In the world of sitcom, there are of course many central themes, ideas and structures. A common – although admittedly not entirely universal – one is that of dreams, aspiration and attainment. If you look at many classic sitcoms, you can pinpoint a dream of some sort that the central characters have, a goal that they want to achieve. Basil Fawlty wants his hotel to be liked by a better class of people than he is. Ted Crilly wants to get off the island and live it up in Las Vegas. Del and Rodney want to be millionaires. Edmund wants to be King. Alan Partridge wants a second series, you shit. And pretty much everywhere else you look there’s just a simple desire to have sex. You get the idea. The “sit” part of a sitcom often presents us with a dream that helps drive – or often entirely drives – the narrative.
In Red Dwarf, this idea of having dreams to cling on to is greater than in many sitcoms you could care to name. Perhaps it’s a result of the setup – when you put a small cast of characters in an inherently hopeless situation (stranded three million years from home in an enclosed space) it’s only natural that they should all dream of improving their lot. That said, though, all the Dwarf characters as written – but particularly Lister and Rimmer – have in them an inherent sense of underachievement. None of them have done what they feel they could have with their lives, and so they have spent the entirety of those lives hoping for something better. Constantly, throughout the series we’re given examples not just of dreams they have right now, but dreams they’ve always had.
Chief among the “dreams” of the Dwarf crew is Lister’s desire to get back to Earth, and so this seems like an obvious place to look first. It’s an interesting one, this, because not only is it the single motivating factor in the show’s main narrative thrust (“a bunch of people stranded on a spaceship attempt to traverse the three million year journey home”), but also because it’s an extremely mutable one. In fact, we’re presented with Lister’s life dream long before he’s stranded far from Earth :
LISTER : I’m going to buy meself a little farm on Fiji. And I’m going to get a sheep and a cow, and breed horses.
RIMMER : With a sheep and a cow?
LISTER : No, with horses and horses!
At this point we don’t know much about Lister’s life – pre-Red Dwarf or otherwise – save that he’s the lowest-ranking crew member (well, not counting those laboratory mice) on a deep-space mining ship, and he’s a bit slobby. Even so, his description of his “plan” tells us that he’s not satisfied with his life. But his dream doesn’t involve being rich and famous – it’s not a selfish dream at all. He simply wants a relaxing, pastoral existence – he wants to be happy. And hey, if the woman of his dreams could be there with him, then that’s a bonus :
LISTER : She was part of me plan. I never got round to telling her, but she was going to come with me to Fiji. She was going to wear a white dress and ride the horses and I was going to take care of everything else. It was me plan. I planned it.
In Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, we learn more about Lister’s life – having never got much higher than shopping trolley attendant back on Earth, stranded on a far-off planet and doing a crap job to work his passage home – and we can see more and more why the dream is so attractive to him. Perhaps it’s even something he dreamt of while pushing trolleys back in Liverpool – although the fact that it’s such an, excuse the pun, “earthy” dream suggests that maybe it’s something that formed in his head while dreaming of being back on Earth.
By the end of The End, though, the dream has already changed.
LISTER : No, it’s not Fuchal, it’s Fiji! And I will! I’ll lead you there. That’s where we’re going! Holly, plot a course for Fiji. Look out, Earth — the slime’s coming home!
Fiji (or “Fuchal”, heh heh heh) is still present in this version, of course; but even so, it’s readily apparent that the focus of Lister’s dream has shifted from “get myself a farm on Fiji when I get back to Earth in a couple of years” to “get back to Earth whenever I can”. And as much as it may be argued (and agreed with by yours truly) that the show’s main focus in terms of character development is Rimmer, I don’t think you can deny that in those early episodes the main narrative thrust underpinning the series is Lister’s quest – and thus the Red Dwarf crew’s quest – to get back to Earth. “A convenient plot point for the episodes to hang on” the quest may be, but isn’t that what any underlying story arc is?
As the series progresses, the dream has definitely simplified to “get back to Earth”. Other quests, such as the chase to get Red Dwarf back, may appear to replace it (really only by diverting attention away from it), but the “prime directive” (if you like) of the Dwarf crew is still always to try and get back to Earth. Or, to simplify it further, to “get home”. And this is where it gets complicated. Where is “home”, really? It’s the novels that really expand upon this. In Better Than Life, Lister actually does make it back to Earth, albeit an Earth that’s been ripped out of the solar system. Does he consider himself “home” at this point? He certainly settles, happily; but he then also has his plan to bring Earth back to the solar system. So can he only consider himself to be truly home when Earth itself is home; when he’s bathing in the rays of Sol? Rob Grant’s Backwards suggests something altogether different :
For as long as [Lister] could remember, all he’d wanted was to get back home.
He’d always considered that Earth was his home, but as the ugly red brute of a ship loomed into view, he felt a tingling in his stomach, and thought maybe he’d been wrong.
Maybe this was home.
Accepting Lister’s mindset here, it seems that the two solo novels are the only occasions upon which we can see Lister’s dream – in any of its forms – fulfilled. Backwards‘ ending, though, still has a certain sense of hopelessness to it – maybe Lister is “home” as he now sees it, but will he ever be truly happy, stranded on the ship? Last Human, meanwhile, has a far less ambiguous ending. Lister and Kochanski are not on Earth, but the planet they are to begin repopulating might as well be named New Earth. It’s the happy, peaceful, pastoral existence that Lister has always hoped for, and it’s with the love of his life into the bargain.
But you can get away with fulfilling a dream in a novel, especially if you know that novel is going to be the last thing you ever do with the characters (which is why it’s kind of surprising that Doug’s novel has the more definite ending, while Rob’s leaves it open – surely if anyone was to write another Dwarf novel in the future, it would be Doug? But I digress…). You can’t really do it with a sitcom, unless said sitcom is deliberately ending. Ergo, Red Dwarf, which has never been given a definite ending (a Series IX may look less likely by the day, but this wasn’t the case in 1999, hence VIII’s cliffhanger), has never fulfilled its characters’ quest to return to Earth – although, interestingly, the originally-proposed closer for Series VIII proposed to do just that (how they might have purported to continue the series from that point is, I must admit, beyond me).
Lister’s dream, though, is not the only ideal that the characters of Red Dwarf strive towards attaining. Rimmer, for starters, has dreams aplenty. Chief among them is becoming an officer – the thing he wants more than any other.
RIMMER : Because I want to be somebody. I want to have a position of authority on a scout ship exploring unchartered space. Work alongside educated men and women. Officers, people who count. Lister, this is my one chance to seize my dream. To be with the winners.
Unlike Lister’s dream, however, Rimmer’s ultimate goal does not drive the show’s narrative along. The series isn’t about whether or not Rimmer becomes an officer. There are a number of possible reasons for this. For starters, we know it’s one that can never be achieved. Rimmer is just not officer material.
There’s a saying amongst the officers: “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If it’s not worth doing, give it to Rimmer.” He aches for responsibility but constantly fails the engineering exam. Astoundingly zealous. Possibly mad. Probably has more teeth than brain cells. Promotion prospects: comical.
If there’s not even the slightest pretence that the dream will ever be fulfilled, then it’s hard for the audience to invest emotion in it. It’s even harder to do so when it’s not something we can particularly sympathise with. Rimmer can tug at our heart strings with his lengthy speeches about how all he ever wanted was to be respected, but we know deep down that it’s an inherently selfish dream. Because he’s an inherently selfish and shallow person. And so, while we’re hardly willing him to fail, we’re able to laugh at his continued inability to succeed.
Rimmer’s other main dream, once dead, is to attain solid form again. Indeed, this goal perhaps supersedes his original dream of officerhood as his “death” goes on – when desperate to win a place onboard the Holoship, for example, one of the main motivating factors is that he will be among people whom he can interact with physically (and, um, bunk up with a highly sexed-up Jane Horrocks). This dream comes close to driving him to complete insanity at times (Quagaars, anyone?); yet ironically, by the time he actually does gain a physical form – and then some, in the form of his near-indestructible hard light body – he almost seems to have come to terms with his hologrammatic existence. After all, his reaction upon becoming hard light is one of mild amusement and excitement compared with the “Unpack Rachel and get out the puncture repair kit!” hysterics of discovering he’s alive in Timeslides.
KRYTEN : I have strange thoughts when I’m asleep.
LISTER : Yeah, they’re called “dreams”.
KRYTEN : My favourite one is that I’m in a garden. I’ve never even seen a garden, except in books. And I’ve planted everything and made it grow. It’s my garden. And there’s no one there except me, just me and all the things I’ve made live.
It’s difficult, of course – and perhaps even somewhat futile – to compare the Kryten of Kryten to his series III counterpart. Quite aside from the convenient plot point of having been rebuilt with a slightly warped personality, there’s a great difference in the approach taken by the writers for a character that was to be a one-off (as with David Ross’ version) and one that needed to fit into an existing crew dynamic (as Robert so admirably managed to do). Even so, I wanted to look at the above moment from Kryten, partly because it’s one of my favourite moments in the entirety of Red Dwarf (and, brilliant and irreplacable as Mr. Llewellyn is, I don’t think he could have done that speech as beautifully as Mr. Ross did), and partly because it’s a perfect example of how inspirational the idea of dreams can be. In order to gain an unmatchable view into the psyche of a character we’ve had barely ten minutes to get to know, all we have to do is look at his hopes, his aspirations, his dreams. His dreams are modest, because he’s programmed to serve and not think for himself – even so, his desire to go somewhere, create life and simply be happy in his own existence is able to make its way through his programming somehow. Indeed, it’s a dream that I think Dave “a sheep and a cow” Lister can completely empathise with.
KRYTEN : Well, if I could go anywhere, absolutely anywhere at all in time, I think I’d probably choose to go back to a week last Tuesday.
LISTER : Why?
KRYTEN : Don’t you remember? I did all the laundry, and then we watched TV. Wow, we won’t see the like of those sorts of days again!
As we can see, though, the dreams of post-rebuilding Kryten become somewhat more modest still. But again, this is a valuable insight into his character. His dreams extend little further than doing laundry. Does this make us think any less of him? Not if he has conviction that his dreams are all he needs to make him happy. Not to mention an unwavering belief (another dream, in fact) that one day he will take up his rightful place in Silicon Heaven.
It’s perhaps a little unfair to Danny John-Jules that the Cat is by far the least-developed character in the series, and unfortunately there is little to engage with in terms of dreams and aspirations. I feel like I’m being forced to skim over him in a single breath here, but never mind :
CAT : Hey, this has been a good day! I’ve eaten five times, I’ve slept six times, and I’ve made a lot of things mine. Tomorrow, I’m gonna see if I can’t have sex with something!
Which just about tells you all you need to know. The single relentless quest that the Cat embarks upon – and even that loses its motivation by later in the series – is to have sex with someone. Or, um, something, even. Which, when you think about it, possibly makes him the most archetypal sitcom character the show has to offer. Regardless of whether or not the episode would have been any good, it’ll certainly be interesting, come the release of the series VII DVD, to see how Identity Within might have tackled this question, as it would have been perhaps the only episode beyond series II to really do so.
In all this discussion so far of characters’ dreams, you’ll notice that there’s one area of the programme (and indeed, taking in the books, the show’s mythology as a whole) that I’ve yet to address. The simple reason for that is that it’s such a large area of Dwarf lore, and so significant to this particular discussion, that it warrants a section all of its own. And so, ladies and gentlemen : three simple words that really hammer home how important dreams and aspirations are to the series. Better. Than. Life.
NEWSREADER : Techno news. The new sensation sweeping the solar system is the total immersion video game, “Better Than Life.” Using the new senso lock feedback technology, “Better Than Life” is able to detect all your desires and fantasies and then make them come true.
Better Than Life operated on an entirely subliminal level. It wasn’t possible, for instance, to wish for a turbo-charged Harley Davidson and blip! it appeared. Early, non-addictive versions of the Game operated in exactly this manner, and proved boring and unplayable after only a few days.
The secret to BTL’s addictive quality was that it gave the players things they didn’t even know they desired, by tapping their subconscious minds.
Nothing gives us a better glimpse into the dreams of the main characters than the Better Than Life concept, seen in both the episode and the book of the same name. The two versions – as shown by the above quotes – differ greatly, though, so I’ll deal with them separately. The TV series can be dealt with more quickly, as it’s a half-hour episode rather than a 230-page novel. Ultimately, it tells us far more about Rimmer’s dreams – and his psyche, of course – than either of the other two leads. Lister is back on Earth in BTL – but then, they all are. Beyond that, his dream life apparently doesn’t extend further than champagne in a pint glass, caviar vindaloo and the odd round of golf. A far cry from what we know about his character and his aspirations, but never mind. The Cat, meanwhile, is happy to be two-timing Marilyn Monroe with a mermaid. Fair dos. It’s only Rimmer who gets the chance to make amends for previously-mentioned shortcomings while in the game. We know about his dream to become an officer – an Admiral, even – but in BTL we get a glimpse of part of the motivation behind it. He doesn’t just want to do it to make himself feel better – he wants to put himself into a position that his father would have respected.
Ultimately, though, BTL the episode isn’t about giving us an in-depth look into the characters’ long term goals, dreams and aspirations. It’s about fulfilling their immediate needs, wants and fantasies. And that’s fair enough, it doesn’t make it any less of a great episode (attempting to portray Rhyl as a tropical beach poses far more of a threat, but that’s another story). But we must look to the books to see how the Better Than Life concept can really be exploited in order to lay bare the dreams and deep-seated desires of the crew.
The scenarios that the characters find themselves in in Better Than Life are all wild, unrealistic fantasies rather than believable dreams. If Lister really could live in Bedford Falls in an It’s A Wonderful Life Scenario, for example, then that would surely be his dream rather than the Fiji idea. Nevertheless, each scenario, while taken to an unrealistic logical extreme, has its roots in the characters’ more realistic hopes. Bedford Falls sums up Lister’s desire to live a happy, comfortable existence, surrounded by the people that matter to him, rather than having any massive material gain. Rimmer’s dream is the logical extension of all the things he feels could make him happy. As outlined above, it is subconscious desires rather than conscious ones that BTL fulfils – so Lister and Rimmer need no longer be content with “merely” owning a farm on Fiji or becoming a Navigation Officer. These are dreams that they would never dare speak out loud – if they even knew they had them – but they are arguably closer to the characters’ true desires than the dreams they so often wistfully talk about are. And both dreams, while practically diametrically opposed, share their roots in one common factor – a desire to be loved. For Lister, it’s the comforting love of a family that he craves; Rimmer, meanwhile, just wants to be adored by as many people as possible. Rimmer’s dream, therefore, may seem far more selfish and unlikable, but perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that he has never been truly loved, and so perhaps has a warped view of the concept – his desire to be loved in an uncontrollable way by millions of people perhaps makes up for the years of being alone and unloved. Lister has known the love of one person, knows how comforting, reassuring and beautiful it is, and so it is enough for him.
On reflection, it’s probably not just the humble sitcom that could be said to have dreams and aspirations as a central theme. It’s a pretty common narrative device, after all – any good narrative needs an ultimate goal that it drives towards. However, sitcom characters in particular frequently live in a world where they feel they could do better; in a situation that they know they must strive to get out of. In these scenarios, dreams become an all-too-valuable commodity, and this is at its most evident in the frequently hopeless-looking situation the Dwarf crew find themselves in. It seems to me that Grant and Naylor were certainly aware of this fact, and so throughout the TV series and the novels they are constantly finding ways to explore the dreams of the principal characters. Heck, they even put Lister’s Fiji dream into the lyrics of the theme tune. It is to their eternal credit as writers, then, that the theme developed into something that could be so richly explored.