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Always on Duty

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Jay: Zed, don't you guys ever get any sleep around here?
Zed: The twins keep us on Centaurian time — standard thirty-seven-hour day. Give it a few months. You'll get used to it... or you'll have a psychotic episode.

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 their 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 they are—but this trope is for when it seems like they may as well set up a cot and sleep there, too.

The reason for this is clear enough: Unless your production has a huge cast, there's only so many people who can be shown at a time. Even then, it's 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 themself, 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.

A Sub-Trope of Economy Cast and Conservation of Detail. Sister trope to Eternal Employee. 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.


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    Anime and Manga 

  • In Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon and its crew are so small that anything that happens to it involves everyone on board.
  • John McClane of Die Hard has been on the front lines of five (with a sixth planned) major heists/hostage situations/terrorist attacks.
  • Officer Bungalon seems to be the only police officer in The Bell Witch Haunting, as he's called out to investigate no matter what time of day it is.
  • In Apollo 13, Gene Kranz is the only flight director seen running Mission Control throughout the film. In real life, he was on rotating shifts with two other flight directors throughout the mission.
  • The source of the page quote, Men in Black, actually downplays this. Yes, J and K seem to be the only agents available to deal with the problem in the movie, but other agents are seen going about their business and presumably taking care of other threats to earth. However, the hours they keep do explain why the two main characters are still dealing with this one threat over the course of several days. The sequels and TV series further downplay it, involving various other MIB agents.

  • 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 insistence 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 Legends. 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, after the squad captures the 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 and they don't have enough people to crew it. For obvious reasons, they make it a priority to get a real crew assigned to the ship from the Republic fleet.
  • 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.
  • The Honor Harrington series is notable in being a rare complete aversion of this trope. On numerous occasions, the watches are shown rotating, main characters are on different watches (so not all of them are there for every adventure), and the captain and other crew members are show explicitly taking the time to eat, sleep, etc. This is helped by having a large cast and a surprisingly realistic aversion of most of the tropes in Artistic License – Space.
    • This is also a way to introduce new lower-ranking characters: have them be in command while the higher-ranking officers are sleeping, have bad things happen to the ship, and watch them step up and show what they can do. Weber did this for Honor herself in a prequel story.
  • Averted completely in the "Badge of Honor" series by W.E.B. Griffin, which has many cases of the main characters interacting with different command staff and uniformed police on the different shifts. There are several cases where senior people wake up the shift commander (who was taking a nap at 3AM since nothing was going on), the shift commander apologizing for being asleep, and the senior person saying "I've taken a nap or two myself on that cot when I had your job".
  • The titular Dr. Franklin of Dr. Franklin's Island, according to his assistant Dr. Skinner, doesn't sleep and works through the night when most of the staff are in bed, pausing at midnight to leave the lab and make his rounds of the facility, checking every door and lock.

    Live Action Television 
  • Star Trek zig-zags this. Sometimes, references are made to shifts and various operations changing depending on the time of day. The two-parter episode "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—but as anyone who has ever served in any navy can tell you, this is far from uncommon in real life. Other times, it's always our familiar bridge crew who encounter the monster/anomaly/new civilization of the week, and no explanation of what happens when they're not on duty.
    • The night shift is explicitly shown several times over the course of the spin-off series. TNG shows both Data and Doctor Crusher commanding the bridge on the night shift. (It's implied that Data nearly always commands the night shift in addition to his normal duties because he doesn't need to sleep.) Voyager has a recurring plot point of Ensign Kim being in command of the night shift (or, seeing as it's Kim, the graveyard shift) and even discussing waking senior officers when an incident arises. However, even this is something of an example of this trope; we almost never see an adventure begin when there is nobody from the main cast on the bridge.
    • 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.
    • Also this is the point of the captain's Ready Room; an office adjacent to the bridge where he or she can catch up on paperwork, take conference calls or just enjoy some downtime yet be immediately available for a crisis.
    • Star Trek: Enterprise played with this once, with Ensign Mayweather happening to be the only person on the bridge during the night shift when they run into an alien ship whose captain the crew had accidentally offended earlier during a First Contact gone wrong. Realizing the alien ship won't hang around long enough for him to summon a higher-ranking officer, Mayweather figures out what they had done wrong (in the aliens' culture, you never eat in front of others, and Archer had invited the alien captain over for dinner...), and proceeded to apologize on behalf of all of humanity for the slight.
  • 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 with frequent clobbering to build up a threat, 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 was also apparently always on duty, but then his major character arc involved coming to terms with his addiction to stimulants.
  • 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!.
  • It is lampshadeed in Tru Calling that Davis is always at the morgue.
  • In Grimm, Sergeant Wu doesn't appear to ever sleep.
  • Lampshaded on NCIS when our heroes investigate a seemingly Open-and-Shut Case of an Attempted Rape foiled and go home for the day, only for certain inconsistencies to start nagging at them until they all go back to the scene in the middle of the night.
  • Averted in Chicago Fire, which explicitly follows the firefighters of the second shift out of at least three.
  • Wonder Woman (1975): Being Wonder Woman means never getting a day off, and in "The Feminum Mystique" using her leave time to return to fight Nazis on Paradise Island. In "The Queen and the Thief" and "Knockout", Agent Diana Prince's apartment is set up to alert her when she's needed using signal lamps that look like normal ones. Being woken up in the middle of the night and coming home at midnight are commonplace.
  • Justified in Longmire, as the titular Sheriff Walt Longmire only has three deputies under his command at best.
  • Justified in M*A*S*H, as the 4077th is a combat hospital only 3 miles or so from the front lines and have to be ready to receive wounded at any time. Multiple references are made to the surgical staff spending 24+ hours in surgery during major offensives, and characters on leave have been recalled due to a surge in wounded.

    Video Games 
  • In Mass Effect, 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.
    • In addition, Joker is the Normandy's pilot. Not only is there never anyone else shown in his seat, there's never a reference to anyone else flying it even when he is elsewhere (except once, and that was when it was literally being hijacked). Given that it takes two hours to dive into a mass relay, and you may do this a dozen times between stops, the guy must go through a ton of keep-awake pills. Justified after the Collector attack in the endgame for Mass Effect 2, since now the onboard AI has the authority to control it, and does not need to sleep, so presumably EDI controls it when Joker is off duty.
  • Heavily implied in XCOM, since the moment your Skyranger is ready to scramble, your troops are already on station. Your troops are shown to have living quarters at the base, but considering the same people can be deployed on mission after mission, sometime within hours of each other (unless injured or assigned elsewhere), one has to wonder if XCOM soldiers are allowed to leave the base.
    • The famous Long War mod for XCOM: Enemy Unknown addressed this by adding a fatigue system; if you sent your troops on two missions back-to-back within one in-game day, they would become "Exhausted" and unavailable for a short period.
    • XCOM 2 adopted something similar for the War of the Chosen expansion. Soldiers' Willpower statistic acts as a sort of stamina bar, in that it decreases as they encounter enemies in the field, and recovers if the soldiers are given time to rest between missions. As soldiers lose Will they become Tired and are more likely to panic or succumb to enemy psionic attacks. You can still send Tired soldiers out on missions, but it's generally a bad idea, since they will then become Shaken and unavailable for a short time until they recover, and they have a good chance of developing a negative trait like "Obsessive Reloader" or a phobia of certain enemies.
  • With an 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.
  • Phoenix Point gives soldiers Stamina values. You can send soldiers on mission after mission, but each one will reduce stamina (some events will reduce it further). You can send tired soldiers on missions if needed, but being below half stamina gives a penalty to Action Points, which will get your people killed. But the Pandoravirus isn’t going to stop attacking, so you’d better find out how to keep your team Always on Duty.
  • Often gets lampshaded in the Ace Attorney franchise. While there's a fair share of prosecutors (or in the Investigations game series, people in diverse positions of power) to battle the protagonist, every single murder case will involve the same detective (Dick Gumshoe in the first trilogy and the Investigations games, Ema Skye in the second mainline trilogy, and Herlock Sholmes in The Great Ace Attorney).

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Although obviously many things are delegated, there are still some jobs where the job-holder has to be ready at any moment- for example, the President or Prime Minister of a country in case of a sudden major crisis.
  • In larger police and security departments there will often be a watch commander (who is a sergeant of lieutenant) or even several covering different geographic areas or divisions (patrol, traffic, detectives, dispatch, etc.) on duty at any given time. In the event of a major incident, a lieutenant or captain is usually woken to respond.
  • Trauma surgeons and other specialized emergency medicine doctors (e.g. burn specialists, toxicologists, orthopedists who deal with neck and spinal cord injuries, and the like), and transplant surgeons are often always "on call" even if technically not on duty - because they are often the best/the only ones around with their skill set (depending on how big the city/the hospital system is and how big the emergency itself is) and because most of the cases that require their skills and attention are time-sensitive emergencies that happen with no advance warning (e.g. a car crash victim may well need the work of a trauma surgeon, a burn specialist, and an orthopedist specializing in spinal cord injury all at the same time), or in the case of transplant surgeons, the organ has to be transplanted while still viable.
  • Small town and rural volunteer fire departments and paramedic services often operate this way, especially when an emergency requires more response than just one ambulance or one fire truck. Small town police or sheriffs also often have, say, only one or two homicide detectives, so if there's a murder in said small town, those detectives will be called in to investigate even if "off duty."
    • In large fire departments, senior officers (chiefs and deputy chiefs) will show up in major incidents, whether it's during their normal working hours or not.
  • Skywarn storm spotters are another example of "off duty but on call." In their case, much of the time they are doing something else/not on duty, but if severe/tornadic storms are expected or occurring, they are notified to begin keeping an eye on weather conditions in their area and reporting anything that looks dangerous/confirm weather radar reports and the like.
  • In militias and paramilitaries, usually this is averted for enlisted personnel, especially noncombat ones, but often in full effect for officers as well as for people with specialized skills. You see, due to One Riot, One Ranger tendencies, officers can spend months solid on the line, even if they ever actually are technically on duty for just a handfuls of days a month, and they are always on call for emergencies, simply because nobody else has the authority or ability to solve them.
    • The Canadian Forces views annual leave days as "a privilege, not a right" for everyone. Not only can they turn down a soldier's leave, but even having a signed and approved leave pass doesn't guarantee that a soldier won't be called in.
    • The United States Armed Forces have this as a de facto policy as well. You may be guaranteed an allowance of thirty days of leave per year, but you are not guaranteed to be able to use them, hence why the policy of unused days rolling over and being added to the next year's allowance until the number of days accrued exceeds a specific amount.
    • There's a joke in the US Navy about when this happens inadvertently. Normally if there are two shifts that cover a particular position, it is called a "Port and Starboard" watch rotation, hearkening back to the days of sailing ships when half the crew slept on the port side of the ship and the other half slept on the starboard side, and where you slept determined when your shift was. If for whatever reason you're down to just one person who is qualified and available to stand a particular watch, that person is said to be on a "Port and Report" watch rotation; that is, first one section stands their watch (Port)... and then they do it again (Re-Port)!
  • Certain jobs in the IT industry (particularly server admins) require people to be on-call outside of normal work hours. Since server downtime can cost a large company a huge amount of money someone needs to be available to fix it 24/7 and if the company doesn't have a night shift this means having someone on-call.