The first full series of Red Dwarf in over a decade begins 4 October 2012 on Dave. To celebrate, SciFiNow caught up with co-creator and writer Doug Naylor to talk about the inspiration behind the series and how it got the green light back in 1988.
Alien is often cited as an influence, but what else inspired Red Dwarf?
It was Dark Star [John Carpenter, 1974]. Alien was the more dramatic version of Dark Star in many ways. At that time science fiction wasn’t very realistic, and Dark Star was a bunch of normal, average guys in space, not heroes.
I remember Rob [Grant, co-creator] and I watched the film one morning and went off to the pub, I was just about to get into the car and I said to him that it was remarkable that no one had ever done a sitcom like that. Isn’t that weird? I got in the car and drove off and didn’t have another conversation about it for two or three years.
Later, we did a sketch for the radio show [Son Of Cliché on BBC Radio 4] called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet. So those were the seeds of the show.
You went to the BBC several times with the script, what was the reaction?
They rejected the idea three times. We went to see the head of comedy to try and change his mind, but he just didn’t understand science fiction or what we were doing. Science fiction and comedy were two wrongs coming together, and even though Hitchhiker’s Guide was a massive hit and Red Dwarf was going to be character-driven in a way that series wasn’t, the feeling we got from them was that it was just too much hard work. We could’ve done it with Film on Four as a movie, but we wanted it to be a series.
So how did you get the go-ahead for the show in the end?
BBC Manchester was interested in the script, and because Ben Elton didn’t want to make a second series of Happy Families we had a production slot and they had the money. They wanted to commission something that was a bit wacky so that if it did fail then at least they were trying to do something unconventional. Producer Paul Jackson’s track record and our work on Spitting Image at the time made us an alright gamble to take.
How did you approach the casting?
Both Rob and I said we didn’t want any stand-ups; we wanted proper actors and, of course, we got absolutely the opposite. We got a stand-up, a poet, an impressionist and a dancer. Looking back it was just luck, because they were the right people for the job. Sometimes you can hire actors who don’t quite get where the laughs are supposed to go, but the chemistry worked even in those early stages.
What was it like being on set in those early series?
In those days they were a bit nervous about having writers in the room, because the perception was that if they needed to change anything, the writer would take issue. In reality, if the writers are there they can help make any changes quickly, as well as help the actors with advice on how a line can be delivered. If you made a point, then it had to always be right, so in a way it was good training.
What made you bring Kryten in as a full-time character in Series 3?
I think it was John Lloyd who suggested that we needed another character. Cat was kind of dysfunctional, and you couldn’t have a proper conversation with him – he comes in, does his bit and leaves. Norman didn’t want to do exposition; he just wanted to do gags as Holly, and so it became quite tough to write.
Rob was less keen on having a robot character in a science fiction series – he felt it was too cliché, and while I totally respected his opinion I felt we needed that character. We couldn’t get David Ross back, but Paul Jackson said “You should see this guy Robert Llewellyn – he’s even done a play about robots in Edinburgh.”
Did you draw on real life at all when writing Red Dwarf?
As with any writing, there are aspects of actors’ personalities that you observe and work into a script, but there are parts of the characters in Red Dwarf that are very much me and Rob. There’s a famous incident from when we were filming Series 1. We were having breakfast and Craig took a sausage from someone’s plate, squirted some ketchup on the table and says “Guys I’m really worried about being typecast as a slob.” You couldn’t write that. Craig isn’t actually a slob, I really don’t know why he did that.