One of the elements of Back To Earth that unexpectedly divided the fans was Rimmer’s dispatching of Katarina by pushing her in front of a bus. For many, it was a totally logical decision to have the character do this, but for others it was utterly out of keeping with the character they knew. The whole issue of Rimmer’s morality is complicated though, with apparently contradictory feelings on such matters expressed at different times and in different episodes. To what extent is he an irredeemably ruthless man of skewed morals and to what extent is he a creature of circumstance?
If we are to look for examples of Rimmer being ruthless, we have a wide array to choose from. Let’s take just a couple for now.
From ‘The Inquisitor’:
CAT: So whatta we do with ’em?
RIMMER: I say waste them.
LISTER and SECOND LISTER: (Together) Rimmer, for smeg’s sake!
From ‘Demons & Angels’:
KRYTEN: Well, according to the charts, the nearest asteroid with an S3 atmosphere is six hours away. The trouble is, we only have enough fuel for five hours flight. I don’t think that’s going to prove to be a major problem, though, because we only have enough oxygen for seven minutes.
RIMMER: Well that doesn’t really affect us, does it?
KRYTEN: Sorry, sir?
RIMMER: We don’t need oxygen. Now here’s a thought. If we ejected their corpses into outer space, would the weight reduction allow us to reach the asteroid?
In these examples, Rimmer is prepared to be as ruthless as a candidate on The Apprentice will inevitably claim to be. What holds him back is either being outvoted or finding his suggestions will no longer work. Not that he could go through with these acts himself of course, being a soft light hologram at the time and unable to touch anything. For such an inherent coward with a fear of blood and watching people being maimed, this of course plays to his advantage as the likelihood of him being able to carry through such deeds seems low. It is vitally important to recognise here that while he is prepared to hang his friends out to dry, it is not out of malice, but rather an instinct for survival. This is not to defend such a course of action, but to differentiate between hanging onto to life and killing for pleasure.
When we get to ‘Back To Earth’, there is therefore something of a precedent for Rimmer to be ruthless if his survival is at stake. The story sets up the fact early on that while Katarina is around, he will eventually be replaced, erased and destroyed. She displays no compassion here, merely stating that it is her job, making him Rimmer despise her instantly, as well as resenting her authority. He longs to be a part of the officer class, right down to the hazing he hopes to receive, and unquestionably ‘respects all that officer smeg’, willing to blindly follow an order providing it comes from a superior. However, at the same time, it is all too apparent that he resents being looked down upon and reacts badly to criticism. Just look at his reaction to Todhunter calling him a smeg head in The End, or his reaction to Hollister’s comments in Waiting for God that his promotion prospects are comical. He is fighting for survival not only in terms of existance, but also as the the highest ranking member of the crew.
The other hugely important element here is that before pushing her in front of the bus, Rimmer actually gets Katarina to justify his actions with his own morals. Make no mistake, this is a line that is hugely important in understanding his actions:
KATARINA: No, hologram already dead. Morally, ethically, hologram killing fine.
That’s a fairly comprehensive ‘get out of jail free’ card. Significantly, Rimmer has not sought out to kill the character before this point. He has tried to remove her from her position by finding dirt on her to no avail, and when the crew reach Earth the assumption seems to be that they are free of Katarina and that is the end of the matter. It is only with her reappearance, the instinct for survival comes to the forefront, and all he then needs is to be told that ethically, it isn’t murder. Should you still question whether that would lead him to kill a sentient being, remember that precedent shows the character would not question the matter further than this. Take Wax World for example, where Rimmer decides that as they are nothing more than wax droids, the mass casualties are acceptable.
LISTER: Rimmer, you’re gonna get these guys wiped out, they’re not soldiers!
CAT: He’s flipped.
KRYTEN: With all respect, sir, he’s right. I beg you to reconsider.
RIMMER: They’re only wax droids.
LISTER: But Rimmer, they’ve broken their programming; they’re capable of independent thought. That makes them alive, makes them practically people — I’m not gonna let you do it.
The one problem with this of course is that we also have Kryten stating that Rimmer has been acting oddly, possibly due to Lister chewing his light bee. However, when survival has been an issue, Rimmer is shown to be equally prepared to let sentient machines snuff it. The obvious example here is his coercing of Lister to shoot a supposedly unarmed simulant in the back.
RIMMER: What are you waiting for? Gloop him.
LISTER: I can’t. He’s not armed.
RIMMER: Lister, this is not a scout meeting. We are not trying to win Best Behaved Troop Flag. Gloop him.
LISTER: What? In the back?
RIMMER: Of course in the back. It’s only a pity he’s awake.
Lister: You mean you can happily kill him if he was asleep?
RIMMER: I can happily kill him if he was on the job.
The moral conscience here is presented by Lister, who simply cannot go through with it and instead chooses to face the simulant, all be it with hidden. From a writing point of view Lister is clearly meant to be the man of great moral convictions, a point hammered home by Kryten in ‘Back To Reality’. By having Rimmer’s morals be slightly more skewed, the audience is helped to view Lister in these terms as it is often through conflict with Rimmer that his own ethical convictions are made clear.
This is not to say Rimmer is bereft of morals of course. After all, in ‘Justice’ he sentences himself to 10,000 years in gaol due to the guilt he feels over the death of the crew on Red Dwarf. Granted, this is open to interpretation. Rimmer’s great fears are often shown to be ones of being belittled, of getting things wrong, or of being punished. He is prone to making excuses too, blaming Lister being in stasis as a contributing factor in his inability to repair the drive plate. Another analysis therefore, is that it is not the deaths of the crews that plague his conscience, but the fact that he is aware that it was his mistake, and one that he has never received any form of punishment for. However, whatever the interpretation, his belief that the deaths account to enough legitimate guilt for so many lifetimes imprisonment shows that he does have a basic form of morality that recognises the value of human life.
So what can we conclude? Well, it’s certainly not a clear cut matter. The main issue of contention would seem to be one of why a joy inducing squid would cause a character to kill, and there is certainly argument to be made that while Rimmer talks big, his inherent cowardice would stop him from going through with the deed himself. Ultimately though, the whole issue really is one of the lengths the character will go to survive. Providing the deed fits within his own (albeit slightly odd) moral parameters, he is more than willing to show a ruthless streak. Going back to Demons & Angels, the whole matter is perfectly summed up in this exchange:
LISTER: You’re a toad, Rimmer. You’re a weasel. You’re a slimy, river dwelling rodent with the morals of a praying mantis.
RIMMER: I’m just being a realist. Look, you only have seven minutes left to live. That’s tragic. God, it’s tragic. But for the rest of us, life must go on.
It is perhaps interesting that his heroic moment in series VI was inspired by being the only one left alive, with nothing to lose and a ticking clock, rather than from taking a strong moral stand. That is not to say that the potential for betterment does not exist of course. Dimension Jump and more importantly Stoke Me A Clipper both show us that he has the ability to become great if he is prepared to seize the opportunity, and for a character whose motives are often driven by self-interest, it is perhaps only fitting that the only person that can inspire this change is himself.