Craig Charles is, for many reasons, regarded outside the Red Dwarf fan base as being the main star of the show. Many newspaper articles describe him as such, and he does seem to be the most recognisable face of the show for many. However, I think it’s fair to say that actual Red Dwarf fans, real fans, fans that are properly versed in the show, know only too well that the person which brings true meaning to the Red Dwarf story is Arnold Judas Rimmer.
Yes, I know that the main point of Red Dwarf is that Lister is desperately trying to get back to earth, but this really is only a convenient plot point for the episodes to hang on. If you look at all the episodes as a whole, the one thing that strikes you is just how much we learn about Rimmer. Let’s face it, the character is an absolute godsend to a comedy writer. The very first episode, The End, is a case in point. Although this is ostensibly an episode about Lister, we actually learn far more about Rimmer’s character; his meticulousness, pomposity, love of bureaucracy, respect for authority and total lack of humour. The jokes about Rimmer’s exam and the exam scene itself tell us more about Rimmer’s dependence on order, with his attempts to cheat illustrating his refusal to accept his own limitations. Lister is, and remains for much of Red Dwarf, Rimmer’s conveniently placed kicking boy.
Actually, let’s stay with the first episode for a while. The clue to who is the real driving force in the series is hinted at when Lister asks Holly why he chose to revive Rimmer as the one hologrammatic companion the ship could sustain. Holly’s reasoning may seem fairly cold and unemotional, seeing as many of us spend far too much time in the company of workmates than we would choose to, but in fact it makes perfect sense. Rimmer is the only person Holly could have revived that would have lead the series anywhere, for a start, and, on a character level, is also the only option. Holly knew that Lister would have a tough time ahead when he finally emerged from stasis. Not only would Lister have to cope with being three million light years away from Earth and the death of the rest of the crew, but that Lister, the lowest rank on the ship, would be in charge of a very large mining vessel in deep space. The revival of Chen, Selby or Petersen may have pleased Lister initally, but, as we see earlier in the episode, they are little more than drinking buddies. Life on the empty, directionless Red Dwarf would have consisted of Lister and his friend drinking themselves into a stupor, and probably perishing in a misguided drunk experiment with an airlock. This would hardly serve Holly’s purposes: Holly needs someone to give him commands to get him out of what was a rather boring program loop.
So? I hear you ask. What about Kochanski? Well, indeed. What about her, eh? It was never established at this point whether Kochanski was really ever attracted to Lister, and even if she had been, their love affair had numerous risks for Holly. Not only would there have been the risks of a loved-up couple being obsessed with their inability to touch, so being totally unprepared for any trouble lurking behind the nearest star, but what would have happened if Lister and Kochanski had broken up? Would Lister have ordered Holly to erase her? The effect of this on Lister would have been catastrophic. The main reason for reviving Rimmer is so Holly has a way of keeping the lazy and directionless Lister in check. The entrance of Chris Barrie as the now hologrammatic Rimmer makes everything clear, with a manner that is equal parts anger, bitterness and sorrow. The dead Rimmer is no different to the living Rimmer, albeit with a couple of extra chips on his shoulder. Rimmer has already shown that he finds security in rules and regulations, and is clinging on to them even more desperately in this highly unusual situation. Although Lister is dismayed at his return, his instant reaction shows that Rimmer is one of the few people in the universe that can rouse him to action, even if it’s only to get one over on him. Rimmer is literally Lister’s reason to get out of bed in the morning (or afternoon). Fun as it is for Lister to annoy Rimmer by staying in bed, it’s not half as much fun as actually doing something.
Talking of doing something, I think the pivotal role of Rimmer is firmly established by the end of Series 1 in Me2. It’s interesting that the attempts to explore Lister’s character in Red Dwarf, such as Confidence & Paranoia and the storyline of Lister’s twin boys, aren’t half as interesting as this one episode. Confidence & Paranoia, whilst representing Lister’s personality, are so generic that they offer little insight. Clearly, Lister is an everyman, which is probably why casual viewers of the series are more likely to identify with him. Conversely, seeing Rimmer drive himself mad is true car-crash television, and the eventual erasion of the superflous Rimmer is a relief to everyone. Not only is the dialogue between the two Rimmers fascinating, showing a phenomenal amount of self-loathing: “SHUT UP, YOU DEAD GIT!”, but Grant Naylor also manage to let Rimmer dominate proceedings when he’s not even in the room, with Lister watching Arnold J Rimmer: A Tribute, sparking off another curious aspect of Rimmer’s character; Gazpacho Soup Day.
Again, other episodes in Series 1 relate more to Rimmer than to Lister, with Future Echoes showing just what a callous bastard Rimmer can be, Balance of Power showing that Lister is meant to be subordinate to Rimmer, Waiting for God showing Rimmer’s desperation to be alive again, and Confidence & Paranoia becoming dull every time the focus is taken off Rimmer.
Got the idea yet? But there’s more. Even the general finger-pointing and snarling that go on between the pair show just how significant Rimmer is. Lister has a huge selection of character faults and actions to hold against Rimmer at any particular point in Red Dwarf. Rimmer has only one real complaint to use: that Lister is a lazy slob. That’s it. And that really IS it when it comes to Lister, which makes the common complaint against Red Dwarf that it is nothing but curry and lager jokes even sillier. There are very few curry and lager jokes in Red Dwarf, while there are numerous jokes about Arnold J Rimmer. Let’s look at Series 2. Kryten, although he has his programming broken by Lister, is there to bring out the meglomania and pomposity in Rimmer. Better Than Life, one of my favourite episodes of Red Dwarf, has stuck in my head for years because of Rimmer’s inabilty to play the game for his benefit or that of others. Again, it revolves around Rimmer’s self-loathing after the initial fulfillment of his fantasies, which on their own are a great deal more interesting than anything Lister and Cat come up with. Thanks for the Memory shows how deeply Rimmer becomes traumatised when exposed to Lister’s shallowness, and although Lister becomes pregnant in Parallel Universe, it is the two Rimmers which make the episode worth it. I’ve seen a criticism which suggests that the female Rimmer is unconvincing, which doesn’t make much sense to me. Arnold Rimmer is a sexual bully due to his colossal lack of confidence, so why shouldn’t Arlene be the same? The most interesting part of Queeg is Queeg forcing Rimmer to conform to certain Space Corps regulations that he has thus far ignored as a hologram, but likes to think he honours. This seems to epitomise everything about Rimmer: the image he has of himself in his head which he fails to live up to, for which he blames everyone but himself.
Stasis Leak is another attempt by Rimmer to resurrect himself by trying (and failing) to prevent his death. It also has a lovely example of life aboard ship before the accident, with the highlight of Rimmer reporting Lister for spiking his breakfast with hallucinogenic drugs, causing Rimmer to do some rather unfortunate things. Rimmer’s contempt for Captain Hollister overrides his natural deference here when Hollister gives Lister what Rimmer considers to be a lenient punishment. Interestingly, Lister copes with seeing his future self far better than Rimmer, but then, he hasn’t just experienced a hallucinogenic fit.
With the essentials of Rimmer established, Series III can comfortably accommodate the entry of Kryten, another source of antagonism for Rimmer, although for very different reasons. Here we have a mechanoid who Rimmer feels is beneath him, but who can easily humilate him by correcting Rimmer’s misplaced confidence in quoting Space Corps Directives. With the crew liberated from Red Dwarf, there are fewer instances of character-based comedy, but Series III throws up some corkers, such as the conversation between a marooned Lister and Rimmer in, er, Marooned, which reveals that Rimmer was so emotionally scarred by his sadistic father that he divorced his parents at the age of 14. Lister also talks about Rimmer’s obsession with war, despite him being a coward, and Rimmer claims it is the admiration of leadership. Of course, this could also be evidence of Rimmer’s need for a father figure that has no danger of rejecting him. Rimmer’s discovery that he was Alexander the Great’s chief enunch may well be an easy joke, but this also suggests that what he really wants is an accepting father figure, even if that figure DOES ruin his chances with the opposite sex. More insight into the fascist dictators that Rimmer loves so much turns up in another of my personal favourites, Timeslides, where Rimmer shows once again that he has been unable to turn any fortuitous event to his advantage from a young age. In one fell swoop, he ensures that ‘Thicky’ Holden’s fortune is restored and that Lister is returned to what Rimmer believes is his rightful place. Even the surprise revelation that the meddling with time has brought Rimmer back to life doesn’t last long, as he’s soon killed by an explosion. That wasn’t Rimmer’s fault, but Grant Naylor can hardly have let him achieve one of his dreams permanently, could they? It’s particularly amusing that Rimmer being brought back to life comes just after he borrows (and abuses) Lister’s body in an astonishing display of selfishness. The rapid cessation of Rimmer’s second life almost seems like divine justice.
Again, Series IV has fun with Kryten, but Justice is a great example of Rimmer’s conviction that he is capable of taking responsibilty for the deceased crew of Red Dwarf, with Kryten telling the Justice Computer exactly why he is incapable of doing so. The experience of seeing Rimmer objecting to his own defence counsel is something to treasure. Dimension Jump is, of course, the famous example of us seeing the Rimmer that was forced to fight back and work for his success, but, apart from letting us in on that fact, tells us little else that we don’t already know. The real high point of the series is Meltdown, where the meglomaniac in Rimmer comes out, and we see just how unsuitable he is for high command. The euphoria in Commander Rimmer as he orders his troops to certain death is slightly chilling, and shows just how dangerous Rimmer can be when the others are unable to stop him.
Series V starts with Holoship, which gives us a Rimmer who ultimately plays against type. This is the first time that Rimmer shows himself capable of real heroics, and shows that he doesn’t belong where he thinks he does. The same misplaced confidence that caused him to be given a 9328 year sentence works to his advantage in The Inquistor, where he is saved from erasion due to his inability to see his lack of significance.
Terrorform shows Rimmer falling foul of his empire-building ambitions when he gets captured in this own psi-moon, revisiting Better Than Life territory where Rimmer’s demons are literally out to get him. Quarantine is all about Rimmer contracting a holo-virus, but tells us nothing new, despite it being good fun and introducing the iconic Mr Flibble. The really interesting revelation comes in Demons & Angels, where Low Rimmer shows himself to be the most menacing of all the Low crew, suggesting that there is a dark side to Rimmer’s sexuality. All the crew experience a major challenge to their self-image in Back to Reality, with the nail being driven into the coffin of Rimmer’s assertion that if he had come from a different family, he would have achieved more. Obviously, the revelation of Lister being his half-brother turns out to be false, but it gives Rimmer an even bigger shock than the appearance of Ace in the last series.
Clearly, everybody on Red Dwarf goes through a significant amount of character development from Series 1 to Series VI, but it is Rimmer we have learnt the most about, and who has created the greatest amount of comic mileage for Grant Naylor. In Series VI, we learn nothing particularly new about any member of the crew; still, Rimmerworld shows that Rimmer has not learnt his lesson from Me2 and Terrorform, and, as might be expected, an entire planet of Rimmers, all holding his values, results in his imprisonment in the world he created. The only significant development arises in Out of Time, where, to his and everyone else’s amazement, Rimmer suddenly becomes a hero, or at least tries to.
And this is where I stop. Sorry guys, but I simply haven’t seen enough of Series VII and VIII to do them justice in this article. At some point, I’ll force myself to watch them and give a considered assessment. As far as the first six series of Red Dwarf are concerned, in my view, it’s all about Rimmer. The monster that Grant Naylor created drove the series and created the most interesting episodes. The exchange between Rimmer and Lister in Meltdown sums it all up: “The deranged menance that once threatened this world is vanquished!”
“No it isn’t, pal, you’re still ‘ere.”