Don’t Forget Red Is the Color of Blood
March 25, 2014
There are certain rules that characters on television shows must remember. Never say “nothing can go wrong,” because the second that you do, disaster will strike. Never insist that you and your true love are about to have all of your dreams come true, because that is a surefire way to guarantee you both will end up miserable (or one of you will end up dead). And if you happen to be on an Interstellar Starship wearing a red shirt, and you're not one of the important bridge crew, under no circumstances should you leave the ship with one of these officers. If you do, you are about to meet some horrible fate. Red is the color of blood after all.
Anyone who has a working knowledge of the Star Trek universe knows the joke about the “Red Shirts.” If you are completely unfamiliar with the series, let me give you a brief explanation. In the original Star Trek, the main characters would occasionally go down to alien planets on what were called “Away Missions.” Along with the bridge crew, a few supporting personnel would also make the trip. Officially, they represented ship security and were there to make sure that Kirk and Co. survived whatever deadly threat they were about to encounter. Unfortunately for these brave guys in red (that was the color that security wore in the original series), in order to create a sense of danger, someone had to end up dead, and it couldn’t be one of the stars. So that meant that one of those nameless red shirts had to be sacrificed. This was done so many times that it became a running joke.
In the satiric novel Redshirts, by John Scalzi, this television trope is hysterically examined. Set in the year 2456 aboard the Starship Intrepid, young Ensign Andrew Dahl and the other new arrivals encounter a bizarre situation. It seems that whenever the Captain or one of the other senior officers come looking for a lower-ranked crewman to join them on an "Away Mission" to some planet, the crew that have been onboard for a while disappear very quickly. Why they should want to avoid the prestige of being chosen to accompany these legendary officers is at first confusing to Andrew, until he discovers an unsettling reality aboard the Intrepid.
When a planetary mission includes only functionary junior officers, it is almost always a success. However, the ship seems to have a phenomenal number of deadly alien encounters when one of the famous bridge officers is present. And these same bridge officers always survive the encounters. Even the seemingly luckless Lieutenant Kerensky, who has been hurt so many times he should be permanently disabled, ends up living through all the traumas he endures (and he usually takes less than a week to recover from injuries that should have killed him). Sadly, the same is not true for the lower-ranked crewmen that accompany them. At least one will always end up dead.
There is also the troubling fact that if you get noticed by one of the bridge crew, singled out for some reason, you also appear to be doomed. Especially if it is suddenly discovered that you have some sort of connection to one of them. If your death would profoundly impact the Captain, or one of the others, you are a goner. That is why you want to remain as anonymous as possible with the senior staff. And whatever you do, don’t date one of them. The crew members that have been on board for a while know all this and avoid the bridge officers like the plague. And they feel no guilt whatsoever about sacrificing any clueless new arrivals in their desperation to save themselves from whatever it is that is going on.
When Andrew realizes the state of affairs, he begins to wonder why everything that is happening feels so familiar. It occurs to him that the events seem like they are straight out of a science fiction television drama, and a bad one at that. He quickly deduces that someone somewhere is manipulating events. The question is for what purpose? As he and his comrades try to figure out the truth, they must also avoid the fate that appears to be scripted for them. The shock comes when it is revealed that “scripted” is exactly the case. Someone from an alternate past is manipulating their future without even realizing it. An actual television show exists that is chronicling the adventures of the Intrepid. And everything that is written for that show is then happening on the real Intrepid. If someone dies on the show, they die on the ship.
Somehow Andrew must get word to the creators that what they are writing is actually coming true. His journey to try and break the connection between the fictional show and his reality will be a laugh for anyone who has ever watched science fiction. The ways that the plots of these shows tend to play out on screen are hilariously explored. Like the strange habit that the main characters have of solving a problem at the very last minute, not to mention the fact that they never seem to need any real assistance from the huge number of support staff around them. In television, no one but the stars are allowed to come up with the answer.
It has just been announced that a limited television series is going to be made out of Scalzi’s novel and I, for one, will be very interested to see how well it is adapted. The book, however, is an absolute blast. So if you are a fan of the science fiction genre, I highly recommend Redshirts. It will definitely make you feel more for those poor nameless guys in the background that always pay the ultimate price just because you can’t kill off someone with a long-term contract.