Monday, December 3, 2012

Redshirts: Expendable in Fiction and Fact

As a security guard, I found Redshirts by John Scalzi (Tom Doherty Association, 2012), at once intriguing, humorous, insightful, and disappointing.  Marketed in book format, the story is a novella typeset with extra leading, and to which is appended another story in another format.  The thesis is obvious from the title.  If you know the Star Trek universe, then you have seen the expendable, disposable security force on the away teams. The redshirts die to tell the audience that the main characters are in danger. 

In fact, the trope is known in other genres.  In the Fox-TV series 24, the government’s elite “Counter-Terrorism Unit” is protected by unarmed security guards who take the first salvo every time that the CTU is attacked.  Perhaps the first to be formally dubbed “expendable” in popular media were the American PT boat crews serving in the Philippines when Japan attacked the USA to enter World War II.  (William Lindsay White’s novel, They Were Expendable, archived on Google Books here and  Life magazine story archived on Google Books here.)  Of course the stories of Samson, the 300 Spartans, and the Alamo speak to the same tradition.

Scalzi’s work is at once a parody and a tribute.  Just as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a Gothic novel about a girl deluded by Gothic novels, so, too, does Redshirts incorporate all the important elements of classic Star Trek.  The characters who cannot die are the Captain, the Science Officer, the Engineer, the Astrogator, and the Medical Officer.  Also, characters who have backstories are more durable.  These are our viewpoint hero, Ensign Andrew Dahl, and the new friends he makes at the spaceport bar: Maia Duvall (who earned her officer’s commission coming up from the ranks of the infantry), Jimmy Hanson (James Albert Henson IV heir to the galaxy’s greatest fortune but a real regular guy), Finn (a drug dealer) and Hester (his hapless accomplice).  Possessing a backstory is critical to surviving; otherwise the writers will kill you off sooner.

Ensign Andrew Dahl eventually discovers that their universe is affected and ultimately controlled by the mediocre writers of a TV show from 2010 thinly based on Star Trek from 1967.  The solution is to slingshot around a blackhole, achieve time travel, get to 2012, and cancel the show so they can enjoy and finish out normal lives in their own universe, instead of dying in grisly encounters with killer robots, hostile aliens, exobiologic plagues, and other dramatic effects.  In fact, the need for such drama is one clue.

“The Narrative” is the commanding presence that makes people do things they never would (rushing in to mortal danger) and lets them know things they previously did not (piloting a shuttle).  The Narrative is why the Captain is given to rhetorical soliloquy, followed by silence… so the commercial can interrupt the action.  The Narrative is why the Captain never engages countermeasures until after the first enemy salvo hits decks 6 through 12, and why only three out of four incoming missiles are neutralized.  

Interestingly, in the Star Trek: Original Series Omnibus (IDW Publishing, 2010), in the “Fourth Year” story Spock tells Kirk: “In the time that I have served as your first officer, an indigenous population has attacked the Enterprise 33 times.  Of those attacks, 84% occurred after you failed to make scheduled check-ins from the surface.”  Such regularities are difficult to miss, especially when it is your friends being ground up by crazed robots. 

To explain the Redshirts, I showed my wife the ST:OS season two episode “The Apple” in which four redshirts met plants that spewed poisonous darts, rocks that exploded, random lightening, and angry villagers. 

For more on Redshirts, see the Star Trek fan site Memory Alpha here.

Real life redshirts include the private contractors who supplemented US military forces in Iraq during the Second Gulf War.  That story is harder to tell because nothing about it is amusing.

Private Security in the 21st Century
Shifting the Paradigm of Private Security
Active Defense and Passive Aggression, Part 1.
Active Defense and Passive Aggression, Part 2.

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