OK so I remember this one episode of Sanford & Son, in which the character of Fred Sanford actually met Redd Fox, the actor/comedian who played the role Fred Sanford on the show. I think I was about 7 or 8 when I saw this episode. Mind blown out entirely.
Over a decade later, I was a fierce comics nerd, and one of my favorite series (and remains so to this day) was Grant Morrison’s “Animal Man” from DC/Vertigo Comics. Animal Man was kind of a silly superhero — he could use any power from any animal at any time. But what Morrison did was use the character as a platform to riff upon the relationship between character and creator, which responsibility each had to the other. It was meta. It was fourth-wall-breaking. It ended with Animal Man actually meeting Grant Morrison and begging why the writer had his entire family murdered. Then Animal Man killed Grant Morrison. Sort of. But then there was a happy ending. Sort of…
Jean Cocteau would have loved “Animal Man”.
This brings us to John Scalzi’s wonderfully entertaining and brilliantly realized Redshirts, a satire on the over-actualized trope of nondescript red-shirted extras on sci-fi TV shows being used as cannon fodder to evoke cheap emotion from the viewer via shocky, shlocky melodrama. Played as straight satire (not farce), Scalzi poses the question that never seemed to cross the minds of USS Enterprise security personnel: what if a redshirt suddenly realized he was a redshirt, and slated to die as a result?
The story gets incredibly meta to the point where I’m going to shut up now, lest I give too much away. But it delves into themes much deeper and emotionally resonant than you’d expect the story to deliver (especially in the three codas that end the book, furthering the experiences of three side characters as they handle the story’s narrative fallout).
Death is never cheap. Cheap death is a cheap cop-out. Redshirts is full of zippy humor and eviscerates some of the dopiest beats of sci-fi television. The story is great fun and wildly entertaining, but it goes much deeper than you’d imagine.