Pilot Reviews: The Last Ship and The Strain

Although both of these shows are built from the idea of a deadly virus running out of control, they take it off in very different directions and tones. So I thought I’d put both reviews together so that I can really draw out that contrast. In no way is it because I’m massively behind on my reviews and this is the only hope of catching up.

The Strain is written and produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hell Boy) and is based on his series of novels. A plane lands at JFK and then completely shuts down, not a peep is heard. In an encouraging display of competence, the airport controller calls in emergency teams and after a bit of bickering, it’s the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) that get to be the lucky first entrants to the plane. Everyone’s dead and they have no idea how.

It’s a stonking set up, and I was pretty gripped by it. The sight of the empty plane (described as ‘dead’) is chilling and the displays of competence by all parties is really satisfying. What I find scary in horror movies is realism, normal people making sensible choices and being overwhelmed by the something completely out of control.

Sadly, that satisfaction was show lived because from the moment the CDC team get into the plane, all competence and realism is destroyed and the plot and characters become entirely driven by the need for a dramatic moment before each ad break. The team get on the plane in their full sealed suits, they stand in the doorway and look around at all the people not moving, they check two nearby passengers and declare everyone dead. They start wandering the plane aimlessly, they split up and ignore the radio calls telling them not to and asking what’s going on. Then low and behold, not everyone on the plane is dead! I’m sorry, but what kind of first responder or scientist jumps to “everyone’s dead” from “two people are dead and no one else is moving”? It may seem a relatively minor quibble, but it set up the rest of the episode for a similar level of eye-roll-inducing incompetence.

The Last Ship meanwhile is produced by Michael Bay (Transformers, Pearl Harbor) and based on a book from the 80’s by William Brinkley. The USS Nathan James has been on a mission in the arctic, out of radio contact for 4 months. When they finally reconnect with civilisation it’s to find that a virus has swept the world, a good percentage of people are dead, governments are falling and the only hope for a cure rests with the CDC scientists on board who, unknown to the crew, were investigating the virus. But they’re not the only ones looking for a cure and they’ve got to defend themselves against other desperate people, as well as trying to keep the ship sailing and crew functioning.

The contrast between the two shows is fascinating. While the virus is more established and more catastrophic in The Last Ship, the show is actually more contained and focussed. The characters are all on board the ship, they’ve got limited resources (even down to fuel and food) and a balance between saving themselves and the improbable challenge of saving the world. In The Strain meanwhile, things are just getting started and there are whole government agencies available to head things off, they have all the resources they need to manage the situation, so the jeopardy can only come from people screwing up.

The tone of the shows is also completely different and is pretty predictable if you know anything about the two big names involved. Guillermo del Toro is dark, he’s about creepiness and how the fantastic can interact with the real, our heroes are the quiet people, scientists and administrators who are voices of reason and competence in the face of something out of this world. The Strain is ominous, brooding and all about what might happen. Michael Bay meanwhile is shiny, he’s big and brash and loud. The Lost Ship is action and adventure, giant pieces of military hardware swinging into action, heroes in uniform making speeches and following the rules until the only way to be the hero is to break the rules, and then agonise over it afterwards. It’s not about the possibilities and what you need to imagine, it’s about the visceral here and now.

I was all set up to love The Strain, I’ve loved a lot of Guillermo del Toro’s work and was far more attracted to the tone and direction. But he screwed it up. The quiet scientist is only the hero if he really is competent, it’s only creepy if you carefully control what you see, it’s only scary if events and timings are surprising, and it’s only interesting if it’s unusual. The cookie cutter characters (team leader who’s losing his family because he’s too dedicated to his job, 2nd in command who slept with the boss, blah blah blah) were as predictable as the timing of the scary jumps and the sense of mystery was sacrificed in favour of quick reveals.

I wasn’t initially as drawn to The Last Ship however, it’s not the sort of setup that I find as interesting, the trailers made it look silly and I’ve had serious issues with Michael Bay sacrificing strong ideas to bring them down to the lowest common denominator of sex and explosions. But, while I may not have been as keen on what The Last Ship was trying to do, it did at least stick to its principles and do those things really well. The characters are cheesy, the action sequences prolonged, the direction veering towards military porn at times and the speeches over the top. But it all fits together and works in a way that I ultimately found very satisfying.

The Last Ship started from an understanding of the limitations of the medium and genre and was as good as it could be within those limits. The Strain however seemed to start with lofty ambitions and then have to cut all the corners off. So, much to my shame, I’m sticking with The Last Ship and ditching The Strain. I’m going with Michael Bay over Guillermo del Toro. Transformers is still awful and Pan’s Labyrinth is still amazing though.

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