Staffing rotas on Star Trek star-ships

This just occurred to me while watching Stark Trek: Lower Decks, which highlights as a particular plot device that the USS Cerritos has different ‘shifts’ of characters covering the same roles at different times of day (i.e. when one half sleeps, the other works).

This figures. Star-ships are not normally beholden to ‘night’ and ‘day’ in the classic sense, and while their (human) inhabitants may need to follow approximate 24-hour rhythms, when travelling through deep space shit could happen at any time (alien encounters and other big events/emergencies aren’t going to wait until the 9-5 window).

So, star-ships would probably ‘run’ 24/7, with a rota of different shifts covering the entire cycle. You, therefore, probably wouldn’t have one captain, you’d have two or three - as with all ranks and roles. And yet, outside of this one particular episode, I don’t recall any other mention of ‘shifts’ in Star Trek or any other applicable sci-fi series. In fact, I don’t remember anyone having to go and wake Captain Picard up because such-and-such event happened to happen at 2am, and I don’t recall anyone standing in for a night shift. Maybe this is simply for narrative expediency, but it seems like a fairly major plot-hole or oversight.

So, has this been adequately addressed in Star Trek or elsewhere? Or am I missing something obvious about the premise?

Thanks in advance

I think it’s just narrative expediency. We as viewers don’t want to have to get to know everybody who works all shifts so all events are dealt with by 1 shift. Why Commander Nightshift isn’t ever woken up during an emergency which requires all hands is an exercise for the viewer. We can probably assume stuff happens during the “nightshift” and Picard et al are not woken up because… reasons

Robot Chicken addressed it:

At least once in STTNG, Data talked about taking command for the night shift (or maybe it was delta or gamma shift or something like that), and walked onto a mostly-empty bridge to sit in the captain’s chair.

But this is just basic watchstanding stuff and would be familiar to anyone who served on a ship in the Navy (or likely in the merchant marine as well). I was on a submarine, and most of the crew was on a three-watch system, which meant 6 hours on watch and 12 hours off; off watch was for sleep, eating, training, and other non-watch tasks. Star Trek has never been perfect with this kind of thing, at least compared to my time on a submarine – it would be pretty unusual for the entire command staff to be awake and in the control room (the equivalent of the Enterprise’s bridge) at the same time… generally, this would only occur for the most critical operations (i.e. combat, which I never saw; special operations, which I did very briefly; the aftermath of a disaster like a collision, which I unfortunately did experience; or maneuvering in restricted waters, which was an occasional occurrence). But the “real” watch system would be less fun to watch, because about a third of the main characters would be asleep at any given time.

“Data’s Day” Episode 4:11 TNG

Episode opens with Data handing command over to Riker as Day Watch takes over for Night Watch.

I know there’s at least one episode of Next Gen where Picard is woken to deal with something. And there’s definitely an episode in season six or seven where he’s up at an unusual hour, like two or three in the morning by ship clock, and visits the bridge when another shift is working, including Data, who doesn’t need to sleep.

Edit to add: I checked, and the latter is this:

I think a submarine voyage is probably the closest analogue on Earth, given that underwater, there’s no day or night either.

how do they do it on submarines?

See Post #4.

sorry! missed that :slight_smile:

The entire command structure of the Star Trek universe resembles the US Navy, from admirals to ensigns. The Enterprise is like an aircraft carrier with more room for the personnel.

Submarines have much less room for personnel. Hot Racking or hot bunking is the norm. You have a bunk bed while the other crew member assigned to the same bunk is on shift working.

First, there is only one “Captain” on the ship even if there are multiple people with the rank of captain or if the commanding officer is actually a commander or lieutenant commander (happens on smaller ships). Star Trek screws this up all the time (both the shows and the movies; at one point ‘Scotty’ is referred to as the “Captain of Engineering” which is not a thing in any navy). The Officer Of The Deck (OOD) is the watchstanding officer who is in charge of the ship in locum tenens when the captain is not at the conn (i.e when eating, sleeping, performing inspections or other administrative duties) and is typically a senior commissioned officer (relative to the rank structure on the ship; could be a lieutenant or j.g. on a small vessel).

I recall several instances where other senior officers were standing watch and presumably OOD, and a couple of episodes late in The Next Generation series where both Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi discuss going through command training and being in the watch rotation, so the show at least notionally referenced it, although there are instances too frequent to count where the entire command staff (Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, Geordi, et cetera) walk onto the bridge and there isn’t anyone apparently at the conn, so there isn’t really any consistency. In the episode where Picard gets captured and tortured by Cardassians and the command of the ship is passed to Cohaagan (presumably as a reward for his efficient extraction of all of the terbinium ore from Mars) he changes the shift rotation from a three watch to four watch standing. There are other episodes where Picard is called in his quarters or elsewhere while off-duty but in general little attention is paid to the administrative aspects of running the ship other than the occasional offhand comment about performance reviews.

Of course, the ship appears entirely capable of operating itself (although curiously it needs a large network of “Jeffries Tubes” to allow the engineering crew to access areas instead of either beaming them directly to the site or having some kind of autonomous repair capability) and so there is little need to have anyone standing a regular watch. One would think this would free the crew from the mundane duties of constantly recalibrating sensors and repairing plasma conduits so they can spend their time more profitably doing science experiments, exploring gaseous anomalies, playing “Tickle The Tribble” with their favorite crew member, et cetera, but most of the crew seems engaged in repair, maintenance, and moving polypropylene barrels containing…something…around the cargo bays for no particularly good reason. This has let to my personal speculation that the crew is not actually be best and brightest but are actually the ADHD misfits who ‘thought leaders’ in the Federation ‘promoted’ into Starfleet to send them far, far away, occupying them with pretend missions and manufactured threats to keep them from questioning why they have to do so much grunt-work in a post-scarcity society with advanced machine intelligence and the ability to magically transport and reconstitute people and objects at will.


There’s no reason why the captain and XO should just be hanging out on the bridge, anyway. They have a ship to run - meetings to hold, inspections to make, calls to put through, reports to write. They should be on the bridge for maneuvers, exercises, events and emergencies, but otherwise it would just be a waste of their time.

And point of fact, you rarely see Picard spending time on the bridge for no reason. The scene usually starts when the Enterprise sees an unidentified object, but you never see what happened before that. Chances are, some random lieutenant actually spotted it, called the captain and the bridge crew, and we come in after they’ve already arrived and sat in their seats.

What episode had Scotty referred to as captain of engineering?

Some of the later movies; not sure which one (probably V or VI) but he is referred to as “Captain of Engineering” rather than “Chief Engineer”. Of course, this is an artifact of not being able to promote up and out of the role as would happen in a normal military organization, resulting in the named bridge crew having nothing lower than a full commander.


Am I right that on a submarine, there wouldn’t be a regular group of people who always had the midwatch shift, but rather you’d try to mix things up so that crewperson A got a chance to work with crewperson B sometimes and crewperson C other times?

Sometimes. It wasn’t a strict rotation, and sailors commonly swapped shifts for various reasons. Plus, there would be trainees, and senior crew sometimes stood fewer watches with more free time.

IIRC engineer corps officers are not eligible to command ships in the US Navy.

With the tradeoff being that, if anything sufficiently important happened, they’d be woken up at any hour of the day or night.

And there are also some all-hands times, some anticipated and some not, and those would play merry havoc with any attempt to keep the schedule regular.

Neither are Medical and Human-ish Resources, yet Beverly and Deanna were both taking Command courses.