Psychology in Red Dwarf: Series I-IV


Back in the 1970s, two fresh faced students of Liverpool University decided not to go to the lectures and tutorials of their psychology course but instead go and see Dark Star at the cinema far too many times. Nevertheless these students did have a big interest in the world of psychology and this interest would manifest itself in their future work. These students were Rob Grant and Doug Naylor.

Through Red Dwarf we have seen the psychology of the characters analysed and twisted in ways that no other sci-fi series has ever attempted. This article will look at some of the standout use of psychological exploration to tell a good story or to explore the characters in Red Dwarf in Series I-IV.

Series 1 – Episode 1.5 – Bodysnatcher

“I can’t stand this. You’re driving me crazy. You sit in me favourite chair. You hog the vid. We arrange to go for a drink at 8:00, I’m an hour late. You forget to turn up.” – Lister to his hologramatic counterpart

Bodysnatcher was an unmade Red Dwarf episode, originally written to go out as the second episode. Much of the material and ideas were later used in Me2 as well as jokes being used in various other Series 1 episodes.

‘Bodysnatcher’ if the first to explore the idea of how living with yourself may not be as great an experience as one might think on first glance. Sure, you have the same likes, dislikes and tastes but largely you never really see the outward effect of many negative aspects of your own personality. Plus, of course, we never hear our own snoring.

The episode shows how Lister living with himself is not as much an improvement on Rimmer as he had hoped. Once Rimmer has gotten rid of the rest of the crew’s hologramatic files it is only his own hologram that Lister has left to use as a companion over Rimmer. The result is an unclean sleeping quarters, snoring louder than an alarm clock and the stark realisation that he needs Rimmer.

While the phrase “opposites attract” is not an apposite phrase to use in the description of the Lister/Rimmer relationship at this time, the episode clearly demonstrates that similar do repel.

Series 1 – Episode 5 – Confidence and Paranoia

“There’s this theory that Chen used to have.  It’s like everyone’s got two people inside you.  You’ve got your confidence and paranoia. And your confidence’s the guy who goes, ‘Hey you’re great.  You’re dead sexy!  Everybody loves you!’ And your paranoia says, ‘You’re stupid. You’re useless.  You’re ugly.  And everybody hates you.’” – Lister

‘Confidence and Paranoia’ does not depict a literal representation of the confidence and paranoia (unlike how the psi-moon in ‘Terrorform’ might) but instead shows how Lister interprets these elements of his own personality.

The episode analyses the concept of overconfidence in a fantastically literal way. Without the taming element of Paranoia, Lister is left with Confidence to spur him on into dangerous endeavours. This culminates in Confidence being so confident in Lister’s ability that he believes Lister no longer needs air as it is “for losers”.

Series 1 – Episode 6 – Me2

“Face facts, man, nobody likes you!  Not even Mummy!” – Rimmer to himself

‘Me2’ is the first to look into Rimmer’s self-loathing complex. Whilst ‘Bodysnatcher’ showed that Lister can simply be annoyed by his own habits, it doesn’t show an active loathing of himself. Here we see Rimmer actively hates himself to the point that he would pull out the worst moment of his life (“Mr Gazpacho”) as well as his parents’ disappointment in him to attack himself.

Rimmer wants to go on to bigger and better things but his own neuroses hold him back when he tries to achieve anything such as passing the astro-engineering exam. These same neuroses hold him back when he tries to work with a physical copy of himself. Instead of turmoil with an inner voice that he would usually have while revising and working on the exam he can have the turmoil in person with himself.

Series 2 – Episode 2 – Better Than Life

“We were having a great time until you came along with your diseased brain.” – Cat to Rimmer

‘Better Than Life’ continues to analyse the self-loathing complex that holds Rimmer back at every turn and his extreme paranoia of the world.

Rimmer’s brain can’t handle nice things happening to him even if it is in a video game. His “diseased brain”, as Cat puts it, forces all of his fantasies to be turned on their head much as he would expect things to turn out in life.

Rimmer is so paranoid that life will always turn against him that here in a fantasy world his own subconscious turns everything against him in the most horrible way it can think of.

One interesting thing to note. Rimmer’s final act of self-destruction is to have jam smeared all over his face with killer ants on their way. In the episode ‘Polymorph’ Rimmer is watching a home video where is brothers tie him down, smear jam on his face and say they are putting killer ants on his face. I have to wonder whether this was an intentional retrospective explanation for Rimmer’s subconscious choosing the jam and killer ants as a way to hurt himself in the game.

Series 2 – Episode 3 – Thanks For The Memory

“You’ve destroyed me, Lister.  The woman I loved most in the whole world didn’t love me, she loved you.” – Rimmer

‘Thanks For The Memory’ analyses how memories can be core to our personalities. Major events or people in our lives can have massive ramifications on the rest of our lives, to change them can change who you are.

When Rimmer remembers his past he is beset by memories of betrayal and rejection from friends, family and women. When Lister inserts his memories into Rimmer’s mind we see him change to a more confident and happy man all for the sake of Rimmer having believed he had at one time found a woman, Lisa Yates, who truly loved him. He then seems damaged by the perception that he treated her so badly when he dumped Lisa.

The memories that Lister inserted into Rimmer’s mind were so effective on his personality that he didn’t want to just wipe them, he wanted to leave the black box holding the events with a gravestone bearing the epitaph “To the memory of the memory of Lisa Yates”.

Series III – Episode 2 – Marooned

“You burnt your guitar.  I wish to make a sacrifice, too.  Burn the Armee du Nord.  Cast them into the flames:  let them lay down their lives for the sake of friendship.” – Rimmer

‘Marooned’ is very much a more subtle and intelligent version of what will later happen in ‘Terrorform’.

Rimmer mentioned back in ‘Queeg’ that his best friend Porky Roebuck betrayed him and that seemed to explain part of why Rimmer is so weary of forming close relationships with people. Rimmer is still weary of forming a close relationship with Lister as he still doesn’t believe he can trust Lister.

For Rimmer, he finally can see Lister as a true friend when Lister would give up his own prized possession just to protect Rimmer’s possessions. When Rimmer finally thinks he can see Lister as a true friend he becomes a different man, he instantly wants Lister to burn his soldiers, he instantly wants to make a real sacrifice for Lister. He even stops calling him “Lister”, he calls him “Dave” just like Ace Rimmer does. One action of perceived selflessness completely changes Rimmer. ‘Terrorform’ would later echo this in a much more literal way as will be explored in Part 2 of this article.

At the end of the episode, Rimmer’s newfound view of Lister comes crumbling down when he realises it is yet another betrayal to add to his portfolio with Lister burning Rimmer’s chest instead of his guitar. Rimmer finally thought he found a person in the universe who wouldn’t stab him in the back just like Porky Roebuck but he was completely wrong.

Series III – Episode 3 – Polymorph

“Maybe if I hand you guys over, it’ll let me go.  MOVE IT, SUCKERS!” – Kryten

‘Polymorph’ looks at how certain emotions can be pivotal to our personalities. If we can’t feel guilt then will we care about consequences of actions? If we can’t feel fear then would we care about our own wellbeing? If we can’t feel anger then would we turn into a crazed liberal? If we can’t feel vanity then would we care about our appearance?

Some interpretations of emotional loss seem to be more complicated and effective than others.

Cat, in losing vanity, becomes a bum with no self-respect. I believe this would seem to fit in with how vanity works within everybody’s personality. Vanity being the the excessive belief in one’s own abilities or attractiveness to others.

Lister, in losing fear, becomes a man seemingly holding a death wish with no perception of the threat that the Polymorph holds. I believe this would fit in with how fear works within everybody’s personality. Fear being the emotion that tells us what a threat is.

Kryten, in losing guilt, becomes amoral. I do not believe this completely fits in with how guilt works. Kryten had not lost other emotions such as compassion and I’d say that guilt is more retrospective emotion which regards past actions rather than future actions, much like remorse.

Rimmer, in losing anger, becomes a caricature of a far-left liberal. Anger as an emotion makes people think more negatively about people so the views expressed by Rimmer would seem to fit in to a person without anger even if they are exaggerated and twisted a little for comedic effect.

Series III – Episode 4 – Bodyswap

“Do you know something I think I went temporarily insane.  It was just too much.  I haven’t tasted food in 3 million and 2 years.  All that food.  I was like an animal.” – Rimmer in Lister’s body

When Rimmer originally had a body he was not a man of excess. Rimmer did not overeat, he rarely had a drink and he rarely, if ever, smoked cigars. But when deprived of these for 2 years he goes crazy and indulges all of his gluttonous tendencies.

Imagine being deprived of something you love for 2 years and then magnify it many times for Rimmer. Rimmer has been without touch, smell taste or any physical presence for 2 years (well this isn’t strictly true but the episode seems to pretend previous smelling, tasting and times of physical presence can be forgotten).

Interestingly, in the very next episode, ‘Timeslides, he gets back his own body and the first thing he does is grab the sandwich on the table and take a giant bite out of it.

It is interesting that later when he acquires a hard light body capable of tasting food and drink he doesn’t indulge all of his desires with excess as he does here. Perhaps he learned his lesson of nearly killing himself at the end of ‘Bodyswap’ and killing himself at the end of ‘Timeslides’.

Series III – Episode 6 – The Last Day

“Human heaven?  Goodness me!  Humans don’t go to heaven!  No, someone made that up to prevent you all from going nuts!” – Kryten

‘The Last Day’ analyses how religion can rule a person’s (or androids) life and how a person’s life can be shattered by a realisation that it isn’t true.

Both Kryten and Hudson 10 run on the idea that their life is meaningless without the idea of an afterlife. It is a view that is held by many in the world today. But Kryten and Hudson 10 represent a more fundamentalist religious view. Their view is that life should not be enjoyable; life should just be servitude to reach their afterlife.

When people lose their faith it can damage them and their perception of the world around them, in some cases in thinking their world has lost meaning they can shut down to the world around them. With ‘The Last Day’ we see Hudson 10 literally shutting down when his faith is damaged with his meaning to the universe gone.

Kryten has a crisis of faith when he realises he has had fun before the electronic afterlife. It almost seems to be an indication that he is losing his faith but later episodes would suggest he still believes in Silicon Heaven.

Series IV – Episode 2 – DNA

“I am what I am” – Popeye the Sailor Man

‘DNA’ discusses the concept of how you must stay true to what you are. The phrase “I am what I am” that is echoed through the episode is hinting at the psychological concept of the law of identity. The law of identity proposes that if an object is “A” then “A≡A” which means “A if-and-only-if A”. What this all means is that if you are a person then to stay within the law of identity you must stay true to what you are.

When Kryten turns human he changes what he is, he isn’t staying true to his identity. A is no longer A. He cannot be something he isn’t and his confusion and uncomfortable adaption to human life turns to depression when he realises he is still at heart an android so he decides he must change back.

Series IV – Episode 3 – Justice

“The mind-probe was created to detect guilt, yet in the case of Arnold Judas Rimmer the guilt it detected attaches to no crime.  He held a position of little or no authority on Red Dwarf.  He was a lowly grease-monkey, a nothing, a piece of sputum floating in the toilet bowl of life.” – Kryten

‘Justice’ analyses the concept of guilt as a way of finding accountability for a crime. When a person is convicted of a crime they are said to be “guilty” of the crime. In this episode we see this put into literal practice and as Kryten points out, it is not an adequate measure of accountability.

Rimmer’s guilt is obvious from even before the crew died. Rimmer’s last words to the captain as shown in ‘Me2’ just before the radiation leak are “I accept full responsibility”. He clearly believes it is his own incompetence that caused the death of the crew and not the incompetence of the person who placed a man with a job too far out their abilities.

It perhaps raises the point that we shouldn’t use the terms “guilty” and “not-guilty” when deciding accountability. As ‘Justice’ shows, guilt is a subjective emotion from person to person with no universal constant of guilt that can be measured.