A Red Dwarf Fan Meta-Theory

*WARNING: This post is written with the assumption that the reader is not familiar with the Red Dwarf series. It also contains some minor spoilers. No major spoilers occur.*

As I have mentioned before, I love me some Red Dwarf. I’ve watched all 11 seasons a number of times now, and seasons one through four so many times it’s silly. The series started in 1988, and season 11 was released in 2016. They have taken years-long breaks a number of times. With 29 years of the show existing, an entire generation has grown up with it. The fan base is very strong, despite the inconsistencies which haunt the show. These continuity errors may be part of the charm of the show. The producers and writers obviously care more about good laughs than they do about maintaining a self-consistent world. There are dozens of these errors, and with every episode, they keep accumulating. Most fan wikis online have a section dedicated to these mistakes, with fan theories attempting to make sense of them on an individual basis.

Some examples are:

  • One of the main characters, David Lister, states in the first episode that he is ranked #169 out of the 169 crew members of the mining ship Red Dwarf. In season 4, Arnold Rimmer (another main character who caused the accident that killed everyone but Lister aboard the Red Dwarf in episode 1) is tried and convicted of 1,167 counts of murder.
  • David Lister at one point mentions he has never read a book. Later he insists he has read books. Oh, and in a couple of episodes, he is shown reading books (including a cat book written in smells).
  • Rimmer states that his father had committed suicide, but later is driven into a depression when he receives a letter from his mother informing him that his father has died.
  • Lister states he is an “enlightened 23rd Century guy”, yet a clock seen on the day he goes into a stasis chamber for refusing to give up the cat he smuggled aboard shows the year as 2077.
  • The Cat (another of the main cast) says that because no one else was around he had to teach himself, and yet in an earlier episode he reminisces about learning about Lister’s cat Frankenstein (the progenitor of the cat species) during his days in “kitty school.”
  • Lister has his appendix out twice.

Fans have grappled with these puzzles for years. They have come up with quite creative (and consistent to the show) theories to explain each of the consistencies in turn. I have been playing with a global meta-theory that might account for all of these continuity errors in one go.

In the opening episode, we learn that the ship’s computer, Holly, has an IQ of 6,000. That’s not too shabby. We also learn that Rimmer is incompetent and that Lister has a cat aboard which is against Space Corp regulations. Captain Hollister discovers that Lister has a cat, and demands that it be turned over. Lister refuses, and as punishment gets put into stasis for the remaining 18 months if his tour of duty. Lister comes out of stasis, with no sense of the passage of time, to discover that Rimmer caused a radiation accident which killed the whole crew and that Holly had to wait 3 million years until the radiation faded to the point where it was safe to bring Lister out. In the meantime, Frankenstein (who was pregnant) gave birth and (despite the radiation) a race of feline humanoids evolved in the ship’s hold. Holly resurrects Rimmer as a hologram to keep Lister sane, and the ship makes is slow turn back towards Earth. The notion of Holly acting to keep Lister sane is clue one in my meta-theory about what’s really going on in the show.

In the early seasons, Lister has a tendency towards tall tales and jokes. You can never be quite sure if what he is saying is the truth, or if it’s a put on. As the show progresses, all of the regular characters take on this tendency, and by the later seasons most of their interactions start out (and often end) as elaborate jokes. This is clue two.

Red Dwarf sports several recurring themes. One starts in an episode featuring the “Despair Squid”. This leviathan like sea creature has evolved a peculiar defense mechanism. The ink it squirts is psychoactive and sends its victims into a hallucinatory world where they are confronted with scenarios designed to drive them so far into the depths of despair that they eventually kill themselves. Some variation of this animal forms the basis of a few of the episodes and ends up being the driving force behind an entire season.

Another recurring trope is virtual reality. During a handful of episodes, the crew whether voluntarily, or not voluntarily visits virtual realities through in a number of ways.

The repeated entrapment in artificial reality that occurs throughout the series is clue three.

The show starts off with some far-fetched conceits but generally feels like a solid science fiction sitcom. As the seasons stack up the adventures of the crew, along with the entities they meet, get steadily sillier. This is clue four.

In a few episodes we revisit the idea of stasis. Sometimes errors with the stasis devices on board ship become the impetus for an episode. On other occasions the crew uses stasis technology to sleep through periods they could not survive waiting out. This is clue five.

So, what’s going on in this crazy show? Here’s my theory: Lister has not yet left stasis. When he initially goes in, a minor malfunction occurs. He is not perfectly sealed out of time. Instead, he is just conscious enough to dream. Holly, having an IQ of 6,000 realizes this, and develops a way to project information into Lister’s dreams so that Holly can keep Lister’s dreams directed in a way that will not cause Lister to realize he is trapped for what feels like decades. In other words, we have never gotten out of episode one. All the characters in the crew slowly take on Lister’s tendencies towards tall tales because they are, after all, all really facets of Lister’s mind. The theme of the imposition of virtual reality is how Holly keeps Lister from getting wise to what’s really going on. The despair squid is Lister’s subconscious trying to alert him to what’s happening. The lack of continuity is because Lister doesn’t give a smeg about such concerns, and really can’t be bothered to accurately remember all the little details.

In short, (nearly) the whole of the Red Dwarf series is the dreaming mind of a man not quite stuck in a state of suspended animation.

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