Next week, the twelfth season of Red Dwarf will air on sponsor-channel Dave. Red Dwarf is twenty-nine years old–an ancient, eight-season sci-fi comedy born on the BBC and given second wind through re-runs on an optional, package channel that did so well it bought four brand-new seasons over the next eight years. Red Dwarf has won an Emmy, a British Comedy Award, and seen (at times) over eight million viewers an episode. It’s a British show, an ’80s invention, so most seasons don’t run longer than six episodes, but even so: this is a cultural phenomenon that aged into a cult hit. Everybody knows that Red Dwarf is out there, hanging somewhere in the cosmos. I don’t know how many episodes of Red Dwarf I’ve seen in my life. I don’t think about it as a series in that way. It was always…just there. 

Red Dwarf, BBC 2, 1988

In the long-gone dark days of those 1990s, in Britain we only had four channels. Later we had five, but even so: that’s not many, not at all. I don’t know what your American “cable” is, but here Sky was how you got more than those four. And Sky was for fancy people. You could tell’em by the big dish hanging off of their houses. The rare individual or family eschewed television entirely, but the average person? The average person had a television, and the number of its channels was four.

Having four channels means that at any given time if one took it into one’s mind to watch some television, there were four things on. You could turn it on and see what was there, and then check an alternative, and then another, and then the last. Four options. Only ever four. Unless you caught it on the changing of the guard. Which meant in turn that when something was on often enough everybody knew about it, because it was there, and they’d see it sometimes. If January came every year you’d notice it, right? Even though it’s only a month long. A season of Red Dwarf (actually, in England, we called seasons series, as in “series one of that series,” which was foolish of us) as I said was six episodes long, which is longer than a month, and it came every year for six years. Then later it came again for another two. Probably, in the meanwhile, there were reruns. Maybe? Anyway it was there and I knew it. People knew it. You could assume someone would have heard of it, that it was about space and there was a hologram, and who Lister was, and the word “smeg.” We knew that it was funny, and we knew the basics of the premise. In 1995, you could buy a VHS that was entirely outtakes; you could buy two different ones. That was how culturally present Red Dwarf was. Those videos probably cost more than ten actual pounds each, and they were just and only blooper reels with a bow on.

I own some Red Dwarf VHS tapes. I don’t know how many, where they came from, or why. I guess it’s a Best of Queen kind of thing. Sometimes I watch them, effectively by accident, and never remember anything about the last time I did. But this is 2017, and most people don’t use VHS any more, and Red Dwarf isn’t on the BBC. Nobody has four channels. So maybe you don’t know what it is? I am here to help, if you’ll just pardon me one tangent on the way.

Red Dwarf, BBC 2, 1990s

In the same way that Red Dwarf is “there,” another thing present in the atmosphere of my cultural longitude/latitude is fan fiction. When did I discover it? I don’t know. What do I get out of it? So much! Fan fiction is about tension.

When producing a fan fiction, the aim is to take a subject and break it while you make it. Your response-product has to be recognisable, but different. You have to know how it works, but never have seen it before. It has to be something that can’t or won’t happen, or it’s just canon, which preexists. As a naturally critical individual fan fiction overjoys me, because every piece is criticism, but–get this! It’s also a story! Wow! Every fic is providing comparison to the original, existing as a challenge to “what really happened,” and as the reader you are allowed to discover whether it “works” or not, whether you recognise something structural to your perception of the original re-made here or not. And if you don’t, you’ve learned something. If you do, you’ve learned something really useful, so you’re absolutely golden. Ah, you can think. This is how I understand that! And then you know yourself better. Pleasure and discovery, both at once, how marvelous.

In fan fiction one of the most interesting things to me is shipping. Romantic and/or sexual storytelling. There are two types of shipping, broadly, and in the olden days we called them OTPs and Crack Pairings. “Crack Pairings” is a tacky title, like “crack baby” is a foul thing to call a dependent infant. Let’s call these Wildcard Pairings, and get on with things here.

OTPs

OTP stands for One True Pairing, which I am using to describe liaisons which occurred to the reader whilst they read the original text. You may never have experienced an OTP, but for those of us that do it goes something like this. “Gee, I just read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I feel kind of warm when I think about Remus and Sirius turning all that hoarse passion on each other…” You think this, and then you go online, and you discover everyone else also thought this too. And they’ve written loads about it. Score!

Wildcard Pairings

Sometimes you read all of the stories about your OTP a particularly fine writer has written, but you’re still not ready to stop reading. So you click to their author profile, and you find the other stuff they’ve done. You blink, taken aback. This person and that person? Really? But they would never. That would NEVER? Well. Well! Well, you guess you’ll see how they go and do it anyway. The truth of fan fiction, as I say, is tension. And that’s how I got addicted to Rimmer/Lister, in perhaps the last folly of my youngest youth.

Rimmer and Lister are both from Red Dwarf. They don’t get on. They do not have sex, except occasionally technically almost, as a joke. Would they earnestly bone, for real, on the show? Would they fall in love? No. I know that much, because the show as I’ve said was always there, and I know the basic mechanisms of its extended scenario. It’s not that kind of story. But ficcers can make it be. They can break it til they make it if they try. And my! Oh my! How they try! I reminded myself of Red Dwarf a little while ago; I did some research, for a story. Having remembered, I remembered more about satellite matters, and before I knew it, I’d read five hundred and fifty chapters of variously fixated stories on Archive of Our Own. You know, beyond reflective practice there’s a great deal you can get out of bulk-read fan fiction. There is, for example, trivia.

If you read a lot of stories at once, you start to find your mind wrapped in a soft cocoon of shared reference points. A sort of product cast, formed around What’s There, a firmament around an empty space shaped like canon. To be recognisable enough to be a satisfactory fan fiction there needs to be something that relates it to the original, there need to be waypoints for shared perspective. And when your original text has between eight and eleven seasons–stories remain which were written prior to the 2008 revival–of (average) six episodes there’s not really a great deal to bolt your new stuff onto. It needs to be detail that the reader will remember, so they can think, “Ah, yes; this is right,” without picking up a handbook. Fan fiction is leisure reading, not revision. So these triangulation points need to be things that make up the “everyday” basis of the original product.

Reading these hundreds of works over a rather short period, I’ve felt myself accruing knowledge, as I encounter passing details again and again. And I find that really charming, as well as hugely funny, because nerd wars, and all that. My contrarian English ’90s-child heart tells me Red Dwarf is just an armchair show, a piece of cultural furniture that shouldn’t have a Wiki and should only ever be picked up by osmosis. It’s just Red Dwarf! That programme that’s just sometimes ON! Kind of funny, but kind of cardboard. Kind of progressive, but kind of given to laughing at homoeroticism and not all that heavy on chicks. If I’m going to contain facts I rather want them to have come via fan fiction. I only want the stuff that people bold enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute. What if queer desire isn’t always a joke? What if it’s real, and fine? What if I’m going to take Red Dwarf seriously, and make these fuckers fuck and like it?” give to me. (Remember when I said all fan fiction is criticism? This is what I meant).

Gosh, there is nothing better than someone staring into your eyes and daring you to stop them from taking a joke seriously. Those writers–those are people whose dedication I admire. They have no fear. I–

Full Rimmer salute, Chris Barrie for Red Dwarf, BBC

–salute them.

I also just really like antagonistic romance between social equals. Buttheads butting heads before exchanging it is a nice afternoon diversion. It’s all bonuses, here!

So I thought I’d write it all down, what I learned, for you to glance through before you turn on Dave in October or catch up on past seasons via Amazon Video. And anyone who really cares can sift the canon from the fanon in comments (yay). Cos there is a Wiki if you’re desperate. And you know how trustworthy those are. There are even episode-by-episode purchase options if you want it straight from the horse’s mouth. But wouldn’t it be funner to trust little ol’ me instead? Take my hand, smoke us a kipper, and get ready to say to perfect strangers, “Remember when Lister gambled Rimmer away because he got drunk during poker with some BEGG? Fantastic, that was, love it.” Oh, lies! What fun they are.

Red Dwarf season XI, Dave, 2014

Red Dwarf: The Facts

Vehicles & Crew

Red Dwarf is the big red space ship you see in the intro of the show. I already knew that. What I didn’t know is that it’s very, very big and owned by JMC, which probably stands for Jupiter Mining Company (or Corporation). It is captained by Captain Frank Todhunter, who possibly has another captain above him–I don’t really understand the structure of the Space Corps–and contains a crew member called Olaf Petersen, who is Dutch. There are also crewpeople called Selby and Chen, who are (or rather were) last-man-alive Lister‘s friends. Kristine Kochanski is the only named female crew member I can confirm; she is a great pilot and an engineer, with a “pinball smile.” I should think this means that it lights up either her face or a room or both.

The smaller spaceship they travel or live in is called Starbug, which I also knew; it is green, which I didn’t, and is more house-sized than the city-big Red Dwarf. Third of all there’s a wee small blue one, which might be called the Blue something, maybe beginning with O. (I checked and it’s “Blue Midget.” See, I can be wrong.) Size-wise it’s effectively a car. A space car.

Red Dwarf housed thousands of people before they were all (but Lister) killed by a mistake made by Rimmer. This mistake is owed to poor training, even though Rimer believes himself to be officer material. It resulted in Lister being rendered the only human left in space, as he was undergoing a punishment period of “stasis” (you’ve seen Alien–I actually haven’t–you know what this means) during the nuclear deaths of the rest of the crew. As it turned out, this stasis lasted for three million years. Following Lister’s traumatic awakening the ship’s AI, Holly, revived his bunkmate Rimmer as a hologram to keep Lister sane by annoying him. They discovered that Lister’s illegal onboard cat had been pregnant and spawned kittens–which also escaped the nuclear holocaust somehow–whose own kittens, etc., evolved into anthropomorphic cat people in the three million years Lister was asleep. Only one is left; he is called The Cat. The Cat loves fashion, and himself. Lister is sort of God, to the cats, but when God’s just some gross lad and you live with him religion begins to pall. Cat writing is done with smells.

Wildfire is the dimension-hopping jet owned by Ace Rimmer, who is several people, who are all different versions of themselves from alternate realities. They wear gold, which apparently is bad. It sounds alright to me. Wildfire has a computer which is sapient, which may be called Nona. The computer is a lady; she’s in love with Ace.

Character Profiles

Dave Lister, Craig Charles, Red Dwarf, BBC 2, 1988Lister

Eyes: Brown

Rank: Third Technician

Hair: Locs at the back

From (technically): Toxteth

From: (actually): Space

Father: Self

Mother: Alternate version of dead semi-ex-girlfriend

Adopted mother: Dead by own hand

Adopted father: Just dead

Raised by: Grandma (adopted)

Kids: Bexley, Jim, self (as stated)

Babymama: Deb, his alternate self

Alternate self in original-Ace dimension: Spanners; married to Kochanski; three kids

Alternate self in Alternate-Kochanski dimension: Hologram Dave; better than normal Dave

Wife: GELF princess (accidental)

Clothing preferences: At first Lister wore t-shirts. They were brightly coloured and sometimes displayed pictures. Later, he evolved to wear leathers. These included fingerless gloves.

Sleepwear: Longjohns?

Food preferences: Curry, a lot

Will he have sex in or with curry: No

Penis: Allegedly best likened to kielbasa, sometimes “a slice of,” a description I am firmly against.

Sex: Good at it

Additional details: Lister likes to play the guitar. He is very very bad. His favourite musician is called either Rasta Billy Skank or Rastabilly Skank. He cries at films and attended art college. Left art college (after ninety-seven minutes) because lectures were on too early in the afternoon. Drove a taxi on Mimas (this is a moon or small planetoid) before signing up with the Red Dwarf to work his way back to Earth. Was on Mimas because he got drunk and accidentally went to space, where he became stuck. Wishes to retire to Fiji to run a hotdog stand, and watch his partner of choice wear white whilst riding a beach horse. Fake alternate game-disease self (long story) was a fascist in a suit. Tragically pined for his short-lived romance with Kristine Kochanshi for seasons upon seasons, even when an alternate version came to live with them. Convinced Hologram Rimmer to leave the crew to become the new Ace. Dreamed about tongue-kissing him after he’d gone. Once ate a tarantula, but not on purpose. Kind, deep belief in humanoid potential, but sometimes mad callous. Claustrophobic. Knits.

Kryten, Robert Llewellyn, Red Dwarf, BBC 2, 1988Kryten

A robot. Loves to iron, very much. Had to be taught how to lie and gets very worried all the time.

Kochanski

A woman. Appears mostly as an unreachable darling, either dead or ineffably future-married or from an alternate reality where she’s the last human in space and a better Lister is her holographic boyfriend. Her function is to be “the one who was snatched away,” but she seems well-liked by the fans. That is a nice surprise. Played by two different women.

Arnold J Rimmer, Chris Barrie, Red Dwarf, BBC 2, 1988Rimmer

Eyes: Hazel (with green edges and golden streaks, or, depending presumably on the light, the edges are brown and the inner iris is greener, but the gold streaks are still there)

Hair: Fabulous brown curls desperately tamed by gel. Blonde wig, as Ace, sometimes.

Rank: Second Technician

From: Io (that’s a moon of Jupiter)

Middle name: Judas

Father: A cruel man

Mother: A cruel lady, who liked to fuck

Brothers: Three. Evil. Put a mine in his sandpit when he was young. All more impressive than him, except at least part of that is secretly lies.

Established alternates: Ace (“what if Rimmer was cool”), Arlene (“what if Rimmer was a lady”), High Rimmer (“what if Rimmer was a chill new-ager”), Low Rimmer (“what if Rimmer was horny”)

Self-esteem: Very, very low. Or maybe I mean self-regard? Or self-respect? Hates himself, anyway, because he is unpleasant, but likes very much to be important.

Clothing preferences: Uniforms, worn snug

Sleepwear: White undershirt white underpants

Food preferences: None, because usually dead

Penis: “Slender”

Fingers: Likewise.

Sex: Repressed kinkster

Additional details: “Divorced” his parents aged fourteen. Attended a boys boarding school, because of course he did. Visited or attempted to visit a brothel on Mimas, leading to first meeting with Lister (driving taxi); unhappy to discover Lister his roommate on Red Dwarf. Repeatedly enters and fails Officers’ exams. Possibly hates Christmas. Loves the Hammond Organ, whatever that is. Once had sex with Yvonne McGruder, but she forgot. Was fed false memories of Lister’s wronged girlfriend Lise Yates for some reason, and got really sad. Asked to keep them even after he realised the memories weren’t his. Killed everyone but Lister & Lister’s Cat on Red Dwarf, twice. Didn’t mean to either time. Found hologram love with Nirvanah Crane on the all-hologram ship Enlightenment but fecked it up on accident; chose to be noble and leave her. Played an alcoholic in a video game once. Whilst alive, embarrassed himself in front of everybody important by sending back gazpacho soup indignant that it was cold. Got a great big H on his forehead.

Rimmer lifeline: Born, unhappy youth, Red Dwarf, dead, hologram, short-term secondment to the Enlightenment, came back, got hard, left to take up the Ace mantle, pre-hologram living self revived, went to prison. Later mysteriously a hologram again.

The Cat, Danny John-Jules Red Dwarf, BBC 2, 1988Cat

A virgin

Holly

Maniacal pervert.

Aliens

Lister’s GELF Bride is a member of the GELF. GELF race? GELFs? Is this an acronym? I don’t know. It’s capitalised for some reason. GELF either look like wookies or bees, I’m not sure, and they take marriage very seriously. Lister ran away, which was rude. Camille is a Psiren, which is the most satisfying name imaginable for a sci-fi succubus race. She appears as whatever will most distractedly attract you, which she presumably evaluates via telepathy. Excellent. A Polymorph does largely the same thing. Legion is a big space bastard who gave Rimmer his hard light technology, which allows him to touch things. He also chained Rimmer to a column in a loincloth and covered him with oil. He seems to be a villain, but in what way remains unexplained. A Despair Squid produces hallucinations so upsetting the recipient will try to die, or, so pleasant the recipient will die of forgetting to move. For the former, it made the crew think they had been excessively gaming. A BEGG is some sort of Russian caricature, going by the phonetically employed accents.

Themes

Everything bad that happens to these people is because sex is trying to kill them.

Technology

A lightbee is a magical floating computer that allows a holographic lifeform some autonomy. Hard light is when a hologram gains mass, somehow, and can touch things. A Holly Hop Drive enables dimension travel, but it’s not generally very reliable and will break. Talkie Toaster is an aggressive and unmanageable proponent of toast. Scutters are small, and annoying. I think they are some sort of robot.

Jargon

Rimmer is given to calling those around him Miladdo. Beyond the granted variants of smeg (smegging, smeggy, smeghead, smegger), popular insults aboard Red Dwarf and subordinate vehicles include gimboid and goit. Red Dwarf is very disgusting.

Conclusion

Do you feel prepared? Do you feel ready to step into the airlock and pretend to know what’s going on? I hope you do. If you don’t, though, have no fear–there’s plenty to read to get you up to date. Maybe try Fifty Shades of Smeg! It’s not at all bad. Great joke about a really big lemon…