I love Season Ones of TV series. They won't necessarily be the best seasons of their parent shows, but they'll tend to have a freshness and a more wholehearted engagement with the show's initial premise. Examples of this are Buffy, Angel, Doctor Who and Red Dwarf.
In 1988, I used to say that I didn't watch Red Dwarf because it was funny, but because it was good. With caveats, I'd stand by that. Admittedly season 1 has some great laughs, but it doesn't get me roaring the way I will at seasons 3 or 4, for instance. What it does have though is a startling fidelity to a few basic rules. Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Holly are alone in the universe. There's no Kryten, androids, GELFs, Starbug or travel beyond the confines of Red Dwarf. The nearest they get to venturing outside is putting on a spaceship and clambering around the hull in Confidence & Paranoia, while the time travel in Future Echoes is only projected images. No one really goes anywhere. The revelation at the end that a 171-year-old Lister will be the father of twins is a real "what the hell?" since one has no idea how this could possibly come to pass, whereas in later seasons we'd be able to rattle off a good few dozen options.
What's more, the show's willing to rub Lister's nose in it. He thinks he's going to die in Future Echoes. Balance of Power introduces him drinking on his own in a deserted disco and remembering his friends from when they were alive. He has conversations with toasters and food dispensers. The End (aka. the beginning) isn't particularly funny, but you've got to respect the way it refuses to soften the show's basic premise. Underneath all the Lister-Rimmer bickering, it's straight SF and furthermore on that level rather good. Lister goes into stasis for three million years and when he wakes up, everyone's dead. Even the human race itself might be extinct, for all he knows.
What's more, this Lister's engaging with his situation rather than just bumming along and treating it as a status quo. In Future Echoes, he's planning to go back into stasis. Later on, he's trying to bring back Kochanski as a hologram and turn off Rimmer.
That's why I love the first two seasons' title sequence. You've got a lonely man in a spacesuit painting the hull of a horrifyingly huge spaceship in the middle of nowhere, to the accompaniment of doom-laden music that practically says it's his funeral. Now that's what I call "show, not tell". You hardly need Holly's spoken info-dump afterwards. Mind you, I adore the closing theme too. It's the norm for title sequences in anime to have vocals on their music, but we don't get it much over here.
It's easy to see why all this changed, of course. It's a claustrophobic format, with almost the entire show resting on Lister and Rimmer. Holly's just a face on a screen and Cat doesn't care about anything except food, sex and clothes. You can imagine them struggling to get through a third season if they hadn't relaxed their rules a little, but in fairness I believe they never did relent on the "no aliens" thing. You hardly need it if you've got GELFs, holo-ships, androids and time travel.
There are other characters, most obviously the dead crew. We have flashbacks and holograms. Peterson (Mark Williams) is the one you'll recognise as being played by an actor who went on to bigger things, while the one who actually affects storylines in the present is Kochanski and Lister's obsession with her. Then there's Red Dwarf's fixtures and fittings, any of which are liable to talk at you and/or make rude gestures behind your back if you're Rimmer. I like the skutters. They're fun little characters in these early episodes, not to mention being invaluable as the nearest thing a hologram can get to having hands. I missed them in later seasons.
Talky Toaster's annoying, mind you. I mean for the audience as well as the characters.
I like the cast. Craig Charles isn't really an actor, but I believe he's basically playing himself as Lister and for me, he works. He's doing this odd thing with his face in episode one when he says something stupid and there are scenes in the early episodes where you wish they'd cast an actor instead, but I buy him as Lister and I'm fond of the character. He's an appalling wreck of a human being, but he's lovable. Crucially he has a moral core. This matters when his fellow travellers are monsters like the Cat (who wouldn't interrupt his meal to save a life) and Rimmer (who isn't even capable of understanding a conversation about someone else's suffering). Lister cares. This is established in episode one, with him going into stasis to save Frankenstein, and for me it's always been the heart of the show. Red Dwarf stops being Red Dwarf when Lister stops being the compassionate one.
Chris Barrie is dependable as Rimmer. You have to respect anyone who can bring some measure of reality to such a cartoon. The same goes for Danny John-Jules as Cat. Note that this could have seemed like a pretty thankless role if John-Jules hadn't been putting so much into it, since the Cat is a minor character who doesn't socialise with the others and is pretty much the dictionary definition of "one-dimensional". Me, I think the Cat's awesome.
Then there's Norman Lovett, aka. the best Holly. Sorry, but he is. Hattie Hayridge never really made me laugh.
Incidentally I can't help wondering about the Proper Actor Red Dwarf that nearly happened, with Alfred Molina agonising about his motivation and so on. That might have been amazing, but somehow I don't think we'd have had the likes of Molina coming back to the show even twenty years later.
1. THE END
It's the first episode, unfortunately. They're always a problem. I quite enjoy it, but it's not very funny and I wouldn't recommend it for getting newbies into the show. Personally I regard it as twenty minutes of set up for the kick in the stomach of that last ten-minute stretch, although I really hope Craig Charles today wishes he could go back and redo his scenes of waking up 3 million years later. I love the man, but really.
2. FUTURE ECHOES
It's funnier than The End, but it's still an episode you remember for its SF ideas. This is the only season one episode to hint at any escape from the Douglas Adams-style bleakness of the show's premise, but it gets there by convincing Lister he's only got minutes to live and by knocking out the Cat's tooth for the sake of a plot point. I like the scene of Lister marching off to what might be his death, but again Craig Charles could have played it differently.
This episode contains continuity, with information about Lister's future (the twins) and the line "I've never read... a book." They'll have discreetly forgotten about the latter by the time of season two, but that's the least of the Red Dwarf retcons.
3. BALANCE OF POWER
I like the central relationship, with Rimmer making me laugh with his invective ("rectum-faced pygmy") and his knack for shooting himself in the foot. "Is that painting yours? It's rubbish." "It's a mirror." I also laughed at the scene where the Cat orders six fish dinners and Rimmer gets attacked by his own arm. This is the most low-key episode of the six, being the one where Lister is trying to pass the chef's exam and so outrank Rimmer, but perversely I admire the fact that the show isn't afraid to base an entire episode around something so small-scale and character-based.
4. WAITING FOR GOD
Clearly the best episode of the season, with nothing else even close. It has a theme, with Lister, Rimmer, the Cat people and even Talky Toaster all grappling with the question of "why are we here?" It takes on religion through the fact that Lister is the god of the Cat people and even manages to do something interesting with it. One minute it's going for all-out attack on the potential for homicidal idiocy in organised religion, but it also has the beautiful scene with the dying Cat Priest. Lister almost makes me cry in that one, yet it ends with a horrible, cruel twist that's somehow exactly right.
This is one of my favourite Lister episodes. He's aghast at the suffering that was inflicted in his name, while his compassion is thrown into greater contrast by the fact that everyone else is a complete bastard. "I don't care. You're the one who's doing the dying, not me. Why should I let it spoil my evening?" Even Holly shows his sadistic side in this one. "Why didn't you tell him?" "It's a laugh, innit?"
They even manage to talk about serious stuff that tells us about the characters and establishes new rules for the Red Dwarf universe. Rimmer's dreaming about aliens and Lister's speculating that mankind is a planetary disease.
All that and it's funny too. I don't think I'll forget the closing titles of this episode as long as I live. "It's a garbage pod. It's a smegging garbage pod!"
5. CONFIDENCE & PARANOIA
I'm not wild about this one. It's the episode where Lister catches a super-evolved virus by going into the wrong part of the ship and ends up creating solid hallucinations. This is a creepy idea, but I don't think it's been executed well. Confidence annoys me and Paranoia is a loser. My inner pedant would also like to point out that rains of fish and spontaneous combustion have happened more than once in history.
This is a replacement episode. A technicians' strike delayed the season for several months, which gave Grant-Naylor the chance to scrap their weakest episode and write a new one. The results are pretty good. Its idea is the obvious thing to do with the character of Rimmer, given his delusions and status as a hologram, and the episode works well. He gets more good invective and I like the way that they end on a heartfelt character-based scene rather than something bigger and noisier.
I also like the Norweb Federation bit.
It's far from being the funniest season of the show, but it's the most focused. The first episode of series two
(Kryten) breaks almost all the unspoken rules I laid out at the start of this review, after which the show would never be the same again. I'm glad they moved on from here, but to an extent I don't think the later seasons would have worked without these foundations. There's a lot here that's outstanding, while Waiting for God approaches greatness. The show deserved its success.