I recently did a rewatch of Red Dwarf from start to finish. I watched it religiously as a kid, but I never really watched any of the later series produced by Dave (a TV channel, not a person). Red Dwarf has an interesting approach to continuity that, I think, makes it unique.
Seeded by a few scrawls written on a the back of a beer mat, Red Dwarf became one of the most popular comedy shows in the UK. But despite being a light-hearted comedy, Red Dwarf has a rather bleak setting.
Lister, our main character works aboard the titular mining ship, Red Dwarf. After being caught smuggling a cat aboard the ship he is put into cryostasis as punishment. He wakes up 3 million years later to find the entire crew of the ship dead.
Holly, the ship’s senile computer AI is the one who informs him that he is the last man alive. Rimmer, his other companion, is the resurrected hologram of his immediate superior and bane of his life. Rimmer is also the one responsible for wiping out the crew after a faulty repair.
His final companion is Cat, a humanoid that evolved from the pregnant cat Lister smuggled onboard. Cat is self-centered, narcissistic, and overly obsessed with how gorgeous he looks at every turn. Just as you’d expect a cat to behave (fun fact: this character is the reason I gave Aegon’s familiar in my Baldur’s Gate Let’s Play the simple name “Cat”).
A few series in, Kryten is introduced as a main character. Kryten is a robot obsessed with cleaning, cooking, and serving as best he can. Lister teaches the robot to break his programming and to become more independent.
Later in the show, Rimmer is temporarily replaced with Kristine Kochanski, the love of Lister’s life who is also his mother (it’s complicated). She lasts one more series where Rimmer returns, then is never heard from again.
The series mostly takes advantage of many original science fiction concepts for it’s stories, and the humour often comes out of how these characters react to these situations.
Red Dwarf Doesn’t Care About Continuity
Red Dwarf doesn’t care about continuity. Series III of the show changes everything, from the look of the ship to the main cast. Plot points from the first two series are forgotten. Kryten, a one-off character from the previous series, is now a permanent cast member with no explanation why he’s there. He looks different, and his look constantly changes from series to series. Holly, the ships computer, was originally a senile old man. Now she’s a senile young woman.
Rimmer is the worst. He starts out as a hologram, and then goes off to become a hero in another universe. Only for them to bring him back alive in the next series, which ends on a cliff-hanger where he may or may not die. The cliff-hanger is never resolved. The next time we see him, he’s a hologram again with no explanation. Which Rimmer is he? Is he the original one? The new one remade by nanobots? Did he die at the end of the last series?
Then there’s Kochanski. The actor for her changes in later seasons, though to be fair that’s just nit-picking. The Kochanski that joins the show is a character from an alternate reality. When Red Dwarf is rebuilt alongside its crew she re-joins them. But then she is never seen from again. She is talked about in the TV Film Back to Earth, and she is presumably still alive.
There’s even an entire series of the show that is missing. Series IX gets referenced constantly in Back to Earth, but we never get to see it. Many fans argue that Back to Earth is series IX, and this has sparked an argument that will outlast the heat death of the universe.
The show just doesn’t care about continuity. But that’s fine. The story of the Red Dwarf exists only to create a framework for a comedy show. It’s one that works and creates a unique comedy set in a bleak future, with bizarre sci-fi situations you wouldn’t normally see in comedies of the time.
Except, I Lied
Red Dwarf does care about continuity. Most of the shows plot holes are easily explained away. The jump from series II to series III changes a lot, but there is a scrolling text at the start of the series that fills in all the gaps. It is both a joke about Star Wars, and explains all of the unresolved plotlines, including Kryten joining the crew and Holly’s head sex change operation.
Rimmer clearly died at the end of series VIII, becoming a hologram again for the missing series IX. His updated look is likely just an upgrade – at the end of series XII he travels back in time and we see him with his original giant grey H.
Kryten’s changing look is for a simple reason: he’s an android. He is shown to be able to detach parts of himself and upgrade himself several times during the show’s run, even having multiple heads he can switch between. Parts of him looking different from series to series is never a continuity error.
Kochanski likely survived the accident at the end of series VIII, and left the crew during the missing series IX. There are enough conversations during Back to Earth for us to figure out what actually happened to her.
Finally, series IX not existing isn’t really a problem. We get enough information to know what happened in Back to Earth, but it also serves as a pretty funny joke. And jokes are common in any good comedy show.
Red Dwarf’s Continuity Is(n’t) Important
Red Dwarf’s approach to continuity is interesting to me. It’s always taken a backseat to the general story the writers want to tell. Each episode is a self-contained sitcom in space. But the creators have also been careful enough to ensure that the continuity generally works throughout each series.
The ‘reset button’ is often talked about. Sometimes it can be a bad thing (coughVoyagercough), but for a simple comedy show it’s usually necessary. In this way you can come to pretty much any episode and understand who the characters are and the situation they get in for that episode. It makes them good for people who want to watch an episode or two before moving on. Something that was even more important in the time of broadcast TV.
The Simpsons is a great example of this. We always have the same family, living in the same house, working the same jobs, having the same basic relationships with the other characters. Continuity is thrown out the window so much, The Simpsons makes several meta-jokes within the show about the lack of consistency. But every episode ends with a reset to the status quo, so we know where we are when we watch any episode.
Red Dwarf handles the reset button a little bit differently. Each series changes the story a little bit, but throughout each individual series we still get a reset at the end of the episode. Series I-II have the characters living mundane lives 3 million years into the future. Series III quickly ties up the loose plotlines of series II so they can move in a different direction, and brings in Kryten as a main character. Series VI and VII are set aboard Starbug, after the crew lost the Red Dwarf. Series VIII brings back Red Dwarf and its original crew. And so on.
It creates an interesting show, one that you can just watch an episode or two of and laugh, or consume in it’s entirety and become obsessed with the lore behind the entire show, and demanding that they make the missing Series IX, and a true finale where Lister finally finds Kochanski.
Kind of like we have now with Rick and Morty, except less toxic.