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Literature: Redshirts

"Within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization."

"Death by shuttle door malfunction."

"Death by ice shark."
Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, and Andy Dahl comparing notes

Redshirts is a Hugo Award-winning novel by John Scalzi which takes the concept of the Red Shirt, examines it, deconstructs it, and tears it inside out, taking an in-depth look at what would happen if the eponymous expendable extras ever discovered why the universe treats them as its own personal Chew Toys.

Ensign Andrew Dahl, fresh out of the Academy, has received his first assignment on the Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid. His excitement at this very prestigious posting quickly wanes as he discovers something odd about his new ship. His shipmates seem terrified of Captain Abernathy and his senior officers, and do everything in their power to avoid the dreaded "Away Missions." Ensign Dahl’s suspicions come to a head when a mysterious figure approaches him in the corridor and warns him to "avoid the Narrative."

Redshirts is very trope heavy, and many of them are Played With, Parodied, Lampshaded, Zig Zagged, Subverted, or Double Subverted. Naturally, the examples below contain many spoilers, so tread carefully.

The book even has its own theme song, written by Jonathan Coulton, no less.

In February 2014, a television adaptation of Redshirts was announced. (We'll wait while you untangle the levels of meta involved at this point.)


Redshirts contains examples of:

  • Acoustic License: During a battle, Chief Engineer West replies to comments by Abernathy and Q'eeng just after entering the bridge, meaning he was somehow able to hear them through a door, with red alert sirens blazing.
  • Alternate Timeline: Discussed. Jenkins theorizes that the creation of The Chronicles of the Intrepid created an alternate timeline in which they existed, but the show never did, but everything else that happened before that point in the two universes is the same.
  • Angst? What Angst?: Lampshaded in-universe in regards to Kerensky. Dahl points out that, never mind Kerensky shouldn't be alive after all the crap that has happened to him, he couldn't possibly still be sane after it all. He barely gets better from one thing before he gets sick from another.
    • Played with, in that later Kerensky (while drunk) goes on a rant about all the crap that happens to him.
  • Artistic License - Biology: Davis notes that the mouths of the Borgovian Land Worms are rather evolutionarily suspect.
  • Ascended Extra: Hester. Originally no one knows his first name. At the end he gets a short arc, with a nonfatal end.
    Dahl turned to Paulson. "Hester stays behind," he said. "We take your son with us. We go back to our time and our universe, but he" — Dahl pointed at Weinstein — "writes that the person in the shuttle is Hester. We don't try to sneak him in or have him be another extra. He has to be central to the plot. We call him out by name. His full name. Jasper Allen Hester."
  • Bait and Switch: The Narrative does this with Finn's death. At first, they all think it's Duvall's death episode, because she had been previously stationed on the Nantes, but as soon as Finn knocks her out to take her place on the away mission, he find out he knows the perpetrator of the hijacking from his last posting.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Forshan, who are stated to be xenomorphic.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction: In chapter one, Dahl remarks offhand that he never rose very high in the Forshan religious hierarchy because full ordination requires some physical requirements he wouldn't have been able to perform.
    Duvall: Like what?
    Dahl: Self-impregnation, for one.
  • Black Box: The Box, a device resembling a microwave oven that, if given a sample of any xenobiological problem, will hum until it's dramatically appropriate, then go 'ding' and provide the solution. Truly unusual due to the fact that the writer for the show doesn't even know about it, since it never appears in any scene that is filmed. It just appeared out of nowhere so that all the miraculous cures needed in the show (often for Kerensky) are possible.
  • Brick Joke: Later on in the story, we find out Ensign Davis died in the prologue just so the uncle of the executive producer of the show could renew his SAG insurance.
    • And in the first of three epilogues, Davis was the only redshirt to actually express irritation at actually being dead, rather than irritation at being unnecessarily dead.
  • Captain Obvious: Davis thinks this about Captain Abernathy when he starts spouting exposition in the prologue.
  • Cartwright Curse: After saving his life from some killer robots, Duvall starts dating Kerensky. Once she understands what's going on with the ship, she comes to the conclusion that her purpose is to make Kerensky depressed after she gets killed in some unlikely manner.
  • Catch Phrase: Mbeke mocks Captain Abernathy's overusage of, "Damn it, man! There is no try! Only do!" when under control of the Narrative.
  • Celebrity Paradox: All the characters have doppelgangers in the real world: the actors who play them. Most of the resolution to the book's plot consists of them finding various ways to exploit this.
    • At one point one of the characters searches through the Intrepid's database to find out what show they're on, but can't find it. He and his cohorts assume this is because the show itself wouldn't exist in the universe in it.
    • In a more metatextual sense, Star Trek is shown to exist in the same universe as the Bland-Name Product show that concerns our characters, Chronicles of the Intrepid.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • In-universe it's Hester, in that he doesn't have an interesting background or much character development, nor does anyone know his first name, yet in the "real world" he's played by the producer's son, who also happens to be in a coma. Through the liberal application of Hollywood Science and Deus ex Machina, Hester and the son are able to switch bodies, leaving the son healthy once again and Hester healed once he's back in the ship's sick bay.
    • Hanson, who does nothing for most of the book, only to confirm to Dahl that he's the main character.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Characters, particularly the senior officers, tend to do this when under control of the Narrative. Lampshaded, as the other crew members tend to mock them for being "particularly dramatic."
  • Comically Missing the Point: In the prologue, Davis explains to Chen the potential danger in their situation:
    Chen: It's just a cave. What could possibly be in there?
    Davis: Bears? Wolves? Any number of large predators who see a cave as shelter from the elements? Have you never been camping?
    Chen: There are no bears on this planet.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Several of the "episodes" run on this, the characters even sit around talking about the coincidences that led to Finn's death. Of course, this makes sense given the quality of the show they're on.
  • Courtroom Episode: Right before his death, Davis envisions that the entire point of his life was to die right at that moment, just so Captain Abernathy could be court-marshaled on trumped up charges and defended by Science Officer Q’eeng.
  • Crazy Enough to Work:
    "I want to warn you that this sounds like a crazy idea," Jenkins said.
    "I'm amazed you feel the need to say that anymore," Hester said.
    Jenkins nodded, as if to say, Point. Then he said, "Time travel."
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: Jenkins.
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Jenkins is inadvertently this, as he has divined the reason behind the anomaly that is the Intrepid: Namely, that they're inside a (badly written) TV show. He tries to use this knowledge to assist the crew, but as is pointed out to him later in the book giving the senior crew knowledge of how to avoid dying as Redshirts just meant that they were throwing the new meat under the bus. Keep in mind, his wife died because she was a victim of this attitude.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Finn is killed by a former crew-mate he helped catch.
  • Deconstructed Trope: Of Red Shirts.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Ensign Davis in the prologue.
  • Distress Call: The crew follows what they think is one of these to a space station. It turns out they were following a Warning Beacon, and the machines had come alive and killed everyone on the station.
  • Doom Magnet: Captain Abernathy, Chief Science Officer Q’eeng, Chief Engineer West, Medical Chief Hartnell, and Lieutenant Kerensky, who seems to get nearly-fatally injured every other week. Heavily lampshaded and discussed by the other characters.
    Jenkins: Statistically speaking there's something highly aberrant about them. When they're on an away mission, the chance of the mission experiencing a critical failure increases. When two or more of them are on the same away mission, the chance of a critical failure increases exponentially. If three or more are on the mission, it's almost certain someone is going to die.
    Hanson: But never any of them.
    • West, in particular, is described as "a goddamn deathtrap". Something around him always explodes; and while Redshirts might be able to survive being around the other main characters, being anywhere near West is treated as a death sentence.
  • Everyone Meets Everyone: The five Ensigns all meet on the Earth Dock before boarding the Intrepid.
  • Excuse Me Coming Through: Justified, in that the crew members will start rushing away looking busy whenever a senior officer draws near, in order to keep from being picked for away missions.
  • Explosive Instrumentation: Lampshaded when the captain calls down to Engineering to get some surge suppressors on the bridge consoles and complains that there is no reason the bridge should look like a fireworks display every time the Intrepid gets into a firefight. (This is after the Narrative has released control of him.)
  • Expy: Abernathy, Q'eeng, West, Hartnell and Kerensky for Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones, and Chekov. Justified in-universe since Chronicles of the Intrepid is pretty much a Star Trek ripoff/remake.
  • Fantastically Indifferent: Hester gets annoyed that they're all just sitting around calmly talking about being fictional characters as if it was normal.
  • The Federation: The Universal Union is pretty much exactly the Federation from Star Trek with the serial numbers filed off.
  • Friend in the Black Market: Finn. In his previous posting, he was known as the guy who could get you technically legal drugs, until his XO had a bad reaction to the fungus and he was transferred.
  • Gag Echo: When Kerensky and the actor who plays Kerensky wake up, the first thing they say is "Where are my pants?"
  • Genre Savvy: The story is essentially about the main characters acquiring this and learning how to use it for their benefit to avoid Dying Like Animals.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Pulse guns only drive Borgovian Land Worms crazy. And if they malfunction as often as they did in the original series, this doubles.
  • Handsome Lech: Kerensky, this may or may not apply to his actor as well.
  • Happily Ever After: The real ending.
  • Hero of Another Story: The entire concept of the book is to tell said "Another Story."
    • The whole thing gets turned on its head at the end, as Dahl discovers that he is the main character, and Abernathy, Q’eeng, West, and Hartnell are the real Heroes of Another Story
  • Hollywood Healing: Kerensky, as part of his constantly getting injured. Again, lampshaded. Literally in the case of Paulson's son.
  • Hollywood Science: Anytime the Narrative takes control, the science team pulls out the Box, which ignores any and all laws of physics to find the solution to the problem, oftentimes producing results that cannot be replicated under any other circumstances. Also, using black holes to travel back in time/to the real world
    Trin: Counter-bacterial? Don’t you mean a vaccine?
    • A weird recursive one in the quote above, which is a short running joke; vaccines are useless to someone already infected, and "counter-bacterial" is just an overly technobabble way of saying "antibiotic", which is exactly what they need.
  • I Lied: This exchange before the mission to the Nantes:
    Dahl: What did you do?
    Finn: Quite obviously, I knocked her out.
    Dahl: I though you said the pill was very mild.
    Finn: I lied.
  • Idiot Ball: The Narrative passes this from character to character for dramatic effect. Lampshaded in that most of the characters realize their actions are completely stupid — if not at the time, then after — yet are unable to help themselves.
  • Idiot Plot: In-Universe, the Narrative forces the characters into these, forcing them to situations that they know are completely moronic. Explained when Jenkins concludes that their show is not a very well-written one.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Naturally, most specifically being the converted cargo carts on the Nantes
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: The aversion of this trope is used to identify when their show was made. Two years before, several characters used a black hole to travel back to 2010. Jenkins realizes that this trope would have been used if they had traveled into the show's past, but that it would have just distracted the audience from the characters' Fish Out of Temporal Water experiences if they were going to the show's present.
  • Iron Buttmonkey: Lieutenant Kerensky, who is used by the show writers to demonstrate that, if main characters can't quite die, they sure can suffer.
    Dahl: In the past three years, Kerensky’s been shot three times, caught a deadly disease four times, has been crushed under a rock pile, injured in a shuttle crash, suffered burns when his bridge control panel blew up in his face, experienced partial atmospheric decompression, suffered from induced mental instability, been bitten by two venomous animals and had the control of his body taken over by an alien parasite. That’s before the recent plague and this away mission.
  • It's a Long Story: Dahl, to Duvall, when she asks why he went to the academy late. Subverted in that they immediately go and get lunch and he tells her the story.
  • Killer Robot: On one of the away missions, the characters investigate a space station, the crew of which has been taken out by killer machines.
  • Large Ham: Captain Abernathy, naturally. But only when under the Narrative. Otherwise, he's a very normal guy, and appears confused as to why he was so over the top a little while before.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: At the end of the book, Dahl figures out that Hanson, to that point, had been a completely pointless character who had done little, if anything, to further the plot, and therefore must solely exist in the story in order to tell Dahl that he was the actual main character. He was right.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The entire book.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: How Kerensky describes being under the the influence of the Narrative. He gets a sudden burst of confidence where he forgets he's the astrogator, and just rushes into dangerous situations without a second thought.
  • Magic Mushroom: Xeno-pseudoagaricus, the alien fungus Finn was caught dealing.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Several characters, including Kerensky himself, complain about the absurdity about Kerensky, an astrogator, being sent on away missions that have nothing to do with astrogating.
    Kerensky: I get all confident and it seems like there’s a perfectly good reason for a goddamn astrogator to take medical samples, or fight killer machines or whatever. Then I get back on the Intrepid and I think to myself, "What the fuck was I just doing?’ Because it doesn’t make sense, does it?
  • Mauve Shirt: Jenkins points out that Dahl, Duvall, Finn, and Hanson all have interesting backgrounds to give their characters more depth, and therefore more greatly impact the audience when they die.
  • Meta Guy: Jenkins at first, then Dahl joins him, followed by the rest of the ensigns.
    • Hanson and eventually Dahl take this to an even greater level by working out that not only are they in a tv show, they're actually in a book about the tv show.
  • A Million is a Statistic: Lampshaded. Kerensky has caught a flesh-eating disease on a planet which is suffering a deadly plague. Captain Abernathy is concerned about Kerensky. Oh, and also the planet.
  • Mind Screw: The characters even comment on it.
  • Monster Munch: Ensign Davis in the prologue exists purely to be eaten by a Borgovian Land Worm. Another unnamed ensign got eaten by an ice shark off-screen. Since the book's premise is turning the titular trope inside-out, the presence of Monster Munch shouldn't be surprising.
    • In the first epilogue, many of the dead characters complain about how often this card gets played.
  • Mr. Exposition: Several characters, though Ensign Tom Davis in the prologue in particular. Lampshaded in that, whenever the Narrative takes control, random information about the plot at hand will pop into a character's head, whether or not they have any way of knowing that information, and they will even sometimes automatically say it out loud to their own surprise.
    • Jenkins and later Hanson take this role for the Ensigns, being the people who tell them about the sci-fi tropes they're experiencing.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: After learning that newly arrived Ensign Dahl spent time on Forshan, Science Officer Q'eeng attempts a traditional Forshan greeting. He makes two mistakes. First, he uses the greeting of the rightward schism in the language of the leftward schism, and second, his appalling accent turns "I offer you the bread of life" into the nonsensical "Let us violate cakes together".
  • Nominal Importance: Hester points out that he has neither an interesting background nor do his friends even bother to find out his first name, and is therefore just there to be a placeholder character.
  • Occam's Razor: The Universal Union's explanation for why so many deaths occur on the Intrepid:
    “What we’ve been told,” Collins said, “is that as the flagship of the Dub U, the Intrepid takes on a larger share of sensitive diplomatic, military and research missions than any other ship in the fleet. Because of that, there is commensurate increase of risk, and thus a statistically larger chance crew lives will be lost. It’s part of the risk of such a high-profile posting.”
  • Oh Crap: The general reaction of most crew members when they got assigned to an away mission.
  • Plot Armor: Abernathy, Q’eeng, Kerensky, West, and Hartnell.
    • Dahl figures this out, and exploits it by kidnapping Kerensky for their trip to the real world, knowing that a main character would never die off screen during an unimportant scene, therefore allowing them to break the laws of physics and use a black hole to travel through time.
    • At the end, it’s Dahl’s own Plot Armor that helps him figure out he’s the main character of the book.
  • Post Modernism: The main characters figure out they're characters in a television series, and things only get more meta from there.
  • Precursors: The Borgovians, in the prologue.
  • Rage Against the Author: The characters consider this before deciding that they'd be better off politely asking the creators to knock it off.
  • Real World Episode: Dahl and the others travel to the real world in order to get Chronicles of the Intrepid cancelled. Later subverted when Dahl realizes the people in the "real world" are just as fictional as he and the rest.
  • Really Gets Around: Kerensky, as attested by the three STDs in his recent history.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Believe it or not, Captain Abernathy. When the Narrative stops controlling him, he visibly becomes much more sensible and caring towards the people under his command.
    Abernathy (during a commercial break): And see if we can't find some power spike dampeners or something. There's not a damn reason why everything on the bridge has to go up in sparks anytime we have a battle.
    Dahl made a small choking sound at this.
    • In fact, this is part of what clues the titular characters that their situation is abnormal; checking their archives, they determine that Abernathy has a solid service record and is not particularly incompetent or reckless except when the Idiot Plot calls for him to be.
  • Red Shirt: Obviously.
  • Retirony: Poor Grover, his tour of duty was over in a couple of days, and he was going home to get married. He didn’t stand a chance.
  • Rule of Drama: More fundamental to the rules of the Intrepid's universe than physics.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: The second-to-last chapter has the Intrepid suffering a systems failure and plowing into a small asteroid. The last chapter is just fourteen words, retconning that last part, and Scalzi saying he was just fucking with the reader.
  • Romance on the Set: A bizarre In-Universe example: Jenkins, whose wife had been Redshirted years before, sends a love letter to the actress who played her in Chronicles of the Intrepid when Dahl and the others go to the real world. In one of the epilogues, it is implied that she then ends up in a relationship with the actor who played him.
  • Running Gag: Decks 6-12 are lethal for people without Plot Armor.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Finn
  • Sand Worm: Borgovian Land Worms, which eat two ensigns in the Prologue. The head writer would like to remind everyone that he was sick that week and the staff writer who did that script was a Dune fan. And the Herbert estate sued them for it.
  • Science at the Speed of Plot: The Box allows the science team to accomplish this.
  • Science Is Bad: The planet Merovia as a whole is superstitious of any sort of medical practices, and therefore the Intrepid is there to help them deal with a plague.
  • Screen Shake: The Intrepid has a bad habit of its inertial dampeners failing whenever it would be most dramatically appropriate, in true Star Trek Shake style.
  • Screw Yourself: They get the actor who plays Kerensky to help them by having Kerensky seduce him... or not. He actually had a deep and meaningful conversation with him, and is disgusted that the others thought they had sex.
  • Shout-Out: The name itself is a shoutout to the Trope Red Shirt, codified and named by Star Trek. In addition, this very site itself got its own shout out in a New York Times article advertising the novel, claiming that the author had himself gotten the name from...TV Tropes!
  • Slut Shaming: The group tries to do this to Duvall for sleeping with Kerensky, but she just counters by saying that none of them had stepped up to the plate to serve her "needs."
  • Super Window Jump: Abernathy does this on the Nantes when he was getting shot at by converted cargo carts. He used the window instead of the door to save time.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Most of the Intrepid's crew has learned to do this out of necessity, to avoid assignment to deadly away-missions.
  • Stealth Pun: Doctor Hartnell.
  • Suddenly Always Knew That: Lampshaded, the Narrative will insert info into a character's head as the plot demands it.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: Collins accredits the Box to a race of these, just so that she doesn't have to think of the other implications of such a device.
  • Techno Babble: Anything scientific said under control of the Narrative. Also, everything put out by the Box until Q'eeng gets a hold of it and it's put in the ship's computer.
  • The Teaser: The prologue plays out as this both for the book itself, and as The Teaser for an episode of The Chronicles of the Intrepid. Several other scenes play out as teasers for individual episodes as well, such as when they are attacked by the Calendrian rebel ship, setting up Finn's Death In The Limelight.
  • This Is Reality: Because what's more likely, that the flagship of the Universal Union happens to have a higher than average death ratio and some crew members continue to survive by luck, or you're bit characters in a weekly sci-fi action show?
  • Threatening Shark: Ice sharks.
    Hanson: Is it a shark made of ice? Or a shark that lives in ice?
    Dahl: It wasn’t specified at the time.
  • Trolling Creator: Invoked in the last two chapters, when Scalzi kills of all the characters by having the Intrepid hit an asteroid, then immediately retcons it by saying he was just fucking with the reader.
  • Unnecessary Combat Roll: Kerensky does one of these after being kidnapped to the real world.
  • Walk and Talk: Dahl's first conversation with Science Officer Q'eeng becomes one of these.
  • Walking Disaster Area: As Dahl points out, an entire planet had to suffer a plague of flesh-eating bacteria just so Kerensky could be saved at the last moment for dramatic effect.
  • Weirdness Censor: Averted. Everyone on the Intrepid knows something weird is going on, and when they realize they can't do anything about it, they choose to avoid it instead.
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?:
    Chen: It's just a cave. What could possibly be in there?
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Quite a large one, when the mooks are the focus characters. The head writer for Chronicles of the Intrepid suffers a Heroic BSOD over this when he learns that people actually die when he writes death scenes. He gets over it after a dream in which all the Redshirts he's ever killed talk to him and explain that what they hate isn't the fact that he killed them, but the fact that he killed them in idiotic ways and that their deaths served no purpose except to up the dramatic tension.
  • Who Writes This Crap?!: Jenkins concludes that not only are they all stuck in a sci-fi TV show, it's not even a very well-written one.
    • Ironically, Jenkins had been played by the show's head writer in a cameo appearance.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: A rare heroic example in the prologue, as Davis wonders why he hasn't thought to shoot the Borgovian Land Worms with his pulse gun (it turns out there was a pretty good reason, as pulse guns just drive Borgovian Land Worms crazy).
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Finn's death. He tries to spite the Narrative by drugging Duvall and taking her place on the away mission, but just ends up dying himself when it turns out the Narrative was targeting him instead.


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