Ch-Ch-Changes

Red Dwarf's history of retcons.

Throughout Red Dwarf's history, it's fair to say that the concept of continuity has been treated with varying degrees of precision. The fact that elements of the show's setup and backstory have changed from year to year - sometimes even from episode to episode - has even been gently lampooned in an official context, courtesy of the "Most Asked Questions About Red Dwarf" segments on the popular Smeg Ups tapes.

"If we make a change," Rob Grant told the Smegazine in 1992, "we sit down and weigh up whether it's for the better of the show - and if it makes the show better we'll go for it." "Sometimes it affects continuity and you've just got to bite the bullet," added Doug Naylor.

Whether conscious or accidental, the act of either contradicting previously established information or simply adding in new or expanded detail is popularly known in sci-fi circles as a "retcon" - short for "retroactive continuity". And there have been so many of them in Red Dwarf down the years, it can be difficult to keep track: so that's where we come in. What follows is an overview of the major (and some of the minor) changes made over the years, as Rob and Doug gradually chipped away at and developed the legend that they'd initially created.

The first two series of Red Dwarf are generally considered to be of a single mind - there were aesthetic changes made between them, but the broad strokes of continuity as far as the characters and their setup go remained basically the same. But as the writers sought to soften up Rimmer in particular in Series II, the seeds of a more developed background than we'd known in the first series began to develop. A throwaway line to "that unfortunate suicide business" concerning his father in Future Echoes was quietly forgotten in favour of having the elder Rimmer still be alive at the time Arnold had signed on aboard Red Dwarf - with the belated news of his death in Better than Life renewing Rimmer's disappointment that he'd never lived up to his father's expectations.

You might think that it was with Series III that more wholesale changes to the Red Dwarf history were made - but actually, despite some pretty major visual alterations, the narrative remained fairly consistent. Of course, the ship suddenly had a brand new type of transport craft we'd never heard of, and the crew had moved to the Officer's Quarters - but these could all be explained away as the gang simply exploring parts of the ship they hadn't in the previous series. Similarly, while Kryten may have changed appearance and voice on his return to the ship, the fact that the series' opening crawl explained that he'd been destroyed and rebuilt by Lister would seem to neatly cover that off. That said, it's notable that Series III saw Rimmer able to leave the ship as a hologram without outside assistance for the first time - the "Hologram Projection Cage" of Series II having been quietly retconned out as a concept.

We did, however, get some fresh information about Lister's background in Series III. We already knew from Series I and II that his parents had died while he was a child, and that he'd spent much of his adolescence being brought up by his grandmother instead. But in the series-closing The Last Day, we further learn that these parents were in fact only his adoptive or foster parents - as he relays to us for the first time the story of being abandoned in a box under a pool table as a baby. The precise details of his parentage, of course, would form the subject of a later, and somewhat more significant retcon...

While Series III began with the promise that it was "The Same Generation... Nearly" - a handy catch-all explanation for any changes to the continuity that might take place from there on out - it wasn't until Series IV that we really began to see significant alterations to the show's backstory. This was partly as a consequence of the first novel, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, having been published in November 1989. Having taken the opportunity to tell a fresh, and more involved, version of the story in print form, Rob and Doug also decided that they would fold some of the novel's elements directly into the TV series as well, to enrich the setting.

The most noticeable change in Series IV was undoubtedly the one that came in Justice - as it was also one that directly contradicted something that had earlier been said on screen. While the number of crew members aboard the ship had been stated as 169 back in The End, here we were told that in fact there were a thousand more than that (although this was still a step down from the book, which had given the figure as 11,169). This was considered to be a more realistic crew size given the scale of the ship, not to mention enabling a greater magnitude of apparent crime and sentence for Rimmer in the episode.

Elsewhere in Series IV, a spanner was thrown in the works of the series' chronology, too: while earlier episodes had stated that Lister and Rimmer were from the late 21st Century (with the year having been given in Stasis Leak as 2077), in D.N.A. Lister described himself as an "enlightened twenty-third century guy". While this shift was again one that seemed to make more sense than the original specification - in that it seemed less and less likely that interstellar travel would be a realistic possibility by the time the twenty-first century was out - it still wasn't one that was able to be made permanent, as we'd discover a few years later.

While seemingly less significant in the great scheme of things, the introduction of the "light bee" to Rimmer's hologram technology in the same series' Meltdown was almost as major as getting rid of the hologram projection cage a few years earlier. It made the technology seem more autonomous, even less linked directly to the ship - and would allow for the upgrade to his "hard light" status two series later. What's unclear, however, is whether this is a "retcon" as such - in terms of the light bee having actually existed all along - or if the new technology was found during an offscreen adventure.

A major change the novels had made was to establish that Lister and Kochanski had actually had a romantic relationship - rather than Lister having simply pined after her from afar as was the case in the early days. This was quickly worked into Series IV, albeit only via a quick and off-handed reference by Lister to their breakup in D.N.A. It wouldn't be until Series VII's Ouroboros, and the introduction of the alternate-universe Kochanski, that we'd find out more details about the timing of, and reasons for, their split - and although these scenes took place in a parallel dimension, the suggestion was that the divergent point was her taking custody of Frankenstein the cat - so we can assume that almost everything else about that timeline was supposed to have played out along similar lines to the main one.

But that wasn't even the biggest change Ouroboros had to make. Instead, kicking off what would become something of a tradition for the later series, the episode had huge revelations to make about a character's parentage: specifically, the fact that Lister was his own father (and, furthermore, Kochanski his mother). This mindblowing revelation may just have been the retcon to top all retcons, certainly as far as Red Dwarf was concerned - yet what's impressive about it is that it doesn't actually directly contradict anything that's been said onscreen before. At least, that is, aside from the fact that our flashback to the Aigburth Arms - the pub in which baby Lister is left - is said to take place in 2155, meaning that now he's neither a twenty-first nor a twenty-third century guy, but instead a twenty-second.

Other characters had tweaks made to their backstories as the later series went on, too. In Beyond a Joke, we found out more about Kryten's creation, having previously been introduced to his creator Professor Mamet in Psirens (and having seen a minor retcon as his designation as a "Series 3" droid in The Last Day became "Series 4000" from Series IV onwards). Another element from the novels that was worked into his story was Lister's assertion in Series VII that he had accidentally "killed the crew" of the Nova 5 - previous episodes hadn't suggested that he was responsible for his original craft's accident. And in Series VIII, we learned that the previously-highly-regarded ship's captain, Frank Hollister, had in fact fraudulently assumed his role in charge, having previously been "Dennis the Donut Boy".

With the ten-year gap between Series VIII and the Dave revival, there was plenty of opportunity for new backstory to find its way into Doug's brain - and so it proved in Series X, which heavily played up the pasts of both Rimmer and Lister. While Lister's "Hayley and Roy" story ultimately proved to be a swerve in terms of potentially having the past affect him, Rimmer learned two significant pieces of information that were contrary to what we - and he - had previously known. First of all came the revelation that his brother Howard was actually just as lowly-ranked in the Space Corps as he was; and then the news that the man he thought was his biological father actually wasn't.

It remains to be seen how these retrospective changes will affect the development of the characters in the future - but based on past form, when Red Dwarf changes its own history, it's usually in service of enriching the show (or sometimes, just for the sake of a good joke). And in the end, isn't that the most important thing?

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