Evolution of... The Sets

The first in our new series of design retrospectives.

As we head towards the new era of Red Dwarf X, we're taking a look back at how the show's defining visual elements have changed over the years. Before their reinvention later this Autumn, we'll be looking at the evolution of the costumes of each of the lead characters in turn - but first, here's a look at how life onboard ship has changed shape since 1988...

Grey. Grey, grey and more grey. There was so much grey lining the walls of Red Dwarf in its first series that Me2, the last-produced episode of the run, even contained a joking reference to there being two different shades of the stuff.

Paul Montague's sets had followed the remit of evoking a dingy, claustrophobic feel - akin to that of a submarine. They certainly achieved that - but to such a great effect that upon commencing Series II, the production team felt the need to introduce a variety of colourful props and wall-dressing to break the monotony of the bunkroom scenes.

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The colour and décor of that first bunkroom may not have been exactly what Rob and Doug had been hoping for - but what the set did do was to lay out a template for the show's "core" setting that would endure throughout nearly every series that followed. The layout of two bunks, Lister's above Rimmer's, with a table in the foreground, has so far survived all later incarnations of the main ship's bunkroom - and although the formula was altered for the Starbug-set Series VI and VII, even the prison cell of Series VIII was a direct homage to it.

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The other major set used in the first series was Red Dwarf's drive room - bustling and smoky in pre-accident scenes, and still lively with monitor displays and other activity even when featuring Lister alone with Holly. This established a trend whereby ship-bound scenes not set in the sleeping quarters would instead be in some form of "technical" room - although the drive room itself would only serve this purpose for the first series. Instead, Series II featured the "science room", a set whose main characteristics were an abundance of lights and controls, and a console in the foreground that enabled the characters to face the audience while conversing with one-another.

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A dramatic overhaul of the entire ship came as part and parcel of the general reinvention that accompanied Series III - and the new bunkroom, courtesy of incoming designer Mel Bibby, explained the change with a sign indicating that the crew had now moved to the Officers' Quarters. The new off-white, angular and blocky surroundings harkened back to early Red Dwarf influences such as Alien - and were larger, lessening the feeling that the crew were "trapped" on the ship. This styling was carried over to other parts of the ship - most notably the replacement science room, which now centred on a circular "console" unit that featured monitors for Holly's display - while the corridors featured a darker and grimy feel, based heavily around metal grating, that would become one of the show's main hallmarks.

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The interior of Red Dwarf remained largely unchanged throughout Series III, IV and V - but these series also saw the use of another major set, in the shape of the frequently-used transport ship Starbug. The ship initially featured a two-seat cockpit - allowing, for the first time, proper "driving" scenes with crew members at the yokes - with a mid-section that was primarily intended for storage but would more often feature as a passenger area for any episodes in which all four Dwarfers used the ship. The grate-based styling of the mothership's corridors was carried over to Starbug, although the blocky octagons of the quarters were echoed in the design of the cockpit doorway.

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Starbug took on significantly greater importance, however, from Series VI onwards. With Red Dwarf itself lost, the shuttle craft became the crew's new home - and so naturally, it needed an overhaul to cope with its new role. While cockpit scenes in earlier series had often involved Kryten and Rimmer having to stand behind Lister and Cat's pilot seats, this time out they were given their own workstations in a much larger front section - and this new, four-seat layout would be home to some of the series' most memorable dialogue exchanges, essentially taking the place of earlier bunkrooms.

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The new Starbug did, as it happens, also feature a sleeping quarters - which also doubled as a medical room and the home of Lister's Artificial Reality exploits - but this location was far less frequently used than in previous years. It also featured a dramatically different layout - the larger bunks were now on separate walls, rather than one above the other, and both the room itself and its accompanying décor were rectangular, in a shift away from the octagonal theme of Series III-V. However, the other main ship location throughout this series was, in fact, the mid-section - enlarged, and with a grimier feel (and yet more of that classic grating), with its central scanner table it essentially served as the crew's new "living room", complete with mini kitchen to the rear.

If the ship thought its weight gain programme had ended with Series VI, however, it was very much mistaken. Moving away from the deliberately claustrophobic feel of the previous series - as well as revelling in the freedom to build larger, four-walled sets due to the absence of a studio audience - the in-story explanation of "dimensional anomalies" expanded the interior dimensions of Starbug greatly (while apparently, in TARDIS-esque fashion, retaining the same external size).

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There was now a much more liberal distribution of location use across scenes, rather than largely limiting material to the cockpit and mid-section - and this meant that although those two areas stayed largely the same, we saw some entirely new rooms as well as changes to existing ones. The sleeping quarters were redesigned, keeping the same overall styling as in Series VI, but now with a layout that was a touch more reminiscent of the original Series I bunkroom - complete with corner sink unit. But we were also introduced to a new dedicated medical room, a gigantic cargo bay (actually filmed in an aerospace wind tunnel), a separate AR suite and a variety of high-ceilinged corridors.

Sadly, the Dwarfers would only get to enjoy their vastly-spacious Starbug for a single series - as it was summarily destroyed upon crashing into the cargo bay of the newly-rebuilt Red Dwarf at the beginning of Series VIII. The reconstruction of the mothership to its "original design" offered plenty of potential for redesigning classic elements - although the first glimpse of an onboard room, in the tantalisingly brief scene set in Lister and Rimmer's original quarters, offered a superbly faithful recreation of Paul Montague's design.

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Elsewhere, however, rooms such as the Captain's office, as well as the corridors in general, received a sprucing up that moved them away from the ramshackle feel the ship had had in the show's middle years. Hollister's own quarters, which we might have expected to have the off-white design of the old Officers' Quarters, in fact had a blue paint job, and felt more like a room in a hotel than on a mining ship...

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Not that our intrepid crew got to see very much of this new ship, of course - the arching series plot of their imprisonment in "The Tank" meant that instead, another entirely new set was required. Putting Lister and Rimmer back in stacked bunks, with a foreground table, the prison cell deliberately evoked that very first bunkroom - the same one the audience had been shown in Back in the Red Part 1, helping drive home the subliminal image - while the metallic grates called to mind the classic ship's corridors.

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One final change for Series VIII was that, with Starbug destroyed, the crew needed a new shuttle craft cockpit. Blue Midget had had a cramped feel way back in its very first appearances in Series II, and although enlarged for Series VIII, that continued by virtue of the sheer number of characters that were crammed into it. The layout was actually, more than anything, reminiscent of Series II's science room - with characters directly facing the camera rather than the angled perspective of Starbug's cockpit.

Following the end of Series VIII, the crew - for reasons as yet unspecified - found themselves back alone on Red Dwarf by the time of Back to Earth - and back living in quarters that were simultaneously brand new and yet immediately classic. During the gap between productions, Mel Bibby had sadly passed away - but incoming designer Mark Harris kept the spirit of both his and Paul Montague's work alive in admirably faithful fashion.

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The colouring of the new bunkroom set was a return to the original grey - albeit in a lighter, multi-toned way - but the overall aesthetic, particularly in the octagonal walls and doorways, was pure Series III. And yet with the addition of a door on the right-hand side of the bunks, the layout even had hints of the enlarged Starbug. The set was drenched in more in the way of character detail than ever before, while a brand new console table and corner computer mainframe ensured that the room had a constant sense of activity and motion. And for the first time, thanks to the four-walled nature of the set, Rimmer and Lister had a gigantic window out to space opposite their bunks.

Although a beautiful piece of work, however, this bunkroom was destined only to be used for Back to Earth - as the upcoming tenth series will feature an entirely new batch of sets, spanning a much greater selection of rooms and corridors onboard Red Dwarf itself. Our newest production designer Michael Ralph has crafted an interior that in many ways is entirely fresh - and yet will still feel instantly, classically "Red Dwarf"-ish to any fan that sees it. We'd love to tell you more, but we're bound to secrecy for now. However, we will say this: Red. Red, red and more red...

Get a closer look at classic sets by revisiting the series on DVD and iTunes!

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