Seven At Twenty
Celebrating two decades of Red Dwarf VII.
20 January, 2017
Twenty years ago this week, Red Dwarf reinvented itself in a way it had never done before.
The wait had been agonising. Series VI had finished airing in late 1993, but fans had had to wait nearly three years for news of a seventh series. In that time, Rob Grant decided that the previous series would be his last as co-writer, two novels (Last Human and Backwards) were released, Craig Charles faced (later disproven) legal problems, and Chris Barrie elected to leave the show to focus on other commitments. So when Red Dwarf VII did finally hit screens in January 1997, a lot had changed - both behind, and in front of, the camera.
But to the waiting fans, the new series was manna from heaven. For many (this writer included) it was the first time they had got to eagerly anticipate a new series before its broadcast since becoming fans of Red Dwarf. The show earned its first ever Radio Times cover as part of a widespread media push that ensured that, break or no break, the new episodes landed with a bang.
The style, of course, was different. The first episodes (unless you count the complex mounting of Bodyswap) not to be shot in front of a live audience - returning director Ed Bye instead pushing for a more "filmic" style that involved four-walled (and better-looking than ever before) sets, dramatic lighting; and, in another first for the show, CGI animation along with the trusty model shots.
Doug Naylor, now in sole charge, brought in an array of co-writers - Paul Alexander, Kim Fuller, James Hendrie and Robert Llewellyn - who, as with the visuals, worked to a new style. The show had an increasing focus on comedy drama, with complex plots and less of an emphasis on straight-up audience-style sitcom. There was also a high calibre of guest stars involved, including Hollywood star Brian Cox and noted British character actors Don Henderson and Ken Morley.
And, of course, Chloë Annett joined the crew. Taking on the role of an alternate universe version of Kristine Kochanski, she faced the difficult task of living up to the legend of a character who had largely been formed out of offscreen memories - but did so with aplomb. She also got to cross over with Chris Barrie on the way out - although never sharing a "present day" scene together, Kochanski and Rimmer were seen in flashback in her debut episode Ouroboros, and also both appeared in the memorable Blue.
It was the series opener, Tikka to Ride, that really set the tone for what new Red Dwarf was capable of - with a fantastic, time-twisty plot that was completely unafraid to play with controversial history, and some of the best location shooting work the series had ever seen. But this bold new era wasn't afraid to draw from Red Dwarf past, either - whether bringing back Ace Rimmer (of sorts) in the fan-favourite Stoke Me A Clipper, or finally solving the mystery of the missing Red Dwarf ship (and bringing back Norman Lovett as Holly in the process) in the finale Nanarchy.
The seventh series brought Red Dwarf its highest ever ratings up to that point - with almost eight million viewers tuning in to BBC2 each week when the Sunday repeats were taken into account - and was the lead-in to a flurry of activity that ran through the Red Dwarf Night tenth anniversary celebration and Remastered project the following year, and Series VIII in 1999.
And while that eighth series saw the show move back towards its sitcom roots, the bold experiment that was Series VII remains a firm favourite of many fans. It was a time when it felt like the show could do anything, and it's not hard to see why the idea of a theatrical movie was on everyone's minds just a few short years afterwards.
And nothing will quite match that excitement of the show making a comeback after such a long time away. Sure, the three year gap may seem positively short compared to the time we had to wait for Back to Earth, Series X and then Series XI - but without that original comeback, and if Red Dwarf hadn't returned in that way in 1997, we might not be here preparing for Series XII in 2017...
So we're taking this opportunity - twenty years after Tikka to Ride was first broadcast, on BBC2 at 9pm on Friday 17th January 1997 - to celebrate that seventh series. If you want to relive it with us, you can take a look at our detailed analysis, our behind-the-scenes guide, the photo gallery and quiz - and you can join us each week on Twitter and Facebook as we go through episode by episode and invite you to share your own memories. And if you're not social media-inclined, you can do so on our Forum instead.
Happy 20th birthday, Red Dwarf VII!