Red Dwarf I, episode 4: “Waiting for God”
Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 7th March 1988.
THE PLOT, IN LESS THAN FIFTEEN WORDS
Rimmer examines an “alien spacecraft,” Lister examines the Cat religion and Cat does stuff.
BIG THEME TALK NOW
A feature-within-a-feature wherein I discuss big, weighty issues with the rambling self-entitlement of an academic who’s had too much mulled wine and brisket.
So. Something as trivial as a science fiction sitcom handling something as influential and all-pervading as religion. Let’s get to the big question: is it offensive to faith and religious belief, and would a religious person feel uncomfortable watching it? Well, as Herr Flick from ‘Allo! ‘Allo! would say, “possibly… but possibly not.” And then he’d bonk you on the head, but we’ll sidestep that.
Don’t get it wrong, it doesn’t avoid the issues at hand, touching on blind faith, textual misinterpretation of holy books and the idea of religion going too far (all largely for comedic purposes). For the most part, though, it’s a balanced approach where the characters’ attitudes towards the flaws of religion are balanced out by their own flaws: Cat largely rejects the teachings he was brought up with, yet he’s also a vain egotist who ignores and trivialises the suffering of others, so he probably isn’t an author tract for the benefits of rejecting belief; Rimmer ridicules theism, yet he pretty much invents the Quagaars on the fly simply to justify his interest in the pod. Religious conflict is discussed, though exaggerated to fit the show’s offbeat sense of humour (I don’t think actual holy wars were fought over something as trivial as hat colours, though your mileage may vary on that). Lister is dismayed at the actions of the cats, yet even then his message isn’t that religion is inherently bad or even that the cats’ faith was misguided: it’s that “they’re just using religion as an excuse to be extremely crappy to each other,” something that the American religious right could easily be accused of perpetrating.
As for personal faith, that of the Cat Priest fails him at the end and he’s even gone blind as if to say… well, I’m not sure what it’s saying, to be honest. Blind faith? Maybe, but he had faith before he went blind and lost it afterwards, so… blind rejection of faith? I don’t know and it’s making my brain hurt trying to untangle it, but it is worth noting that, at the very end, the Cat Priest’s faith is validated: Cloister does indeed return, a potential message of the power of faith and hope. If you find such a pro-religious notion ridiculous and not really indicative of how real life works, you’d have to put that same approach to the anti-religious messages presented here that you do agree with as well, lest ye be accused of cherry-picking to suit your agenda – and nobody likes that, save the people who actually do it.
If anything it’s equally offensive to sci-fi hard-liners for ridiculing the existence of aliens – what is that if not two fingers to Star Trek and Doctor Who, geek-ligions in themselves?* So I’d argue that Red Dwarf here takes a decidedly humanistic approach, not outright rejecting the spiritual but advising caution when dealing with the unknown. Whatever your beliefs, it’s a nice message. I don’t know how spiritual or non-spiritual Grant and Naylor are/were and, to be honest, I don’t really care, but I do applaud them for a respectful and thought-provoking examination of such a sensitive topic. And if, despite all this, you still find this episode uncomfortable to watch, remember what Mystery Science Theater 3000 said: “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.” It’s far less on-the-nose about it than “Lemons” or that crack about the missing Bible page, anyway.
BIG TALK END NOW
For a sitcom episode it throws some impressive punches, which might be enough to sing its praises. However, that’s not quite enough for me – despite all my analytical flimflam up there, I still have to be able to sit back, unshackle my chains and laugh heartily (if you’re thinking of a Southern sugar tycoon when you hear that phrase, you’re thinking right). So let’s slip in a little bit as to why this episode doesn’t tick all my boxes: the themes here are meaty, but they overwhelm everything else and the plot itself comes off as really rather thin and I find it difficult to recall exactly what’s happened apart from “well, religion, Rimmer being a git, the garbage pod and, er, a priest cat”; the jokes, in my opinion, aren’t as strong as in previous episodes, though Rimmer and Lister’s barbed banter remains as wonderful as before; and it’s a personal thing, as well, but Cat’s self-centred attitude towards the priest comes off as a little too cold for my liking. Like, seriously, man? At least Cat would grow in later seasons, but his lack of empathy can be pretty startling at times.
After three rough diamonds, we get more of a rough opal; that’s my haven’t-quite-thought-this-through way of saying that “Waiting for God” is might just be the weakest episode in the show’s run so far. It isn’t a bad episode by any means – it’s actually pretty great – but personally it’s my least favourite so far. But that’s opinions for you.
*An amalgam of ‘geek’ and ‘religion’ that I’m trying to get off the ground. Your help in this matter would be appreciated.
BULLET TRAIN OF THOUGHT
- It’s nice of them to wrap up the cliffhanger of “Balance of Power” like that, even more so to make a gag out of it.
- “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.”
- Another roast beef gag? Somebody had a fetish.
- First appearance of Talkie Toaster, I see.
- It’s a good sign that they’re slowly starting to bring Cat into proceedings as well. His appearance is still largely one-note, but he does provide the catalyst (no pun intended) to the plot, along with some decent bits.
- “This is my shiny thing; and if you try to take it off me, I may just have to eat you.” Extra props to Rimmer’s fake laugh there.
- I think I prefer Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s ‘ultimate question’ to Douglas Adams’ one.
- Rimmer’s assessment of the pod becomes so much funnier with the added comedic irony of Lister’s revelation.
- This episode is also noteworthy for introducing the show’s concept of an empty universe devoid of alien life. Of course the universe would gradually get less empty as the show progressed, but the lifeforms they encountered were always man-made: the GELFs, the Simulants, Legion, et al. It’s a nice antithesis to something like Doctor Who and its reliance on “aliens did it:” in Red Dwarf, any problem the team encounter was the result of man’s folly and execution. Did I say this show was pro-humanist? I might have to rethink that.
- The little interchange between Lister and Holly about the hats always makes me laugh.
- Rimmer’s outburst here, like any Rimmer outburst, is sheer gold.
- So… there was another cat on board the ship this whole time? Why does that creep me out so much?
- “That’s why he ate his own feet!”
- The first and only time the end credits have ever been interrupted, methinks.
- The series 1-8 boxset “Just the Shows” mixes up episodes 4 and 5 on the packaging, so I originally planned to write about “Confidence and Paranoia” before this episode. Silly me.