Let’s talk about The Last Ship. It’s been on for several weeks now, so if you were planning to watch it you probably already are. It’s what you’d expect from a basic cable show executive produced by Michael Bay. But the pilot — which has lots of explosions — got me thinking about the character from whose point of view a writer can choose to tell a story. I know, I know, it’s based on a book. I haven’t read it, but I’m assuming that, like the show, it’s told through the eyes of Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane). He’s a big, tough white guy who, no doubt, has proved his mettle serving in the U.S. Navy. Plot developments in the pilot demonstrate for us that he’s brave, dedicated to his men, and loves his wife and children. Basically, he’s an all-around Good Guy, complete with the white hat, which he places on his head with great symbolic purpose.
Despite having a soft spot for post-apocalyptic drama, I was slightly surprised at how the pilot drew me right in. Armed with only broad brushstrokes of knowledge about the show — that it’s set in the wake a global pandemic — I was eager to see what would happen from moment to moment. Suspense is created by having the ship, the U.S.S. Nathan James, coming out of four months radio silent. Like Rick Grimes waking up from a coma, the crew members are trying to catch up. They’re finding out new, devastating information by the minute.
An English scientist, Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), is also aboard, studying Arctic Terns in a helicopter hanger-turned-laboratory. She’s a little more up-to-speed than everyone else. In studying scripts and whatnot, I learned a little rule of thumb about protagonists. The protagonist of your story is the person who has the most at stake. This way of looking at things is particularly handy when you’re dealing with an ensemble cast. Although each character contributes to move the story forward, you should be able to boil things down to an individual protagonist. Take The Breakfast Club, the ensemble-isest of ensemble films. Brian’s the protagonist (IMO). His very life is as stake. He’s suicidal. It’s in his voice that we hear the film’s lesson; that we’re all “an athlete, a basket case…” etc.
Back to The Last Ship, which is not, by any means, an ensemble show. It’s Captain Chandler’s story. We also get to know a few crew members, including Mike Slattery, played by criminally underused Adam Baldwin, who serves as little more than a foil for Chandler’s irrational determination. However, Dr. Scott is, hands down, the character with the most at stake.
It turns out, the ship’s whole mission has been a cover to get her to the feeding ground of these Arctic Terns so that she can develop a vaccine for a disease that is raging out of control the world over. The fate of humanity literally rests in her hands. As a viewer, I don’t care about Captain Chandler anymore. I want to know more about Dr. Scott. What is she thinking during all of this? Is she scared? Privately freaking the fuck out? She looks cool and collected, but holy crap. Wouldn’t this have been a much more interesting pilot if told from her point of view?
In taking this approach, we would lose some of the suspense of the crew learning about the state of the world. We would most likely know, as Dr. Scott does, that the vast majority of Earth’s population is dead and that her research is the real reason they’re in the middle of a frosty sea. But we could make up for that with the tension she would be experiencing. She’s keeping a massive secret from 200 heavily armed people, and it’s not like she gets to go on Facebook and vent about it. Who does she talk to? We barely meet her assistant, although previews hint that he’s not a nice man. What’s that relationship like? Are they close? Do they share their fears? Do they think their chances of finding a cure are good? This stuff is so much more interesting! They should have made Dr. Scott the protagonist.
Maybe the creators made the choice they did because the default for action shows is the male point of view. Maybe they thought viewers are more excited by the military than by scientists. Probably, they didn’t even consider going another way. There are a lot of choices involved with how to tell any given story. I guess we should just be glad Megan Fox isn’t in it.
Little bit of trivia: The author of The Last Ship, William Brinkley, killed himself in 1993. Maybe he had a vision of the future wherein Michael Bay turns his book into a TV show.