02 03 Nerd Lunch: Starfleet Second Officers: Who Does Number Two Work For? 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Starfleet Second Officers: Who Does Number Two Work For?

Thinking about rank and chain-of-command issues on “Star Trek”is a quick way to make your head explode, but it’s what we do here at Nerd Lunch.  Today, we're talking about why every good starship should have a full-time Second Officer.

Yeah, that’s kind of a head-scratcher in the reboot movie when Kirk goes straight from Cadet to Captain.  But in an organization where women can’t be starship captains through the 23rd century, rebel pirate Chakotay is the new First Officer, O’Brien’s commission seems to come and go, and any plucky well-connected youngster can take the Conn at age 15 . . . sure, why not. In the TNG episode “Conundrum,” when the crew gets amnesia and is trying to decide who is in charge, Worf suggests that maybe he’s the captain because he is wearing the most shiny objects. No one really disagrees, because subconsciously they still remember:  this is Starfleet and our command structure is wicked illogical.

Even full-time First Officers are not a given. Having a designated full-time First Officer on TNG was a change from TOS, where Spock doubled up as Science Officer. That’s a lot of work for one guy, but first, it’s Spock and he has that Vulcan work ethic, and second, I’m guessing that all of those yeomen they had on the original Enterprise were doing 99% of the administrative end of things. Come to think of it, maybe Lt. Uhura (who otherwise didn’t seem to have that much to do) and a small network of yeomen were secretly running the whole ship on a day-to-day basis while Kirk decided who to shoot and Spock decided who to science.  Years later, poor Decker got demoted to First Officer / Science Officer, and as I recall, got fed up with the giant workload and joined the ministry.  

Realistically, First Officer is a full-time job, and a necessary one. They can stand a watch, they can handle the basic managerial stuff, and they can lead Away Teams. On TNG, I guess that the originally idea was to have the older authority figure Captain stay on the bridge, while the young swashbuckling First Officer did all the typically Kirk-like stuff with the hitting and the thrusting and such. Picard, it turns out, was still pretty good at the hitting and thrusting and such, so Riker never really became Alpha Male on the Enterprise-D. This is a good thing.  Watch those early episodes and you can imagine him in full Commander Slab Groinpunch mode, rolling his eyes at the technobabble, fighting the Gorn and loving the Orion women, and blowing Dixieland jazz (which maybe by the 24th century is back to being cool).  I prefer the Riker we ended up with — a Gorn-fighter and Orion-lover, yes, but he also supervises / intimidates junior officers, works on crew evaluations, and worries about his career.  In short, he's actually someone you could buy as Picard's right-hand man.

So accepting that a First Officer is good guy to have around . . . why do we need a designated Second Officer? First and foremost, because somebody needs to be on the bridge while the other guys are asleep or having zany holodeck adventures or whatever. This is where we get into a big gap between the narrative requirements of a TV show and basic verisimilitude.  Like modern day naval ships, Starfleet vessels are active around the clock . . . three shifts a day, or four if you’re Jellico.  But on a TV show, we have a core cast, and so the same 0.1% of the crew see 90% of the action.   On TNG, everything always happens during Alpha Shift, when our primary cast is on duty . . . or maybe we should assume that if something important happens during Gamma Shift, standard operating procedure is just to stall for ten minutes until the senior staff can take over, and TNG episodes just skip that part.

[Hey, there’s a good sequel to “Lower Decks” — first half of the episode shows the tension mounting on the bridge as the junior officers of Gamma Shift try to stall a Romulan battlecruiser, and we periodically cut away to Picard hurriedly getting into uniform, brushing his teeth, eating a breakfast burrito on the turbolift, and then arriving on the bridge at the same time as Data and Riker and LaForge. Second half shows all of the Gamma Shift junior officers drinking coffee in Ten-Forward and talking about unrelated matters. Last two minutes, Worf walks in. Ensign: “Hey, did things work out with those Romulans?” Worf: “Yes.” Roll credits.]

Now according to my copy of the Star Trek: the Next Generation Technical Manual, standard operating procedure is that the Captain has the bridge on Alpha Shift; the First Officer takes the bridge on Beta Shift; and the Second Officer or other departmental head takes Gamma Shift.  That's not exactly how it comes off on the show . . . like I said, First Officer seems like a full-time gig, but under this arrangement, it’s effectively TWO full-time gigs, because we almost always see Picard and Riker on duty at the same time.  Is Riker routinely pulling 16 hour days? Well, he did seem to age a great deal over the run of the show.

This “other departmental head” thing is kind of weird, too. Worf and Geordi both started in command division red, so sure, let them take a night shift.  But Crusher and Troi?  Look, if you're not going to let Riker fill in as ship's surgeon, then you don't let the doctor run the ship.  In modern naval terms, there are "line officers" who have general command authority and "staff officers" who are specialists --- engineers, doctors, lawyers, chaplains, etc. --- and sadly, they don't let the staff officers command the submarines, even on the night shift.  So remember "Disaster"?  If there's an Ensign with a red shirt (command) and a Lieutenant Commander with a blue shirt (science/medical) on the bridge, that Ensign should be in charge because DEANNA TROI HAS NOT BEEN TRAINED FOR THIS.  Ro and O'Brien and Troi all understand this, but maybe there was a gas leak on the bridge or something, because at the worst possible time, they make the therapist Acting Captain.

So assuming we are not relying on some combination of an exhausted Riker pulling double shifts and Nurse Ogawa, who is really keeping that bridge going 24/7?  We see the real answer in other episodes: it’s all Second Officer Data. He eventually accumulated enough hobbies (including dreaming) that we can assume he started taking more time off, but early on, Data’s schedule was to sit at Ops for eight hours, then sit in the command chair for sixteen hours, then repeat. Geordi finally realized that Data hadn’t left the bridge in six weeks, and said, you wanna go to the holodeck or something? And a friendship was born.

Data was no more the typical Second Officer than Spock was the typical First Officer. From a verisimilitude standpoint, assuming that a ship don’t have anyone superhuman on the senior staff, you pretty much need a designated full-time Second Officer just to make sure that there is usually someone experienced and competent and in-the-loop on the bridge, even after hours.  Put him on Beta Shift, and then keep Gamma Shift around for your up-and-coming junior officers, bored departmental heads, First Officers with insomnia, etc.

From a TV show perspective, you could probably get away with making Number Two a recurring character rather than a regular — especially if you assumed that under this setup, the Second Officer handles a lot of less-cool stuff that would not need much screen time (the duty rosters and the crew reviews and the paperwork).  As a recurring character, this Second Officer could serve a number of roles from a narrative standpoint, too —  rival/frenemy to the First Officer, love interest to some other regular, comedy relief, whatever you need.

If you wanted to do a little more with your Second Officer, give him a second job. Not a full-time gig like Operations Manager or Chief Science Officer — either a specialty that can be called upon as needed, or a “battle station.” Depending on what sort of missions they encounter, he could be Diplomatic Officer, or First Contact Officer, or even Strategic Operations Officer.   He might end up being, effectively, another departmental head, keeping an eye on all of the lower-ranking Command division types (flight control officers, relief bridge officers like Season 1 Worf, etc.).  I am oddly fond of that Mission Operations station at the back of the bridge, and that would be a very good spot for the Second Officer because it includes monitoring and supporting Away Teams. When the First Officer gets ready to beam down, Number Two reports to the Bridge.  He’s the dedicated point of contact between the ship and the Away Team, plus you have a second guy in Command red on the bridge while the First Officer is away.

Of course, Picard had the perfect candidate to do this job: Lieutenant Commander Shelby, who was gunning for Riker’s job in “Best of Both Worlds.” The timing makes all sorts of sense — Picard needed some time to recover after his experiences with the Borg, and another command officer could’ve picked up some slack. Undoubtedly, Shelby would’ve disrupted things quite a bit. How Data would handle being relieved of his status as Second Officer? As we’ve noted before at Nerd Lunch, for an emotionless being, he was pretty damn sensitive about being treated with the respect due to an officer of his rank and position. Well, lateral transfer time — put him in a blue uniform, and call him Operations Manager / Chief Science Officer. How would Riker handle a subordinate who wanted his job? How does the senior staff — which at that point had really started to gel — handle a new member? What happens when she starts giving orders to department heads like Worf and Geordi? And does Riker end up with a little better incentive to take that promotion to Captain, once Shelby makes him feel the Enterprise is in good hands?

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