It was a successful British sitcom. It was at the height of its popularity. It was the nineties. Give out any excuse you like, but at one point, somebody honestly thought Red Dwarf needed an American adaptation on NBC. It didn’t of course. Nobody needed that. What resulted was a spectacular failure, universally despised by critics, crew, and fans alike. It was, in short, exactly what everyone predicted it would be. Still, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as everyone claims. Red Dwarf USA may be a smegging garbage pod, but at least it had some good one liners.
Even in VHS quality, the problems with Red Dwarf USA are obvious from the very beginning. Opening on a Star Wars inspired narrative crawl, we can only make out the first four lines of text before words start zipping by at light speed. Fans will know this as the joke that opened the third series of Red Dwarf in the UK. It worked there because we didn’t need it. It had been two seasons! We knew what the show was by that point! While that series obviously brought about a number of changes, none were really necessary to explain to the casual viewer. As an introduction to the series as a whole, however, it’s a joke that’s downright confusing, and sets up an expectation that this show isn’t going to bother telling you what it’s about. Of course, the show immediately negates that with one of the most blatant exposition dumps I’ve ever seen in my life.
Parallel Universe: Boys (And Girls) From The Dwarf
The first character we meet in Red Dwarf USA is Holly. Literally speaking to the audience, Holly tells us where we are and who we’re dealing with. You probably recognize that it’s Jane Leeves. This was before Frasier made her a household name, mind you, so while casting Leeves makes a bit of sense in retrospect, it’s actually genuinely shocking how, when reinventing Red Dwarf for an American audience, they would go for a non-American cast member in such a prominent role. Maybe they realized that the humour of Red Dwarf was so British you couldn’t actually do it without an authentic Brit in the cast.
Starting with the female version of Holly is a no-brainer, obviously. You need more of a female presence than the zero percent of the cast that Red Dwarf had in series one, and Holly can accomplish that without breaking the formula of the show. Besides, like the wall of text, it was a move they already pulled in the UK. I do wonder why they didn’t just go with Hattie Hayridge, since they obviously weren’t averse to keeping the original cast around (see below) but Leeves does a pretty good job. The “Oooh, that one felt good” moment made me chuckle at least. Even if “Everybody’s dead, Dave” fell hopelessly flat, it would be impossible to top Norman Lovett’s original performance. Maybe if they eventually put more of herself into the role, like Leeves would do with Daphne Moon one year later, I would have accepted her in the role of a senile computer two and a half million years past her expiration date.
Robert Llewellyn (thankfully) reprises his role as Kryten. His performance? Exactly as you expect it to be. It wouldn’t have worked with anyone else. While I could see someone like Matt Frewer pulling off Kryten in a Max Headroom-y sort of way, it just wouldn’t be the same. Still, as much as I appreciate Llewellyn’s presence, I would honestly rather Kryten hadn’t been here at all. Lister’s initial setup is that he’s alone in the universe with only those unwillingly thrust upon him as his companions. Finding Kryten was a surprise in series two, and even that episode serves to remind us that Lister is well and truly alone when he sees the ancient corpses of Kryten’s original crew. To be brought back alongside someone he already considered a friend before his three million years in stasis, even if he only knew the preening mechanoid for a few days, is kindness the original Lister never had. Why would Rimmer even be activated in the first place if Lister had Kryten to talk to?
I get it. Red Dwarf had finished its fifth series and Kryten was well and truly a part of the core cast. If they wanted their first season to be a compilation of some of the BBC’s best episodes, you have to put Kryten there. But not like this. Couldn’t you at least have saved him until episode, like, two? As noted below, the extra time given to Kryten in Red Dwarf USA makes it necessary to eliminate those that actually establish the premise and characters of the core cast. Jokes about spare heads do not a successful series make.
Who is Dave Lister? What’s the essence of this character that you need to capture in order to make Red Dwarf work as a premise? Towering over everyone he meets with an effortless smile, Craig Bierko definitely owns Lister’s charm, but it’s the other half of the character, the disgusting slob, that fails to make its way over to Red Dwarf USA. Craig Charles as Lister? You get it. You have to know him to love him, and even then you wish he’d stop biting his toenails in front of you. It’s a testament to Craig Charles as an actor, I should say, in how he charmed a nation with curry stains on his shirt. Bierko plays him as Han Solo, and I actually think it was the right choice.
Now, admittedly, I may just be looking for things that worked here. The writing disagreed, of course. Putting Charles’ lines in Bierko’s mouth doesn’t work one bit. But Lister as romantic hero instead of slovenly bum isn’t unheard of, and it leads to what is potentially Bierko’s best moment in the role. Realising Kochanski has mouthed “I love you” to him only seconds before going into stasis, Bierko’s Lister bangs on the glass, begging to be released. This changes everything about the state of things when he wakes up, because he’s actively lose something. When Bierko stresses this, you want him to succeed. It’s just unfortunate how little else of the character they got right.
The final member of the core cast we meet before Lister goes into stasis is Rimmer. Rimmer is played by Chris Eigeman. As a massive Gilmore Girls fan, I naturally recognised Jason Stiles when I saw him. Again, I actually have nothing to fault with this casting choice. In all honestly, Eigeman is a great pick to play an unlikeable git you end up loving, and this was probably the best original choice the American series made. Unfortunately, Rimmer’s best scenes from the pilot all get cut, likely in service of adding Kryten to the plot, so my ability to honestly judge Eigeman’s performance here is limited at best.
In the scant few moments of screen time allotted to the man who would have been the second lead of the entire series, I can only think this: he’s no Chris Barrie. There’s no smug superiority in Eigeman, just weak-willed whining as the other characters bully him outright. You kind of expect Lister to deck him, which is certainly a departure from how the UK played it, though this is arguably not a change in the right direction.
The Cat is actually an interesting situation. He’s played by Hinton Battle, who is apparently something of a legend amongst dancers for his role as Scarecrow in The Wiz, and is definitely something of a legend to more mainstream nerds for his role in the Once More With Feeling episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a bit of a tribute to Danny John-Jules that they acknowledged the special qualities his history as a dancer brought to the role and tried to emulate the actor as best they could. There’s a physicality to the role that is replicated here pretty spot on.
Like Rimmer, the Cat’s role in this episode is miniscule. Like in the original pilot, we only meet the Cat after Dave wakes up, and even then, only briefly, so there’s not much to go on here. They’ve even cut the final scenes where Cat actually inspires Dave to keep going, but more on that later. He works because I know how Danny John-Jules played it. If I was watching this episode in a vacuum, I don’t think it would stand out.
The Actual Episode
Okay, so what about the actual episode? Plotwise, it’s The End. Go watch the very first episode of Red Dwarf series one and know straight-up it’s just a remake of that. Just add Kryten, take away some of Rimmer and Cat’s best scenes, and replace Captain Hollister with a strong black woman who isn’t afraid to command her crew. Even the novel did that last one though. Early Red Dwarf had a gender problem. It knows it. Unfortunately, even fixing that, a load more problems persist that present themselves fairly quickly.
The first problem was the writing. Doug Naylor remembers the American writing team as being more concerned with filling the script with one liners than fixing problems with the plot, and it absolutely shows. There was, apparently, a second, funnier version of the script that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor wrote shortly before filming began. The American producers did everything possible to avoid shooting that version, though nobody quite knows why.
Red Dwarf USA just doesn’t try hard enough to do its own thing. The premise is already lifted from a UK series, did they have to also take the jokes line by line? This doesn’t work when your version of Lister is a six foot hunk, and it doesn’t work when you’re still using words like “traffic cone” instead of “pylon” or “bottom crevice” instead of “ass groove”. If you’re going to adapt, adapt!
Limited sets and poor use of camera are yet another problem here. When Lister wakes up, I don’t feel like he’s alone the same way as I did in the BBC version. Yeah, the set is empty, but there’s no low-light ambience, no definitive absence of life that really made you feel it. This is science-fiction sitcom shot like a sitcom. It shows in every dull and boring frame. Times when it does decide to use a bit of pizazz, it chooses the wrong moments. We don’t need a visualization of how the cat race evolved and how they went extinct. If Norman Lovett’s face was good in my day, it’ll be good enough for you!
Here’s the thing I’m most disappointed with. It ends with a vision of the future. Right when Dave is about to give up, a bubble of time erupts in the drive room and the future selves of Red Dwarf USA appear in front their present day counterparts. Future-Dave has Kochanski at his side and, although it’s staged as a warning, his appearance is essentially there to tell Past-Dave that everything is going to work out alright. It motivates him to keep going. This is a betrayal in my mind. The original Red Dwarf was fueled by Dave’s blind hopeless faith that he would get Kochanski back. A sad, desperate hope that defines him as a person! This version of the show pretty much just tells Dave to wait it out.
That’s just the first pilot. The less said about the second pilot, essentially structured as a clip show of potential future episodes that were never produced, the better. Admittedly, it opens with the Flintstones conversation. Originally held between Lister and the Cat, it’s just great writing that can work with any two characters. It’s arguably one of the most adaptable scenes in the series as a whole, completely suited to American audiences, and it’s pretty much just as funny here. But the further we go, including re-doing scenes from classic episodes such as Marooned, the more you realize that anything you could potentially like about this series was already done better in the UK.
The recasts are problematic to say the least. Eigeman and Battle are out as Rimmer and the Cat, replaced by Anthony Fuscle and Terry Farrell respectively. Take a moment and appreciate how that now means a complete whitewashing of the cast. Making the Cat female adds some awkward implications as well, but again, I get this. Add more women to all your casts. Everyone. Just do it. But… why is she nowhere near the same character? Did she have to be a fierce warrior woman? I wanted it to do it’s own thing, but some concepts don’t even make sense.
After the dismal failure of Red Dwarf USA, Terry Farrell would go on to be cast as Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Jane Leeves also got her shot on Frasier because her schedule was free. I’m so glad these actresses still got their chance to shine. Craig Bierko turned down the role of Joey on Friends for this. Now you know why I’ve been so nice to him this whole time.
The main sin of Red Dwarf USA is that it’s boring. As a fan, I’ve known about this episode for years. I feared it. But it’s honestly not as abysmally terrible as people claim it to be. It just has no personality, no substance. What little it brought to the table was to remove what made the original work in the first place. In the documentary Dwarfing USA, Craig Charles hit the nail on the head. It was too clean. There was no grime, no curry stains. The dirtiest thing about Red Dwarf is the five o’clock shadow on Bierko’s handsome face. Given time, it might have actually done something about that. It could have grown into its own entity that used the Han Solo archetype to be a new show that leaned on its own actor’s strengths the same way Red Dwarf leaned on Craig Charles’ neo-realism, Chris Barrie’s impressions, Danny John-Jules’ physicality, and Norman Lovett’s deadpan humour to craft their original vision. Unfortunately, with lead writers who were writing only for jokes, actors who knew they were miscast, and producers who constantly spouted that they were doing this project to make a lot of money, it never had much hope. Maybe in a parallel universe, but not here. For Red Dwarf USA, their remake of The End was just that.