This Guy’s Pure Class Features Posted by Dave on 27th July 2022, 14:52 It’s a rare, nay freak occurrence for us to publish guest articles, but when Dave Wallace got in touch with this effort, we made an exception for three reasons. 1) Dave is a long-standing and very funny member of the community, and it’s the community that continues to make G&T worth visiting; 2) We’re in one of our shit phases for written content at the moment; 3) It’s really bloody good. Enjoy Dave’s musings on one of Red Dwarf‘s most important but lesser documented themes. Red Dwarf is a sitcom about a lot of things – space, science, weird cosmic phenomena, and the consequences of having a three-million-year old bum, a creature evolved from a cat and a hologram simulation of a long-dead jobsworth as the only sentient beings left in existence. But strip away its sci-fi trappings, and at the heart of the show is a concept that’s as universal as it is timeless: class. Yeah yeah, big deal, you might think. Class isn’t exactly a unique topic for a sitcom to address, and after TV comedy has mined the subject for decades – from Steptoe & Son and Fawlty Towers to Blackadder and Frasier – you could be forgiven for thinking that there was little left to say. But I’d argue that one of the most satisfying through-lines of the entire history of Red Dwarf – from its very first broadcast in 1988, all the way through the BBC and Dave eras, culminating in The Promised Land special in 2020 – is the way it introduces, develops and reinforces ideas around social class before subverting them and ultimately allowing its characters to escape them. As much as they can allow themselves to, at any rate. “There are 169 people onboard this ship. You, Rimmer, are over one man. Why can’t you two get on?” The show introduces ideas around class, rank and status from the very first scene of the very first episode, with a petty Rimmer seeking to exert his dominance over an indifferent Lister by punishing him for such transgressions as humming, clicking, and being quiet. We immediately get the sense of Rimmer as a pompous character who is socially and professionally aspiring, but too incompetent to pass his exams and become upwardly mobile; and who is as resentful towards his immediate superiors like Todhunter as he is eager to lord it over his one subordinate. Lister, on the other hand, is characterised as a lazy, rebellious slob who seemingly has no truck with the class system – although as future episodes demonstrate, that’s not as true as it might at first appear. To hammer it home, we even see the pre-accident social groups divided along lines of social class in scenes like McIntyre’s funeral, with working-class blue-collar workers quite separate from the officer class – with Rimmer clearly aspiring to be part of the higher class and away from the lower class, but not really belonging to either. This shorthand establishes the situation and the class roles that (like all good sitcoms) the characters will be trapped in, at least initially. And as the early years of the show play out, there’s a fairly conventional ‘workplace sitcom’ vibe to a lot of the scenes. We’re repeatedly encouraged to perceive Rimmer as a source of ironic humour due to him being so foused on the authority he derives from his status as a Second Technician over Lister who languishes as a Third Technician (occasionally even explicitly labelled “Technician – Third Class”). We’re encouraged to see his attempts at social climbing as buffoonish: “up, up, up the ziggurat, lickety split.” And we see threats to the social order swiftly batted away so as to preserve the ship’s class system – with Lister’s attempts to become Rimmer’s superior in Balance of Power immediately denied (and never remounted – because of course, it would break the show). Even in these early years, though, there’s clearly a sincere attempt to explore issues around class as more than just the setup for an easy punchline. As we gradually learn more about Rimmer’s hangups (largely linked to him never fulfilling his ambitions to join the officer class), we see that there’s genuine pathos there – and we even get the sense that class distinctions and expectations may be at the root of most of his neuroses. Of course, we’re seeing this mostly from a Rimmer-centric perspective that casts him as the wronged party. But if the gazpacho soup story in Me2 (seemingly forever blocking him from achieving a higher rank on board Red Dwarf) doesn’t have you sympathetic towards his plight, then what we learn about his parental expectations in episodes like Better Than Life – an upbringing that places the highest value on status, seemingly based on his parents’ own inability to socially climb – helps to make his class hangups more than just the butt of a few jokes. And at the same time as all this is going on, we’re seeing the show explore class in other ways, too – whether it’s Lister helping Kryten to achieve self-actualisation after breaking out of his servant role in Kryten, or seeing how viciously the working classes can be treated by a heartless overlord in Queeg. But if Rimmer was the focus of much of the class-centric development in the first couple of series, the shift in the show that came with Series III and IV allowed us to see that same level of complexity applied to Lister too. “It means I was a class traitor.” In fairness, the first two series of the show didn’t leave Lister entirely undeveloped when it came to class issues. Most interestingly perhaps, we see a level of working-class reverse-snobbery from Lister at times, in passages like his rant at Kochanski’s imaginary turtleneck-sweater-wearing pipe-smoking natural-yoghurt-eating partner in Stasis Leak. But arguably it’s Timeslides that’s the first episode to tell a story that gives us the same dimensionality to Lister’s class hangups as those of Rimmer. Firstly and most obviously, we see Lister’s unashamed willingness to catapult himself into a higher social class through his Tenison Sheet scheme, resulting in a grotesque version of the character who has no qualms with ordering servants around, wasting money on crass indulgences, and using his money and status to attract women. It’s disarming stuff, precisely because we’re already so familiar with the character who proudly described himself as a “working-class kid” in Waiting For God. But rather than being content just to show us the dark potential of this upper-middle-class Lister, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor also puncture the righteousness of Lister’s younger self: the disgusted (but unwittingly naïve) Smeg And The Heads singer who loathes money, hates possessions and considers laid-back egalitarian present-day Lister to be a crypto-fascist. It’s yet another indicator that Red Dwarf’s take on class is more complex than lower-class=good, higher-class=bad, and it helps to refocus the show’s class-oriented elements on Lister as much as Rimmer, in a way that continues into future series. Series IV, in particular, has some revealing moments for both lead characters, whether its more reverse-snobbery in Lister’s comedic confession that going into a wine bar made him a “class traitor” in DNA, to Ace Rimmer offering our Rimmer a shattering glimpse of his own potential as an officer in Dimension Jump – albeit an officer who is far from the sneering, superior type that Rimmer seems to aspire to be, and who instead prefers to hang out in the mess with the salt-of-the-earth engineering boys. A hint here that class isn’t so much about who you are and your status, but how you choose to relate to others. Dimension Jump also offers us a glimpse at an alternate Lister who has applied himself and become a successful engineer, albeit one with a social status that isn’t too far removed from our Lister – again making it clear that superficial class indicators aren’t the key to happiness, while also foreshadowing some character development for Lister that will come later in the Dave era. But we’ll get to that. And all through Series III and IV, we see the evolution of Kryten into a more fully-realised character too, expanding the class aspects of the show in new ways. I particularly like the way Kryten’s servant-class status recasts Lister as no longer the lowest-class character on the ship, but instead somebody who finds himself in the middle of the hierarchy: like a perpetually-looking-both-down-and-up Ronnie Barker to Rimmer’s John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett’s Kryten. (Now there’s a fantasy recast I’d like to see). While it’s tempting to suggest that Lister is a wholly positive influence on Kryten who constantly encourages him to break his programming and become his own droid, the truth is that even Lister succumbs to the trappings of his superiority over the mechanoid at times – with Kryten regularly given menial tasks that Lister now sees as beneath him. After all, he’s not doing his own smegging ironing. But by and large, Lister is a positive influence on Kryten: one who encourages the robot to not be constrained by class perceptions, to transcend his servile status and to ultimately become the most competent and upwardly mobile member of the crew – as evidenced by him quietly assuming the rank of science officer later on (albeit a science officer who must still defer to humans out of deference to his programming.) That is, aside from when Kryten becomes a human himself in DNA – an episode that not only gives this article its title, but which also provides one of the most challenging storylines to reconcile with the show’s overall approach to class. Because while Red Dwarf tends to take the view that people shouldn’t be defined by simplistic and reductive terms like job titles or class labels, there’s a reading of DNA that suggests that Kryten should be punished for daring to seek a change in his status – essentially that he needs to stay in his lane, go back in his box, or any other metaphor you might choose to symbolise someone not being able to exceed their boundaries. Whether it was Descartes or Popeye The Sailor Man who said it, there’s a sense that “I am what I am” comes with the unspoken implication that you also aren’t anything other than that, even anything more than that – and that trying to escape the class that you are born into is hubristic at best. However, I’m more inclined to give DNA the benefit of the doubt and read it not as a cautionary tale about social climbing, but more as a warning against trying to force yourself into a role that doesn’t fit. Because when you think about it, Kryten not being a human doesn’t really make him any less of a person – he just thinks it does. And when he visits his spare heads and denies his nature as a mechanoid, he’s rubbishing his own roots out of a desire to appear more sophisticated, rather than genuinely transforming himself into something better. Basically, being outwardly human in appearance doesn’t actually “level up” Kryten, only his own internal thoughts and feelings can do that – and the episode is about him learning this. “You’ve got brains, man. Brains you’ve never used.” While Series V and VI are among my favourite in the show’s history, they’re a little lighter on meaty character development (perhaps understandably, given how long Rob and Doug had been mining Lister and Rimmer for stories by this point). That said, there’s still some insight into class issues to be found there, whether it’s Holoship’s demonstration that Rimmer’s desire to achieve his dream of becoming an officer does in fact come with some limits; Quarantine’s hint that Rimmer feels threatened by Kryten’s increasing status (“you’re ‘merely’ a mechanoid, that’s all you’re ‘merely’. Don’t ever forget it” is one of the nastiest lines in the show); Back To Reality’s class-reversal for Lister and Rimmer showing us how both men would have their sense of self undermined by finding themselves in a vastly different class context; and The Inquisitor’s exploration of the crew’s notions of self-worth. It’s maybe this latter story that’s the most interesting V episode in terms of class issues, with Lister hinting that he knows that he’s always held back his own progress and potential, and with Kryten refusing to accept credit for any of his own personal strengths. I think it’s particularly telling that, according to The Inquisitor, the two lowest-class characters in the crew have the lowest opinions of themselves, pushing the idea that their perceptions of their own social status have had a negative impact on their self-esteem. Rimmer, on the other hand, can justify any personal shortcomings as being someone else’s fault while at the same time not being sufficiently advanced in status to have any real responsibilities to be tested; and Cat, well, he sort of exists outside of human notions of status and class altogether. Moving onto Series VI, while Emohawk gives us reprises of status-altered versions of Cat and Rimmer, and Rimmerworld shows us what kind of superficial hierarchy of Arnolds would evolve over hundreds of years, it’s maybe only Out Of Time that gives us something really substantial when it comes to the class elements of the show: when the crew meet their future selves, they’re disgusted by how these high-rolling but immoral versions of themselves can bear to sacrifice their principles just to join the upper classes and let themselves sample the best that the universe has to offer. There’s probably more to potentially unpack here than the episode has time for, but suffice to say the callous attitudes of those who are happy to align with people who are “a bit dodgy” – even when that comes at the expense of numerous other maligned social groups – is a pretty concise indictment of a lot of the flaws of our class system today. As the show proceeds into Series VII and VIII, there’s perhaps even less of this kind of character exploration, even if this can be excused for the sake of accommodating such priceless comedic setpieces as a shitting dinosaur (and perhaps less snarkily, because other writers were involved and the stories continued to be a little more plot-oriented than character-focused). But still, class-related nuggets are to be found. For example, it’s interesting that the flashback of Ouroboros seeks to recast the Lister-Kochanski breakup as at least partly being down to a social divide (Rimmer to Lister: “Didn’t I tell you you’d never bridge that class division?”), setting up a new take on the love of Lister’s life that characterises her as clearly of a different social standing and background – and offering a source of conflict in a relationship that, for the purposes of the Kochanski Series VII story arc, needed it. Meanwhile, it’s slightly less interesting that in Series VIII, the entire hierarchy of the ship is undermined for the sake of a gag about Captain Hollister really being Dennis the donut boy. Having said that, Series VIII as a whole is somewhat interesting in that it resets a lot of the development of the characters up to that point, and to a large extent puts them back where they were at the very start of the show, pre-accident. Which, after seven series of growth – seven series of pushing back against their labels and ranks, and outgrowing the class system of pre-accident Red Dwarf – inevitably feels jarring. But arguably even more intriguing than the exploration of class issues in the initial BBC era is how Doug Naylor took these ideas and expanded on them in the Dave era, essentially taking the arguments around class that Red Dwarf had set out up to this point and bringing them to a conclusion that proved that the show still had something to say. “A working-class hero, you and me both.” While Back To Earth didn’t do a huge amount to make us change our perception of the crew, it reasserted their characterisations after a long time off our screens, while also giving Lister something to strive for in terms of the search for Kochanski and a motivation for future self-improvement. And following on from that, Series X, XI and XII are full of examples of characters surpassing expectations – both their own expectations, and other people’s – and making themselves more than they were. Transcending ideas of class and status, essentially. In that context, Trojan is an interesting episode in that it seeks to bolster Rimmer not by elevating him, but by bringing someone else down to his level. When his brother Howard reveals that his life was a lie – and Rimmer realises that he’s not alone in his own unfulfilled ambitions of becoming an officer – it’s a moment that evokes the early years of the show in its unquestioning adherence to the idea of rank and status being important to Rimmer. Which is probably quite intentional, given what’s to come later in The Beginning. Before that, though, Fathers & Suns contains some interesting material about self-betterment, with Lister (as his own father) berating himself for his wasted potential and urging him to do something about it. Subsequently in Series X, there’s the through-line of Lister’s robotics course, suggesting that he knows he’s got brains, man, and now they’re brains he’s using. But of course, when it comes to class, it’s The Beginning that provides the richest material in Series X. A controversial episode for some Red Dwarf fans, who don’t like the implications of Rimmer finding out that his biological father isn’t who he thought; that it’s insulting to think that you should be happier with a ‘lesser’ life if you find out that you come from humble origins. But what I think this revelation provides is freedom for Rimmer from the expectations of his deranged parents, and a reorientation of his ideas around class altogether. It doesn’t change who Rimmer is as a person (and as we see in later episodes, many of the old class hangups do still persist), but it gives him a new perspective on himself and makes him realise that he doesn’t have to be subject to those old class restrictions any more; that he has been living under the constraints of someone else’s ideas. When Rimmer says “the slime’s coming home”, it’s not only a clunky callback to The End, it’s also an acknowledgement that he and Lister are equals; that they are, as Lister says, both working-class heroes; and that Rimmer is not going to be defined by the class hangups of his parents any longer. Or maybe he wouldn’t have been, if that had been the final episode of Red Dwarf. Because inevitably, later episodes in Series XI and XII roll this development back a little. In fairness, things look good at first, with Give & Take seeing Rimmer dealing with the fallout from The Beginning and ultimately concluding that “the only person who can help me is me” – only for Officer Rimmer to throw out a lot of that development by showing a very Series 1-era rank-obsessed Rimmer enforcing a one-man class system on the ship, to his own advantage. Maybe that’s a way of showing that part of Rimmer is always going to be class-obsessed and determined to try and rise above Lister somehow, but it still feels like a step backwards. On the other hand, Krysis is a nice way of reconnecting with Kryten’s ongoing search for self-betterment, albeit in a slightly less sincere way than in the past, with Butler providing a great foil who suggests that even among mechanoids, class hangups can persists; and then Siliconia goes even further and addresses issues of class and rank head-on, in a way that uses the slight variations between mechanoid models to effectively mock the notion of class distinctions altogether (but leaves itself with slightly too little runtime to address the idea in a meaningful way.) Even The Promised Land manages to address issues of rank and status in its own way, with Lister finally having to answer to the followers of Cloister and Rimmer upgrading himself to a new form. But for the Dave era’s final word on class and what it means to the characters, we probably have to look to Skipper. The final episode of XII provides a finale that (like The Beginning) could have functioned as a perfect endpoint for the entire show, as it addresses a lot of the issues around class that have underpinned the series for the last three decades – only to provide a twist that feels perfectly true to the characters while telling us something new about them. Because as Rimmer quantum-skips from reality to reality, the final dimension that he visits effectively grants all of his class-related wishes: “Navigation officer, yes! Married, yes! Children: four. Are they boys? Yes! I’ve got everything I ever wanted here.” Unfortunately for Rimmer, the one element of this reality that crushes his dreams – an element that is entirely separate to this Rimmer’s personal accomplishments and status, but which recontextualises them in a crucial respect – is that this reality’s Lister is his superior. Because class is relative, and as Rimmer puts it, “I can’t live in a reality where you’re more successful than me. The pain of it would be… too much.” (It’s particularly telling that in that same episode, an earlier dimension in which Lister was presented as higher-class was perfectly acceptable to Rimmer, because they would have been equals – he just got scared away by a giant fuck-off rat.) In a lot of ways, Skipper would be a perfect final episode for Red Dwarf, and was almost certainly planned as a potential send-off. And in terms of the class ideas touched on here, I think it would have been a great ending. Because it reconciles pretty much everything that we’ve seen in the show thus far, in terms of how it handles class, rank and status. We’re left with a realisation that objective measures of success aren’t all that meaningful, especially in a universe with such a tiny number of people left – much more important is how the characters relate to everyone else, and it’s only their personal feelings about class (and how they compare to others) that dictate whether or not they are happy with their lot. And we’re also left with an understanding that yes, these characters can transcend other people’s class definitions and become something different; that they aren’t limited to what anyone else thinks of them. And this is a theme that Dave-era Dwarf especially returns to again and again. Whether it’s Twentica’s Bob The Bum solving a problem worthy of his lookalike Einstein, the wrong Jesus in Lemons being inspired to become something greater than a bit of a knob, or honorary sixth-Dwarfer Snacky solving a scientific conundrum better suited to a stasis booth engineer, Dave-era Doug Naylor seems to be constantly reminding us of the power of self-belief: that whatever people think you are doesn’t matter. You can be more. It’s a sentiment that recalls Rimmer in Holoship insisting that “you are your job” only for Kryten to rattle off a host of counter-examples. And in a way, it goes all the way back to Rimmer, Lister and Todhunter in that corridor at the start of The End, arguing about who is superior to who and how that defines their lives on board ship. Taken as a whole, it all suggests that if there’s any final conclusion that Red Dwarf wants us to draw about rank, about titles, about class, it’s that these labels are essentially meaningless in and of themselves – but how you react to them and the weight you put on them personally is crucial. Whether you’re a third technician, a second technician, the son of a gardener or the god of the cat people, it doesn’t really matter what labels people put on you or what boxes they seek to put you in. That doesn’t tell you anything about yourself. What is far more important is how you choose to relate to others. It’s no coincidence that one of the most powerful, spine-tingling moments for long-time fans of the show was seeing Rimmer step into a heroic role as he tries to save his crewmates at the end of Out Of Time. If there’s one moment in Red Dwarf that demonstrates that a person can transcend their labels, can become more than what society tells them they are, it’s the sight of a cowardly, selfish, resentful second technician realising in a single moment of clarity that he can be something more. Obviously Red Dwarf is limited to some extent by the sitcom format. It can’t ever change its characters too much, or the key relationships at the heart of the show will break. But I think these examples show that it’s still possible to stretch those relationships as far as they can to explore all the issues of class, rank and status that grow out of such rich characters, in a way that’s far more meaningful than you might expect for a sci-fi sitcom.