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Red Dwarf’s Inquisitor and Judgement Day by Ben Zwycky

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Ben Zwycky

The popularity of Red Dwarf lies not only in its irreverent satire of classical science fiction tropes, great banter and interaction between the well-developed characters, but also in the genuine and often strong science fiction narratives that it explores (not only for their comedic possibilities). The failure to appreciate these aspects of the show by the studio executives attempting to create Red Dwarf USA (their preferred writing process instead focusing on creating a series of one-liners) led to that project being intensely unpopular with viewers and ultimately not picked up for production by the studio1.

For many, series five of Red Dwarf is a high water mark, with the three episodes “The Inquisitor”, “Back to Reality” and “Quarantine” being major factors in the series’ popularity. “Quarantine” is an action-packed episode involving some interesting sci-fi ideas played for maximum comedic effect, whereas both Back to Reality and the Inquisitor are much more philosophical. On the surface, “Back to Reality” looks at reality versus delusion (made well before the Matrix series of films turned this into a fashionable sci-fi trope), while its primary focus is actually the basis for self-worth: what makes a life no longer worth living? What defines us so much that its loss would cause us to despair and die? How fragile a foundation have we built our lives upon?

“The Inquisitor” asks a superficially similar question with a very different focus: what is a worthwhile life, a life well lived, and how would we justify it?

In the episode, the crew are captured by a mysterious and powerful entity calling itself The Inquisitor, who takes them back to the mothership to be judged, each individually, beginning each interrogation with the question:

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“You have been granted the greatest gift of all, the gift of life. Tell me, what have you done to deserve this superlative good fortune?”

It is a sobering question, because the honest answer is nothing. Life has been granted to us not out of obligation to us for something we have done, not a reward or wages, but as a gift, the greatest of gifts, perhaps even something, dare I say it, that is worth being grateful for in and of itself.

In context however, that is not really the question that the Inquisitor was asking. Kryten earlier explains who the Inquisitor is and what he does:

“Well, the legend tells of a droid, a self-repairing simulant who survived to the end of eternity, to the end of time itself. After millions of years alone, he finally reaches the conclusion that there is no God, no afterlife, and the only purpose of existence is to lead a worthwhile life. And so the droid constructs a time machine, and roams eternity, visiting every single soul in history and assessing each one. He erases all those who wasted their lives, and replaces them with those that never had a chance at life: the unfertilized eggs, the sperms that never made it. That is the Inquisitor, he prunes away the wastrels, expunges the wretched and deletes the worthless.”

So, the question the Inquisitor asked was far more serious, even terrifying:

You have been given this astounding gift, this incredible range of opportunities. What have you done with them to justify this enormous investment in you? What reasons will you give to dissuade me from erasing you from history and giving your opportunities to someone else?

The worst part is, the judge you have to convince is yourself. There is nothing you can hide. Your every private action, thought and motive is known, your own personal standards are used to measure you. How many of us would pass? May I suggest none?

It reminds me of the start of Matthew 7:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:1-5 (NIV)

So in an ironic twist, the atheist droid uses a Christian method to judge us. In the episode itself, the Cat and Rimmer pass the test by having ridiculously low standards for themselves, while Kryten and Lister escape by tricking the Inquisitor into erasing himself from history and thereby undoing all of his work. While these are funny and even clever from a story point of view, philosophically they are a dodge, a way to avoiding facing up to the true horror of being our own judge.

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In truth, no-one has standards as low as Rimmer and the Cat. Every time you are disappointed with or angry at someone, you are judging the behaviour that disappointed you or made you angry. That is a standard you have agreed to, a measure you have used, which will be used to judge you. Things aren’t looking so rosy, are they?

And yet that is the point, isn’t it? We want the wrongs of this world to be corrected, bad and selfish choices to result in significant negative results for the offender, the people who got away with it in this life to not get away with it in the next.

Won’t it be great to see every arrogant bully being brought down low and getting their comeuppance, to see all those scandals people tried to hide being shouted from the rooftops, all those webs of lies unravelled, those who stirred up needless trouble standing face to face with all the damage they caused, and those with sordid secrets becoming utterly transparent…

Wait, now let’s be reasonable, nobody needs to know about the terrible ways I wanted to lash out when those kids were annoying me, or those selfish plans I made, or especially about that time I…

This is not looking good at all, and it shouldn’t. We object to double standards in this life, how much more should we object to double standards on Judgement Day?

If Christianity is true, then the Red Dwarf crew’s escape route is not available to us. There is no way to trick God, and his standards are infinitely higher than ours. Even our own standards, if we are honest, are far beyond our ability to meet. So what would this process look like?

Our every judgement is played back to us and our every offence against those values displayed for all to see. Our own moral outrage passionately condemns us to an inescapable fate and demands the ultimate punishment, a greater despair than we can imagine.

We are guilty, lost, helpless.

And then a man quietly comes up besides us and calmly states:

“Do not punish them, I am the guilty one.”

Before we can react, the judges we embody forcefully decree, “Let the punishment begin!”

We watch in horror as he is taken back to a brutal period in history, where he is betrayed by one of his closest friends and abandoned by the rest, seized by an oppressive regime and shuttled from one sham trial to another, like a pawn in a cynical power play. His own people, whom he came to help, disown him and scream for his death. He is mocked, ridiculed and sneered at while being beaten and then flogged, gouging deep bloody furrows in his body. All of this agony and shame he accepts without protest, making no attempt to defend himself or his reputation.

The judges we embody approve of each blow, cheering each new humiliation and applauding each new trickle of blood down his increasingly disfigured form.

In his weakened state he is forced to carry a load he cannot bear up a slope he cannot climb, insulted all the way by the crowds and our judges.

He is finally publicly tortured to death in the most degrading way possible in front of his own mother, so he can see the pain in her eyes as his own life ebbs away. His Father looks away, the skies darken and he is left utterly alone.

With his dying breath he declares “It is finished.”

Our judges concur. “It is finished, justice is served.”

The broken corpse is taken away and sealed inside a tomb. There is silence as you process what just occurred. Lost in thought, you lose track of time until great doors open in front of you and a warm, beautiful and living light streams into the room from the other side. A man steps through the doors and approaches you.

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It is the same man, only different. The light seems to be emanating directly from him, causing the air itself to come alive and fill the room with an otherworldly aroma. You look back at the tomb; it is open, empty. Your list of offences has also disappeared.

“What happened? How is this possible?”

“Death could not hold me. I took your place and bore the wrath you earned. If you wish to accept this exchange, then follow me, change the way you think and live, and you too will overcome death’s greatest sting.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then nothing has been paid for you, your original sentence stands and you carry on as you were.” He gestures towards the judge. “Being your own boss. Setting your own rules.”

About the Author

Ben Zwycky is an English ex-pat now living in the Czech Republic. Before, during and after obtaining a master’s degree in chemical engineering, he worked as a hospital porter, cleaner and server in a community centre, research assistant, EFL teacher and currently works as a freelance proof-reader and translator together with his Czech wife, who literally fell into his arms in the year 2000 and with whom he now has five children.

His first novel, Nobility Among Us, is inspired in part by the country he now lives in, its many perfectly preserved medieval castles and chateaux standing side by side with modern constructions and technology. His first poetry collection, Selected Verse: Faith and Family, tells the story of how he met his wife, among other things.

Ben’s website is

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