Nobody Out There: Searching for Meaning in Red Dwarf’s “Waiting for God”

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“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.

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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?”

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Stagey and striking: The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936)

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Between the wordy dialogue, which often involves characters detailing their entire autobiographies, and the studio set, its walls wrapped around with a painted facsimile of Arizona desert and sky, The Petrified Forest is clearly adapted from a play. I would say, however, that this is not an overwhelming drawback. The Petrified Forest succeeds because it maintains its tension throughout and proceeds at an energetic pace, helped by snappy editing. It’s also remarkable for its uniformly strong performances, including those from Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and, most of all, Humphrey Bogart, whose career was launched with his portrayal of desperate gangster Duke Mantee.

Mantee is on the run, and seeks refuge in the remote Black Mesa gas station. Among his hostages are Gabby (Davis) and Alan Squier (Howard). Waitress Gabby is as ambitious as Squier is aimless. He’s British, and an intellectual, and though he’s seen parts of the world Gabby longs to visit, he doesn’t know where to settle himself. Gabby is a painter and, seeing that Squier is more cultured than the average visitor to the station (owned by her father), quickly falls for him.

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Mantee does not appear onscreen for more than half an hour, but the characters follow his flight from the law on the radio. When he does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. Through Bogart’s glowering, shown as much with his body as with his face, he is constantly a threatening presence. Mantee is no thug, however; his mind is clearly ticking over at full speed. And when Bogart needs to show hurt, he can really show hurt. The actor was in debt, suffering personal hardships, and his career seemed to be going nowhere; he needed success, and this role got him noticed by critics and by audiences, for all the right reasons.

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Howard makes Squier the quintessential old world intellectual, a man whose time has passed. He has a ghostly pallor from the beginning of the film, and at times an unearthly, insightful glint comes into his eye. He’s more set upon grander goals than matters of life and death, and finds them, uncalled for, in this hostage situation.

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Mantee and Squire are vividly contrasting figures. However, there’s an unlikely connection between them. No wonder that Howard fought hard for Bogart to join him in reprising their roles from Broadway; the two are a large part of why The Petrified Forest is such a striking film.

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Davis makes a strong contribution through her performance, too. At the time, she was as ambitious as Gabby, bent on achieving on higher quality roles than those her studio had been giving her. (A rare such role was in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, which also starred Howard.) Here, she is lively without being restless, forceful without being exaggerated. Gabby does not seem much like a Davis-type role, and so could probably have been well-played by any number of other actors, but that only makes Davis more interesting here.

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This film shows America at an uncertain point in its history. The remnants of the Wild West still remain: old man Gramp Maple (Charlie Grapewin) often reminisces about nearly being shot by Billy the Kid, and there’s a photo of someone who looks very much like Wild Bill Hickock on the wall. The expansion is over, however, and where to from here? And what needs to be left behind? These questions are examined through the characters’ interactions, which makes the film work on a thematic level, while it maintains enough pacing and tension to keep from feeling stuffy. It helps that in its criticism of America’s treatment of women and black people, the film is well ahead of its time.

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The Petrified Forest would make for a great double (or triple) feature with a couple of other Bogart films. In The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955), he once again played a criminal on the run, with a group of hostages to keep the police at bay – only this time, the setting is American suburbia, bringing the social criticism even closer to home. In Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), it was Bogart’s turn to be the hostage, and the gangster was played by the man who came close to portraying Mantee on film: Edward G. Robinson. Just as a dust storm heightens the tension in The Petrified Forest, the characters in Key Largo are trapped by a hurricane. The similarities and differences between these films, and Bogart’s performances, are fascinating. All three are also well worth watching for their own merits. The Petrified Forest, though, must receive special note for the way it defined Bogart’s career, and the films that followed it.

Commentary Comments: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, 1988)

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I usually watch a movie with commentary less because I want to learn something than because I still need to process my feelings about it. This has proved especially true with the first two Hellraiser movies. Heck, I watched the first one three times over consecutive days, twice with commentaries. It didn’t even matter that Clive Barker was on both and he repeated himself a fair bit. Having never seen these movies before, I’m suddenly fascinated by them. The fact that the commentaries are indeed full of interesting behind the scenes information makes them all the more worthwhile.

The Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 commentary features Peter Atkins (screenwriter), Tony Randel (director), and Ashley Lawrence (Kirsty). It’s a slightly uncomfortable listen, as this is an obviously flawed film, and Randel, a producer on Hellraiser who made his directorial debut with Hellbound, has some strong regrets about it. I also suspect that Lawrence got along better with Barker than with these two (Barker seemed quite appreciative of her on the Hellraiser commentaries), and has little to say. Still, there’s a lot to learn from this discussion.

Budget cuts definitely seem to have hurt Hellbound. Scenes such as Captain Spencer’s procurement of the puzzle box would have been good to see, and if that thing attached to Channard’s head (which, yes, is meant to look like a giant Hellpenis (no one mentions that it also looks like one of the surgical tools he was using in his first scene, which makes a lot of sense)) was linked back to Leviathan, as intended, that’d make the connection between them more clear.

Randel is displeased with the scenes involving Frank, seeing them as too tied to Hellraiser rather than the events of this film. The problem was that Andrew J. Robinson dropped out at the last minute and the script needed to be rewritten.  Robinson makes anything better, and Larry being there definitely would have been an improvement. Still, Atkins defends the film as it stands by saying that Larry shouldn’t be in Hell. Fair enough, but it’s not unimaginable that Larry could have wound up trapped in there despite not being a bad guy. Atkins also says that Kirsty’s confrontation with Frank gives her the strength to help Tiffany later in the film. He bemoans a mindset that privileges action and pacing over characterisation. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to have all three.

Atkins seems rather irritated as he describes how much hate he’s gotten from fans about Channard killing the Cenobites. Now, I generally think fans claim too much ownership over their favourite things, and while creative decisions are certainly open to criticism, the people who make them don’t deserve personal abuse. Regardless, this particular scene is, indeed, TERRIBLE. Everything about the way it occurs suggests a major battle that we don’t get, and the characters we’ve known from the last movie should not be killed off so quickly by a catchphrase spouting newcomer. Pinhead and his Cenobites are powerful figures, and the movie as it stands does not establish why Channard should be stronger. It’s not even fully evident whether they’re defending Kirsty, holding onto their place in Hell’s pecking order, or just fighting for their lives.

Atkins claims that the Cenobites have been weakened by Kirsty’s reminder that they were once human. I can also read into it that Leviathan wants to replace them with Channard, as he was more evil in his former life than they ever were. I can buy this because the movie has a strong sense of mystery about it that suggests there is more going on behind the scenes than what we get onscreen. Nonetheless, this sense of mystery, though it covers for problems with the script and direction, is owed more than anything else to Barker’s concepts and Christopher Young’s magnificent score. I’m not sure how much credit Atkins and Randel deserve for what they get away with in Hellbound.

Amusingly, Lawrence makes a comment about Kirsty and Tiffany getting together at the end of the movie, but she and Atkins also ship Kirsty and Pinhead. They’re not the only ones; they’ve seen the evidence in fanzines. Hellraiser fanfic? The mind boggles.

Genre as variations on a theme: Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

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Seven Men from Now is a film entirely concerned with being what it is, not just by avoiding larger matters, symbolic or otherwise, but in how it focuses on showing and revealing one small story. It’s about the journey Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) takes to revenge himself upon the seven men who killed his wife during a train robbery. Along the way, he meets two settlers, Annie (Gail Russell) and John Greer (Walter Reed), and gunslinger Bill Masters (Lee Marvin); these three become part of his story too.

This film only involves a few characters. Even the seven men play little part. Rather, the film gradually explores the relationships between the four leads. They are all connected, and slowly drawn closer together. Reveals are made slowly and with understatement, and many thoughts are unspoken. Every nuance is explored as the journey continues, and as the characters separate and reunite.

In this context, an actor such as Lee Martin can be a standout with little effort. In only a few exaggerated gestures, Masters becomes positively flamboyant. He makes advances toward Annie in full view of her husband, he practices his quickdraw, he delivers exposition about the past that Stride has no interest in revealing. He’s charismatic, and funny, and ruthless, and his self-confidence may be his downfall.

Stride and Masters stand in stark contrast. Scott is stoically inexpressive, making every slight indication of Stride’s inner feelings significant. In an inventive scene, Stride sleeps out of the rain under a wagon, directly beneath where Annie will spend the night. A great deal passes between the characters even though they cannot see each other. Stride has been ruined by loss, and all that remains are remnants of emotions connected to his former life.

This film is rarely visually striking. Its landscapes are barren, with only one desert scene having a sense of beauty to it, and an unlikely one at that. Little details are important: a cloud of dust rising signals approaching riders; a wagon crossing a river sends sunlit ripples across the water, the journey briefly taking a pleasant turn; hidden gaps between rocks offer misleading means of escape, or entrapment. These are not Ford’s landscapes, or even Leone’s; they are unextravagant and often as ungiving as the film’s protagonist.

Seven Men From Now will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a western. However, in its lack of scope, downplaying of iconography, and disinterest in violence, it shows how thoughtful decisions can create distinctiveness and defy expectations. As much as anything, the film is a highly successful commentary on the western. Its simplicity belies its intelligence and, under analysis, becomes its most accomplished feature.

The one with the killer twist ending: Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)

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Witness for the Prosecution outsmarted me. Up until its last ten minutes, it had me convinced that I was watching a well acted and well made, but ultimately undistinguished courtroom drama. Then the final scene hits, with a series of gob-smacking reversals that somehow manage, through the capability of the script, to be completely earned by everything that has come before.

In the stellar cast, Charles Laughton is the standout as ailing lawyer Sir Wilfred Robarts. Despite being in terribly poor health, Robarts can’t resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), war veteran and unemployed inventor, who has been accused of murdering an elderly woman for her money. Vole’s troubles grow when his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a German woman he met during the war, appears in court as a witness for the prosecution.

Obviously, things aren’t as they seem. Christine must have unseen motives. My expectation of this made me feel a little bored; I could sense a reveal coming, so didn’t think it would be much of a surprise. The performances, while strong (the perpetual struggle between Robarts and his overbearing nurse, Miss Plimsoll, is helped by the fact that she’s played by Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchester), couldn’t quite overcome my disinterest. The film is full of humour, but the only line I particularly liked was Robarts’ “I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.”

However, the genius of this script (based on Agatha Christie’s play and added to by Billy Wilder) is not just that Christine’s trick is a surprise, but that she’s not the only character who’s hiding something. More than that still, the way the characters react to their new knowledge manages to be surprising as well. And yet the reveals don’t conflict with what we have seen of the characters so far, especially since the performances work either way, whether they were being honest or otherwise.

Witness for the Prosecution’s ending doesn’t just redeem the film, it makes the entire two hour experience worth embarking upon. One of the characters exclaims, “I suspected something but not that! Never that!” and the highest compliment I can give this film I that it made me feel exactly the same way.