Did Red Shirts Really Die at a Greater Percentage Than Other Shirts on Star Trek?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: The most dangerous shirt to wear on “Star Trek” was a red shirt.

Quite often, when a television series finds itself in an established place in the overall popular culture, catch phrases and cliches from the series become a part of the national jargon. “Star Trek” is certainly no exception to this, which catch phrases like “Live long and prosper,” “Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor not a _____,” “Beam me up, Scotty” and others like them long being part of the public collective consciousness. However, what’s interesting about the public collective consciousness is that it doesn’t always remember things correctly. We’ve pointed out in the past that Gracie Allen never actually said, “Good night, Gracie” on the “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show”. Similarly, Mr. T never actually said “I pity the fool” on “The A-Team”. Heck, even within the world of “Star Trek,” Captain Kirk never said the explicit phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty” (although he said things close enough that it’s not a major thing to quibble over). With all this in mind, can you really trust the collective public consciousness on anything? For instance, do red shirts even die the most on “Star Trek”?


That’s the question reader Bob S. wrote in with the other day, telling me that he had read an article online that said that red shirts didn’t actually die the most on “Star Trek” and he wanted to know if that was true or not. Well, Bob (and everyone else), read on for the answer!

As it turns out, it’s really all in how you look at the question.

There were roughly 56 crew members killed on the original “Star Trek” television series (a number of them died off screen, so there is a bit of a dispute over the precise figure, 55 or 56. It really doesn’t matter that much for the purposes of this discussion, but I certainly couldn’t profess to know the precise answer).

Of the crew members killed, 24 of them wore red shirts, 7 of them wore blue shirts and 9 of them wore gold shirts. So, if the question is a simple “who dies the most?” the answer is, indeed, red shirts. Heck, with the ones who died off camera, the numbers could be even higher.

However, Matthew Barsalou wrote an interesting article a few years ago that argued that that is not the best way to look at things. Presumably this is the article Bob was remembering.

Barsalou argued that the Enterprise’s crew consisted of 55 command and helm personnel, 136 science and medical personnel and 239 engineering, operations and security personnel. The latter 239 all wore red shirts.

Therefore, when you look at the deaths as a percentage of the total population, it works out as:

Blue shirts – 5.1%
Gold shirts – 13.4%
Red shirts – 10.0%

Thus, on a percentage basis, it was more dangerous to be a gold shirt crew member than a red shirt.

Honestly, the real issue is the red shirts who work in security. The security department had a 20% casualty rate. Which, of course, is logical – security should be the most dangerous job. In addition, being on away missions period is not a good sign for survival. The reason why the engineering and operations personnel have such high survival rates is that they don’t go on away missions so they weren’t there when the alien of the week decided to off a few members of the away team. And who went on the most away missions? You guessed it – red shirts.

In any event, the legend is…

STATUS: True on a pure numbers standpoint while False on a rate basis.

Thanks, of course, to Matthew Barsalou for his awesome statistical work!

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television. And click here for more legends just about Star Trek!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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3 Responses to “Did Red Shirts Really Die at a Greater Percentage Than Other Shirts on Star Trek?”

  1. One other urban legend: McCoy never prefaced “I’m a doctor, not a…” with “Damn it, Jim” in the original series or movies. They weren’t even allowed to use “damn” as an expletive on ’60s TV (only as a verb, as in “The evidence is damning” or “I can’t damn him for his loyalty”). So “I’m a doctor” was never prefaced by any interjection except “Look” on one occasion. In fact, the only time DeForest Kelley’s McCoy ever said “Damn it, Jim” was in THE WRATH OF KHAN at Kirk’s birthday: “Damn it, Jim, what the hell’s the matter with you?” So how it came to be linked with the “doctor” catchphrase in the public’s mind is a bit of a mystery. My best guess is that it comes from the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE “The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise” sketch from 1976, where Dan Aykroyd’s McCoy says “I’m a doctor, not a tailor, damn it!” Maybe that got memetically blended with the TWOK line in people’s minds.

    Since remakes are prone to include memes that weren’t part of the original, Karl Urban’s McCoy did say “Damn it, man, I’m a doctor, not a…” to Spock in both of the first two Kelvin Timeline movies. But STAR TREK BEYOND was the first time he actually, canonically said it to “Jim,” although he was beamed away before he could say what he was not.

  2. I thought the true black spot was not merely wearing a red shirt; if you had a red shirt and you were named (Scottie excepted), then you were doomed

  3. Michael Underwood on September 29th, 2017 at 10:20 am

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