Most of the time, comparing a film or TV show to a video game is a snide way of dismissing that film or TV show. The comparison is meant to suggest that the work in question focuses purely on action, to the detriment of its cardboard characters, or that it’s less interested in building complex narratives than it is in simple point-A to point-B storytelling. The comparison is unfairly reductive, particularly to the host of video games with complex narratives and fascinating characters. But it keeps getting made, because it’s a useful way to explain why so many action movie characters in the last decade or so seem less like human beings than vessels for endless punishment.
What, then, to make of The Last Ship, TNT’s new sci-fi action series that really is like a video game? The series uses the over-the-shoulder, run-and-crouch visuals of games like Gears Of War to solid effect; and even if its storytelling has the feeling of going from point A to point B, without time for sidebars, there’s a pleasing muscularity to it, at its best. There’s a definite feel in the first three episodes that each episode is set in its own “world,” with each world breaking down into different levels that can only be resolved via firefights with the enemies. (Here, those enemies are usually Russian, though episode two makes room for al-Qaida in the most overblown and stereotypical of forms.) At its best, The Last Ship captures the way that nondescript video game characters function less as proxy human beings pushing a narrative forward, but more as avatars allowing the imagination to insert the player into a digital world. The storytelling here is all about forward momentum, and there’s very little time to stop and think.
Based on the novel by William Brinkley (and having taken only the premise of that novel for its setup), The Last Ship follows the crew of the USS Nathan James, a Navy battleship that returns from a secret training mission in the Arctic only to find that the mission was a cover for its one civilian passenger—paleomicrobiologist Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra)—to attempt to develop a vaccine for a virus that threatened to plunge the world into apocalypse. When the ship left, outbreaks of the virus were isolated to a few communities in Africa and Asia. But once it returns, four months later, the crew discovers the virus has devastated the planet—leaving 80 percent of the world’s population either dead or dying, and the few survivors mostly holed up in quarantined safe zones. Now, the Nathan James must find a way to protect Rachel by any means necessary while she works on a cure, all the while attempting to find the necessary supplies it needs to keep floating. Episodes take on the form of being about smaller sub-goals, like getting food and fuel or meeting up with others who’ve survived the outbreak.
It’s a good premise for an action/sci-fi series, no doubt, and creators Hank Steinberg and Steve Kane have assembled a solid cast to carry it along. The male lead, Commander Tom Chandler, is played by Eric Dane in his first major TV role since Grey’s Anatomy, and he has a gruff authority to him that could grow wearying but largely gives the show a suitable center. He’s frequently joined by Adam Baldwin as Chandler’s second-in-command, and Dane and Baldwin seem intent on having a quietly purposeful growl-off in their scenes together. Mitra is less effective as Rachel, but the series doesn’t obscure her mission from the rest of the crew (or the audience) for very long, thus allowing her to play shades other than “mysterious passenger,” as it seems she might have to in the early going. (Indeed, the show is generally pretty good about letting the story move forward, and it plays a handful of plot points that other series might have sat on for longer in episode three.)
Yet if the show is like a video game shooter in some good ways, it also has a whiff of the worst elements of the genre to it. For one thing, like many military-set stories, it has a tendency to conflate its characters’ ranks with their character development, giving them only the paltriest of backstories and lives back home. (To its credit, it aims to take place in the modern military, with women in prominent roles throughout the ship and at least one out lesbian serving among their ranks.) Conflict between characters is often subsumed to their devotion to the overall mission, and while that may be accurate toward how the military might navigate through a scenario where the world ends, it’s not terribly exciting to watch people bite back their objections when the captain gives orders. There’s no subtext to the series, and the characters end up being largely what they say they are, something that’s fatal for a genre show. The series even reveals the one inevitable mole by the end of the pilot.
This puts all of the burden of the narrative on the action sequences, something that makes sense for a series executive-produced by Michael Bay. As mounted by Jonathan Mostow in the pilot and Jack Bender (formerly of Lost) in the next two episodes, these action sequences are technically proficient but mostly very dull. The stakes are rarely about anything more than the next goal that must be attained, and the series’ storytelling turns into a long string of checkpoints. When the characters get to the caches of food they need, or manage to put a hurt on a Russian battleship pursuing the Nathan James, they may as well get a full health reset and onscreen text reading “SAVE POINT UNLOCKED.” Being like a video game gives The Last Ship some nifty visual aesthetics and some good forward momentum, but it can’t give the series characters or storytelling worth giving a damn about.