Star Trek Called Out the Red-Shirt Trope With a Heartbreaking Death

A popular Star Trek trope, that of the “dead red shirt,” got called out with a heartbreaking death in a 1991 comic. Captain Kirk is piecing together a memorial service for a fallen Enterprise crew member–one of the infamous red shirts; at the funeral, Kirk gives a eulogy, one that calls out the seemingly endless stream of expendable crew members that were a hallmark of the classic Star Trek show.

Throughout its 56-year history, Star Trek has contributed much to popular culture, from phrases such as “Beam Me Up Scotty” (which was ironically never spoken on the show) to memes inspired by some of the show’s tropes. One of Star Trek’s best-known tropes is the “red shirt,” inspired by the red uniforms worn by the Enterprise’ security officers. In nearly every episode of classic Star Trek, Kirk and company would beam down to a planet with a complement of low-ranking security officers and by episode’s end, at least one of those officers would die. It happened so often that fans took notice, creating an endless stream of memes about the “red shirts.” During writer Peter David’s long-tenure on DC’s Star Trek comic, this trope got a call-out under some truly heartbreaking circumstances.

Star Trek #19 by Peter David and Gordon Purcell opens with Kirk attempting to write a eulogy for Ensign Lee, who was killed by pirates trying to hijack the Enterprise. Kirk realizes he knows nothing about Lee, and talks to other officers to try and get the bigger picture. Chekov, Lee’s commanding officer, admits he knew very little about Lee and other crew members are not much help either. At Lee’s memorial service, Kirk begins by reading a standard Starfleet eulogy, but breaks the script. He goes on to say that no one knew Lee–and this is not acceptable. Kirk refers to Lee as “just another expendable security guard who won’t come back.” Kirk regrets that he did not know Lee–despite the latter saving his life. Kirk concludes his eulogy saying that while they are exploring space, they must not lose sight of each other, because “the death of even one of us, diminishes us all.”

At this point, the dead red shirt meme is used mostly for comedy, but Kirk reminds here that it is no laughing matter. Ensign Lee becomes a stand-in for all the red-shirted crew members killed by alien salt vampires or rogue AIs. In this story, Lee was mysterious; no one on the ship knew much about him beyond his name. Many of the red shirts that would beam down with Kirk and Spock just got names, if even that–viewers never got the chance to know them and Kirk’s eulogy calls that fact out. Kirk used the word “expendable” when describing Ensign Lee, and the eulogy goes into meta territory, almost as if Kirk himself knows about the red shirt meme–and is not happy with it.

Later generations of Star Trek writers have retired the red shirt trope. While deaths still happen on away missions, they do not occur as frequently, but this one Star Trek comic was ahead of the curve, calling the red shirt trope out in a heartbreaking way.

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