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What Do Star Trek Uniform Colors Mean?

Mar 10, 2024Mar 10, 2024

Star Trek's uniforms have undergone a staggering variety of changes over the years. The famous tricolor coding, however, has remained intact. Mostly.

From its earliest incarnation, Star Trek has used its distinctive uniforms to help stand apart from other science fiction epics. Over time, they became as important to the franchise as the phasers and transporters: particularly the unique "tricolor" patterns of red, blue and yellow. Every series has its own version, and the specific designs vary as a way of making each series distinctive.

The colors themselves have very specific meanings, though that has shifted from show to show and from design to design. Most of the time, it sticks to the basic parameters set by The Original Series, with the colors designating different departments comprising Starfleet. But a few big changes have come and gone as the franchise has evolved over the years.

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The two Star Trek pilots -- "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" -- established the basics of Star Trek's uniform colors. But the tones were muted and understated, and the rapid expansion of color TV in the 1960s demanded something that popped. The Original Series brightened the colors while formally distinguishing what each one meant: red for security and engineering departments, yellow for command and flight control, and blue for science and medical. The Kelvinverse reboot movies starring Chris Pine use the same color coding for their redesigned variants of the classic uniforms.

William Shatner also wore a wraparound green tunic on occasion, as well as a formal uniform composed of green fabric. (The color disparity resulted from lighting and film stock at the time, which made the green fabric look yellow.) Other departments wore color-coded formal uniforms of the same cut. In addition, enlisted crewmen wore coveralls loosely coded to the department where they worked, and variations such as red workout uniforms would crop up as well. No special significance was attributed to their colors.

The first Star Trek movie opened over a decade after The Original Series ended, and changing times meant a change in the look. The tricolors went out the window starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in favor of muted, neutral tones such as brown, beige, and sky blue. No particular significance was connected to specific colors. Instead, the Star Trek symbol on the uniform's left breast contained a color circle behind the delta, coded to match the wearer's department.

Those uniforms proved too wishy-washy and prompted another redesign. The "monster maroons" made their debut in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, patterned after classic naval uniforms of the 19th century. Every officer's outer tunic was the same deep red, with the color of the shirt below indicating department and duty. White was for command, light green for medical, gold for engineering, dark green for security, dark blue for operations, gray for science, communications, and navigation, and red for NCOs and cadets. Though radically different, the uniforms made for a winning look and remained with the original crew throughout their movie adventures.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation took the opportunity to return to the tricolors of The Original Series, though the cut and pattern underwent a big change. That cemented the red, blue, and yellow as a definitive part of Star Trek: so much so that the franchise's introduction now features the tricolors streaming behind the starships onscreen.

As with The Original Series, the colors each denoted different departments on a starship, with one key change: red now indicated command and helm, with yellow for security and engineering. (Science and medical stayed blue.) That came partially as an attempt to reverse the infamous "red shirt" stigma, but it also had a very practical purpose: stars Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes looked much sharper in red than yellow.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arrived toward the end of The Next Generation's run and brought a variation to the now-established uniforms. The tricolors moved to the top of the outfit, leaving everything black below the shoulders and a standard gray shirt underneath. That helped the show distinguish itself visually from its predecessor. The new uniforms were intended to serve as Starfleet's "fatigues," workaday outfits for the more rough-and-tumble world of Deep Space Nine. Star Trek: Voyager used the same design throughout its run, and it also appeared in Star Trek: Generations.

Star Trek: First Contact delivered yet another change, with the gray moving to the outer garment and the undershirt now colored to denote department. Deep Space Nine adopted this design during its later seasons, though Voyager -- trapped in the Delta Quadrant -- pointedly did not. In every case, the colors never changed their meaning, denoting the same departments that they did in The Next Generation.

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The renaissance that started with The Next Generation concluded with Star Trek: Enterprise: a prequel covering the early days of humanity's interstellar exploration and the founding of the Federation. The officers donned uniform blue coveralls reminiscent of submarine crews. Colored piping indicated the crew member's department: matching the Next Generation's coding for red, blue and yellow.

In addition to distinguishing Enterprise's crew from that of other shows, the redesign was intended to connect the "classic" Star Trek uniforms to the fashions and patterns of the modern world. It also made a soft nod to the monster maroons of the Star Trek movies. More importantly, it indicated the political differences between the human fleet and future allies like the Vulcans who had not yet joined Starfleet. The ship's two alien members -- T'Pol and Dr. Phlox -- are markedly not in uniform.

When Star Trek: Discovery re-launched the franchise in 2017, it faced a conundrum for its uniforms. The show was set between the "blue coveralls" era of Star Trek: Enterprise and the classic look of The Original Series (and eventually Star Trek: Strange New Worlds). The first two seasons found Starfleet still wearing blue, though they resembled more formal military uniforms than the coveralls of Enterprise. Metallic piping on the sides denoted department: gold for command and helm, silver for sciences and medical, and copper for engineering and security.

In Season 3, the crew of the Discovery shot forward to the 32nd century, where they assisted in rebuilding a shattered Federation. That resulted in another series of redesigns, incorporating new variations of the tricolor patterns. Red indicated command, gold was for operations (including helm), blue for sciences, and white for medical.

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The remaining shows in the latter-day Star Trek renaissance -- Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Prodigy -- have adopted the same design philosophy as The Next Generation era. Each series features unique uniform designs patterned around the tricolor formula to denote department. Every series' look is unique, but the specific use of color coding remains true to the era in the timeline: matching the specific departments as used in The Next Generation.

In addition, Star Trek: Prodigy introduced cadet uniforms for its young crew. They were black and gray, without any specific color coding. It helped distinguish the crew from Admiral Janeway's crew, who spent most of the first season in pursuit of them and who wore variations of The Next Generation-era uniforms.

A native Californian, Robert Vaux has spent over 20 years as a professional film and television critic: working for such outlets as Collider, and The Sci-Fi Movie Page. His favorite superhero is Nightcrawler and his lucky numbers are 4, 9, 14, 16, 36, and 40.