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Limited Advancement Opportunities
"This is the third time we've pulled out the captain's chair for Riker. He just won't sit down."
Admiral Hanson, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds: Part I"

Despite the fact that you're watching the finest CSI lab/Police Department/Emergency Room/Military Regiment in the country, no one working there can seem to move on, even though they may talk about it frequently. The New Guy whose first day may have coincided with the Pilot of the show is the only one who ever receives any sort of career advancement. There's a good reason for this: the producers don't want to rip apart the cast, but they want to exhibit professional growth in the show.

One reason that The Captain stays in his position so long (the other being that he would never give up his Cool Ship). Never mind that such activities are rather frowned on in real world armed forces, where commissioned officers who cannot or will not be promoted after a certain preset number of years are basically forced to retire.

Note that in police forces, as opposed to military, this tends to be Truth in Television. A low-level police officer has much more authority and responsibility than a military private, and retiring at officer rank is not considered a disgrace.

Contrast Rank Up, when a character does get promoted on show.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Avoided in Lyrical Nanoha, where seasons usually end with a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue that show the various characters being promoted or switching to the branches they've been striving for, even if it breaks up the entire cast. Isn't really too big an obstacle that a Time Skip and a big enough incident that requires their branches to work together can't fix.
    • Though in the epilogue of StrikerS it is revealed that Nanoha declined a promotion to remain as a Captain and a training officer. Signum, however, despite only being a 2nd Lieutenant in StrikerS, catches up to Nanoha in rank by ViVid.
  • Followed in Full Metal Panic! with Sousuke, who, throughout the entire series, despite being incredibly competent and single-handedly saving the day numerous times, stays a sergeant and receives no promotions. Most likely, however, he actively avoids moving up ranks, and apparently prefers to simply keep a low profile and do his work. Another possibility is that his organization is Genre Savvy enough to know that to promoted him would take him out of situations that only he can resolve. Interestingly, Mao gets promoted to second in command (despite not doing nearly as much as Sousuke).
    • Fridge Brilliance: Mao is also a very good COMMANDER, while Sosuke has skill only at killing things.
  • Played straight in a canon chapter of One Piece made to promote the tenth movie: Vice-Admiral Garp refused promotion to Admiral, despite having the strength and renown for such a promotion to be possible, because being an Admiral would give him less freedom to do what he wanted.

    Comic Books 
  • Captain Haddock, which is lampshaded in Tintin and the Picaros
  • Judge Dredd: Dredd frequently turns down the Chief Judge's job, as it means taking him off the streets and leaving him with a lot of paperwork.

    Film 
  • In The A-Team, the movie starts out eight years in the past with Face being a lieutenant and Murdock being a captain. Hannibal is referred to as a colonel, but it's not expressed in the beginning of the film whether he's a lieutenant colonel or a full-bird. When the movie moves to the present, they're all still the same rank.
  • In Apocalypse Now, an initial sign of Kurtz's madness is, as a highly decorated colonel groomed to be a future top general, he threatens to resign his commission unless accepted for Special Forces training — ensuring he'd never make it past colonel (the Green Berets were, at the time, commanded by a brigadier general, and since have become a major general level command).
  • In The Crossing, Washington tells Colonel Glover that he'd be a general if Glover hadn't offended everyone on Washington's staff at one point or another. Glover doesn't care, as he derives a certain amount of satisfaction from being a plain Marblehead fisherman who doesn't even wear a uniform.
  • In Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace, Obiwan tells his master Qui-gon Jinn that he would already be on the Jedi High Council if he would just stop arguing with them. Qui-gon doesn't mind, since he prefers following his own interpretation of the will of the Force.

    Literature 
  • The Discworld books covering the Ankh-Morpork City Watch are largely an exception. Several characters get promoted throughout the series, but they often don't want to, and it doesn't change their jobs all that much:
    • Constable Carrot (who was a Lance-Constable while in training, but that's a temporary rank anyway) is promoted directly to Corporal, skipping Lance-Corporal, and then Captain, skipping Sergeant. In a practical sense, he's probably third in command of the city, behind the Patrician and Vimes, and that's by choice; the worst-kept secret in Ankh-Morpork is that Carrot is the descendant of the kings of Ankh-Morpork, but he doesn't want to be king. Still, being an all-around good guy whom everyone knows and likes (because he knows and likes everyone) means he can wield a lot of influence.
    • Carrot's girlfriend friend-with-whom-he-has-an-Understanding Angua advances from Lance Constable all the way to Captain; she might have been said to overcome the double glass ceiling of being a werewolf and a woman, if anyone who actually determined promotions were biased that way. Angua is arguably the purest subversion of the trope; unlike Detritus, Carrot, or Vimes himself, her promotions come with little change to her role in either the Watch or the stories themselves.
    • Even Cheery Littlebottom (despite disliking shouting at people) is made a Sergeant because she's good at thinking. Detritus the troll (despite, as he puts it, "them two short planks bein' as fick as Detritus") becomes one because he's good at shouting.
    • The (reluctant) king (and he'd refuse the title) of this trope, however, has to be Vimes himself. When first encountered, he's a captain of the three-man Night Watch, who hide from criminals. The next time we see him he plans to retire after getting married. However, intrigued by the notion of a Watch that truly matters, he accepts the rank of Commander—and, though he has to grit his teeth, the knighthood which goes with it. Later, after stopping a war (by arresting the armies involved) and demonstrating his willingness to do his duty no matter the consequences (by arresting the Patrician), he's made Duke of Ankh, rendering him the most powerful nobleman in the city (save, probably, Vetinari himself, since the evidence indicates he's from a noble family ... his aunt is Lady Roberta Meserole and he studied at the Assassin's Guild). The reason he fits the trope, despite all these promotions, is that what he actually does hasn't changed all that much ... it's just that he now has the authority to do it.
    • The notable exceptions to the exception, Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs, are characters you wouldn't expect to be promoted—Nobby could never rise above Corporal on merit, and there would be little point to demoting him as his behavior would remain unchanged (in his introduction, the narrator notes that every force has a Nobby, and they take care never to be promoted above corporal, since rank comes with responsibilities); while Colon is one of "nature's sergeants"—big, loud, red-faced, and a good trainer. When Colon is reluctantly made Acting-Captain, he screws up completely.
    • The Unseen University plays the trope very straight, as there are exactly eight levels of wizardry, and the number of people who can hold a rank has been fixed according to tradition for centuries. Because of this, no matter how good a wizard was, the only way he could hope to get a promotion is if a higher level wizard is promoted or dies, creating a vacancy at the next level to be filled. This ultimately created a tradition where many wizards who didn't feel like waiting for a vacancy to appear made a point of creating them via Klingon Promotion until Ridcully became Archchancellor and ended it by being unkillable.
    • Death also plays the trope straight with his apprentice Mort and granddaughter Susan. Although the two may substitute for him during an absence, there is realistically no chance of either of them rising to Death's position permanently.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe X-Wing series, Wedge Antilles frequently passes up chances for advancement, preferring the rank of Commander and leading Rogue Squadron to taking a greater role. Eventually, though, he realizes he's being a bit selfish—that he could contribute at a much greater level. Ackbar also notes that for an upcoming campaign, he'll need rank to pull. That, and the fact that some generals are allowed to stay on commanding elite squadrons instead of flying a desk all the time, convinces him. (It's notable he's a general, and one with no small influence over the supreme commander, before he's 30, though.)
    • He also got guilted into it when Ackbar told him that his own pilots were likewise refusing promotions, most of them staying as Flight Officers, in order to follow his example—despite being members of Rogue Squadron, twelve of the finest pilots in the galaxy. In a way, the cast did get ripped apart not long after—suddenly-promoted Colonel Celchu stepped in as head of the Rogues, and Wedge took a post on the Lusankya that hardly allowed him to fly. It got to the point where another character, in an airspeeder driven by Wedge, notes that he seems a lot happier in the air, but had convinced himself that he didn't need to fly. But then, he got sent to Adumar, primarily because of his reputation as an unbeatable pilot. Presumably, since Adumar was an assignment he hadn't wanted and had been given despite intending to take leave, he managed to finagle his way back into flying, since he remained a General but was in command of Rogue Squadron, attached to General Bel Iblis's task force. Later, he flies during the New Jedi Order and, despite retiring, afterward.
      • Tycho Celchu has a weird case of it as well: he gets plenty of promotions, but always ends up one step behind Wedge, as his eternal second in command. Thus he remains a Colonel into and through the New Jedi Order, so that he can be Wedge's strategist. Granted, they work so well together that it seems like a waste to split them up.
    • In The Thrawn Trilogy, Pellaeon was a sixty-year-old captain of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Being unwilling to rule, he just followed the Empire's current leaders and tried to scrape it back together again whenever those leaders inevitably fell, never getting promoted. But as time went on and he outlived those superiors, one of them put him in charge before fleeing into obscurity, and so by the Hand of Thrawn duology he was the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Remnant.
    • Invoked and subverted by Face Loran, leader of the Wraiths. As a fighter pilot, he achieved the rank of Captain before transferring with his unit to Intelligence (which goes back and forth about using military ranks vs. having a civilian intelligence agency's structure). He keeps the rank pretty much for the rest of his career because it's useful to him to have some clout, while not being high-ranking enough to actually matter, thus ensuring that he can "disappear" when need be. Since the higher ranks of Intelligence are a tight-knit community, his lack of rank doesn't affect his actual influence in the slightest.
  • Averted in Honor Harrington. The books start with the titular character as a Commander taking her second command. As of book 11 she can't get any higher without a coup or becoming First Space Lord. Most associates have advanced many ranks as well, with the exception of Sir Horace Harkness whose promotion was involved getting the Medal of Honor and being so awesome.
    • Short stories featuring Harrington have filled in some of her back-story, showing promotions: her first post-Academy assignment, being the Executive Officer on one ship (Lieutenant-Commander), and the incident that caused her to be removed from her first faster-than-light capable command.
    • Harkness has reached the top of the NCO ranks. He can't advance any higher without "going mustang" and becoming an officer, for which he has a towering lower-deck disdain (and which usually is very difficult, though in his case probably not so much). That said, he's been stated several times to hold responsibilities equivalent to a Commander's in the new, org-chart-still-being-written LAC wings he serves in; he's basically a chief engineer. Worth noting that everybody still calls him "Chief", even though that is emphatically not a title that a CWO would normally be entitled to. He gets to keep using it only because he is Sir Horace Harkness. Previously, he had been promoted many times, and busted down in rank just as many times, for his inability to stay out of trouble or to avoid beating up Space Marines.
    • Citizen Rear Admiral Lester Tourville apparently spent a great deal of effort trying to avoid getting promoted any higher, due to the increased political oversight that would bring him.
    • The extension of lifespan brought about by pro-long has meant that several flag-rank officers have been asked to go to reserve status to open up opportunities for juniors. Presumably in the face of a needed naval build-up they are to be called back.
    • The books pay special attention to the trope of officers (especially Captains) refusing promotions that would take them from hands-on command to desk jobs. Simply put, if you tell the Navy you're not up to the next responsibility it offers you... It agrees completely. Enjoy civilian life.
    • Later books have mentioned that this has become a problem in the Solarian League Navy. The life extension technology means that people can live for centuries has made the pace of promotion (for those without right connections) downright glacial. It's worse in Battle Fleet which hasn't fought an actual engagement in several centuries compared to Frontier Fleet that does see action fighting pirates and others and so does see some turn over. Though in the most recent books that situation is about to change drastically.
  • In the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard alive and a shining light for the anti-Voldemort movement, is content to spend the rest of his life working as the headmaster of a school. It's mentioned that he's been offered the position of Minister for Magic a number of times, but turns it down even as it continues to go to annoying Obstructive Bureaucrats. In Deathly Hallows, it's revealed that this is because Dumbledore doesn't trust himself with power due to a tragic incident in his youth.
    • He was Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, which appears to be something like a cross between Speaker for Parliament and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, leaning toward the Chief Justice side. But when politics takes that away it doesn't seem to bother him much.
  • Surprisingly averted in the Lensman series, in which major characters often do get promotions and occasionally this even changes what they can do - for example, Rod "the Rock" Kinnison is promoted to Port Admiral which doesn't allow him to be in the thick of battle anymore (he's not happy once he realizes this). In the later books, though, the major characters get promoted to Unattached Lensman, whose official job description pretty much reads "Do whatever you think needs to be done and take anything you need in order to do it," so they don't necessarily have to leave the other characters behind.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
    • William Riker waits 16 years to get a promotion. Oh, and said promotion takes place in a deleted scene of a movie. Riker turns down several promotions along the way, as he prefers being first officer on the flagship rather than captain of some unimportant bucket of bolts.
      • In one of the A Time To... books (the novel prequels to Star Trek Nemesis), Admiral Janeway chews Riker out for his stalling, pointing out that he's stalled the careers of numerous officers underneath him, and finishes by informing him that this is his last chance to take command of a starship, ever. If he doesn't take this offer, there won't be another.
      • It gets deconstructed in "The Best of Both Worlds". Admiral Hansen notes in the page quote that Riker frequently turning down command opportunities reflects poorly upon him. Commander Shelby outright states that she wants Riker's position and suggests that Riker is holding up the careers of other qualified officers by refusing to move up, since First Officer is a necessary springboard to receiving a command. Shelby also states that, after the fleet is built up again, Riker will doubtless have his choice of commands (since he just got done, you know, saving the Earth). It inexplicably never happens.
      • In "Best of Both Worlds" Riker was promoted to Captain. Count the pips on his collar, he's got four. Then in "Family", he's back to Commander again. The only explanation is that he's somehow engineered a demotion for himself. Maybe he got Troi to say he was psychologically incapable of command or something. It'd explain why it took so long for him to get back to captain again. Why the writers felt the need to demote him is unclear; Star Trek IV shows that there's no rule against the ship's commanding officer and first officer both holding the rank of Captain.
      • Most likely that since Star Trek seems to derive much of its structure from naval traditions, Riker's battlefield commission amounted to little more than a brevet rank.
    • Jean-Luc Picard. He spent 22 years as commander of the Stargazer, followed by 7 years on the Enterprise-D, with 9 years in between. One can see how the production staff would be unwilling to promote characters past their beloved Captain. Picard did however take over the Stargazer at the rank of Lieutenant Commander. It being a smaller ship, he may have been able to command it at a lower rank, getting promoted to Commander and later Captain during those long years. It's also clear that when he lost his ship the resulting inquiry took more than a few years to clear him of wrongdoing, and even though he was exonerated, having such an incident in his history may make others leery of promoting him.
    • Ditto for Data, who remained a Lieutenant Commander during the whole run of the series and the spin-off movies. Arguably, Data's career stalled out because he's an android, and the brass are unsure how he'd perform in a command role. Indeed, the few times he does, he does some pretty unorthodox things. In all seriousness, though, it's implied (sometimes even more than implied) that there's an element of racism involved in Data's current rank. It was said prior to his posting on the Enterprise he spent years on a starbase being treated as a computer. This is most blatantly seen in the second half of the "Redemption" 2-parter where Data A) had to directly confront Picard in a rare display of ambition/pride in order to get a temporary command and B) upon receiving said command, encountered severe resistance on the part of his temporary XO, well beyond the point of insubordination into outright insolence. Thankfully, it would appear that Data learned from that experience and, upon temporarily commanding the Enterprise a few seasons later, tore his temporary First Officer (Worf in this case) a new one for similar actions. For a being with no emotions, he sure knows how to deliver an ass-chewing when it's justified.
    • In the prequel comic to the 11th movie, Picard has become Ambassador to Romulus, Riker commands the Titan, and Data is now captain of the Enterprise itself. It means that Data's gotten further ahead than Riker, as he's now captain of the flagship.
    • Wil Wheaton has previously detailed how, during contract negotiations, he was offered a promotion for his character in lieu of a raise in real life. He turned it down.
  • The producers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had the foresight to introduce Sisko as a Commander, just so he could have a dramatic promotion to Captain later on. Kira Nerys also had a promotion in-series, from Major to Colonel. In her case it was a promotion in the Bajoran militia, rather than Starfleet. Kira was also temporarily given the rank of Commander in Starfleet (which is technically lower than her Bajoran rank, but given Starfleet's far greater size, power and importance, it's effectively a promotion anyway), when she was sent to Cardassia as part of a covert team and assisted the Cardassian underground against the Dominion, since working with a Starfleet officer is politically more palatable to them than working with a Bajoran soldier.
    • Miles O'Brien is brilliant as an engineer, and a hero many times over—and yet we never see him offered a promotion to Master CPO, let alone officer, even when he takes a teaching position at the Academy. This is especially noticeable because he would hardly be promoted away from the setting, the rest of the main characters being officers; rather, his role as the designated NCO and "working man" had to be maintained. But still...no Master to tack onto that Chief? If nothing else, the characters' addressing of him would have become hilarious in later years once Halo was released. Senior Chief O'Brien is an especially weird case in that the TNG episode The Enemy established that he was once the tactical officer aboard the Starship Rutledge, is frequently seen in Deep Space Nine's wardroom, and stated that he would have assumed command of the Defiant if Worf had been killed in Deep Space Nine: Rules of Engagement.
      • O'Brien clearly states that he has no interest in being an officer, he loves his position as Chief Engineer of DS9 (a promotion from his time on the Enterprise). It should be noted that his time as tactical officer aboard the Rutledge was during combat in a war zone; it's likely he took over the post during a firefight and simply remained there because he did well and there was nobody else of suitable rank to replace him.
    • Nog wins for the most number of on-screen ranks with 6, from Cadet all the way to Captain in an episode detailing a possible future.
  • In Star Trek: Voyager, Janeway only became an Admiral after returning to Earth (even though it was most likely the safest way of observing her and stopping her from screwing with the timeline and threatening everything that ever existed. Again.)
    • Justified though, since Voyager was stuck on the other side of the galaxy with no outside hierarchy to either hand down promotions or move high-ranking ship's officers off into. They also provided both exceptions and further justifications: Tuvok becoming Lieutenant Commander might be said to be overdue, while Chakotay retained his rank through the whole of the series likely because it was an acting rank due to his being Maquis (also, Janeway was only one rank higher than him, and wouldn't be authorized to promote him to Captain, even if she had wanted to). Still, it did seem pretty harsh on Ensign Kim who would probably have otherwise been on the fast-track to command positions but got stuck on the one crappy ship that was isolated from Starfleet. Not even a Junior Grade? If only they'd done something with this fascinating character dynamic...
      Garrent Wang (Harry Kim): Despite his lack of promotion over seven years, Kim accumulated enough on-the-job experience to have been able to command his own starship.
    • This issue was addressed in the episode "Nightingale", where Harry got to be acting captain for an alien ship. Of course, being Harry Kim, he must suffer, so...
    • Also averted in the case of Tom Paris, who bounced up and down from "observer" to full Lieutenant and pretty much everywhere in between (on one memorable occasion, being demoted down to ensign in disgrace).
  • Star Trek: Enterprise takes the cake. In the (not so) Distant Finale (which was actually a holodeck simulation), we see that everyone has remained at the same rank. The crew of humanity's first ever Warp-5 ship, that basically opened up the rest of the galaxy for Earth, saved the planet numerous times, made a ton of allies, and intimidated both the Vulcans and Klingons, and NO ONE has gotten a single promotion. The only mention we get is that Archer has been ear-marked for Admiral.
  • Surprisingly, this trope was averted in the continuity of Star Trek: The Original Series, including the animated series and the movies:
    • Kirk is promoted from Captain to Rear Admiral for the first movie, and though he's demoted, he is promoted again in time for Star Trek: Generations.
    • Spock begins in the original pilot "The Cage" as a mere Lieutenant, is a Lieutenant Commander and First Officer in the first season, becomes a full Commander by the second season, and has reached the rank of Captain by The Wrath of Khan. When Kirk is demoted to Captain at the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock retains the same rank despite being Kirk's first officer.
    • Bones goes from Lieutenant Commander to full Commander in the movies, and by the time of his cameo in the TNG pilot, is an Admiral.
    • Scotty starts out a Lieutenant Commander, is promoted to full Commander in TAS, and becomes a Captain with much fanfare in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
    • Sulu starts off a Lieutenant, but is Captain (with his own ship, unlike Bones and Scotty) for The Undiscovered Country.
    • Chekov has the largest (and fastest) chain of promotions, starting off in the second season as an Ensign and making it to full Commander (and first officer of the USS Reliant) in time for The Wrath of Khan.
    • Uhura goes from Lieutenant to Commander in the same timeframe.
    • Nurse Chapel's initial rank is never revealed, but she's a full Lieutenant in TAS and a full Commander by The Voyage Home. Plus she goes from a nurse on TOS to an M.D. (much to McCoy's annoyance) in TMP.
    • Even Yeoman Rand, an enlisted crewman, eventually becomes an officer. Due to several costuming and scripting errors, it's unclear how high she rises in the ranks, but let's be generous and make her Lieutenant Commander and First Officer, as depicted in the Voyager episode "Flashback". Even before becoming an officer in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, she was identified in the script as a master chief—which is impressive in itself, being a rate that many NCO's spend their entire career trying to earn.
    • Averting this particular trope with the TOS crew created another sort of problem. By Star Trek V The Enterprise had three crew members—Kirk, Spock, and Scotty—who held the rank of captain. It was also non-canonicly suggested that Mr. Sulu had been granted command of the Starship Excelsior by this time, but retained his commander rank until he actually transferred to the vessel; making him an unofficial fourth captain.
  • This has been (partially) avoided on Stargate SG-1, in that Captain Samantha Carter was promoted first to a Major, then to Lieutenant Colonel — though throughout these promotions, she stayed with the same team. In an attempt to decrease Richard Dean Anderson's screen time (he's slowly retiring), his character was promoted to Brigadier General for season 8 and he started running Stargate Command rather than going on missions. In seasons 9 and 10 he heads up Homeworld Security in Washington as a Major General, which leaves him to appear once or twice a season as a guest star.
    • In fact, only two regular cast members have not been promoted: Daniel Jackson (a civilian) and Teal'c (technically also a civilian). Daniel did get that whole ascension thing going, though, and Teal'c's "promotions" may be the permission to intermingle with human society. Neither, though, is part of the normal US Military structure (formally, at least), so they're not in any position to get promotions.
      • Teal'c is a leader of the Free Jaffa Nations, which makes him like some sort of Senator. Before joining SG-1, he was First Prime of Apophis, which is the highest rank a Jaffa could achieve before that. Also, given that Jackson is more of an Academic than a soldier, it could be said that he considers the chance to study alien cultures and unlocking the secrets of the Neglectful Precursors quite the promotion track from where we first saw him (that is to say, recently homeless.)
  • Also slightly avoided in Stargate Atlantis where Dr. Weir had Major Sheppard promoted to Lieutenant Colonel just so he could keep his current position as military leader of Atlantis.
    • Since Carter appeared in Atlantis in season 4, she was revealed to have been given her "full eagle", or been promoted to full colonel.
  • In Stargate Universe, O'Neill is now a Lieutenant General (three stars, the second highest rank an Air Force officer can attain).
  • Exception: In the 2000s Battlestar Galactica, many characters have changed ranks and roles throughout the series:
    • After the Battlestar Pegasus arrives in the fleet and Admiral Cain is assassinated, Commander Adama finds himself in command of both ships and the President promotes him to Admiral to match the responsibility.
    • Apollo, originally CAG aboard the Galactica, finds himself promoted to the rank of major and assigned as Pegasus' XO, and later becomes its commander outright. After Pegasus is destroyed he goes back to being Galactica's CAG, but retains the rank of major.
      • After he retires from military service to enter public life, when the President was apparently Preznapped, he became president of the Twelve Colonies. It provided an eerie callback to Baltar's claim in season 3 that no one would ever be in charge of the fleet "whose last name wasn't Adama". This was amusingly lampshaded near the end of the series, with Lee trying to maintain some authority in both military and political roles, to which Zarek says that he's finding it difficult these days to remember just what Lee's job is.
    • Starbuck is promoted from lieutenant to captain and becomes Galactica's CAG when Apollo is reassigned, and retains her rank when Apollo returns to the ship.
    • "Dee" Dualla goes all the way from Petty Officer 2nd Class to lieutenant, mostly on account of her marrying Apollo.
    • Helo, originally a Raptor pilot and lieutenant, is promoted to captain and becomes the ship's Second Officer (and, at times, acting XO).
    • Inverted when, after three and a half seasons as Deck Chief, Tyrol is demoted to Crewman Specialist after daring Adama to do it. His rank got better.
  • Averted in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Though the cast has remained more or less constant, their relative rank and internal structure have been adjusted, including Brass's handing over the department to Grissom (and going back to being a detective), the race between Warrick and Nick to achieve CSI 3, and Ecklie's breakup of the team into two different shifts, which prompted the promotion of Catherine Willows to supervisor, and made room in the ranks for Greg to go from lab tech to field agent.
    • A particularly nice touch was Grissom making sure that Greg really does want to make the lateral (and downward!) jump from Senior Lab Tech to extremely junior Field Investigator, reminding him that he'll be taking a substantial pay cut and that it will take quite a while to get back to his present level.
    • More recently, Catherine taking over Grissom's job, and Nick becoming her second-in-command. And yet, it's the junior CSI receiving top billing.
    • And now, with the emergence of Ted Danson's character, CSI Supervisor DB Russell, Catherine (and presumably Nick, too) has been demoted. Of course, this is due to Marg Helgenberger wishing to leave the show during the current (2001/12) season.
  • The titular characters of The Rookies stayed wet-behind-the-ears new kids on the beat for the entire four-year run of that series.
  • In CSI NY, the only career change in the entire show was Sheldon Hawkes' transfer from coroner to field agent which is frankly ridiculous. The two jobs require very different skill sets and training. It's akin to saying "He's an excellent neurosurgeon, so let's make him the CEO of the hospital." The producers of the show admitted that they only made Hawkes a field agent due to his unexpected popularity.
    • Then was Grissom lying on the orginal CSI: Crime Scene Investigation when he offered Ray Langston the open CSI Level 1 slot, saying that as a medical doctor he was totally qualified for the position?
    • At the end of the 2010/11 season, Danny Messer took and passed the Sergeant's exam. In the beginning of the current (2011/12) season, Danny had obviously decided to take the position, leave the lab and become Sergeant Messer. However, after an incident in which one of his subordinates shot an unarmed man and blamed her actions on Danny, he decided to go back to being Detective Messer and rejoin the lab.
  • Justified in Criminal Minds: As the page quote indicates, this is due to deliberate interference by the tyrannical new boss as revenge. In season five, though, Morgan temporarily replaces Hotch as team leader because of the whole Reaper fiasco. Hotch voluntarily stepped down because he wanted the Reaper to think he was losing control.
  • Long-running soaps can avoid this by following the progression of the characters as they grow. Home and Away's Sally Fletcher appeared in the show's pilot as a nine-year old schoolgirl; by the time she left twenty years and four thousand, six hundred and nine episodes later she was the school's principal.
  • NCIS nods to it by having Gibbs temporarily retire and promote Tony to lead. Gibbs comes back, demoting Tony although he still got something of a promotion being the Director's personal agent handling covert operations stateside.
    • In another episode, Tony is offered his own team away from Gibbs and the others, but denies the opportunity out of concern for Gibbs, who had just come out of yet another coma.
    • McGee starts as a Probationary Agent and it is a big dealt for him to get promoted to full agent (although Tony still calls him 'probie' for a while). Timothy McGee has been promoted twice after that, first to senior field agent after Gibbs left and Tony became supervisor. The other was when Vance took over and made him head of cyber-crime. However he willingly to a demotion back to junior agent when he had the chance to.
    • When Ziva left Mossad and applied to join NCIS she had to go through the application process and then starts out as a probationary agent even thought she has been part of the team for years. The fact that she was not a US citizen complicated things even more. She passed the citizenship test in late season seven.
    • NCIS Directors Shephard and Vance both started out as field agents and were at one point equal or junior in rank to Gibbs.
    • Gibbs could have been director but hates the paperwork and politics involvednote . He regularly becomes acting-director when the regular director is away for an extended time or incapacitated.
  • Averted in Scrubs, where all of the main characters have advanced and been promoted consistently throughout, except where certain characters are happy with their positions or are already at the top.
    • It's played with concerning Doug, who's so bad at being a Doctor he has to repeat his residency. Eventually he's employed in the morgue, where the worst he can do is misplace some bodies.
      • He is transferred due to his exceptional ability at figuring out how the person died. Ostensibly because he killed so many people as an intern.
  • In the eleven-season course of Mash, only Mulcahy and Klinger get promoted, despite having an episode where Hawkeye, B.J., and Charles serve as the promotion board. Mulcahy actually spends an(other) episode lamenting the lack of advancement opportunity. This is largely Truth in Television. Klinger makes Sergeant at some point, which is as high as he can expect to go, since outside of very unusual circumstances, non-commissioned officers are rarely promoted to commissioned officers. Not to mention that the main characters are almost all draftees, who wouldn't expect to be promoted to high rank only to lose it in a year's time.
    • This was justified in an episode where the staff learn of a new MASH unit being prepared and they are afraid that they would be split up, even if that presumably could come with promotions for the gang. When the evaluator for the staff finally learns of this concern, he makes clear that the 4077th staff is considered too valuable in its current composition to break up.
    • They did an episode where Hawkeye and B.J. got Radar promoted as a joke/gift; in the end, Radar begged them to get him busted back down.
      • Radar also gets a "promotion" ... of sorts ... in the episode introducing B.J., where Hawkeye pins his Captain's bars on Radar's uniform and says he's a "new rank they're trying out ... you've heard of Lieutenant Colonels? He's a Corporal Captain." This obviously isn't real, Hawkeye just does it to try to get Radar into the Officers' Club.
    • In "Fade Out, Fade In", Hawkeye learns that Frank Burns was actually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned to a stateside VA hospital after his departure from the 4077th.
    • In another episode, a general who happens to be an old acquaintance of Margaret tells her he wants to take her to work for him in Hawaii. The transfer would come with a promotion to lieutenant colonel. She refuses on the basis that the transfer and promotion are rewards for granting the general sexual favors. This appears to be a form of character derailment/development. In earlier seasons, Margaret wouldn't have cared and probably wouldn't have noticed the quid pro quo sexual harassment issue. She would have taken the promotion and would have argued that she deserved it.
  • Mostly averted with JAG - almost everyone gets promoted at least once.
    • Harmon Rabb starts the series as a Lieutenant, is promoted to Lieutenant Commander midway through Season One, becomes a Commander in Season Five, and finally reaches Captain in the second-to-last episode of the series.
    • Sarah Mackenzie starts the series as a Major and is promoted to Lieutenant Colonel by the fifth year.
    • Bud Roberts starts off as an Ensign, is promoted to Lieutenant JG (and the opening credits) when he joins JAG in the second year, reaches Lieutenant in the fourth season, and is promoted to Lieutenant Commander in Season Nine.
    • Harriet Sims' career path follows Bud's pretty well, going from Ensign to Lieutenant JG by Season Four to full Lieutenant at the end of Season Six.
    • Even recurring characters such as Thomas Boone (first Commander Air Group- or CAG- aboard aircraft carrier Seahawk, then a Rear Admiral) and Caitlin Pike (first Lt. JG, later a full Commander) get a promotion or three, albeit offscreen. Episode 200, in addition to promoting Petty Officer Jennifer Coates to Petty Officer 1st Class, even showed a what-if scenario where Cmdr. Alison Krennick, unseen since the first year outside of a flashback to a Lost Episode, was Rear Admiral and heading JAG.
    • One example of Truth in Television in relation to promotions comes with the final season - upon Adm. Chegwidden's retirement, a new character, Col. Gordon Cresswell, is promoted to Maj. Gen. to fill his position as JAG. A variation comes earlier when the first Secretary of the Navy is forced to resign and a new one is appointed to fill his position.
    • Several characters went without promotions however, but these were either due to seniority (Chegwidden), being late additions to the series (Turner), being unpopular with their coworkers (Cmdr. Lindsey, Lt. Singer), or being murdered (Lt. Singer, by Cmdr. Lindsey).
      • One episode has Cmdr. Lindsey up for promotion but Adm. Chegwidden will not recommend him to the promotion board despite Lindsey being a favourite of the old Secretary of the Navy.
  • Major Dad had in its final season made the 'Up or Out' system an important plot point. The Major was up for promotion the second time. There is no third time. Lieutenant Colonel Dad doesn't have the same ring to it.
  • When Jerry Espenson found out that there was no chance of him ever being promoted to Partner he snapped and tried to kill Shirley. A few seasons later he does get promoted.
  • This is technically justified in the case of Gregory House, as he IS a genius doctor, but also batshit insane, and no one besides Cuddy would hire him. As well, his position as "Chief of Diagnostics" means he's as high up in that hospital as he can get, "answering" directly to Cuddy.
    • Until he drives his car into her living room.
    • In a nod to how unrealistic this is generally, House's "Fellows" (Cameron, Chase, and Foreman) leave midway through the series and House has to hire a new team. It doesn't last. Foreman comes back after he gets fired from his new job for doing something House-like, and Chase and Cameron take positions on the surgical team and in the ER at PPTH respectively, so they're still "around" though it takes a while for House to find out about this and start pestering them again.
    • The new team trickles slowly away too, with the last ones leaving while House is ... away in jail ... between seasons 7 and 8, so when he comes back, his team is just himself and newcomer Park. Unlike earlier seasons, he immediately starts trying to rebuild his team.
    • Foreman was given a promotion at one point just so that he technically outranked House and could overrule him, a power he seldom exercised. In between seasons 7 and 8 he was promoted to Dean of Medicine.
    • Dr. Chase was promoted to House's position of Head of Diagnostics in the series finale.
  • Rimmer from Red Dwarf, prior to the titular ship's crew being wiped out, holds the rank of Second Technician after fifteen years in the Space Corps. Rimmer is outranked by the ship's service droids and "the man who changed the bog rolls" and every attempt to get a promotion ends in abject failure. Lister, on the other hand, despite being the only person that Rimmer has any authority over, has no interest in being promoted whatsoever. He did toy with the idea of earning a promotion to Ship's Cook once, just so he could technically outrank Rimmer. (Yes, even the cook could order Rimmer around.)
    • In short: This one is a Justified Trope. Everyone is incompetent, and Holly enforces the chain of command.
  • Blue Bloods avoids this trope by having most of the characters start out as high up the promotion ladder as they can reasonably get.
    • Frank is already the police commissioner and the next step in advancement would be for him to run for mayor.
    • Henry retired as police commissioner.
    • Danny is too much of a Cowboy Cop to ever get higher than his current position as a Major Case detective.
    • Erin is an assistant district attorney prosecuting major cases and working closely with the District Attorney.
    • Jamie is just a rookie cop but given his intelligence, drive and of course family connections he could be police commissioner himself one day.
  • Donald Cragen of Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been a Captain in the NYPD for a quarter of a century. By the latter seasons, it's clear that he's never going to advance because of his unit's tendencies to bend the rules and his unwillingness to do favors for politically-connected suspects.
    • His replacement on the original series, Anita Van Buren, never rose above the rank of Lieutenant in her seventeen-year tenure, which actually becomes a plot point: she had applied to become a Captain but, despite having seniority, was passed over for a white woman. She then sued the NYPD, which unsurprisingly has limited her prospects.
  • On Law & Order: Criminal Intent despite being 50, having spent two decades on the force and being one of the most brilliant officers at one PP, Robert Goren is still only a Junior Detective. This was lampshaded by a Corrupt Bureaucrat that was in cahoots with a Corrupt Corporate Executive, she said that because of his instability he would never be promoted to senior partner and that Eames would never make captain because of him.
    • Eames is actually offered the position of captain but ends up declining partly because it was a bribe and partly because to accept it she had to throw Goren off the force.
  • Averted in The Wire. Throughout the series, several people are promoted, sometimes more than once, including policemen, politicians, and street hustlers.
  • The Office (US) has few opportunities for promotion. They try to subvert it a few times but most of the time it does not stick. Michael will not get promoted past branch manager and while he has that job nobody else is really moving up. Most of the other people have specialized individual positions with only Michael above them.
    • Pam gets a promotion by essentially creating the position of office administrator herself and then bullying and conning everyone else into accepting this.
    • When Ryan and Jim manage to get promotions, it does not stick for long
    • When Michael leaves the company for good, the new manager is brought in from the head office. When that fails Dwight is given a shot at the job but also fails spectacularly. A wider search is conducted and Dwight, Andy and Darryl compete for the position against outsiders. Andy is promoted
    • This is completely inverted with Robert California. He is about to be hired as the new branch manager but to everyone's surprise manages to talk his way into becoming the new CEO of the whole company.
  • Suits plays with this. In the pilot Harvey is promoted to Senior Partner which highlights his rapid rise through the firm's ranks. It is clear that he aims to become a Named Partner and might even challenge Jessica for Managing Partner. At the same time Louis is still stuck as Junior Partner which is a major source of frustration for him with various factions using the promise of promotion to lure him to their side. Mike's prospects at the firm are initially presented as being unlimited as long as he does not screw up but then Reality Ensues and it becomes clear that the lies that allow him to practice law also make him unpromotable. He needs to keep a low profile unless someone decides to dig into his past and discovers the truth. However, without winning high profile cases he will never make partner.
  • Justified on The X-Files, especially with Mulder. Though he was advancing quickly up the VC's career ladder, once he became involved with the X-Files he was shut away in the basement just to get him out of everyone's hair. And since he runs that department, there isn't really anywhere up he can go. Not to mention he doesn't really give a damn whether he even keeps the job, let alone gets promoted. However, he does often lament that Scully's involvement with him on the X-Files essentially kills any opportunity she has for advancement, since it will be seen as a dark mark on her record. However, Scully never seems to express any desire to climb the ranks and eventually becomes just as invested in the X-Files as Mulder.
  • Averted on Babylon 5. Ivanova starts the series as a Lt Commander, gets promoted to Commander at the beginning of season two, gets promoted to Captain at the end of Season 4, and has reached flag rank in the series finale which takes place twenty years later. Most other characters with military careers don't get promoted within the military, but do achieve high rank in a non-military field later on. Vir has the biggest promotion over the course of the series - Ambassador's aide to Emperor. Played straight in one of the Expanded Universe novels where the man who founded PsiCorps turned down a chance to run for President because he felt that would be a demotion.
  • Discussed on Barney Miller when Captain Miller chooses to withdraw from candidacy for a promotion to Deputy Inspector, having been passed over twice before. His detectives talk him into trying, since as long has he's stuck "in there" (his captain's office) they're stuck "out here" (the squad room) - "and Levitt is stuck waaayy down there." They convince Barney to go for it, and in the Grand Finale he gets promoted.
  • Defied on Parks and Recreation. During Season 6, Leslie is offered a job in the U.S. National Parks Department supervising the midwestern national parks in Chicago. A good portion of the season finale is spent showing why she shouldn't take the job and move - the show couldn't possibly continue because none of the characters would want to or be able to go with her. She then turns the whole thing around and convinces the head of the U.S. Parks Dept that she would actually be able to do the job better if she just stayed in Pawnee. So, she gets a massive promotion and still gets to stay in her hometown.
  • Averted on Farscape, of all places. Braca's first appearance is at the Peacekeeper rank of Lieutenant and serving as Crais's lackey. At first he remains at this rank once Scorpius takes over, but by season 4 he's been promoted to Captain, a rank he maintains through The Peacekeeper Wars. In the continuation comics he ultimately attains the rank of Admiral.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In the sixty-odd years that Beetle Bailey has been in the Army, nobody at Camp Swampy has been promoted. Though one could make the case that nobody there deserves to be promoted.

    Radio 

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • In the Crusader games, after slaughtering hundreds of enemy soldiers, destroying dozens of enemy mechs, demolishing more than half a dozen WEC installations and stockpiles, saving the Earthbound Resistance, assassinating a member of the WEC's board of directors, and capturing the goddamned Moon... the Silencer is still a Captain. This may be justified given that his Captain rank was given by the WEC before he defected to the rebels, who really don't care as much about rank.
    • On the other hand, Sergeant Brooks from the first game is promoted to Lieutenant, according to an email the Silencer receives between games.
  • While Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 of Halo is at the top of the NCO rank ladder, he hasn't received a promotion for over two decades, despite being one of the main reasons why humanity hasn't gone extinct yet. On the other hand, he's also a Super Soldier who was created precisely because the UNSC needed the most badass spec-ops troopers possible; as an officer, he would have to stay in the back-line more often, which would probably be a massive waste of his combat abilities, especially during a war where humanity needs every extra soldier it can get.
    • Much as the example of Commander Shepard, mentioned below, the Chief tends to exert influence far out of proportion to his actual rank (the Spartans were selected as much for brains as for brawn), though he's by both training and nature obedient even to authority figures he dislikes. Halo 4, however, shows what happens when a superior finally pushes him too far; he disobeys orders, arguably mutinies, and steals UNSC equipment. The result is that the captain who issued the orders he ignored is cashiered by the UNSC, and the executive officer who listened to the Chief and also disobeyed orders to help him is promoted.
  • Wing Commander: The one time Maniac makes it past Major, at the end of Wing Commander IV (more in the novelization than the game), off-screen he gets busted down again. Primarily he stays in the service in spite of this lack of advancement because he's just that damned good, starting his career during a long genocidal war where the Terran Confederation couldn't afford to dismiss him from service. In the fifth game he gets promoted to Squadron Commander, but eventually requests to be busted down again, because he finds he can't handle the extra responsibility.
  • In Ghostbusters: The Video Game, Winston Zeddemore, once just the working stiff latecomer to the business, had gone back to school to earn a Doctorate and so is now, "Dr. Zeddemore."
  • Adachi, of Persona 4. Apparently he made a 'mistake' that got him sent to Inaba as an informal punishment. The characters actually call him out for using this as an excuse for killing two people and trying to bring about the end of the world. If this was true, frustrated office workers would be killing everyone left and right.
  • Averted in Mass Effect. Depending on who survived Virmire, in the third game, Ashley has been promoted to Lt Commander (the same rank as Shepard) and Kaidan has become a Major (the Army/Marines equivalent).
    • Played straight with Shepard, who never goes beyond the rank of Commander. Justified in that Shepard was officially reported KIA at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, and spent the entire game post-resurrection officially AWOL, although Hackett was still willing to pass down the Alpha Relay assignment. After said assignment, Shepard submitted to the chain of command, and was confined due to the Alpha Relay's explosion killing 300,000 civilians, and was only reinstated due to the extreme circumstances of the Reaper attack on Earth. While it is plausible that Shepard was promoted to full Commander following the events of the first game, there was very little official opportunity for advancement.
    • It's also not really an issue for Shepard: as a Spectre, the protege of Admirals Hackett and Anderson, (at one point) Cerberus's most impressive field agent, The Captain of the now-technically-independent(-ish note ) Normandy, and, not least, the galaxy's foremost expert on killing Reapers, Shepard's importance and influence far outstrip his/her actual rank.

    Webcomics 
  • In Schlock Mercenary, most characters have undergone several promotions, but Schlock was promoted rapidly to corporal and then sergeant early on, and then stopped there, because no one wants him to be an officer, especially Schlock himself. He has deliberately stayed a Sergeant even in periods where he technically owned the company and could dictate his own terms. Compare Breya, who made herself an Admiral in the same position. The closest he ever got to wanting to progress was being disappointed by the fact that only officers get "epaulet grenades".
    • On the other hand, Maxim 2: A Sergeant in motion outranks a Lieutenant who doesn't know what's going on (actually Truth in Television, inexperienced infantry officers sometimes actually do defer to the advice of their more experienced NC Os in combat).
    • Subverted by Warrant Officer Thurl. Thurl is the oldest member of Tagon's Toughs, and the only reason paychecks go out and supplies come in when they're supposed to. He is very happy as an NCO, and has threatened to resign the minute anyone offers him a commission.
  • Terminal Lance takes its name from Marines whose climb up the rank ladder has stalled at Lance Corporal (just below NCO status), often because the cutting score (a nigh-incomprehensible mess of test scores, job evaluations, and other minutia) is so high. A common complaint in the strip is that the infantry tends to have higher cutting scores than the support and logistics elements. It' gotten to the point that Abe has gotten his Lance Corporal insignia tattooed on his back.

    Real Life 
  • The US Military's "Up or out" policy is designed to avert this, though this wasn't always the case. In the past, promotions were less focused on forcing officers to progress their careers upward. A good example is Eisenhower who spent 16 years as a major before being promoted to lieutenant colonel. In practice this means forcing a good portion of personnel to retire as options are fewer the higher one goes. Below certain levels one is not even allowed to reach the 20 year mark to qualify for retirement benefits.
    • In the past, between major military actions, the US military reverted to a skeleton force (essentially a planning and training cadre), designed to be pumped up again with draftees in case of war. Eisenhower and the other WWII generals held low "permanent" ranks in the Regular Army, and "theater rank" in the provisional Army of the United States. With the large and all-volunteer post-Vietnam military, things have changed a great deal.
  • As is the Royal Navy's Captain's List. You either got promoted to Rear Admiral after nine years or retire.
  • Similar to the military "up or out" policy mentioned above, the UK Metropolitan Police had a policy for most of the 20th century called 'tenure' which was designed to avert this. It pretty much amounted to forcing plain clothes detectives who hadn't significantly improved their careers within a certain period (i.e., somebody who had been a Detective Sergeant for a decade or more without having advanced up to Inspector) to have to go back into uniform. The purpose of this was that it was supposed to stop them getting complacent, as well as allowing others within the department the opportunity to advance rank in their wake. It often had the opposite effect though, as many detectives were said to have chosen to resign rather than face the "indignity" of being put back into uniform. Scotland Yard officially abandoned the tenure scheme in the early 21st century.


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