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.
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 the original Mobile Suit Gundam, the surprise attack by the Zeon Zakus lead to much of the intended crew of the White Base to be killed, thus forcing them to use civilians to save the day. The same thing also happens in the original Mobile Suit Gundam SEED.
- The Baratie Oceangoing Restaurant in One Piece is famous for its Chef of Iron kitchen staff
but has no waiters. The fighting between the chefs and troublemaking pirates was too much for them and they jumped ship, forcing cooks to serve their food as well as make it.
Patty: We're the trademark of the Baratie, the fighting chefs! If you don't like it, leave!
Carne: That's just what you told the waiters, isn't it!? It's your fault we're so overworked!
- A vaguely-described purge in SPY×FAMILY leaves WISE short on field agents. This is used to justify Twilight finding a civilian (as far as he knows) fake wife for Operation Strix, as well as constantly doing other missions on top of it.
- The Ministry in The Man from the Ministry is devoted to keeping the UK safe from extraterrestrial invasions. In its heyday in the 50s and 60s, it had a staff of hundreds; by the time the story starts, it's down to one man.
- At the start of The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers, the Autobots are suffering a bad troop shortage after a major assault by Megatron that left them scattered and disorganized. As a result, the Wreckers are forced to bring in some new recruits, none of whom are even remotely ready for the sort of hellish, near-impossible missions the Wreckers go on. It goes about as well as youd think.
- 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 (and then paid less to save more on costs despite doing more work).
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow and Will Turner steal a ship by pretending to attempt to steal another ship, one larger and far more complicated, so that the Navy will come up with the smaller and easier-to-manage vessel already rigged for sailing. During a later 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 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, 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.
- Star Trek film franchise:
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The Enterprise is on a cadet cruise, with only vital systems manned by the cadets and a few senior staff supervising, and none of the science labs, or other stuff Starfleet usually has, active. The Reliant is similarly under-manned with only Khan's dwindling number of loyal followers. Space Station Regula 1 is also on short staff, with David noting that everyone is on leave.
- 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.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: The stolen Klingon bird of prey is manned only by the Enterprise command crew, half of what it should have.
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: The newly-commissioned Enterprise-A has "less than a skeleton crew" when she's sent to deal with a Hostage Situation. And that's just one item on her list of problems.
- Star Trek: Generations: The newly launched Enterprise-B's staff shortage (insufficient even for a trip around Earth's solar system, as it doesn't even have a single medical staff member or first aider on board) ultimately forces Kirk to make a Heroic Sacrifice to save a trouble stricken transport due to unavailability of engineering crew.
- The Night's Watch in A Song of Ice and Fire was once comprised of thousands of fighters who were able to man all 19 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.
- It's noted that the Watch is so understaffed at the very beginning of the series and that the North is getting full of young nobles needing estates that the Lord Commander of the Watch and the Lord Paramount of the North are beginning to negotiate about manning the abandoned castles with said nobles (as long as they pay their taxes to the Watch instead of the North, the Lord Commander seems amiable to it).
- In Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens, there is the interesting example of the Witchfinder Army, once a thriving paramilitary organization 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 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 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. This doesn't last long, though; a load of retired postmen come in to lend a hand, and the new Postmaster retains the services of some golems, meeting his Love Interest in the process.
- In the "Witches" subseries, after most of the castle staff quits or gets fired over the course of Wyrd Sisters, Castle Lancre (which started with dozens of servants) is reduced in later books to a skeleton crew of Spriggins the Butler, Mrs. Scorbic the cook, Mr. Brooks the beekeeper, Hodgesaargh the falconer, and Shawn Ogg the captain-of-the-guard/everything else.
- In the "City Watch" subseries, the Night Watch, made virtually redundant by the legalizing of crime, is reduced to four men (Two incompetents and an idealist, commanded by an alcoholic) to police a city of a million by the time Guards! Guards! is set. This gets better over the course of the series, with the City Watch eventually numbering in the dozens and later the low hundreds (Which is still a rather small organization to police a city with a population of one million).
- This is an underlying theme in both of the Honor Harrington prequel series, which take place in the aftermath of The Plague decimating the original colonists. In Stephanie Harrington, it is the justification for a large immigration incentive program, bringing many families with valuable skills to the Star Kingdom, including the Harringtons. In Manticore Ascendant, widespread manpower shortages plague all levels of Manticoran society, including the Royal Manticoran Navy, leaving most of their warships unmanned and parked in orbit over the homeworld.
- 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 twenty people handing a ship designed to be run by a crew of a hundred and twenty. When the sub gets attacked, this renders them unable to shoot back because they barely have enough people to run the bridge and the engineering compartment, and can't spare anyone to load torpedoes. 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.
- In the Star Trek novel "Crossover", Scotty revisits his automation system when he steals a museum ship. The computer in a TNG-era shuttlecraft proves to be more than up to the task of controlling a TOS-era starship, meaning that Scotty can fly the entire thing on his own.
- Rivers of London: The Folly, the police division supposed to be responsible for all of Britain's magical law enforcement, is down from its full divisional strength to a single officer, raising to three and back down to two again over the course of the series. This has left London (and presumably the rest of the UK) at serious risk, due to infighting by the various Anthropomorphic Personifications, dangerous magical criminals like the Faceless Man, and The Masquerade starting to fall apart, as they are unable to even respond properly much less anticipate magical crimes.
- The Reynard Cycle: It's implied in Defender of the Crown that this is why the Muraille, a string of fortresses connected by a wall a hundred miles long, is currently abandoned.
- In one point in Wraith Squadron, the eponymous squadron comes into possession of a Corellian Corvette, a light capital ship with a standard crew of between 50 and 100, plus ground forces. They are forced to operate the ship, and keep the old crew prisoner, and make modifications on it (to fit all their starfighters—it's a carrier, sure, but it's only supposed to hold 4 TIEs), and fly a combat mission, with a total crew of 13, plus a protocol droid and a squadron's worth of astromechs. Kell Tainer describes their sleep levels as "barely adequate". Fortunately, they're able to meet up with friendly forces and have a real crew transferred in (and the prisoners transferred out) before long.
- In Jurassic Park John Hammond promised the guests brought to tour the park before its official opening bragging that he spared no expense. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Hammond cut corners everywhere. The reason why Dennis Nedry stole some dinosaur embryos with the intent to sell them to a competitor is because Hammond forced him to program the the park's computers to take care of everything, from running the tour vehicles to operating the feeding mechanisms - without paying him for the scope increase.
- 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 Artificial Intelligence 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 (2003), 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 when 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 (hence the traditional hexagonal control console), 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, and why they can't reach all the controls from one spot, necessitating constant motion from panel to panel.
- 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. They also start out much smaller and take considerable worse losses, with only a few dozen men left at Castle Black as of Season 6.
- 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.
- In "Carry On, Hawkeye", 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.
- In "The Yalu Brick Road", almost the entire camp gets food poisoning from the Thanksgiving turkeys Klinger procured, leaving Margaret, Charles and Father Mulcahy (who were all away from camp and the only ones NOT to eat the turkeys) to do everything until Hawkeye and BJ (and the North Korean soldier who surrendered to them) can arrive with the medication they need for everyone.
- 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 had at least 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 even before people start dropping like flies from an epidemic (and then rising again).
- 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 and thus stuck as a hologram), a highly evolved cat, and a sanitation droid.
- Stargate SG-1 has several occasions where the main cast happens upon an abandoned facility and must 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 so, 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 Ragnarök 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 the episode "Displaced" where crewmen 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.
- In the episode "Equinox", Voyager encounters the titular starship and find that they've got this problem bad, especially since they went through over half of their Redshirts during their first month in the Delta Quadrant.
- The twoparter "Workforce" has an industrialized world so desperate for workers that they resort to kidnapping and brainwashing any aliens they can find. Most of Voyager's crew gets this treatment after being forced to abandon ship by a radioactive mine, leaving the ship with a crew of four.
- 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?Computer: Negative.Dr. Crusher: Then why am I the only crew-member? (the computer makes a strange noise) Aha, got you there.
- And later, after Picard disappears as well:
- 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.
- The Orville: The only reason Ed Mercer is even given command of the titular ship is because the Union has 3000 ships to crew, and he's the only captain available. It's later subverted when Kelly reveals she used her friendship with the admiral to get him posted and the crew shortage was just an excuse to hide her involvement.
- Paul Heyman was infamous for using wrestlers working ECW shows in roles that should have been filled by office staff. Heyman himself was in charge of negotiating with the network, other promotions, promoting his own product, booking...then he started losing wrestlers, mainly to WCW but also to the WWF. While you can blame him for not investing his money better, definitely for not paying people while hiring an agent, one can at least understand the financial problems of ECW weren't easily dealt with precisely because of this.
- Promotions following in ECW's wake such as IWA Mid-South and CZW often invoke this image, whether true or not, in an attempt to capture some of that same "charm". Prime offender Ring of Honor ran an angle where match maker Nigel McGuinness investigated a Bullet Club attack on the promotion and found security needed quadrupling. WSU played this for laughs and drama when CZW took over and proclaimed the cuts to security would be leaving fans "on their own".
- 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. He also refuses more Grey Wardens to arrive from Orlais, paranoid of anything Orlesians do.
- A game mechanic in City-Building Series, and quite possibly the single biggest headache in the games. 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 the mining industry frees up workers for farming or training musicians, the games feature a way to prioritize the allocation of workers and shut down unneeded industries without destroying the buildings.
- You can order entire workforce sectors (i.e. food production, industry, military, health...) to be fully staffed at the cost of others (although this happens in sequence, which brings its own problems) and you only need a single house near the industry to get workers to it instead of a fully-supported neighborhood. Of course, you also need the recruiter to go past said house, which isn't always compatible with efficient city planning.
- The inverse can also happen: Housing that evolves into manors contain more people, but these are Upper Class Twits who take pride in not working. Sure they produce ridiculous amounts of money in taxes, but more often than not it's not worth the loss in productivity (which will doubtless lead to the manor devolving anyway).
- Zeus: Master of Olympus makes it a lot easier by no longer requiring houses to be present near the buildings (workers are automatically assigned as soon as the building is placed) and allowing you to prioritize individual industries (such as cheese, silver, weapons...) instead of just the entire industrial sector. Elite housing (whose residents aren't part of the workforce) are also built separately, no more houses evolving into Idle Rich paying enormous amounts of taxes.
- Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom: The game now allows you to shut down industries on an individual basis instead of the entire thing, allowing production to continue at a reduced rate.
- Portal's Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Never mind staff, the only actual living person in the entire game is Chell. There used to be a lot more people working there, but GLaDOS killed them all.
- Happens to the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 after the Collectors abduct the entire crew minus Shepard, his/her companions, and Joker. Unshackled EDI takes care of most of the grunt work.
- Implied in the SimCity games when you set the budget for services really really low.
- In the thirteenth mission of the first game in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, you are able to walk right through the gate to a Russian air force base due to mass desertions mentioned in the mission briefing.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda:
- The Nexus News Network seems to consist of about two or three people, depending on whether reporter Keri T'Vessa even counts as one of theirs. There were more of them a few months prior, but the riots of the Uprising killed off several people.
- The Nexus itself as a whole also counts, thanks to the Scourge and the riots winnowing down key personnel, the situation is now so bad that the guy in charge is eighth in line, and everyone else is massively overworked trying to keep the ship from sinking further. And there's the little catch-22 that reviving personnel to replace the losses will consume more resources they don't have.
- In The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, there's revealed to be a lack of military to take care of all the problems across Erebonia. The eastern part of the country is dealing with attacks from jaeger corps and Ouroboros, which has left the western portion of the empire with a shortage of personnel should any problems pop up there. This is also the main reason Thors' Branch Campus was founded. The students would be sent to patrol the area during their field exercises, and monitor activity in the area to see if Ouroboros is up to anything. Whenever things go south during a field exercise, the staff has to be reminded about the personnel shortage and accept that help isn't coming.
- One of the biggest problems hitting The Hospital in Awful Hospital. The Parliament wants to destroy everything that is not themselves via the ultimate plague, and has been sabotaging The Hospital's attempts to cure it. One of their key elements in doing so has been to reduce their staff. They have been attacking staff members and then Unpersoning them in a way that prevents anyone from remembering they ever existed. Many staff members are growing increasingly suspicious of their severe staff shortage, but the higher ups remain oblivious. The Hospital is now requesting emergency temps, but the bureaucrabs have been slow to respond and the temps that do arrive keep getting knocked out of commission as well. The main protagonist, Fern, eventually manages to bluff her way into the job.
- Justice League vs. The Fatal Five: During the events of the movie, most of the Green Lantern Corps are busy dealing with a war on Rann, leaving Oa staffed with a skeleton crew of Kilowog, Jessica Cruz, and a few others. As a result, the Fatal Five are able to breeze right through one of the most secure places in the galaxy and get all the way to the Central Power Battery.
- Invader Zim: A flashback shows that after he single handedly ruining "Operation Impeding Doom", Zim was banished to Foodcourtia, a Planet of Hats full of fast food joints, and forced under the stewardship of Sizz-Lorr, the head fry cook of Shloogorgh's Flavor Monster restaurant. Zim managed to escape from the planet briefly before an event called "The Great Foodening" happened, where the sheer amount of customers flooding the planet makes it impossible from anyone to leave the place for years. This left Sizz-Lorr to pick up the lack all by himself. In the episode, Sizz-Lorr kidnapped Zim to forced him to help him out in the next Foodening that was about to take place. Unfortunately for the frylord, Zim successfully eluded him once again, forcing Sizz-Lorr to endure another Foodening on Foodcourtia, alone.