TV Legends Revealed: Did 'Star Trek's' Red Shirts Really Have a Higher Casualty Rate?

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

A television series can become so established in popular culture that some of its catchphrases and tropes seep into the national vocabulary. "Star Trek" is a prime example, as phrases like "Live long and prosper," "Damn it, Jim, I'm a doctor not a _____" and "Beam me up, Scotty" have long been part of the collective consciousness. However, that consciousness doesn’t always remember things correctly.

We previously pointed out 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 it was close enough not to quibble about). With all of that in in mind, can you really trust the collective consciousness on anything? For instance, do red shirts even die more frequently on "Star Trek"?

That's the question posed by reader Bob S., who said he had read an article that stated red shirts didn't actually die the most on "Star Trek," and he wanted to know whether that was true. 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.” 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. So, if the question is a simple "who dies the most?" the answer is, indeed, red shirts. Heck, counting the ones who died off-camera, the numbers could be even higher.

However, Matthew Barsalou wrote an interesting article a few years ago arguing that’s not the best way to look at matter. Presumably this is the article Bob remembered.

Barsalou argued the Enterprise 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 percent casualty rate, which, of course, is logical: Security should be the most dangerous job. In addition, being on away missions doesn’t exactly help your odds of 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 during an away mission. 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"!

Charmed Season 2 Poster Declares 'Change. Spells. Danger'

More in TV