Character: David Lister
Fandom: Red Dwarf
Spoilers: The whole series, particularly Ourobouros and Dimension Jump
Disclaimer: I own nothing
Here, more than two months late, is my essay. I'm sure I shouldn't be proud of that, but perversely I am.
Meet Lister. He's a twenty-five year old chain-smoking curry-loving Scouser with nothing even vaguely resembling drive or ambition. He's a crewmember aboard the Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel Red Dwarf, and of the 1169 people aboard he holds the lowest rank, with no hope of promotion.
But don't dismiss him because of this. There's a lot more to David Lister than meets the eye.
Here's a brief guide to the rest of the cast in the order that we meet them, mainly those important to Lister's character development who will crop up a lot over the course of the essay:
Rimmer: Lister's bunkmate and co-worker. During the first episode there is an accident aboard ship, and Rimmer - along with the rest of the crew - is killed. He is revived as a hologram by the ship's computer. Already given massive self-esteem issues and neuroses by his upbringing, death further embitters him.
It's fascinating to watch Rimmer and Lister interact, particularly in series 1 and 2, and to a lesser extent 8. They act like a pair of bickering brothers who've been forced against their will to share a room. They drive each other crazy, but deep down they do care about each other - Blue and Terrorform being prime examples.
Kochanski: I freely admit that I am not Kochanski's biggest fan. But since she's the love of Lister's life, blah blah blah, etcetera, I suppose she merits a mention. Journalistic impartiality and all that. Over the course of the series she comes to represent the chance at happiness and a 'normal' life now lost to Lister because of the accident.
Her history (both personally and with Lister) and personality are retconned on more than one occasion. She doesn't have much real impact until she becomes a part of the main cast in Series 7, and to fans of the series it's surprising the lengths he goes to in order to 'better' himself and attract her attention (Jane Austen World, anyone?)
Cat: We are never told Cat's real name - it's entirely possible that he doesn't have one. But on their first meeting Lister calls him 'Cat' and the nickname sticks. Cat's people are descended from Lister's pet cat Frankenstein and her litter of kittens, who were sealed in the hold at the time of the accident and survived the blast to breed. Cat shares many traits with his ancestors, both the good (Excellent senses and reflexes) to the bad (Vain, shallow, and self-obsessed). It could be argued that Cat's selfish nature and other difficulties with social norms could be due to the fact that he was born into a tiny society of slowly dying social outcasts and spent many years alone...but that's an essay for another time.
At first Lister seems unsure of how to treat him, struggling to reconcile the idea of his pet's offspring to the fact that they are clearly dealing with a person. As they get to know each other better they become friends, teasing each other and inventing silly games to pass the interminable hours aboard ship. On occasion we see Cat being the one to bring out Lister's protective side: Dimension Jump, for example. We see Lister holding an injured Cat's hand after the ship crashes, and hovering anxiously nearby when he is delirious with infection.
Kryten: We first encounter Kryten as a service android, pathetically desperate to please. Rimmer takes advantage of this, and Lister is furious at him for it. He encourages Kryten to rebel. Over the next few series he is shown teaching Kryten to lie, cheat, and otherwise break his programming in order to become more human ["I gave you a life to lose" 5x02, The Inquisitor]
Later we see them working more as equals, particularly in series 5 and 6 when they collaborate on various plans and technological projects. Kryten admits that he looks up to and respects Lister [6x06, Out of Time; amongst others] and Lister feels responsible for Kryten - understandably so, given that he helped him alter his programming, and has physically rebuilt him from the ground up on more than one occasion.
To be quite honest, I can't remember viewing Red Dwarf for the first time: I've been watching it since I was born (And apparently liking it even before then - my mother tells me I would kick whenever the themetune came on) But in any case, the first episode opens with Lister and Rimmer going about their duties on Red Dwarf. Their petty arguments set the tone of the series perfectly.
[Shot of Rimmer and Lister walking down a corridor. Lister is pushing a trolley]
Lister: [sings] From Ganymede to Titan, yessir I've been around...
Rimmer: Lister, have you ever been hit over the head with a welding mallet? [Lister shakes his head] No? Well shut up then...
Lister: [salutes mockingly] Yes sir Mr. Rimmer!
Rimmer: Right...corridor 159... [Lister starts humming] Lister, shut up!
Lister: I'm only humming!
Rimmer: Well don't!
[Lister sulks for a moment then starts slapping his cheeks to make a noise]
Rimmer: Lister; don't hum, and don't make any stupid sounds with your cheeks [Lister starts clicking] Lister, one more sound - anything - and you're on report, miladdo. What job number's this?
[Lister mimes silently]
Rimmer: Right, that's it, you're on report [Writes] 'Lister, D; 3rd Technician. Offence: obstructing a superior technician by humming, clicking, and being quiet'... When the Captain sees this, you're dead.
Lister: Rimmer, I'm bored!
~1x01, The End
Our first impression of Lister isn't particularly favourable. He comes across as lazy, irresponsible, and insubordinate - which, to a certain extent, he is. He relieves his boredom by baiting Rimmer and clearly enjoys irritating his superior. Everyone knows somebody like Lister; if he's a friend, then he's funny...if you dislike him, he can be the most annoying person you'll ever meet.
So on first impressions Lister is an immature slob, completely lacking any sort of ambition or desire to improve himself. And we can't help but like him anyway - he has a strange sort of charisma. Despite all his faults, he's a nice guy.
Anyway, a little background. Lister was abandoned as a baby in a cardboard box under the pool table in the Aigbeth Arms pub. He grew up in Liverpool, raised by his adoptive parents and later his grandmother after they died. When he was seventeen, he started a band called 'Smeg and the Heads', which would have made it big if not for the fact that their sole song 'Om' was profoundly awful. He worked at a supermarket for quite some time, but left because he 'didn't want to get tied down to a career'. After a drunken celebration of his twenty-fifth birthday, he woke up on Mimas with no idea of how he got there and signed on with Red Dwarf to get home.
Before the accident aboard Red Dwarf, Lister had managed to coast through life with an absolute minimum of effort. He came bottom in French, was expelled from school at least once, then failed all his exams before dropping out of Art College after a grand total of ninety-seven minutes. But this was purely due to laziness, not stupidity. Lister has a great potential which he has spectacularly failed to fulfil. Intelligent but uneducated; theoretically talented but lacking the ambition or drive to do anything about it.
As the series progresses we see him displaying a number of unexpected skills. For the first few seasons (before Cat takes over in season five) he tends to be the one who pilots Starbug and Blue Midget, and does so surprisingly well given his lack of training. Apparent inexperience and lack of training is another factor that makes his apparent gift with machinery so surprising. We know he's theoretically capable of it - in the glimpse of Ace's universe we see in Dimension Jump, his alternate self is the head of engineering - but by contrast to his normal demeanour, it's still strange to see.
Lister has a very strong sense of morality. In Demons and Angels, he states that he isn't capable of murder - and indeed, although he can hold his own in a fight, he is only ever seen to kill in self-defense, in a kill-or-be killed situation [Taking out the simulant ship in Gunmen of the Apocalypse, killing the second psiren in Psirens]. This doesn't just apply to humans either: in Justice he refuses to shoot a Simulant in the back. He is appalled by Rimmer's treatment of the wax droids in Meltdown, and genuinely disgusted with their greedy, selfish future selves in Out of Time - he is willing to effectively kill himself to prevent that future from occurring.
He also has his bad qualities. Bone-deep laziness and lack of ambition have led him to waste his life and talents (The Inquisitor: "You've got brains, man. Brains you've never used.") He is also immensely immature ("I can't even remember the last time I tired to urinate on Rimmer from the top of B-deck...wait, last Thusday...").
Lister is by nature a very optimistic and cheerful person, willing to take life as it comes and make the best of things. He is embarrassingly sentimental - he cries at tragic romances (Holoship) - and in Terrorform he shows himself to be both loyal to a fault and a man you'd want to have at your back in a fight: he risks his own life and everybody else's to save Rimmer - a man he claims to dislike immensely.
Kryten: Sir! Another barrage could bring down the ceiling and bury us all!
However, Lister does have a darker side. He isn't above taking advantage of Cat's gullibility, and when the situation calls for it he can be shockingly manipulative: in Me2 he tricks Rimmer into telling him about the Gazpacho Soup, in Rimmerworld he neatly maneuvers Rimmer into accompanying them on the raid of the Simulant ship, and in Stoke Me a Clipper it's only through Lister's manipulation of the situation that Ace convinces Rimmer to leave Starbug. He also has a rather casual approach to other people's property. He openly admits to petty theft, and it's implied that he may have spent time in prison when he was younger.
And since we're discussing the darker side of things, now seems like a good time to talk about the places in the series where Lister's optimistic nature fails him. Red Dwarf is a comedy show, but it isn't afraid to explore some fairly grim subjects. The premise of the show itself is fairly dark - it starts with an accident killing more than a thousand people, and from there moves onto a tiny group of people who have lost everything: Cat and Lister are both probably the last of their respective species, Kryten has no purpose with the crew he served dead, and Rimmer has even lost his life.
So. Let's talk about Timeslides, Back to Reality, and Epideme.
"This is worse than prison. At least in prison you can look forward to getting out" ~Timeslides
This is the moment where we can finally see the full reality of the situation sinking in for Lister. He can never go home, and even if they did make it back to Earth, everyone he has ever known will have been dead for millennia. He becomes frustrated and withdrawn, snapping at his crewmates ["I'm sick of me, I'm sick of you, I'm sick of Cat, and as for Kryten... I'm sick of him"]
Later the series moves into even darker territory, as in Back to Reality and again in Epideme we see Lister contemplating suicide. In the former a hallucinogenic toxin designed to induce despair confronts Lister with the (apparent) revelation that he is a prominent figure in a fascist state and directly responsible for thousands of deaths. As said above, Lister is a very moral person, and this thought is more than he can cope with. Without Holly's intervention Lister and the rest of the crew would have killed themselves, trapped in a world of nightmarish hallucinations.
Epideme is in many ways an even nastier one to contemplate, because this time there is no hallucination. Reality is exactly as it appears. Lister is infected with a fatal disease, and in order to protect the rest of the crew he leaves Starbug with the intent of killing himself and the virus with him.
But tellingly, unbelievably, even at this point he manages to find hope. Many people would not consider the ignorant space-bum we know as Lister an ideal representative of the human race, but in many ways he embodies our best qualities: compassion, determination, and the ability to remain hopeful no matter what.
In many ways, Red Dwarf is Lister's story, and in watching the show the viewer can see him growing up and learning to use his neglected potential.
At the beginning of the show, Lister is very much a reactive character. He goes with the flow and takes life as it comes, perfectly content to let others do his thinking for him. But as the series progresses and their situation becomes more difficult, he starts showing hitherto unsuspected talents and taking charge in desperate situations.
Glimpses of this potential can be seen in earlier episodes, but it's not until series five we really start to see the extent of the change. We see his plan saving all their lives in The Inquisitor, and see him taking charge when Red Dwarf is destroyed in Demons in Angels.
In series six the four crewmembers begin to settle into clearly defined roles aboard ship: Rimmer handling navigation and comms, Kryten as the science officer, Cat the pilot, and Lister the mechanic. When you take into account his lack of education and training, Lister seems to have a genuine gift with machinery. And not only that, his own self-confidence and ability to cope with dangerous circumstances has increased exponentially. By Rimmerworld [6x06], there isn't much doubt about who's taking charge.
I can only speak for myself, but for me Lister is a fascinating study in contradictions. Would you expects a man who can single-handedly lay out a seven-foot-tall genetically engineered creature and a crazed battle-droid before either knows what hit them to cry at romantic films? Would you think a man who failed every single one of his exams capable of piloting a spaceship and repairing an android built centuries after his time? Lister is a complicated and often contradictory character, and this makes him feel real.
It's difficult not to get attached to such a very human character.