Friday, May 27, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 132: SeaQuest DSV: Season One (1993 - 1994)



"It's because we all came from the sea, and it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.  We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or watch it -- we are going back from whence we came."


The stirring and passionate words printed above come from our late, great Commander-in-Chief, President John F. Kennedy, and they open the inaugural episode of Rockne S. O'Bannon's genre series, SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996) on a pitch perfect note.

These poetic words hint at a few of the reasons why many sci-fi fans fell in love with the 1990s TV program, or at least wanted to fall in love with the TV program. 

Like outer space -- the final frontier -- the sea is a realm of seemingly infinite mystery, beauty and excitement.   Personally, I've been obsessed with undersea adventures of submarines and submarine crews since I first read Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a child.

The weekly opening narration of Sea Quest DSV also described the mission in satisfactory terms: "The 21st century: mankind has colonized the last unexplored region on Earth; the ocean. As captain of the seaQuest and its crew, we are its guardians, for beneath the surface lies the future..."

I admire and appreciate how that passage is assembled.  It notes that the ocean is not just our past (per the Kennedy quote), but our destiny, our future.  And it marks us, along with the crew of the SeaQuest, as "guardians" of a realm that is constantly in danger because of human pollution and mismanagement.  Again, this is a promising prologue to adventure.

Produced by Steven Spielberg, SeaQuest DSV aired for fifty-seven hour-long episodes over two-and-a-half seasons on NBC, and ultimately sailed through some very choppy waters.  In broad terms, the series is a kind of update and re-imagining of Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 - 1968) concerning a state-of-the-art submarine on missions of scientific exploration, political intrigue and even, from time-to-time, the fantastic. 

Whereas Voyage relied heavily on detailed miniature effects, SeaQuest is truly a product of the early 1990s, overly-dependent on computer-generated images and digital vistas for its special effects.  On this front, Voyage beats out SeaQuest, alas.  I watched the pilot episode of Voyage recently, and the miniature effects and model work featured there were far more impressive than SeaQuest's early CGI efforts, which are murky, occasionally cartoony, and lacking in the requisite detail fans of high-tech subs might hope for.

The SeaQuest DSV pilot, "To Be or Not To Be" lays the groundwork for the series proper.  Directed by Irvin Kershner, it is set in the year 2019, as the newly-formed UEO (United Earth Oceans) attempts to police the seas, which -- because of resource scarcity on dry land -- have become a kind of underwater wild west.   Farmers, settlers and miners have set up facilities all over the ocean floor, but are menaced by "non-aligned" countries and "warrior subs."

The SeaQuest (Deep Submergence Vehicle 4600), a newly-built 1,000 ft. long submarine, is the UEO's ambassador to the underwater world.  It is designed to function "not as a warship" but as "a peace keeper."  The vessel is "the largest deep sea exploration vehicle ever," and outfitted with  a crew of 124 scientists and 88 military personnel. 

Buttressed by state-of-the-art research equipment such as "hyper-reality" probes (think virtual reality) and WSKRs systems (Wireless Sea Knowledge Retrieval Satellites), the SeaQuest also features a hydroponics lab, and even a holographic advisor for the commanding officer.  That advisor, the Professor (William Morgan Sheppard) is designed to serve as a captain's "moral" barometer in times of crisis and tough decisions.   

The only problem, as the series begins, is that SeaQuest's former captain, Marilyn Stark (Shelley Hack) has been removed from command for attempting to start a nuclear conflict over a minor territorial issue.  Admiral Noyce (Richard Herd) wants to recruit the designer of SeaQuest, Nathan Bridger (Roy Scheider) as the new captain, because he believes a "cool head" is required to balance the military and scientific factions on board ship (think: Maquis and Starfleet personnel on Voyager, a few years later). 

At first, Bridger is reluctant to assume command of the SeaQuest, because he wants to honor a promise to his dead wife, Carol, never to return to the military.

But, once aboard the magnificent SeaQuest, Bridger finds himself involved in the mission to stop Captain Stark, who has gone rogue and is now captaining a renegade warrior sub.

After success on this initial outing, Bridger accepts command of the "boat," and leads a top-flight crew into missions of jeopardy and wonder. 

Among the other crew members on SeaQuest are the headstrong executive officer, Jonathan Ford (Don Franklin), the acerbic but brilliant head of science and medicine, Dr. Kristin Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham), Chief Engineer Katherine Hitchcock (Stacy Haiduk) and communications officer Tim O'Neill (Ted Raimi), who is fluent in six languages.

Other notable crew members and passengers on the first season of SeaQuest DSV include the shifty morale officer and con man, Krieg (John D'Aquin), teenage genius and computer wiz, Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis) and Darwin, a dolphin who can communicate verbally with Bridger and the others using a new universal-translator-styled device called a "vocorder."  The ship's security chief is a traditional navy man, Chief Croker (Royce D. Applegate).

The highest rated new program of its premiere week (with 16.9 million viewers watching), SeaQuest DSV started off very strong, and attempted a very delicate alchemy that, eventually, became unbalanced with the second season.

In the first season episodes, by and large, there was a dedicated attempt every week on SeaQuest to marry a hard-science concept or mission, with some small but more fantastical aspect of the sci-fi genre. 

In "Treasure of the Mind," for instance, the SeaQuest discovers the lost Great Library of Alexandria intact at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, and Bridger must mediate a world summit in which several Middle East nations, including a hostile Libya, seek to gain ownership of the library's treasures.  This "A" plot is coupled with a sci-fi element, however, when several "mediators" with light ESP skills come aboard SeaQuest to help Bridger negotiate from a position of strength. One of them, played by Lindsay Frost, attempts to reads Bridger's mind.

Another episode, "Hide and Seek," brings original Star Trek star William Shatner aboard SeaQuest as a former brutal dictator from Eastern Europe. SeaQuest's mission is to transport him to the authorities for trial, but something strange ultimately draws Bridger, the SeaQuest crew and Shatner's character together: they are all sharing the same, slightly unsettling dream about Darwin.  And that dream also concerns Shatner's autistic son...

It wasn't until relatively late in the first season, episode 21, "Such Great Patience," that SeaQuest DSV left behind pedestrian stories of rescues at sea ("Bad Water") and high-tech intrigue ("Photon Bullet) for more overt or "far out" genre story telling. 

In this segment the SeaQuest encounters a 900,000 year old spaceship on the ocean floor, and attempts to salvage it.  Kent McCord guest stars as a UEO officer who leads the first Earth team aboard an alien craft.

By investigating the craft, the team accidentally activates an alien anti-tamper system and hologram sentinel, which then threatens SeaQuest.  Although this story features a splendidly-designed spaceship and alien creation, it still plays as relatively realistic.  Such would not always be the case in Season Two, when monsters like giant crocodiles and the like were often encountered.

The critical factor about virtually all of the season one stories -- and this is a difficult balance -- is that they all tried (and yes, sometimes failed) to convey an authentic sense of wonder about the ocean, and life in the ocean. 

An illustrative point of comparison might be Star Trek: The Next Generation.  There, the crew of the Enterprise D would often encounter a weird space anomaly or phenomenon, but the mystery would quickly prove dangerous and imperil the ship, leading very directly to a sci-fi story of adventure and peril. The element of space science was just an introduction to a sci-fi story, not necessarily something to be explored in and of itself.

On SeaQuest DSV, Bridger's ship would study the polar ice caps (Games") or hydrothermal vents -- mother nature's "birth canal" ("The Devil's Window") -- at length, and the narrative was always pretty much about the science and wonder of such mechanisms and locations. 

There was usually some jeopardy too, of course, but it never seemed the whole or primary focus of the drama.  Rather, SeaQuest DSV seemed legitimately jazzed by scientific discovery for the point of, simply, scientific discovery. 

To further support this aspect of the series, each and every episode ended with a brief epilogue and lecture from the show's science advisor,  oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard.  His monologues would frequently point out how elements of the preceding episode were based on fact; and then encourage viewers to learn more about the subject.

For some viewers, this focus on hard science and a sense of wonder may prove grating.  Others may find the novel approach rewarding if they apply a little bit of patience.  One thing I truly miss in some recent sci-fi TV (the re-made BSG and Enterprise, for instance) is just this very sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe and how it works.  For all the mistakes SeaQuest DSV undeniably makes, at least it doesn't make that one.

Also making every hour more tolerable, SeaQuest DSV was notable for featuring terrific genre guest stars, from the aforementioned Shatner and McCord to Charlton Heston ("Abalon"), to David McCallum ("SeaWest") to Topol ("Treasure of the Mind.")

In terms of continuing characters, SeaQuest's first season really only was able to focus on a few of the main characters in the severely over-populated cast.  Roy Scheider presents very strongly as Nathan Bridger, a good man with a real sense of heart and bravery.  At first blush, Bridge might seem like a Captain Picard knock-off because of his age and intellectual demeanor, but Scheider is tremendously powerful in the role in the first year, and boasts a self-effacing, easy quality that the more pretentious and prickly Picard lacked.   Bridger is no military martinet in SeaQuest, and no egg-head scientist cliche, either.  He's a well-rounded individual who fights for the causes he believes in.  All in all, a model leading man and model captain.

Darwin the dolphin is probably SeaQuest's Mr. Spock...the resident alien.  In the first season, Darwin nearly dies from a mysterious disease ("The Devil's Window"), plays tag with a warrior sub ("To Be or Not to Be") and finds a way to inhabit the dreams of his crew-mates ("Hide and Seek").  

In "Such Great Patience," he is also the object of the alien creatures at the ocean floor.  They came to Earth all those years ago...to talk to dolphins.

Though he was widely mocked at the time of the show's airing, Darwin is actually a pretty strong character in an unconventional sort of way, and the series perpetually makes the point that Darwin -- as a non-human -- can't really "talk" with the human crew.  The vocoder can transmit simple ideas, but when Darwin discusses death ("the dark") and loneliness, for instance, such concepts are harder to translate accurately.  This idea of inter-species communication (often ignored in sci-fi TV...) actually makes Darwin something of a genuine alien and story wild-card: a crew member who doesn't always respond as expected to, or as ordered.

Also registering strongly in the first season are Stephanie Beacham's wonderful Dr. Westphalen and Brandis's enthusiastic Lucas.  Unfortunately, fine actors such as second-billed Haiduk, Franklin, Applegate, and D'Aquino are given only scraps from the table, and have precious little time to build strong characterizations.  It's not for lack of trying when an opportunity arises.  Haiduk's Hitchcock goes undercover in "SeaWest" as a nightclub singer at an underwater mining town, to free a family in jeopardy.  And Raimi has some good moments in both "Such Great Patience" (in which O'Neill confronts his religious upbringing and how it clashes with belief in extra-terrestrials) and "The Devil's Window."

Probably the finest episode of the first season is indeed the two-hour pilot, which looks and sounds almost like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan underwater, with a rusty Bridger assuming command of SeaQuest and being forced to battle his ex-student, Stark, for domination of the seas.  This episode hums along at a nice clip, includes some jaunty, spirited dialogue and  features a tense undersea confrontation between two evenly-matched subs armed for war. Kerhsner's direction is pretty strong.  With a tweak here or there, it's not hard to imagine this as a SeaQuest movie.

In Season Two, much of the good, if incredibly uneven work of SeaQuest Season One is undercut.  Half the cast left the show (Stacy Haiduk, John D'Aquino, Stephanie Beacham) and their replacements were resident aliens, Counselor Troi-like empaths and other rejects from Starfleet.  And the focus on science -- along with Dr. Ballard -- was gone, replaced by giant monsters and more aliens from the bottom of the sea.

In a notorious interview during the second season, Roy Scheider lambasted the new direction of Sea Quest.  He said he was "ashamed" of the series, and noted that the new stories were "junk."  He also said that the series was "not even good fantasy. I mean Star Trek does this stuff much better than we can do it. To me the show is now 21 Jump Street meets Star Dreck.''

You know you're on a sinking boat, when the lead actor is loudly telling the press he's ashamed of his own series. 

Still, in its first and best incarnation, the engaged viewer can readily detect that SeaQuest DSV is trying to carve out a unique identity and approach for itself.  If the series had stayed on its promising original trajectory, it might have lasted several more years, and garnered an even larger and more passionate following.   Instead, SeaQuest features three seasons, three formats, and three approaches to storytelling.  Not a single season is perfect, but season one gets closest to the spirit of that great John F. Kennedy quotation.

7 comments:

  1. Sorry John, but I disagree about the CGI used on seaQuest; I think that much like your other favorite series Babylon 5, it was a great idea to have it, as it made a lot of scripts and stories possible without having to rely on expensive miniatures that would have to be reused again & again (exactly what happened on Star Trek:TNG and for half of Deep Space Nine before the producers wised up and got CGI for seasons 5-7.) I'm getting quite weary of this anti-CGI nonsense; it's sounding too much like the hatred of sound movies that happened in the late '20's-early 30's. It needs to stop, and I think that an intelligent man like you should realize that without it, most of what happened on sea Quest would never have happened at all due to budget.

    That said, I loved this retrospective on the show-great job once again.

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  2. I dearly loved SeaQuest in its first season -- it may have been my earliest sci-fi fandom, honestly. My parents let me stay up an hour on the nights it was on to watch. Lots of great sci-fi, cool stories, and a concept that was just completely neat. Roy Scheider was probably the actor outside of classic horror that I really loved and SeaQuest is a large part of that (as is 2010: The Year We Made Contact and Jaws).

    I faded away a bit in the second season, although I did like the characters of Dagwood and Piccolo, the created being and the merman, played by Peter and Michael De Luise. They were fun. The new empath doctor was less so and I missed Stephanie Beacham a lot.

    SeaQuest 2032 was an utter disaster and I watched maybe two episodes -- they kept killing off characters and the generally action-oriented bent of the show was completely different than the show that I originally fell in love with. I liked Michael Ironside, although not the role he played, and I kept my eye out for him in future films and television (which worked out well, as he's now one of my favorite character actors).

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  3. Anonymous10:39 AM

    I agree with your comparison between the CGI effects of 'Seaquest' and miniature work in 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea'. The surface shots of the Seaview (many lifted from the feature film) are still amazingly good. The surface CGI shots of the ocean in Seaquest are often terrible (even stock footage of the real ocean would have been better). Some shots look more like a sea of wavy CGI oatmeal. The giant alligator in season two looked laughable when it walked (or 'floated') on the beach.

    Of course CGI led to some impressive effects in the Star Trek franchise. Just look at the ST:Voyager ep where the ship visits an ocean-planet in space. Now that was some cool CGI! Seaquest certainly featured an abundance of early tv CGI, but it now looks very dated and is often poor by today's standards.

    Each season of Seaquest had some very enjoyble eps, but most were mediocre. Thanks for another great series review.

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  4. Hi Folks,

    Lionel: Thank you for your comment, even if I think you may have overreacted to my remarks. I'm not saying ALL CGI is worthless or terrible...that would be a dumb thing to say. In general, CGI works better in sci-fi than it does in horror, and there's a lot of great CGI out there (Avatar, Star Trek 2009, etc.). I'm talking here very specifically about early CGI, and comparing two very specific series: SeaQuest DSV and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In this instance (and again, I'm talking about one particular instance), the miniature work is superior. Were SeaQuest remade today with modern CGI, the results might very well be different. Early CGI just isn't very good (a flaw, alas, that also damages some shots in Space: Above and Beyond, also from the mid-1990s).

    Nate: Those are some good memories of SeaQuest, and thank you for sharing them here. I too watched when the show aired on NBC, and liked the first season very much. I'm a sucker for "submarine fantasy," as I call it. And I agree with you about Roy Scheider.

    Anonymous: Yes, you have said it very well. SeaQuest's effects look very dated today, whereas Voyage's effects hold up remarkably well (and that's not easy, in terms of "water" effects). CGI is getting better and more effective all the time, but in these early days, not so much.

    Great comments, all!

    best,
    JKM

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  5. Oh My,

    Seaquest DSV (not SVU!, something I keep saying out of habit, being a Law and Order fan), was soooo exciting in it's first season.

    I was a young lad and my dad and I would watch it each week.

    I specifically remember a moment in one episode that tripped my dad and I out and we thought it was so cool. The Seaquest is investigating something and come across a full train underwater. They stare at it for a moment and then Scheider says, 'hey, never mind, we don't have time for this'.

    I thought it was so neat and it really showed the sea is vast and has many mysteries, not just those that can be solved in 45 minutes.

    My dad and I gave up once aliens got involved. As you know, I have nothing against aliens, but I felt that Seaquest just completely betrayed itself and Scheider (R.I.P.) was completely right about what he said. The show became utter garbage.

    Oh well. Didn't Michael F-ing Ironside show up later in the show?

    Thanks for the great review. . .as always!

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  6. Hi Will!

    I agree with you about SeaQuest's first season. Not a perfect show, by any means, but one that had a curiosity about life, and about the vast oceans of our world. I loved that sense of mystery, and wish the series had stuck more closely to that aesthetic that you mention.

    Great comment! And I see I have a new podcast on "Sunshine" I must listen to!

    best,
    JKM

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  7. Fernando12:58 PM

    Hello,

    I liked the review. I agree that some of the effects were not top notch, but let's remember this is pre-2000's when Visual FX really took off (thanks to technology advancing so much). The core of the review is right on the spot!! I loved SeaQuest, it was similar to Star Trek in the good parts, but without all the tech-space-babble and stiffness of Trek, and had a truly, as you say, sense of wonder, not just about the ocean, but also of the sub itself. Every stranger that came in contact with SeaQuest would always remark on how wonderful the ship is. I liked more the episodes that had some truth in them, among my favorite where the rescue of the french sub and the Stinger. The first one while maybe not a grandiose story, really showed that the crew with such a powerful ship still had to have some skills and sweat it out. And the Stinger, again showing that SeaQuest was a perfect place for innovation and discoveries. I was appalled when I heard they cancelled it. Never really watched the second season as most of the characters where not to my liking and I've never liked Ironside to begin with so, that was it for S3. Bridger as you so rightly put it, had the perfect mix for a Captain, R.I.P Roy Scheider. I just hope that after a few years Sci-Fi channel or someone else will revive seaQuest in a better shape, going back to the roots of that first episode that had it all, and that NORPAC gives us another SeaQuest.

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