The Final Ship: Military Criticism and Redemption in Post-Cataclysmic Narratives

Rikk Mulligan

Carnegie Mellon University


Where novels and films of post-apocalyptic SF span the globe or look forward centuries, television tends to restrict its narrative scope to the weeks leading up to the cataclysm, immediate reactions, or perhaps the first generation to come of age afterward. When produced for an American audience, the fate of the U.S. tends to be a synecdoche for the world and its collapse a metaphor for the failure of the progressive promise of science and technology. Yet this privileged interpretation of “the twilight’s last gleaming” as the end of modernity is backwards, it depends on America’s status as a world power derived from economic and military strength. Since the Vietnam War, American military power has become more brittle, subject to criticism and vulnerable to new forms of asymmetric warfare. After 9/11, America deployed a force in post-Cold War transition, one without enough troops or weapons systems, a force that included under-equipped National Guard units and private security forces as auxiliaries. Today, after the US Navy has experienced a series of highly publicized accidents, confidence in US power remains shaken.

Where the military is often depicted as “justified” violence, post-cataclysmic narratives such as Battlestar Galactica and The Last Ship question the military’s role by highlighting legal and human rights violations, and failures to protect civilians. The survivors of nuclear and AI-apocalypse in BSG coalesce about a near-obsolete relic of the last war, one that may not be able to protect them as one “ragtag fugitive fleet.” The crew of The Last Ship, the eponymous destroyer and its crew, quests for a cure for the global pandemic with limited civilian involvement and guidance. Much post-cataclysmic TV seems to focus on criticizing American armed forces, yet its treatment is also more nuanced, humanizing the military and reminding viewers that both personnel and citizens share a common fate.

2018 National Conference
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