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The Last Ship

The Last ShipNavy stories are tough to get right – particularly in the modern era.

The setup usually sounds appealing: an ensemble of characters working together within a ship that is a character all on its own. But when you get into the practicalities of storytelling, the complications are plenty. Those characters, for instance, are stratified by the hierarchy of their fleet, all work in highly specialized jobs that most writers have never done, and abide by certain principles that aren’t as common in general society as they ought to be. But at the same time, they’re still real people — just like the rest of us.

With all those competing factors, getting a true ‘navy’ story right becomes one hell of a balancing act. I’ve certainly never managed it. I’ve written before about the connection between Defense Command and the Royal Canadian Navy — how learning about Canada’s fleet shaped the ships and characters that populate the Belt Squadron. But when you’re writing a sci-fi series set 200 years in the future, you get to cheat: the Defense Command Navy, for instance, allows relationships aboard ships (for better or worse), and is also much better funded than the Canadian fleet. These tweaks make storytelling a little easier.

Captain Topshee commands CFB Halifax, and he's an unassuming, modest, well-respected, and hugely capable guy.
Book-signing photo op with CFB Halifax commander Captain Angus Topshee, when we donated sets of Defense Command novels to the at-sea libraries of all Royal Canadian Navy ships.

When you’re abiding by a present-day naval reality, you have much less room to maneuver. It’s almost like writing a Jane Austen novel — characters must fit into their roles, so plot tension often comes from them pressing against the expectations of their position. The difference, though, is that in a navy story, expectations are rarely a bad thing. You might want Darcy to get off his high horse to be with Elizabeth; you don’t want a Captain to disregard his leadership responsibilities. Well, I don’t, anyway.

All of this explains why, despite my obvious affection for the RCN, I’ve never written a story revolving around the fleet. I once did try –– a project featuring a character called Natalie Quinn began aboard a Kingston-class patrol vessel –– but as I drafted, I rapidly realized how little I knew about what I was writing. Unwilling to get everything wrong, I shelved it… and when I visited HMCS Halifax in 2013, I was glad I did. While I feel like I understood the characters, I wouldn’t have had a prayer with the technical detail, and the plot would have been all wrong.

Sackville’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander (Ret’d) Jim Reddy.

The challenge was similar when HMCS Sackville joined Champions in 1942. I’m unashamedly obsessed with Canada’s last surviving Second World War convoy escort –– she still sits in Halifax harbor, telling her stories to everyone who’ll listen –– so bringing her into Champions made perfect sense. Until I started writing Outports. Then I had to send anxious emails to the ship’s current skipper, Jim Reddy, asking how to navigate the coast of Newfoundland in dense fog. I’m sure I got more than a few details wrong, but I was able to get away with it because Sackville was a guest character in that universe… and because it’s alternate history. Anything is possible in a world where a Flower-class corvette is swimming with a sarcastic alien dragon.

But given my own inability to get the real navy right on the page, it’s probably no surprise that I’m truly impressed by writers (and producers and casts) who get fleets right on screen. Unfortunately, you don’t see it very often.

For instance: perhaps my favorite moment from War of the Worlds comes when H.G. Wells sends the Royal Navy against the Martian invasion, and HMS Thunder Child (a torpedo ram) manages to bring down one of the tripods. When Spielberg took a run at the story in 2005, I sat in the theater eagerly waiting for an AEGIS destroyer to show up and start slinging missiles… but we got tanks and Apache helicopters instead. It was my biggest disappointment with the film.

The Peter Berg film Battleship might have been the antidote: a silly boardgame-to-screen adaptation, sure, but at least the United States Navy (our family at sea) was front and center. Unfortunately, aside from the jarring moment when one Japanese and two American destroyers first encounter the newly-arrived (heavily-plot-deviced) aliens, the film struck me as all sorts of wrong. Don’t even get me started about the notion that a museum ship crewed by a handful of veterans could put to sea for action in half an hour; fully crewed in 1945, USS Missouri could hardly have gone from cold start to open sea with such speed.

For years, only the Australians seemed to have found the formula for effective navy stories on screen. For five seasons, Sea Patrol followed the fictional patrol ship HMAS Hammersley on missions against human traffickers, poachers, illegal fishermen, terrorists, and organized crime. The show veered towards soap opera from time to time, but not ridiculously so, and it was easily the best screen representation of a modern fleet I’d seen… until recently.

This week, TNT’s summer thriller The Last Ship was renewed for its third season –– and it’s well deserved. Loosely based on the Cold War-era novel by William Brinkley, the series follows the USS Nathan James as her crew seeks the cure for a global pandemic. I won’t spoil the plot here, but suffice to say that all the writing challenges I’ve mentioned have been very ably handled by its creative team.

I’m sure they must get some of the details of operating an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer wrong, but the close involvement of the United States Navy in the production makes any errors impossible for a landlubber like myself to detect. Most importantly: they get the characters right. Viewers accustomed to the modern practice of leading with antiheroes may find Nathan James’ crew a bit too good, earnest, and patriotic (even if their XO does occasionally kill people with an axe… or a rocket battery). However, as someone with an abiding affection for John Ford movies, the characters definitely work for me. They even ring true.

With Commodore (Ret’d) Cal Mofford in 2013.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about The Last Ship is that its characters remind me of people I met in Halifax in 2013: the junior officers aboard HMCS Halifax, who invited me into their mess for lunchtime steak, mashed potatoes, and beer; Flag Officers like Commodore Cal Mofford, who was intensely thoughtful and yet optimistic when discussing anti-terrorism operations after 9/11; Base Commander Captain Angus Topshee, from whom I’d previously learned about HMCS Toronto’s anti-piracy cruise around Africa; and of course: the navy veterans who work tirelessly for HMCS Sackville.

I like spending time with those sorts of people, which is why they populate everything I write. And as a viewer, The Last Ship has earned my deep loyalty for giving those sorts of characters the chance to save the world.

Just one flag-waving suggestion for the show’s writers: you started adding international characters in season two, so how about a Canadian for season three? We have plenty of excellent officers and sailors who have fought pirates, done massive drug busts, and even helped after Hurricane Katrina. Plus, our crews are well-accustomed to keeping ships operational without necessary resources. If you need another new face for Nathan James, perhaps give the RCN a call?

Either way: a hearty congratulations to the creative team behind The Last Ship –– and to the excellent cast. I eagerly look forward to the third season, and hopefully, many more beyond.

Bravo Zulu, Nathan James.