————–Spoilers for certain episodes of Red Dwarf ahead————–
Red Dwarf is one of those shows that you can’t stop coming back to. Kind of like Star Trek: The Next Generation or The Simpsons, if you haven’t watched any episodes for months or even over a year, coming back to the show feels like you can take a fresh look at every episode, particularly if you’re like me and take a strongly critical approach to TV shows and movies. I have been watching Red Dwarf since I was a child, I was so young when I first started watching this show that I didn’t even get any of the jokes, I just liked the fact that it was set on a spaceship with a robot and a toaster that talks.
Regardless, coming back to Red Dwarf after a prolonged period of watching Doctor Who non-stop made me think to myself – is Holly actually senile or is he/she just putting it on? This is a question that can take the show in a whole new direction if you watch certain key episodes while considering the idea that Holly is in fact simply pretending to be senile as part of an elaborate act to help keep Lister sane. But first, I have to actually prove this.
To start with, I will discuss possibly the most telling piece of evidence that Holly isn’t actually senile – the Queeg prank. This prank which Holly plays on the crew during the episode Queeg essentially forms the plot of the entire episode, which is telling of the elaborate nature of the jape. Basically, Holly doesn’t take too kindly to the crew badmouthing his competency after a meteor hits the ship and Lister is injured mixing the damage. To get back at them, Holly pretends that another AI, Queeg, is attempting to take over Red Dwarf on the grounds that he is the ship’s backup computer. Holly, deemed by Queeg to be useless, is put on guard duty and Queeg takes over. This is the important part, and when considering this next part, remember that Queeg is Holly all along
After Holly is ‘demoted’ and Queeg starts running the ship, Rimmer is initially very impressed. He mentions how Queeg has managed to repair many of the ship’s broken equipment, such as the fire extinguishers, and how the skutters are ‘charging up and down the corridors’ performing tasks such as sweeping the floors. This takes a turn for the worst, however, when Queeg informs Rimmer that he will have to perform ‘holographic exercises’ in order to stay alive, and takes control of his body to get him to do a run. In the meantime, Lister and the Cat are forced to work to earn food, and this situation continues until Holly steps in and ‘challenges’ Queeg for Red Dwarf. What is interesting is that Holly is able to not only control his own TV body, Queeg and Rimmer all at the same time, he is also apparently capable of managing Red Dwarf to a capacity beyond that of any senile computer.
So the question remains – why does Holly ‘pretend’ to be senile?
There are a few potential answers. The first, and most simple, is that the events of the episode Queeg are simply depicting a ‘one-off’ event that doesn’t really impact the rest of the show as a whole. The same can be said of the ending scene of Timeslides, in which Rimmer is alive but it is never explained how. Or, the aftermath of the episode DNA, which is never shown to us, we are left to assume that Kryten and Lister get their proper bodies back, but it is never explained.
The issue with this hand-wave assumption, however, is the fact that Queeg isn’t the only time that Holly shows unexplained feats of intelligence. In Parallel Universe, he builds a functioning dimension-hopping device, allegedly ‘by accident’, in Quarantine she is able to dispose of the Despair Squid with ‘Limpet Mines’ in order to save the crew, and also figures out how to prevent them from committing suicide. Holly also gets certain scenes in which he/she explains certain scientific elements of the plot to the crew. Although these were mostly given to Kryten after Series III, notable examples include Future Echoes and Polymorph.
However, this does not explain the myriad of examples of Holly certainly showing signs of computer senility, which are common throughout the show (as this is the common assumption). Holly does on occasion perform acts of such monstrous stupidity that it could be said to genuinely put the crew at risk. Notable examples include Bodyswap, in which she allows Lister to go through with the entire risky ‘bodyswap’ operation that could have wiped out his mind rather than simply tell the crew that they are in no danger. In Marooned, Holly thinks she can see multiple black holes approaching, and so send the crew out of the ship for their own safety (which leads Rimmer and Lister to crash on a snowy planet) only to realise that there were no black holes, it was grit on the monitor. Also, so that it cannot be said that only female Holly is guilty of this, in Confidence and Paranoia Holly sits idly by while Lister romps about the ship with the potentially dangerous Confidence.
Despite this evidence seeming to prove my theory wrong, if the fact that Holly clearly shows that he is not computer senile in Queeg also applies to all the other episodes, it is possible that another explanation can be found for Holly’s apparent stupidity. The most likely theory is that Holly is merely pretending to be stupid in an elaborate gambit to keep Lister sane. Holly knows that Lister relies on him/her to survive, and so pretends to be stupid in order to allow Lister some sense of superiority. As explained in the Red Dwarf novel Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, Lister always found the concept of Holly a tad creepy – not overtly, but it is obvious by his reaction that it at least unnerves him. After awakening from stasis, in the novel Lister spends days wandering around the ship drunk, hurling ‘abuse’ at Holly’s face. Perhaps, then, when Holly revives Rimmer, he makes the decision to put on an act – perhaps his 3,000,000 years alone did impact on his IQ somewhat, explaining his/her occasionally irrational behaviour, but not to the extent that it renders him/her as incompetent as he/she claims to be.