The name Crichton pops up in science fiction over and over again. From the irritable know it all robot in Buck Rogers, to the robot butler in Red Dwarf, and again as the lone human surrounded by a universe of aliens in Farscape. Why are all these characters named Crichton and what do they all have in common?
In 1902 J.M. Barrie (yes the same J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan) penned a short comedy about a butler named Crichton modeled on the real-life Scotsman James Crichton who was himself a genius in several disciplines at once (a polymath). In the play, Crichton is shipwrecked on a desert island with his employers and quickly proves more capable than those who would profess to be his betters. He is so capable that he becomes the leader of the group of castaways. His knowledge is also so complete and efficient that he turns the desert island into a small self-sufficient colony. On being discovered by the outside world Crichton once again returns to the life of a butler and those whom he saved on the island take credit for everything that Crichton accomplished.
The play itself is in no way science fiction and does not have the fantasy elements of Barrie’s other works. The purpose of the play was to serve as a critique of British society and the class system. Barrie wanted to show that the lower classes could be, and quite possibly were, more level headed and capable of ingenuity than the vaulted upper crust. Barrie had also considered ending the play with Crichton marrying the daughter of his employers. That ending would have stretched even his ability to poke fun at the stifling class system and it was not used for fear of causing an uproar. Little did Barrie know that he would be creating a literary meme that has popped up over and over again in both literature and film. This play has reached across the entire panoply of literature and it has often found a fertile home for itself in science fiction. It is a perfect match for a genre in which ideas of class and race are often explored in a fictional milieu.
This site probably owes its name to the meme Barrie created. The Freehold was named after Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. In Farnham’s Freehold the African American servant Joseph not only prove himself the equal to his employers he goes on to save them time and again throughout the novel. Heinlein’s novel shares many characteristics with the Barrie play and while there is no overt proof that the two are linked, such as the name Crichton, Heinlein often utilized classical literary references in his work.
The most obvious references to The Admirable Crichton all occur in television serial science fiction. The Crichton robot in Buck Rogers, the Kryten robot in Red Dwarf, and the human character in Farscape were all named after the lead character of Barrie’s play and all have one or more traits of that character. In all three of these shows, Crichton acts as a repository of knowledge and information.
Crichton in the Buck Rogers serial is the least like the Crichton from the play but still retains certain aspects of the character. This Crichton considers himself above his human masters. Refusing to acknowledge that such lowly beings could have created him. While he retains the knowledge of the play’s title character, and his ability to save the crew from certain death from time to time, this Crichton lacks any amount of humility and serves only because he is programmed to do so.
The other two Crichtons are much more in line with Barrie’s creation. The Kryten robot in Red Dwarf is the closest. He is a mechanical butler who has been shipwrecked, has vast amounts of knowledge, and who saves the crew of the Dwarf with his ingenuity. Kryten is far more capable than anyone else on the crew and is only held back by his programming from becoming the defacto leader. He is also constantly encouraged by his fellow crewmate Lister to act beyond this programming. It is very likely the fact that this show is British that it comes so close to the original idea. The idea of class struggle has become a common trope on British television.
The latest version of Crichton comes in the form of John Crichton of the television show Farscape. At first glance, this version does not seem to match the Barrie play. John Crichton is a scientist and an astronaut. He does not seem to meet the classic idea of the servant who finds himself performing above the abilities of his betters. However, once you scratch the surface it comes closer philosophically to the original play than either of the other two television iterations. The best example of this is the episode “Crackers Don’t Matter”.
In this episode, the show explores the idea that all the aliens consider themselves superior to John Crichton. It is constantly reinforced on the show that Crichton is a barbarian from a technologically primitive society. The reality of the situation is that, while Crichton may not have the luxury of coming from a society with advanced technology, he is willing to learn how that technology works. His alien adversaries and friends take this technology for granted and don’t understand the first thing about how it actually functions. Crichton soon understands their technology better than the aliens and uses this knowledge to his advantage. John Crichton stranded millions of light years from home turns the tables on those who profess to be his betters. An exploration of class, race, and culture that rivals and even surpass Barrie’s original work.