My sweetheart and I started (are probably halfway through) Redshirts by John Scalzi. Redshirts is a grand deconstruction of the redshirt character trope, specifically, the tendency for Redshirts to perish early and often (and with little notice by the story arc) in Star Trek, The Original Series. Considering that I am creating a deconstruction of Star Trek, myself, it’s neat to see that Scalzi and I can see the same devices and see the same quirks to them, and yet we each invent different paradigms in which we examine them.
In other words, to my relief, Scalzi didn’t ninja* my F&F ideas.
Redshirt mortality is an artifact of the same phenomenon that gives Cabot Cove its extraordinary murder rate. (1,490 per one million inhabitants, compare to the two leading real-life homicide capitals, Caracas, Venezuela — 1,199 per one million — and San Pedro Sula, Honduras — 1,110 per one million.) This is to say, during the eras of Star Trek TOS and Murder, She Wrote, TV serial scripts followed a strict format that suited syndication. Each episode had to be self contained, and had to hit essential plot points. And the stakes of the situation had to be lethal, which was to be demonstrated early on in the story.
To be fair, regarding our cozy-mystery biddy-detectives, Jane Marple suffered from the same blight as Jessica Fletcher did, of being in continuous proximity to a procession of murders, in which victim and or subjects were casually known to her (once-removed at most). Regarding Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth, Marple’s uncanny knack for encountering mystery through happenstance (rather than consultation) was barely noticeable among the many accepted contrivances of country-house mysteries. Mrs. Fletcher’s longer run of stories and bodies (264 episodes) remains harder to ignore.
But death is a convenient (if now hackneyed) shorthand for urgency. These days writers put more effort into using other means to convey the grim consequences of failure. Missing nuclear submarines, agitated mobster syndicates, tense relationships between vindictive families or hawkish nations, stolen holy artifacts and priceless macguffins… It’s possible to show the volatility of a situation without killing someone. Large stockpiles of explosives are sufficient. But dead redshirts and cadaverous victims in the conservatory are both easy on the budget.
So yes, even in space opera, even when postiting Socratic questions about the state of society and humanity, the rule of drama requires the stakes of circumstance escalate to that of life and limb. And the easiest to do that is a monster munch. Not necessarily the specific hazard of actual hungry predators. (Though things-that-eat-your-face-off remain in-style more than ever.) Space travel offers plenty of hazards and risks to human life. If nothing else, space is really big, and a lifepod disabled, adrift and quiet will fall for eons and eons, and sufficient, unending supplies will not save its survivors from the cruel march of time and age, during which the pod could encounter not so much as a rock.
But falling is not very dramatic. And cost is an issue. And the writers may not have time to study about space or science or mechanics. Death on screen needs to be faster. More colorful. More immediate.
And so ravenous monsters. And when not that, exploding control panels. And when not that weird-yet-deadly energy fields are there to kill our redshirts off anyway.
* To get ninja’d in an internet forum is to express the same point as someone else at about the same time, but to have it post after theirs. Great minds often think alike, as the old adage goes, and we often follow the same logic to the same conclusions. This is a very common occurrence. The forum reads as if one person posted the thought, and the followers were just poor at reading the forum procession.
I suspect that this use of the verb to ninja is derived from ninjaing loot in multiplayer games, especially MMORPGs, which is to claim monster drops (loot dropped by slain monsters) without giving fellow players a chance to negotiate their own desire for the same loot.