Red Dwarf occupies that most unusual of genres: the science-fiction sitcom.
Most successful sitcoms will run continuously for four or five years, then quietly retire with a few hundred episodes under their belts. How, then, does one review a British show that began in 1988, filmed eight series in eleven years, then took another ten years off before returning for a miniseries in 2010 -- for a total of fifty-five episodes?
If there's any indication of Red Dwarf's cult status, this is it. It's the show that just won't die, but keeps going in fits and starts wherever it can get funding and time. I'd first heard of it at around the same time of my life as I discovered the grandaddy of all cult sci-fi, Doctor Who. But it was just obscure enough to avoid me for more than an episode or two half-remembered from high-school Saturday late nights -- until recently, when Netflix put the complete series up for streaming.
Thus, with the time and the means, I sat down to cover twenty years of Red Dwarf in the space of a month. And it holds together surprisingly well, for what it is. Viewers expecting highbrow humo(u)r, scientific rigo(u)r, or complex plot shouldn't bother. Let's face it: initially, the show was essentially two slobs, trapped in deep space. One episode spends a good five minutes on nostril hair. Dave Lister, the lowest-ranked underachiever on a deep-space mining vessel called the "Red Dwarf," wakes up from millions of years of hibernation to discover that he is the last human left alive anywhere. His friends all dead, Holly, the ship's computer, is able to recreate a single crewmember as a hologram in order to keep him from going insane. Holly chooses the neurotic Arnold Rimmer. The only other living being onboard is a humanoid who evolved from cats. The canonical core cast would later be augmented by a robot, Kryten; Holly would eventually fade away, as the Red Dwarf itself did for a few seasons. The inherently black humor of a series that begins with the death of nearly every human alive -- much like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- would be forgotten as the series moved on.
The show's longevity can be attributed to this flexibility. Huge plot holes were explained away between seasons, and the weakest of explanations were used to add new cast members or allow for unlikely scenarios (like the most recent "Back to Earth" miniseries). Scenarios were designed to show off the actors' genuine talent outside of their archetypal roles. But despite this flexibility, the writers often seem unable to break out of the "small crew meets monster of the week" mentality -- the eighth series promised to change this, by resurrecting the full Red Dwarf crew and restoring Lister and Rimmer to their position at the bottom of the hierarchy, but this opportunity was quickly taken away by throwing them into jail, and forcing them to join a special team that dealt with alien threats too dangerous for the rest of the ship.
Remarkably, though, the 1988 episodes don't seem dated today. The science-fiction genre stabilized in the 1980s; I expect that this is the same reason that Star Trek: The Next Generation still feels fresh now. Still, perhaps the fact that the most recent miniseries was funded not by the BBC but by Dave, a British television network that shows almost exclusively reruns, is appropriate. More Red Dwarf is still welcome. But, incredibly enough, it's already outlived the heyday of the particular sort of science-fiction television that it was written to parody. In the end, comedy always smegging wins.