Warning: Spoiler Alert
Let me start by saying that The Last Ship has my attention. However, my attention is a limited resource and will be contingent on how the series progresses. As a Television connoisseur, I am open to anything and will generally give anything a fair shot. That said, I would be lying if I said that this in no way felt like Last Resort (starring Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman-2012) which only lasted 6 episodes. The military, and naval to be specific, backdrop is familiar. That’s not to say it’s bad, just familiar. The problem with familiar is that it tends to fade away and lessen it’s impact. Thus forcing us the viewer to focus more clearly on the other devices. Let’s be clear, William Brinkley and the writing staff are not planting a flag anywhere with this one. Like in sports, it all comes down to the execution.
Anyone who has seen the movie Outbreak will think the opening scene feels familiar. Our doctor played by the lovely and British, Rhona Mitra (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) ventures into a pandemic infected third world region-at least that’s what the imagery suggests. She clearly is not in town to save people. A healthy man proclaims, “I thought you were bringing more doctors” as if she were there to help. Dr. Rachel Scott (Mitra) is there to extract samples and not to help the immediate threat in the least.
The ship’s crew and the audience for that matter are under the assumption that the doctor and her assistant are merely ‘house guests’ and upon completion of their training in the arctic, they will be given the go ahead to come home. Anyone accustomed to the progression of military deployment understands how important this stage of the deployment is. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The end is near and home is close. After a lovely military officer vs civilian doctor spat over who’s calling the shots we see how short-lived our excitement for the end of the mission really is. Captain Chandler, played by Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy), believes he is about to get permission to turn the boat around and get everyone home.
“Negative. The mission has been extended”. Not exactly the news our honorable Captain was hoping for. Meanwhile, outside the ship on what must be a nearby glacier, Dr. Scott and assistant are collecting samples when the radar tech spots six incoming aircraft. None of which are friendly. After a long and predictable gun fight between 6 helicopters and two midshipmen on snowmobiles, the doctor, assistant, the samples and the midshipmen are safely back on the USS Nathan James. Where the first of many standoffs to come takes place.
The Captain and his crew are told they cannot go home without an explanation. The doctor is willing to sacrifice everyone for ‘samples’. They think the Russians just attacked them in the arctic. And now, Capt Chandler wants answers. It should be noted in all fairness that Rhona Mitra held Eric Dane’s hand through this scene, acting wise. The long and short of it is that before they departed four months ago a disease had begun to spread. It was believed to be contained, but it wasn’t. While they were out doing their readiness drills, Dr. Scott was collecting samples to create a vaccine. If the part about the disease being contained were true, everything would be fine. Alas, the virus has spread and infected 80% of the world’s population. The basic logline to take from here is, “The Last Ship (USS Nathan James) is the world’s last hope at a cure”. They can’t go home because home is dying.
Our Captain and XO (Executive Officer) are shown footage of what has happened over the last few months by way of news coverage. Capt. Chandler illustrates his resolve as the commanding officer of the ship and organizes the crew outside on one of the ship’s decks. Each man and woman stands at attention in a dramatic and cinematic effort to illustrate sympathy. The captain looks out among his crew and says, “I have news…from home.” We don’t actually hear the news or the speech manner in which it was given, but that’s alright, we know one is coming.
Enter the “reaching for sympathy” portion of tonight’s episode. The next series of scenes are a device used to bring in the audience on an emotional level. Which is absolutely fine. By all means, allow yourself to get sucked in by this, it’s part of the experience. Sailors calling home on military secure lines to no avail. A flashback by the Captain of the last time he saw his family. And even maybe the first openly accepting homosexual reference in a military setting I’ve seen to date on television. Lt. Alisha Granderson (whom I am not familiar with) tells a quick story about Paris. She told her girlfriend, they’d meet up and visit Paris together. And with no radio response from anyone in Europe, that was disheartening.
What would a military meets an end of the earth drama be without a nuclear attack? Right about the time the characters are coming to grips with the negative side of the eventuality spectrum, radar indicates missile en route. The typical ship chaos ensues. Its nuclear signature is identified. The ship was not the intended target however. The missile flies overhead just as the radar shows that the trajectory indicates London as the target. Naturally ship wide failure takes over as soon as the E. M. P. blast fries everything. The captain and engine crew try to get the engines back up. They keep blowing fuses. As the captain gets the news about the impending radiation cloud, he grabs the last fuse and holds it in place. This is about as recommended as lighting a firecrackers and holding it in a closed fist. The transferal of electricity de-cleats the Captain. As power is restored, the Senior Chief helps the Captain to his feet and pays him the compliment of, “Bad ass Captain, bad ass”.
With all systems restored, the Captain charts a new course. A ship that is later identified as an Italian cruise ship. No, it’s not that Italian cruise ship. This one is still afloat. With no response from the ship, this becomes a mission for supplies. Food and fuel. With Hazmat suits and assault rifles, the team ventures out to the other ship. Upon further investigation, the ship is completely contaminated. A once empty ball room is now filled with cadavers on cots. The team grabs what they can. Then as a few of the younger men of the team are moving through the ship, one trips and falls. His mask is ripped off and his face is splattered with what we have to believe is infected blood. By this time the doctor and Captain have arrived. The young sailor refuses to end up like the numbers on this ship and takes his own life. Casualty #1. Crew down to 215, not including the doctor and her assistant.
Following the commercial break, we observe a dress white funeral ceremony for the fallen seaman. Afterwards, Dr. Scott believes she’s figured something out. She heads to the deck and we experience our first cordial conversation between Capt Chandler and Dr. Scott. Due to the fact that Dr. Scott has the “primordial sample” she is able to discern the difference between the original strain and the mutated one. Identifying the difference allows her gear the vaccine towards the one that mutates while the one that only regenerates is of lesser consequence.
When new orders come through to redirect, the Captain gets suspicious. No answer from POTUS (President Of The United States) or the Pentagon furthers his suspicion. A message gets through to the ship from the same source as POTUS. It’s a video from the Captain’s wife and children showing him that they are safe. Peculiar to say the least. It’s great news, but how did they send it. Who is not in frame with that kind of pull? And are they a good or bad element? Yet to be determined. The Captain approaches the doctor with a question that will define the direction of the show, at least for a while. “Do you have what you need to make the vaccine on this ship?”
The Captain and the XO have words privately about the mission to get the doctor to the lab in Jacksonville (the perceived next stop). The Captain informs the XO that “we aren’t going home”. This is exactly the buildup scene you’re thinking it is.
Capt: The lab’s 200 miles inland. You saw the news footage.
XO: We’ll fight our way in there if we have to.
Capt: And then what? The generators give out in couple of weeks. The civilian population tries to overrun it. There’s just too many variables.
XO: So what do we do? Stay on the ship?
Capt: Dr. Scott says we have what she needs…
XO: Dr. Scott…We have standing orders from the President of the United States.
Capt: From five days ago. In the absence of a command structure, I decide what’s in the best interest of our mission.
Left full rudder, all ahead flank. A great example of how the really good shows tend to employ an element that makes the characters smarter than the audience in a certain area. I don’t know what all of that means. I imagine it means turn left. What’s important is that it is a course correction. Both in the physical direction of the ship and the perceived direction of the show. But I’m sure most of you saw that coming a few paragraphs ago. With complete confusion on the bridge, Capt Chandler grabs the P.A. mic and speaks to the entire ship…
“This is the Captain speaking. We have no contact with home. I have good reason to believe that the U.S. government is no longer functioning. The country we hoped we were coming back to no longer exists. We left these shore four months ago as member of the United States Navy. But now we are more than that. Now our duty is to the entire world. On board this ship is the hope, for our futures, for our families, and for all of humanity. Because in that lab in our Helo bay are the ingredients for a cure. And this is the safest place on Earth for our scientists to do their work. Our 3 billion dollar piece of machinery protected by the 215 sailors of the US Navy. Our mission now is simple. We do whatever it takes to survive at sea until they find that cure. There is a food and fuel station outside Guantanamo Bay, that is our current destination. We’ve lost so much already. But this is the most courageous and resilient crew with whom I have ever had the privilege to serve. We will come through this together. And we will prevail. Carry on.”
President Bill Pullman declaring that “we will not go quietly into the night, we will not go down without a fight”, it is not. However, the point remains. This is the leader of a group declaring his intentions. And unlike the misfits from Independence Day, the men and women on the bridge at least, show their steadfast respect and admiration for those comments with a dramatic group salute. It should be noted for future developments that the XO who previously showed some level of hesitation with not following orders to the letter, was not present on the bridge to show his unwavering support.
The Executive Officer is not the only stray mouse on this ship. Just before the credits roll and we segment to “scenes from our next episode”, the doctor’s assistant (Dr. Quincy Tophet, played by Sam Sprunell) is tucked in a corner of the lab while the doctor is not present. Tophet is speaking into a secure phone in a case. He is not speaking English. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it sounds like Russian. “The ship is not stopping in America. We are turning away!”
As I said in the open, The Last Ship has my attention. As pilots go, it illustrates everything you need, nothing you don’t, and leaves things open for further explanation later. It is a very solid effort. The bad news is most of this, in some facet or another, we have all seen before. It’s a little Last Resort mixed with the movie Outbreak. With more than a subtle hint at The Hunt For Red October. And a little James Bond thrown in the mix. It feels like an amalgamation of a number of other shows and movies smashed together to create what on the surface at least, feels like an original story. Retelling something we’ve heard before is not a bad idea. However it has to be presented well. Execution is everything. If they continue on the path they have set up by this pilot episode, The Last Ship may be worth riding until the end. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t articulate my skepticism.