Red Dwarf is a British science-fiction comedy that begins in the future when space travel is routine. The first episode ends three million years later than that, after Dave Lister spends time in stasis and his pet cat has evolved into a sentient humanoid lifeform. Frankly, the further 200 years the crew spend in deep sleep between Series V and Series VI is barely worth mentioning as most of the show is set in so far forward a future it is almost unimaginable.
Yet despite this, Red Dwarf has a lot to tell us about the past, particularly the 20th Century. The Red Dwarf crew frequently encounter characters from history, both real and replicas.
The Red Dwarf Crew
Before we see Red Dwarf's view of history, we should take a look at the ship's crew. The Cat's chief interests are himself, fashion and narcissism. The android Kryten, despite breaking his initial programming, remains largely focused on cleaning and obeying orders. The human Lister and his resurrected holographic companion Rimmer are both strongly influenced by the past, but have very different historical heroes.
Arnold Judas Rimmer (Chris Barrie)
Despite being dead and a hologram, Arnold Judas Rimmer believes that he is the reincarnation of Alexander the Great's Chief Eunuch. The people that Rimmer admires the most from the past are all military leaders and conquerors, not only Alexander but also Julius Cæsar, Napoleon Bonaparte and General Patton, or 'various other gits' as Lister calls them. It is his ambition to become first an officer, and later as great a leader as they were.
Rimmer when alive wrote a diary which he titled My Diary, by Arnold J Rimmer, stating that he hoped someday it would be placed alongside his historical heroes' own work: Napoleon's War Diaries, Biggles' Big Adventure and The Memories of Julius Caesar1. Among Rimmer's most treasured possessions are his 19th Century replicas of Napoleon's L'Armée du Nord. He says Napoleon was the historical figure he'd most like to work with.
Dave Lister (Craig Charles)
Lister, on the other hand, has far simpler tastes, possibly because he only has one working tastebud left. These include lager, curry, more curry2, rock music, Zero-G Football, virtual reality computer games and classic mid-20th Century Hollywood films. Presumably because he lives in space and no science-fiction films can compare to his own experiences, he shies away from special-effects blockbusters. Instead his favourites are black and white masterpieces such as It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Casablanca (1942), although he does once claim that the remake starring Myra Binglebat and Peter Beardsley was definitive3.
Lister uses films as guides on how to behave4. Not only does Casablanca teach Lister about the nobility of lying, it also affects Rimmer and Kryten's relationships. Lister also uses The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Easy Rider (1969) to encourage Kryten to break his programming and disobey Rimmer.
Lister: Hang on. These guys aren't Nazis... they're all wearing different period costumes. There's one looks like Al Capone, there's another like Mussolini, Richard III, Napoleon. Smeg, it's like all the worst people in history have been brought together in one place... Woah, Woah! Hang on, hang on. Someone's being brought out, they're tying him to a stake. It's Winnie-the-Pooh... Winnie-the-Pooh, I swear! He's refusing the blindfold.
That's something no one should ever have to see.
Special mention should be made of the final Series IV episode of Red Dwarf, entitled 'Meltdown'. In this spoof of Westworld (1973) the crew land on a planet where waxdroid replicas of famous people from history and fictional characters are locked in a Civil War between good and evil. The 20 surviving members of the forces of good are led by Sergeant Elvis Presley (Clayton Mark) and include:
- Albert Einstein (Martin Friend)
- Pythagoras (Stephen Tiller)
- Abraham Lincoln (Jack Klaff)
- Marilyn Monroe (Pauline Bailey)
- Pope Gregory (Michael Burrell)
- Stan Laurel (Forbes Masson)
- Noel Coward (Roger Blake)
- Dalai Lama (Leonard Ten-Pow)
- Mahatma Gandhi (Charles Reynolds)
- St Francis of Assisi (Ray Chaney)
- Queen Victoria (Alice De Mallet De Donas)
- Mother Teresa (Loraine Farraro)
- Jean-Paul Sartre (Jeremy De Satge)
Presley explains that the greatest heroic warriors are gone, mentioning John Wayne, Sir Lancelot, Joan of Arc, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Father Christmas and Doris Day. History's greatest villains include:
- Caligula (Tony Hawks MBE5)
- Hitler (Kenneth Hadley)
- Rasputin (Stephen Micalef)
- Hermann Goering (Robert Smythe)
- Joseph Goebbels (Raymond Martin)
- Al Capone (David Garry)
Other villains mentioned but not seen include Napoleon, Messalina and the Boston Strangler. In a scene straight out of Full Metal Jacket (1987), Rimmer takes the forces of good and tries to turn them into a mean fighting force. He then orders them to undertake a heroic charge straight through the minefield under cover of daylight because it is 'The last thing they'll be expecting', which results in both sides' total destruction.
Rimmer: Holly? Is it possible? Could this be Earth?
Holly: Certainly seems that way. Constellations match, gravity exactly one-G.
Rimmer: What's the time period?
Holly: Well, it's difficult to pin it down exactly, but according to all the available data, I would estimate it's round about lunchtime, maybe half-one.
Rimmer: What period in history, dingleberry-breath? I mean can we expect to see Genghis Khan and his barbarian buddies sweeping across the hill? Or a herd of flesh-eating dinosaurs feeding off the bones of Doug McClure? What is the year?
Holly: Well, I'd need some more data before I could give you a precise answer.
Holly: Well, this year's calendar'd be 'andy!
Ancient Greece and Rome
Although the crew of the Red Dwarf do not actually travel to Ancient Greece, the era does still impact them. For example, they encounter a waxdroid recreation of Pythagoras (Stephen Tiller). Lister and Rimmer are both interested in the Tale of Troy, with Lister reading a comic-book version of Virgil's Aeneid, which Kryten reads aloud: '"Zap, pow, kersplat, die in bed you Trojan pig-dog, gnyarrg, kerpow." I see they've remained faithful to the original text. I'm sure Virgil would have approved.' Lister would later be inspired by the Trojan Horse and use its lesson to defeat the Inquisitor. Unsurprisingly, the Psirens the crew encounter have similarities with the Sirens mentioned by Homer's Odyssey.
Ancient Rome also continues to have a lasting legacy on the 'Boys from the Dwarf'. Not only do the crew encounter a waxdroid Emperor Caligula (Tony Hawks), they also meet someone who appears to be a clone of Valeria Messalina (Chloe Hawkins), the sex-crazed promiscuous wife and cousin of Emperor Claudius, who completely fails to find the Cat (Danny John-Jules) attractive. Ancient Roman civilisation seems to have had a lasting impact on Rimmer. On Rimmerworld6 a whole society of Rimmers is created, with the ruler dressed like a Roman Emperor and surrounded by soldiers in Roman-style uniforms. In 'Terrorform', on a world created from Rimmer's subconscious, Rimmer is imprisoned in a cell with Roman-esque captors, wearing a loincloth similar to that seen worn by Jesus during the crucifixion.
You're him off the Bible, aren't you?
Red Dwarf has never been afraid to ask the big questions. These include 'Is Chinese whispers racist?', 'What if the Universe had a mid-life crisis?' and of course 'Given that God is infinite, and that the Universe is also infinite, would you like a toasted teacake?' In this vein it is no surprise that Red Dwarf has addressed the mystery of religion, specifically Christianity.
Rimmer himself has had quite a religious upbringing, as his middle name, Judas, attests. His mother belonged to the Church of Judas, which believed that Judas was Jesus' twin brother and took his place at the crucifixion, thus saving Jesus' life, allowing him to return after his apparent death. Rimmer was later raised as a Seventh Day Advent Hoppist, a cult which was inspired by Biblical verse 1 Corinthians 13, which unfortunately due to a misprint states that the cornerstone of their belief is 'Faith, Hop and Charity - and the greatest of these is Hop', rather than the correct spelling of 'Hope'7. Hoppists were expected to spend every seventh day hopping: hopping to church, all through the service, and then hopping home again, still hopping when attempting to have their Sunday lunch. It is uncertain whether his parents' unusually dedicated faith has had a lasting impact on Rimmer's beliefs. Although he owns a collection of Christian rock music CDs, he states that Jesus was a hippie because he had long hair and he didn't have a job. He also calls the film King of Kings (1961) 'total baloney', dismissing it with the words:
A simple carpenter's son who learns how to do magic tricks like that and doesn't go into show business? Do any of us believe that, even for a second? ... And when he was carrying that cross up the hill, any normal realistic bloke would have mule-kicked the guy on the left, clobbered the one on the right, and been over that green hill and far away before you could say 'Pontius Pilate'.
It isn't just Rimmer who questions Christianity. An early episode contains a news report from Groovy Channel 27, in which a news reader says:
Archaeologists near Mount Sinai have discovered what is believed to be a missing page from the Bible... if genuine it belongs at the beginning of the Bible and is believed to read 'To my darling Candy. All characters portrayed within this book are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.' The page has been universally condemned by church leaders.
Presumably this page is a forgery, as in episode 'Lemons' (Series X, episode 3) an accident results in the crew travelling back in time to 23 AD. In India they meet a peace-loving, spiritual man named Jesus (James Baxter). After ending up on board Red Dwarf, Jesus learns the history of Christianity. Horrified that his teachings lead to murder and war, he returns to Earth deciding to destroy his reputation by ranting against keeping the Ten Commandments. Yet it is revealed he is not Jesus of Nazareth but Jesus of Cæsarea; he's not the messiah but a very naughty boy (having been criticising the Ten Commandments). While Lister stops for a curry they see twin brothers named Jesus and Judas...
Mediæval and Renaissance
The Middle Ages is an era in history the crew largely associate with how, in 12th-Century Burgundy, for some unexplained reason it rained herring. Except of course for Rimmer, who remembers the wars. Knowing this, when Rimmer abandons his comrades to an almost-certain doom, only to be caught by the time-dilation effect of a wormhole, Kryten measures the length that Rimmer will be trapped by comparing it to the mediæval war that lasted quite a long time. Sadly Rimmer's initial guess of the Thirty Years War is incorrect, with the Hundred Years War being the one Kryten had in mind – only for that figure to be multiplied by six.
Lister is fond of mediæval virtual reality computer games. In episode 'Stoke Me a Clipper' he plays a game in which, at a jousting tournament, he defeats the champion of the King (Brian Cox) and successfully seduces his French Queen (Sarah Alexander).
The crew meet someone who appears to be a cloned and cured recreation of Vlad the Impaler (Phillipe Spall). He insists that the fact Kryten's head ends up on a spike shortly after they met was coincidental and nothing to do with him... They also encounter a solid hallucination of the Mayor of Warsaw, who in 1546 spontaneously combusted.
The Red Dwarf crew do actually time-travel back to the Middle Ages on one occasion. Using a fully-functioning Time Drive, Starbug travels back in time to 16 August, 1421. Unfortunately Starbug is still in deep space and it would take a journey of three million years to return to Earth.
In the far future the Renaissance is most famous for playwright William Shakespeare, who Rimmer describes as having a 'skullet', which he defines as 'A bald mullet... Bald at the front, mullet at the back. You wouldn't want to go out in public with this guy.' Despite this, among Rimmer's most treasured possessions is the last ever copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, which Lister burns when they have crash-landed on an iceworld. Rimmer is particularly fond of Richard III with its 'unforgettable speech that starts with 'Now'' that he confesses he has forgotten.
The Renaissance isn't unique to our dimension, but took place in the Backwards universe too, except in reverse. In the Backwards universe, St Francis of Assisi was considered 'a petty-minded little sadist who goes around maiming small animals.'
Early Modern Era
The Red Dwarf crew has had surprisingly few encounters with historical characters following the death of Shakespeare and before the 20th Century. However, when a Christine Kochanski (Chloë Annett) from a different dimension joins the crew, she decides to educate Lister and Cat about her passion for Jane Austen by taking them to a recreation of virtual reality game Pride and Prejudice World. While Lister tries to introduce the Bennett sisters to curry, a jealous Kryten does not react well...
The 20th Century
Perhaps the most common century the Red Dwarf crew encounter outside their own is the 20th Century. It is not only an era famous for the high level of car accidents in Sweden involving a moose, but earth-shaking wars also took place. They actually spend some time in the late 20th Century in the Backwards Universe, where Kryten decides to buy and wear a plastic Ronald Reagan mask in order to look inconspicuous, which doesn't quite work.
Adolf Hitler and the Second World War
Ignore him, he's a complete and total nutter, and he's only got one testicle!
- Lister at a Nuremburg rally
Perhaps the most controversial figure the Red Dwarf crew frequently encounter is the leader of the Third Reich, the 'runners-up' in the Second World War. In 'Timeslides', a method of travelling back in time into old photographs is found. Lister inadvertently stands next to Adolf Hitler at the Nuremburg Rally, stealing his briefcase8 which unbeknown to them contains a bomb, foiling Claus von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt9.
The crew also encounters replicas of the leaders of the Nazi Party. As well as waxdroid replicas of Hitler, Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels, they later meet people who seem to be cured clones of Hitler and Joseph Stalin (Callum Coates). This Adolf Hitler (Ryan Gage) has apparently been cloned from his descendants10 and is no longer an evil psychopath. In fact he seems quite friendly, sharing many interests with Lister, resulting in their playing a soft rock version of 'The Happy Wanderer' on guitar together.
Perhaps this provides an explanation as to how the inept crew become the snobbish future selves seen in episode 'Out Of Time'. In this, their future selves boast of socialising with the most evil figures of history, including Hitler who Future Rimmer calls 'a hoot as long as he's not talking about his work', where they enjoy the odd game of mixed doubles with the Goerings. This isn't the first time Goering had been mentioned in the series either, as Lister had at the very start said he would have preferred Holly to have reincarnated Hermann Goering as a hologram rather than Rimmer, saying, 'Okay, he was a drug-crazed transvestite, but at least we could have gone dancin'!'
Rimmer with his love of war and militaria is also fond of the Second World War, having treasured a tube of General George S Patton's sinal fluid11. Though worth more than a thousand dollarpounds, in an uncharacteristically generous gesture he presents it as a gift to Kryten. This is just one example of Rimmer's bizarre behaviour and beliefs about the Second World War. He is convinced that Glenn Miller, whose plane disappeared without trace in 1944, was abducted by aliens. When he encounters what he believes is an alien spacecraft, he broadcasts the message that he doesn't want Miller back. It is quite likely that it is Rimmer's Second World War game that Kryten hacks into to get a tank to take to Pride and Prejudice World.
Sadly, the Second World War took place in multiple dimensions. In one dimension, Ace Rimmer rescues Princess Bonjella (Alison Senior) from a Nazi firing squad having defeated a crocodile-wielding German general. At least in the Backwards Universe the Second World War is a joyous event in which millions of people come back to life as Hitler retreats across Europe, liberating France and Poland - although whether he played soft rock as he did so is unknown.
Cat: Einstein? Wasn't he the dude who discovered America?
Holly: Einstein discovered the Theory of Relativity.
Rimmer: The Theory of Relativity is... what is the Theory of Relativity?
Lister: Yeah, what is it, Holl? ... Just tell us what it is in, sort of, simple layman's terms.
Holly: It's a theory... it's the Theory of Relativity. You know, it's the theory you only tell your relatives.
- 'Back in the Red' Part III
Albert Einstein is among the most famous male icons of the 20th Century. Einstein is often mentioned by the crew of the Red Dwarf in episodes like 'Future Echoes'. The crew also scavenge the SS Einstein, a ship laden with vital supplies including fabric softener. When trying to persuade Rimmer that he isn't defined by his job, the others ask: 'Was Albert Einstein a clerk in a patent office or the greatest physicist who ever lived?' They even meet a waxdroid of Einstein. Yet this everyday familiarity with Einstein does not mean a great deal when the crew travel back in time to a 1950s world in which technology more sophisticated than that found in the 1920s has been outlawed. Their only hope to save the human race is to find Albert Einstein, but unfortunately they mistake a wild-haired tramp called Bob The Bum for the scientific genius.
Marilyn Monroe was a famous film star who is frequently mentioned by the crew, but never actually encountered by them. When playing virtual reality game Better than Life where dreams can come true, Marilyn is one of Cat's girlfriends12. When Kryten is due to be deactivated, Lister assembles a Build-it-yourself Marilyn Monroe droid as a gift. Despite it promising 'With just a screwdriver and a tub of glue, you can construct an exact replica of the famous actress, in under two hours', it is the least-convincing Monrobot conceivable, with a metallic appearance. Despite having a remote control, it stomps off through a solid wall when activated. At least the crew later encounter a Marilyn Monroe waxdroid which is far more convincing, but perhaps the closest they get to seeing the real Marilyn is by meeting the president she famously wished would have a happy birthday.
John F Kennedy
We could go back to Dallas, in November 1963, stand on the grassy knoll and shout 'Duck!'
- Kryten, 'Timeslides'
There is one genuine case in which the 'Boys from the Dwarf' travel back in time and change a pivotal moment in human history, with unforeseen consequences. This is in episode 'Tikka to Ride'. Shortly after they learn that the time-drive can only travel in time, not space, so that if they were to use it they would still be hopelessly lost three million years away from Earth, Lister decides to use the time-drive in order to order a curry. They travel back to Dallas, Texas on 22 November, 196313. They materialise inside the Texas School Book Depository at the moment Lee Harvey Oswald plans to shoot the man Lister calls 'that American king Jeff Kay', accidentally killing Oswald and saving Kennedy's life.
Yet a trip to 1966 reveals that had Kennedy lived, he would have been found guilty of sharing a mistress with a Mafia boss and imprisoned, only for J Edgar Hoover to become president while the USSR established a nuclear missile base in Cuba, resulting in the abandonment of all American cities. The only way to save the future is to persuade the indicted Kennedy from 1966 to go back to 1963 and shoot at himself from a grassy knoll.
The Red Dwarf crew have had numerous encounters with time. They have seen future echoes of what has not yet happened, including seeing the death of Lister's son before his birth. They have seen time run backwards and Lister has become his own father. Time machines and other advanced technology are indistinguishable from magic, but the 'Boys from the Dwarf' have inadvertently used a time wand to turn a dead canary into a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex, encountered and accidentally exploded a sentient computer that can see into the future, and assembled a flat pack rejuvenation booth so wrongly that it transported them back in time to the birth of Christianity.
With time holes and stasis leaks, it is perhaps no wonder that when they encountered their future selves they all tried to kill each other. All in all it's a miracle the timeline isn't any more smegged up than it already is.