My favourite character is Lister, without a doubt, because I think there’s something very reassuring in the concept that the very last surviving human will be this scuzzy space bum who, you know, who’s powered by beer and curry, and Lister looks like something the cat wouldn’t drag in…
(Garry Bushell, The Red Dwarf A-Z)
My favourite character, by quite a long way I’m afraid, is Kryten, because it’s impossible not to like the guy, I don’t think Data in Star Trek would ever have been born if it wasn’t for Kryten…
(James O’Brien, The Red Dwarf A-Z)
And that was the best they could come up with, on the at-times-embarrassing Red Dwarf A-Z, to put the case forward for Lister and Kryten being the best characters that the show has to offer. Well, I’d like to think that I can put the case forward for Rimmer – whose segment on the A-Z consisted only of part of Legion‘s classic opening – a bit more eloquently.
And not because I think I’m a better writer than Garry Bushell or James O’Brien (although in Bushell’s case I might just argue the toss), but because there are far more reasons why Rimmer is such a strong character. Whether it’s the TV series or the books – and I’ll draw from both in this article – there is simply much, much more going on with Rimmer than with anyone in the show. Lister may be the programme’s narrative heart, but as the lacklustre second half of series VII showed, Red Dwarf is just as empty without Rimmer as it would be without the hamster-faced Scouser.
First and foremost, what makes Rimmer stand out is the way in which he develops as the series goes on. Now, the character development of Lister has been oft-discussed among Red Dwarf fandom. It’s usually used to rebuke the sort of bearded idiots who reckon that he’s all about beer and curry and very little else. However, while it’s true that Lister does mature over the course of the first seven series (and the writers seemed almost too at pains to highlight that fact in the latter of those), I don’t feel he could be said to evolve, to go through anywhere near as much, as Rimmer does. The growth of Rimmer into a character that, while we may not love, we can certainly empathise with – perhaps disconcertingly so at times – is, I feel, one of the strongest aspects of Red Dwarf as a TV series (and a series of novels).
Consider how we first meet Rimmer, both in the TV series and the books. Our first impressions of him are very much through Lister’s eyes, and consequently are coloured against him. The anally-retentive, prissy, annoying, officious Rimmer of The End and the early chapters of Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers is difficult to like – even less so when we take on board the pathetic Android Brothel incident on Mimas in the novel. This aspect of Rimmer’s character, however, has sadly become the trademark definition of him – just as Lister is apparently a “scuzzy space bum” and Kryten is little more than a neurotic sanitation droid. The fact is, while this side of his personality remained evident over the six and a half series before he departed, it was as early as the first series that we were seeing more of Rimmer’s backstory – more than we knew of Lister’s at this point – and more parts of his character.
Me2 was written some time after the rest of the first series, and it shows. Aside from his marvellous subplot in Waiting For God (of which more later), Rimmer had never really had a chance to shine on his own up to this point – his strongest moments, in Future Echoes and Balance Of Power, were mainly as a foil to Lister. However, by the time Me2 was written and recorded, the writers and cast had begun to find out a little more about each other, and about the characters they were developing. Consequently, it’s the first stage at which we can noticeably see Rimmer’s character begin to evolve, ever so slightly. More importantly, it’s the first time we can feel sorry for him. It’s the first time that we learn of how bad his home life was, about his constant struggle to match his brothers. And then there’s the gazpacho soup story, the story that perhaps encapsulates Rimmer’s character the best – the yearning to be Officer material at all costs, yet the sheer hopelessness that prevents him from ever doing so. The novel, meanwhile, expands the gazpacho incident even further, turning it into an even more horrifying and pathetic story; although, by offering us some scenes from Rimmer’s POV before the accident, the novel also gives us an earlier chance to sympathise with him than the TV series does.
Moving into Series II, and the pathetic side of Rimmer’s character continues to come to the fore. This is at its most striking in Better Than Life, where we learn that not only does everyone else hate him, but his own subconscious does as well. Again, we see his desperate desire simply to be respected by his father – and the tale of how he divorced his parents aged fourteen. However, it is in Thanks For The Memory – my own personal favourite episode – that Rimmer’s character really begins to take on another dimension.
I’d trade it all in — all of it. My pips, my long-service medals, my swimming certificates, my telescope, my shoe trees. I’d trade everything in, to be loved… and to have been loved.
(Rimmer, Thanks For The Memory)
Here we learn that, for all Rimmer’s ambition to get “up, up, up the ziggurat, lickety split”, for all his obsessing over telegraph poles, for all his misguided dedication to pointless duty, all he really is is a man that just wants to be loved. Indeed, it’s made more explicit by Lister in the novel, where Rimmer’s fantasy reveals more about his psyche than in the TV series :
“Basically,” [Lister] grinned, “you just want to be adored, don’t you?”
“Thank you, Sigmund,” said Rimmer without parting his teeth.
“It’s really quite cute.”
(Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers)
The drunk scene in Thanks For The Memory is deeply affecting. We learn that Rimmer wishes people would like him, and his misguided attempts to get them to do so (“What about all that time I spent licking up to Todhunter, even though he was a complete gimp?”). And then, of course, the story of Yvonne McGruder. Seven thirty-one PM to seven forty-three PM. Twelve minutes. And that includes the time it took to eat the pizza. We know there is much to dislike about Rimmer – he even gets digs in at Lister while he’s being so self-pitying – but there is also much to feel sorry for. And it’s also possible to see that, deep down, he’s not that bad a bloke. He just doesn’t do a good job of showing it.
I try to be liked, god knows I try. I regale you with amusing stories of when I was treasurer of the Amateur Hammond Organ owners’ society…
(Rimmer, Dimension Jump)
While the “fishing holiday” scene again brings out the side of Rimmer that just oh so desperately wants to be liked, Dimension Jump as a whole is one of the more tragic episodes with regards to Rimmer’s character – because we find out that, for a simple quirk of fate, he could have been a devilishly handsome go-getter, beloved by all yet modest to the extreme (incidentally, I always hated that they made Ace Rimmer quite full of himself in Series VII, as Dimension Jump clearly establishes his non-false modesty). Yet we’re still not allowed to feel entirely sorry for him, still not allowed to see that “what a guy” deep down in him, because he acts like such a jealous prick towards Ace and Lister over the course of the episode. Nevertheless, what we can do is empathise with Rimmer’s desire to be loved, or even liked, and acknowledge that we too can make a balls-up of it sometimes as well. And this, I feel, is the crux of why Rimmer is such a strong character. Because there’s so much going on, so much conflicting inside him, there’s more there that a viewer might see and be able to identify with. I think we can all, at one point another in our lives, see a time when we’ve wanted to be liked more than we are. Lister is supposed to be the everyman, he’s supposed to be the viewer’s eyes into Red Dwarf‘s universe, and there are things about him with which we can identify. But it is, I feel, with Rimmer that the show’s emotional heart lies.
It’s not all one-way traffic, though. Parallel Universe takes us back to the more unlikeable aspects of Rimmer’s character, just in case we were veering too close towards actually liking him. His appalling attitude to women is highlighted, and brought out even further by his female self. He’s something of a git in Bodyswap, too, although if you wanted to be picky you could argue that his mind is warped by the sensation of having a body again (or you could just say he’s a git). Indeed, Rimmer isn’t particularly likeable in a lot of Series III, although more of his desperately sad character comes out in Marooned (again, the makers of the A-Z chose to see Rimmer’s reaction to Lister’s virginity story – “You can’t have been a full member of the golf club then” – as indicative of the evolution of Rimmer’s character. Sigh.) In Series V, by contrast, there is more to applaud. Terrorform again shows us the demons that inhabit Rimmer’s subconscious and prevent him from ever truly liking himself, but there’s something quite touching about the way his positive attributes end up defeating the negative. And Holoship, of course, is all about things coming good for Rimmer, as well as bad (yet another speech about how things never go right for him, the poor blighter). That said, of course, that episode’s best line is to do with the rest of the crew hating him (“Quick! Let’s get out of here before they bring him back!”) But then, this very contrast and conflict between loving and hating the character is what makes Rimmer so damned interesting. Nevertheless, Holoship shows that there’s at least something about Arnie that a woman can grow to love – and that, just maybe, old Iron Balls has got a heart, somewhere deep down. By series VI, cowardice had again become a more prominent aspect of his character (“We surrender” on more than one occasion, and of course the classic “You can’t frighten me, I’m a coward, I’m always scared!”), although there’s still time for a final act of heroism (despite it eventually turning out to be failed) in the fantastic climax to Out Of Time.
Indeed, I get a distinct impression that Doug Naylor, in particular, is fond of Rimmer as a character, and most notably is keen on the idea that, eventually, Rimmer will achieve some sort of a heroic redemption – it’s happened twice under his writing, after all. Rimmer’s sacrifice in Last Humanis by far the best thing about the book, yet it doesn’t come off as sudden, unnatural or forced. For all that you could criticise Last Human (and I can criticise it a lot), the scenes in which Rimmer grapples with his inherent cowardice and comes to the realisation that he actually can be a hero after all are some of the best things Naylor has ever written – and I’ll admit that his final, morse-code message brought as much of a tear to my eye as it did Kochanski’s. And then there’s Stoke Me A Clipper, in which Dimension Jump is apparently paid off by showing us that, in fact, Rimmer does have what it takes to become the great hero that Ace is/was. I’ll admit that I’ve never been particularly convinced by the idea of Our-Rimmer-As-Ace-Rimmer (it was, after all, a convenient way of writing Chris Barrie out of the show while still leaving a door open for his return – and really was the only possible way that he could have left the ship rather than died, although it might have been a nice idea to bring the Holoship in somehow instead; still, that’s another article entirely…). Still, the sentiment behind it – that Rimmer is the good guy, deep down – is good enough, even if it was handled better in the books.
I’ve rambled on for about as long as I think I can on Rimmer’s character as written, now; but I can’t let this article go without highlighting the other reason why Arnold Rimmer is the best thing the series has to offer – Sir Christopher of Barrie. Barrie’s performances throughout the whole of Red Dwarf are immense, even during Series VIII, when the material the cast were handed was shoddy at best. That’s not to take anything away from the rest of the cast – Craig Charles, for all his sniping at the fans, turned in some excellent performances; Robert Llewellyn has always been a hoot, even if he did overdo the histrionics in series VII; and Danny John Jules captured the essence of a cat perfectly before his character was butchered in later series – but Chris really was something else. It’s one thing to overshadow the characters who the episodes are supposed to be about – the most striking example of this being Waiting For God, where the “Quagaars” plot mops the floor with the Cat People plot simply due to his performance (“THIS IS SCIENCE, LADDIE!” is still one of my favourite ever Dwarf moments). However, the episodes in which he’s actually made the focus, such as Thanks For The Memory, Dimension Jump and Holoship, he makes the show his own. Thanks For The Memory, in particular, is a tour de force performance, from the initial drunken scene, to the hungover Lise Yates sequence (no matter how long it took him to deliver the line “She was great, and she thought I was great”!), to his anguish at finding out the truth, he commands the screen and makes Rimmer a totally believable, three-dimensional character. I’d go so far as to call it one of the best individual performances in a British sitcom for the past couple of decades, and it demonstrates how it was possible for Red Dwarf to become a much, much poorer programme for Barrie’s absence. When you’ve got someone as good as him playing one character, you don’t need the rest of the cast to be any good – that they were is just one of the reasons why Red Dwarf is such a strong and enduring series. But I doubt you could say that any of the other actors overshadow Barrie in a Rimmer-centric episode, in the way he does in Lister or Kryten-orientated ones.
The combination of the best actor in the series, the most time devoted to backstory and character study, and the simple fact that – much as we may not always like to – we can actually identify with, and feel for Rimmer makes him, in my humble opinion, easily the most fascinating – and downright best – character in the programme. And, frankly, that pisses all over anything Garry Bushell might say about beer and curry, right?