On the necropsychological orientation of the common redshirt
Given that I didn’t intend to cross my fingers and hope for a car crash to photograph, I had to get a bit creative for this one. Thus, I give you Crewman Mathews, the very first redshirt ever to die in Star Trek. Featured in TOS’ 1966 episode What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Mathews is dispatched by an android, Ruk, while on an away trip to the surface of Exo III with Captain Kirk and Commander Chapel. It is all rather serious business, as you’ll doubtless take my word. And, yes, in compliance with the assignment guidelines I took the screenshot with my own index finger.
It took me some thought to draw this connection after reading the Zelizer article, but I don’t think my logic is tortured. Redshirts have become an iconic symbol of death in Star Trek canon; whenever a redshirt leaves on a mission, their death is presumed imminent. Zelizer refers to “about-to-die images” and their ability to engender a sense of impending doom and, in that way, sometimes cause more dread and unease than if the actual death had been shown.
In this way Star Trek uses redshirts as a foreshadowing tool. Though quite commonly their death is not shown onscreen, redshirts create a dramatic tension, preying on the audience’s expectations. In the press, these types of figures are common. When we see images of people preparing for a hurricane, or militants about to engage a superior force, we know from past experience that some of them are likely to die, and that presaging likelihood can often make us more uncomfortable than a grim certainty told after the fact.