake up to find that ninety six hours have passed, the black box is missing and Cat and Lister both have broken feet. Naturally, Rimmer suspects aliens. After tracing the black box to a nearby moon, they find it in a shallow graved marked “To the memory of the memory of Lise Yates”. Yates turns out to be an ex-girlfriend of Lister’s. The black box then reveals that, after a drunken Rimmer confessed to Lister that he had only ever been with one woman, Lister decided to implant a memory of his relationship with Lise into Rimmer’s mind. Inevitably, the truth eventually comes out and Arnie is understandably upset that the love of his life never actually existed, for him at least. They decide to spare Rimmer this pain by erasing everyone’s memories of the entire event and burying the black box on a nearby moon.
It’s a great concept and this is probably the stand out offering from the second series. Chris Barrie puts in a typically strong performance in this episode and the sight of him trying to eat his own fist as he begins to remember what he told Lister is an absolute joy to behold. Tellingly, the episode also demonstrates that, far from simply hating each other's guts, there is a degree of friendship between Rimmer and Lister. Lister genuinely feels sorry for Rimmer and tries to do something nice for him, an act which shows not only his compassion for Rimmer’s plight, but also early signs of a bond starting to form between the two of them.
Series 3: 'Marooned'
'Marooned' is proof that sometimes in a sitcom, less is more. Its simple concept, which sees Rimmer and Lister stranded together on a remote planet in the tight confines of Starbug, allows it to deliver some of the best lines and finest moments of the whole series. The vast majority of the episode revolves around just the two leads, with both Craig Charles and Chris Barrie putting in some sterling work. Over the course of the episode we learn new things about them, such as the fact that Rimmer spent a former life as Alexander the Great’s chief eunuch and Lister lost his virginity aged twelve on a golf course.
'Marooned' also gives us an even greater insight into their two personalities and their evolving relationship. There’s a real sense of shared experience between them. The stories behind their respective cherished possessions, Rimmer’s camphor wood chest and Lister’s guitar, seem to be bringing them closer together. However, as the need for firewood gets more desperate and Lister seemingly sacrifices his beloved instrument, we see a rare thing indeed. Rimmer shows admiration for Lister and even honourably offers to burn his own priceless wooden soldiers. The final scene, where Lister sheepishly strolls back across Starbug, removes his guitar from a locker and Rimmer notices the guitar-shaped hole in his camphor wood chest, is pure comedy gold. “Kryten, get the hacksaw and follow me…..We’re going to do to Lister what Alexander the Great once did to me.”
Series 3: 'Backwards'
While some Dwarf episodes, such as 'Marooned' and 'Thanks for the Memory', focus on the personalities of and relationships between the lead characters, others are just great concepts which Grant and Naylor have a lot of fun with. 'Backwards' very much falls into this category. Rimmer and Kryten crash land on a version of Earth where everything happens backwards and find success as a novelty cabaret act known as ‘The Sensational Reverse Brothers’, in which they do everything forwards.
Lister and Cat, the self-proclaimed ‘smart party’, then turn up to bring them home, initially mistaking backwards world for Eastern Europe. “Nod… Nol… it’s in Bulgaria, isn’t it?” The legendary barroom tidy is a moment of genius, but perhaps the finest moment of the episode is the opening gambit where Lister and Cat hold that all important conversation about Wilma Flintstone and quite rightly decide that, in all probability, she is the most desirable woman who ever lived.
Series 4: 'White Hole'
'White Hole' focuses on another neat sci-fi concept which is used brilliantly by Grant and Naylor. The crew find themselves experiencing time fluctuations, which see events occurring out of sequence. After Kryten manages to radically heighten Holly’s IQ, the ship’s computer finds her runtime seriously depleted. She turns herself off and powers the craft down to conserve energy. As the Dwarf floats aimlessly through space and the boys are forced to go right back to basics, they begin to experience the mysterious time dilation.
As ever with their novel plot devices, Grant and Naylor utilise it superbly. The standout moment is when Kryten tries to explain to the rest of the crew about the concept of a white hole (the opposite of a black hole, spewing time back into the universe), only for a spasm in time to ensure they end up going around in circles. Other episode highlights include Dave ‘Cinzano-Bianco’ Lister playing pool with planets and the unwaveringly persistent Talkie Toaster. Meanwhile, Hattie Hayridge's Holly has a rare major role to play in the episode and is perfect throughout. It was always going to be a tough gig to replace Norman Lovett, but Hayridge showed in this episode that she could hang with the best of them.
Series 4: 'Dimension Jump'
The episode which first brought us the ingenious comedy creation that is Ace Rimmer (what a guy) really has to be on this list. Ace arrives from an alternative reality and is everything our Rimmer isn’t. He’s brave, heroic, good looking, intelligent and, most of all, successful. Inevitably, his arrival hits a raw nerve with Arnie, who already has a considerable chip on his shoulder over never getting the breaks and being let down by his parents. In his eyes, Ace is living proof of what he could have been. An early scene where Lister, Cat and Kryten try to sneak out to go fishing without him has already got Rimmer riled and he gets increasingly peeved at his alter ego’s presence and Lister’s instant friendship with him. One memorable highlight sees Rimmer scoffing at the two new bosom buddies and delivering the immortal line, “I recognize you two. Weren't you two the double action centrefold in July's edition of Big Boys in Boots?” Chris Barrie is once again superb in this episode and it’s good to see him getting the chance to act the hero for once after years of playing such a git.
Series 4: 'Meltdown'
It’s always strange seeing the boys from the Dwarf away from their home turf, but it works an absolute treat in 'Meltdown'. After Kryten finds a ‘matter transporter device’, the crew decide to visit the nearest planet with a breathable atmosphere. Unfortunately for them, this planet just happens to be a long forgotten Wax-World theme park, where the wax droids, left in isolation for so long, are now sentient and have become embroiled in a devastating war between good and evil. On one side are the very worst people in history, including Hitler, Mussolini, Al Capone and, of course, James Last. On the other is a ragtag band of soldiers such as Elvis, Gandhi, Saint Francis of Assisi and Einstein.
Determined to live out his war games fantasies, Rimmer decides to whip the remaining good guys into shape and lead them into battle. There are so many great moments in this episode, from Rimmer’s snarling dressing down of his own troops (“There's only two types from Assisi; steers and queers. Which are you, boy?”) to Lister witnessing an extremely harrowing firing squad (“They’re tying him to the stake… It’s Winnie the Pooh.”) It’s an episode which really shows Rimmer’s ability to be a complete and total bastard and Chris Barrie has an absolute ball.
Series 5: 'Back to Reality'
The series five finale sees the Dwarf boys being attacked by a ‘despair squid’, causing them to crash Starbug. They wake up back on Earth, where it turns out they have been playing a total immersion video game for four years. 'Back To Reality' is an episode which forces the group to question what exactly ‘reality’ means. Have they merely been playing characters in a virtual reality game the whole time? Are they the people they think they are? It’s a brave move by Grant and Naylor to relocate their characters for the majority of the episode and to effectively give them new identities too.
Luckily, over the course of five series we have gained such an in-depth understanding of the characters that the central concept of 'Back to Reality', that the four crew members were actually the polar opposite of their supposed personalities, works to great effect. The Cat is buck-toothed Duane Dibley, Lister is the powerful, fascist Sebastien Doyle, Rimmer is his down and out brother and Kryten is traffic cop Jake Bullet. As they all struggle to come to terms with their real identities, it is revealed that the crew are in fact still back on Starbug, taking part in a group hallucination brought on by the despair squid. The squid’s toxic ink is attempting to force them to kill themselves through self-loathing.
The episode highlight is perhaps the budget defying high speed chase, which sees the crew racing around in circles back on Starbug as they are meant to be speeding away from police while being shot at from helicopters. Then there is Timothy Spall’s magnificent cameo as the Brummie technician who welcomes the boys back to reality and can’t help but mock poor old Arnie. “Are you telling me you’ve been playing the prat version of Rimmer for all that time?”
Series 6: 'Gunmen of the Apocalypse'
'Gunmen' is a legendary and ambitious episode which won the show a prestigious international Emmy award. The plot sees the boys enter a computer simulation of the Wild West where Kryten is doing battle with a deadly computer virus manifesting itself as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s always a gamble to relocate the show’s action to somewhere so radically different, but luckily the end result is one of the funniest and most memorable Dwarf outings of all. There are some absolutely classic lines throughout the episode, including Arnie’s wearying putdown of Cat, “look, we've all got something to contribute to this discussion and I think what you should contribute from now on is silence.” It also features arguably the best example of Kryten pulling Rimmer up on his knowledge of various regulatory statutes. “39436175880932/B?…All nations attending the conference are only allocated one car parking space. Is that entirely relevant, sir? I mean, here we are in mortal danger and you're worried about the Chinese delegates bringing two cars.”
The increased budget for this series was put to great use and the scenes shot in the Wild West town are really effective. All four crew members have a moment to shine and the lead actors have great fun playing the roles of rough and ready cowboys. Seeing Rimmer moseying into a tough old Saloon, swaggering up to the bar and ordering a dry white wine and a Perrier will never get old.
Series 6: 'Out of Time'
Another barnstorming series finale here and one which, perhaps more than any other, combines moments of great humour with genuinely affecting drama. The brilliant cliff-hanger ending was a superb way to cap the series off and would leave fans on tenterhooks for four years while they waited for the seventh series to emerge. The episode’s plot sees the boys low on morale and desperately trying to re-find Red Dwarf. Things take a turn for the surreal when they enter a strange fog and begin to experience ‘unreality pockets’, which cause many confusing scenarios to occur. These include the apparent revelation that Lister is in fact an android. Robert Llewllyn is on fine form here and his realisation that they have in fact been duped and Lister is human after all is a real highlight. “Somebody else tell him, I’ve got gussets to scrub.”
The fog is protecting a derelict spaceship which possesses a working time drive. The boys are at first excited, but then realise they can only travel backwards and forwards in time to the exact same spot in deep space that they currently inhabit, which doesn’t seem to be of any use…..as yet. They then get a distress call from what appears to be their future selves and, after sealing the others in a room for their own safety, Kryten welcomes these future Dwarfers onboard. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s a worryingly believable take on what might happen to the crew should their wildest dreams be answered. Rimmer and Cat get fat, Kryten wears a toupee and Lister is just a brain in a jar.
The future crew members are a grisly bunch who are selfish and amoral. They brag about travelling through time and space, hobnobbing with some of histories worst tyrants (“Herman Goering was a ‘bit dodgy’?”) After refusing to help them and throwing them off the ship, the regular boys are then attacked by their far more advanced future selves. The end is seemingly nigh and, after a rare moment of bravery from Rimmer who unexpectedly suggests they stand and fight (“better dead than smeg”), the future Starbug attacks. The onslaught seemingly kills the crew except for old Arnie. The final few moments are incredibly tense and gripping to watch. Could this be the end of the boys from the Dwarf? Can Rimmer finally be a hero and figure out a way to save the day? The episode ends with Starbug exploding and an ominous ‘to be continued’ flashing up on screen. It’s a great way to end a series and it makes it a much greater shame that series seven could never live up to expectations.
Close but no cigar: 'Queeg', 'Timeslides', 'Polymorph' and 'Holoship'.