What’s the most dangerous color in Star Trek?
Old-school wisdom would tell you that wearing a red uniform is bad form in Starfleet — because the random officers wearing “redshirts” always get offed in horrible ways. But, this trope hasn’t actually been true in Trek canon for a very long time.
Here’s how Lower Decks unpacked this trope — and what it means philosophically, both in terms of Star Trek canon and the common sci-fi tropes of “disposable” crewmembers. Mild spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, Episode 6, “The Spy Humongous.”
The origin of the Star Trek redshirt trope
During the run of The Original Series, Starfleet characters wearing a red uniform belonged either to the engineering, operations, or security divisions.
This is why Uhura and Scotty wore red. But, because of that last category — security — the extra muscle sent to deal with rough aliens, Klingons, space gods, and rock monsters, also wore red. That’s why a bunch of guys who got slaughtered by the Horta in “Devil in the Dark” had red shirts.
Although it’s unrelated, the academic process of holding a student back in school (for whatever reason) is also called “redshirting” and, like the redshirts of Star Trek, has some connotation that the person who is a “redshirt,” is somehow less than. Either that or a “redshirted” person is carrying some kind of stigma. Hell, you could argue the earliest “redshirt” was Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The larger point is simple: Trek fandom latched onto the recurring cliché that Starfleet had expendable characters, and they often wore red. If there was a landing party at the beginning of an episode, and it contained Kirk, Bones, Spock, and a few folks wearing red that you’d never seen before, you were basically just counting down the moments until they expired.
In 2009, J.J. Abrams embraced this trope in the Trek reboot by putting Kirk and Sulu on a death-defying raid of a Romulan platform... along with... some guy named Olson. And yes, Olson had a red spacesuit, and you get one guess as to what happened to him two minutes after he was introduced.
In some ways, Trek’s redshirt trope is in conversation with horror tropes where characters are picked off, one-by-one, until the only people remaining are the primary protagonists. (In this view, everyone in Alien is “a redshirt” who isn’t Ripley.)
While the connection to horror might seem odd with Trek, some of the writers of The Original Series had horror backgrounds, including Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and George Clayton Johnson. Additionally, Psycho author Robert Bloch wrote three episodes of the classic Trek: “Wolf in the Fold,” “Catspaw,” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
In the latter — one of the very first episodes of TOS — a huge android named Ruk (Ted Cassidy) murders red-shirted security officers, and later nearly murders Kirk. Obviously, Ruk can’t kill Kirk, because Kirk is the main character, and the writing simply won’t allow him to die. But in The Original Series, with very rare exceptions, the danger faced by the main characters (Kirk, Uhura, Sulu, et al.) is heightened when guest characters — “redshirts” — die first.
The myth of Star Trek redshirts
The math on literal redshirted characters being more likely to die in The Original Series doesn’t really add up. While TOS has a lot of “minor” characters sacrificed in favor of the various plots, the numbers don’t totally support the idea that characters wearing red are always in the most danger.
In 2017, Inverse spoke to mathematician James Grime who specifically studied this trope. “Of the 43 deaths we saw, 25 of them were red shirts,” Grimes said. “That’s 58 percent. This has led people to believe that redshirts are the most likely to die, but this is wrong.” Grimes’ point was simple: “This is the probability you are a redshirt if you die. What we want to know is the probability you will die if you are a redshirt. And that’s a different question.”
The larger point is, there’s a logical fallacy in the Trek redshirt trope: People don’t die because they’re wearing red. These characters die because they are doing the more dangerous jobs in Starfleet. Both narratively, and within the constraints of in-universe world-building of Starfleet, there is a subtle classist system; that classist system probably puts the junior officers at greater risk than senior officers.
How Lower Decks flipped the “redshirt” script
In Season 2, Episode 6 of Star Trek: Lower Decks — “The Spy Humongous,” Boimler is briefly recruited by a group of cocky ensigns obsessed with getting promoted. This group unironically calls themselves “the Redshirts,” which Boimler sort of thinks is weird at first — but he goes with it.
Boimler’s hesitation about the nickname implies that, within the reality of Star Trek, the trope of “redshirts,” may also exist — though, by the 24th century, the colors of uniforms had been switched around. In all but one of the classic Trek films — from The Wrath of Khan to The Undiscovered Country — all the characters wore red. By the time The Next Generation debuted, the command division of Starfleet no longer wore gold but instead wore red. You could argue this means that “gold shirts” were in more danger in TNG, DS9, and Voyager, but that’s not exactly the point.
In this Lower Decks episode, Boimler makes the most interesting point against the redshirt trope. Toward the end of the episode, when Tendi has been turned into a giant scorpion monster, the “Redshirts” start trying to give speeches instead of actually doing anything. When Boimler calls them out, their answer is “We’re inspiring the crew!” But Boimler’s response is perfect: “We are the crew.”
In the world of Star Trek, there’s a sense that — at least on Earth — poverty, war, racism, sexism, and other discrimination simply don’t exist. But what Lower Decks points out is that classism does still exist, even in the egalitarian 24th century.
Granted, Lower Decks presents this as a joke, but it’s a pointed one. The difference between being a “member” of a team and a “leader” of a team is a trope that pervades everything from superhero flicks to kitchen-sink dramas.
By attacking this one silly Star Trek trope, what Lower Decks is saying is that life is rarely that binary. In life, most of us aren’t “the captain” — but that doesn’t mean we’re the clueless, expendable ones in red, either.
Star Trek: Lower Decks streams on Paramount+.