from the archives: the redshirt phenomenon

The bit below is carved out of my Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Rewatch of the fifth-season episode “The Ship” over on Tor.com, and which I then posted to my old blog in May 2014, but it works fine on its own as a meditation on the redshirt phenomenon (and no, this has nothing to do directly with John Scalzi’s Redshirts, though that is a fun book that riffs on the phenomenon).

Let us speak of the phenomenon of the “redshirt.” The term actually comes from Star Trek, as the original series was well-populated by security guards (who wore red) who would wind up being killed.

But the phenomenon—having expendable characters whose purpose is to be less characters than people whose death moves the plot along without anyone actually caring who they are—is far older than that. Arguably the most famous classic redshirts are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Shakepseare’s Hamlet, who have very little personality of their own (at least until Tom Stoppard came along to fix that), but are there to show how nasty Claudius is and how clever Hamlet is.

Television exacerbates the redshirt phenomenon because, of course, you have your regular characters, and they can’t die, so if you need someone to get killed, you drag in a guest star.

The original series actually wasn’t as bad with the redshirts at first. Kirk actually took the time out to mourn the security guards who died in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and the one in “Friday’s Child,” not to mention the character of Tomlinson in “Balance of Terror,” whose wedding was interrupted by the space battle that would get him killed.

But mostly it was just a cheap way of establishing danger that got worse as the series went on, to the point where the two guards who were beamed into space in “And the Children Shall Lead” were barely acknowledged by Kirk except as an inconvenience. Even “Friday’s Child” was problematic in that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Random Redshirt Dude all beam down—guess which one gets killed when he whips a phaser out? Hint: it’s not any of the three guys who are listed in the opening credits.

It hasn’t gotten any better with the shift to the 24th century, as we see in episodes like “The High Ground” and “Descent” and “Civil Defense” and “The Adversary,” where we see people get killed but have no idea who they are, nor given any reason to give a good goddamn.

And it’s something that I’ve always found offensive and despicable and awful. There’s no such thing as a faceless soldier, no such thing as an innocent bystander. The people on the bus that Obadiah Stane picked up and threw at Iron Manthe people in those buildings that Superman and Zod crashed through, the eighteen people in the saucer section of “Q Who,” they were all people, with loved ones and families and friends and jobs that would miss them.

Yet the characters act as if they know who has billing. Tasha Yar dies, and there’s a funeral service. Several characters die when the Defiant is rescuing Dukat and the Detapa Council, but they’re forgotten by the time the ship gets back to the station.

Perhaps the worst offender is “Caretaker,” the pilot episode of Voyager. When the ship falls down the rabbit hole into the Delta Quadrant, the first officer, the chief medical officer, the conn officer, the chief engineer, and the head nurse are all killed. Yet by the end of the two-hour episode, nobody seems to even give a damn about any of them. The characters of Cavit, Stadi, and the other three who weren’t even given names, are never even mentioned after the pilot episode. In the finale, when Harry Kim talked about how wonderful the journey is that they’ve been on, I was disgusted, since that journey was commenced with an event that murdered five people.

Imagine a TNG episode in which Riker, Crusher, La Forge, Ro, and Ogawa were all killed. It might, y’know, get mentioned a few times.

As a writer and editor, it’s something I’ve tried to combat as often as possible. You will rarely find faceless victims in my fiction, and in my Trek fiction I’ve tried to address the redshirt phenomenon head-on. (Notably, I endeavored in two pieces of Voyager fiction, “Letting Go” in Distant Shores, and the Voyager portion of The Brave and the Bold Book 2, to expand on some of the characters who were killed in “Caretaker,” make them into people someone might actually give a damn about.)

6 thoughts on “from the archives: the redshirt phenomenon

  1. That was what I really appreciated about Enterprise. They were going to do the usual redshirt thing as early as “Strange New Worlds”, but Bakula put his foot down against it, for . And the first person to die on the ship ship wasn’t until season 3, and it legitimately hit Archer hard, as did the other combat deaths throughout that season. The only actual redshirt-style death I can even think of on Enterprise was the random security guard in “Daedalus” (which was a pretty trash episode anyway).

    • Whoops, forgot to finish a sentence, haha.

      “..but Bakula put his foot down against it, for the same reasons you described.”

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