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'Redshirts': Expendable Ensigns Get Their Own Story

Fans of Star Trek long ago noted that anonymous security officers who accompanied the show's stars rarely survived the experience. Shortly after being beamed down, they would be vaporized, stomped or eaten for dramatic effect. It's a plot device so common that these expendable crewmen became known collectively as redshirts.

In his novel Redshirts, science fiction writer John Scalzi follows Andrew Dahl, a similarly expendable ensign as he sorts out this life-expectancy issue.

Scalzi, the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his science fiction comedy.

Interview Highlights

On where the redshirts' story started

"It really does go back all the way to the original series of Star Trek. And, as ... anybody who's watched the series for a long time knows, you know, Spock, Kirk and Scotty are going down and so is Ensign Jones, and somebody is going to get attacked by the salt-sucking monster, and it's not going to be somebody who has a contract. It's that poor ... ensign, the poor security dude.

"And so it became just this thing ... first, [in] science fiction and then nerd culture, and then further and further along, it became something that broke into the common culture a little bit. And to be quite blunt ... [when I wanted to start] writing the novel a couple of years ago, I looked around and I said, surely, someone has done this in novel form where the redshirts, you know, have their rebellion. And apparently, no one did.

"I guess it was such a low-hanging fruit. Someone said, that's too easy, whereas I was like, nope, I will take that low-hanging fruit and pluck it right off that tree."

On why redshirts were spared in Stargate Universe, on which Scalzi consulted

"I was reading one of the first scripts, and there is a scene in the script where it says, 'Redshirt walks down a hall.' ... And I'm like, 'Oh, this is going to be a bad hall for this dude.' And, of course, he gets halfway down the hall and then it explodes, and ... he's doomed. And ironically, the thing about Stargate Universe was this was a ship way out in the middle of nowhere. They can't actually replace the crew member that they kill. So I had to send the producers a note: 'You can't kill this guy because if you keep killing people at the rate that you're killing them, there will be nobody left on the ship. It will just be the five main characters.'

So my innovation for redshirts on that particular show was a whole lot of them didn't die, but a lot them were really grievously wounded ... [or] merely maimed. I mean, it's not a good deal for that character but, you know, at least it made better sense for that particular story."

On why the science-specific parts of Star Trek can be tough to watch

"There's always been a little bit of tension between the writers of science-fiction literature and then science-fiction televised shows or movies, partly because they have a different dynamic. In a novel, of course, you have enough time to explain the process and make it seem awfully plausible, where oftentimes in movies or in television shows, you don't necessarily get that opportunity. Or alternately, they just don't think the audience cares.

"There's a scene in the new Star Trek movie where Spock, who is a science officer, goes off on this five-minute exegesis of what his situation is, and the science in it isn't right. It's not even wrong. And for those five minutes, I just — I seize up, and my wife actually presses the pause button on the DVR, and she says, 'You must leave this room. I don't care what you do, but you can't watch these five minutes. Go check your email. Come back when it's done.' And it's just the bad science there just drives me insane. And it's a real tragedy because everything else about the new Star Trek movie, I think, is fantastic. But that five minutes ... I want to set someone on fire."

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