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Ever since the days of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, bridge officers in Starfleet have always had a prominent role in away team missions. However, it would seem more logical to me that such hazardous (and, generally, specialized) duties should fall to lower-ranking and/or more dedicated teams.

Of course, it wouldn't have made for great TV if every away team was comprised of a bunch of red-shirts. And it would definitely increase the show's budget to have an extra group of main characters whose sole purpose was to handle the away missions.

Still, I'm curious to know if there's ever been a real in-universe explanation for this practice? I know it's been brought up a few times, in a few series/movies, that the Captain should not be taking part in hazardous away team missions. But nothing is ever said (that I'm aware of) of the rest of the still valuable bridge crew or other senior officers.

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    Repeat after me: "Narrative convenience". Say it over and over again until you recognize it as the corrected answer to nine of of ten "Why does something illogical happen in a show?" questions. – dmckee Jul 14 '12 at 2:04
  • Real Navy has always had people to handle this sort of missions. I believe they were called Marines as far back as Royal Navy. Hm... now you got me onto a (hopefully interesting) question. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 14 '12 at 2:09
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    Actually, as I recall, this has factored into a few episodes of both TOS and NextGen. If I remember correctly, Picard once commented to Riker something to the effect of the away missions being where the action is. And I believe Spock pulled this on Kirk once or twice, that regulations didn't allow for the Captain to leave his post during time of danger. Don't remember the episodes, tho, or I'd post this as an answer. – K-H-W Jul 14 '12 at 2:20
  • Also, see this Memory Alpha article for a possible lead into an answer. – K-H-W Jul 14 '12 at 2:21
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    A possible clue: Starfleet Regulation 12, Chapter 4: Relates to the Captain undertaking command of an away mission. -- quoted by Data during Picard's best man speech, as to why they never let Picard go on away missions. I believe it said that a ship's Executive Officer can recommend that the Captain of the ship not accompany an away team until the area had been secured. – K-H-W Jul 14 '12 at 2:33
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Away teams are typically led by personnel holding the rank of full lieutenant or higher, although exceptions for an ensign or lieutenant, second grade to lead an away team have been made. Away teams led by a Lieutenant would be routine, safe, and incredibly boring for an audience to watch, hence why we don't see them. There's rarely a bridge officer (let alone any senior officer) on these away teams though.

Next are other planned away missions that are higher risk. These would usually require that they be led by personnel holding the rank of lieutenant commander or higher. This is starting to get into what we see in the shows. So in TNG, let's see who is a Lt. Cmd. or higher:

  • Riker, Commander
  • Worf, Lt. Commander (through much of the run)
  • Data, Lt. Commander
  • La Forge, Lt. Commander
  • Crusher, Commander
  • Troi, Lt. Commander (later Commander)

Well damn, that's basically the entire senior staff. Sure, there are many other Lt. Commanders on board the Enterprise, but for the sake of the audience (and budget and casting), they aren't introduced just to lead an away team unless they (or most of their team) are going to die on said away mission.

Then we have the unplanned/emergency away missions. This is the bread and butter of TNG. These almost invariably require that the first officer goes because solid command capabilities are required and the captain needs someone he can trust and communicate effectively with. This is why Riker goes on so many away missions.

Away teams like we see in Star Trek aren't common these days, since the worlds navies aren't doing much exploration. In past centuries though, it wasn't uncommon for the first or second officer to lead landing parties to newly discovered areas. In any case, it would always be an officer leading a landing party.

  • Worf was a lieutenant much of the time, not lt-commander. But he's a chief security officer, so on dangerous missions he serves as a security in an away team. – madfriend May 26 '14 at 7:55
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    This does perhaps explain a bridge/senior officer leading the away team. However, it doesn't clarify why most away teams are almost exclusively composed of bridge/senior officers. One officer on a team makes sense - a team made up of nothing but officers, except for maybe one or two, not so much. – Iszi Sep 1 '15 at 13:53
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    My comment about the leader of the away team being a bridge officer for the sake of story telling and TV production also applies to the rest of the away team, at least if they have something important to do. We see plenty of no-name security personnel, medics, and scientists going on away teams, but they don't have much screen time or many lines. As for a team made up entirely of officers, well I just told you it doesn't always happen, but in an emergency, why wouldn't you take your chief medical officer, science/operations officer, or engineer? They're the department lead for a reason. – MBraedley Sep 1 '15 at 14:08
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There's several types of away teams in Star Trek. Most of them don't involve the captain, and would be quite boring to follow onscreen.

Starfleet regulations recommend against the Captain going on away missions. The first officer is the one who's supposed to be doing that. Picard and Riker have both been reminded by Data and others about this regulation, but at least one of the two have said that the final decision was the captain's anyway - and they want to go join the away team. Stretch their legs, get a firsthand view, and so on.

Starfleet captains are also generally trained in diplomacy and first contact, so having the captain nearby on that type of away mission could be considered a good thing.

Later on in Voyager, Janeway didn't go on nearly as many non-diplomatic away missions as Kirk, and once even commented to one of her officers about how much freer captains were in Kirk's day. She sometimes wishes she lived in that era of "cowboy diplomacy".

EDIT because I missed out on the non-Captain part of the question:

I think the answer lies in two places:

  • All the different types of away teams
  • In Star Trek, unlike real life, the heads of the departments aren't managers - they fully understand their field, and are the best of the crew in that field that are on the ship.

So when something goes south, you generally would want your best people on the problem. Geordi went on away missions where there might be structural damage because he was the best at understanding the possible interaction with the ship's systems, the various head doctors when there was injured because they had the most range of experience with alien species, Spock's encyclopedic brain held helpful information on just about everything, and so on.

Due to the different types of away teams, it's very likely that between episodes the heads of the departments don't go on many away missions: There's no real danger/urgency, so no need for the best-of-the-best to be there. Likewise, there's no real reason for an episode centered around those events.

  • Unfortunately, there's a lot of episodes in TNG and what I'm referencing in the 2nd paragraph was like less than a minute long in the places it appeared. If someone has a clue as to which episodes those were, please add them. Likewise for the episode of VOY I mention. – Izkata Jul 14 '12 at 2:27
  • also keep in mind that the Federation is a peaceful organization; they have no "fully armed military" on the ship to speak of, just internal security. There wasn't anyone specially trained to do away missions so the most qualified and competent people -- officers -- had to do them. – KutuluMike Jul 14 '12 at 16:02
  • @MichaelEdenfield Good point, Starfleet itself is primarily for exploration and diplomacy - and defence only when called for. – Izkata Jul 14 '12 at 16:26
  • @Michael: I'm not 100% sure as it's been a few years, but I think to remember that they had "marines" on board the NX-01, although I don't remember whether they replaced security staff. – Mario Jul 16 '12 at 10:24
  • True, there was something called MACO onboard Starfleet ships but that was before the founding of the Federation. They had a roughly similar relationship to Starfleet as the US Marines vs. Navy -- they were Earth military on board the Starfleet ships. I'm not actually sure what happened to them after the Federation was founded but I don't remember any references to a military force outside of Enterprise. – KutuluMike Jul 16 '12 at 14:18

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