Lost in Space and Red Dwarf are two science fiction series that blend sci fi (and in Lost in Space’s case fantasy) with comedy. Though they have stood out as oddballs among both genre’s for this reason, they have nevertheless developed very strong followings that have persisted for decades.
Over the years I have noticed a number of similarities between Lost in Space and Red Dwarf. I always suspected that Lost in Space was an influence on Red Dwarf and was delighted to hear that Red Dwarf’s creators Doug Naylor and Rob Grant were big fans of Lost in Space with Doug Naylor, even commenting that there was a lot of Dr Smith in the character of Arnold Rimmer.
The similarities between the two shows are quite big. Both series revolve around a crew who become, well lost in space, or more trapped in deep space in the Dwarfers case. Both shows revolve around the main characters attempts to get back to earth, and both also feature a main character who is a cowardly, self serving, lying, cheating piece of scum; alongside a robot who is braver, more intelligent and more well liked than he is.
This is not to do down Red Dwarf. Every work of fiction is influenced by another and Red Dwarf has certainly carved out its own identity not only from Lost in Space, but its many other influences.
However since both shows are similar to an extent, and since both series are probably in all fairness the most iconic science fiction comedy series: I have decided to examine them in this week’s sci fi showdowns.
As always remember that all opinions in this article are purely my own.
Lost in Space was created by Irwin Allen in 1965. Pitched as “Swiss Family Robinson in Space”. It was originally devised as a serious adventure series.
It was set in the then future of the 1990’s and revolved around mankind’s attempts to colonise other planets. Unfortunately the first ship sent to prepare a colony, the Jupiter 2 is blown off course. Its crew, originally just consisting of the Robinson family, and the ships pilot, Major Don West are lost in space seemingly forever.
The first pilot though having impressive effects and an exciting story featuring a giant man eating cyclops, a lost civilisation, a perilous sea, and strange aliens with no mouths, failed to win over test audiences.
A second pilot would soon be made which added the characters of the Robot and Doctor Zachary Smith played by the late great Jonathan Harris.
In the revised pilot Doctor Smith, a slimy saboteur actively sabotages the Jupiter 2, but ends up becoming trapped on the ship as it takes off.
For the first few episodes Smith would attempt to murder the Robinson family and use their ship to return home. Originally the character was to eventually be killed off, but Smith proved to be far too popular with viewers and not only would he be kept on. Ironically he soon ended up becoming the main character.
The character of Smith would be softened over time, though he always remained a mostly unsympathetic, cowardly, selfish character (and the cause of almost all of the Robinsons problems.) Later episodes tended to portray him as more stupid, lazy, and comedic.
The character of the Robot, having initially begun as nothing more than just a tool for the family to use would also develop a personality in later episodes and would often serve as a more heroic comedic foil to the cowardly, inept Smith. Will Robinson, played by Billy Mumy the youngest child of the family often served as the middle man between them.
Later episodes of Lost in Space also saw the show become more of a surrealist comedy series than a serious sci fi show. Whilst some have criticised this development, the show nevertheless remained popular throughout its run and maintains a devoted following decades on. It has also been cited as an influence on later sci fi comedy series such as Red Dwarf itself.
Red Dwarf meanwhile was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor over two decades later in 1988.
It originally revolved primarily around two characters, the blokish, slobbish, yet lovable Dave Lister played by Craig Charles and the prissy, uptight, cowardly, bitter Arnold Rimmer played by Chris Barrie. The two despise one another, but are sadly forced to share a room on the mining ship Red Dwarf as they are the two lowest ranking members of the ship.
Things take a turn for the worse however when Rimmer causes an accident that wipes out the entire crew and leaves Red Dwarf floating in space for 3 million years.
Lister is the only survivor of the accident as he was concealed in a stasis pod at the time (as a punishment for bringing his pet cat Frankenstein aboard.)
Three million years later Lister is released by the ships sentient computer Holly (who has gone computer senile.) Rimmer is revived as a hologram, whilst Lister later discovers that his cat Frankenstein also survived the explosion and was in fact pregnant. Her kittens descendants later evolved into a humanoid race who eventually left Red Dwarf with one male, who Lister christens simply “The Cat”, being left behind.
Earlier episodes of Red Dwarf tended to be more of a straight forward sitcom set in space. Much of the humour was derived from the culture clash between Rimmer and Lister, with The Cat and Holly being more supporting characters.
From season 3 onward however the character of Kryten, a mechanoid stranded in the future (who was introduced in series 2 in a single guest appearance) became a regular the stories began to explore more science fiction concepts. It later became more of an adventure series, with the crew battling various monsters, androids and mutations. They also travel through time, slip into parallel universes, and face various evil versions of themselves.
Red Dwarf has to date produced 10 series. Sadly however there have been many gaps between the series and the show much like Doctor Who has often been messed around by the BBC. Still it remains one of the most popular British series, having developed a huge following all over the world, (particularly in America.)
Red Dwarf is in fact the longest running British science fiction series after Doctor Who.
1/ Best Cowardly Trouble Maker
Doctor Zachary Smith
Now these two characters are very similar. They are both self serving, lying cheats who are either directly or indirectly responsible for all of their ship mates problems. They are also obsessed with the military and war despite ironically being tremendous physical cowards. They are also unbelievable egotists, often going on about how brave and dashing they are. They are also power hungry and greedy, have no loyalty to any other members of their crew, and are the most willing to kill often in dirty underhand ways like shooting people in the back. Despite or perhaps because of these qualities Rimmer and Dr Smith are without doubt the two most popular characters in their respective series.
Rimmer and Smith’s relationships with Kryten and the Robot are also similar. The Robot and Kryten are everything that Rimmer and Dr Smith are not. They are genuinely brave, kind, competent, intelligent and well liked by the rest of the crew. However because they are both robots, they are of a lower rank and therefore not only are not allowed to say anything back to either Smith or Rimmer, but have to endure their abuse for just being robots.
There are a few moments however where Kryten and the Robot are able to slip a little insult in against Smith or Rimmer. A lot of the banter back and forth between Rimmer and Kryten and Robot and Dr Smith is quite similar with Rimmer even making jokes about the shape of Kryten’s head.
Dr Smith/ This tin plated fool is no kin of mine
Robot/Correction I know you like a brother who chickens out when all hands are needed, who steals food when all crew members are on short supplies.
Rimmer/ I don’t loather myself? What could one possibly loathe about me
Kryten/ Well there’s the fact that you’re vain, cowardly and the awful truth that throughout your entire life no one has ever truly liked you because you are so thoroughly unlikable.
Dr Smith/ There is only so much a man can be made to endure.
Rimmer/ I’m a competive man Kryten its what makes me what I am.
Kryten/ We are all perfectly aware of what you are sir.
The similarities between Rimmer and Dr Smith where even noted by Doug Naylor himself who said that there is a little bit of Dr Smith in Rimmer. Which one is better however?
Well this is probably the hardest one I’ve had to do, but I am going to go with Dr Smith. Rimmer is a much more fleshed out character. Throughout his run Dr Smith was always a cartoony character where as with Rimmer incredibly the writers where able to make us feel sorry for him and show us how he had become the man he was. Still despite this Dr Smith is a better character for me as unlike Rimmer he pretty much carried his series.
Face facts without Dr Smith Lost in Space would be forgotten. The premise of the show was fairly interesting, but it was not that original and the main characters, the Robinsons were fairly boring and bland.
A lot of people say they wish the show hadn’t taken a comedic turn in the later series and focused on being serious science fiction like in its first season. If it had done however I think it would have been overlooked as just another sci fi series.
As a serious sci fi show I don’t think Lost in Space really had anything to make it stand out like Who or Trek. Its premise was fairly straight forward. It wasn’t hopeful like Star Trek’s or offbeat like Doctor Who’s and there certainly wasn’t a really strong, unusual character among the Robinsons like Spock or the Doctor. I think all of the actors in Lost in Space were great, but their characters were poorly developed.
It was the fact that thanks to Doctor Smith the show became really the first science fiction comedy series that it was able to stand out from its contemporaries and become unique and consequently influential.
Not only have the creators of Red Dwarf cited it as an influence, but Matt Groening also has for Futurama too and even claimed that Will Robinson and the Robot’s relationship inspired Fry and Bender’s much like how Dr Smith and the Robot’s relationship inspired Rimmer and Kryten’s.
Whilst some may look on Lost in Space as a wasted opportunity for a serious science fiction series, I see it as the first successful attempt on television to merge sci fi and humour and as the precursor in so many ways to the likes of Red Dwarf and Futurama.
Thus for this reason Smith is ultimately the better of the two characters as it was Smith who caused Lost in Space to take a turn towards the comedic. Without him it would never have become a sci fi comedy. He is more important to Lost in Space and its legacy than Rimmer is to Red Dwarf.
Also I feel that Smith was really the only interesting character in Lost in Space. The Robot and Will Robinson where good characters but it was only because they had Smith to play off of. If you take Dr Smith out of Lost in Space then its nothing. If you were to take Rimmer out of Red Dwarf it would not be anywhere near as good, but I think it could go on. In fact it did in series 7 when Rimmer briefly left the series and it was able to produce a number of good episodes in his absence such as most notably”Epideme”.
Smith is really one of the first examples of a both an anti hero and a break out character in science fiction television and so as much as I love Rimmer. I am going to have to give this one to Dr Smith.
Lost in Space 1/Red Dwarf 0
Again this is a very difficult one. Both are such hilarious characters and both have such a unique wonderful design and interaction with the other main characters. Kryten and the Robot’s relationships with Dave Lister and Will Robinson are both very heartwarming whilst their relationships with Dr Smith and Rimmer are pure comedy gold.
Ultimately however I am going to have to go with Lost in Space here yet again. The Robot I feel is a very influential character as he is really on television the first robot character who becomes more human but in a quite funny, petty way.
Normally in sci fi when a robot or an alien becomes more human it was treated seriously. We would see how they discovered love or honour or became evil.
With the Robot however whilst we did see him develop a genuine friendship with Will Robinson, we also saw him do things like get drunk and have a hangover the next morning, dress up like a woman, take a huff when someone insults him, boast about how much he understands women because “he has been around”, and get into petty little arguments with Doctor Smith.
These are all characteristics we see later with robots like Kryten and Bender.
Also the Robot I feel again carried the show more than Kryten. Not to the same extent as Doctor Smith, but still I think Smith really needed the Robot as a foil. Rimmer however got on fine for two series without Kryten and there are many who feel that the first two series without Kryten were the best, though I disagree, I feel that Red Dwarf really came into its own from 3 onward.
Finally I feel the Robot is more iconic. “Danger, Danger Will Robinson” is one of the most quoted catchphrases of all time and his design is also I feel more recognisable and unique.
Lost in Space 2/ Red Dwarf 0
This is a no brainer for me. Red Dwarf is easily the better ship. I liked the inside of the Jupiter 2 which was very cosy and safe.
The outside however was just a generic saucer. Unlike the TARDIS and the Enterprise which you would instantly recognise as coming from each show, the Jupiter 2 just looks like a billion other flying saucers.
Red Dwarf’s design is more unique and also the inside of Red Dwarf I felt was a lot more interesting too. I often find in sci fi space ships interiors tend to fall into one of either two types of designs.
Either they are very cosy like the TARDIS in Classic Who, the Jupiter 2 or the original Enterprise or they are a bit more dark and gloomy and industrialised like a factory, such as the ships in Star Wars or the Nostromo.
Red Dwarf I feel however manages to blend both together rather well. The inside of Rimmer and Listers quarters for instance is very cosy whilst the long corridors are more dark and gloomy and have more of a Star Wars, Alien vibe to them.
Lost in Space 2/ Red Dwarf 1
I’m going to give this to Lost in Space. I love both of the Polymorph episodes, but not only do I feel the Mr Keema episode is better than either, but I also feel Mr Keema is a more unique design. The Polymorph is just a kind of generic Xenomorph lookalike. Mr Keema is a far more hilarious and crazy looking monster and his story also plays out like a surreal brothers grimm style fantasy in space.
Lost in Space 3/ Red Dwarf 1
5/Episode with a good guy version of the cowardly smeg head
His Majesty Smith
Now these two episodes follow a similar plot. A double appears (in Dr Smith’s case it is created by aliens, in Rimmers case he is from an alternate universe) of the two most unlikable members of the crew Rimmer and Zachary. Both of these doubles are hard working, honourable, brave, sweet, caring, kind and are loved by all the other members of the crew. They also have funny nicknames Daddy Zach and Ace Rimmer.
Naturally of course both the real Dr Smith and Arnold Rimmer, along with the audience HATE these perfect in every way versions of themselves, though to be fair their doubles don’t exactly like them very much either for obvious reasons.
Both stories represent what Lost in Space and Red Dwarf do well in that they take a sci fi trope, in this case evil doubles of the main characters and provide a humorous twist on it. How could they have an evil version of their main characters Dr Smith and Rimmer who are already pretty nasty guys?
Show us heroic versions of them who drive the originals mad with jealously!
Now which episode is better?
Well Red Dwarf definitely. His Majesty Smith is funny, but Dimension Jump is one of the best ever alternate universe stories and really Ace Rimmer who would go on to appear in two more episodes was clearly a lot more memorable than Daddy Zach. I think part of the reason for that was actually because Ace was a more nuanced character. Ace showed us what our Rimmer could have become if he had tried where as Daddy Zach was just a mock up of the real Dr Smith who happened to be nice. Thus Ace for me was not only funnier, but more well thought out.
Lost in Space 3/ Red Dwarf 2
Episode 6/ Episode where the cowardly smeg head is put on trial
Condemned of Space
These two episodes again follow a fairly similar plot. In both of them our main characters are put on trial and tried by intergalactic laws. All are found innocent except for Dr Smith and Arnold Rimmer.
Both are found guilty of sabotaging the space ships (though in Rimmers case it was an accident) both are then sentenced to life imprisonment and the only way the others are able to get them off with it is to claim that they were mentally incompetent and thus unaccountable for their actions.
Of course Dr Smith and Arnold Rimmer, two huge egotists HATE this being said about them in a court of law.
Whilst Condemned of Space is a funny episode Justice is ultimately the superior take on this idea. Watching Rimmer get taken down by Kryten in court is an all time comedy classic.
Lost in Space 3/ Red Dwarf 3
7/ Episode where the cowardly guy creates a race of clones of himself
The Space Destructors
Again we see both series do episodes with a similar storyline. Both of these episodes see Dr Smith and Arnold Rimmer create a race of clones from themselves with whom they hope to achieve glory, however their clones stab them in the back because they are after all clones of a self serving, back stabbing, cowardly, slimy, triple faced, rat hearted weasel. Once again I think Red Dwarf’s take on this idea is the funnier of the two.
Both are very funny episodes and The Space Destructors does contain one of Smith’s best lines “oh dear what a frightful mess I’ve made of everything and all I wanted to do was take over the universe“. However Rimmerworld just has too many funny moments and plays around with the idea of the different Rimmers in a more wild way such as having the women look like Rimmer who snog the men who look like Rimmer, so it takes a small lead.
Lost in Space 3/ Red Dwarf 4
8/ Best episode where they get back to earth, but there’s a catch
Visit To A Hostile Planet
Both of these episodes are stories that only really Red Dwarf and Lost in Space could do as both revolve around the main characters finally getting back to earth after being trapped in deep space for so long. However sadly in both cases it turns out that there is a catch.
In the Jupiter 2’s case they have landed 50 years in the past and everyone thinks that they are aliens called Voltons and try to kill them, whilst in Red Dwarfs they have landed in an alternate earth where time runs backwards.
Despite this however certain members of the crew (Dr Smith and Arnold Rimmer) still want to stay, as it is earth after all, and it beats being trapped in deep space. Once again Red Dwarf wins this one. I do like Visit to a Hostile Planet but Backwards I think is a very interesting take on the alternate universe idea and again its somewhat wilder and more surreal than the Lost in Space episode as a result.
However I do think the conflict over whether or not to stay on earth is handled better in the Lost in Space episode as Dr Smith truly does lose it at the thought of going back into space. You can almost feel sorry for him for once, as he makes it back to earth, his dream for years but just a few decades too early. Still I liked the Red Dwarf episode better so it wins this one yet again.
Lost in Space 3/ Red Dwarf 5
9/Best episode with evil versions of the main characters
The Antimatter man
Demons and Angels
Lost in Space wins this. I love Demons and Angels and the evil cross dressing sado masochistic Rimmer who seems to have a homosexual attraction to Lister (which considering he is made from Rimmer means these feelings must come from Rimmers mind. That plus the fact that Lister has a homoerotic dream about Rimmer in series 7 makes me wonder at times what the true nature of their relationship is.) Is one of the most hilarious moments in either series.
However the Lost in Space episode is a much better story. The Antimatter man to me represents what Lost in Space does well aside from blending humour and sci fi. Blending sci fi and fantasy too.
This can be seen in many episodes including the final episode of season 1 where John Robinson is taken over by the spirit of an alien. The Antimatter man however is the best example as it features a classic sci fi trope of the evil double but its presented in more of a fantastical way. The evil double is shown to come from a hell dimension full of Demons and living rocks and is presented as being more of a supernatural creature like a vampire who casts no shadow and is seemingly immortal.
The hell dimension that the evil John Robinson comes from is also visually stunning too. It looks like a surrealist painting come to life. Once again this story demonstrated how Lost in Space stood out from its rivals Star Trek and Doctor Who both of whom also did alternate universe stories.
Star Trek’s was the deepest taking us into how the alternate society works, whilst Doctor Who’s was the most frightening showing us the alternate versions of the main characters and the entire alternate world die. Whilst Lost in Space’s finally was the most humorous, whimsical and surrealist too.
The Antimatter man to me sums up perfectly what is so special about Lost in Space and is probably a good one to show non fans to initiate them.
Lost in Space 4/ Red Dwarf 5
10/Best craziest, wildest, most outrageous episode!
The Great Vegetable Rebellion
Incredibly these are among the two least popular episodes of both series. The Great Vegetable Rebellion is usually seen as the worst episode of all of Lost in Space. People always go on about how its proof that Lost in Space had to end as it had just become too silly. Thing is it was supposed to be silly! I think people always seem to miss that point of Lost in Space in its later years that it intentionally made the move to comedy and as I pointed out earlier became not only very original that way, but also subsequently very influential on other series as well.
Obviously if looking at it as a serious episode The Great Vegetable Rebellion is poor but if looking at it as what it actually is, a funny episode of a comedy series its an all time classic. Its a truly hilarious episode like something out of the British comedy The Mighty Boosh. I often thought that Lost in Space was perhaps more popular in the United Kingdom because its sense of humour was more surrealist which is more in line with British humour like Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh.
Meltdown meanwhile I have no idea why its so hated by the fans, though at least the cast and crew of Red Dwarf have regularly cited it as a favourite.
Anyway as to which is the better or crazier episode, well I am going have to go with Lost in Space. The Red Dwarf episode which features wax droids of the most famous people from history warring with each other Marliyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Ghandi and Winnie the Pooh on one side against Caligula, Hitler and the Boston Strangler on the other is a wonderfully offbeat episode.
However Lost in Space’s episode is just a masterpiece of surrealist humour. It features our main characters getting menaced by a talking carrot, whom Doctor Smith attempts to placate by telling him he loves vegetables and his favourite past time is eating them. The carrot then attempts to turn them into vegetables and succeeds in turning Doctor Smith into a stick of lettuce and it turns out Doctor Smith is happier as a stick of lettuce. Even the name of this episode the great vegetable rebellion is nuts.
How anyone can hate such a comedy classic I’ll never understand. Watching Elvis sing the Red Dwarf theme is a hoot, but not as much as watching Dr Smith or anyone for that matter get menaced by a giant carrot.
Lost in Space 5/ Red Dwarf 5
Follow the leader
Though both comedies Red Dwarf and Lost in Space could occasionally venture into horror territory.
I remember being scared of both of them at times when I was young. Arguably the darkest episodes of both series are Follow the Leader and Epideme.
Follow the Leader see’s John Robinson taken over by the spirit of an ancient alien ghost. This is arguably Guy Williams best performance in the series as we see him take on both John Robinson and the evil spirit Kanto superbly. Kanto is a much more terrifying villain than the majority of Lost in Space monsters. He is a bloodthirsty tyrant and he gives the episode a much darker edge to it.
Epideme see’s Dave Lister infected with an intelligent virus called Epideme that begins slowly killing him. Though Epideme is largely a humorous character there are some genuinely disturbing moments such as when Epideme begins taunting Lister as he slowly and painfully kills him.
This is a very hard one to choose as both episodes are all time classics and fortunately both are fan favourites, however which one is better.
Well Epideme did scare me more growing up. The most frightening moment for me was when we see the victims of the previous ship the Epideme killed. It reminded me of the John Carpenter movie “The Thing” when they see the victims of the monster in the previous base it attacked.
I feel there are also elements of body horror in Epideme as they have to slice off Listers arm in a failed attempt to stop the virus.
Follow the Leader is a great ghost story, but Epideme is a bit more scary for me so I’ll give this to Red Dwarf.
Lost in Space 5/ Red Dwarf 6
Both shows had catchphrases though obviously many series do that’s nothing specific to them, but still the most recognized catchphrase from Lost in Space I’d say would be “Crush Kill Destroy” said by the robot IDAK whilst the most recognised catchphrase from Red Dwarf is of course SMEG. I am going to go with Lost in Space here. Its catchphrase is definitely more recognised overall among the general public, though I will say I don’t think as many people would be aware that it comes from Lost in Space, whilst everyone knows that Smeg comes from Red Dwarf. However I still prefer “crush kill destroy” so Lost in Space wins this round.
Crush Kill Destroy
Lost in Space 6/ Red Dwarf 6
Another hard one as both have great themes that suit both shows, but I think Red Dwarf is better. There’s something a bit more haunting about the Red Dwarf theme. It seems to suit the characters aimless, lonely journey through the nothingness of space more.
Lost in Space 6/ Red Dwarf 7
Red Dwarf is better in this bloggers opinion. I do like certain elements of Lost in Space more. Doctor Smith and the Robot I evidently feel are stronger characters, however I prefer the episodes of Red Dwarf more and overall feel its a better show. Of course I still love both shows immensely and both are classics, but remember that’s just my opinion tell me what’s yours?