There are certain references and jokes that never get old. Among them is the Star Trek Red Shirt reference. For those unfamiliar, a Red Shirt is a throwback to the original Star Trek series. Whenever an unfamiliar character went on a mission and was wearing — you guessed it — a red shirt, you could almost guarantee they weren't going to make it back to the ship. In fact, usually they were the first to die. As time went on, it became a joke even among big fans of the show. Urban Dictionary even has a definition:
"Expendable characters. Usually say one line or less before being killed in a plot-convenient manner. Most often seen in classic 60's Trek."
Later, the term became a pop culture reference for any throwaway character in a show or a movie, including Star Trek's own rebooted movie franchise.
Star Trek (2009)
During a scene in J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek movie, three men were sent on a dangerous mission: They had to dive from space, deploy their parachute and then land safely in an unsafe environment. I have to admit, even I didn't notice this the first time I saw Star Trek in the theater.
Three characters are all diving to save a planet and who is the only one who dies? You got it. The only person wearing a red shirt. This joke was put in specifically for the fans of Star Trek, and was right in the open and subtle all at once. It was absolutely brilliant.
Red Shirt Memes
You know you've made it into pop culture when you have become a meme that continuously grows. The picture above is a good example of the kind of crossover appeal that the Red Shirt joke has. Fans of the Star Wars films know that stormtroopers couldn't hit water in the middle of an ocean.
Here's another favorite:
Red Shirts In Comic Books
Of all of the names you could decide to give yourself, Red Shirt the Uber Henchman has to be the absolute worst. Let's forget the fact that he's leading a bunch of henchmen and then calling himself the Uber Henchman — he essentially wrote his own death warrant by calling himself Red Shirt. After telling everyone his name, one henchman had this to say:
It's great that comic books have gotten in on this joke. There is a bit of camaraderie between the cultures of comic books and Star Trek, after all.
Both have conventions where their fans dress up as popular characters, have debates on which character to beat up another, and are somewhat ridiculed for their intense love of either one.
Red Shirts On Non-Star Trek TV
Television shows — other than Star Trek, obviously — have jumped in on the Red Shirt joke as well. On a South Park episode titled "City On the Edge of Forever," students on a bus get trapped hanging off the edge of a cliff. The bus driver, Ms. Crabtree, leaves to get help and tells the kids to stay on the bus or a big black monster would kill them. One kid happens to be wearing a red Star Trek shirt. He starts to panic and says that Ms. Crabtree isn't coming back, that he's going to leave and get help himself. Upon leaving the bus, he is almost immediately eaten by the big black monster. The beast spits out the kid's skeleton and, of course, the red shirt is still attached to it's body.
Other shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the episode "Older and Far Away") makes a reference when an expendable guest star gets stabbed while wearing a red polo shirt who is the only character injured in this episode. Also, in the movie Spy Game, an assassin refers to his target as a Red Shirt.
Many people have work the crimson shirt of death and have stayed alive throughout not only an episode or two, but have been pivotal characters on Star Trek shows. Captain Jean Luc Picard is a perfect example of a character who has worn a Red Shirt and continued to live a long life on the Starship Enterprise. And while it may be true that the stigma may not hold true to form anymore, that doesn't mean the jokes will stop and it certainly doesn't make them any less funny.
Have a favorite red shirt moment? Let me know in the comments below!