Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Last Ship: Strangely Reminiscent of Shatner, etc's Star Trek

TNT's opening season of The Last Ship does not try to be more than it is, an entertaining look at how the American military deals with a germopacalypse. Basically, they deal by being virtuous badasses. 

The premise comes from the William Brinkley book of the same name.  While on a secret mission for four months in the Arctic, the entire world has disintegrated while they were on radio silence.  Now the officers, crew, and a medical researcher must speed across the oceans to discover answers, find what they need for a cure, and maintain their food, water, and fuel levels.  Meanwhile, survivors have taken refuge or exploited the virus induced state of nature as much as possible. Familiar places like Costa Rica and Guantanamo Bay are now mysterious havens of danger.

A highly disciplined warship on an idealistic mission conducted in almost total isolation from authorities, where crew runs across bizarre societies, fascinating villains, and danger in every episode.  In many ways, The Last Ship is very much like the original Star Trek series.

Commander Tom Chandler, played by Eric Dane of ( Gray's Anatomy, Marley and Me) is the morally upright, square jawed all American hero.  Even though the gangster/village dictator El Toro tauntingly asks Chandler if he is John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, the commander clearly favors the first.  Like William Shatner's interpretation of Captain James T. Kirk, Chandler fearlessly tells his antagonists exactly what is on his mind.  Few characters in television history would dare dictate terms to an evil tyrant with automatic weapons aimed at their head.  Kirk and Chandler certainly bring bravado to that level.

First Officer Mike Slatterly (Adam Baldwin) so far has served as both a pragmatist and a moral center, one of the more complicated characters on the show.  He can be counted on to give rational advice (dare we say logical?) based on the situation as he sees it.  But Slatterly will also rise to the occasion when moral justice demands it.  The occasional tensions between Slatterly and Chandler have so far been underappreciated in reviews complaining of a lack of depth in the characters.

The Last Ship even has a wise Southerner, a Blackwater style contractor known as "Tex."  The show starts off making Tex a typical wild eyed Southern boy, but increasingly allows him to demonstrate a depth of intelligence and feeling.  Tex increasingly looks less and less like a stock Southern hillbilly, more like a Dr. McCoy who has mastered hand to hand combat training.

Rhona Mitra succeeds in portraying Dr. Rachel Scott as the outsider.  The crew doesn't trust her because she hid the epidemic from them while in the Arctic.  She has an arrogant stubbornness that sometimes undermines her powerful sense of mission. This actually makes her an endearing character as she deals with failure and frustration.

One major difference (okay, there are many) between the two shows is that The Last Ship has not yet made the ship itself a character.  The Enterprise functions as a character in Star Trek almost as effectively as the human characters, although that aspect eventually gets way overblown. Enterprise also comes from a long United States naval tradition.  There has never been a ship, or even a famous figure, named Nathan James.  There was, however, the destroyer Reuben James named for a hero who died in the Barbary Pirate wars.  It was sunk by the Germans just before World War II.

The Navy and its traditions themselves have emerged as a character of sorts.  Discipline, honor, and leadership pervade every episode.  Mistakes get made and rectified.  Chandler (much like Kirk) embodies the "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude of the US Navy, at one point risking running his ship aground on canal choking coral based on his own intuition.  And Chandler goes ashore at every opportunity, even as others ask what might happen if he didn't come back.

The Last Ship even offers a promising recurring villain in Admiral Ruskov, formerly one of the finest in the Russian Navy, now clearly out to rule the ruins of the world.  He is no Khan, not yet anyway, but he does have a more powerful ship, more experience (an author on naval strategy), and more ruthlessness.  Viewers know that at some point, they will get more Ruskov. Yet Chandler outwitted Ruskov's bid to steal Dr. Scott and the developing cure.  I almost wanted to see Chandler yell defiantly, George C. Scott in Patton style, "I read your book!!!"  Of course, that's not part of the character's nature.

Both shows have similar qualities.  They unashamedly portray heroism, military virtue, and American style leadership to audiences during times when the culture has turned against such values.  Michael Bay's productions work hard to roll back attitudes of irony, skepticism, and sometimes even contempt expressed by cultural elites towards the military.  And this, in addition to their entertainment value, makes The Last Ship very enjoyable to watch..

It also makes this show and Star Trek before it culturally significant.

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