Everyone remembers Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shipboard computers with human personalities, both kind like Max from Flight of the Navigator and calculating like Hal or the modern equivalent in WALL-E, are a common element of science fiction. The TV show Red Dwarf has its own take on the shipboard computer motif by having Holly, a computer who, having existed on its own for millions of years while Lister was in stasis, has a personality (and intelligence) that is literally senile.
Although Holly is not currently a character in the show by series X, the episode “Fathers and Suns” riffs on one of the most popular episodes of all time, “Queeg” (series 2, episode 5). Here, we’ll look at shipboard computers, in both Red Dwarf and elsewhere, in British TV and cinema.
Red Dwarf: When comically senile computer Holly screws up one too many times by putting the crew in danger, Red Dwarf is upgraded to the ship’s backup computer personality named Queeg 500 (played by Charles Augins). Although Queeg is less likely to crash the ship into a meteorite, he doesn’t let the crew get away with breaking any of even the silliest rules on board the ship. Realizing their mistake, the crew tries to reinstate Holly, but the only way to do that seems to be having Queeg and Holly partake in a chess match to the death. After Holly predictably loses the match, and the crew is mourning his erasure and their captivity by their new drill sergeant computer, Holly pops in to say the whole thing was just a hilarious April Fool’s gag.
Red Dwarf: In “Fathers and Suns,” Kryten installs a new shipboard computer named Pree, which is programmed to use the security cameras on board to study the actions of the crew members, predict their behaviors, and (re)act to their behaviors before they happen. Unfortunately, this new version is also aligned to take on the commands of the most senior officer on the ship, which happens to be Rimmer, the least competent person on board. Therefore, even before Rimmer has a chance to suggest any actions to her, she is already acting out the orders she predicts he will make and is making a huge mess of the ship, which includes jettisoning Lister into space and plotting a course for the center of the sun. Rebecca Blackstone, who plays Pree, appears in the following season as Big Bang Beryl at the secret science pub.
Red Dwarf: There have been two actors playing Holly. First came Norman Lovett, the daft old computer whose time in space has lowered his IQ from 6,000 to about that of a glass of water. One of his catch phrases is “What’s happenin’, dudes?” Outside of Red Dwarf, Lovett is a deadpan standup comic. His show Outside the Box is definitely worth a look.
The second incarnation of Holly is played by Hattie Hayridge, the harebrained computer who has a similar IQ, but comes across more of a stereotypical blonde. One of her best moments is in “White Hole” when her IQ gets accidentally increased to make her a genius and she’s forced to have a chat with the ship’s talking toaster about crumpets. Hayridge was probably cast because they saw her standup comedy as being very similar in deadpan style to that of Norman Lovett. Learn all about her time on Red Dwarf in her memoir Random Abstract Memory, the title being an obvious nod to her role as a computer.
Red Dwarf: Pree isn’t the first computer that predicts the future that the crew of the Red Dwarf finds. Cassandra, played by Geraldine McEwan (1932-2015), is the computer of a different ship called SSS Silverberg. Cassandra, named after the Greek mythological character who predicted her own death, was programmed to predict the future based on behavioral patterns, but instead she sees the future as it will definitely happen. Her crew banished her to the bottom of the ocean until the Red Dwarf canaries found her. But now, she’s using her ability to change the future. She knows Kryten is destined to kill her, so she tries to change it by lying to them about what the future holds.
Moon: Directed by Duncan Jones, who won a BAFTA for this debut film, Moon is about a man named Sam (Sam Rockwell) working on the moon with only the shipboard computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company. As the audience, we’re quick to suspect that GERTY is keeping secrets from Sam, but is it because he’s like Hal or does he keep secrets for Sam’s own good?
Hyperdrive: In this ridiculous sci-fi comedy TV show, the spaceship is piloted by a human whose mind has been reprogrammed to act as the shipboard computer. Played by Petra Massey, Sandstrom is physically on the bridge, moving her arms around, which is what flies the ship. Her memories, thoughts, and emotions are buried deep in her psychosis. According to York, they should have been wiped entirely, but they appear in waves of sadness during a glitch. We also see a little of her human side when we learn that she has a crush on Lt. York.
Only The Good…
Red Dwarf: This may be a bit of a stretch since this computer in question does not control the whole Red Dwarf but only the vending machine. However, it’s an excellent example of a computer going rogue, ala Hal. In the episode “Only the Good…” (season 8, episode 8), the dispensing machine (voiced by Tony Slattery) takes revenge on Rimmer for stealing food. Vending machine intelligence is frequently an issue for the boys from the Dwarf. Season 10 sees the game of Chinese Whispers gone wrong, and in season 11, we meet Snacky, who they mistake for a medi-bot scheduled to take out the Cat’s kidney. According to Robert Llewellyn on the Behind the Scenes feature, Doug Naylor wants his world to be a place where snacks are perpetually dispensed.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Arthur Dent, like most humans, takes his frustrations out on computers when they don’t act like they’re expected to or react like a human despite having people personalities. When the ship fails to make a decent cup of tea, Arthur throws the tea back at the machine and tells it to take it back. He gets into a discussion with the computer that results in jamming all the circuits as the computer futilely tries to calculate why Arthur Dent likes dried tea leaves in water. Later, his rebellion against the ship’s tea inspires a whole culture to make a statue of him throwing a cup (which is held hovering in the air by art). Check out the radio series for this portion of the story.
Please call me Eddie if it will help you relax
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: To off-set the depressed Marvin (who is a roaming android, not a shipboard computer), there is Eddie (David Tate in the TV show), the Heart of Gold’s shipboard computer. Eddie has several personalities to choose from, the first a chirpy sing-song personality that gets so annoying that Zaphod switches it to the elementary school teacher personality, which proves to be even worse. Eddie is accompanied by self-satisfied talking doors.
Hal Spacejock: If you’re a fan of the other series in this post, Red Dwarf and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and if you haven’t read Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock book series, you’re seriously missing out. In fact, the whole series begins with the main character Hal Spacejock playing chess and bantering with the shipboard computer. The first book is free on SpaceJock.com.