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?

10 comments on “Without Him Life Would Be Much Grimmer

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  • This article definitely deserves bumping up in tribute to Seb. A terrific piece of work.

    And I think we can all agree that Seb was a much better writer than Garry Bushell will ever be.

  • This really was an all-time great classic G&T essay. Thanks for bumping it, Ben.

    It’s weird to think back to how it felt when “Only The Good… ” was the last ever episode of Red Dwarf. Even The Promised Land already feels like an essential part of the canon to me, and it’s pleasing how much the Rimmer stuff in that episode complemented his evolution in the BBC era described by Seb here.

    Another minor thing that jumped out at me: was it really a common opinion back in 2004 that The Cat’s character was “butchered in later series”?! Of course I know he definitely became more personable, more of an active crewmember, and less exaggeratedly cat-like as the show went on. But I’ve never heard this evolution described as a clear negative, let alone a butchering. Here that’s stated as pretty much an accepted fact.

    I mean, the later series have Back to Reality in them, for Cloister’s sake!

    It is possible “later series” just means VII and VIII (given the 4 year hiatus and all), but even then I wouldn’t say Cat got notably worse characterisation in Series VII than Series VI – not more than any other character, anyway.

  • Brilliant piece. Rimmer was mildly my favourite character the first time I watched I-VIII about a decade ago, and since properly getting into RD recently he is by far my favourite – this put into words several of the reasons why (and many others I hadn’t really realised, too). My heart is very much warmed :)

    I think the Cat has generally become an idiot from sVI onwards. Lost his catty cool and become a buffoon.

    He certainly seemed to lose depth after that. We’ve seen occasional glimmers of it in the Dave era, which in a way is a bit frustrating because it highlights what a rounded character he could (still) be.

  • I think the Cat has generally become an idiot from sVI onwards. Lost his catty cool and become a buffoon.

    The first sentence I disagree with. The Cat being an idiot was a core part of his character from the beginning, and I wouldn’t say he got more stupid in Series VI, particularly.

    The second sentence I’m less sure about. It hadn’t occurred to me that Cat got less cool over time, but… maybe? I guess it depends on what you personally consider uncool – he definitely does a lot less prancing around. Prancing is cool, right? (I’m generally willing to forgive outliers like him enthusiastically volunteering to dress up and act like Duane Dibbley in Back in the Red.)

    And I don’t believe The Cat’s stupidity and his coolness are at odds; they complement each other really.

  • I do think he was a bit cooler in series XII, and was great in The Promised Land. But in the past few series, he’s been vain, yes, and obsessed with his outfits, yes. But cool? No, don’t think so. For me, the cool he hit in Camille was his peak.

  • I think the difference is Cat’s stupidity being used as a punchline. In the early days the jokes were generally more about his vanity or his unfamiliarity with human culture vs cat culture. In the later series it’s stuff like him not being able to count or confusing “co-ords” with “cords”, that kind of goofy Dibbley humour seeping into Cat himself.

    It’s also in the performance of the character I think, that mugging for laughs that you see in VI and VII wasn’t really part of Danny’s performance early on. He kept his cool more and maintained character.

  • Fair points. It was just unexpected to read that kind of shift nonchalantly referenced as a character butchering.

  • I think some of his stupidity works in VI, because he’s suddenly given a position of importance within the crew and thus occasional gets things wrong in that context. He’s definitely pushed towards one-note stupidity over VII and VIII, with the odd moment of awkwardly-thrown-in 1 / 2 style moments (“Smooth with a capital smoo” reappearing in Back in the Red always felt really awkward to me, as well as the hair, writing and overall performance of his two minutes on Can’t Smeg Won’t Smeg).

    For me, Cat’s at his best when he’s there in the background, throwing out one liners in response to what’s going on around him. His role as someone who simply reacts to the situation is fantastic, and the more he’s written into the actual plotting in VI, VII and Back in the Red, the more he moves away from that (after BitR he pretty much disappears for the rest of VIII). It’s kind of like Doug (and Rob to an extent) weren’t quite sure who he was and what to do with him in those scenarios.

    In the Dave era he’s written in an attempt to get the classic version of the character back, and I find it mildly successful – there are certainly lots of brilliant lines and Danny is fantastic, but it does feel like a very self-conscious attempt to return him to an earlier version, rather than it being natural. You can justify this with the supposed ‘years spent apart’ suggestion from the start of IX, but overall it just feels like an extension of the Dave era occasionally being a bit forced in trying to make the show feel like Classic Dwarf rather than its own thing. Cat definitely improves over the Dave era (although the Rimmer one-liners are way too frequent in Timewave), and he’s great in The Promised Land.

    Also, this article is such a bloody good example of why Seb was excellent at being a Red Dwarf Fan.

  • Cat maybe bouncing around cause of the character dynamic shift between VI and VIII. Picks up the non-science exposition side of Holly, to Rimmer absence to Cat and Kochanski having to accommodate expanded cast.

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