[This is a review of The Last Ship season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
TNT’s The Last Ship is everything that a summer blockbuster should be - and one or two things that it shouldn't. Overall, though, producer Michael Bay delivers an enjoyable, visually stunning and high octane hour of television that accomplishes its main goal: it makes us want to see more.
Based on William Brinkley’s cold-war era novel of the same name, the television adaptation of The Last Ship is handled by showrunners Hank Steinberg (Without a Trace, 61*) and Steven Kane (The Closer), who lead the tale in a slightly different direction - in that this story deals with the threat posed by a global pandemic and not, exclusively, nuclear fallout.
Stationed in the arctic for a four month mission that requires radio silence, the crew of the USS Nathan James find themselves nearing the end of their isolated mission. However, as the crew begins to allow themselves a chance to think about going home, that hope is ripped away from them after a sneak attack leads to revelations about the true nature of their mission - and the horrifying realities about what has happened on land in their time at sea.
The helicopter attack, which mostly takes place over the icy terrain where Doctor Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra, playing things detached and mission focused) and her assistant are working, is a rare (for television) and fantastic demonstration of visual firepower that is orchestrated by pilot episode director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571). Explosions rock the icy ground and fill the sky and we are pulled into the action as we watch Dr. Scott scramble to save her vital samples, all while two Navy Officers (and their German Shepherd) fend off the invading choppers and then engage the enemy soldiers (who spectacularly jump out of the helicopters onto the frozen terrain) on the ground.
The Nathan James also gets in on the action with extreme closeups of its glorious weaponry as it fires upon the enemy. In real life, The Nathan James does not exist, but the ship is "created" with the help of of two active destroyers that were used extensively during filming - with the cooperation of the US Navy - to add an impressive level of authenticity that really gives the show another gear.
Following the battle, the smart cinematography continues as the urgency of the ship captain, Commander Tom Chandler (Eric Dane, stoic and impressive in the square jawed hero role), is conveyed to us with a quick bit of handheld camerawork as he interrogates one of the wounded rival soldiers on the ship deck, translating his last words as "The cure".
Face to face with Doctor Scott following that exchange, Chandler grills the scientist for answers only to discover the true purpose of their mission: the discovery of a cure to a global pandemic that has infected 80% of the world's population in the four months that The Nathan James has been cut off from the world.
From this point to the episode's end, there is barely a moment for the crew (or the audience) to catch their breaths as the world's declining state is further made clear to Chandler and his second in command, Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin) - who finds out that his son has fallen victim to the sickness and died. Of the 216 crew members, only four (ostensibly including Slattery) have made contact with home, only to hear mostly bad news. Before this can all sink in, though, a missile strike is detected - a nuke that is headed for the coast of France, where the ship is headed in an effort to re-fuel for their trip to a safe research facility. Far enough off-shore to avoid any direct physical damage from the nuclear attack (which has been fired off by who, exactly?), The Nathan James is still stuck in the dark thanks to the EMP from the blast and prone to the coming radiation cloud.
It's here where The Last Ship is at its cheesiest as Chandler demonstrates his dedication to the safety of his crew by holding a fuse in place as the engine's are flipped on, taking a jolt that is big enough to toss him through the air, but not enough to phase him once he gets back up. It's obvious that this is an effort to paint Chandler as a tough guy and as someone who is heroic, but that's already been made clear by his handling of the situation and his (and his crew's) focus on the task at hand - when most people would be on their knees crying about their personal losses and the uncertainty that awaits them.
Once back in motion, The Nathan James heads to an Italian cruise liner in search of supplies and it is here that we see the real contrast between what it means to be stuck at sea inside the "hot zone" and outside of it - as we observe a refrigerator filled with dead bodies and a grand hall that is now filled with the same. It's a sight so shocking that it pushes one officer to take his own life when he stumbles and lands on the body of one of the infected, losing his bio-hazard helmet in the process. It's a tense moment as both the Captain and SEAL team member Danny Green (Travis Van Winkle) unsuccessfully urge the officer to put down his sidearm, but it further demonstrates the willingness to put mission above all, in that the officer refuses to go back to the ship and endanger anyone else's life.
From the cruise ship to the shores of the US, the mission home gets more complicated as The Nathan James receives a delayed message diverting them away from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida and one from Captain Chandler's wife and kids telling him that they are safe. It's hard to say how much the latter has to do with the Captain's decision to ignore his latest marching orders, but with no communication between the ship and the land, Chandler decides to stay at sea, taxing Doctor Scott's efforts and Slattery's patience.
The tension between Chandler and Slattery - who wants to stick with the plan and head for Jacksonville, if only to head "home" - seems to indicate that the two will clash in a deeper way as this now self-directed mission inevitably gets more complicated. However, it is the panicked and sinister phone call made by Doctor Scott's assistant, Quincy Tophet (Sam Spruell), the splintered Russian forces that are seemingly in pursuit and the ticking clock on this pandemic, that the Captain should be really worried about.
Is this all too much for one episode, though? Bay and Steinberg do throw a lot at the screen in the pilot as the crew is faced with one challenge after another in short order (with few opportunities to get to know the characters), but with that said, future episodes will likely slow down as the story and these characters are fleshed out and we're told why we should care about them - besides, you know, their efforts to save humanity. If things don't mature in that way, however, at least we know that we can count on The Last Ship for some big screen level popcorn fun. The bottom line is, this ambitious show can be more than that and I'd be surprised if it doesn't get there after such a strong debut.
The Last Ship airs Sundays @9PM ET on TNT.