British TV Comedies in Space – The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Bizarre

17th Nov 2022
British TV Comedies in Space – The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Bizarre

British TV comedies in space have a long and proud history with some truly iconic shows. Over the years, some of these have gained massive followings abroad as well. 

A couple of TV comedies set in space probably spring to mind immediately, but we’re not just focusing on those that became smash hits, or the shows that became famous all over the world. Below, we even share some hidden gems as well as some TV comedies that were pretty forgettable.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was even a real spate of British TV comedies in space, including some from the UK’s finest writers and actors. Some of them have appeared in our other reviews of British TV, film, and cartoons, but they certainly deserve to be here.

Red Dwarf

For a certain generation of Brits, Red Dwarf is one of those shows that will instantly bring memories flooding back. As you may already know, virtually anyone from this generation will be able to sing the whole of the annoyingly-catchy theme song on demand.

The show follows spaceship technician Dave Lister, played by Craig Charles, who is the last living human. On board the mining ship Red Dwarf, three million years after a radiation leak caused an extinction-level event in humans, ship computer Holly revives Lister to begin the trip back to Earth.

On board the ship with him are Rimmer, a holographic representation of Lister’s nemesis and colleague, Kryten the android, and Cat, who has descended from the pregnant pet cat Lister owned, and smuggled aboard the ship, before his millions of years in suspended animation.

Indeed, it is the dynamic between the crew members that makes this show so memorable and funny. It ran for 12 seasons plus a TV movie, and the door hasn’t been closed on producing more. There were spinoff novels, and even attempts at US pilots that never got off the ground.

A 2019 poll by Empire magazine, Red Dwarf came 80th on a list of the 100 best TV shows of all time.

Doctor Who

What can we say about Doctor Who?

The Doctor is a British institution, and has been on our screens for almost sixty years (with a hiatus in the 1990s and early 2000s). In that time we’ve been treated to 870 episodes and 13 different doctors.

The premise of the show is that a rogue Time Lord (The Doctor) had fled the planet Gallifrey in a stolen TARDIS, which is The Doctor’s time machine, as well as a vortex that appears small on the outside but has a huge interior. It is supposed to be able to camouflage and blend into its local surroundings, but the TARDIS we know and love has been stuck as a British police box due to a malfunction in its “Chameleon Circuits”.

Doctor Who is not all about comedy, and it has some awesome thrill rides and amazing bad guys, such as the Cybermen and of course, the Daleks. Likewise, the only reaction to a list of British TV comedies in space without it would be to roar, “EXTERMINATE!”

The show has always pushed the boundaries and has a huge cult following outside of the UK along with its British fans. In 2013, an episode was even shown live and watched by millions of people in the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.

Ncuti Gatwa has been named as the 14th Doctor, taking over from first female doctor Jodie Whittaker. A new era of Doctor Who is currently in the works with no release date confirmed as of yet.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had captured the imagination of British people as a radio show, a stage show, and a novel before eventually making it to the TV screens. Douglas Adams’s chaotic creation featured Simon Jones playing protagonist Arthur Dent, David Dixon as Ford Prefect, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, Sandra Dickinson as Trillian and Stephen Moore as Marvin the Paranoid Android.

First broadcast in 1981, the show follows Arthur Dent’s adventures around space after Earth is destroyed by the Vogons, those bureaucratic, grumpy, and hilarious poetry-writing aliens. 

Only one series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was made on television. A lot of people who know the show will also remember the books, and the hilarious tales were opened up to a whole new audience in 2005 when Garth Jennings produced a movie version, with Martin Freeman playing the lead character.

The movie was a relatively big success and featured other big names such as Sam Rockwell and Alan Rickman, and also had Stephen Fry narrating throughout.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s TV show was actually not as successful as the other forms of the story, but it boasts an 8.0/10 rating on IMDB and even today is pretty watchable as a harmless comedy, though it doesn’t quite live up to the incredible books by Douglas Adams.

Hyperdrive

Hyperdrive is one of the more recent comedies on the list, as it was brought to our screens back in 2006.

Critics didn’t really view it favourably at the time, and while it has slipped through a lot of comedy-lovers’ nets, it is one that is worth a view, especially for its very silly slapstick performances and the way it pokes fun at the science-fiction comedy genre.

The show is set on board the spaceship HMS Camden Lock, which has the empirical job of protecting British interests in space. Nick Frost leads the cast very well, and the comedic romp through space definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Interestingly, a lot of the people who were in the cast, even those who were involved somewhat briefly, have gone on to have incredible careers in British TV. Frost was already a big star, but Miranda Hart, Katy Brand, Sally Phillips, and Paterson Joseph have all risen more to prominence since they were sent into Hyperdrive!

A classic to be regarded up there with the Red Dwarf style shows? Absolutely not, but it makes a decent watch on a rainy Sunday, and the cast is absolutely great.

Astronauts

Astronauts was part of a trend that sent a ripple through UK comedy, but didn’t take on to the extent it could have. It aired in 1981-1983, a time when a lot of space-based comedies were made and broadcast.

It focuses on the crew of Sky-Lab, the fictional first space mission with a crew to launch from Britain, where three humans and a dog are put into a tiny environment with tense and often funny consequences.

Like a lot of the TV series set in space, many of them not living up to their full potential, this one had some incredible people involved.

Writers included Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden, which led to inevitable Goodies comparisons, of course. Script editors were Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who wrote Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Porridge. The producers of Fawlty Towers were also involved, so you could call this something of a UK comedy dream team, but Astronauts only aired for 13 episodes and didn’t reach the heights of some of the other comedies gracing British televisions at the time.

Blake’s 7

The inventor of the Daleks got his own show, you know?

Blake’s 7 was watched by around 10 million people in the UK and shown in 25 different countries around the world. It’s a frantic space opera, and has a cult following, even today. 

Was it a comedy? Well, undeniably this had a serious story running through, which evolves as the series goes on, following multiple narratives, rather than offering some simple japes before everything goes back to “normal” like a lot of space comedies.

However, the writer of the show, Terry Nation, was a former comedy writer and this really shone through, which is why we’re comfortable including it on the list.

It features all the things you would expect of a space show of its time, from aliens to robots, and watching it back now, the comedy partially comes from the fact that the show did not have a budget to produce the sort of effects needed. This gives some Doctor Who vibes, with charming lo-fi special effects and costumes dominating the show.

Blake’s 7 was big, and those who remember it going out live in the late 70s and early 80s will testify that it was much-discussed at the time. Whether it stands the test of time is up for debate. 

Come Back Mrs Noah

Well, we didn’t promise that all of the TV comedies on the list would be classics, and this one is largely regarded to be average at best. There was just one series before it was cancelled, which aired in 1978. As you can see from our list of British TV comedies set in space, there was such a huge trend at this time of shows that had a space theme, possibly in an attempt to keep up with the science fiction being made across the pond in the US. Come Back Mrs Noah is not an export ever to make it to those shores…

It isn’t a total flop, and has its humorous moments. David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd were the creators of the show, and their collective achievements include involvement in shows like Are You Being Served? Hi-de-Hi!, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and Dad’s Army. We can’t be too harsh on these British comedy legends.

The premise of the show is utterly surreal. Mrs Noah is the winner of Modern Housewife Magazine’s 2050 cookery competition. She wins a prize to tour a new spacecraft, but, of course, she is accidentally there when it launches and has to spend time in space with particle physicists and astronauts. The comedy is slapstick, and at times it is rather lukewarm. We do, however, recommend watching it for the absolute absurdity of the concept.

Kinvig

Kinvig was another from this era of pretty forgettable science fiction experiments that went out on UK TV. 

There were just seven episodes of the show, which features Tony Haygarth playing Des Kinvig, an electrical retailer living a simple life with wife Netta and their dog, until Miss Griffin shows up and turns his life upside down. Griffin enters his electrical shop. She turns out to be an alien from Mercury, who has come to recruit Des and his supposedly amazing brainpower. Their task is to stop an invasion by the Xux race.

Kinvig’s friend Jim, a conspiracy theorist and UFO enthusiast, discusses the adventures with Des, and it is left open-ended as to whether the experience is real, or meant to be a figment of Kinvig’s imagination.

British comedy film director Edgar Wright was rumoured to have worked on a movie adaptation, but this never came to fruition.

Notable Mentions

There are some other British TV comedies that were either set in space, or closely involve space. My Hero was a sitcom that actually ran for 7 years, from 2000-2007, and starred Ardal O’Hanlan as the naive superhero Thermoman who comes to earth and takes on an alter-ego having fallen in love with a British nurse. We didn’t put it on the main list, as technically none of this show takes place in space, in spite of a lot of the artwork for it featuring Thermoman flying through the skies. 

The Adventures Of Don Quick was another series that was short-lived, running for six episodes in the 1970s before getting cancelled. It’s actually relatively well-reviewed and highly rated on IMDB, but good luck to anybody looking to find a copy of it to watch. The first episode is on YouTube, but beyond that, we assume the physical copies are confined to archives.

Another show from the 1970s, and one that ran for a bit longer than some of its short-lived competition at the time, was Space: 1999, which has some humorous moments in spite of not being an out-and-out comedy. The show boasted two series of 24 episodes, between 1975 and 1977. It centred on Moonbase Alpha, a scientific research centre on the moon, way in the future year of, um…1999. 

In the premise to Moonbase Alpha, humanity has sent so much nuclear waste to the Moon that a new form of radiation causes an explosion and sends the Moon out of orbit, spiralling out of the galaxy.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen any British TV comedies in space. Here’s hoping that some TV producers are working on something big…

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