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Restricted Rescue Operation

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Too much red tape. And that's if you're allowed to do anything in the first place.
"They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy - not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters."

So you've seen a reason to launch a great rescue operation. There's one problem. If you went all out with helping you'd be less effective than if you were holding back. Reasons include:

  1. Lack Of Supplies: Lack of supplies that wouldn't do anyone any good if spread too thin. Can overlap with Cold Equation although Cold Equation does not necessarily involve a rescue operation.
  2. Secrecy: A need to keep the rescue operation or the true nature of it a secret to avoid whoever is in charge shutting it down. Can involve Rage Within the Machine.
  3. Operational: Restrictions placed by whoever is in charge on how much anyone is allowed to do or what methods can be used. This can include things that take up time and cause delays.

A key aspect of this is that The Hero stays within or at least attempts to appear to stay within the limits given. Appearing to stay within the restrictions is common if the restriction is Operational while launching Secrecy in response to the limits. For Secrecy, it's rarely known exactly how much it's possible to do without someone becoming suspicious. A common trend is that secret operations escalate over time as The Hero figures out that it's possible to pull it off and how to keep the secret.

May involve Obstructive Code of Conduct or Obstructive Bureaucrat. Another likely situation is any rescue effort La Résistance is running in The Empire. The restrictions can come from any side. Either way the obstructions go further than the other characters having a case of the Bystander Syndrome.

A common outcome of this is a Heroic BSoD. The Hero can blame the authorities for putting up the restrictions or themselves for not doing more to invoke Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!. Or both. This trope is at its core both a betrayal of what heroes, especially the idealistic kind, expects from society and a forced betrayal of their own sense of morality. Can lead to Survivor Guilt among those saved.

See also Underground Railroad and Samaritan Syndrome. Contrast No One Gets Left Behind. Super trope of Bruce Wayne Held Hostage.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • My Hero Academia: Because only licensed heroes are allowed to use quirks to take down criminals, the students of Class 1-A struggled when a fellow classmate was endangered, for the very real fear that they'd be expelled or arrested, and never become professional heroes. This severely limited the (explicitly unsanctioned) mission to rescue Bakugo, as a majority of the class didn't even want to go, and the ones that went did whatever it took to stay within the law. Aizawa later tells them that, in any other circumstance and even though the rescue was successful, he would expel the entire class sans those who were comatose at the time, since even those who stayed behind knew of the rescue mission and did nothing to stop it. The only reason he doesn't is because, now that All Might has retired, Hero Course students are under greater pressure than ever to become Pro Heroes and fill the vacuum he left behind.

    Fan Works 
  • In Lelouch of the Wings of Rebellion neither Milly nor Bishop were able to leave the Masquerade Ball and follow Euphemia into the Metaverse when the Black Mask kidnapped her because they're well known faces among the nobility and their absence would be immediately noticed, and that's assuming they would be able to activate the Metanav without getting caught. Shirley, on the other hand, was just a masked commoner mingling among the elite incognito, so she was able to sneak out after them unnoticed.
  • In My Brave Pony: Starfleet Magic, whenever someone of the team gets captured or endangered, Starfleet can't save them immediately. Grand Ruler Celesto, fearing for the safety of the remaining warriors, often orders them to wait until he greenlights any operations. Starfleet usually obeys him and shames those who defy those orders.
  • In the Discworld fic The Price of Flight by A.A. Pessimal, strained relationships between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch spill over into what was afterwards called "a regrettable misunderstanding", when a Pegasus and three Air Watch members are believed to have been shot down by a surprise attack over a remote part of the Klatchian continent. Lieutenant Irena Politek is boling with rage and sets up a rescue mission to retrieve two Air Witches and a Feegle. This will carry maximum firepower, just to make the point to the Klatchian Air Force. Irena is restrained by Lord Vetinari, who really doesn't want the situation escalating to all-out war. Just yet.
  • Star Wars vs Warhammer 40K: While planning their counter-invasion of the Imperial-occupied Core World of Axum, the Jedi learn from a spy that the Imperium has been using hundreds of death camps spread all over the planet to genocide the visibly non-human civilians. Ahsoka is outraged by this and advocates for liberating these camps as soon as possible. However, Mace Windu disagrees, explaining that the Jedi need to first prioritize neutralizing the Imperial occupation's commanders and strongholds before they can even think about freeing the camps, which he labels a secondary objective. This leaves Ahsoka feeling bitter as she points out that putting off the death camps for later will result in more innocent prisoners dying what she considers entirely preventable deaths.
  • In The Weaver Option, the invasion of Commorragh gives the Imperial forces a chance to rescue literally billions of enslaved humans and xenos. However, the Imperium can't maintain its foothold indefinitely due to the Dark City's planned destruction so only the slaves they can evacuate will be freed. This limits the rescued to only a fraction of the total slave population, as the Imperial forces present lack the room and supplies to accommodate more. The remaining slaves are given weapons so they can at least die killing their former masters and those who survive the battle are given a quick death via nuclear bombardment to spare them from the Slaaneshi daemons.

    Films — Animation 
  • In the opening sequence of Atlantis: The Lost Empire the shield that Kida's mother creates to protect Atlantis is shown unable to reach most of the city.
  • Early in Dinosaur there's a meteor strike and Aladar gets the lemurs he can to safety while outrunning the fire. Most of their family is lost. He spends the rest of the movie speaking out in defiance against this trope when Kron wants to leave the slower dinosaurs behind to slow down predators.
  • The plot of The Incredibles is driven by the supers being forced underground and forbidden from using their powers to help people. Notably there's a scene in which Mr Incredible/Bob Parr's boss threatens to fire him if he leaves to help a man who's being robbed. In that scene he was already in trouble for teaching his customers to "penetrate the bureaucracy" of the insurance company he was working for.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Behind Enemy Lines has Admiral Piquet shut down Admiral Reigart's first attempt to rescue Burnett, who can't be extracted from the demilitarized zone he was shot down in without starting an international incident. Later, he aborts another rescue attempt when the Serbs present what appears to be Burnett's corpse to the media (he does this just as the real Burnett is about to reach the extraction point). When Burnett activates the rescue beacon on his jet seat, notifying his carrier group that he's still alive and giving away his position to the Serbs hunting him, Reigart decides to screw the rules and personally leads a task force to rescue Burnett. He is later relieved of command for his trouble, so Reigart decides to retire.
  • Colonel Kwiatkowski: The very first action by Kwiatkowski involves taking out just two men out of the slammer - and each cell he "visitates" contains fifty people tightly crammed inside. After the action, he instantly points out to his underlings the difference of arranging for just two men versus an entire prison, when all you've got is some serious nerve and an uniform.
  • Discussed in The Guardian (2006) when training the Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
    Randall: There will come a time when you might have to decide who lives and dies out there. It's a terrible responsibility, but it is one you will have to make as a rescue swimmer.
  • In I, Robot, Spooner was once in a car accident where both cars plunged into the river. The driver of the other car died on impact, but a little girl was still alive. When a robot came to aid the humans, it didn't have enough time to save both and chose Spooner because he had a higher probability of survival. This event led Spooner to harbor hatred for robots as unfeeling machines, saying that any human would have chosen to save the little girl no matter the odds.
  • Schindler's List has this out of necessity to keep the Nazis from catching on.
  • Spy Game is about Muir's attempt to rescue his old protégé Bishop with an unauthorized rescue from prison in China while under the eyes of his own CIA superiors who want to let Bishop die for the sake of not jeopardizing upcoming US-China trade talks.

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: When the trio infiltrate The Ministry they are able to break out the Muggle borns who happen to be there for "questioning" that day. After that the Muggle Born Registration Committee can continue giving every Muggle Born they can find to the dementors.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5:
    • When the Centauri begin their genocidal campaign against the Narn, Sheridan and Delenn want to help the Narn refugees but their governments are either neutral or allied with the Centauri. They are restricted to unofficially giving them food and medical supplies and smuggling a few out when they can. Delenn later reveals that she knew the Shadows were helping the Centauri but couldn't say anything as that would've resulted in the Shadows killing everyone.
    • It's heavily implied that Vir's efforts during the same war fall under this. He was stationed on the neutral planet Minbar and set up a secret identity to smuggle Narn refugees there while declaring them dead in Centauri databases. He would've had to smuggle a few at a time to avoid suspicion without knowing how many he could get away with while spending time on the bureaucracy of it. Whatever ships he used had a limited size. He talks as if he was making decisions on who to get out.
    Vir: They were females and children, some of the local leaders, the ones who kept their language and their beliefs. Most of them were injured from us bombing their world and sending them to forced labor camps. They weren't getting proper treatment. If I hadn't gotten them out they would've died.
    • In "Confessions and Lamentations", a 100% contagious and 100% lethal disease was spreading through the Markab population. After racing against the clock, Franklin found a cure and prepared 500 doses. There were thousands of Markab on the station. Ultimately subverted, as all the Markab died before the cure was finished. There's also the Markab forbidding their doctors from talking about the disease.
    • After The Reveal in season 3 that Sinclair went back in time and became Valen one can conclude that this trope came into effect. He was unable to do anything to stop the Earth-Minbari war from happening as that would risk messing up the timeline and give the Shadows an advantage.
  • Emergency! In the pilot the paramedics aren't authorized to give any medical treatment.
  • In the Game of Thrones episode "Hardhome", the White Walkers attack just as the evacuation is getting started. It becomes necessary to close the gate the Free Folk are fleeing through, as they are getting killed and turned into wights.
  • In Grey's Anatomy Jackson is held at gunpoint during the hospital shooting and told not to save Derek Shepherd. He seems to play by the shooter's rules at first, letting Derek flatline and even telling the others to hold their hands up. Once the shooter leaves, however, he reveals he had only disconnected the machine and gets right back to work.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Qpid" Q sends the crew to Sherwood Forest to prove to Picard that he does Love Vash, by casting Vash as Maid Marian who has been taken hostage by the local Lord, and Picard as Robin Hood must save her. Unfortunately for both Q and Picard's plans Vash isn't interested in being rescued by Picard and turns Picard over to the Lord when he's discovered sneaking into her chambers to rescue her. This throws the whole scenario so off the rails even Q is powerless to get everyone back on track with his goals, though he is more amused by this turn than outright angered.
  • Wallenberg: A Hero's Story is filled with this. The Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) puts a limit on how many protective passports they will allow. This results in Operational and Secrecy versions of this trope. Notably, there's a scene where the neutral diplomats are pulling Jews off the trains headed to Auschwitz.
    Wallenberg: I'm sorry. I can take only so many, so I must take the young. Forgive me.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Thunderbirds runs on this trope, as the titular craft are designed specifically for rescue. Despite really specific equipment, expect a lot to go wrong, forcing an out-of-the-box solution. Also, International Rescue must operate under strict secrecy, as they do not wish their technology to fall into the wrong hands.

    Real Life 
  • This occurred following Japan Airlines' Flight 123 crash in 1985 (in which singer Kyu Sakamoto was one of the fatalities); US Military forces stationed near the crash site offered to send personnel immediately to the crash site, but the Japanese government turned down the offer, only sending in their own JSDF personnel the next day, mistakenly believing that there was no need to hurry because there would be no survivors anyway — except that it turned out some people had survived. The Other Wiki has more information, but in short, many passengers who could've lived with prompter medical treatment died unnecessarily due to the Japanese government's stalling.
  • During the Grand Mosque crisis in 1979, when terrorists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, efforts to retake the mosque were stymied by the ulema, Saudi Arabia's religious elite, who balked at the prospect of violence in the holiest site in Islam. Eventually, they granted permission to use deadly force, but only after the King gave them even more power over the country.