❉ Tanya Jones reflects on one of the longest-running sitcoms in the world as it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary.
30. An age when many of us take stock, reviewing how far we’ve come. Are we happy with what we’ve made of ourselves? Perhaps I’ve been in stasis, because it seems like only yesterday that I was summarising ten series of one of the longest-running sitcoms in the world for We Are Cult, but 16 months and two further series later, here I am again. Two months after series XII finished on Dave, one of the most popular cult series in UK television faces its 30th anniversary.
I think it’s the word ‘popular’ which I should focus on when reviewing Red Dwarf’s mark on televisual history. Although it’s always been considered to be ‘cult’ by many journalists, the boys from the Dwarf were big enough to have the ‘Smegazine’ on news stands in the ‘90s. In fact, the show was so popular that BBC Two hosted a Red Dwarf Night in 1998, with the following series VIII hitting eight million viewers. Those are figures that any TV show, over ten years into its life, could be proud of, although it tells you a lot about the ambition of Doug Naylor that he wasn’t content to simply stop there. After all, the show was so popular that Grant Naylor Productions decided to remaster the first three series, which, although not popular with the fans, was certainly an indicator of how valuable those early episodes were considered to be for overseas sales, a relatively unusual fate for a British sitcom.
Actually, the series was so popular that it could almost be seen as a victim of its own success. A somewhat unplanned hiatus of ten years occurred whilst Doug Naylor attempted to get a Red Dwarf film made. Unfortunately, the film industry is very different to what it was in the ‘70s, and the show was unable to break the fairly solid view that sitcoms are not good source material for films, especially sci-fi based ones, with the lukewarm reaction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film just about summing it up for a cinematic version of Red Dwarf. Still, throughout the tough times, the fandom kept the faith, with the fan site I co-run, Ganymede and Titan, being founded and eventually joining forces with other fan sites, their authors merging into one glorious whole.
However, despite these knockbacks, the show just couldn’t be kept down. Although many in the Cult community questioned the wisdom of UKTV’s channel Dave commissioning new episodes once the BBC made it clear that they had no interest in making more of the show, Red Dwarf’s return in the Back To Earth special peaked at around two and a half million viewers, making it the most popular show on Dave, and series X, XI and XII have regularly pulled in around a million viewers, enabling the channel to chase the heels of the still-dominant Big Five. The recent episodes are still available to watch on UKTV Player, if you’d like to see what all the fuss is about. Dave are also rather keen on repeats, so if you’re in front of it long enough, you’ll be sure to bump into an episode.
So, can we still consider Red Dwarf a cult sitcom, given its popularity? The Dave-era episodes have expanded an already enthusiastic fandom, with the official fan-club-run convention, Dimension Jump, selling out for the 2018 gathering (the 20th) within 72 hours. Ganymede and Titan has just published the Pearl Poll, which aspires to rank all Red Dwarf episodes in order. If you want to give your opinion, we’ll be happy to argue the toss on our forum. If cult is defined as ‘loyal, enduring love’, with the core cast still front and centre 30 years later, then Red Dwarf is cult through and through.
❉ Tanya Jones is a contributor of Ganymede & Titan, the premier Red Dwarf fan-site, and also runs the Gypsy Creams blog.