This post is going to look at some well-known science fiction tropes and how the sitcom Red Dwarf and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) plays with them.
We all know the plot device involving stasis chambers. All the big space movies use suspended animation: Resident Evil 3, Lost in Space, Alien, Minority Report, Forever Young, the Empire Strikes Back, or Pandorum. What’s scarier than waking up from suspended animation to find that something’s wrong: maybe there’s an alien on board, the computers aren’t working, you’re not where you should be, not when you should be, the rest of the crew is missing. What you don’t expect is for the protagonist to walk around the ship, searching for the missing crew, sampling different what looks like piles of powdered sugar, only to find out that everyone’s been turned to dust and he’s been eating half the crew. All this happens in the first ten minutes of episode 1 of Red Dwarf. The people in stasis are not usually soup vending machine repairmen who’ve been put in stasis as punishment for sneaking a cat on board (although Red Dwarf does frequently use it as a prison, as you’ll see in the case of zombified Barbara Bellini in the “Justice” episode). They are usually the crew being kept safe from harm and aging. This is what the Golgafrincham do in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In fact, when Ford Prefect sees the telephone sanitizers locked away, he thinks they are coffins, but in fact they are frozen during their mission to colonize a new world (which turns out to be Earth, but more on that later).
Another common motif in science fiction is the shipboard computer. It can be a lovable character–Think Flight of the Navigator or it can have evil motives like the classic Hal or the modern equivalents, like the shipboard computer in Wall-e. The writers can give you the old switcheroo, too. In Duncan Jones’ Moon, you have a computer evocative of Hal, but whose suspicious activities turn out to be those of love. Now, H2G2 is filled with talking computers and robots (Colin, Deep Thought, Hactar, even the Book itself), but a majority of the cliches are played with on board the Heart of Gold ship. Here is where we meet Marvin who’s programmed to act like a human–a depressed human. We meet the shipboard computer, Eddie, who has a selection of personalities to choose from, such as the buddy-moron personality or the elementary school teacher. The Heart of Gold also has self-satisfied doors and a kitchen interface that can’t quite work Arthur’s appetite for tea.
The problem with taking a super-intelligent computer into deep space, removing its crew, and leaving it for millions of years on its own, it goes a little space crazy, not to mention senile. Holly, the computer of the Red Dwarf, first played by Norman Lovett, then by Hattie Hayridge, is essentially your friendly but forgetful grandparent who frequently does the digital equivalent of forgetting where they left their boots only to find they’ve put them in the freezer and that they’re inexplicably wearing pudding on their feet. Occasionally Holly will outsmart the crew (by posing as a terrifying replacement named Queeg, for example), but it isn’t often. Red Dwarf features a few other shipboard computers, such as the psychic Cassandra who tries to prevent her own death by falsely prophesizing Rimmer’s, or Pree who knows its crew so intimately, she can carry out their orders even before they give them.
Planet of the Apes is your classic example of humanoids evolved from something else (remember humans share a common ancestor and are therefore not actually descendants of today’s monkeys or apes). But what would a humanoid descended from a cat look like? While Lister is in stasis for millions of years on the Red Dwarf, his cat has kittens, and over millions of years, they evolve, invent war, and abandon the ship, leaving behind Cat, who could pass for a dim-witted human most of the time, unless there’s something shiny in the room. And if you’re wondering what a humanoid evolved from a dog would look like, there’s an episode where the crew meets their opposites.
According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, earthlings are not earthlings at all. They didn’t evolve from the cavemen. Instead, the Golgafrincham crash landed here during the time of the cavemen, who shortly thereafter died out. Since only the B Arc–housing the middlemen of civilization, such as hair dressers and documentary filmmakers–arrived on the planet, the human race is born out of advertising agents and telemarketers. While trying to explain to Arthur that helping the cavemen learn to play scrabble is pointless, Ford says, “Face up to it Arthur, those zeebs over there are your ancestors, not these cavemen. Put the Scrabble away. It won’t save the human race because Mr. Ugg here is not destined to be the human race. The human race is currently sitting ’round that rock over there making documentaries about themselves.” (original radio transcript)
There seems to be a consensus that robots are the way of the future. The non-personality ones are already taking our jobs, and you’ve got Siri on the phone to chat with whenever you need something done. The tricky thing with giving a robot a personality is, when does it deserve rights? When does it feel? When does it have a soul? These are the questions plagued by science fiction for decades. Look I Robot, for example. Douglas Adams plays with the robots with personalities situation by creating the GPP (Genuine People Personalities), a “ghastly” experiment in putting human-like personalities into robots, which results in Marvin, a prototype of depression. (“Life? Don’t talk to me about life.”) You now have a character programmed to be so inconsolable, his contagious depression drives weaker characters toward suicide. This comes in handy later when, in a Dark Star-esque moment, Marvin must convince the great computer Hactar not to destroy the universe.
What if you start mixing humans and machine, like Robocop or The Terminator? Red Dwarf creates a whole culture of robots and simulants and how they interact and view each other. Rogue silumants antagonize the crew of the Dwarf in at least seven different episodes, including “Justice,” “The Inquisitor,” and “The Beginning.” The Funny thing is that despite the fact that Kryten, the ship’s domestic robot, is purely mechanical and only designed to serve, Lister is still able to coax Kryten into breaking his programming. Sure, he still enjoys folding the laundry, but he is given the same rights and decision-making power as any of the crew. In fact, it’s as though the mere ability to call his superior a “smeg head” is what elevated his status to crew member. Kryten is ever at odds with his rogue behavior, feeling guilty (and yet oddly pious) about having broken his programming.
Whether you’re sitting in a bubble watching the clothes on the shop dummies change through the seasons, or burning rubber in a DeLorean, or zipping through history in a phone booth (let’s face it, this could be a reference to Doctor Who or Bill and Ted), science fiction leaves us little doubt that time travel is the flashiest way to get about. While the characters in Red Dwarf occasionally stumble across some odd little wrist watch or shower cubicle that can transport them to Nazi Germany Wax World or the time of Jesus, time travel in H2G2 rarely comes with a device. Arthur and Ford, it can only be said, “stumble” through time. They jump forward to Milliways to watch the end of the universe, teleport back in time to witness the creation of the human race by using a damaged teleporter aboard a sundiving ship they’ve stolen, and even once travel through time by way of Chesterfield sofa. I doubt that anyone in all of science fiction has accidentally traveled through time more often than Arthur Dent.
3D projections are used in several ways in science fiction, such as simulating an environment like the holodeck in Star Trek, as a way to communicate as with Star Wars or Power Rangers, and more complexly as characters like the Emergency Medical Hologram in Star Trek Voyager. While H2G2 limits its use of projection to communication with Slartibartfast and a dead relative of Zaphod Beelebrox, Red Dwarf takes the sophisticated route by making one of the protagonists, Arnold Rimmer, a hologram. This allows ample room to use it as a device to comment on racism-like prejudices, in the same way that Kryten’s status on board as a mechanoid does. A hologram’s directive is to lay down his life to save living members of the crew, for example. This is not something in the Arnold J. Rimmer directive, however. Red Dwarf is able to play with the hologram trope by sending Rimmer to a holoship to meet “his people,” have him walk through walls, introduce him to “hard light,” suffer computer glitches that give him the wrong body parts, and subject him to various kinds of holo-sicknesses such as the holovirus that fabricates him a checkered dress and a stuffed penguin or simply going mad from being able to live for so long (i.e. “Rimmerworld”).
Every future society has its made-up words. While Red Dwarf has the catchy “Smeg,” it’s hard to compete with Adams’ cuss word, “Belgium!”