“Waiting for God,” an episode from Red Dwarf’s first season, usually gets talked about as a ham-fisted satire of religion. However, I think there’s more to it than that. This episode shows most of its characters grappling, in their own fashions, with the purpose of their existences. These matters are hard to avoid when you’re on a near-empty mining ship three million years from Earth, with no knowledge of what has become of the human race. Red Dwarf is based on a terribly dark premise and always has existential themes, but this episode is one of the times that they’re most prominent. More than that, “Waiting for God” involves highly cynical commentary on humankind’s search for meaning in life.
Religion is the popular choice when it comes to dealing with life’s big questions, for Cat people as well as humans, it seems. The Cats have built their religion upon Lister saving Frankenstein, their feline ancestor, and the differing interpretations of that relationship have led to a holy war. This leads to the episode’s clumsiest bit of writing when Lister says, “They’re just using religion as an excuse to be extremely crappy to each other,” and Talkie Toaster replies, “So what else is new?”
When we meet the Cat Priest and learn how he has devoted his life to Cloister/Lister, and has struggled with his faith, it’s a tragic scene. We know in all certainty that Cloister never intended for anyone to worship him, or for people to kill each other over things he said. We know he wasn’t a god at all. Having listened to Rimmer’s comment that being honest with the Cats wouldn’t be telling them what they want to hear, Lister lies. He masquerades as his divine self and affirms the Priest’s beliefs, telling him he has earned his place in a heavenly paradise. This makes the Priest briefly happy before he dies, seconds later. His greatest wish may have been granted, but don’t we still feel that his life could have been better spent?
Elsewhere, Rimmer is busy creating a religion, in his own atheist fashion. He doesn’t believe in God, he believes in aliens. When Red Dwarf picks up a mysterious pod, Rimmer quite irrationally decides that aliens are involved, and that if he can learn more about them, they will create him a new body and generally give him everything he’s ever wanted.
Rimmer is a curious combination of different points of view in this episode, suggesting at an underlying daftness in the various ways humankind grapples with existential issues. He starts out talking like some kind of New Ager, pondering the Bermuda Triangle, the Pyramids, and other unsolved mysteries. He believes there must be answers to be found, somewhere in the universe. “If there’s no one out there, what’s the point in existence, why are we here?” he asks. Soon enough he’s yelling, “It’s a name I made up!” when Lister questions why he’s calling the “aliens” Quagaars, but he shows total disinterest in the Cats and how their beliefs led them astray. In his intolerance, rigidity, and lack of self-awareness, he seems rather like a religious fundamentalist, or the type of person who treats The God Delusion suspiciously like a Bible.
Rimmer and the Cat Priest each need to believe in something larger than themselves, and to connect with it to give their lives greater meaning. Lister, who will be referred to in “Back to Reality” as “the ultimate atheist,” doesn’t feel this way, however. His opinion is this: “There’s nothing out there, you know. There’s nobody out there. […] It’s just you, me, the Cat, and a whole lot of floating smegging rocks. That’s it. Finito.” Lister is talking about aliens here, but he also means God, and possibly the entire human race. There’s no other life than this, and this life is pretty crap.
What’s Lister supposed to do with himself, then? He’s not one for philosophising, but being so alone, and so far from Earth, has forced him into thinking hard about his life. How does a guy who could spend ten years as a supermarket trolley attendant react to the rather existential nature of his situation as the last human alive?
Perhaps, Lister posits, he and Rimmer exist because humanity is some sort of disease that infested the Earth. No more, no less. It’s questionable whether or not Lister really believes this. If Kochanski or Petersen were with him, would he think of them that way? Nonetheless, this train of thought probably does lead to him looking for finer qualities within himself, for something that makes him more than a disease. He manages it, with his kindness to the Cat Priest.
In “Back to Reality,” we will see that Lister views his morals as being integral to who he is. Despite having no belief in a god or an afterlife, Lister doesn’t fully embrace nihilism. He tries to be accountable to himself, as best he can.
This episode doesn’t wind up as a neat little statement on atheistic morals, however. Elsewhere, we see Lister rather gleefully taking pleasure in mocking someone else’s existential angst.
Talkie Toaster has an advantage over us flesh-based life forms. He knows he has a creator, and he knows he was made for a reason. He’s meant to make toast. But Lister doesn’t want any toast. Rebuffed again and again, Talkie wails, “The whole purpose of my existence is to serve you with hot, buttered, scrummy toast. If you don’t want any, then my existence is meaningless.” Lister’s reply: “Good.”
Talkie doesn’t give up, though. He eventually decides to change, to stop complaining and nagging, and to find another purpose. He says, “It just strikes me there might be something more, something greater, unimaginably more splendid than heating bread.” Talkie’s torment is a seeming parody of humankind’s perpetual contemplation of life’s meaning. Lister doesn’t give him any real consideration at all. It is hard to take a talking toaster seriously, even if he has some rather human problems. And even if we don’t know, from seeing “White Hole,” that Talkie won’t change his ways and that his future involves Lister committing first degree toastercide via the waste disposal and a fourteen pound lumphammer.
Cat, meanwhile, has no interest in a search for meaning. His needs are simple: food, sex, and sleep. He also likes investigating. Basically, he’s doing what animals do. They don’t need to question themselves. They just are. Take note, though, of Lister’s mention that the Cat people’s religion views being cool as a sin. Cat obviously pays no attention this. Being cool is who he is. Why should he fight his nature at the orders of a religion that originated many, many years ago, and that is based on misquotes? This is, perhaps, the episode’s most subtle, and best, comment on religion.
There is someone else in this episode who I haven’t yet mentioned, and I don’t mean the roast chicken. It’s someone who’s much closer to godhood: Holly. He maintains the ship, and makes it possible for people to live on it. He brought Holo Rimmer into existence and woke Lister from his three million year sleep. He has a great deal of power over everyone on board Red Dwarf, and if he abuses it, as we see in “Queeg,” he can well and truly turn their lives upside down. And what’s this infullible god-like being doing? Mostly he’s just bored. He gets a kick out of watching Rimmer read an awful lot into something that’s really nothing but garbage.
On the surface, “Waiting for God” is a dark episode, involving Lister grappling with how he’s been deified by the Cat people. It’s more bleak than that, however, in its suggestion that our search for meaning in the universe may be rather pointless, leading to over-interpretations that are no more than projections of our own wishes. We may just be trying to convince ourselves that we are more than a cosmic accident and that our lives are worth more than garbage, and we may just be wrong. The only positive thing the episode has to say is that being kind to others is nonetheless worthwhile.
I wonder if all of this may be part of the reason why people don’t tend to enjoy “Waiting for God.” Searching for meaning is an integral aspect of human experience, for better or worse, and this episode’s cynicism towards doing so isn’t something that can be easily laughed off.
Or am I reading too much into it?