Justice: or, Crime and Punishment

Crime is a prevalent theme in much fiction – and it’s certainly is no stranger to science fiction. One of the more famous examples of crime SF is Philip K. Dick’s 1956 story “The Minority Report,” which Steven Spielberg recently made into a Major Motion Picture that Completely Missed the Point. Great examples of SF using crime to highlight societal change in the future include Gardner Dozois’s “The Visible Man” (1975), James Patrick Kelly’s “Rat” (1986), and Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.” (1965). Each of these stories involve crime in one way or another, but either the punishment or the crime itself is unique.

Indeed, this seems to be the defining line between the works listed above and those of, say, Agatha Christie. In a Christie novel, the purpose of the story is to decipher the clues and find out who the culprit is, and how the crime was committed. In science fiction, most crime fiction deals with how society in the future deals with crime; prison systems, how criminals act, how crime has evolved in the intervening years. There is still the element of whodunnit, but as in much SF, there is a definite societal examination going on beneath the surface.

That’s not the only thing that Justice has to do, though; it also has to be funny in the midst of all this soul-searching/societal examination. And, in the words of Connie Willis,

“Writing comedy is a real pain, made more painful by two persistent myths. The first is that writing comedy is a hoot, something people do for fun when they’ve written too much serious stuff, and that the main problem is to stop lauhing so hard you can’t type. […] The second myth (which apparently everybody believes) is that comedy can’t be analyzed, that looking at it too closely kills it. This ridiculous notion seems to have evolved from the deadly results of attempting to explain a joke, though it does not take into account the fact that the reason the joke had to be explained in the first place was that it wasn’t funny.” [1]

Another popular misconception (although one that doesn’t deal strictly with comedy) is that the addition of aliens or changing the setting to the future to an otherwise routine piece of fiction automatically makes it science fiction. The other side of that same coin, though, has to do with mainstream authors. Inexperienced in the field of SF, they don’t know what the genre has been covering for the past thirty years, and as a result we get novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, which even its author denies is science fiction, despite the fact that Atwood clearly thought her idea about bioengineered organisms was pretty nifty. It’s called Re-Inventing the Wheel:

“A novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced reader. Reinventing the Wheel was traditionally typical of mainstream writers venturing into SF. It is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre history because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF television series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer gaming.”[2]

That’s not to say that Red Dwarf is entirely blameless of any of these faults; but even when it uses unoriginal ideas, the execution of those ideas is clever enough to carry the story along to its conclusion. One of Dwarf’s strengths is Grant and Naylor’s ability to see the ridiculous side of technology and the future. The very first shot of Justice shows the effects of some unknown and unexplained disease called “space mumps.” It’s a bit of a throwaway idea and not terribly subtle in its reference to the theme of the episode:

LISTER: I look like something that belongs up a whale’s nose. […] There’s no justice. How could this happen to me?

Barbara Bellini, however, is an immensely clever reference. I’ll let Annette of “The Red Dwarf References List” fame elaborate on the topic. The article refers to:

“…a type of logic puzzle, in which a candidate must attempt to discern the whereabouts or not of some object placed into one of several caskets. The puzzles tell of two Renaissance Florentine casket-makers, Bellini and Cellini. Whenever one made a casket, he inscribed it with some clue to the puzzle — the catch was that while Bellini’s inscription *always* told the truth, and Cellini’s inscription *always* lied, the candidate had no way of knowing which casket had been made by which craftsman. The puzzles popularly involved choosing between a gold, a silver and a lead casket — reflecting the Cat’s “What a dilemma!” of Barbra or not in the lead(-lined) pod/casket.”[3]

You don’t have to know anything about the puzzle to understand the episode. In fact, the only direct reference Grant and Naylor make is the Barbara Bellini’s last name. I’m tempted to say, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” but that makes little sense out of context.

Also interesting to note is the presence of the escort boots. It’s an idea that really serves no purpose in the story; with the development of something as sophisticated and improbable as the Justice Zone, metal boots don’t really seem to fit. The real reason they’re included is because of the walking gag that follows, but it’s also amusing to see Grant and Naylor dismiss Rimmer’s hologram status:

RIMMER: I can’t use these – I’m a hologram.
JUSTICE: That has been accounted for.

It’s already evident that Grant and Naylor are tiring of having to deal with Rimmer-as-a-hologram, and thus begin to merely dismiss things without explaining them.

From there, we are introduced to the story’s second source of conflict.

LISTER: What’s this?
KRYTEN: Relax, sir. It’s just a mind-probe.
LISTER: What’s a mind-probe?
KRYTEN: The computer was merely searching our minds – presumably for any evidence of criminal activity.
LISTER: What d’you mean, “criminal activity?”
KRYTEN: I shouldn’t worry, sir. It’s just a routine clearance procedure.
LISTER: So when you say “criminal activity,” whu-whu-what exactly do you mean by “criminal activity?” How criminal do you mean by “criminal?”
RIMMER: What are you bleating on about, Lister?
LISTER: Just define “criminal activity” for me.
KRYTEN: Well, imagine a situation where someone had commited a crime and concealed it from the law, the mind-probe would be able to uncover that crime and sentence the person accordingly.
LISTER: Why didn’t nobody tell me about this before we put the smegging boots on?
RIMMER: Oh, Listy, Listy. Is that a small sewage plant you’re carrying in your trousers, or do I detect you’re a tad concerned?

By this time, the simulant/Bellini dilemma has been conveniently pushed to one side. The introduction to Rimmer’s guilt is quite well done. Grant and Naylor can change Rimmer’s personality from being abrasive and annoying to a pitiful, sympathetic character within the same scene. A prime example of this would be Rimmer’s change of expression when the Justice computer declares him guilty of second-degree murder of the entire Red Dwarf crew. The scene is very well written and performed.

JUSTICE: You are now leaving the Neutral Area and entering the Justice Zone. Beyond this point, it is impossible to commit any act of injustice.

It’s probably prudent to note at this point that the very fine line between good ideas and bad ideas has a lot to do with how they’re implemented in the script. The Justice Zone makes no sense from a science point of view – or from any point of view, really. However, it’s an idea that I’ve always admired as being one of the better moments of Dwarf, precisely because of the way it’s implemented. The whole scene shows what you can get away with if the writing is solid.

KRYTEN: Answer the question, please. Remember, you’re under polygraphic surveillance. Would you describe the accused as a friend?
LISTER: No, I would describe the accused as a git.
KRYTEN: Who would you say, then, is the person who thinks of him most fondly?
LISTER: [Pauses.] Me.
KRYTEN: And there are no others who’ve shared moments of intimacy with him?
LISTER: Only one. But she’s got a puncture.
RIMMER: Objection.
JUSTICE: Overruled.
KRYTEN: So you wouldn’t describe him as a man with a good social life?
LISTER: He partied less than Rudolf Hess. He was totally dedicated to his career. He was in charge of Z shift, and it occupied his every waking moment.

Series IV is a turning point for Red Dwarf, as it is when the history of the novels and the history of the TV show began to intersect. Notice the casual reference to Z Shift – a concept that was only introduced in the novels. In DNA, Lister had dated Kochanski for several weeks before the accident. Grant and Naylor have never been concerned with continuity, but the way they implement these changes is subtle. If they’d written an episode that centered around Lister/Kochanski dialogue where they explained things to each other (“You know, Krissy, we dated for four weeks. Before the accident, an’ that.” “Yes, Dave. I know.” “Ah.”) then I would have been opposed to the changes. As it stands, it works quite well.

I’d just like to state at this junction that most of the sets from this episode give me the horn. The only one that doesn’t is the courtroom set, which looks like the Justice Computer slaughtered several million innocent cows and installed a giant light at the back of the room. But when the simulant is introduced, everything comes together to form a very good scene; the music works quite well in the scene, despite being a bit crap on its own; as a matter of fact, the only thing that I don’t much care for is Nicholas Ball’s acting; he’s all right overall, but he seems to think that pausing makes him menacing, when really it just makes him sound like he’s brain-damaged.

This is an interesting episode, in that there are two very distinct sources of conflict. This is, surprisingly, unusual for Red Dwarf after Series I. (Or, if you’re some sort of pedantic NERD, Series 1.) Episodes like The Inquisitor, Out of Time, and White Hole all have just one main source of conflict. Some episodes might have other, minor sources of conflict, but the plot is quite clearly driven by one main idea. In fact, there are relatively few episodes with intersecting plotlines. Justice and Back in the Red Parts I-III are the only such episodes that come to mind. (Waiting for God doesn’t count, as the two plotlines never really intersected as such; they were there to be compared to one another.)

Justice is one of my personal favorite episodes, and absolutely chock full of the stuff that makes Dwarf great; performances, writing, sets, characterization, et. al. In fact, if there’s one thing that lets the episode down, it’s the ending. Lister’s speech seems out of place and rushed; after Rimmer’s trial and the destruction of the simulant, it seems as though there should have been something more for the ending. It looks rushed – which it was:

“Finally, the original Justice was going to be rather different. Justice World was initially going to be just that – a planet – rather than a space station. In one discarded sequence, Lister was crapped on by a bird in retaliation for him dropping litter in the ornamental gardens. When these scenes were discarded, an additional scene was hurriedly written for the end – Lister leading the others down a corridor, giving a speech about the universe’s sense of justice.”[4]

The episode is able to stand up to critical examination despite some of the ideas not working as well as they should. The courtroom scene was drawn out; the Justice Zone makes no sense; the ending is rushed. And yet, despite all these flaws, the episode still works – and it works surprisingly well.

Works Cited

1. Willis, Connie. “Learning to Write Comedy, or Why It’s Impossible and How to Do It.” Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Gardner Dozois… [et al]. St. Martin’s Press, 1991: 76 – 88.
2. Sterling, Bruce, Lewis Shiner. Turkey City Lexicon. Second Edition.
3. McIntosh, Annette. “The Red Dwarf References List (TV).”
4. reddwarf.co.uk – Time Hole, Series IV

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