The core, long-term cast of Red Dwarf: Danny John-Jules as the Cat, Craig Charles as Dave Lister, Chris Barrie as Arnold Rimmer and Robert Llewellyn as Kryten.
Red Dwarf is a comedy series with an SF premise: Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a lowly technician on the vast mining ship Red Dwarf, is sentenced to eighteen months in temporal stasis (without pay) after smuggling an unquarantined pregnant cat onto the ship. In the interim, the ship suffers a colossal radiation leak that wipes out the crew. The ship's AI, Holly (Norman Lovett, later Hattie Hayridge), takes the vessel out of the Solar system to avoid contamination and waits for the radiation to die down before releasing Lister. Unfortunately, this takes three million years. After Lister is awoken to face the possibility of eternity alone in deep space, Holly resurrects Lister's anally-retentive superior officer, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), as a hologram to help keep him sane. The cast is rounded out by Cat (Danny John-Jules), a humanoid being whose ancestors evolved from Lister's cat's progeny, and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), a neurotic android recovered from a crashed spacecraft.
The show is notable for not featuring aliens: instead the crew encounter a variety of human-built computers, androids, cyborgs and genetically-engineered lifeforms, most of whom have gone insane due to the length of time that has passed since their creation. The eventual fate of the rest of the human race in the series is not known, though often speculated upon by the characters. The series features SF concepts such as relativity, time travel, parallel universes, genetic engineering, the dangers of sentient AI. Though a comedy, the first five seasons or so are also notable for their focus on characterisation and the evocation of pathos - Lister is the last human being alive in a cold, vast and apparently godless universe - for effect. Later seasons are more concerned with broad comedy, slapstick and running gags.
The series was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and was an evolution of their radio sketch Dave Collins: Space Cadet, which aired in 1984. Grant and Naylor wrote the first six seasons together. The show had initially disappointing viewing figures, but the highest audience appreciation stats of any programme since the Queen's Coronation in 1952, which convinced the BBC to renew the series. The show rapidly climbed the viewing figures, with the fifth and sixth seasons gaining five million viewers, a staggering high for BBC2 (where many programmes regularly only need to get two to three million to be considered a success).
The full cast of Red Dwarf: Danny John-Jules (Cat), Norman Lovett (Holly Mk. 1, Seasons 1-2, 7-8), Robert Llewellyn (Kryten), Craig Charles (Lister), Chris Barrie (Rimmer), Chloe Annett (Kochanski, Seasons 7-9) and Hattie Hayridge (Holly Mk. 2, Seasons 3-5), with the show's long-term director Ed Bye.
After the airing of the sixth season in 1993, the show went on an extended hiatus due to legal troubles faced by actor Craig Charles, as well as creative differences between Grant and Naylor. Rob Grant quit the franchise to concentrate on writing novels and, more recently, stand-up comedy. Doug Naylor continued flying the flag for the series, assembling a writing team for the seventh season which finally aired in 1997. A cool reception to this season, which was praised for its high production values but criticised for poor writing, resulted in a shift in format for the subsequent eighth season (aired in 1999) which, though better-received (and, with eight million viewers, was by far the most popular), was still criticised for lacking the more effective character-based comedy of earlier seasons.
A ten-year hiatus followed, during which time Doug Naylor attempted to find financing for a feature film version of the series. Production almost started several times, only for financing to fall through on each occasion. Eventually Naylor abandoned plans for a film in favour of a return to television, but inexplicably the BBC refused to consider resurrecting the show, despite its enormous viewing figures and high DVD sales. Instead, the small cable channel Dave agreed to finance a three-part special called Back to Earth, which aired in 2009. Despite appalling reviews, the special attracted significant audience figures for the tiny channel, enough for them to commission a new, six-part season. This tenth season aired in late 2012 to good ratings and the strongest critical reception the show had received since the sixth season. An eleventh season is currently being discussed by Doug Naylor and the Dave channel.
In 1992 NBC bought the rights to produce an American version of the show. They produced two pilot episodes, with Robert Llewellyn crossing the Atlantic to play Kryten in the American version as well. NBC was not happy with either pilot and did not commission a series. The pilots are notable for featuring actresses who went on (almost immediately) to much more famous roles: Jane Leeves, who played Holly in the first pilot, went on to star as Daphne in Frasier, whilst Terry Farrell, who played a female version of the Cat in the second, was almost immediately cast as Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after the pilot was not picked up. However, the show did win an International Emmy Award for Best Comedy in 1994, for the Season 6 episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse.
The series has also spawned a series of best-selling novels.