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How Red Dwarf Fandom Broke All The Rules: Part 2 | Red Dwarf

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Editor’s Note

As you might have guessed from the title, this is the second part of Abigail Chandler’s deep-dive into the unique story of Red Dwarf fandom. If you missed the first part, you can read it here to discover how the show’s creators harnessed fan-power to bring the flawed four back from the dead.

The first Dimension Jump convention took place in 1992 and has been running annually ever since. Organized by the official fan club, it became a place where fans could socialize, interact with the cast and crew of the show, and find out more about the series. “It wasn’t until the convention that I actually met [fans],” Bull says, talking about the first Red Dwarf convention that he attended before he was involved in running the fan club.

“Even fans now on Facebook and Twitter say ‘I wouldn’t mind going to a convention but I’m too shy. But the fans are so friendly, and they’ve all got a common interest. It doesn’t take long to make new friends. I made friends right at the start, and I’m still friends with them now, from all over the world. It is like a big family, the Red Dwarf fans.”

James Bull

Naylor admits to only understanding how fans felt about the show after he attended the first Dimension Jump, and he’s been a semi-regular fixture at them ever since, as have many of the cast and crew. Bull tells me that every year 50% of Dimension Jump attendees are newbies, experiencing the convention for the first time, but they also have their regulars, including at least one person who has attended every single one. Attendees come from all over the world, including Australia, America, Japan, and a sizable contingent from the Czech Republic, where the show is popular enough that the novels have been translated into Czech. They also see a number of families in attendance.

“One of the things that really affects you at some of the fan conventions is when you meet multi-generational families,” Naylor says, “Often they’re there because they’ve had some sort of tragedy, and they say ‘Red Dwarf really helped us when we were going through a really horrible time’, and when you see this multi-generational group of a single family, you think, ‘Blimey, it does appeal across the board.” Bull says that Red Dwarf’s broad and ongoing appeal is nowhere more evident than at the conventions: “There isn’t any age group that we don’t have. And it isn’t only age groups, it’s jobs as well. We have road sweepers to brain surgeons, it crosses all boundaries and all jobs… We do cater for every type of fan you can imagine, every human you can imagine… We never exclude anyone.”

“Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast.” – Ace Rimmer

The show went off air in 1999 after series 8, but the fans kept on trucking. The annual Dimension Jump conventions continued and the fan club website added a forum in 2000, where fans could chat online. Fansite Ganymede & Titan also launched in 1999 – a more informal, sweary site than the official fan club site, packed with analysis of the show – and is still going strong today. Perhaps more amazing, though, is the way in which new viewers continued to find Red Dwarf during its decade off-air. “I’ve always said that the Red Dwarf fans are the best in the world, because it is like a family, and it’s generations of people,” Bull says. “I’ve got a son and he watched it because I watched it, and he loves it because he was brought up on it, and that happens all the time, and that’s how it keeps progressing again and again.”

Fans kept the show fresh in people’s minds, while UKTV picked up the rights to repeat the series on the British comedy channel Dave. “Our [viewing] figures on UKTV were as good as anything on UKTV at the time,” Naylor says. This led to UKTV suggesting that the cast reunite for a clip show, but Naylor had bigger plans, and soon the series 9 miniseries Back To Earth was on the cards. “[UKTV] weren’t really geared up for that, they’d never commissioned any scripted at that point, and we had a very, very small budget and they called in a lot of favours. Back To Earth looks much more expensive than it was. But it was kind of crowbarred together with bits and pieces, like we could get the Coronation Street set for free, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll write that in somehow’.”

Back To Earth delivered huge viewing figures for UKTV, and so Naylor was “able to say ‘right, we want a proper budget, we don’t want the show to be 23 minutes, we want to be 30 minutes like the BBC2 shows were, and we want a live audience’.” And so series 10-12 came about, followed by the feature-length episode The Promised Land earlier in 2020, which got UKTV’s highest viewing figures in seven years. Not bad for a show that ‘ended’ in 1999.

“And the moral of the story: Appreciate what you’ve got, because basically, I’m fantastic!” – Holly

When I ask both Naylor and Bull why the show has continued for so long, they’re both fairly stumped. Naylor puts a lot of credit at the feet of the fans who continue watching it, while Bull reckons Naylor’s “got so many ideas, I don’t think he’ll ever run out”. Bull thinks the show has “changed with the times,” just like the fan club itself has, replacing its physical magazine with an online version and monthly e-newsletters. Naylor, however, thinks the show’s stability is what makes it a success. “I think it’s stayed true to itself. We always try to do an imaginative, funny, good character piece,” he says. “The amount of work and passion and love that goes into the show I think helps enormously, and we’ve always had amazing cast and amazing crew, they’ve always gone the extra yard, because they’ve often been excited by it, and I think that helped.”

The show also benefits from not being especially serialized, meaning new viewers can dip into an episode here and there and get the gist of it, without having to embark on a lengthy binge-watch to catch up. “I think you can dip into most Red Dwarfs and you’ll either like it or not like it,” Naylor says, adding that. “You’ll always have the problem of people who just hate science-fiction, and will refuse to watch it. And they’re often people who think it’s all gobbledegook with no story or heart, just meaningless nonsense. And then some of those watch it and go ‘oh, I didn’t realise I’d like it’. It’s a mystery to me.” 

Few fandoms have the longevity of Red Dwarf’s, and even fewer are as welcoming of new fans and casual viewers. Perhaps that’s the true secret to Red Dwarf’s success and long life – it’s not about gatekeeping or pouring scorn on a show you claim to love, it’s about family and friendship, mutual support, and quoting the show’s best lines ad infinitum.

The Red Dwarf episodes with the best fan-service

Parallel Universe (S2, E6) – Series 1 set up Lister’s twin sons, Jim (after Jim Bexley Speed) and Bexley (after Jim Bexley Speed), but left viewers with no clue on how he was going to actually conceive those children. ‘Parallel Universe’ answered that question, when Lister gets impregnated by his alternate-reality female counterpart. The episode also, crucially, contains the song Tongue Tied, which any Red Dwarf fan worth their salt knows by heart. (“Reproductive system, baby!”)

Blue (S7, Ep5) – In modern parlance, this is the episode that would have been accused of pandering to the shippers. Yep, it’s the Rimmer/Lister kiss episode (Rimster?). It was only a dream sequence, but the screams of surprise from the live audience were replicated in households across the world. It’s also the episode with the much-beloved Rimmer Munchkin Song. 

Back To Earth – The show’s grand return went fully meta, sending the Red Dwarf crew into our world, where they try to persuade their creator not to kill them off. It all gets very Blade Runner, before they realise a Joy Squid is causing them to hallucinate, and they return to their reality. The miniseries includes cheeky references to Red Dwarf fans, and acts as a sequel to Back To Reality, a fan-favourite episode (which itself was a nod to series 2 episode ‘Better Than Life’).

Emohawk: Polymorph II (S4, Ep4) – Not only does this episode bring back the Polymorph monster from series three, but it also sees the return of much-loved characters Duane Dibbley (The Cat’s nerdy persona, from Back To Reality) and Ace Rimmer (Rimmer’s heroic alter-ego from the series 4 episode Dimension Jump). It also has Ainsley Harriott playing a GELF, so it’s a winner all round.

ShoutoutsA huge thanks to Rafi Galibov, Timothy Davison, and Kerry Chalk, three of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible! Extra special thanks to Ben at UKTV for hooking us up with Doug. British viewers can binge Red Dwarf on UKTV Play.

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Abigail is a journalist and writer currently living in Oxford. She can still quote late-90s films and TV shows at length but has forgotten everything she once knew about maths.

Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Chandler

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