The joke around Red Shirts and insta-deaths on Star Trek have been going on since the show’s original series first aired. Today, it’s become a joke that’s spread beyond the franchise and is a trope known throughout science fiction. During Star Trek: Lower Decks season two, episode six, the animated series decided to turn the joke on its head with a wink at the past and a whole new take for the future.
During the episode, titled The Spy Humungous, Ensign Brad Boimler is recruited by a club of Ensigns focused on career advancement. They call themselves the Red Shirts. This surprises Ensign Brad Boimler, who is an expert on Starfleet history and seems aware of the legacy of that term, while the ambitious club of ensigns does not. They see the term “red shirts” as taking up its modern meaning in the Star Trek universe, which has the red shirts as a sign of command.
Eventually, it’s revealed that while the Red Shirts club is full of ensigns who want the glory of command, but don’t actually understand or want any of the responsibilities that someone like Captain Picard faces. Pretty soon, it becomes obvious that the Red Shirts is a group of ensigns who don’t know what to do in a real crisis and aren’t willing to step up and get the job done. This takes the classic red shirt joke from Star Trek and makes a new one, wherein Red Shirts are useless laughingstocks.
The term “Red Shirts” has a long history in science fiction now. If you’re watching a television show or a movie where the main character goes into battle with a bunch of characters who don’t have names, the characters without names will often all die. The nameless dead characters are often just labeled “redshirt“. (Yes, even as just one word.) This is in reference to a trope where stock characters newly appear on screen at the hero’s side, only to die shortly thereafter. It’s predictable, it’s common, and it’s done to raise the stakes for the heroes on the show. It alerts the audience that characters can die in this situation.
The term redshirt became popularized as a way to reference this phenomenon because of Star Trek: The Original Series, and has become a joke both in and outside of Star Trek fandom. In the original series, security personnel would go on missions with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner), only to immediately die. Goodbye, Red Shirt, we barely knew you. According to studies, these characters may not actually have been more likely to die, but it certainly feels that way while watching it.
Cut to today, and the people behind the show have clearly tried to steer away from that trope over the years. The costume department changed up the meaning behind red shirts and had them signify Starfleet officers, putting Captain Picard and others of import in red. Still, the joke, and the trope, have remained a part of not only Star Trek history, but sci-fi television at large. Now, the writers of Star Trek: Lower Decks have changed up the Red Shirt joke, in a clever play showing how meanings can evolve over time.