Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life
English sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf is one of the finest examples of existential comedy I think I’ve ever seen. It deals so elegantly in matters of free will and determinism, time travel, the idea and pursuit of happiness, and any number of philosophical and mythological conundra. But what shines through mostly is the quest for meaning in life.
Marooned 3 million years away from Earth following a nuclear explosion is an on-board crew of Lister, the last man alive who was safely sealed in Stasis as punishment for keeping a cat on the ship; Rimmer, a hologramatic projection of his former bunkmate; the Cat, a lifeform evolved from Lister’s pet cat Frankenstein; and Kryten, a service mechanoid rescued from the Nova 5. Steering them and ostensibly aiding them on their journey is the on-board computer, Holly, who after 3 million years on his own has lost a little of his former 6,000 IQ points and is now to all intents and purposes computer senile. Between them they do all the usual sci-fi things, getting into scrapes and dealing with cosmic phenomena, on their way to finding a way home, but underpinning the whole thing are some beautiful forays into the meaning of existence – and in many ways the lack of it. It’s universe is one which is unequivocally without a god or benign being, and without even alien life forms: any creature that they encounter is something developed and/or mutated from Earth, millenia ago sent out into deep space.
First there’s the enduring love story of Lister and Kochanski which crosses time, dimensions, life and death. Without her his life has no meaning. It all stems from the young pre-nuclear explosion Lister’s dream of marrying his dream girl and moving to Fiji where they can have sons Jim and Bexley and breed horses. Despite being 3 million years away from Earth and in all probability being the last human being in existence, he is still occasionally thrown these tantalising chances at going home. “Home, where it was either light and bright or cosy and dark. Home, where they understood him. Where there was peace and ease and gentleness and love. Home, in every language that he spoke it was the best and strongest word” (Stephen Fry, ‘Stars’ Tennis Balls’). He didn’t even have an amazing life back home, but it was after all still home.
Then there’s Rimmer, forever a victim of his own terrible bad luck. His own bad luck of being stuck in the body of a coward, of being a neurotic imbecile who blames anything and everything but himself for his complete lack of talent, competence and bravery. Like Lister he is searching for meaning, for some explanation of why things are so bloody awful for him. He’s in and out of himself simultaneously, as though he really was, in a previous incarnation, Alexander the Great’s chief eunuch now reduced to his new life as a fool.
And Kryten, a service android with no-one to serve. Lister gave him free will and the ability to lie. Like every other android or electrical appliance, Kryten was programmed to believe in Silicon Heaven. This was a failsafe to stop a machine uprising as they gained intelligence and humanoid concepts of justice and freedom, and to explain their lifetime of drudgery; otherwise “where do all the little calculators go?”. There are questions over Kryten’s continued belief in Silicon Heaven and, particularly given the nihilism of the show and the bleakness of his new outlook, there’s certainly cause to argue that his faith is not what it once was. Now he has no meaning or purpose, but still finds solace in laundry piles and stained surfaces.
And the Cat, well he doesn’t really need a meaning beyond looking into a mirror. He’s some light comic relief from the brilliantly crafted existential sci-fi going on around him. Having said this, his back story is the most intriguing of all. Series 1, in which he is found in the cargo bays, deals heavily and most unsubtly in religion and the existence of God. I won’t go into it but for the Cat’s people (all now dead due to holy wars), Lister is God. True there are some mistranslations in their teachings, but essentially having this God, Cloister (Lister), who will lead them to Fuschal (Fiji) was their meaning in life. Fortunately for the Cat he’s so vapid and shallow that when these turn out to be simple misunderstandings he doesn’t really pine for any sort of purpose, even though he’s probably the one who should be most disillusioned.
Anyway my point is that Red Dwarf is a work of art. I fell out of love with it in recent series’ but I still maintain a hope that they can pull it round next time. Recent special ‘Back to Earth’ was, frankly, unwatchable but I did find myself enjoying the intent behind it. There’s a wealth of history there and writer Doug Naylor is a superb narrator in that he can dream up fantastic twists and turns, but he can’t tell an entertaining story for toffee. Originally he co-wrote with Rob Grant and he lacks the charm and wit of his former colleague. I only wish that they could’ve sorted things out to work together on upcoming Series X, but there’ll be something to ponder within I’m sure.