Saturday, April 25, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 71: The Return of Captain Nemo (1978)

"I am Captain Nemo. I have been asleep for 100 years aboard my submarine, Nautilus. I would probably still be left encapsulated had it not been for two intrepid agents of American Naval Intelligence...who quite by chance came upon my ship trapped by seismic underwater quakes..."

-Opening voice-over narration to The Return of Captain Nemo (1978)

On March 8, 1978, CBS began airing in prime-time the latest science fiction TV series from the master of disaster Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc.)

In essence, this new venture -- which represented Allen's final attempt at series work -- was an unholy hodgepodge of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) mixed with a little Jules Verne, and with a huge helping of Star Wars, which was still playing in theaters and had become nothing less than a national craze. The extremely short-lived series was called The Return of Captain Nemo, though some viewers may remember it by its foreign, theatrical title, The Amazing Captain Nemo.

Only three hour-long episodes of The Return of Captain Nemo ("Deadly Black Mail," "Duel in The Deep" and "Atlantis Dead Ahead") were produced and aired, and the obscure, extremely rare series has mostly been seen since in an abbreviated compilation movie format. This strange broadcast and distribution history has resulted in some apparent confusion about whether or not the original production was a mini-series, a made-for-TV movie or simply a series. All the evidence suggests the latter, since the three 45-minute segments feature individual titles and writer/director/guest star credits. The series aired in prime time, drew terrible ratings, was unceremoniously canceled, and then exhumed from its watery grave as the theatrical or TV-movie that many nostalgic folk of my generation remember.

The first episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, "Deadly Blackmail" commences as a diabolical mad scientist, Dr. Waldo Cunningham (Burgess Meredith) blackmails Washington D.C. for the princely sum of one billion dollars from his perch in the command center of his highly-advanced submarine, the Raven.

Unless the President pays up in one week's time, Cunningham will fire a nuclear "doomsday" missile at the city. To prove his intent is serious, Cunningham destroys a nearby island with a laser called "a delta ray." The creature in charge of firing this weapon is a frog-faced golden robot in a silver suit and gloves. Every time the delta ray is fired (over the three episodes...), we cut back to identical footage of this strange frog robot activating the deadly device.

This introductory scene sets the breathless tone and pace for much of the brief series, proving immediately and distinctly reminiscent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Specifically, Cunningham's right-hand man in the command center is a giant, baritone-voiced robot/man called "Tor." This villain -- when not speaking directly into a communications device that resembles a high-tech bong -- looks and sounds like the cheapest Darth Vader knock-off you can imagine, right down to the rip-off James Earl Jones voice.

Tor even boasts psychic abilities not unlike the power of the Force. When intruders steal aboard the Raven, for instance, Tor can psychically senses their presence there; just as Vader could sense the presence of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Yes, I know Darth Vader isn't actually a robot and his power wasn't actually psychic, but this is the kind of distinction that escaped the creators of The Return of Captain Nemo.

And speaking of The Death Star, Cunningham -- who essentially plays Governor Tarkin to Tor's Lord Vader -- the submarine Raven's deadly delta ray looks an awful lot like the primary weapon of that destructive imperial space station. Much more troubling, however, is the fact that the Raven, Cunningham's powerful submarine, is actually a just barely re-dressed Space:1999 eagle spaceship, replete with the four rear-mounted rocket engines, the dorsal lattice-work spine, the modular body, and the front, bottle nose capsule. Yep, it's all there. Many of the underwater sequences in The Return of Captain Nemo are incredibly murky and feature superimposed bubbles and dust in the foreground (probably to hide how bad the miniatures look...), but I've attempted to post a few photographs of the Raven here, so you can see for yourself that, yep, Cunningham's ship is an underwater Moonbase Alpha eagle transporter.

Anyway, while Washington D.C. puzzles over the nefarious threat of Professor Waldo Cunningham, two Navy frogmen, Commander Tom Franklin (Tom Hallick) and Lt. Jim Porter (Burr De Benning) happen upon an ancient submarine trapped on an undersea reef. From an exterior port hole, they detect a figure trapped inside a smoke-filled glass tube. They board the ship and find that this figure is actually the legendary Captain Nemo...in cryogenic freeze! The two men immediately free Captain Nemo (Jose Ferrer) from hibernation and he steps out heroically, wearing a cape and ready for action (after exclaiming "my experiment worked!")

Turns out Nemo has been asleep for one hundred years, and it is now April 9th, 1978. The spry captain reveals to Tom and Jim that Jules Verne was no mere novelist, but actually his biographer...and that all his adventures are true. Furthermore, Nemo wants to resume his search for the lost continent of Atlantis immediately. Jim and Tom, meanwhile, are astounded to see that the 127-year old Nautilus is a nuclear-powered submarine, one equipped with all the latest technology...including radar scopes. Interestingly, it is not just any radar device Captain Nemo has invented (along with cryogenic suspension and nuclear-powered submarines...), but rather radar devices that are identical in shape, mode and design to ones we have now on board our state-of-the-art ships. Incredible coincidence, no?

Jim and Tom help free the Nautilus from its perch and convince Captain Nemo to return to their headquarters in San Francisco. There, they all report to the leader of an Elite Navy Group commanded by a man named Miller (Walter Stevens). Miller promptly recruits Nemo as a secret agent for the government, and in return the Nautilus gets an refit (though it clearly doesn't really need one...) and a full Navy crew.

At this point in the story, I must admit, I nearly lost my lunch. The independent, head-strong, world-weary Captain Nemo of Jules Verne is -- without much argument or debate -- transformed into a dedicated agent for the U.S. government?! After a history of decrying war? After a history of sinking warships? After exiling himself to the "liberating" world under the sea? After leaving the world of man permanently behind? This man of science just becomes...a tool of one particular government?

Methinks Irwin Allen (along with Franklin, Porter and Miller) never actually read any Jules Verne.

Instead, Allen must have been secretly screening recent episodes of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, since the series premise (fish-out-of-water individual becomes government agent) of The Return of Captain Nemo shares more in common with that seventies superhero TV series than it does the literary work of Jules Verne, or any previous screen incarnations of Captain Nemo for that matter.

Regardless, here we are presented with the most bizarre filmic interpretation of Captain Nemo imaginable: as genius creator of suspended animation (!), and as dashing, adventurous secret agent (!) for the United States Navy. This iteration of Nemo boasts not a whit, not a scent, not even an iota of a dark or even melancholy side. Instead, this Nemo is an exuberant man of action.

In fairness to Ferrer, he's quite charismatic and physically capable in this leading role, even if the writing (and the entire scenario...) is ridiculous to the point of inanity. One wonders what Ferrer might have accomplished playing the character in a more faithful incarnation of Captain Nemo's world. This Nemo gets to voice some flowery language ("We must stroll through this orchard without bruising the fruit," he notes metaphorically of an undersea waste dump, in the second episode), and this Nemo does seem "above" worldly concerns (like Star Trek's Spock), but Nemo almost never asks Tom and Jim any questions about the new world he has arrived in. He has no curiosity about the 20th century or its customs, which seems odd. Wouldn't Nemo the scientist wish to see what man has accomplished? Or does he just assume he's already accomplished more?

Captain Nemo's first assignment as a government agent is to prevent Waldo Cunningham from firing his doomsday nuclear missile at Washington D.C. The Nautilus hunts the Raven at the bottom of the sea, and Nautilus evades destruction by delta beam when Nemo activates the Nautilus's protective electric force field. Deciding he needs to understand his nemesis better, Nemo boldly boards the Raven and is promptly taken hostage by Tor and Cunningham. Together, Nemo and Franklin escape custody and run down an advanced corridor that also appears to have been lifted directly from the Death Star construction blueprints. Captain Nemo -- now equipped with a hand-laser, destroys a bevy of Cunningham's storm-trooper-type robot goons in this very corridor, and the music actually sounds remarkably like a sped-up Star Wars theme. Again, I kid you not. It's just...brazen.

Eventually, Nemo destroys Cunningham's nuclear missile by firing a laser beam weapon he invented(!), and the Raven slinks away under the sea to fight another day. In case you don't detect the pattern here, the writers left themselves an easy out. Whenever threatened with destruction, Captain Nemo has a new invention up his sleeve that saves the day. A suspended animation device, a radar, an electric force field, now a ship-mounted laser beam. Not only is Nemo a genius, I guess, he's a super duper uber genius. There's nothing this guy didn't invent a hundred years ago. Nothing.

Because Star Wars is ripped-off so dramatically in the opening episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, the series changes tactics in its second episode ("Duel in the Deep") and rips off the premise of Space:1999 instead. Here, Waldo Cunningham (again!) threatens the safety of the world when the Raven begins ripping up (with grappling hooks...) the radioactive nuclear waste containers at the bottom of the sea, 35,000 feet down, at the Mindanao Trench near the Philippines. Just think the dark side of the moon, the atomic waste dumps, and the inaugural 1999 episode "Breakaway."

The Nautilus and Captain Nemo are assigned to repair the breaches in the nuclear waste dumping ground before a wave of radioactivity leaks to the surface, destroying all life there. Two nuclear physicists come aboard to help out, the beautiful Kate (Lynda Day George) and the duplicitous agent, Cook (Mel Ferrer). If you've ever seen any episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you know that Irwin Allen really loves his submarine saboteurs (secret spies show up in every other episode during the early seasons of that series...) and here the Nautilus is drawn off course by undersea magnets, surrounded by sea mines, and Nemo's bathosphere is also sabotaged. Fortunately, Kate helps Nemo save the day, defeat Cook, and joins the Nautilus crew, becoming a regular on the series. At the end of the day, Cunningham escapes again and the breach in the nuclear waste dumps is repaired by a lucky rock fall.

The third, and mercifully final episode of Return of Captain Nemo boasts the name of Robert Bloch as one of its writers, but one has to assume he was heavily re-written, or had little to do with the show's development. "Atlantis Dead Ahead" also features Horst Bucholz as Atlantis's King Tibor and a very young Anthony Geary (General Hospital's Luke of "Luke and Laura" fame) as an Atlantean retainer named...Bork. In this adventure, Captain Nemo easily locates Atlantis (did I mention he's a super duper, uber genius?) but finds that Waldo Cunningham has already beaten him to the lost continent and enslaved the underwater people there with dastardly mind-control head-bands.

Cunningham captures Nemo and Tom Franklin and paralyzes the crew of the Nautilus (including Kate) with a "z-ray" that freezes the unlucky crew "in time," whatever the hell that means. Tom is fitted with his own individual brain-washing head-band (which makes him look like he's ready to participate in a Jane Fonda aerobics video...) and forced to torture Nemo.

Nemo himself is attached to a brain-sucking device that will reveal to Cunningham all of his one-hundred-year old secrets, including the formula for Nautilus's laser ray. Since Cunningham already has a death ray, why he needs Nemo's death ray is a bit of a mystery. Anyway, Nemo outsmarts Cunningham by re-playing in his mind (and broadcasting his thoughts on the view screen...), information about the Navy and U.S. government that re-activates Tom's sense of patriotic loyalty. They escape together and there's yet another shoot-out between Cunningham's robot stormtroopers and our heroes in the very same Death Star corridor. Still, Cunningham proves more dangerous than ever because he posses twenty pellets of a poisonous element called "Crosar" which he plans to release in 20 world cities.

After an undersea battle between Nautilus and Raven -- in which the Raven is apparently destroyed-- Captain Nemo decides to leave the freed Atlantis behind, "untouched by our progress." King Tibor thanks him and then jumps into the water, never to be seen again.

Then, apparently with nothing left to accomplish, Nemo turns to Kate (a possible love interest...) and suggests they head back to San Francisco and have a meeting with Mr. Miller, so the boss can give the Nautilus new orders. Yep, the inventive and brilliant captain Nemo can think of nothing else to do with Nautilus, and just wants a new assignment from a government bureaucrat. A sad end for a sad re-vamp.

I was nine years old when Return of Captain Nemo first aired on CBS, and I have to confess...I loved it at that age. It had lasers, submarines, evil robots, Captain Nemo, underwater adventure...everything a young, imaginative mind could ask for. As an innocent, impressionable youngster I had no inkling just how nonsensical, how ridiculous, how vapid, how inane and how derivative the Allen series was. Seeing the program today for the first time in thirty-one years, I'm amazed but just how craven it remains: how desperate and frenzied it is to latch on to the latest trend in the pop culture (Star Wars) and artlessly exploit it.

I've blogged many, many TV movies and series here -- and if you read my blogoften, you know I endeavor to highlight the positive -- but off the top of my head, I can't recall another TV series so regularly, so routinely, dreadful. The Return of Captain Nemo is so bad, so confused about itself, that it's actually baffling at points. Tor, for instance, is not only a robot sidekick with psychic powers (why? why?), but also a xenophobic bigot! For some reason, he is constantly seen railing against "aliens." Only problem, there are no aliens on the show. Tor keeps blaming aliens for everything...and there aren't any aliens around.

Why would Cunningham program a robot with this weirdo tic? If Tor is not a robot, what the hell is he, and why is he working for Cunningham in the first place? He can't be an alien and hate aliens, can he? It's clear the character was just thrown in to the mix, apparently at random, to appeal to the demographic that thought Darth Vader was super cool. But no real thought was ever given to Tor as a character. No thought was given to his background, his creation, his very nature.

Tor's not alone, either. The two Navy officers, Tom and Jim, continually play second fiddle to Nemo and have absolutely nothing of interest to do but issue orders from the bridge of Nautilus in Nemo's absence. In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Captain Crane suffered from some of the same issues (always proving far less interesting than his boss, Admiral Nelson), but Tom and Jim are approximately a million times more uninteresting even then Crane.

And for Cunningham to act as the primary villain of all three episodes, escaping and returning, forever escaping and returning, makes the series seem repetitive and dull. And that's being polite. Imagine if The Master were the only villain the Doctor ever encountered, and you'll understand what I mean. Some essential sense of jeopardy is lost because you just know Waldo is always going to get beaten, always escape, always return, always gets beaten and always escape, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Burgess Meredith is a good actor, of course, but at times (particularly in one view screen exchange with Nemo...) you can see the veteran glancing down out of shot and then back...apparently to read the off-screen lines. Oy.

A talented writer could probably tell a Captain Nemo story with a flavor of Star Wars thrown in and get away with it if he or she had an airtight narrative, interesting characters and some sense of style. But The Return of Captain Nemo is bereft of all those ingredients. It is poorly-written and seems dashed off from the Irwin Allen assembly line in order to exploit Star Wars before the craze wore off.

Again, you have to feel sorry for Jose Ferrer. He's got the gusto, the presence, the intelligence, the wit, the attitude and the physicality to make an excellent Captain Nemo, but the scripts here require him to speedily race from one crisis to another, saving the day like a campy superhero, and the result is that he never seems like a fully-developed human being.

Many genre fans of my generation have -- like me -- spent an inordinate amount of time seeking out The Return of Captain Nemo. It's an item of nostalgic remembrance, something that appeared on a major network (and remember, in those days of the disco decade there were only three networks...) and then disappeared, never to be heard from again. The pull of such a production is tantalizing. Did I really see that? Did it really exist? Have I lost my mind? Was I dreaming? Was it any good? Indeed, this is the very journey I undertook.

Unfortunately, in the case of The Return of Captain Nemo, this is but a dismal voyage to the bottom of the barrel. Go ahead and watch it if you dare, but sometimes old memories -- like Captain Nemo himself -- are best left in stasis. I'll always cherish my memory of watching (and loving) the show as a nine year old kid, but I dare not re-visit this series again as an adult. Not trying to be snarky or mean here. Believe me, I'm being as charitable as possible. The great Captain Nemo deserves so much better than this nonsense.

4 comments:

  1. It sounds as if they were "doing a Dr. Loveless" with the Burgess Meredith character.

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  2. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Your superb review is very timely, as I've been watching many of the classic sci-fi 'submarine' movies over the last year (the 1954 and 1997 versions of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Season Two of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,etc.). I've only seen the faded trailor for the film on YouTube. As with Irwin Allen's other sci-fi productions, I didn't expect it to be great, but boy does your plot summary make it sound awful...even for the 'master of disaster'!
    The Star Wars influences aren't that surprising, as other shows of the time had them too (such as Quark, Battlestar Galactica). The worst tv rip-off of Darth Vader wasn't the robot in this film; that honor goes to the 'Sardor' creature in Wonder Woman's "Mind Stealers From Outer Space". The Sardor wears a Darth-style mask, cape, and suffers with heavy mechanical breathing sounds. The two-part Wonder Woman episode is so bad it's good. I'm assuming that this film might be in the same league. At least it features original effects, the WW ep uses stock footage from This Island Earth, and Marooned. More troublesome is the use of a Space:1999 eagle for a 'sub'. Wouldn't ITC had legal ground to sue this production for using that Eagle? At least when Lucas sued Universal ( later dismissed) over the Star Wars influences in Battlestar Galactica, he couldn't point to any 'exact' design ripoffs. Space:1999 wasn't that innocent either. It's Alpha Child/ War Games battlecruiser was a ripoff of 2001's Discovery (though Martin Bower built it as a homage years ealier). The radar dish of the S:99 battle cruiser was even a 'creative' reuse of a saucer section from an old Star Trek Enterprise model.

    We couldn't really expect Irwin's version of Nemo to be as inspired as Disney's, but the sheer dumbness of this this one is mind-boggling. For a more interesting take on a Nemo-like character, I would have to recommend you see the 1969 Japanese film "Latitude Zero". It features Joseph Cotton as the sub captain and leader of an undersea utopian society. As with most Japanese scifi films, it has superb miniature work and also some matte paintings to represent the underwater city. Surprising, the film has some incredible cloud-tank effects of the type ILM used to do in the 1980's. I found it to be great fun (as was the case with another 1969 film finally available on DVD, "Moon Zero Two").

    Since you stated you like to put films in a positive light, perhaps you could recommend this film as an 'undersea Star Crash' ?

    Marty

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  3. Todshi9:59 PM

    You forgot one other ripoff, when Nemo 'clones' the Nautilas to avoid an attack by the Ravan.
    This was used in 'Latitude Zero' when McKenzie creates a duplicate of his submarine Alpha to outwit an attack by Malic's Black Shark.
    Also, I read somewhere that one of the Seaview minitures were used as the Nautilas, yet the ship miniture doesn't even look remotely like a disguiesed Seaview.
    But even as a kid, I could see the Ravan's resemblence to the 'Space: 1999' Eagle.

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  4. Todshi10:55 PM

    You forgot one other rip off. Capt. Nemo 'clones' the Nautilus to evade an attack by the Ravan. This tactic was used in 'Latitude Zero' inwhich Capt. Mckenzie creates a duplicate of his submarine Alpha to foil an attack by the enemy sub Black Shark.

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