The full story behind 1992's ill-fated American Red Dwarf pilot.
19 July, 2002
So there's this great show on BBC2 that's winning huge audiences and its fair share of good reviews. It's 1992 and you're an American producer on the hunt for a hit. Here's an idea - why don't we do our own version of Red Dwarf?
So it was that Brad Johnson, then senior vice president of Comedy Development at MCA Universal Television, became attracted to the prospect of developing the show for a Stateside series. While previous experiments with this kind of transfer have ranged from the massively successful (Sanford and Son from Britain's Steptoe and Son) to the unfortunate (Men Behaving Badly's transfer which was cleansed of its smoking, drinking and swearing and went through three different Deborahs during its brief run), there was no question that Red Dwarf had a good chance of making the transfer.
The good news was that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor would definitely be on board as creators, executive producers and (to some extent) writers. The pilot was produced and written by Linwood Boomer - a former actor on Little House on the Prairie who would go on to Third Rock from the Sun and ultimately create hit show Malcolm in the Middle. Had the series gone to term, writers Jay Kogen (Frasier and The Simpsons) and Wallace Wolodarsky (also of The Simpsons) would also have been brought on board.
Casting roles already so successfully played by the established UK team proved difficult. Robert Llewellyn - who by now was a master with the rubber mask - was approached to reprise the role of Kryten. It proved to be a difficult decision. Chris Barrie had passed up the American opportunity because of the constraints of TV deals over there. An actor signs on for a pilot, but is locked in for five series over five years if the show lasts that long. After some debating, Robert agreed.
The pivotal Lister part was something of a surprise to the writers. Imagining a suitably slobby Hispanic actor in the role, the producers presented them with Craig Beirko, a handsome, designer-stubbled actor who didn't look like he'd know a triple-fried-egg-chilli-chutney sandwich if got up and bit him. (Which they are liable to do.) Still, the studio felt that Craig was an actor on the way up - and they may have been right. He is now a familiar face on TV, film and stage, and action fans will no doubt remember him as the villain in 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Rimmer was played by Chris Eigeman - no prizes for guessing that having 'Craig' and 'Chris' as Rimmer and Lister weirded everyone out! - and the part of the Cat went to Hinton Battle. Battle had a remarkably similar background to Danny John-Jules in musical theatre and would later appear in genre shows Quantum Leap (as an evil hologram) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (making the most of his talents as a demon who causes people to burst into song!).
Perhaps the most successful piece of casting for the US pilot was for Holly. Jane Leeves - now an award-winning actress on Frasier - brought more than just a British accent to the part. While the lines remained true to the UK Holly, Leeves played the character, very successfully, as 'happy to be bonkers'. Having worked with Manchurian writers Grant and Naylor, is it coincidence that her very next role, Frasier's Daphne Moon, also hailed from that area? The lady herself, after all, is from Surrey...
With Elizabeth Moorhead as a Kochanski still dating Lister (on and off), the cast was complete for a script that based itself on the original pilot, The End. And then the trouble started...
Linwood Boomer's script wasn't hitting the expectations Rob and Doug had, and rather than following their original plan - occasionally coming in to give an opinion on Rimmer's H, for example (although the H in question was actually replaced by a red circle) - they were forced to make some big changes. The final script - an amalgamation of The End, Boomer's own script and the new Grant Naylor draft, was copied and delivered... and then put to a cast vote!
Needless to say, the Grant and Naylor script won - although there were no names included on the drafts, so the cast had no idea until afterwards who they had voted for.
The recording of the pilot, as recounted in Robert Llewellyn's book The Man in the Rubber Mask, was significantly different to the UK version. The actor's slapstick antics between takes - humping the set, for example - was embarrassingly distracting for the more intense American actors. Indeed, the set was a bizarre point of fascination. Recreating the series III sleeping quarters with eerie accuracy, there was only one significant change - the size. Robert no longer had to duck under the doorway to enter the room!
With an audience that whooped and hollered through the story, it felt as if the pilot had gone well. The story was begun with a lengthy introduction to the Red Dwarf ship and its crew by Holly, then introduced the main characters. Following Lister's revival from stasis and the revelation of his companions, the episode ended with a cliffhanger. A future version of this motley crew, along with an apparently revived Kochanski, appeared briefly to tell Lister: "You gotta - "
It's clear almost immediately what works and what doesn't in the Red Dwarf USA pilot. Craig Bierko isn't 'our' Lister, but he's a likeable actor and suited the character that had been written around him. Rimmer, unfortunately, is barely given enough screen time to register, so fails to be the antagonist the story needs. Holly is great, and Hinton Battle does well enough with a part that still has the catty nature Danny's version would slowly lose as he hung around with the monkeys.
Robert, of course, is the same old Kryten, and seems to be loving every minute. While the mask and costume don't live up to their remarkably effective British counterparts, they get bonus points for leaving the actor feeling less like he's been trapped in a coffin/sauna for eight hours.
Three weeks after the pilot was filmed, decisions were made from on-high. The pilot had not gone down well, and an attempt to salvage the project was made. Linwood Boomer called those who would not be returning - including Chris Eigeman and Hinton Battle - to break the bad news... and was then fired himself.
The writers now had a chance to do what the original pilot had not achieved - genuinely bring their vision of the show to the screen. Gone would be the over-lit sets and crew members baffled by split screens. (Gone too would be Todd Rundgren's music, which seemed to have its influences in Rimmer's Hammond organ practice.)
The new plan was to shoot a 'promo reel' for the show in a studio the writers charitably describe as 'a garage'. Terry Farrell - who would shortly afterwards hit the Star Trek universe as 'Jadzia Dax' in Deep Space 9 - was cast as the new, female Cat. She's a danger-loving animal with a high sex drive and nine lives. Anthony Fuscle became the new Rimmer, now with 'H' and irritating attitude in tact.
With next to no money and an encroaching deadline, Rob and Doug based much of what was filmed on the UK Red Dwarf. The full promo included entire sequences from the last couple of series (particularly an abbreviated version of Terrorform, an episode which had proved very popular Stateside), and reintroduced the main characters through a combination of old and new elements.
Some of the better sections of the original pilot - especially those featuring Holly and Lister - are included, as are brand new scenes filmed in the 'garage'. Sections of British shows, such as Marooned's virginity scene and the 'Wilma Flintstone' exchange, were filmed with the American cast. Plus the new Cat was given a scene to show what she could do.
This new promo was bookended by sequences of Lister and Rimmer recording a black box message - from the perspective of the box. These segments, perhaps better than any other, showed how well this new cast would have gelled together given the chance.
But the chance was never going to come. The option on the pilot was never picked up, the writers came home, and Robert Llewellyn clambered back into the British mechanoid outfit for series VI.
Included in the pitch for the American series - along with the promo - were several scripts for potential future episodes. These included a version of Camille and Shutdown, a remake of The Last Day. Both were adjusted for the new cast, with the female Cat genuinely showing a lot of promise (her version of Camille is nine identical Conan-esque men). Also included was a stage direction: "EXCITING ROCK MUSIC (NOT WRITTEN BY TODD RUNDGREN)."
In retrospect, this fate of Red Dwarf USA has been great for the series. The show is now massively popular on PBS stations across the States, and Red Dwarf: The Movie is being made with Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and the rest in the roles that truly belong to them.
Red Dwarf: The Movie starring Craig Bierko? Seriously, which would you prefer?