The Last Ship is one of the most popular cable TV shows of recent years, as well as one of the most successful pieces of militainment. In this episode I examine the politics of the show, in particular how it depicts a conflict between the US and China. I look at how the US Navy effectively co-produced The Last Ship, moulding and shaping it to suit their PR ambitions, and discuss why it has proven so successful in a period of more subtle and multi-dimensional entertainment.
I was first told about The Last Ship some years ago, before it even came out. I could tell from the trailers and the fact Michael Bay was producing that it was a military-sponsored product, but it didn’t really interest me at the time. It was only when I got five years’ worth of reports from the Navy’s entertainment liaison office, which mention The Last Ship almost every week, that I realised just how far they’d gone to support to show. This piqued my curiosity, so I actually bothered to watch some of it.
If you like big, dumb Michael Bay entertainment then you’ll probably enjoy The Last Ship. I tired of its charms before the end of the first season, and only watched a select handful of episodes from from seasons 2, 3 and 4 before I gave up. I’m taking a few guesses as to the origin of the show and its development, but I’m assuming Michael Bay watched Battleship and realised he hasn’t yet made a big military promotional product centred on the Navy. The Air Force, Army and to a lesser extent the Marine Corps all feature heavily in Michael Bay’s films, but the Navy doesn’t really fit into stories about giant robots fighting on land.
So I’m guessing he set about developing this series to fill out his portfolio, and pay homage to the Navy. As noted in some of the emails on Battleship, the Navy has a bit of a problem PR-wise because they’re out at sea, out of mind a lot of the time. Most people haven’t the first idea what life on a ship is like, nor do they give it much thought. So, to fill out my own portfolio, this week we’re going to take a scalpel to The Last Ship and see what it’s all about.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, which will be most of you, the setup is that a guided missile destroyer is sent up to the Arctic on a scientific research mission. Unknown to the crew, the world is afflicted with a highly aggressive virus which is killing most of the population, so some scientists are sent to the arctic to try to find the primordial origins of the virus. After months in the arctic circle, out of contact, they find it and begin their adventure trying to develop a vaccine or cure for the virus while the world falls apart around them.
Naturally, the lead scientist trying to develop the cure is an attractive woman. A while back I saw a report bemoaning the lack of female characters in STEM careers in popular entertainment and frankly, I was bemused. Almost every film I see that has a scientist in it, the scientist is a woman. I think the people doing the study forgot to check whether there were any male STEM characters in their sample of movies. I don’t think SEEX or the CDC had any involvement in The Last Ship, or at least they told me they didn’t, but the character is 100% in keeping with what we’ve seen before in no end of films and TV.
One thing I found interesting about this plot, aside from its total lack of originality, is the element of fate. If the ship hadn’t been sent to the arctic then its crew wouldn’t have escaped the virus that kills most of humankind. It is almost as though fate intervened to ensure that the fine men and women of the United States Navy survived, so they could patrol the post-apocalyptic oceans putting right what one went wrong, hoping each time that the next episode will be their journey home.
It isn’t the first time the Navy have found themselves sponsoring a product with this kind of metaphysical logic. The 1980 film The Final Countdown features an aircraft carrier that is sucked into a wormhole, and they arrive in the past, a day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Cue typical time travel dilemma about whether to intervene in the past and how it might affect the future.
Just like in Quantum Leap – a series that did occasionally seek DOD support – it is heavily implied that God or fate or time intervened in the natural order of things, to enable the heroism of our protagonists. In The Last Ship this is pretty much stated explicitly at the start of episode 2, when the crew are praying for their loved ones, not knowing whether they are alive.
I find this pretty shameless. It’s one thing to glorify the military and heroise war, it’s something else to try to co-opt people’s metaphysical or religious beliefs to try to make them believe God is somehow on the side of the Department of Defense. Given that this is supposed to be the same God who told Moses ‘thou shalt not kill’, there’s a fundamental contradiction here.
But nonetheless, that’s the deceit they’re trying to pull. It isn’t simply that the US Navy is trying to do right in a world full of wrong, that they’re the good guys fighting the bad guys. It’s that God, or fate, is on their side, that their mission is ordained from the great beyond. This is not only insulting to quite a lot of Christians, it is a fine example of the degradation and politicisation of metaphysical and religious belief. And its just as insane as the person who straps on a suicide vest because he thinks its the will of Allah.
How the Navy co-produced The Last Ship
The Navy provided an enormous amount of support to The Last Ship, and in exchange basically worked as co-producers on the series. But before we get into all that I do want to point out one thing. I spent the first couple of episodes watching the Captain’s XO – his executive officer – wondering where I’d seen him before. So I looked him up, and of course it’s Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket, the psychopath that we meet when Joker gets deployed to Vietnam.
Kubrick cast this guy in his film because his big-jawed, flared nostrilled-face epitomises the animalistic nature of the most successful of fighters. He picked a guy whose face satirises the war establishment, to play the psychopath who is actually quite enjoying the Vietnam war. Decades later, the same actor was cast in The Last Ship because they felt his image fitted with the tough, aggressive, macho values that underlie everything that happens in the show. I find that pretty funny, and deeply ironic.
I’m not sure when the producers first approached the Navy, because the reports only go back to September 2012 and The Last Ship is mentioned on the very first page. It’s clear from watching the show that it simply couldn’t have been made without the Navy, or at least a Navy, supporting the production. But the extent of that support is breathtaking. They not only provided ships for filming the pilot episode, but also helped the producers decide on who the series technical advisor would be.
Note: this wasn’t the Navy searching their own ranks for their own on-set technical advisor, this was someone who’d retired from the Navy and is now working in the private sector – Captain Rick Hoffman. Obviously, almost all military technical advisors working in Hollywood are former US military men, with some British too, but it is curious to me that the Pentagon has any input on this. The emails from the Army on The Long Road Home show that they worked closely with the private technical advisor to make sure the director did what they wanted, and emails on 12 Strong show Phil Strub objecting to the producer’s choice of advisor. Surely it should be up to the producers to find, interview and appoint their advisor?
The Army were also involved in the pilot, as it is one of their Blackhawks that is shown taking our female scientist character to an infected village in Egypt. Their assessment says, ‘The Army is depicted as a responsive, flexible, and versatile force in this television program, and helps us illustrate the message that the Army is America’s Force of Decisive Action.’ It also appears that it was at the Army’s request that a special forces guy who encounters the crew at Guantanamo Bay was made an Army special forces soldier. He joins the crew and plays a fairly prominent role in the plot of the first three seasons.
When the Navy reviewed the rough cut of the pilot in early 2013 their reports call it ‘impressive’ and they immediately began scheduling a screening in DC. They also arranged a screening for CHINFO – the Navy Chief of Information, alongside TNT/TBS executives. CHINFO provided feedback, which was then used to help shape the first season treatment when TNT commissioned a full season. There was also an ‘offending line’ in the pilot episode that was removed at the Navy’s request, though I don’t know what the line was.
When the season 1 bible came in, along with scripts for episodes 2 and 3 they decided it was a supportable project, in the ‘best interests of the Navy’. Then there’s a line that says, ‘CI [Chief of Information] to brief Navy leadership buy-in required prior to begin actual coordination.’ I have no idea what this means.
As the scripts were being developed they met with ‘president of TNT creative, show’s producers, director and TNT leadership’ to establish ‘ground rules’. Meanwhile the writers were visiting various Navy locations to generate ideas. The entertainment liaison office had meetings with numerous Navy compenents while they were reviewing the scripts, and the reports suggest some very high up people particularly those in charge of the Pacific Fleet had input on the scripts. This is odd because the first season doesn’t feature the Pacific, it’s all set in the Atlantic, suggesting that the season 3 ‘pivot to China’ was already on the minds of both the Navy and the producers.
Then, in September 2013 they hit upon a problem – the Navy felt that the story and character arcs for season 1 were too ‘dark’, and set up a phone conference between themselves, Strub, Michael Bay and the TNT execs to remedy the problem. Following a ‘reset meeting’ they report that the Navy and writers were now ‘on same page in regards to thematic items’. They established contact with the all the creative leads, the Navy Public Affairs Support Element identified two former public affairs officers to help with script reviews, and everything got back on track.
Just as with other favoured productions including the Transformers movies, the military bent the rules and provided extensive support, even allowing filming to begin, before the production assistance agreement was signed. They were also writing daily SITREPs which were sent to Strub’s office and to Navy leadership. This isn’t something that happened with other Navy-supported productions so clearly they felt The Last Ship was especially important.
If you want to know more about how much support the Navy gave to The Last Ship you can read through the entertainment liaison office reports. One other thing I’d like to highight is how during the filming of season 1 the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was pushing for a cameo appearance in the series. This was arranged, but had to be cancelled, so Mabus ended up doing his cameo at the start of season 2. Bear in mind that this was before the public had seen even the pilot episode – the Navy were so confident that the show would be a hit that they were trying to arrange a cameo before even one episode had aired.
In another update, when the press visited the set and spoke to the crew and to Navy public affairs people, the report mentions that DOD and Navy reps viewed a rough cut of the pilot, commenting ‘our key communication strategy and production’s end goal are clearly aligned.’ This makes me wonder – what was the production’s ‘end goal’? Was it simply to make a popular TV show that would make money for TNT and everyone else? Or was it more about glamourising the Navy?
The assistance provided by the Navy went considerably beyond the usual production support. When Adam Baldwin (Captain Animal Mother) spoke at a dinner in DC, the Navy provided him with talking points. In the run up to the season one premiere they discussed the ‘media blitz’ at length with TNT execs, including arranging a number of screenings and coordinating social media promotion. While they were reviewing the rough cuts of the rest of season one – and making a few edits – the reports note:
Director NAVINFOWEST and Mr. Phil Strub attended marketing meeting w/TNT marketing execs 22May in Atlanta. DoD team requested review of current and future marketing products to include social media, print ads, TV promos and trailers.
TNT executives also went on a tour of the Pentagon hosted by Strub, and pre-release screenings were held at various Navy bases. Then in June 2014:
More than 500 entertainment industry professionals, TNT executives and Navy personnel at the Newseum theater Wednesday 4 Jun to attend the summer blockbuster TNT TV series premier of THE LAST SHIP in Washington. DC. Highlights included blue-carpet photos with the cast, attendee selfies, press coverage and a standing ovation for the Navy portrayal in the pilot episode. The Navy ceremonial color guard, rifle team and Navy band performed to a packed house. Early returns indicate we have collaborated with a winning network team!
They even set up and trialed a facebook chat to follow each episode, encouraging viewers to submit their questions via facebook pages so the Navy and TNT could give them prepared responses.
As you can imagine, I could go on at some length about just how involved the Navy were in almost every aspect of the show, from writing through production to marketing and interacting with the audience. But I’m sure you’ve got the picture by now – almost nothing happened on this show without the Navy being involved and having some input, all the way from making edits to the final cuts of episodes through to social media posts and arranging a cameo appearance for the Secretary of the Navy.
In short, the Navy co-produced the show. There’s no more accurate way of saying it. They didn’t just provide production support and access. They didn’t just review the scripts for accuracy. They were involved on a day by day basis, even helping to shape the overall story and character arcs, not just specific scenes and dialogue. The Navy worked with everyone from the writers through to the studio executives to the marketing team and the camera crew. To my knowledge, this strikes a new standard for just how involved the Pentagon can be in a piece of entertainment.
The Politics of The Last Ship
One thing the show does well, or badly (depending on your view), is that it incorporates a wide range of enemies and antagonists. In the first episode the Russians attack the scientists while they’re out try to obtain samples of the primordial virus up in the arctic. In episode two the ship sails to Guantanamo Bay, looking for an unmanned fuel and food supply where they won’t be exposed to the virus. They encounter some escaped terrorists, dressed in full stereotypical Arab garb, and have a brief firefight. Naturally, there is no discussion of why Arab terrorists were in Guantanamo Bay, or whether they have legitimate grievances against the US military.
Immediately after defeating the terrorists, they encounter the Russians again, this time in the form of a nuclear-powered guided missile destroyer. This all takes place in the opening two episodes. So alongside the long-running antagonist of the virus they also face a series of geopolitical enemies who, remarkably given that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, act exactly like they do in every other film and TV show you’ve seen. Stereotypes will survive the apocalypse, appears to be the message.
As things go on they also find themselves grappling with central American drug dealers and pirates and everyone else you can think of that’s been in the news in recent years. They really pack in the bad guys.
In season 2, by which time they’ve developed a cure for the virus, they struggle against a rogue faction trying to take over what’s left of the United States. One point that did make my ears prick up is that the rogue faction use a decentralised internet, where each device passes on messages to the next one, because the mobile network no longer works. This same idea of a parallel internet that isn’t dependent on the big, corporate internet that we use, is a central plot point in both Silicon Valley and Startup, both series I like that portray a decentralised internet as a good thing. The Last Ship is the first time I’ve encountered that idea, that technology, being depicted as a bad thing.
In season 3 things go off the deep end (pun intended) when, with the US now sort of having a government again, they get into a conflict with China. As we’ve explored before, the DOD generally doesn’t support productions where China is the enemy, so I wondered about this. It’s not like it’s some rogue Chinese faction or just one crazy man – the Chinese government is shown trying to wipe out the entire population of Japan by providing them with contaminated doses of the cure. They are uncompromisingly evil.
At the same time, the US is dosing Vietnam by air, in a horrific reversal of real history. The sailors are talking one day about the population being a little suspicious, and one of them says ‘the only thing we’ll be dropping on Vietnam is the cure’. When in reality they dropped millions of gallons of chemical poisons and herbicides, Agent Orange and so on, during the Vietnam war. To portray the US as the heroes and China as the genocidal maniacs is an absurd, vile deception.
So why did the DOD agree to this portrait of the Chinese? One reason that occurs to me is that most military strategists agree that in a war between the US and China, China cannot win a naval war against the US but the US cannot win a land war against China. So while the Army and Marine Corps, who would fight such a land war, might not be too happy with productions where China is the enemy, perhaps the Navy feel differently.
To flesh this out a little, I want to play you a clip from a panel discussion I watched recently on the notion of Thuycidedes’ Trap, the analysis of the ancient historian on what happens when a leading power is challenged by a rising power. What usually happens is war, though there are instances where the rising power takes over relatively peacefully, or the two powers reach some kind of detente and a new order emerges. This section of the discussion is on whether the US Navy is ready, and two retired Admirals offered their views.
Note that the US Navy has been pre-emptively planning for such a war with China for at least several years, with the aim of being 80% ready by this year. So while the retired admirals bemoan the US’s lack of a long-term strategy, military preparedness is taking place. And of course, the more you plan for a war the more likely you make that war. So I do think there’s a difference in mentality across the different branches, depending on their potential role in a US-China war, and their relative strength when compared to the Chinese forces.
Indeed, it’s in season 3 that the Captain from the first two seasons becomes some kind of envoy working on behalf of the US government and in his place we get Captain Animal Mother. While the show does not depict a straight-up war between China and the US, it comes pretty close, and is in stark contrast to most of our entertainment.
Another way of looking at this is that the US is at the centre of the post-WW2 world order, and at the forefront of global communications and popular culture. So while season 3 of The Last Ship could be seen as relatively straightforward war propaganda, I think there might be something more subtle going on. I think it’s a form of intimidation propaganda, directed at the Chinese. But the warning isn’t just about America’s military might, it’s about their PR and psychological warfare capabilities. This series depicts the Chinese as almost inhumanly evil, a little taste of how US media would no doubt portray the Chinese in real life should a war take place. I think this is the US military industrial complex doing a bit of arrogant gloating, warning the Chinese that in any such war the US would deploy their full propaganda resources to turn the rest of the world against China.
Now, you could ask whether the Navy had the ability to alter such a core storyline, whether this was something the writers insisted on and the Navy had no control over. This argument doesn’t convince me, because as the liaison office reports show they continued to review each episode and provided such extensive support that if they’d pulled out the entire third season of the show would have been in jeopardy. They also met with the writers before seasons two and three had even begun to be written, to discuss ‘thematics’.
Indeed, on episode 10 of the third season they insisted on ‘extensive revisions’ to a storyline based around a mutiny on board the ship, including some ‘blue on blue’ i.e. friendly fire. Both of these – mutiny and friendly fire – are concerns for the Navy because other films and TV series have been told to remove or change these elements in their scripts. The Navy had the power to remove or change the depiction of China in season three, especially to ask that the Chinese government not be shown in such a horrible light, but they didn’t. I can only conclude from this that this is something they wanted in the show.
Why is The Last Ship so successful?
The Last Ship made it to five seasons, and has consistently been among the most popular cable shows out there in recent years. Millions of people have tuned in for each episode, and the Navy has continued to be deeply involved. They even held meetings between the producers and the Air Force and Marine Corps, to see if they could get the other branches of the military involved in season five.
But why is the show so popular, so successful? It isn’t especially original or well made, so why has this piece of shameless naval propaganda done better than other action-oriented shows?
One element is the Michael Bay factor. He knows how to make low-brow populist trash, almost as well as anyone else in the industry. He also helped bring in money, enabling The Last Ship to maintain superior production values to competing shows. Likewise, Bay has an excellent relationship with the Pentagon and was clearly willing to do anything they asked in exchange for their help and support. And that support was more extensive than on any TV show I can think of, though some of the 50s and 60s TV shows set on ships were similarly indebted to the Navy.
All of which adds up to an action series that has near-Hollywood level production values, but which you can watch from the comfort of your living room.
There is also the thematic elements. There aren’t many conventional war stories being told, especially on television with its more limited budgets. So the series is something of a macho throwback to the post-WW2 culture of glorious fighting men setting the world to rights. That’s unusual, and again provides something different to competing series.
It also unashamedly depicts the US as fated by God to be the heroes of the globe, the righteous world police. While this philosophy was present in the post-9/11 world, under Bush, it faded somewhat under Obama as domestic concerns and the identity politics culture war came to the fore of mainstream politics. While The Last Ship does contain its share of diverse characters, including a black lesbian just like in Pitch Perfect 3, it is mostly led by stern, middle aged white guys. So I’m guessing the primary audience is middle aged white guys with fantasies of being macho military tough men. In a culture where old school masculinity is in short supply, in favour of leading men like Shia Labeouf, The Last Ship delivers a generous serving.
I’m sure there are other reasons, but I think these are the most prominent factors behind The Last Ship’s popularity. As to my own feelings – I can’t really recommend this show. It is quite repetitive and predictable and aside from what I’ve discussed today there’s very little about it that interests me. I did somewhat enjoy the first season but once the virus situation is solved the show lost its underlying conflict and tension and became a villain of the week procession that increasingly felt like a recruitment advert for the Navy with a plot attached as an afterthought.