It is widely accepted among fans of the original series of Star Trek that any crew member who beams down to a planet’s surface while wearing a red shirt is unlikely to return to the Enterprise alive. If you asked the starship’s supercomputer to verify that assumption, you would find out things aren’t quite as they may seem.
Mathematician James Grime studied the numbers and revealed the startling conclusion that wearing a red uniform is not nearly as hazardous to one’s health as previously assumed. His study, entitled “The Math of Khan,” examined the mortality rates over the show’s three seasons. The results showed that there were more deaths among red-shirted crew members, but only because that was the most common uniform color for the men and women of the Enterprise.
In the show, which aired between 1966 and 1969, crew members primarily wore one of three different colors for their uniforms. Gold signified command personnel. Blue shirts were given to science and medical specialists. The remaining members of the crew received red shirts.
Over the original series’ 79 episodes, 25 red-shirted crew members were killed, compared to 10 who wore gold and 8 who wore blue. In other words, 58% of the deaths were suffered by red-shirted crew. While that may seem to support the notion that red shirts are hazardous to one’s health, a closer examination of the numbers tells a different story.
Approximately 430 crewmen served on the Enterprise. Most of them — approximately 239 — served in engineering, security or operations. Their uniforms were red. Not all crew members were seen on screen, of course, and the crew rotated over time. If you track the total number of people who make appearances on the screen over the three seasons, you will find 239 wore red shirts, about 130 wore blue, and 55 were dressed in gold.
Based on the on-screen appearances, the math supports the notion that command carries more than heavy responsibilities; it also brings on higher life insurance premiums. Those who wear gold shirts had an 18% mortality rate, compared to the 10% death rate among redshirts and the 6% rate among blue-shirted crew members.
Consider this the next time you contemplate going to Comic-Con or consider a Star Trek theme for your Halloween costume. While command does have its privileges, there’s a very good chance your day will end with Dr. McCoy standing over you, saying, “He’s dead, Jim.”
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