Much like Doctor who, I remember seeing Red Dwarf when I was pretty young – in fact my mum only let me watch it under supervision since at times it could get a little blue – although by today’s standards even the most crude jokes in it are extremely tame. It was a different time.
Red Dwarf took cardboard kitbashed sets and minature-model shots to a great level, and while you’d never mistake anything there for high-budget it always got the job done. In the earlier seasons they seem to generally resort to spray painting things grey to make them more futuristic.
The props and costumes and sets from ‘Dwarf were a big influence on my idea of what the future looked like, so much so that the more slick and higher-budget shows looked (to me) so much more fake. The charm of Red Dwarf was the very lived-in ship, the messy crew cabin, the very fact that the two main stars were vending machine repair men whose main job was sticking pipe cleaners into blocked nozzles – on a starship! The fact that they were basically the same as anyone you’d meet in the real world, and the fact they didn’t think living and working on a space ship was even remotely interesting made it somehow just as amazing as Star Trek and Star Wars (which I also love, but for different reasons). In fact, a central premise of the early series was that Lister wanted to buy a farm and raise horses with the woman he fancied but had barely spoken to. It was like a negaverse of Star Wars, with Lister, in space, dreaming of being on a farm mirroring Luke the farm-boy’s dreams of getting into space.
Much like Doctor Who (again), it evolved in an era where budgets for TV sci-fi were extremely tight, and they had to make every penny count. In many ways, I think that actually adds to the overall effect of a ‘real’ place, rather than the very slick and over-produced TV shows we often get today. The early series had an odd mix of space-minimalism and high-tech. The drive room controls were painted on for the most part, the walls of the ship were blank grey panels and everything was pretty basic (and mostly painted grey), but this actually served to make it look like a pretty streamlined space-ship. Later when the budgets improved there was a lot more greebles and wires on everything, and again this worked great because the plot of the show is that these four guys are alone on a mile-long spaceship in deep space, the sets started to look like they’d been tinkering and modifying things and it moved from the almost militaristic grey-painted interiors to being something much more “salvaged” and “DIY”.
As the show got a bit more funding the SFX budgets improved, the crew went on location a lot more, time travelled, got attacked by various genetically engineered life forms (GELFs) – in the Red Dwarf universe there are no aliens, everything they encounter is the product of humans, but they retained the charm of the originals (mostly, I’m not a big fan of series 6) right up until series 7 and 8 which went all-out and CGI everything and it was never really the same. Fortunately the last two series’ have largely returned to the low-budget feeling sfx and props and were better for that.