In Real Life
, ships at sea, police departments, ambulance corps, fire brigades, and other 24-hour organizations have lots of people who work there, and split up into duty sections so that there is always someone available to deal with problems (and on ships, just the usual operation of the machinery, as well) and everyone can get some sleep, food, etc.
In fiction, this doesn't seem to be the case. The Cool Starship
runs into the Negative Space Wedgie
, and who has the watch? Lieutenant Hero
, Ensign Newbie
, and Helmsman Recurring
. A crime occurs? It's always our usual squad sent to find out what happened.
There also exists a tendency for senior members of the organization to be at the controlling station all of the time. The Captain
may be responsible for the whole ship, but seems to spend all her time on the bridge, for no stated reason. This is realistic in some circumstances—some things are
important enough that The Captain
needs to be involved, however tired she is—but this trope is for when it seems like she may as well set up a cot and sleep there, too.
The reason for this is clear enough: Unless your production has Loads and Loads of Characters
, there's only so many people who can be shown at a time. Even then, its hard to make the audience care about all of them at once. So while having rotating watch stations would be realistic, it is hard to do well.
Related to but distinct from The Main Characters Do Everything
. It's not that the hero runs the entire ship himself, from the bridge to the engine room to the hangar bay, but that strange things only seem to happen whenever the main cast is on watch, implying that they're either on watch all of the time and don't eat or sleep, or that the other watch sections are absolutely boring with nothing to do.
of Economy Cast
and Conservation of Detail
. Contrast Lower Deck Episode
, when the people on the relief watch do
get an adventure. This can be Truth in Television
in very small or overextended organizations, but is not sustainable for more than a few days, at which point everyone collapses of exhaustion.
Live Action Television
- In Lacuna, by and large, encountering anything external to the ship only happens when Liao and the supporting characters are on duty.
- Lampshaded in Discworld City Watch novels, where Vimes's insistance that he's always on duty is the despair of his wife, Carrot is always on duty because Vimes is, and Nobby and Colon are sufficient Weirdness Magnets that they'll be the first ones in the middle of a bizarre situation even when they are off duty.
- Averted in some of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. In Allegiance Mara notes that a pirate ship isn't following Imperial navy duty rotation, where a third of the crew is on duty at any time and rotates, but that they have set a "ship's night" in which everyone but a token crew sleeps. In the Hand of Thrawn duology, Supreme Commander Pellaeon is repeatedly either woken up or interrupted from whatever he was doing, as per his orders, when something happens.
- Played straight in the beginning of Wraith Squadron, during the squad's stay on Night Caller, when they have to stay up to all hours of the night running the corvette because their twelve-man squadron and a shuttle crew are literally the only friendly forces in the star system. For obvious reasons, they make it a priority to get a real crew assigned to the ship from the Republic fleet.
- In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle, Jill says “It’s a pity there’s always so much happening in Narnia”, implying that she thinks nothing ever happens except when the main human cast is in Narnia. Jewel quickly sets her straight, assuring her that there were numberless periods of peace, and other wars and crises, in which no one from our world ever featured.
- Bo Peep Mitchell, in the Southern Sisters Mysteries, is always the one who gets called to the scene any time anyone calls the police after the first book. Patricia Anne even lampshades it by asking "Do you work all the time?" before saying anything else when Fred calls the police to report a prowler and Bo shows up.
- Star Trek in all its forms with a few brief references that seem to handwave it, such as occassionally showing a captain arrive shortly after an alarm goes off, as well as having Data and Harry Kim make references and seem to be involved in their respective ship's 'night shifts'. One famous two-parter, Chain of Command, shows what happens when a more micro-managing personality runs a starship (among other things, he orders the entire ship to be changed from three to four shifts. Which raises another question however about people from various planets and species being able to agree on what a day cycle should be in their artificially controlled environment, even if for some reason they needed one.)
- Discussed in "11001001" - Data feels responsible for the Enterprise being hijacked, pointing out that as an android he could be on-duty all the time if he chose to. Geordi tells him it wouldn't matter, as the theft could have just as easily happened with Data manning his station on the bridge.
- In Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, everything interesting seems to happen when the base commander is around, even though presumably all the planets they're gating to have day/night cycles that don't match up with Earth's or Atlantis's.
- This extends to the rest of the team, too. The main cast is called SG-one because there's a bunch of other SG-# teams, none of which ever get to do much. The other teams often get mentioned offhand, or used as Redshirt background characters, but SG-1 always gets sent to deal with anything vaguely interesting; apparently nothing worth airing ever happens while the main cast is asleep or off-duty.
- Lampshaded on one occasion where O'Neill gets in, from leave, just as an Offworld Activation is going on. Teal'c, Daniel, and Sam are already in the control room. O'Neill points out that he just got in early, and asks what the others are doing there. Teal'c still lives on base at this point, Daniel says he came in as soon as he heard someone new was dialing in (though it's implied he never left the base), and Sam...well, she had been working so late that she hadn't left yet. This distresses O'Neill, who had apparently ordered her to get a life.
- Lampshaded again when Colonel Mitchell wanders by Colonel Carter's lab on his way to breakfast. He knowingly asks if she slept there. Carter replies "Of course not...I slept down the hall in my quarters."
- A throwaway line early on in Babylon 5 once references an officer who mans the control center during the night shift, as part of an attempt to avert this trope. That said, we never see or hear of that officer outside that one line, and whenever we see Command and Control during the night, it is almost always being run by Commander Ivanova and Lieutenant Corwin.
- Sheridan at one point spent several days on duty in the control room, which was commented upon. Dr. Franklin did something similar.
- The various lieutenants of homicide who appeared on Perry Mason seemed to show up at every murder (or, occasionally, suicide) that occurred in L. A., despite the time of day or night.
- Jack Webb did his best to avert this in Dragnet and Adam-12. It is made clear that our main characters are one team out of many working one shift out of many and that just as much happens off-camera as on. Similarly averted on Emergency!.
- Mass Effect: In the first game, leaving the Normandy will result in the onboard VI announcing "the commanding officer is ashore; XO Pressly has the deck"; on the other hand, Pressly is never seen doing anything other than finding the landing zone on Ilos and is summarily killed off at the very beginning of the second game.
- With Alien Invasion going on, there are no days off for the Xenonaut soldiers! Although admittedly they often sit in the base for days on end, doing nothing productive.