Exclusive: Dystopia is out to sea with Michael Bay's The Last Ship

Exploring how screwed up our planet and humanity is in the near future is a cottage industry on TV right now. There are zombies on The Walking Dead, alien invasions on Falling Skies, a world post-angel war on Dominion, and now a single U.S. Navy ship that protects the last pocket of non-virus-infected humanity in TNT's The Last Ship.

Loosely based on William Brinkley's novel of the same name, The Last Ship, as co-showrun by Hank Steinberg and Steve Kane, is an intriguing mix of military drama, scientific race to find a cure and character drama mushed together in a glossy dystopian wrapper. Eric Dane plays the ship's stalwart commander, Tom Chandler, with Adam Baldwin as his crusty XO, Mike Slattery, and Rhona Mitra is paleomicrobiologist Rachel Scott, who is the boat's precious cargo, as she is the only person who might be able to develop a vaccine.

With the 10-hour series underway, executive producers Steinberg and Kane and actor Eric Dane talked to Blastr about how their act of dismantling society is actually hopeful.

The series is obviously a departure from the novel, but what about the core story seemed worthy of adaptation?

Hank Steinberg: When we read the book, we were attracted to the idea of a lone ship and this captain and his crew who had to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. We wanted to have a sense of drive and a sense of hope in the show, but a pandemic idea felt much more contemporary. It also gave us the ability to have the hope that, if there's a pandemic that can wipe out the world, perhaps there's a way for humanity to solve it. It enables us in the series to have a real narrative drive to solve the problem, as well as contend with being isolated and staying alive along with action adventures off the ship.

A lot of the story takes place on the deck or in the bowels of the USS Nathan James, which creates an often tense, claustrophobic feel to the show. Do you ratchet that up as the series progresses?

Steve Kane: The claustrophobia of the ship is a character in the show the way the ship in Star Trek is, or the ship in Battlestar [Galactica] is. The U.S.S. Nathan James is a character and our home. We use the claustrophobia to our advantage when we need to. There's an episode where they are afraid someone on the ship might have the virus. What do you do? How do you deal with the fear of that? Do you lock down the ship and create paranoia that could then create a tremendous amount of unrest? It's a crucible episode for us.

Eric Dane: It is a little stiffing. Some of the scenes we shot on the ship and the sets we re-created, the areas are small and narrow which can create stiff and stilted body language. There's not a lot of room to move around. We actually went underway on the U.S.S. Halsey for three days and got to experience what it was like being at sea with these guys. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to keep that thing going, but there is a lot of downtime, and it gets a little claustrophobic. The whole time I was on the ship I kept thinking, "Thank God I'm not on a submarine."

How does the virus pandemic unfold in the show?

Kane: Once the pilot ends, we cover about six or eight weeks of travel. A lot of post-apocalyptic stories drop you to a place after everything has happened, the Road Warrior model. We're actually in the throes of it. What's been going on is the breakdown of society because of this terrible catastrophe. We also get to create cool mythologies too, like what happened to the virus, and how was that extra gene added that Rachel discovers [in the pilot]? What's behind that?

Since the only truly safe place is on the ship, will the crew venture out?

Kane: Yes, everything they're doing is mission-oriented in terms of finding food, fuel and keeping the ship working properly. Then we have the Michael Bay of it all, which is to get off the ship and get into big action scenes, or go into the jungle, or what if they get a distress call on the water? Do they go get the person? Who might be chasing them?

Dane: Every episode, there are a lot of hurdles. We have to keep the ship running and be very selective about where we are going to make port and which land we will go explore. Our first mission is to hit Guantanamo Bay so we can refuel and get some provisions. We have some problems at Gitmo. The base is evacuated and left in the hands of a few independent contractors to watch over the inmates. They decide since there's no government and everyone is fending for themselves, they let the prisoners out figuring that everyone will band together, but they don't.

Do we get a lot of character time, or is the show more about the action of the pandemic?

Dane: Action is not always synonymous with character study and character development, but the writers have done a terrific job actually letting the audience get to know these characters quickly and effectively. It's not just a lot of bombs going off and gunfire. They've woven in some real good character work in between the explosions.

In a world with no military or government anymore, how does Chandler keep his crew together?

Steinberg: The central challenge for Chandler is not how is he going to survive physically, but how is he going to hold the group together when the Navy doesn't exist anymore. The government doesn't exist anymore. It really is his moral authority that's evident to keep the crew together or fall apart. If every decision he makes is under a microscope by the crew, do they need to believe in this guy? How much information does he give?

Dane: I can say there comes a time in the season where a bunch of the sailors on the ship create dissension in the ranks. They want to get off the ship, but through a couple different things that go down we preserve the chain of command pretty well.

As you were shooting, were there a lot of discussions about how you would fare in a situation like this one?

Dane: Ten years ago, this would have been pure science fiction. Now, it's highly probable, and in some parts of the world, a reality. We definitely have something very real here, not just as written but in what's going on with the very real, very scary notion of this global pandemic. I would suggest you watch this show and keep a bottle of hand sanitizer near you [laughs].

The Last Ship airs Sundays 9/8c.

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