O'Brien: Cadet, by the time you took command, there'd be nobody left to call you anything.
A character, working in the military, is suddenly forced into duties that by all rights ought to belong to someone of much higher rank; everyone who ought to be doing those duties has unexpectedly found themselves dead, indisposed, or unavailable.
This is most likely to occur in the navy or its Space Operatic equivalent — it requires that the plot be isolated enough from the rest of the military that they can't just respond by immediately sending a replacement of the appropriate rank. Trapped Behind Enemy Lines is another possibility, as is the characters becoming prisoners of war, where under The Laws and Customs of War, the senior-most commands, even if none of them belonged to the same unit prior to capture.
In Real Life, if there are a number of survivors of the same rank, the most senior of them holds command (unless otherwise designated, i.e., the XO is always second-in-command and the OPS officer is always third, regardless of rank, and doctors, lawyers and clergy cannot be placed in command over combat units even if they are the only officers present — in which case the most senior NCO would assume command, or the most senior private). In fiction, the situation is often adequately chaotic that the one that actually gives orders may find himself pressed into command and leadership. (In really chaotic situations, it may dawn on him that he is giving orders to superiors — at which point, the highest-ranking superior generally tells everyone to follow their plan. Contrast With Due Respect.)
If the dead commander was A Father to His Men, the new one may find his troops are Losing the Team Spirit over his death — though he can issue a Rousing Speech reminding them that the dead commander would be So Proud of You if they soldier on.
Usually the "promotion" involved is strictly temporary. Either the people who are supposed to do the job will return from whatever made them unavailable in the first place, or a replacement will eventually appear. On the other hand, in a continuing series, a stint of You Are In Command Now is not exactly a hindrance to promotion, since it shows Leadership.
If the promotion occurs because the promoted deliberately offed the person occupying the spot in the first place, and this is considered a legitimate situation, then you have a case of Klingon Promotion.
Note that if the character does not command, it falls under Field Promotion, since it is handed out by the commander, even if he would not normally be the commander.
- In a 1990s radio campaign for a Vancouver RV dealership called Fraser Way, the owner of a competing dealership needed ideas on how to beat Fraser Way's deals, so every employee became the Sales Manager for a few seconds.
- This is the premise of the original Mobile Suit Gundam: Bright Noa, a mere officer trainee with no battle experience whatsoever, is forced to become The Captain of the Cool Starship White Base when nearly all of his superior officers are killed in the first episode surprise attack by the Principality of Zeon, and the one survivor (the captain) succumbing to his wounds shortly afterward. By the time White Base finally makes it to a friendly base and there's a chance to replace Bright, he's demonstrated enough skill and ability to justify leaving him in charge despite his relative inexperience (though he is promoted to Lieutenant JG). This also nicely mirrors the protagonist Amuro Ray Falling into the Cockpit of the eponymous battle robot that he knew only the bare minimum about.
- In Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, the same thing happens to Lieutenant Murrue Ramius, who becomes The Captain of the Archangel after all higher-ranking officers are killed in a surprise attack. She offers command to Lieutenant Mu La Flaga, who has seniority (but identical rank) and greater experience, but he insists on deferring to her because he is the only available pilot other than Kira. Since the ship has two functional mecha at the time, both Mu and Kira are needed in the cockpits, leaving Murrue the only choice.
- Murrue does this again in the sequel, offering command of the Archangel to Commander Waldfeld (who joined them towards the finale of SEED but commanded his own ship during that time) who both outranked her and had a good two or more years worth of combat experience than she did despite her service in the last war. Waldfeld rejects the offer for both the same reason as Mwu (he's only pilot other than Kira, and Cagalli, who as the leader of Orb shouldn't really be out fighting) and because he was a Commander of Zaft, their enemy from the last war, and therefore isn't as familiar with an Earth ship as an Earth Soldier would be. Of course it's worth noting at this point rank on Archangel is just a technicality as they are operating independently of any actual army anyway.
- Bridge Bunny Amy of Lyrical Nanoha gets smacked with this trope in the second season when the Arthra is being refitted with the Arc-en-ciel, requiring everyone above her to go to the main office a few dimensions over. She just has to tempt fate.
Amy: [Being the commander] is a little dangerous... but... it's not like a major emergency is going to happen anytime soo— [cue warning klaxons as the Wolkenritter are spotted]
- Lt. Havoc finds himself in this position towards the end of Fullmetal Alchemist, with the added complication that he's also pretending to be Mustang, a Brigadier General.
- Done in repeatedly in Legend of Galactic Heroes.
- Played straight at the beginning of the series when Yang Wenli is given command of the 2nd Fleet by his severely wounded commanding officer during the height of the Battle of Astarte as he's the highest-ranking officer left who's not incapacitated. He then proceeds to save the fleet from complete destruction.
- Julian Mintz, a mere Lieutenant, becomes the military leader of the remaining Free Planets Alliance military. It is a multiple subversion actually: Officers higher than him are still around, but they just cannot choose whom among them will takes Yang's mantle (first subversion), so they chooses Yang's foster child to act both as a figurehead (second subversion) and to arbitrate between them when they don't agree with each other, so while he seems to be a powerless puppet, he IS giving orders to people higher than him in the hierarchy and they willingly obey such orders. (But then again, It's the Yang Team, and they ALWAYS put competence above hierarchy.)
- In the movie The DiamondDust Rebellion, Rangiku has to take temporary command of Squad 10 after Captain Hitsugaya turns up missing. She does a damn good job of it, too.
- In canon, Lieutenants Izuru Kira and Shuuhei Hisagi take command of their squads after their captains, Gin Ichimaru and Kaname Tousen, turn traitor. Momo Hinamori would've done the same due to her squad after her own captain, Sousuke Aizen, was also revealed as a traitor, but she was both physically and emotionally unfit for duty at the time.
- After Yamamoto's death, Shunsui Kyoraku becomes the new Captain-Commander.
- Invoked by Commander Erwin in Attack on Titan to avoid being executed by saying that the Military Police will then have to deal with the two Titan shifters attacking each other, amidst all the other problems involved, calmly telling them who is in charge of what as the guns were pointed at him.
- In Justice League 3000, Supergirl becomes The Leader of the team after Superman and Batman get killed in the Big Bad's first attack.
- Inversion: The Powerpuff Girls story "Micro Managing" (issue #68) had the Micro Puffs (tiny, mischievous sprite avatars of the girls) brainwashing Bubbles and Buttercup in their sleep into thinking that each other is the leader of the Powerpuffs. It doesn't work when Micro-Blossom tries it on real Blossom, since she's already the leader. When this argument of power control interferes with crime fighting, Blossom seeks Mojo Jojo's assistance.
- In White Sand, after making his way across the desert and finding the surviving Sand Masters, Kenton learns, to his astonishment, that he's now the only senior Master left, despite having been promoted to his new rank less than a minute before the massacre, and that this makes him their leader.
- In the Paperinik New Era story "Chronicle of a Return" this has happened on a very large scale to the Evronians that show up: they have a Planet Spaceship, but their commander is the sergeant Bonton because, right before coming to Earth, an encounter with a trio of Eldritch Abominations decimated the crew and killed off everyone above him (including an Emperor and his Council) and the other noncoms. Knowing just how out of his depths he is, his first priority is to find someone higher-ranked to relieve him (possibly the local Emperor, but a general or even an officer would do), leading to Paperinik pretending he's the representative of an Evronian Emperor and talk him into submitting.
- The same story has Manootensyon, a spore technician that found himself as the highest-ranked surviving scientist. Given his job is literally to clone and grow other Evronians but, being a low-caste scientist, he cannot understand the technique to grow an Emperor, his first act was to try and grow a high-caste scientist that would both take over as head scientist and grow a new command staff, including other scientists and an Emperor, but, being a low-caste, it resulted in Porphioolon, too stupid than even him. To make things worse, Porphioolon is as intelligent as expected and possibly more, he's simply the first good and heroic Evronian in recorded history and pretending he's stupid so he won't be killed and potentially replaced with a high-caste scientist that is evil as supposed, and trying to stop the other Evronians without killing them.
- A Crown of Stars: In chapter 45 Asuka and Shinji's platoon is cut off. The direct consequence is that Asuka is in command until relieved.
Bir: Code Dragonfly means we're cut off, ma'am. The portal home just slammed shut hard and fast enough to cut a Black Knight in half, I can't raise Avalon on our comms, and whatever that little wave was, it just cut all of us from mental and spiritual contact with Avalon as well. I can't feel the Empire anymore, just everyone right here. That portal wasn't closed by our people, and since it hasn't reopened already, we have to assume it can't. We're cut off, and I have no clue how long that will last. [...] And in accordance with His Majesty's last instructions from His own lips, you are in command until relieved, Lieutenant. Orders, ma'am?
Asuka: [shocked] Scheiße!
- Along Came a Spider:
- The premise is that Natasha Kerensky inherits command of the Wolf Dragoons.
- Kai Allard-Liao finds himself the senior survivor after a confused battle on Maxie's Planet.
- A non-army example in Retro Chill — after being the second-in-command to Calvin in the Five-Man Band, he suddenly gets forced to lead the group after Calvin is kidnapped by the villains.
- Now-Captain Kanril Eleya of Bait and Switch got her first command after the Borg killed or assimilated the USS Kagoshima's entire command staff, leaving her the seniormost officer left on the ship. She was the second shift weapons officer and only a junior grade lieutenant. Seen in part 2 of From Bajor to the Black.
- Ages of Shadow: The Fourth Himinion rises to power by assassinating his predecessor, Boaz, which pisses Jade off enough that she kills him almost instantly, then randomly selects one of the stunned onlookers and declares him the Fifth Himinion.
- In Marque and Reprisal, an Israeli Defense Force lieutenant ends up in command of a base that had recently been attacked by the enemy, as all of those superior to her were killed.
- Night of the Shy: By royal decree, Twilight Sparkle becomes Princess of Equestria in light of Celestia and Luna's deaths.
- The Wrong Reflection: Brokosh from Red Fire, Red Planet reappears, and he's now been made a general and the head of the House of Chel'toK. Reason being, Chel'toK was one of the Klingon High Council members who was incinerated by the Iconian at the end of "Surface Tension", and the heir, Kidu, died in the preceding battle over Qo'noS. That left Brokosh, who married Kidu's cousin, the closest living male relative by default. Since he's not a Klingon, however, his wife got the actual High Council seat.
- The Bridge has the kaiju factions from Godzilla: Unleashed present with even more kaiju thanks to it being an amalgam-universe. When most of the higher ups of the benign Terran kaiju's faction are taken by Dimension Tide to Equestria, Gamera reluctantly takes command as regent while the King (Godzilla) is away.
- Wings To Fly discusses this trope applying to many United Earth Sphere Alliance units during Operation Daybreak. One character explicitly says that he became a squadron commander because everyone senior to him was dead. He also observes he was making a hash of it towards the start because he simply had no emotion left to give by that point, and hence didn't really care how good a job he was doing at first.
- In XCOM: From The Ashes of Temples, The Commander is killed during Base Defense. The Council is forced to assign Central Officer Bradford as the replacement commander. Everyone including Bradford goes "Oh, Crap!".
- In Invasion, Jack, a post-captain who would normally be fairly low down the naval chain of command, abruptly finds himself in charge of all the British naval forces in the English Channel, as everyone above him in the chain of command is either dead, badly wounded, or hiding in Canada believing that Britain had already been conquered. He does well enough that he eventually receives orders from the provisional government giving him command of all the navy vessels in the Channel and any others that enter them, meaning that if a senior Admiral were to turn up, Jack would still outrank him.
- War of the Biju: When every member of the Five Kage (which consists of six people because Naruto and Tsunade share the title of Hokage) are forced onto the battlefield, Shikaku, who is Konoha's Jonin Commander, is put in charge of HQ, and thus the entire war effort. That means he commands forces of all five of the major villages plus samurai from the Land of Iron.
- In Son of the Sannin, Hiruzen Sarutobi is heavily injured fighting Fugaku Uchiha during the clan's insurrection, and while he survives, he's forced to step down as Hokage, naming Jiraiya his successor. Jiraiya is reluctant at first, but ultimately accepts if only to prevent Danzo from seizing the position.
- What happens to every single team leader in Lords Among The Ashes. In order for each of them to experience a national leadership position, the simulation killed off each of their superiors so that they would be forced to take the reigns. One of the NPCs even wonders about this, thinking it may be the greatest chain of assassinations of all time.
- Corporal Hicks in Aliens becomes able to authorize a nuclear attack thanks to alien-caused attrition in the higher ranks, though the company lieutenant was only wounded, not killed, in an incident precipitated by his own ineptitude. When he's up and around again, Lt. Gorman seems to acknowledge his failure of command, allowing Hicks and a civilian Ripley to continue calling the shots. (Granted, the situation has devolved to the point that any attempt to re-assert command has a good chance of being ignored anyway.)
- Repeatedly happens in the Starship Troopers movie. It's all but stated that the Mobile Infantry work on a system similar to Klingon Promotion, except you don't kill your superior (except to spare them from being captured and having their brains sucked out), the enemy does.
- Star Wars:
- Toyed with repeatedly in The Empire Strikes Back (the Trope Namer): Darth Vader, as Supreme Commander, holds no formal rank in the Imperial system save as an agent of the Emperor himself (meaning that any order he gives is treated as no different from an order by the Emperor), allowing him to hand out nice little impromptu promotions by Force-choking the incompetent officers. In one scene, he chokes Admiral Ozzel for screwing up, and immediately addresses Ozzel's XO Captain Piett as Admiral Piett, putting him in command right then and there (before Ozzel's body has even hit the floor). Piett's first order of business is then removing Ozzel's body. In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the novel Heir to the Empire reveals that while it is risky, serving aboard Vader's flagship (the Executor) is also seen as the fast track to promotion for the sufficiently quick-thinking and competent — and that Vader's tactics work, weeding out the officers who couldn't keep up, so that only the very good or the very lucky are left. This meant, though, that when Executor is destroyed at Endor, the Empire lost more than just a powerful warship....
- A New Hope:
- In the first movie, when Luke's commander is killed in the assault on the Death Star, this huge, meaningful music cue plays to signify that Luke is now in command of the mission. (What's left of it; just him and his wingmen.)
- There's another, more subtle instance of this a few minutes earlier. After Darth Vader shoots down two of Gold Squadron's Y-wings during their trench run, the lone survivor — Gold Five — radios Red Leader to report their destruction. Red Leader responds with "I copy, Gold Leader," acknowledging that as the sole surviving member of the squadron he became its leader. At least, until Vader shot him down too a few seconds later.
- In The Last Jedi:
- When General Leia is rendered unconscious from being blasted out into space only to return alive thanks to tapping into the Force, the Resistance's Vice Admiral, Amilyn Holdo, takes the reins of the Resistance until Leia recovers.
- Kylo Ren takes up the post of Supreme Leader of the First Order by killing Snoke.
- Subverted in Solo: An Imperial officer urges Corporal Han Solo and the other troopers to take the ridge for the Empire on Mimban, only to get blown to bits. When Beckett appears disguised as an officer, Becket asks who is in charge. Solo points out that since he is wearing Captain bars on his damaged armor, he is in charge. His Caper Crew laughs. Beckett works out more sensible tactics and leads them into battle, and they successfully take the ridge.
Beckett: Who's the ranking officer now?
Corporal Han Solo: You are, captain.
Beckett: [looks at captain insignia on stolen chest armor]
Rio: [laughing] He's got you there.
- Star Trek: First Contact shows Picard taking command of a crumbling fleet confronting a Borg cube after the commanding Admiral's ship is confirmed to have been destroyed.
- The Star Trek (2009) movie has this happen to every single character. At least five different characters inherit command of at least two different ships during the movie. Russian whiz kid Chekov is the only one of the main characters who ends up in his position without someone else getting sick or flat out killed, and he is briefly given command of the Enterprise when everyone else is away.
- Dr. McCoy technically gets this too. He doesn't take command of Enterprise, but he becomes its chief doctor after the old one is killed.
- Invoked by James Kirk, who at Spock Prime's suggestion goads Spock into breaking in rage, causing Spock to relieve himself from command and Kirk to be put in charge.
- Captain Robau actually closes out his scene on-board the U.S.S. Kelvin by invoking the tradition (mentioned above by Chief O'Brien) with his First Officer.
Captain Robau: If I don't report in 15 minutes, evacuate the crew.
George Kirk: Sir, we could issue...
Captain Robau: There is no help for us out here. Use autopilot... and get off this ship.
George Kirk: Aye, Captain.
Captain Robau: ...You're captain now, Mr. Kirk.
- Repeated later by Pike as he's leaving with Kirk, Sulu, and Olsen on a shuttle. As he's walking, he randomly promotes Kirk (a cadet) to first officer, which is Spock's position. When Spock complains, Pike tells him that he's the captain now not the first officer.
- In U-571, the main character is an American submarine officer whose captain is killed in action. Being second-in-command, he then has to take charge of the crew to complete the mission, evading depth charge attacks, engaging in an underwater battle, and being forced to make horrible decisions that cost members of his crew their lives....all while manning a German-built sub whose controls they are utterly unfamiliar with. At one point, a crewman says that the Chief Petty Officer should assume command rather than Lt. Tyler. The Chief shuts him down very quickly.
- In Zulu, Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers finds himself in command of an obscure supply depot that has lost its major and come under attack by Zulus. Lieutenant Bromhead, despite being an infantryman, must defer to Chard because he received his commission three months later. In reality, Chard had three years' seniority over Bromhead and was explicitly left in command by the Major in charge of the post. Seniority aside, Bromhead was deaf, which was the reason he was posted to Rorke's Drift, where no action was expected.
- In The Warriors, the gang's leader Cleon is killed in the opening of the film. Second-in-command Swan takes his place, though the bruiser of the group, Ajax, tries to dispute this.
- The Guns of Navarone. Major Franklin starts off as mission leader thanks to his rank, but Mallory becomes the de facto leader after Franklin is incapacitated by injury.
- During the attack scene of Pearl Harbor Dorie Miller is heading to the bridge when a massive explosion hits and he finds the captain of the West Virginia lying mortally wounded, still spouting orders. Miller tells him everyone is where they need to be and the captain smiles before dying. Miller races through the ship to the XO, who's yelling on the radio to tell him "Sir! Captain's dead, you're in charge, sir!" The XO barely has time to nod before continuing to bark orders.
- In the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (on Omaha Beach), Captain Miller receives more or less this exact response from his sergeant after asking who's in command of their area of the beach. He's already in command of most of the men around him, though, he was merely confirming that nobody higher-up was around.
- Full Metal Jacket gives us this line: "You're senior NCO, Cowboy. You're in charge. Continue on with the patrol, and call in at the next checkpoint." Cowboy's response to this lies somewhere at the end of the sliding scale of Oh, Crap!.
- On several occassions in Downfall, Hitler randomly promotes officers to higher military positions. General Weidling is ordered to defend Berlin when he only came in to attest that he didn't move his command post and therefore shouldn't be executed. Ritter von Greim is an even better example however: he was also already a general, but when he makes it to the bunker he is put in command of the entire German air force (which is all but completely defunct by this point in time), and told that he has to rebuild it from the ground up. When Hitler starts claiming that he'll be able to give Greim a thousand jet aircraft on short notice, it's become obvious that reality and him don't see eye to eye anymore.
- In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, John Connor and his future wife Kate reach the West Coast command bunker, but none of the civilian leadership did because of SkyNet's interference. So John seizes control of the confused and scattered resistance by default.
- Depending on your view of how well they fit together, sequel Terminator Salvation shows the logical outcome of this: John Connor is an able NCO, seemingly in command of his own "flying column" of loyal troopers and pilots, but still just another grunt in the armies of mankind. When the rest of the Resistance High Command is killed, John uses his position as an influential Voice Over the Radio to rally the rest of the Resistance around him.
- With much foreshadowing, this happens to Sergeant Savage in We Were Soldiers, leaving him in command of a platoon cut off from the rest of their battallion overnight. In Real Life, there were higher-ranking men present, but they were all pinned down, and he happened to be next to the radio operator, meaning he was the senior man able to communicate with the Battallion HQ.
- At the beginning of The Mummy (1999), Rick's platoon is holding a defensive position against Medjii when their commander panics and flees to a nearby temple. Benni turns to Rick and notes, "Looks like you just got promoted." Benni joins the commander shortly after.
- Mariko Yashida becomes the head of Yashida Corp at the end of The Wolverine.
- A non-military example in Hoosiers. Coach Dale gets himself taken out of one game, challenging Shooter to step up into the role of coach. After a little fumbling, he does, with some support from his son.
- Deconstructed and then reconstructed in A Walk in the Sun. The platoon keeps losing commanders which puts in serious doubt whether the soldiers can fulfill their mission. The lieutenant and platoon sergeant are killed early on and the next senior sergeant is wounded soon after which leaves the shaky Sgt. Porter in command. His inexperience gets some of the men killed and he gets progressively worse with Sgt. Thyne having to step in to compensate for Porter's poor decisions. The pressure finally gets too much and Porter has a nervous breakdown that leaves Thyne in command. By the end it looks like Thyne will also break but he has the good sense to consult with the other NCOs and together they come up with a plan that will hopefully let them complete their mission without getting everyone killed.
- In Fort Massacre, the unstable Sgt. Vinson has to take command of the regiment after the commanding officer is killed in the heart of Apache territory.
- A Brother's Price has a variant where no one dies, but most of the family went away on business, leaving the about 16-year-old Corelle in charge. Corelle then decides to go court the neighbour boy, with three of the other middle sisters in tow. This results in protagonist Jerin having to leave the house with a fourteen-year-old as bodyguard for himself, and even younger sisters to guard the house and younger brothers.
- Jules Verne wrote a novel called Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen, where all the crew of a ship is killed while hunting a whale, except for the eponymous character.
- Elizabeth Moon has a good Space Is an Ocean example, in Winning Colors: Esmay Suiza takes command of a small spaceship, despite being a junior-grade lieutenant who's about twelfth in the chain of command, because everyone ahead of her is either in the pay of the enemy or killed by those who are.
- Midshipman's Hope by David Feintuch is all about this trope. Deconstructed and subverted as well.
- Robert A. Heinlein, being an ex-navy officer, brought this up a number of times in his books.
- Starship Troopers has two examples. First he gives a historical example: during the capture of the Chesapeake by the Shannon, a midshipman was technically in command when it surrendered, but got cashiered for desertion because he had gone below deck. Then he explains a possible case where a third lieutenant (cadet/ensign) could end up commanding a division, and notes that "you'd buy the farm" if it happened.
- The actual historical situation was a bit more complicated, He wasn't actually cashiered for desertion; the charge was brought against him, but the evidence basically came down to the accused and another officer making contradictory claims, and both of them had a vested interest in not being found to be the person in command when the vessel was lost. The charge that stuck was something along the lines of "failure to properly encourage his men", which by the standards of the time basically meant that he didn't kill a few of them to convince the others to stop retreating so that he actually could get back above decks (and he was, eventually and posthumously, exonerated of even that).
- Also, someone mentions an offstage example where a junior officer was in command of a brigade.
- He also wrote a book around this trope, Starman Jones. The eponymous character signs aboard the passenger liner Asgard as a steward (and has to forge papers to get that position). He gets a position as apprentice astrogator because of his ability and because the ship is badly short-handed in astrogation. At the end of the book he winds up as captain because the original captain, astrogator and assistant astrogator have all died and only an astrogator can hold command of a spaceship that is underway.
- In Heinlein's If This Goes On, John Lyle, a junior officer in the rebel forces attacking the Prophet's capital of New Jerusalem, is thrust into the position of commanding the whole force, when his commanding officer is wounded and his tank-analogue seems to be the only one in effective communication with all the others. Lyle isn't technically next in the chain of command (he's a staff officer/aide de camp for the commander, doubling up as tank commander). However, he doesn't trust the next in line to handle the situation (too cautious) so he continues to issue orders in the commander's name, even though the commander is out of contact. Once things reach a "safe" state, he tells the real next-in-line "you are in command now".
- And in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress the Everyman narrator, Mannie Davis, ends up in control of the Lunar Revolution's government and wins the Revolutionary War when the old catapult is destroyed and communications between the Lunar government and his secret military base are cut off by Earth's bombing. This situation was anticipated, so Mannie was given appropriate orders and plans.
- A much less extreme version occurs in Space Cadet where Cadet Jensen, the senior cadet, takes command of an expedition to an unexplored region of Venus to investigate a native uprising when the Lieutenant in charge is rendered comatose in an accident. Aside from Jensen and the Lieutenant, the expedition consists of two other cadets. However, they are there because no one else was in a position to respond so Jensen is acting well above his pay grade. The other two cadets (all three entered the training academy at the same time) accept this, probably because it's Jensen's home planet (the other two are both from Earth), so he has a better understanding of conditions and cultural factors.
- Starship Troopers has two examples. First he gives a historical example: during the capture of the Chesapeake by the Shannon, a midshipman was technically in command when it surrendered, but got cashiered for desertion because he had gone below deck. Then he explains a possible case where a third lieutenant (cadet/ensign) could end up commanding a division, and notes that "you'd buy the farm" if it happened.
- The book Spaceship Medic by Harry Harrison deals with this scenario. The eponymous medic ends up in charge after all the rest of the ship's officers are wiped out by a meteorite hitting the bridge (then has some adventures, saves the day, and goes back to being a doctor).
- Though it's not easy for him because there's a general on board as a passenger who thinks he should be in charge, at one stage launching a mutiny.
- Happens at least once a book in Honor Harrington: the flagship of a formation is destroyed, or battle damage kills the captain of a spaceship. Sometimes things work out fine; usually they don't. In each example, David Weber spends at least a paragraph explaining why it is that this person is now in command, instead of the higher ranking/more qualified personnel on the next ship over (or even in the next room). The results are not always pleasant, but the logic is always sound at the time.
- He also uses this with the short story "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington". The eponymous character gains command due to the battle, controls the situation, and emerges victorious. She is later given a promotion earlier than normal, but only to Ensign instead of several or more ranks.
- The Short Victorious War gives two examples.
- A communications officer on the dreadnought HMS Bellerophon is taking the night watch because of his lack of seniority, essentially there to keep the Captain's chair warm and call him if there is an emergency. The dreadnought suddenly finds itself in an engagement with a group of Havenite battlecruisers, much to the surprise of both sides, and not having time to wait for the Captain, ends up winning the engagement through sheer disproportionate weight of firepower by reading down a checklist.
- Most plot-relevant to the entire series is Honor's assumption of command at First Hancock in The Short Victorious War — already flag captain, she commands the task group when the admiral is incapacitated, despite not being the senior remaining officernote . She's vindicated (winning the personal approval of the Queen, no less), but the fallout from that one action sets the stage for the following novels Field of Dishonor and Flag in Exile.
- Not just in the Honorverse; examples abound in David Weber's other books.
- In the stand-alone novel In Fury Born the protagonist Alicia DeVries gets one of these when her unit is shattered during the Shallingsport operation. She begins as a sergeant first class, leading a squad, and less than ten minutes after the battle starts ends up in command of her entire company. Then again, her company in the same span of time goes from a full complement of 275 troops to 63 survivors (they drop into what was supposed to be a clear LZ, in what was supposed to have been a surprise raid... and land right on top of a dug-in enemy battalion with heavy weapons that knows they're coming, and has been waiting for them).
- In his Empire from the Ashes trilogy, main character Colin MacIntyre goes from mid-21st century space survey pilot to captain of Dahak, a super-advanced moon-sized Cool Starship from a long-dead space-faring empire, to Governor of Earth, to Emperor of the 5th Imperium of Man. Talk about a serious promotion!
- In To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, the overworked Oxford time-travel department ends up being run in large part by T.J., an undergraduate with the wrong major, while everyone else is out on assignment in the past (he's the only black person on the staff, and all the parts of the past they're interested in are too dangerous for him). Mr. Dunworthy, the head of the department, tells T.J. the (entirely fictitious)* story of Ensign Klepperman, who ended up in command of a ship during the Battle of Midway when the entire bridge crew was killed, sank two destroyers and a cruiser, and was eventually killed in the line of duty.
- In Diane Duane's Star Trek ExpandedUniverse novel Doctor's Orders, Dr. McCoy is given the con during a First Contact mission as part of a joke by Kirk. Then Kirk disappears into a temporal anomaly, a Klingon warship shows up, and Starfleet regulations won't allow McCoy to hand over command to any line officer until relieved by Kirk or Federation brass. Which means he's stuck in command in the middle of a major crisis with everyone's lives depending on his command training (which he does not have) and military ability.
- Invoked in John Hemry's Paul Sinclair novel A Just Determination; a limited duty officer points out to an ensign that the ensign might find himself in command while just an ensign to persuade him that his testimony would be taken seriously at trial.
- Bill Mauldin drew a cartoon during World War II on this topic: two privates are using crates as desks in a lean-to "orderly room." One is talking on a field phone, saying, "Yes, we've sent our quota to the rest camp.... This is the company commander speaking!"
- The Lieutenant in L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout is the embodiment of this, stubbornly refusing to relinquish command of what is left of his brigade in World War III (which is regarded by those who care as a later "phase" of World War II), and goes on to take over England.
- In On the Beach, we are told that, following nuclear exchanges in World War III, "command got down to very junior officers indeed". Mentioned is Major Chan Sze Lin as being in command of what was left of the Chinese strategic forces when the Australian Prime Minister contacted him in a last ditch attempt to salvage some of the world.
- A central element of the Destroyermen series by Taylor Anderson is how people are forced to accept new responsibilities. The most literal example to this trope is how the destroyer Mahan takes a 10 inch shell to the bridge, killing all of its officers. When Captain Reddy makes contact with the ship, an engineering officer is the captain.
- However, Reddy is not willing to let a "Snipe" command a ship, so he sends his XO to take temporary command. Unfortunately, the crew doesn't quite warm up to the XO and instead prefers to trust an insane pilot.
- The Reynard Cycle: When asked how he rose to his command, Thrym, a young Calvarian general in The Baron of Maleperduys, explains that he was the only senior officer left standing after a particularly vicious battle.
- Warhammer 40,000 novels:
- In Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novels, Jenit Sulla is promoted to captain because when another company lost its captain, none of the lieutenants took the initiative to lead them all in his place, whereas Sulla had taken command of her company after Captain Detoi had been wounded in the same action.
This was fairly common in the 597th Valhallan since they were originally two units amalgamated into one after severe combat losses. Colonel Kasteen was a company commander in a garrison regiment but was given command after every other senior officer was eaten by tyrannids. Major Broklaw, a soldier with far more combat experience, became her XO because she had three days seniority in grade on him, which was due to the fact that the senior officers in his crack planetary assault regiment were not eaten as quickly. Understandably he was not a happy camper initially.
- Dan Abnett:
- Titanicus. Cally Samstag finds herself in charge of the remnant forces of activated 26th, a third line unit reduced from over 60 members to 18 in one engagement, with every officer dead. Erik Varco represents something of an inversion to the trope: he leads his battered remnant armour squadron because he was already in command when a traitor Warlord Titan annihilated them.
- Horus Heresy novel Legion. Chayne's backstory included becoming the leader this way of the band of Child Soldiers of which he was a member.
- Horus Heresy novel Galaxy in Flames. Saul Tarvitz assumes command of the betrayed space marines; Graham McNeill's Fulgrim recounts how Captain Demeter, offered the command when he recovered from his injuries, refused to take it. Unfortunately, Lucius envied Tarvitz, and betrayed them to Horus.
- Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novels:
- Brutally crushed in Sabbat Martyr, in Ensign Valdemeer, an eager young junior officer on a grand Imperial warship. When most of the bridge crew is slain and the captain cut off from his usual empathic command of the ship, he asks for Valdemeer to take the helm. Valdemeer tries to fight back, but the ship is already near-destroyed, and he and the captain are killed without being able to inflict telling damage on their killers.
- In Ghostmaker, when a small group of Ghosts were protecting some wounded Volpone blue bloods, Culcis, one of the wounded, got up despite his injuries and got some of his fellows to follow him, and volunteered that they could shoot. When he appears again in Necropolis, he has risen in rank, and tells Corbec that the doctor was kind enough to mention his part in the defense, which had gotten his officers' eyes on him.
- Milo takes the initiative after a sergeant was killed. Gaunt wrestles with putting him in the position but decides that being the youngster trooper, it would be too much (Rawne considers this a mistake on his part).
- Later in the battle, Gaunt is temporarily "promoted" to be the supreme commander of all Imperial forces in Vervunhive, despite the fact that he's only a Colonel-Commissar. This is because the other ranking officers are either dead, disgraced, or members of a Tank regiment (and apparently an Infantry commander always takes precedence over a Tank officer). However, after the battle, he is restored to his regular rank, though he keeps the city's ceremonial power sword.
- In Traitor General, Uexkull kills a local commander for not searching vigorously enough to find infiltrators, and then disables his second in command for not answering promptly enough when he asked. The third-in-command is asked about the infiltrators and leaps to search — whereupon Uexhkull has him kill the second-in-command and go to the search.
"Who is," Uexkull asked, his voice like a slither of dry scale, "second in command? Say, for instance, if the garrison commander is suddenly deprived of brain activity?"
- William King's Space Wolf novel Grey Hunters. Ragnor finds himself in a position to attack some enemies from behind, and relieve some hard-pressed Space Marines. He launches the attack and orders them to follow his flare to escape. They obey, and then he is told that the force includes Berek, the commander of their entire mission. Fortunately, while Berek is a bit of a Glory Hound, he is just; he praises Ragnor's quick thinking and says he is grateful (in fact, it leads directly to his Field Promotion).
He put every ounce of command he could into his voice, hoping that whoever was down there would have the sense to respond.
- In Graham McNeill's novel Storm of Iron, Leonid finds himself in command. When he looks at the men coming to his first briefing, he is still trying to assimilate that it is his regiment.
- Ben Counter's Soul Drinkers novel Chapter War. After Varr's death, Kullek takes command of the 901st Regiment. He tells the Howling Griffons that the chain of command was none too clear.
- In Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novels, Jenit Sulla is promoted to captain because when another company lost its captain, none of the lieutenants took the initiative to lead them all in his place, whereas Sulla had taken command of her company after Captain Detoi had been wounded in the same action.
- Tavi in Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series finds himself in command of the First Aleran Legion when an enemy attack leaves him the sole surviving officer who can command. He goes from being the Third Sub-Tribune to the Tribune Logistica (Third assistant to the Quartermaster, about as low in the chain of command as an officer can get, a position he had never even earned, being appointed there for intelligence-gathering purposes), whose duties to that point consisted mostly of latrine-digging (As punishment from the Quartermaster for catching him at petty embezzling) to commander of a legion. He does far better than anyone else could ever have hoped to.
- In Dudley Pope's Ramage, at the very start of the book the main character finds out that every senior officer has been killed, making him the captain of a frigate. Which is badly damaged, sinking, and under attack by a superior enemy vessel.
- In Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet:
- In an interesting use, John Geary finds himself in command of the Alliance space fleet by virtue of being the most senior captain after the higher ups are all killed. Interesting because he got the promotion 100 years ago and, it was believed at the time, posthumously. The fact that he was even there to receive command was dumb luck when the fleet picked up his stasis pod on the way to battle.
- Colonel Carabali also gets this when the Marine general is killed with the rest of the leadership.
- In F. M. Busby's Zelde M'Tana, the eponymous character comes on board a starship as part of a slave cargo. Due to a mid-voyage mutiny, a relationship with the new captain, some dramatically convenient casualties, and, to be fair, a whole lot of work on her part, she winds up in command. And then they have to send her away as soon as the XO is well enough to replace her, because while she's done a good job, there would be too much resentment from the ranks to keep her on.
- In The Wheel of Time: "When we Shienarans ride, every man knows who is next in line if the man in command falls. A chain unbroken right down to the last man left, even if he's nothing but a horseholder. That way, you see, even if he is the last man, he is not just a straggler running and trying to stay alive. He has the command, and duty calls him to do what must be done."
- In the Dragonlance Chronicles this happens several times to the young elven princess Laurana. Sturm Brightblade puts her in command of the Solamnic Knights defending the High Clerist's Tower right before he goes off to make his Heroic Sacrifice. And after Laurana saves the tower, Lord Gunthar Uth Wistan gives her command of his entire army. This is especially remarkable since the Solamnic Knights believe women should Stay in the Kitchen, but as most of the Solamnic leaders were killed at the High Clerist's Tower, Gunthar realizes that Laurana is the only person left with the brains, charisma, and guts to successfully lead his troops.
- In World War Z, Philip Adler is promoted when his commander is accidentally shot with a Solanum-infected bullet. Adler's first job is to kill his commander before he turns.
- Star Wars Expanded Universe:
- In The Thrawn Trilogy, Pellaeon is revealed to not have been a full captain at Endor, receiving a You Are in Command Now promotion when his captain was killed... and that he, as the survivor with the highest rank, was the one who sounded the retreat. Due to various retcons, Pellaeon now was a full captain at Endor... it's just that his ship was commanded by an admiral, so he was still second in command until said admiral was killed.
- At the end of the trilogy, when Thrawn dies, Pellaeon takes command of the fleet, and several books set later have him reporting to or working with various high-ranking Imperial villains of the book; he always survives their inevitable deaths, and since he's actually very competent he becomes Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet by the Hand of Thrawn duology. That's somewhere between Thrawn's and Vader's level of authority. That's right, Pellaeon becomes the most powerful man in the Empire, or what's left of it, by being unspectacularly good at his job and surviving everyone who outranked him. It does take years and years of work — he's in his sixties in the Thrawn trilogy.
- In The Fifth Elephant, Sgt. Colon finds himself in command of The Watch after ALL his superior officers head to Überwald.note It rapidly goes pear-shaped, to the point where Colon provokes the first Watchman's strike.
- In Valiant, Michael Jan Friedman has a certain Second Officer Jean-Luc Picard (who would have held the rank of Lt. Commander at the time) on board the Stargazer. Captain Daithan Ruhalter and First Officer Stephen Leach are killed and critically injured, respectively, suddenly forcing Picard into the position of temporary CO. He doesn't exactly have an easy time of it, but since future canon has him as the Captain of the Stargazer, he eventually gets a two-grade jump to Captain.
- Subsequent novels reveal that not everybody was happy about the promotion. Specifically, Admiral Arlen McAteer has his own vision of Starfleet, and it doesn't include young upstart captains like Picard. While McAteer can't demote Picard himself, as Picard reports to Admiral Mehdi, he can set tasks for him that would reveal Picard's incompetence or lack of experience, forcing Mehdi to reverse his decision. This is ironic, considering the books go into great detail to show McAteer himself as overly-ambitious, seeing nothing wrong with ambition himself (to the point of disliking Shakespeare for his criticism of it).
- In Poul Anderson's After Doomsday, Lieutenant Howard after the captain and first officer are killed. He's so ineffectual that Donnan, by acting as The Leader, takes over.
- In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, Hugh finds himself The O'Carroll, and leading the loyalist side, because he happened to be out of town during the coup.
- You're in Command Now, Mr Fog by J.T. Edson tells how, as a 17 year old freshly-promoted first lieutenant, Dusty Fog found himself in command of a company during the The American Civil War after the commanding officer is killed by an enemy sniper.
- In Jack Campbell's Lost Stars novel Tarnished Knight, Kontos, aboard the captured battleship.
- In John Birmingham's Axis of Time, a multinational fleet from the 21st century is transported to 1942 right next to the US Pacific Fleet battlegroup heading for Midway. The JDS Siranui is recognized as a Japanese ship, and the Pacific Fleet opens fire. One of the shells destroys the Siranui's bridge, killing most of the command crew. Sub-Lieutenant Maseo Miyazaki wakes up to be told by the ship's Combat Intelligence that he is the ranking officer and urges him to authorize the CI to defend the ship by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Miyazaki is killed later by a group of racist marines.
- In Red Storm Rising, fleet staff officer LTCDR Toland ends up conning the USS Nimitz after two missile hits kill the admiral, the captain, the rest of the staff and everyone in the CIC, despite being a reservist who hadn't commanded anything bigger than a Boston Whaler in nearly ten years. He was alive, he was on the bridge, and the XO was busy with damage control.
- In The Independent Command Commander Peter Raeder, an Ace Pilot-turned-engineering duty officer after a Career-Ending Injury, is made acting captain of the light carrier Invincible when the captain and XO are badly injured in an enemy hit-and-run attack on the base.
- In Star Carrier: Deep Space the Confederation invokes its Military First Right law to take command of the America battlegroup without approval from the USNA chain of command. A Pan-European admiral is placed in command of the fleet made up of the USNA and Pan-European battlegroups. As the America is the largest carrier in this fleet, the Pan-European admiral moves his flag to the America and the USNA admiral is forced to be his staff member instead. Later, the fleet is ambushed by several Slan ships, and one of the Slan beams destroys the CIC and kills the admiral. America's Captain Grey attempts to continue the mission but comes into conflict with the captain of the Pan-European battleship from whence the slain admiral transferred, whose intention is to return to Sol for new orders. The ship's AI claims that there is equal amount of precedent for both command claims, and Grey ends up commanding only the USNA ships while the Pan-Europeans leave.
- Duncan fits this trope in the Dragon Age novel The Calling. After King Maric finally allows the Grey Wardens back into Ferelden, a small group of Orlesian Wardens led by commander Genevieve arrives to investigate the Deep Roads for Darkspawn activity. Duncan is the most recently recruited member of the group. By the end of the novel, only Duncan and Fiona are left. He contacts the Grey Warden HQ in the Weisshaupt Fortress and is told to assume command of all the Wardens in Ferelden by virtue of being the only one left (Fiona doesn't count as she's an elf and a mage, both working against her).
- In An Instinct for War's story Human Rain, every other officer in Motojiro's company is dead or wounded after the battle at Nanshan, so he gets promoted and put into command of the unit for the attack on Port Arthur.
- In a mission that goes rather spectacularly wrong in Invasion of Kzarch, Lieutenant Harsmith ends up in command of an entire army (If a small one.). Made all the more complicated by the fact that he, A: Wasn't part of that army, B: Or in the official chain of command, despite, C: Due to some sort of inter-military regulations, ranked around colonel.
- An Army of the Dead has Sorcerer-Captain Emorc taking command of the remnants of the Cynian Army, after the vast majority get killed in a battle, including every officer aside from him.
- The Martian: Played for gallows humor by astronaut Mark Watney in the first chapter.
Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be "in command" of the mission if I were the only remaining person.
What do you know? I'm in command.
- Words of Radiance (second book of The Stormlight Archive): Highprince Valam ends up as king of Jah Keved due simply to being the last highprince standing after a succession war—and when he discovers this, he's got a nasty gut wound that will kill him painfully over a few weeks. He realizes that King Taravangian of the minor city-state of Kharbranth is the one who engineered the war in the first place, and that he plans to inherit the kingdom after Valam's death. Valam, rather than waiting for people to "conveniently" discover Taravangian's claim to inheritance through a distant cousin, has Taravangian named as his heir right then and there, then has his bastard son Mercy Kill him.
- One Nation Under Jupiter: Fusangus Fortunatus, the Governor of the province of Nova Roma at the time Antioch fell, making him the Emperor of all that remained of Rome.
- in Perry Rhodan there must be quite a lot of these, simply because of the length of the series. One really early one: Captain Perry Rhodan of the space force finds alien tech, and after he makes his own world power with it, he becoms general, then president AND chief of armed forces.
- Another example is the Russian invasion of Venus. The fleet goes there the hard way, without alien tech, and when Rhodan finds out he just swoops in and shoots all the landed rockets. On the way bck he also destroys half of the second wave by accident. The survivor split into 3 groups, the ones who just want to settle, the ones who want to capture the fort they were sent to capture and the ones which want to rule over the rest with the helis and tanks which the second wave had. The Rhodan comes back, and flies low over one of the camps. That group is now mostly destroyed, and some guy who happened to be on patrol is now the leading officer.
- In the Hindu epic ''Mahabharata, the Kauravas go through a succession of commanders in chief of their armies, due to losing the previous one. First, it is Bheeshma until he is hors de combat. Then it is Dronacharya until he is deceived and executed. Then it is Karna until a curse claims him. Then it is Shalya until he is killed in a spear duel. Finally Ashwathama gets the role until he is cursed to wander the earth with a bleeding festering wound, begging for sympathy but getting none.
- In Left Behind, when Chloe Williams, one of the founders and the CEO of the International Commodity Co-op that acts as an underground market for Christians during the Tribulation, is caught by the Global Community and executed for crimes against the state, Lionel Whalum takes over her job as its new CEO, keeping the business active until the Glorious Appearing.
- In the Halo: Evolutions story The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole, this is how the future Admiral obtained his first command. He was a Second Lieutenant of his ship that found itself and two others caught in an Insurrectionist trap that destroyed one ship and crippled the others, killing or incapacitating the rest of the bridge crew in the process. Unable to raise the other damaged ship, Cole promoted himself to acting leader and sent a distress signal to the enemy, while ordering the crew to prepare a missile to fire directly into the enemy's docking bay. He himself notes in the ship's log as he takes command that any repercussions that come with this breach of military protocol will fall squarely on him alone as a result (luckily for him, the military brass decided to simply do nothing considering the gambit worked and stopped the enemy).
- In the Babylon 5 TV movie "In the Beginning", Sheridan's greatest victory during the Earth-Minbari War turns out to be the result of an ambush by the Minbari fleet that destroys all ships but his. Sheridan is the XO on the ship until he notices that his captain has been crushed by a piece of bulkhead. He takes command and manages to destroy the Minbari flagship by luring it into a minefield. Despite not being a full captain at the time, everyone always refers to him being a captain at the time because of this trope. Even Delenn states that only one human captain has ever survived a battle with the Minbari fleet, referring to him. Earthforce appears to follow the naval tradition that the commander of a ship is always the Captain, regardless of actual grade.
- The Brady Bunch: "Sergeant Emma" basically becomes this when Mike and Carol won't stand up to her, Emma coming in relief of a vacationing Alice.
- Our Miss Brooks: In "Radio Bombay", Mr. Conklin puts Miss Brooks in charge of Madison High School when he's away for the morning. Hilarity Ensues.
- A frequent occurrence in the Star Trek franchise.
- Star Trek: The Original Series:
- "Catspaw": A landing party that includes Scott and Sulu is taken prisoner. Kirk assigns himself and Spock to the rescue party, which also gets captured. This leaves Assistant Chief Engineer Lt. DeSalle, an obscure character that most viewers have never heard of, in command of the Enterprise. (DeSalle appeared in a grand total of 3 episodes.) Robert Bloch's original script had everyone senior to Uhura off the ship, and left her in command, but Executive Meddling wouldn't allow for a black woman being put in command of the Enterprise.
- "Amok Time": After blood-fever affected Spock apparently kills the captain, Dr. McCoy invokes this trope.
McCoy: As strange as it may seem, Mister Spock, you're in command now. Any orders?
Spock: Yes. I'll follow you up in a few minutes. You will instruct Mister Chekov to plot a course for the nearest Starbase where I must surrender myself to the authorities.
- "The Menagerie": When Spock finds out that Kirk's shuttle has passed the point of return, he places Lt. Hanson in operational command, but he surrenders to Dr. McCoy, who is the senior officer present. Later, when Capt. Kirk comes onboard, Hanson formally gives him command back.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- "Disaster" puts Troi in command, as the most senior officer left on the bridge (despite the fact that she has no command training, which gets addressed in a later episode). This is one of the areas where Starfleet breaks from current-day practices. Troi would most likely have been a commissioned officer and would not have taken command. Ensign Ro would have, especially since she was a command division (line) officer.
- "Descent" leaves Dr. Crusher in command of a skeleton crew while everyone senior to her has off-ship duties. Unlike Troi, however, Crusher has taken and passed the Bridge Officers' Test, and actually enjoys command. (In an Alternate Timeline, she eventually gets her own command—the medical ship USS Pasteur.)
- "The Arsenal of Freedom" has Geordi in command, and puts him in conflict with the more senior Chief Engineer Logan. When Logan tries to pull rank, Geordi states that he is in command until he is relieved by either Captain Picard or Commander Riker. This is Truth in Television, as Geordi would be considered the Officer of the Deck as delegated by (and thus may only be relieved by) the captain or XO. Humorously, Picard refuses to accept command back until Geordi gets his ship back in one piece (he ordered a Saucer Separation to protect the civilians on board), so he gets to be captain a little longer until the saucer is retrieved.
- "Remember Me" has Dr. Crusher quickly ascend the ranks as everyone else on the ship ceases to have ever existed in the local universe.
- "The Best of Both Worlds" puts Riker in command when Picard is kidnapped and assimilated by the Borg. Troi even quotes this trope.
- "Tapestry" reveals that this is how Picard got his first command. He was serving as a bridge officer on the Stargazer when the captain was killed and the first officer was injured. Picard took command and salvaged the situation. In the aftermath, Starfleet Command was impressed enough with Picard's actions that they promoted him directly to captain and gave him command of Stargazer.
- "Gambit" shows first Riker taking command when Picard gets killed (kidnapped, actually), then Data becomes captain when Riker is taken. This leads to much drama when Data promotes Worf (who openly questions his command decisions) to first officer.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- In "Valiant", during a training mission, all the training officers leading a group of cadets are killed. The cadets assume command of the ship and attempt to complete the mission. Viciously deconstructed when the cadets bite off more than they can chew, leading to the page quote's Chekhov's Lecture paying off: by the time Ensign Nog receives command of Valiant, a majority of the bridge crew and cadets are dead, forcing Nog to tell everyone to abandon ship within a minute. Only he, Jake, and one other cadet survive.
- The Baseball Episode "Take Me Out to the Holosuite" features a somewhat more lighthearted example—after Sisko gets ejected from the game by yelling at and touching the umpire, O'Brien (as third-base coach) ends up in charge of the team.
- In one of the few, non-main character examples, a lieutenant gets a captain's position in the episode "The Siege of AR-558," though she loses it when Sisko arrives.
- Star Trek: Voyager:
- The premise of the series is that the original Starfleet crew is blended with the absorbed Maquis, and three members of the main cast receive their positions following the catastrophe that created that situation. The EMH gets promoted to the status of sentient being as the result of this trope.
- "Displaced": The crew is abducted one by one, forcing everyone else to pick up the slack. Suddenly a very young ensign is Chief of Security. In a bit of gallows humor, Chakotay jokes, "Who said there was no room for advancement on this ship?"
- "Workforce": The Doctor commands Voyager all by himself when the crew has to evacuate. This is the point of upgrading him to the Emergency Command Hologram, temporarily replacing his medical database with a tactical one. With the aid of this new subroutine, he is able to pull off a tricky Shoot the Bullet maneuver that disables two enemy ships.
- "One": The Doctor and Seven of Nine are the only crew members not in stasis.
- "Course: Oblivion": The crew is afflicted by a strange disease one by one, which causes this trope when the higher-ups get affected. They are a duplicate crew from a previous episode. Then they blow up.
- Star Trek: The Original Series:
- This tends to happen a lot in 24.
- Except for seasons 1 and 3, Jack is never actually working for CTU. Nevertheless, by the half-way point of the first episode, the situation is already dire enough that Jack is put in charge.
- Rick is unofficially promoted by Ira Gaines in season 1 after he shoots Dan.
Ira Gaines: You just got promoted.
- In season 2, Tony Almeida takes over after George Mason steps down.
- In season 4:
- Charles Logan takes over as President of the United States following a semi-successful assassination attempt on the standing president.
- Tony is catapulted from unemployed ex-con drinking beer out of a Cubs mug to acting director of CTU within a span of about four hours.
- In season 7, Renee Walker takes over the FBI's operation following the death of her boss.
- In season 8, Chloe O'Brian jumps from a token hire to head of CTU. In the same episode, Dalia Hassan goes from widower to President of Kamistan.
- Basically the entire plot of Game of Thrones:
- Near the end of Season 1, King Robert dies. The boy he believed to be his son, Joffrey, takes the throne. However, on the (correct) belief that Joffrey is not actually Robert's son, Robert's younger brothers Stannis and Renly both proclaim themselves King.
- Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, leaves Winterfell to take up the post of Hand of the King, elevating his eldest son Robb to Acting Lord of Winterfell. With the death of his father, he becomes Lord of Winterfell and, not long after, the King in the North. Later, Robb leaves Winterfell too, to go south for war and his younger brother Bran becomes Acting Lord. Winterfell is then invaded by Theon Greyjoy, who declares himself to be Lord. With Theon's capture and Robb's death at the hand of the traitorous Lord Bolton, legally Bran should be the Lord of Winterfell, though he is unaware of this, and the world believes that he is dead and that his sister Sansa is Lady of Winterfell.
- King Joffrey names his grandfather Tywin Lannister as Hand of the King. However, Tywin isn't actually present as he's fighting a war, and his eldest son Jaime is held captive by their enemies, so Tywin appoints his younger son Tyrion as Acting Hand.
- When the King is away from the throne, the Hand exercises all the King's powers, to the extent of sitting on the Iron Throne.
- Jon Snow takes command of the defense of Castle Black when everyone else is incapacitated or cowering. After he retakes Winterfell, the contrite lords of the North anoint him King In The North.
- At the end of Season 5, Tyrion is given governance of the city of Mereen, while Dany is missing and Jorah and Daario look for her, with Varys and Grey Worm at his side.
- In season 6, after hanging the people who killed him, the resurrected Jon Snow hands off command to Dolorous Edd and resigns from the organisation. This is unprecedented, but so is members coming back from the dead; Jon swore an oath to serve until his death, and he has very definitely died.
- Daenerys leaves Daario Naharis and the Second Sons in command of the newly renamed Bay of Dragons (formerly Slaver's Bay) to oversee Meereen, Yunkai, and Astapor's transition into democratic city states.
- Castiel goes from an angelic foot soldier (albeit a high-ranking one) in Season 4 to the "sheriff of Heaven" in Season 6 when all the archangels have been killed and imprisoned. He then battles with Raphael, the last remaining archangel, for control of Heaven. He wins the battle and becomes God. Temporarily.
- In the episode where the brothers are sent back in time to the Wild West, Dean and the innkeeper find the sheriff's smoldering corpse in one of the rooms. Dean asks who the new sheriff is, and the innkeeper pulls the badge off the corpse and pins it to Dean.
- In The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Indy and Remy go from private to captain and lieutenant in the Belgian army while serving in World War I, mostly by this method.
- Hawkeye has to take command of the eponymous unit in M*A*S*H several times during his stay in Korea. It always ends badly. Then there's Frank Burns — which is worse. The only temporary commander of the 4077th that is tolerable is Major Winchester, and that's because he uses his times in command to loaf (and doesn't interfere with day-to-day operations).
- Henry practically says this to Frank in his farewell after kissing Margaret ("Abyssinia, Henry"). As it's Frank, Henry says it in a most disinterested way.
- In Battlestar Galactica (2003), virtually the entire military sees this trope in action.
- Bill Adama, old warhorse ship's captain about to be put out to pasture, finds himself in command of the entire Colonial military, what's left of it. All sorts of people who previously filled fairly minor roles are suddenly thrust into positions of great authority... in many cases, they're doing the same jobs they did before, but those jobs are now of critical importance because there's nobody else doing them. For that matter, the eponymous Battlestar is itself promoted from "antique vessel about to be mothballed" to "flagship of the Colonial battle fleet." (Also only ship of the Colonial battle fleet, but that's par for the course with this trope.)
- His son, Lee, is appointed CAG by Colonel Tigh as he is the highest ranking pilot on board, despite background material saying that Lee is a reservist.
- After the deaths of Admiral Cain and Colonel Fisk, there's no-one to take command of the battlestar Pegasus, so Admiral Adama appoints Barry Garner, an engineer, as its commanding officer. This doesn't work out very well, as Garner treats the crew more like parts of a machine than as human beings and jumps straight into a Cylon trap.
- This again happens when Garner leaves the CIC during an intense battle to fix the FTL drives, telling Lee that "you have the conn". Lee gets promoted to full commander at the end of the episode.
- In the finale, Lt. Hoshi is later promoted to Admiral in the wake of a mutiny led by the man who otherwise would have got the job had he not snapped, and everyone else that would have stood between him and the position had also been killed off by that point. Not a bad finish for the guy who entered the series as the guy standing in the corner looking utterly mortified while Admiral Cain orders an attack on Galactica.
- Hoshi is only really in command of the civilian ships and whatever military units are left when the Galactica goes off on its final mission. There are still plenty of more senior officers but they are all going on the mission. His new rank will not become effective until they are all killed (very likely at that point). At this point the military rank structure is shot anyway and being competent and loyal gets you the job.
- Invoked in "Blood on the Scales." Gaeta and Zarek launch a mutiny and attempt to oust Adama from command. Roslin manages to escape Galactica, and Adama is brought back to the CIC. After Gaeta orders him to tell Roslin to stand down, still addressing him as "Admiral," Adama scoffs at this and rips off his insignia, tossing them to Gaeta. "You're the Admiral now. So you call up Roslin. Make her laugh."
- Laura Roslin falls under the civilian version of this trope, Unexpected Successor. Please don't list her here.
- On 3rd Rock from the Sun, Sally was next in command after Dick. In one episode, both Dick and Sally were incapacitated and Tommy assumed the role of High Commander (with only Harry left to command).
- Stargate Atlantis has had several promotions by death of senior officers, including Major Sheppard becoming the military commander of the expedition, and Dr. Keller becoming the chief medical officer.
- In the prelude of Firefly, Malcolm Reynolds, a sergeant, ends up in command of all the ground forces in the Battle of Serenity Valley since almost everyone else higher up was dead and he was the only one willing to take full command. As Zoey tells Simon in a deleted scene, by the end of it he had the command worthy of a general. When one of his men says they need an officer's authorization to get air support, he tears a patch off a dead lieutenant and hands it to the trooper, congratulating him on his promotion.
- By the beginning of season five, in the episode "Holoship", Red Dwarf's Rimmer states that he has been in command of Red Dwarf since Lister was revived. This is true, as Rimmer and Lister were the only surviving crew members and Rimmer outranked Lister. Lister needed only to pass the chef's exam in order to assume command, but he couldn't manage that. However, as Lister and Cat are able to fly Starbug and Kryten was the most knowledgeable of the bunch, you have to wonder in what way Rimmer is really in charge from season 5 onwards.
- At various points throughout the show Harm, Mac and Singer gets the chance to be Acting JAG for short whiles. Sturgis takes over as Acting JAG for an extended period of time between Admiral Chegwidden's retirement and General Cresswell's appointment.
- In "Guilt", Mac, as the senior officer present, has to lead the evacuation of the U.S. Consulate in East Timor after an explosion caused by rioting locals (due to a Marine raping a local girl) kills the Marine detachment's CO and blinds the XO. Ironic, given that the skipper of the Amphibious Assault Carrier she was on temporary assignment to earlier in the episode remarked that:
Skipper: I keep forgetting you're a non-combat officer. I guess the only land mines that you dodge are legal ones.
- Played for laughs in an early episode of Roseanne when Becky is allowed to babysit Darlene and DJ for the evening. Darlene says that if Becky has a heart attack, she's in charge. Then DJ says that if Darlene also has a heart attack, he's in charge.
Dan: Right, DJ. If both your sisters are dead, you're in charge.
- Parodied in That Mitchell and Webb Look in a sketch about Admiral Karl Dönitz, who is promoted to Fuhrer after Hitler's suicide because there's pretty much no one else. Dönitz excitedly uses this as an opportunity to start planning his pension reforms and ways of addressing the housing shortage, a bit oblivious to the fact that Berlin is being blasted to rubble by the Soviets and that he's basically been given the job just so that someone can call General Eisenhower and say "we give up." As discussed below, this was basically Truth in Television (except the real Dönitz being a bit more aware of the way the Second World War was going for the Germans, of course).
- In one two-parter of Barney Miller, Barney is suspended for trying to negotiate with tenants of a condemned hotel rather than using force to remove them. This leaves laid-back Nick Yemana in charge, and his immediate reaction? "Oh my God." (Nick's tenure as acting-captain was limited to calling it a day immediately after his elevation and wearing a suit jacket to work—the department sent an interim officer the next day.)
- Happens to Bullock twice in Gotham, the first time when Captain Barnes is knifed out of action protecting Gordon from a resurrected Theo Galavan near the end of Season 2 and the latter when Barnes is permanently incapacitated due to being infected by the virus in Alice Tetch's blood approximately one third of the way through Season 3.
- In the first Horatio Hornblower telefilm, Lieutenant Eccleston is mortally wounded and passes on command of the captured French frigate Papillon to Midshipman Hornblower. Although he's junior to Simpson, Horatio had just accused Simpson of Unfriendly Fire, so it was a reasonable call (especially since Eccleston knew Simpson from their previous ship). Simpson's tantrum convinces the petty officers and sailors to follow Horatio's orders instead, and he leads their prize to a heroic action against some corvettes that have ambushed their home ship.
- Leonard Cohen's "The Captain"
Now the Captain called me to his bed
He fumbled for my hand
"Take these silver bars," he said
"I'm giving you command."
"Command of what, there's no one here
There's only you and me —
All the rest are dead or in retreat
Or with the enemy."
- If you choose the Lawful story arc in Neverwinter Nights 2, your character goes from new recruit city watchman, to lieutenant, to squire, to Captain of Crossroad Keep, to Knight-Captain of Crossroad Keep in under a week, due to the death by burnt-down-headquarters of the former holder of the first post and the suddenly increased importance of the fortress in the second post. It also helps that by that point you practically single-handedly rein in crime in the city and win Neverwinter a war.
- Gears of War has the soldier Marcus, convicted of abandoning this post and branded a traitor, getting a field promotion when the commanding officer dies. This is a case of practicality: Marcus is chosen because, despite his treason, he is still hands down the best, most qualified soldier in the squad, despite being absolutely hated by the Gear commander. Dominic, Baird and Cole all follow Marcus not because he's in charge, but because he knows what he's doing. Baird initially puts up some resistance, but even he comes to see the wisdom of having Marcus in command.
- Greil of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance begins putting his son Ike in command of their mercenary force during missions as soon as Daein invades Crimea near the beginning of the game. The implication is that Greil anticipated his own death in the war that was sure to come, and wants his son to be prepared to take command for real in that event (he's completely right in this). A dialogue between Titania and other members of the Greil mercenaries tells us later that Greil always wanted his son to become The Leader of his mercenary unit: had the war not happened, Ike would have become their leader eventually, just later.
- Ace Combat:
Yellow Squadron pilot A: Oh! Jean-Louis' been hit!
- Played with in Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. The player character is originally just a 'nugget' second lieutenant (straight out of training pilot), but then Captain Bartlett gets shot down. The next mission, Nagase is assigned command of the squadron, as she's currently the most experienced in the squad. She turns the command down, giving it to the player. The mission after that, a new squad commander is sent by the Osean Air Force. Too bad he gets shot down as he's trying to land. Player character Blaze eventually becomes such a respected flight lead that a man with years more experience is happy to follow his lead, along with ridiculously fast promotion to Captain.
- Subverted in Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation: One of the antagonists, Victor Vocheck, took part in the initial invasion and takeover of the player's capital city, but gets hit and crippled for the rest of the war. Some of his subordinates assume command of his squadron until they got shot down by the player character. The situation becomes so bad, that the squadron had to consolidate with another squadron who is put under the command of Vocheck's protege, Lt. Commander Ilya Pasternak.
- The final mission of Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies gives us this exchange from the pretender Yellow Squadron pilots:
Yellow Squadron pilot B: Gene, get a grip! You've got to take over the command!
- Also, if you manage to down the Yellow Squadron pilots in the right order (something nearly impossible to do, as there is no way of differentiating them), the dialogue continues as the pilots' command structure disintegrates and pilot B gets command, then C....
- In the 2008 Turok video game, thanks to rapid character attrition, the Redshirt Army is soon reduced to several grunts and a sergeant. Said sergeant promptly takes command, which turns out pretty badly for everyone else, as he's slowly going bonkers due to a head injury.
- In squad-focused games like Battlefield 2, fickle internet connections can cause the most senior squad member (by global score/rank) to assume leadership should the original leader be dropped from the game. Sometimes results in a Hot Potato among the remaining squad, who likely joined so they wouldn't have to command.
- Happens a few times in Command & Conquer, notably with Nod. The best example would be in the original; Seth is (heavily implied to be) trying to get rid of both the player, a Nod commander, and Kane, Nod's leader. Kane puts a bullet through his head, recalls the player's troops, gives you a new assignment, and ends with "Oh—And congratulations on your promotion." as he looks down at Seth's corpse.
- In Final Fantasy VIII, Squall Leonhart finds himself summarily shoved into command of the entirety of Balamb Garden, though in this case it's because of a combination of Garden's role changing from "military academy" to "active fighting force" and a case of Because Destiny Says So: Headmaster Cid is acting on advance knowledge of the Stable Time Loop that includes Squall's defeat of Ultimecia. Considering that Squall is an emotionally stunted seventeen-year-old and wants to be in charge about as much as he wants a hole drilled in his head, it goes pretty well.
- Mostly justified in that he tends to be the calmest person in any given situation and can quickly analyse a situation and come up with a plan.
- In Wing Commander IV, Colonel Blair finds himself in this position aboard the Intrepid when Captain Eisen leaves for Earth to reveal Tolwyn's plan, even though he's Space Force and not Navy. Somewhat subverted in the novelization, in that he was assigned a Lieutenant from the Navy who was too junior to promote to Captain (rank, not position) to give the actual commands for carrying out Blair's orders. In the real world, aircraft carrier captains must themselves be part of the aviation community (i.e. have been a naval aviator themselves).
- Even in video games, Star Trek ventures into this territory:
- Star Trek Online
- This is how the Starfleet player becomes captain of their own ship, starting off the game as an ensign. The ship in question is a small one with a crew of only 200, and it's specifically noted that the Borg who boarded it while the player was assisting another ship wiped out the officers first, leaving the player as the only surviving officer of that crew. (This is also noted as unusual behavior by the Borg and eventually explored later on in a high level mission.) Once the player reports in to Admiral Quinn to get his battlefield commission formalized, the Admiral outright admits that they've been reduced to this by how pressed Starfleet is to deal with their various border conflicts.
- The revised Starfleet tutorial now has the player as the designated first officer of a training crew fresh out of the Academy - the captain was the only officer of any real rank on the whole ship. Cue a disastrous encounter with some Klingons which results in the captain getting captured and killed, and everyone on board looking to you for direction. As with the original opening Starfleet mission, the player then reports in and is formally given command because Starfleet is in desperate need of even moderately effective command staff - ships are a lot easier to make than capable officers, and Starfleet is facing problems from all sides.
- An interesting variation with the Klingon Player Character. When you first choose him/her, he/she's second officer to Captain Jurlek. However, when you discover Jurlek's treachery concerning a Federation prisoner and alert his first officer, Doran, she ends up getting slain before she could perform a Klingon Promotion, which advances you to first officer. Only a few minutes pass between Jurlek calling you the new first officer and you performing a Klingon Promotion on his cowardly hide.
- The Romulan Republic's Admiral Kererek mentions that the Romulan Star Empire made him an admiral after the Hobus supernova to fill vacancies left by the destruction of Romulus. Before that he was a desk jockey working in logistics and ship deployment (which admittedly is a pretty good background for a high-ranking flag officer to have). He joined up with the Republic way later.
- This is mentioned twice in the backstories for the teachers in Star Trek: Klingon Academy. One of them was due to a vacancy that the man created himself via Klingon Promotion. The other was briefly Captain of his ship on the grounds that he was the seniormost officer on the bridge when the original Captain died, and then surprised the first officer (who was busy elsewhere when the Captain died) by turning command over to him at the battle's end instead of attempting a Klingon Promotion.
- Happens also with Star Trek: Bridge Commander, though the situation seems a bit silly if you think about it. Your character has been a commander for only 3 months when the Captain is killed by a supernova. Starfleet sees fit to advance you to rank of captain, give you your own first officer, and loan you Captain Picard for advice for a few missions. A possible justification for this is only implied and not outright said: Starfleet is sorely undermanned in the area of the galaxy where the game takes place. To wit: you only see about a dozen other starfleet ships, but fight hundreds of Cardassian ships.
- A few missions later, your entire crew is transferred to a Sovereign-class ship (i.e. the same class as the Enterprise-E). Apparently, your accomplishments are enough to command a flagship-level ship.
- Star Trek Online
- In the cutscene of the first World in Conflict mission, we see our soon-to-be-least-favorite commander driving through the streets of Seattle which is being attacked by the Soviets, trying to reach the commanding officer in charge of the defense on the radio. "Well, who is in command then? What do you mean, 'I am'?"
- Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine: Second Lieutenant Mira Nero is the highest ranking officer left on Graia, and will remain so unless her superiors suddenly rise from the grave. In her own words, "So far, they seem content to stay put."
- Optimus Prime in Transformers: War for Cybertron is forced to take command after Zeta Prime is defeated. None of the Autobots see this as a bad thing (and seeing how Zeta Prime had a We Have Reserves attitude and Optimus doesn't, it's no wonder that the Autobots are happy Optimus is in charge).
- In Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, you are summarily promoted to mission commander when Commander Gore is killed in action. His last act is to entrust completion of the mission to you and, from that point on, all crewmen will follow your lead. Even Arthur, your ship's artificial intelligence, will only issue missions to you and advise you as best as he can based on his role as mission analyst, but doesn't actually have any authority over you. It gets to the point when Gore is resurrected, and he briefly returns to your ship, but he only challenges your decisions (on an unofficial level) if you, personally, prove to be a threat to humanity.
- The Elder Scrolls
- Assuming that an intelligence service (with an openly active branch serving as elite bodyguards) can count as 'the military', and that there is an allowance for the one telling you that you are in command now to note that it doesn't actually mean much, Morrowind features this in the course of the main quest — your superior in the Blades, Caius Cosades, promotes you to Operative (a mid-range rank, although the confirmation of that is only found if one looks in the editor) and then explains that he is being withdrawn to Cyrodiil for consultations and to investigate reports of his cover (a drug-addict) being more true than it should be, leaving you the highest ranking Blades agent on Vvardenfell (to Caius' knowledge, but as the Grand Spymaster for Vvardenfell he ought to know) for the time being and thus technically in charge. Of course, since the other Blades agents mostly do their own things and any orders from Cyrodiil to the contrary are liable to come with an actual superior, Caius basically tells you to ignore the big picture and just keep doing what you're already doing.
- Happens repeatedly with several of the longer sidequests in Skyrim. In the Winterhold College, you go from greenhorn student to arch-mage after the previous arch-mage is killed by his deceitful advisor, you singlehandedly ends a world threat, and the Psijic Monks back you. Among the Companions, you start as a fresh Shieldbrother/sister and end as Harbinger after avenging the previous Harbinger's death (which you indirectly caused), reforging their prize artifact, and ending a curse. The Thief Guild sees you join as a simple cutpurse and end as Guildmaster by killing the previous Guildmaster after revealing his treachery, joining the Nightingales, returning an incredible Daedric artifact, and restoring the guild to its full glory. And you join the Dark Brotherhood by inadvertently stealing one of their hits and end up leading them after legitimately assassinating the previous Matron, proving that you are the Listener, performing the greatest and most elaborate assassination of the era, and bringing the Brotherhood back to its glory days. Unsurprisingly almost all of these involve the deaths of the original leaders of the groups.
- In the backstory of Fallout: New Vegas, during the battle between the Brotherhood of Steel and the NCR at Helios One, the Brotherhood Elder Elijah deserted in the midst of the battle. As such, the Head Paladin Nolan McNamara was forced to take the position of Elder.
- In Fallout 4, Preston Garvey appoints you as the General of the Minutemen citizens militia early in the game, should you follow normal progression and rescue him and his party at Concord. Towards the end, the Director of the Institute reveals he is terminally ill and makes you his apparent successor. Or if you go along the Brotherhood path, you get appointed Sentinel and commander of all forces in the Commonwealth.
- Occurs in MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries when your commander is killed during the intro. Of course, you're taking command of a mercenary outfit that consists of yourself at that point.
- MechWarrior 4: Black Knight has you promoted after the 2nd campaign during a Wham Episode where the party contracting your services betrays you and attempts to destroy the unit so they don't have to pay up.
- In the Dragon Age games:
- In Dragon Age: Origins, the prologue ends with the death of every Grey Warden in Ferelden at the ill-fated Battle of Ostagar, except for the Warden and Alistair. Despite Alistair being the Senior Warden (by six months), he's reluctant to assume leadership due to both personal issues and having fallen into a depression after the loss of Duncan, his surrogate father-figure. As a result, the Warden is forced to take command mere hours after their Joining.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition, the player's Warden ally — Alistair, Loghain or Stroud — may find himself the senior Warden in Ferelden and Orlais if he survives the Fade trip instead of Hawke. Bonus irony points if it's Alistair.
- In the Trespasser DLC, it turns out that Varric went back to Kirkwall and started funding efforts to clean up and rebuild the city, since the nobles are too busy arguing over who wants to be viscount (i.e. no one) to do the job themselves. Eventually one of his projects is stalled because of the still-empty throne, and Varric sends a letter complaining about it. The nobility take both this message and the fact that he's been singlehandedly organizing the city as him 'volunteering' for the position and promptly elect him as viscount, to both Varric's surprise and Bran's chagrin.
- Rogue Galaxy: Whenever the party goes on a mission to another planet, Jaster is always deferred to as leader even by people more experienced adventurers than him (basically every member save Lilika and Jupis) mostly due to his calm and collected nature.
- Prince of Persia: "In the Sultan's absence, the Grand Vizier Jafar rules with an iron fist of tyranny".
- Downplayed in Full Spectrum Warrior. If a fire team leader (both of them sergeants) is incapacitated, that fire team's automatic rifleman (both of them corporals) doesn't miss a beat in taking over command. Unfortunately, we don't get to see any privates take command; having two incapacitated squaddies at once is an instant mission failure and sends you back to your last save.
- World of Warcraft:
- This is basically what happened to Lor'themar Theron (who?): after the king was killed in the Third War, and his immediate superior Sylvanas Windrunner fell defending the city, he took charge of the defense of Silvermoon until Prince Kael'thas could get back. Kael then left him in charge when he left for Outland, from which he never returned. He's still there, poor guy.
- This happens to some players as part of Legion's Order Hall campaign, where the player is given leadership when the previous leader is killed, most famously when Tirion Fordring is killed. It's taken Up to Eleven with warlocks, as after the mistaken summoning of a pit lord, the player is the only one who survived, and has to rebuild their order by themselves.
- Mass Effect 3's Reaper invasion results in several of these.
- On their way to Earth the Reapers blew up Arcturus Station, the capital of the Systems Alliance, which made Councilor Donnell Udina the effective leader of the entire human race. Losses incurred in the attack and Admiral Anderson remaining behind on Earth to command La Résistance also left Admiral Steven Hackett the highest-ranking Alliance Navy officer left alive and free. Subverted with Admiral Hackett, as he already is the Commander in Chief of the Alliance Navy, so it isnt a promotion for him.
- General Adrien Victus inherited the rulership of the Turian Hierarchy after Primarch Fedorian's escape shuttle was shot down by the Reapers and most of the other senior officers were killed in battle. Garrus points at that he's an unexpected choice because of his Military Maverick ways made him highly unpopular with the commanders, but that his high rank despite that is a testament to his competence.
- Garrus himself, now that he is a high-ranking government advisor. After seeing turian generals saluting Garrus on the battlefield, Shepard can ask Garrus about how close he is in the chain of command to being named turian Primarch. Garrus' obvious discomfort with the line of questioning likely means that he is far closer than he or anyone else would like to admit to being in that position.
- The Batarian Hegemony fell to the Reapers first (one of their colonies was sitting on the mass relay through which they entered the galaxy), and assuming he survived the "Bring Down the Sky" DLC in Mass Effect, Shepard's old enemy Balak turns out to have inherited command of the entire batarian navy (or what's left of it). Shepard can choose to kill him or recruit him into the war effort.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda:
- Happens to Ryder during the prologue mission. He/she isn't even second-in-line for the position of human Pathfinder (Cora is) and hasn't had Pathfinder training. However, Alec's decision to pass the title onto his son/daughter is done for plot related reasons that become apparent much later. (Namely that the Ryder twins are symbiotically tied to the highly illegal (but benevolent) AI that Alec Ryder coded up for the Andromeda mission.
- Depending on your choices, this can become the case for every single Pathfinder. The original human, asari, and turian Pathfinders will always die no matter what. The next-in-line Pathfinders for the asari and turians may also be passed over or not accept the position (respectively) depending on the player's choices. Finally, the salarian pathfinder may be killed as part of a main quest mission, again depending on the player's choices.
- By the time the Hyperion arrives at the Nexus, this is the case for several of the Nexus leadership positions. To note:
- Director Tann was an accountant and something like eighth in line for the position of Director. Everyone above him was killed during the Nexus' run in with the Scourge or was assassinated shortly after. To say that Tann is ill-suited for the position is...a fairly serious understatement. The amount of characters who actually like Tann can be counted on one hand, although, following Ryder's successes as Pathfinder, Tann does become more reasonable over the course of the game.
- Kandros was a bodyguard for a prospecting team captured by the kett. After leading their escape efforts, he returned to the Nexus and found "all the Nexus personnel looking at him like he was in charge". He officially became leader of the Nexus Militia and took on many of the responsibilities of the Director of Security (a position abandoned by Sloan Kelly after the uprising).
- Telltale's Game of Thrones has this as an option at the end of episode 5. Lord Rodrik and his brother Asher are ambushed by Whitehill soldiers and hold a gate open together, but it will collapse without both of them. the player must pick who stays behind to hold off the enemy so the other brother can escape. If Rodrik stays behind he tells everyone that Asher is their lord now, and by the next episode the rest of the citizens at Ironrath accept Asher as their new lord.
- Betrayal at Krondor has Squire James finding himself suddenly in charge of the entire Kingdom defense force guarding Northwarden against the moredhel invasion after assassins poison the Baron.
- In the Republic Trooper storyline for Star Wars: The Old Republic, you start as a newly assigned sergeant to Havoc Squad. After a massive defection that leaves you as the only remaining member of the squad, you are promoted to lieutenant and put in command.
- Medal of Honor: Vanguard has the protagonist, Corporal Frank Keegan promoted to Sergeant when Sergeant Magnusson is killed by a German Sniper.
- Treasure Planet: Battle at Procyon: In skirmish mode, if your flagship is destroyed, the next ship in the fleet will assume command.
- In Fate/Grand Order, there are two examples caused by the same incident: The protagonist is initially taken off the mission for being inferior to all of the other potential Masters in addition to falling asleep during the initial mission briefing. Meanwhile, Chaldea's Head Medic Dr Roman slacks off in their room and has a conversation with them, allowing both of them to dodge an explosion in the control room that leaves all of the other potential Masters in critical condition and kills everyone above Dr Roman on the chain of command, leaving him in charge.
- In Red vs Blue, this is how Kimball and Doyle became the respective leaders of the New Republic and the Federation Of Chorus. The fighting had been going on so long that everyone else had either died or run away, Doyle in particular used to be secretary to a Brigadier. Kimball eventually finds herself the leader of both the Republic and the Federation after they do an Enemy Mine and Doyle performs a Heroic Sacrifice against the true enemy of Chorus, trusting her with leading them to victory.
- In Outsider, Ensign Alexander Jardin finds himself in command of his ship due to being the Sole Survivor.
Tempo: ... further, in consideration of your status as commander of a foreign vessel, I recognise you as military attaché for your mission, with the right to be addressed as captain.
Jardin: [thinking] I hadn't until then realised, as last survivor, I was technically Bellarmine's commander.
- Gil causes this trope in an attacking army in this Girl Genius.
- The Order of the Stick:
- In Cliffport City, when the CPPD Chief is beheaded by Nale, the Rookie spontaneously takes the lead and orders around his fellow cops. A few senior ones shortly ponder about this, before deciding to just roll with it.
- Also happens to Haley here. After Roy died, Durkon snaps Haley out of her brief Heroic BSoD by reminding her that she is now in command of the Order of the Stick. She had previously just scammed Roy for the job so she could have an extra share of loot.
- In the Start of Darkness prequel, a low-level acolyte of the Goblin god survives when paladins massacre his superiors. One of them lasts long enough to give him the Crimson Mantle, a powerful artifact that gives him a field promotion to High Priest.
- In Impure Blood, the Council of Watchers, the closest the town of High Plains has to leaders when it's attacked, is made up of equals and thus has no superiors. As such, Dara seizes command because the situation's about to become military.
- Ariel is a little lost when her squad leader is missing and they need to figure out what to do. Ini'riia makes it clear that being Blue Blood makes her in command by default... that is, unless she wishes to let a senior member of a different clan take command...
- Later, at the end of Chapter 50, when Ariel meets up with Kel'noz again, he informs her that Quain'tana has succumbed to her injuries and died, and that she is now the leader of the Val'Sarghress clan.
- Drive: After the Continuum destroys Tesskil and kills most of the Tesskan leadership, including their leader, the Grand Voss, Emperor Cruz stops a random Tesskan guard and informs him he's the new Grand Voss. Granted, this is in part due his thinking that Tesskans are all equally unsuited to this kind of position.
Emperor Cruz: You! What rank are you?
Guard: A... first-level grask, sir.
Emperor Cruz: Congratulations, you're the new Grand Voss.
Emperor Cruz: Mehh, doesn't matter anyway. You're all dumb as dirt.
- Schlock Mercenary has this as the background of Karl Tagon, Captain Tagon's father. His career got a kick from Colonel to General overnight when the Terraforming Wars were started with a surprise attack on the command structure, including a (partially successful) one on the Tagon family.
- Black Mask in The Batman tends to kill off his second in command about once per episode, and point to a random underling proclaiming:
Black Mask: You. You're my new Number One.
- Parodied in Futurama, when this exchange took place:
Zapp: [after steering the ship towards a black hole] Nothing remains now but for the captain to go down with the ship.
Kif: Why, that's surprisingly noble of you sir.
Zapp: No, it's noble of you, Kif! As of now, you're in command. [rips insignia off his arm and sticks it on Kif] Congratulations Captain.
[exits room and is soon seen outside fleeing in an escape pod]
- On an episode of The Simpsons, Homer ends up in command of a nuclear sub after the Captain tells him that he is in command until he gets back. The Captain is then accidentally launched out of a torpedo tube. By Homer.
- In the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode "The Lorelei Signal", all the male members of the crew are incapacitated. Uhura takes command of the ship and leads a landing party to rescue the male senior officers with Nurse Chapel as Chief Medical Officer and second-in-command. Uhura is never actually given command, and her commandeering the ship is technically mutinous (and she justifies this in the ship's log), but her superiors commend her actions once she rescues them. She also gets left in command in "Bem" when Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Sulu are all part of a landing party.
- The Big Bad in Sym-Bionic Titan does this after killing the alien when he has a You Have Failed Me moment.
- The Magic School Bus episode "Out of This World" had Dorothy Ann take command of the USS Enterprise-Shout-Out bus and both rescue Ms. Frizzle and Carlos from an asteroid and prevent said asteroid from hitting Earth.
- The first episode of The Mighty Ducks combines this with Take Up My Sword. The original team leader Canard sacrificed himself to save the others, but not before giving his magic mask to Wildwing, albeit it wasn't until the next episode where Wildwing embraced his role.
- In the pilot of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002), the last order the Elders give to Captain Randor is that he will lead Eternia in their place as its king.
- In Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects, each time Dr. Zin kills one of his numbered Mooks, he promotes the one whose number is next, for example when he kills 425 he promotes 426. He even emphasizes "You are in charge now, [minion number]!" every time.
- In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic this is basically what the Royal Guards tell Twilight when they reveal that with Princesses Celestia and Luna missing and her sister-in-law ruling a distant kingdom, she is now in charge as the last available Princess.
- Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines:
- Muttley becomes the leader of the Vulture Squadron in the episode "Sky-Hi I.Q." following the results of an aptitude test. Subverted at the end when the efficiency expert who conducted the tests got Muttley's test mixed up with Dick Dastardly's.
- Klunk becomes the squadron's de facto leader after Dastardly suffers amnesia in "Who's Who?"
- Band of Brothers (Reference: book by Stephen Ambrose and the mini-series):
- When the Battle of the Bulge begins all the higher ranking officers of the division are absent. When one of the officers starts complaining about this, the ever-competent Major Winters quietly tells him to concentrate on organizing his men and finding ammunition and winter clothing for them, instead of wasting time waiting for superiors who might never turn up.
- Dick Winters does this several times throughout the war. He drops into Normandy as a 1st lieutenant in command of a platoon, but ends up commanding the company because his CO is MIA (turns out, the CO never even set foot in Normandy — his plane blew up on the way). Later, when Major Horton is killed during Market Garden, he becomes battalion XO.
- Some time after he becomes Battalion XO and while he's still a captain, Winters acts as 2nd Battalion CO while Strayer (the actual CO) performs the duty of an absent Regimental Officer. This results in Winters having to contend with going up against the 1st and 3rd battalion COs, who are both lieutenant colonels, when it comes to acquiring resources for both the missions to which his battalion gets assigned as well as provisions for his men.
- Notably, with few exceptions, Easy Company had little problem with sudden loss of leadership: if someone of high rank was injured or otherwise unable to continue fighting, the company would quickly adjust for the loss and continue the mission. The one time leadership became a problem (When Lt. Dike froze with indecision during the attack on Foy), Winters turned to Lieutenant Speirs, told him the trope and sent him out to lead Easy Company, who followed him with no problems.
- At Pearl Harbor:
- The USS Aylwin (DD-355) had four officers on board when the first Japanese aircraft appeared, all ensigns. Ensign Stanley B. Caplan, the senior one, had been at sea for only eight months and was in command of it for thirty-six hours (ironically enough, as he was obeying orders from the destroyer squadron commander to put out to sea, several men onboard saw their senior officers on a motor launch, but they could not stop to take them onboard until after the attack was over).
- The same thing happened to USS Blue (DD-387); again only 4 ensigns were on board (must have been the standard officer duty section) and they got underway and operated for 30 hours with an ensign in command, attacking two submarines and shooting down 5 Japanese airplanes.
- The USS Nevada (BB-36) spent most of the attack under the command of Lieutenant Commander Francis J. Thomas, who not only coordinated the defense of the battleship, but also got her underway and attempted a dash for the open sea. When it became apparent that Nevada would sink before she could clear the channel, he ordered her run aground to avoid blocking the entrance to the harbor. At the same time, Ensign J.K. Taussig assumed command of the ship's Anti-Air batteries when the communications lines between them and the ship's command center were damaged. He continued to coordinate the air defense of Nevada even after losing a leg in an explosion, until being evacuated by Navy Corpsmen that had been called for by his gun crews.
- During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, American soldiers who escaped capture took command of local guerrilla groups and promoted themselves to the rank appropriate for the size of their band. For the most part, the US military honored these self-made ranks after the war.
- Older Than Feudalism: The Ten Thousand: in 401 BC a force of Greek mercenaries is hired by Cyrus the Younger to supplement his Persian troops to fight against his brother Artaxerxes II for the throne of the Persian empire. They meet at the battle of Cunaxa. While the Greek force suffers no significant casualties during the battle, their employer, Cyrus, is killed during the battle. They are then left stranded in the middle of the Persian empire. They are asked by the Persians to lay down their weapons but they refuse. The leaders of the Greeks are invited to a feast to negotiate a solution but are instead executed. The Greeks elect new leaders, among them Xenophon, who chronicled their fighting retreat through Persia, which lasted around 2 years.
- In the Soviet Red Army, especially during World War II, this happened frequently. Interestingly, their system was set up so an officer usually had to serve a given number of years in a rank before being promoted to the next one and they saw no particular reason to change the rule even if the officer in question was, through attrition, leading a much larger unit than he'd started with. If the officer was competent he was allowed to retain command and sometimes even promoted to a higher one while retaining the rank, thus leading to captains leading companies reporting to a lieutenant who led the battalion, while the regiment might be commanded by a captain who had several majors as his subordinates.
- On the first day of the ANZAC invasion at Gallipoli, Turkey, lack of planning meant a lot of the soldiers just lost track of their commanding officers, if they were "lucky" enough to even get to the beaches, so this trope happened all over the place, for the unprepared Australian and New Zealand soldiers.
Peter Lalor, an Australian soldier is said to have seen that there were no officers for his battalion, the 12th, gave the rousing order of "Come on, the 12th" and charged at the Baby 700 Hill. He died.
- During The American Revolution and the War of 1812, the British wore, like everyone else, Bling of War, especially their officers (even though the Americans were no different in this regard). The Americans, used to hunting, could aim (both with their own hunting rifles, and well-packed muskets), and would choose the most visible targets. As a consequence, after the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of New Orleans, certain British regiments were under the command of the senior private.
- Between World War I and II, the German Reichswehr was severely limited by the peace treaty in the number of soldiers it could recruit. To make up for this, every soldier was trained in the job of his commanding officer, specifically so that the Reichswehr could invoke this trope to increase their number as soon as the treaty would no longer apply.
- There are numerous recorded instances from World War II in the Pacific of a ship being hit on the bridge and the senior surviving bridge officer assuming command. This often happened even when they were not the senior surviving officer aboard the ship, because those officers not on the bridge but more senior might be needed at their normal posts to keep the ship moving and floating. Perhaps the most extreme example was that a warrant officer (not even an ensign) effectively commanded the Japanese heavy cruiser Mogami for a couple of hours during the Battle of Surigao Strait because the surviving more senior officers were all directing damage-control or keeping the badly mangled engines running.
- The rank of Lieutenant implies this possibility: From French, the title translates as "Placeholder", a lower ranking officer who would take the place of The Captain should he be absent or incapacitated, hence the word often being used in the titles for Number Two positions in various organizations (Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant Colonel, Lieutenant General, Lieutenant Governor, etc.)