It begins twenty-four-and-a-bit years ago. Tuesday 19th May, 1992. BBC2 are repeating the fourth series of a sci-fi sitcom called Red Dwarf. I’ve heard vague mutterings about Red Dwarf from classmates at primary school, and from my cousin. But back in 1991, it was on at 9pm, and I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it. This time, however, the repeat run is on at 8.30. On Tuesday evenings at 8.30, my mum is out at night school, and in the preceding months my dad has been letting me stay up with him to watch A Question of Sport. But the then-popular quiz show has finished its run, so our shared TV-watching timeslot needs something new to fill it – and the Brittas Empire repeats that we’ll later enjoy are themselves a good few weeks away from starting.
Hence, Red Dwarf.
The first episode I see opens with one of the lead characters sporting a grossly oversized prosthetic head – I will remember this scene vividly for years to come as my first experience of the show. The following week, I find an episode revolving around a “pleasure GELF” hilarious, especially when one character sees their perfect mate as a mirror image of themselves.
I can finally join the group of kids at school who yammer on about how great this Red Dwarf thing is. This weird, edgy comedy that’s a bit Doctor Who and a bit Young Ones (I’ve no idea if I’ve seen an episode of the Young Ones by this point, but I know I find their shouty “Living Doll” single hilarious). It feels a bit subversive, even, that we’re allowed to watch it – even though, of course, plenty of it goes over our heads.
I watch at least some of the rest of the Series IV repeat run beyond Justice and Camille – D.N.A., certainly, and possibly Meltdown. But after that, my experience of the show is piecemeal – I don’t catch the fifth or sixth series exactly as they go out, but subsequent repeats allow me to start filling in the gaps, slowly.
And then in 1994, BBC do an odd thing: they put out a Red Dwarf video. Not a video of episodes – they’ve done a few of those already. This is a video of out takes – of bloopers. Of “Smeg Ups”. It’s one of the must-have Christmas presents that year – and while it might have been more sensible to ask for one of those videos of the many episodes I still haven’t seen yet, I have to have it too. This probably marks the point where, for the first time, I’m properly hooked on Red Dwarf.
Over the next couple of years, I get the Smeg Outs sequel video the following Christmas (despite many of the outtakes coming from early-series episodes that I still haven’t seen yet), and eventually I venture into the tie-in novels – borrowing an Omnibus from a (now secondary) school friend and reading the entirety of Last Human in one sitting at a library. When Series VII comes along, there’s a cadre of us who are all awaiting it eagerly: devouring every tie-in article from Radio Times to SFX, and excitedly discussing Tikka to Ride the morning after broadcast (which was a Saturday, but we had orienteering. Yeah, I went to a public school). When the ill-fated Remastered videos are released, a friend called Matt Owens is there at Woolworths each week to get the next one, and I borrow them from him a short while afterwards. The BBC2 Red Dwarf night is a must-be-taped, endlessly-rewatched package of pure joy, too.
By the following year, though, while I wouldn’t say I’ve fallen out of love with Dwarf, I’ve certainly drifted away a little. I’m 17 by now, so I guess I’ve got other things on my mind, other things (and people) to obsess over. I still watch the show as it airs, but no longer pay active attention to the buildup or aftermath. I discover an official website dedicated to the show during early school-computer-room-based forays onto the internet, but it’s a passing curiosity rather than a burning interest.
The next time I reconnect with the show, I’m at university. It’s 2002, approaching the summer, and I’m struggling slightly with my course – failing miserably to learn some Old English translations that will define the results of my first-year exams (exams that it’s entirely possible to be booted out of the university entirely for failing). On a foray into one of Oxford’s many charity shops, I find a copy of the first Dwarf novel. It’s been a while – well, it’s only actually been a couple of years, but when you’re 19, that feels like a while – and I welcome the chance to reconnect with the series.
What I don’t expect is just how much, this time, I fall completely in love with that first novel. What does it is a sequence quite early in the book, covering Rimmer’s own attempts to revise for an exam that he’s destined to fail. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the subject matter (although he probably doesn’t), so much as the fact that his own internal procrastination prevents him from ever even starting work. The gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read – knowing that, even by reading this book instead of revising Beowulf I’m exacerbating the problem – is unpleasant; but equally, I feel understood.
I fail the exam the first time, but pass it – barely – on a resit. So I get to go to second year, and move out of halls into a house with some newfound friends. In a pleasant piece of synchronicity, one of them – Martin – has a near-complete set of Red Dwarf VHSes – and we spend many, many post-pub-or-club nights sitting up until 3 or 4am, drinking cheap vodka, and watching them as part of a constant rotation of comedy videos.
In an even more pleasant piece of synchronicity, late in 2002, the first series of Red Dwarf makes its debut on DVD. I’m immediately hooked into the series’ release cycle after getting the first one for Christmas – and for the first time I can actually watch the entirety of the show, in sequence, complete with a bunch of additional context about how it was made.
And it’s this – finally, this – that pulls me ever-deeper into Red Dwarf fandom. As the DVDs come out, I start to read more about them online. But it’s in 2004 that I first start to get properly into the idea of reading fansites. The detail of exactly what I’m Googling in order to find it will become lost to the mists of time, but the first thing I read on a site called Ganymede & Titan is an April Fool’s joke they’ve recently published, featuring a purported video of an aborted “Series IV Remastered” project.
I click around the site, and find all manner of in-depth nonsense – the sort of thing that’s exactly in my wheelarch the more invested I get in something – and, better yet, a tremendously childish sense of humour and copious amounts of swearing. Ultimately, I stay up until 4am reading basically everything on the site.
I think I’ve found my people.
In the second half of 2004, I realise that I have stuff I want to say about Red Dwarf myself. I also don’t have a full-time job. These two characteristics combine and result in the creation of Fuchal, my first Red Dwarf fansite. I bash out a couple of needlessly lengthy articles, which – aside from some suitably teenage and self-indulgent blogging – are the first “proper” material I write for the web.
By now, through commenting and contributing to discussion, I’ve become friendlier with the G&T gang, and in 2005 we make two important steps. Firstly, a group of us – headed up by G&T’s Ian and John – who all run fansites decide to collaborate on a single, central Red Dwarf blog. While not designed to replace our existing blogs and archives, Observation Dome is intended as more of a free-flowing repository of found nonsense and – well – observations. Now that I think of it, it’s basically a group Tumblr, several years before Tumblr.
Having collaborated reasonably well on OD for its first few months, it’s what happens next that really changes the direction of my Dwarf fandom. The official site announces a competition to make a fan film, the winner of which will feature on the upcoming Series VII DVD release. Between us, the Observation Dome gang hatch out a plan to make a spoof documentary, charting the infamous failed attempts to make a Red Dwarf movie in the early 2000s – littering the script with in-jokes relating not only to the show itself, but its wider fan culture. We’re fairly sure nobody will find it funny except us, but we press on and make the thing anyway. While G&T founder Ian Symes makes use of his college resources to produce and direct, somewhere along the way it’s decided that I should play Doug Naylor.
We shoot the film over a raucous weekend in Ian’s student digs in Enfield, before a long and tortuous editing process – and then, a long and tortuous wait after submission to find out whether the Grant Naylor Productions team will find it amusing, insulting or – worst case – baffling and dull.
I’m plodding through an extremely muddy Glastonbury festival when I get a text message from Ian. It reads, simply, “WE’VE FUCKING WON!”
When I get home from the festival, I check the official website, and sure enough, there’s my face, in a screengrab from the film. We’re one of two submissions picked to be featured on the disc later that year. The day I’m able to pick up the VII DVD from the local Sainsbury’s, knowing that my face and voice (and, in a Terrorform-homaging scene I wish we’d cut, bare chest) are contained within, is quite a proud one.
G&T eventually becomes responsible for quite a lot of my life – it gives me my closest friendship group when I move to London in 2006, initially house sharing with Cappsy, another of the “Observation Dome” gang. It’s around this time that we also take the decision to close down the Dome, instead merging our existing fansites into one all-conquering gestalt: the brand new Ganymede & Titan. Although I’ve still only written a handful of articles on Fuchal, I throw myself into the new site with vigour, also starting a new series of podcasts (which, in an anti-Apple stance that has admittedly softened since, we doggedly persist in referring to as “Dwarfcasts”).
Cappsy will eventually be the best man at my wedding, with Ian also a groomsman; and my housemate of a couple of years later Julian, while not a fan of the show himself, I also meet directly through this group. But somewhere along the way, despite being part of the anarchic (and sometimes antagonistic) unofficial group of chancers, I also become friendly with Andrew Ellard, who since the turn of the century has worked for Grant Naylor as Red Dwarf’s website editor, DVD producer and general all-round public face of official fandom. Aside from the obvious shared interest, we mainly bond over karaoke.
I continue to be active in online Dwarf fandom through the show’s revival on Dave in 2009 (G&T gets a mention from Doug on his Back to Earth DVD commentary, and Ian and I conduct a phone interview with him the following year); and a couple of years later – as whispers begin that a tenth full series might be on the horizon – the 2011 Dimension Jump convention is marked by our releasing a book. The Garbage Pod is a self-published collection of old G&T articles and a bit of new material, that I’ve put together, curated, edited and released. We get copies printed in time to sell them at DJ – but, more notably, with Doug in attendance at the convention (his first in over a decade) it’s an opportunity to finally meet him in person, complete with the jacket I wore when playing him in the film.
We also give him a complimentary copy of the book, and in it I stick – more as a cheeky nod than anything, as it’s not like Doug doesn’t know who I am by this point – one of my freelancer business cards. Prior to this I’ve had idle conversations with Andrew about the fact that, if he ever decided to jack in doing the site, I’d be interested in pitching to take it over; although I don’t know if and when this will ever happen, and if I’d be remotely considered as a possibility if it did.
A surprisingly short while after the convention, I get a message from Andrew: it’s happening. He’s committing himself full-time to his writing and script-editing career, leaving a vacancy at reddwarf.co.uk. If I can knock some writing samples together with a CV, he can’t promise anything, but he’ll certainly put a word in on my behalf.
A few short weeks after that, I’m sitting around a table at Shepperton Studios with Doug and assorted other Grant Naylor personnel, discussing the terms of my taking the job. Oh, and the fact that in a couple of weeks, my first news piece for the site will be about how people can get audience tickets to see the new series of the show.
It’s actually happening.
And so, wistfully but resolutely, I hang up my “unofficial” spurs, and record my final Dwarfcast for G&T – which goes out the same day my first articles on RedDwarf.co.uk are published.
So that, I guess, is how you get a job as a professional Red Dwarf fan.
I’ve been doing the job for just short of five years, now – with at least one update to the site every week (and sometimes more). Some weeks I’ve broken massive news and announcements; others, I’ve scrabbled around for anything tenuously connected to someone who has worked on the show at any point. Red Dwarf’s massive online fandom has come to expect a certain sort of thing from the site ever since Andrew’s days, and I hope I’ve done a decent enough job of providing it. I’m proud of some of the longer-form stuff I’ve done – including an epic twenty-fifth anniversary interview with Doug, a comprehensive database and history of all the books, and a ridiculously difficult quiz that got a surprisingly insane amount of Facebook traction.
Getting paid to write about my favourite show every week has always been an honour and a privilege, as has the access it’s afforded me to get closer to the show – it’s not like I get to be deeply involved in the production, but back when I was an obsessive teenage fan I never imagined I’d one day get to actually walk around Shepperton pretending I was on the ship; or, on my thirty-third birthday, sit in Kryten’s seat on Starbug. My connection with the show helped me get Robert Llewellyn to appear in a sitcom I co-wrote, and the added exposure from working on the site has helped in getting to know a great and varied number of terrific people both online and off.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing, of course – the very nature of TV show production and promotion means that sometimes things are frantically produced or rewritten to account for ever-shifting deadlines or changes of circumstance. Everyone involved with Red Dwarf knows just how important the show is to the people that love it – because it’s just as important to us, too. We want the show to be the best it can be, and to give the best account of itself wherever possible. When it comes to sheer stress, though, I doubt anything will beat co-ordinating the upload of the Series XI/XII announcement video – filmed live at a convention happening up in Nottingham – from a London hospital room just days after the birth of my first daughter.
But on the whole, and while I’ve been lucky to have many different writing jobs and freelance engagements over the past decade, I wouldn’t trade in the Red Dwarf gig for anything. Because when it comes down to it, the simple fact of the matter is that this is my favourite TV show – the one in which I’ve invested by far the most time, attention and love.
But why is that? A lot of it, sure, is the nostalgia wrapped up in it being the show I happened to fall into back in 1992. But I don’t feel the same way about The Brittas Empire, so it can’t just be that. I’ve never been able to shake Red Dwarf because so much of it speaks so directly to what I tend to enjoy. The things I like about sci-fi are its idea-driven nature, and the fact that it can say so much about the world we live in. But one of the things I often dislike about sci-fi is how overly seriously it can take itself. So Red Dwarf, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, takes the big ideas and the critical lens of good sci-fi, but allies them with just the right sense of absurdity.
It always – well, pretty much always – makes me laugh. I enjoy the gags and performances – I think Chris Barrie, in particular, is underrated as one of the great comic performers of his era. I think some of the plot conceits are genuinely more original and inventive than almost anything else in the genre. I love the world that it creates – expanded upon by those novels – and the extrapolation of where modern culture will eventually take us. I love the characters, and I care about what happens to them, and I’m fascinated by their ongoing development – how a show that was once about the fear of growing old and alone in a godless universe has now become about actually having grown old and alone in a godless universe.
And I still love many of its trappings – the look and feel of it, the iconography, the music. There’s plenty about it that you’d think you’d get bored of after nearly twenty-five years, but I still even get excited by a new set of opening titles, and an episode name written in red Microgramma D Bold Extended. I love Starbug, and the Jupiter Mining Corporation logo, and despite the annoyance of the fact that any group of more than about ten Red Dwarf fans gathered in a room will eventually end up singing it, I even still love Tongue Tied.
It’s a pretty great time to be a Red Dwarf fan. The first episode of the eleventh series has just started previewing online (it airs “properly” on Dave next week), and there’s a twelfth series to come next year. And then in 2018, while we don’t know whether there’ll be more episodes being made (yet), there’s the show’s thirtieth anniversary to celebrate, too.
As for Series XI, any promotional biases aside, from purely the perspective of a fan of the show it’s a delight to report that it’s legitimately superb. It builds on the foundation provided by the Series X revival, but takes the show into fascinating new directions, with production values that arguably improve on everything (yes, everything) that’s come before – and plenty of fan-pleasing nods thrown in, to boot. In short, it’s everything I would have hoped, but may never have dreamed a few years back, that modern-day Red Dwarf could come out like: funny, inventive, superbly-realised sci-fi comedy. Like it’s always been.
And that’s why I’ve always been – whether professionally or otherwise – a Red Dwarf fan. And why I probably always will be.