Red Shirt is a term used by the star trek fandom to refer to a recently introduced character that will be made expendable to further the intensity of the plot line. A narrative that contains danger may struggle to reach its needed intensity if it only ever remains a threat, the death of a crew member is truly needed to allow the audience to feel that the danger is real to their beloved cast.
The Red Shirt title came from the original Star Trek series where a red uniform was primarily worn by operations or security personnel. In an episode it became abundantly clear that a new character whose name and face we had never encountered before who was assigned as security to an away team was doom to die especially if regular cast members started using their names, they have no full name or they had lines.
In the Documentary “Galaxy Quest” released in 1999, Sam Rockwell plays the role of Crewman #6, clearly portraying the predicament such characters find themselves.
The sole purpose of these characters is to demonstrate that death is real and to give the audience a chance to see the real consequences of failure. In role-playing games Non Player Characters are also used to create this experience for the players turning possible doom into real doom in the scenario making the fear of possible outcomes intensely real.
This Red Shirt concept should not be confused by the more recent trend of killing off a main character, the champion of which is the actor Sean Bean who hold the popularly held title of the most deaths by a main actor. These surprise main character deaths do hold a stronger place in the dread narrative as they mean that no beloved character is safe from death.
Shows such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have almost over used this dread factor killing off main characters season after season, keeping the audience in constant fear that their favorite character may be next to meet a gruesome end as they seek their glorious purpose. There are some in the audience who find this overkill to be too much and are forced to look away rather then encounter the constant impending doom and other who for the same reasons cant look away but that is a subject for a future post.
The idea behind the red shirt however is far from modern. While reading from the book of Ruth in the Bible this week, itself an epic tale of overcoming great odds and calamity, it was brought to my attention that indicators of redshirtism are used and easily missed without deeper cultural and linguistic knowledge.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
Ruth 1: 1-3 NRSV
This this open paragraph of this Amazing story about Loyalty, promises which has two women as the leading characters who face dangers and calamity we hear of a family facing the hardship of famine. On the surface this might look like any number of Once upon a time story starters however if we look closer our red shirts begins to appear. the names given to the Sons of Sons of Naomi and Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion (Heb. מַחְלוֹן and כִּלְיוֹן) are translated as sickness and destruction, foreboding names that indicate that the colour of their shirts might be red.
Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
Ruth 1: 4-5 NRSV
The predictive nature of their names much like the redshirts in star trek intensifies the dread and fear allowing the audience to ask is any one safe here. We begin to fear for an hope for our main characters in equal measure.
It occurs to me that this red shirt idea is an opposite of the Sonder – the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
perhaps we should push deeper into the lives of red shirts and fan fic their stories more often. maybe then Crewman #6 might truly become Guy Fleegman