Inside NCIS' Season-Ending, Long-in-the-Making Pearl Harbor Episode: 'It Was a Story That Had to Be Told'

NCIS Season 17 Finale Preview

With what turned out to be its last original episode of Season 17, CBS’ NCIS this week is taking a trip to Pearl Harbor that has been long in the planning.

This Tuesday’s episode, titled “The Arizona,” finds Gibbs’ team trying to verify the identity of Joe Smith (guest star Christopher Lloyd), a curmudgeonly 95-year-old who claims he served on the titular battleship at the time of the Dec. 7, 1941 the attack on Pearl Harbor — and as such, wants to be interred there upon his death.

Thing is, there are no records of Joe having served on the USS Arizona, nor is there any apparent evidence that puts him aboard the ship on that Day of Infamy. Should Gibbs trust his extremely discerning gut? Could the nonagenarian be spinning a tall tale?

However things pan out for Joe Smith, the odyssey on which he sends Gibbs and the NCIS team makes for an interesting ersatz “finale.”

As co-showrunner Frank Cardea tells TVLine, “It’s a very special episode. And it’s an unusual episode — there’s no killer, there’s no bad guy. It’s just all about NCIS agents trying to do this wonderful thing for an old man.”

Co-executive producer Gina Monreal, who penned the powerful hour, says, “I think all of us at the show wanted to write a Pearl Harbor episode over the years.” In fact, she used to bat the idea around with Gary Glasberg, NCIS‘ previous showrunner until his sudden passing in September 2016, “but we never committed to doing it.

“For me personally, it was daunting because I knew all the research I would have to do, and I knew I’d want to get it exactly right,” Monreal says. She received a significant, indirect nudge from her grandfather-in-law, a World War II vet who, like Lloyd’s character, was reluctant at first to revisit his service in detail. “He didn’t talk about the war until right before his death, but seeing the importance of his story and what it meant to him — and then going through and reading as many accounts as I could find, watching as many videos I could find, seeing how these men told these stories — was so inspiring, I realized it was a story that had to be told.”

It also had to be told ASAP, given the increasingly distant history involved. “We’re really nearing the end of the time when this story can be told,” Monreal notes, given that any Pearl Harbor survivors are at this point “in their 90s and 100s.” Specifically, and quite sadly, “There were three when we first started the episode, but in February Don Stratton passed away [at age 97],” the scribe reports.

When all was said and done, with a premise plotted out and a script in hand, all that was left was filling the key guest-starring role. “I wrote it with [Christopher Lloyd] in mind, with his voice in my head,” Monreal shares, “so when he said yes and we got thim, it was such a thrill. The amount of times when you have somebody in mind and it ends up being that person…. It’s rare.”

The Back to the Future and Taxi alum, having expressed an interest in appearing on TV’s most watched drama, actually was eyeballed for an episode that filmed about a month prior, but EP Cardea knew something juicier was right down the pike.

“We said, ‘If he’s really interested, let’s hold off because there’s an episode coming up where he would be the writer’s dream come true,’ and it worked out. It was meant to be.”

Want more scoop on NCIS, or for any other show? Email InsideLine@tvline.com and your question may be answered via Matt’s Inside Line.

GET MORE: Finales, Interviews, Previews