The Last Ship, the Michael Bay-produced show about the disease that wipes out most of humanity, and the one Navy vessel that can save us, premieres Sunday on TNT. The pilot was touted as the biggest TNT has ever done, but can the show sustain that level of action for the rest of the season? We visited the set to find out.
We visited the set of The Last Ship back in February, where we were treated to a set tour and press Q&A's with executive producers Hank Steinberg and Steve Kane, star Eric Dane, and co-star Rhona Mitra. Here's everything we found out about this intense, over-the-top action show.
What It's About
The Last Ship follows a U.S. navy ship, the U.S.S. Nathan James, which returns from a mission in the Arctic to find that 80% of the world's population has died in an epidemic. Complicating things is the discovery that the ship's mission to the Arctic was actually a cover for Dr. Rachel Scott's research into the disease. She thinks she has what she needs to develop a cure, and, as the ship is one of the only safe places left, the crew embarks on a mission to survive and get Dr. Scott what she needs.
The show is based on a book by William Brinkley, although executive producers Hank Steinberg and Steve Kane told us that they've departed "quite a bit" from that novel. The novel focused on the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and the devastation in the show is viral in nature.
Part of the reason for the change was that the show wanted to move with the times. The Cold War is out, disease outbreaks are in. The executive producers said that the fear of viruses has to do with living in age where everyone's on top of each other and the news is filled with disease stories like HN1N1, Swine Flu, and SARS.
Star Rhona Mitra, who plays Dr. Scott, really believes that disease is a fear that a modern audience can connect to on its own, without having to be made into an allegory. When we spoke to her, she said:
The theme of this show in 2014 versus 2004 or even ten years before that is a very different reality. And I think we're all aware of [the theme], given our world and how quickly epidemics and bacterias and various viruses are talking over at a level where we don't have the ability or antibiotics to take care of it. And its common knowledge . . . this is a real possibility. We can connect ourselves to this world without it being some sort of phantasmagorical blob-thing.
Eric Dane also said that he doesn't think of this as a post-apocalyptic show, since the focus is on stopping the disease, not just dealing with the aftermath:
I don't think this is the end of the world. We're not surviving, we're preserving. End of the world, with a lot shows that are on tv now and in the past they're all about survival. ... This show is about preserving civilization, preserving the chain of command, preserving life, preserving and securing a future.
The Pilot and Beyond
The pilot does exactly what you'd expect it to do: It sets up the premise and the conflicts to come. There's Dr. Scott looking for the "primordial origin" of the disease in the Arctic, but not telling Eric Dane's Captain Tom Chandler what she's up to. Then, there are a number of messages the captain gets when the ship returns: the results of the outbreak, that they only hope is Dr. Scott's research, and that his family is in hiding somewhere.
And they didn't just go all out on the pilot. The second episode has the crew searching for supplies at Guantanamo Bay in what we've been promised is "a lot of action and it feels as fun and as exciting as the pilot." But, like every one of these shows, there are going to have to be smaller plots. If only for budgetary reasons. The pilot introduces a romantic subplot between two crewmen and the question of Captain Chandler's family. Said executive producer Hank Steinberg:
As we get deeper and deeper into the show and we learn more about the characters there will also be more smaller character episodes that compliment the bigger, more action-driven episodes.
The other episode that everyone kept talking about was a journey to Nicaragua to find monkeys to test a vaccine on. (They wouldn't say, but I'm guessing it doesn't work out. It's going to be early in the season, and I can't imagine they find a vaccine that soon.) There's a hugely international aspect to the show: there are Russians, British people, and some important Scandinavian characters. There are trips all over the world, with the promise that a second season would travel even more.
Part of the mystery of the disease involves who altered it and why, which will drive a lot of the show's mythology.
One of the tropes the pilot hits hard is classic "driven, rogue scientist" vs. the follow-orders military. But, according to Eric Dane, that conflict is mostly resolved:
Initially the conflict comes from her withholding information from us when we were up in the Arctic, she knew what was going on and didn't tell us. And once we get past that, it becomes about what's the best way to go about defeating this virus and everybody's got a different idea. But I'm the captain. So that conflict gets resolved pretty quickly.
What lasts much longer are the disagreements between the captain and his XO (Adam Baldwin). That's something that comes up only at the end of the pilot, when Captain Chandler and XO Mike Slattery have a private disagreement about Chandler's decision to pursue Dr. Scott's research. Look for lots of one-on-one scenes between Baldwin and Dane, since the writers were told by their Navy advisers that there'd never be arguments between the two in front of the crew.
The other conflict, which will come to a head around episode four or five, is that, with the world in disarray, there actually isn't a government anymore. So there's nothing legally binding the crew to their mission or their chain of command. There are going to be people who want to leave the ship and abandon the mission. It's a personal problem for Chandler, too, said Dane:
In pretty much every where I'm making a decision for our crew or figuring what course we're going to take, whether it be when we're going to Guantanamo Bay to refuel and find food and provisions for my crew or going to Nicauragua to gets some monkeys so that we can test vaccines on live animals, every decision I make there's in the back of my head: my family's out there somewhere and there's a little element of that that's sort of patina-ed over every single choice I make as this character.
The fact that this show takes place on a U.S. Navy ship plays a huge role in every part of the making of this show. As can be expected from a show that has Michael Bay as an executive producer, the show has a good relationship with the military. There's always at least 2-3 naval advisers on set during filming.
Of course, since it's called The Last Ship, the ship is really important. The sets are recreations of the actual ship the pilot was filmed on, with just a few things enlarged for the benefit of the larger members of the cast. (Apparently, filming on the real ships was a bit claustrophobic.) The standing sets include the high-tech bridge and the make-shift lab built for Dr. Scott in the helicopter bay.
When we were on set, the lab had most of its equipment moved out in favor of what looked like a bunch of hospital beds. Maybe the ship doesn't remain so free of the disease after all.
For exteriors, the show uses real navy ships. Not only those in dock, but they also film out at sea on them. Of course, they're held to Navy's schedule for that. For example, we were told they had to completely re-do their filming schedule when the government shut-down meant they couldn't film on base.
Super-Extreme Reality and Action-Packed
The executive producers were very committed to making sure the show was "grounded" in reality, but not beholden to it. They called it "super-extreme reality, but based in fact."
In Dr. Scott, we get the classic action-scientist. The rogue that other scientists laugh out of a room, but is always right. Mitra described her character using similar clichés:
In the past, in Rachel Scott's work she takes the back alley and gets extraordinary results. She goes against the grain and is a bit of a wild card but has had incredible successes in the past. So when its her idea to find the primordial strain of this virus in the arctic the government sanctions it.
Again, this is a Michael Bay production, so of course there's going to be big action and big explosions. In fact, Bay directed the Arctic set piece at the beginning of the pilot. And, as the show goes on, there's going to be a lot of scenes of small teams leaving the ship to get supplies/monkeys. We were practically guaranteed that every time this happened, the mission would end in trouble. So expect a lot of cuts to from the ground team doing close-quarters battles to the ship providing long-distance support.
And that's the scoop from the set visit. We'll be recapping the show, starting with this Sunday's premier.