In the tradition of epidemic crisis movies like "Outbreak" and "Contagion," TNT's new series "The Last Ship" is set aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer during a global catastrophe that has wiped out much of the world. While thwarting rogue enemy forces, the scientist on board faces a race against time to find the cause — and an antidote. The 10-part series, starring Eric Dane ("Grey’s Anatomy") as the ship's captain and Rhona Mitra as the paleobmicrobiologist Rachel Scott, plays into our paranoia about pandemics.
"The show is hyper real. It's the worst-case scenario but grounded in reality, the fact that it could happen," says executive producer Steven Kane, who had virologist consultants on call from concept stages through writing and production. "I'm a science geek anyway so I started off with searches on the Web. I started with the idea of the virus starting up North in the permafrost, with microbes buried beneath millennia of ice and snow, and with global warming they get released into the atmosphere, becoming pathogens that humankind is not prepared to deal with. I asked questions: 'What if this was buried in the permafrost?' They said, 'That’s our worst nightmare.'"
When Kane probed further, he got real-world validation. "How do I design a virus that will be deadly enough for my purposes? How is it transmitted?" he asked, and learned, "Paula Cannon at USC is doing research on a blood-borne Ebola-like virus that comes from rodents and is very deadly, easily spread and could be used a weapon. Obviously, the U.S. government is very interested in this stuff."
In the premiere, airing on June 22, it's revealed that the virus started in Egypt but has been transformed, and how that happened is a mystery. "Has it been weaponized, or was it just an accident?" Kane poses, noting that either is a possibility in the real world. "In Holland, some virologists decided to tinker with some flu to see if they could make it more transmissible by air and used ferrets [as hosts], and they made it easy to get. So we start with the question, 'Is this something more nefarious?' As we go forward, we see it's more complicated.The national security implications of the virus being weaponized come into play greatly through the season," he says, adding, "I have heard from people within the Pentagon and in the science community who say we're on the right track."
Hank Steinberg, another executive producer, sets "The Last Ship" apart from other viral apocalypse fare. "What flips the paradigm on its head is that these people are really isolated. They have the unique point of view of people who are outside the hot zones and don't really know what's going on. At each new place they go to they don't know what they're going to find. When they go to Guantanamo Bay for fuel and supplies, will it be safe? Are there hostile people or sick people there? Those are the kind of episodes we have going forward."
Hostiles aren't limited to Gitmo — enemies who want the potential cure are everywhere, on land and sea. But the main villain is the virus itself, and the crew’s mission "is to stay alive long enough to find a cure and bring the vaccine back," one Steinberg thinks will resonate with viewers. "Whether it's the government working on antiterrorist [bio-weapons] or just naturally occurring pathogens, they're a real threat to us. It’s an invisible enemy — the scariest kind."
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