A ship, facility, city, or some other location used to have a staff numbering in the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. Now it's lucky to hit double digits, and the people available probably missed the orientation video.
There are almost as many reasons for the drastic reduction in staff as there are examples, ranging from benign to apocalyptic, but generally the short staff themselves are either a few original members that somehow missed or were spared by the circumstances or newcomers that arrived after a period of abandonment. Time may be spent trying to get equipment back up and running, keeping malfunctions from progressing, or looking for information on the reason for the current situation. This can lead to tension and danger since there aren't enough people to do everything, and some of those things are probably keeping them from dying.
Compare/contrast Oddly Small Organization
and Crew of One
Often a justification for The Main Characters Do Everything
. Has nothing to do with the trope Skeleton Crew
, since even though that name often refers to this kind of thing, it involves actual skeletons.
- In Army of Darkness the castle is evacuated leaving 60 men to fight an army of the undead that outnumber them about 10 to 1. They have to keep moving defenses from wall to wall as they simply don't have enough people to effectively guard each side at the same time.
- In Jurassic Park most of the usual staff is sent to the mainland in advance of a hurricane, leaving Hammond and a few others behind, about half of them visitors and away from the main facility. They still expect to be okay, but then the power goes out and all hell breaks loose. In the book, the park is intentionally understaffed even before the hurricane to save on personnel costs.
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- In the first film Jack Sparrow and Will Turner steal a ship meant for a whole British battalion. During an argument Jack nearly flings Will into the ocean, but lets him live because just two people crewing the ship is cutting it close as it is.
- In the second film it's inverted. The Black Pearl's crew is imprisoned in two halves, and one pirate blurts out that the ship can make do with a crew of just six, prompting a race by both halves to escape first. Later on Jack hires a ton of unqualified surplus sailors not because the ship needs them but because he needs 99 souls to give to Davy Jones in exchange for his own soul going free.
- In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock Scotty has jerry-rigged the ship to operate with only five crew. The Enterprise is supposed to have a crew of hundreds. At least the automation breaks down later. Scotty says "The automation system's overloaded. I didn't expect to take us into combat, ya know...!" It's understandable that simply moving in a straight line could be done with a far smaller crew than usually necessary.
- The Night's Watch in A Song of Ice and Fire was once comprised of thousands of fighters who were able to man all 40 castles holding the Wall against the wildlings and White Walkers from the north. By the time the series takes place, the Watch consists of a few hundred men who can only hold three castles, while the rest have been completely abandoned, which bites them mightily in the ass when the forces in the North mount a massive invasion for the first time in centuries.
- In The Colour of Magic, the Wyrmberg's halls are mostly deserted, their contents rusting and covered with dust. This is because the level of ambient magic is weaker than it used to be, limiting the ruling family's dragon-summoning powers, which have also weakened over the generations.
- In Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens, there is the interesting example of the Witchfinder Army, once a thriving paramilitary organisation but by the time of the book reduced to two. However, both Heaven and Hell believe the WA is at least regimental-sized...
- Terry Pratchett
- In Going Postal, it is revealed that the Royal Post Office in Ankh-Morpork, formerly a city institution employing thousands, has atrophied with the years to a point where only two men remain - an elderly eccentric and a young boy who could be described as a little bit strange. The job of the new manager is to get it up and running again - with a staff of only two men and a cat.
- And the City Night Watch, made virtually redundant by the legalising of crime, is reduced to four men to police a city of a million. Two incompetents and an idealist, commanded by an alcoholic...
- In Island in the Sea of Time, the island of Nantucket suddenly finds itself short-staffed in every single aspect of infrastructure after the island is thrown back in time to the Bronze Age.
- The final act of The Hunt for Red October (at least the book version) gives some additional difficulties to the people that remain on the titular missile sub because they're a half-dozen people handing a ship designed to be run by a couple of hundred. An earlier sub-plot excised from the movie version involved the running of an about-to-be-decommissioned American sub to the spot where the Red October was to be "sunk" and be destroyed in its stead, while also being only staffed by about a dozen officers who had to do multiple duties, like an engineer working as a cook when off-shift.
- In one Judge Dee story, the judge is trapped by a flood in a country estate under siege by bandits. The inhabitants bitterly note that there used to be dozens of men hired just to guard it, now they'll be lucky if they have enough rusty lances and bows to equip all the old men and women that took refuge there.
- In David Gemmell's Legend, the Drenai fortress of Dros Delnoch is supposed to be manned during wartime by 40,000 soldiers. However, the current Drenai leadership has focused more on domestic matters rather than maintaining a strong military presence on the borders. When a massive Nadir army lays siege to Dros Delnoch, the fortress only has 10,000 under-trained and badly led soldiers to hold the walls.
- Andromeda. The Andromeda Ascendant originally had a crew of thousands, but in the first episode everyone but Captain Dylan Hunt either abandons ship or is killed as it gets stuck in orbit around a black hole. For most of the series the crew consists of the captain and the five (later four) former crew of a salvage ship who pulled the ship away from the black hole 300 years later (due to Time Dilation). Other characters join as well, and the crew varies between 6 and 7 for most of the rest of the series. Andromeda's A.I. can fill most crew roles herself so they get by, but it's pointed out several times that the ship is way less effective in combat — or anything else — than it would be fully crewed.
- On Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined) the Galactica was about to be decommissioned so the Colonial Navy already stripped it of its best personnel and it is left with a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who were meant to be retired or discharged after the Galactica is scrapped. When the war with the Cylons starts, combat losses makes this problem even worse. New personnel are recruited from the civilian fleet and at one point Adama has to cut a deal with the prisoners on a prison ship in order to use them as needed labor. There is almost a mutiny because skilled people are kept in undesirable job positions because their skillset is too valuable to allow them to be promoted or transferred out.
- In one Doctor Who episode it is established that the TARDIS is designed to be flown by six Time Lords at once, not by a single Time Lord. This is supposed to be the reason why the TARDIS doesn't always go where (or when) The Doctor wants it to go.
- In Game of Thrones, as in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Night's Watch can now only staff 3 of their 40 castles.
- On a couple of occasions the nurses are all shipped off because of a potential bombing (or other) attack by North Koreans, so the doctors and enlisted personnel have to do all the stuff the nurses usually do. At one point even a civilian bartender gets roped into nurse duty during an operation.
- Another time, due to a flu epidemic Hawkeye was the only doctor who wasn't bedridden. He had to jump from operating table to operating table doing bits of surgeries while the nurses helped much more than usual. Margaret pretty much performed an operation all by herself, but not without a lot of coaching and encouragement from Hawkeye.
- The Walking Dead
- Dr. Jenner is the only one left of the hundreds of doctors that once staffed the CDC.
- Later on the cast settles for a time in a prison that probably had a couple hundred inmates and guards. At their peak of Red Shirts there are maybe three dozen. This is a real problem in the fourth season when there just aren't enough able-bodied people around to do everything.
- Red Dwarf starts with over 1,000 crew. After almost all of them are killed by a nuclear accident, the ship is manned by two former vending machine technicians (one of whom is dead), a highly evolved cat, and a sanitation droid.
- Stargate SG-1 has several occasions where the main cast happens upon an abandoned facility and most get it operational enough to complete whatever the objective is.
- Stargate Atlantis varies from the norm in a couple of ways; the new residents of the city are more numerous than usual, probably in the neighborhood of 100 or more, and they are explicitly prepared for an abandoned city, with the best people for the job.
- In Stargate Universe less than 50 people arrive on a ship designed for many more - but it's a good thing they number so few, because the ship is falling apart after millions of years despite its Ragnarok-Proofing, and they are far less prepared than the expedition to Atlantis. Most of their time is spent trying to keep systems failures from killing them.
- Star Trek: Voyager
- The series begins with both the Voyager and the Maquis ship sustaining heavy casualties while far away from Federation space. The only way Voyager can be operated is by merging the two crews and having skilled Maquis take over key positions on the ship. Notably, neither crew has a doctor or even a medic left alive so the Emergency Medical Hologram has to be used all the time which it was not really designed for. Over the course of the series the EMH develops a distinct personality and starts fighting for his rights as a person.
- Occurs in an episode where crewman keep disappearing while aliens appear in their place. Before too much longer they're down to a skeleton crew and then it turns out it's a ploy to take over the ship, beaming crew members off one at a time and replacing them with their own people.
- Lampshaded several times in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Remember Me", after all the crew has disappeared except Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher.
Dr. Crusher: It's all perfectly logical to you, isn't it? The two of us roaming about the galaxy in the flagship of the Federation. No crew at all.
Captain Picard: We've never needed a crew before.
Dr. Crusher: What is the primary mission of the starship Enterprise?
Computer: To explore the galaxy.
Dr. Crusher: Do I have the necessary skills to complete that mission alone?
Dr. Crusher: Then why am I the only crew-member? (the computer makes a strange noise) Aha, got you there.
- WKRP in Cincinnati. A radio consultant is hired by Mama Carlson to report on the station. Everyone acts out of character for him so his report will be useless. At one point he says that Herb, a sales "staff" of one, is horribly overworked and needs an entire staff under him.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, the Grey Warden force in Ferelden is dangerously small for two reasons. In the Back Story, the Wardens were banished from the country by a Fereldan king after a rogue Warden-Commander raised a rebellion against him; they were only allowed back 30 years before game begins. Furthermore, in the first story mission of Origins, most Fereldan Warden recruits are killed by the Darkspawn horde when the paranoid general Loghain leaves them and the reigning king to die, thus leaving the country mostly unprepared to fight The Horde.
- A game mechanic in Pharaoh, and quite possibly the single biggest headache in the game. Services that have less than full staff work slower, and since housing and industry depend on these services walking past, this creates a Catch-22 Dilemma: housing is devolving because the lack of services, so people are kicked out. This lowers your population, and in turn the amount of available workers, which means services suffer, which means devolving housing, which... Compounded by the fact that some buildings don't work at all with even a single worker missing, to the point where the game considers that up 5% unemployment (out of thousands) to be fine, a mere 10 workers is a major cause for alarm (when it's quite common to see shortages in the hundreds).
Thankfully, there are several Acceptable Breaks from Reality to deal with this: workers are taken from the workforce as a whole, so closing a mine frees up workers for farming or training musicians, you can order entire sectors to be fully staffed at the cost of others, and you only need a single house near the industry to get workers to it instead of a fully-supported neighborhood.
- Portal's Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Never mind staff, the only actual living person in the entire game is Chell. Justified because Gla DOS runs the entire facility (which is more or less self-maintaining barring Wheatley's idiocy) and she killed everyone else.
- Happens to the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 after the Collectors abduct the entire crew minus the Player Characters and Joker.
- Implied in the SimCity games when you set the budget for services really really low.