Today — as I realized from Google’s doodle; I didn’t actually have the date marked on my calendar! — is the 46th anniversary of Star Trek. It premiered Sept. 7, 1966. The Christian Science Monitor (here) points out the show’s contribution to civil rights (Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan and told Nichelle Nichols she was too important to leave the show). The show reputedly also inspired many young people to go into science careers. I’d like to point to one more achievement: it added a term to our literary lexicon.
You know denouement, persona, peripeteia, harmartia, catharsis, and deus ex machina? Star Trek added redshirt — the virtually anonymous character whose sole purpose in the story is to die, as proof that the antagonist is dangerous, so that we can be in suspense over the fate of the characters that really matter.
Once you have a term you have identified a concept. Redshirt is a type of writing failure, similar to deus ex machina. The “god out of the machine” was a way, in ancient Greek drama, of getting characters out of a fix that was so unsolvable that the playwright had to get a god to come down from Olympus to sort things out (the machine was a crane that lowered the actor to the ground). Not the most satisfying conclusion. The term now signifies any kind of improbable contrivance in the plot.
Similarly, the redshirt is the lazy writer’s way of creating suspense and putting the main character through a necessary but brief anguish. When, on Star Trek, viewers could instantly spot the one who was going to die within about, oh, sixty seconds, it became a joke. A writer with a modicum of professional pride doesn’t want readers laughing at a plot development that’s supposed to be tragic. So the fear of creating a redshirt may, in some instances, motivate a writer to try just a little harder and think a little deeper. Or, at least, we hope so.