Counter-Terrorism for Dummies
Shortly after 9/11, some critics declared the action genre dead, or at least politically incorrect. Now, only two years later, Navy NCIS is explicitly dealing with terrorism. This in the form of biochemical weapons, ineffectual government agencies, international conspiracies, and the difficulties of “inter-agency cooperation.”
A spin-off of JAG, Navy NCIS is also created by the prolific Donald P. Bellisario. With truly inspired, imaginative and groundbreaking shows such as Magnum, P.I. and Quantum Leap under his belt, one cannot avoid watching Navy NCIS with great expectations. If Magnum PI explored the intricate psyches of its characters and Quantum Leap dealt with the complexities of time travel and the desire to amend the past, then one waits for Navy NCIS to delve into the several intricacies of the post 9/11 world.
The Naval Crime Investigative Service (NCIS) is a real life law enforcement organization that, as the name suggests, is in charge of solving crimes that somehow involve the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps. The premiere episode, set shortly before Caitlin Todd (Sasha Alexander) joins the NCIS team, has her working as the head of the Secret Service personnel aboard Air Force One. During a flight, a young naval officer collapses and dies of what appears to be a sudden heart attack. Special agents Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), and forensic detective Dr. Mallard (David McCallum), all NCIS, launch an investigation. But they want to keep the body from the FBI and Secret Service. According to Gibbs, if they let the other agencies take custody of the cadaver, NCIS will not find out the outcome of the autopsy for a couple of days, after these results have been leaked to the Washington Post.
Indeed, solving the crime does not seem to be NCIS’ goal, as it’s more focused on preventing other agencies from conducting the investigation. This conflict among NCIS, the FBI, and the Secret Service is the episode’s highlight, amusing and relevant to what appears to be happening today. Unfortunately, this plotline collapses during the second half of the show. As expected, NCIS succeeds in leading on the case, discovering an intricate Al-Qaeda plot to kill President Bush (played by a look-alike actor).
The clichéd resolution of this episode reduces complexities and anxieties generated by the 9/11 attacks to plot devices. In this, however, Navy NCIS reflects our current world, where more than a few news broadcasts and fictional narratives oversimplify an intricate problem of global proportions. Judging from the pilot, Navy NCIS is far from being original and groundbreaking, relying on action movie and forensic TV show conventions. At the same time, it lacks both the gruesome cadavers shown on CSI and the loud gunfights of action movies. To its credit, I suppose, the show openly acknowledges its influences.
Near the beginning of the show, when Gibbs and DiNozzo are boarding a plane, the airport security requests to see their identifications. The security officer, perplexed at the NCIS acronym, asks the men if there is any connection with CSI, a question that one could rightfully ask at this early stage of the show. An annoyed DiNozzo replies, “Only if you’re dyslexic.” This remark not only reinforces the idea of inter-agency competition, but in a way it also acknowledges that many viewers will be drawn to watch Navy NCIS because they expect to see another spin-off of the widely popular CSI series.
The premiere also refers to Wolfgang Petersen’s film, Air Force One (1997), as this passes for most laypeople’s access to the plane. When Gibbs first boards Air Force One, he recalls the layout from having watched the film, and he is mystified that the airplane in the movie is slightly different than the one he has boarded. Moreover, the Al-Qaeda terrorists copy the film’s villains’ plan to kill the President. Ironically, despite his access to high tech forensics procedures, Gibbs’ intimate knowledge of the Air Force One movie plot is what finally leads him to uncover the terrorist plot.
It is also ironic that Navy NCIS, so plainly inspired by fiction, works so hard to be topical and “real,” referencing 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Gulf war and the war against Iraq, not to mention including President Bush. But even though Navy NCIS deals with current “hot” issues, their many complexities are ignored, obscured or trivialized. Thus, the villain of the episode is a faceless Al-Qaeda terrorist who appears on screen for less than a minute. Like most other U.S. media, the show can’t acknowledge the ideological, political, and religious reasons that prompt Al-Qaeda attacks, as twisted as these reasons may be. Even though Osama bin Laden is still at large, the popular demonization of Al-Qaeda that Navy NCIS takes for granted illustrates the success of the U.S. media war against terrorism.