Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cult-TV Flashback: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: "Eleven Days to Zero"

As you may recall, at first Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a successful 1961 motion picture starring Walter Pidgeon as Admiral Nelson.  

The film's detailed miniature for the submarine Seaview and the amazing, high-tech, live-action sets were put into storage afterwards, and by 1964, Allen took them out of mothballs for a new TV series starring Richard Basehart as Nelson, and David Hedison as Captain Lee Crane.  

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea then ran on ABC for four successful seasons and 110 hour-long episodes (most transmitted in color; but with the first season only in black-and-white). 

What remains so compelling about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea after all these years is that it began as high intrigue on the high sea, with an action quotient that is mostly unmatched even today.  

But, around the time of the second season -- when the series went to color -- the accent moved  away from action towards science fiction and fantasy, and the series began featuring aliens, leprechauns, mummies, "Frost Men" and sea monsters of all shapes and sizes. Season Two also introduced another amazing vehicle to the program, the fantastic "Flying Sub."

But for "Eleven Days to Zero," Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea remains a high-tech action and intrigue series, more along the lines of an early James Bond film than a Star Trek or Lost in Space episode.  Irwin Allen's pilot is not a direct remake of the 1961 movie, though it does re-use miniature footage from the film, and the plot is also pretty similar. 

In this case, instead of dispersing dangerous radiation from the Earth's atmosphere, the Seaview -- "the most extraordinary submarine in all the seven seas" -- is required to avert another planetary emergency.

The Earth has only has eleven days remaining before a huge tsunami  strikes Hawaii, California, the British Isles and even America's East Coast. Millions of people will be killed in the flooding. 

But brilliant Admiral Nelson (Basehart) quickly develops a plan called "Operation Counter Force" with the help of nuclear engineer Fred Wilson (guest star Eddie Albert). 

Specifically, the Seaview will detonate a nuclear device at the North Pole, thereby setting up "opposing lines of force" and "breaking the back" of the enormous tidal wave. 

"We can't debate," Nelson urges U.S. government officials.  "We have to act."

And act he does. 

Before long, the Seaview has set sail with its new captain, Lee Crane, at the helm. Unfortunately, agents of a "hostile" foreign force would prefer to see America and Great Britain decimated, and they make every attempt to prevent the Seaview from accomplishing her critical mission. 

On the way to the North Pole, the Seaview is dogged by an enemy submarine, rattled by depth charges, and ambushed by drone plane attack. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed Crane must prove his worth to the suspicious crew of Seaview, "highly skilled experts" each and every one.

"Eleven Days to Zero" is an exciting and surprisingly violent hour. The episode opens with the brutal assassination of Seaview's first Captain, John Phillips.  In a stunning, non-stop action scene, Phillips' car is run off the road. It tumbles down a hill, and we see the good captain take a bullet wound to the head. The enemy agent -- dangling from an attacking helicopter -- is shot down by Nelson, and the villain plunges into the roiling sea below with a scream.

Again, all this occurs in the first five minutes of the show...

I must admit, I was struck by the high quality of the stunts, action, and pacing on display in "Eleven Days to Zero."  Television today is certainly much  more expensive, but it rarely gets down to such Bond-like action set-pieces, even within the genre. 

And the action scenes aren't the only  impressive ingredient of this nearly 50-year old broadcast pilot. 

Because Irwin Allen was able to re-use sets, miniatures and underwater footage from the 1961 feature film, he could apparently afford quite a bit in terms of acting extras and new locations/sets. Due to this fact, Seaview actually seems like a real submarine, populated by a real crew.  

In particular, the Seaview bridge (with visible ceiling, no less) is an impressive-looking set even by today's standards, and it appears to be manned by more than the typical TV skeleton crew, as you can see from the accompanying photo. 

It's funny, but in a lot of outer space dramas, the main spaceship always boasts roomy corridors, and relatively few extras on screen at any given point...a visual misstep which seems to go against reality.  

In the final frontier -- as under the sea -- space would surely be at a premium, and a fully manned vessel would seem like...well, a fully manned vessel, not a sparsely-attended hotel.

In terms of sets, "Eleven Days to Zero" depicts a Bond-ian enemy headquarters replete with walls of blinking, 1960s-era computers and strange pulsating light columns. In addition, the pilot's climax -- set at the North Pole -- involves plenty of ice, Seaview's conning tower, and a blinding snow storm.  Not to mention aerial bombardment from the aforementioned drone plane.  It's all pretty impressive.

In terms of tone, there is also something refreshing today about "Eleven Days to Zero" and the episode's total, utter lack of irony or self-reflexive humor.  Every moment of high adventure -- even a tangle with a not-entirely-convincing giant squid mid-episode -- is played  absolutely straight, with the finest production values of the day.  There is no winking or nudging at the audience, only an attempt to portray the action vividly and memorably.

The result of this approach is that "Eleven Days to Zero" moves fast and is actually even sort of gritty in presentation, with the clock ticking down to doomsday, and the threat of death ever-present on all legs of the doomsday mission.

If this pilot had been produced today, no doubt the temptation would have been to provide either Nelson and Crane some canned  "emotional angst," like a bad marriage or a history of alcoholism, or some father-son issues, but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was born in a different age and so it avoids the modern (and by-now tiring...) fascination with soap opera plotting.  The characters are simply heroic; and the narrative -- the plot -- takes precedence over facile personal psychology.

Which isn't to say that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was always great....or even particularly good. There are limits to its old-fashioned approach to storytelling too.

To wit, "Eleven Days to Zero" is a cinematic, action-packed pilot, yet it is decidedly humorless, and the characters - though undeniably heroic -- also lack much in terms of individuality and color. In that regards, series such as Star Trek are plainly superior. 

In the Gene Roddenberry series, for instance, the dynamic characters added so much to the sense of action and drama, that the crisis scenarios of the week became all the more interesting...and immediate.  Though the performances here are solid, neither Nelson or Crane ever comes off as nuanced as a Kirk or Spock.   In fact, the only character arc of sorts in "Eleven Days to Zero" involves Crane proving himself to the crew, and establishing that he doesn't "lack imagination" to Admiral Nelson. 

The paucity of character development remains easy to overlook in a single film, or even a series of films.  But on TV, you ultimately come away looking to forge a deeper connection with characters you see every week; with either Crane or Nelson.  The show doesn't have to be a soap opera; it just has to be written with an eye towards the individual characteristics of the protagonists; and their way of relating to their world.

Every film or TV series ever made is a reflection of its time, and so Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is very clearly a production inspired by the Cold War. Here, a bald, Blofeld/Dr. No/Far Eastern-type villain plots the end of the West (and our freedom...) and is soon taught a destructive lesson in underestimating America and the Free World.   

And Admiral Nelson -- stolidly -- declares at the end of Operation Counter Force that "Seaview's job is never finished.  Not as long as there are destructive forces in the world."

This is not a particularly nuanced approach, but it sure as heck is fun, in a kind of blockbuster movie one-off type-way. 

And that's where Irwin Allen productions, especially in the early days, really excelled.  Both the first season of Lost in Space (1965) and the inaugural year of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) are absolutely superb in terms of production values and visual presentation.  Both series are eminently worthy as escapist fare, even if they resolutely lack some of the social commentary and artistry of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and the other, more appreciated genre efforts of the epoch.

On the same DVD set as "Eleven Days to Zero,"  the last thirteen episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea are also included.  These episodes see the Seaview tangle with a pirate ("The Return of Blackbeard,")  a sea monster/humanoid ("The Lobster Man), mythical monsters ("The Abominable Snowman" and "Terrible Leprechaun") plus aliens from an "ice planet" ("Flaming Ice.")

Out of curiosity, I watched "Flaming Ice" (by Arthur W. Browne) to see how much the series had changed in the 105 or so episodes since "Eleven Days to Zero." 

Succinctly stated, the changes were pretty enormous. 

Though the color photography was lush, the performances strong (especially Michael Pate as the leader of the "Frost Men," named "Gelid") and the sets still impressive, there was not even a casual sense of reality -- scientific, political, moral or otherwise -- about the claustrophobic installment. 

And yet, I still found myself drawn to the colorful, vivid action and stunts of the piece.  In general terms, there's a high nostalgia factor here for me, I suppose.  

I watched this show in reruns as a kid in the 1970s and, honestly, enjoyed it as much as if not more than Lost in Space.  

What appealed to me as a child is what appeals to me about the show now: the amazing, retro-high tech futurism of the 1960s vehicle designs (particularly in the case of the Flying Sub and the Seaview) and the steadfast focus on action, action, action.  I've always been a sucker for stories about submarines and their crews (hence my fascination with Captain Nemo and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...), and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea still sparks the active imagination with abundance.

In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg embarked on a variation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea called SeaQuest DSV (1992-1995).  It also began with a focus on hard-tech, adventure and "marine research" and then, in its second season, began featuring underwater Greek Gods, giant sea monsters, aliens and the like. 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea set that identical course first, nearly thirty years earlier, so it is odd to say the least that SeaQuest didn't learn from its predecessor's missteps.


  1. JKM:
    Lovin' yr posts about Voyage!
    Growing up, Voyage and Star Trek were both on the local TV stations, and I'd often wished that Voyage would've done some of the political allegories that Trek offered--like, instead of Kirk Vs. Gorn; Nelson Vs. Russian admiral? Or setting "Day of the Dove" on the Seaview, with Cubans instead of Klingons? Of course, instead of tribbles, they could've used cane toads and set it in Australia...

    BTW, hate to make you jealous, I had about five flying sub models as a kid. And all blown to pieces in their wars against the Aurora Invaders flying saucer models....
    Have a great rest of summer!

    1. Hi Ivan,

      Oh man, I always wanted that flying sub kit. But it's cool that you pitted it against the Invaders. Have a great summer too, Ivan!


  2. Which DVD set has the first season and last season on it? I've got part of season two on DVD but this sounds like a good addition.

    1. Hi Pierre! I am at the beach right now, so I don't have the exact DVD title in front of me. But it is the last batch of episodes for the series. It features the final season and the original pilot. I'll check when I get home for more details! Thanks, my friend.

  3. I think that's all I need John. It sounded like a blended box set of different seasons but now I realize it must be the final box set. I'll check it out. Thanks again!

  4. Anonymous4:34 PM

    So many series ruined in their second seasons because the advertising audience is thought by small-minded bean counters to not want the good stuff.

    1. In fact what happened in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's case is ratings shot up during the first year fantasy episodes. "The Sky is Falling" and "Turn Back the Clock" are two but two examples.

      ABC and producer Irwin Allen noticed the spikes, needless to say.

      I agree with you in principle, but kids at that time knew what they wanted.


  5. Good stuff, John. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is, to me, by far the best of Irwin Allen's TV fare. There were some outstanding episodes, dragged down, unfortunately, by too many bad ones.

    By the way, just a correction: TV drama shows had more money back then than do their relations now. Last year I read a book by a retired "show runner" (who began in the biz in the early 1970s) and he stated that drama programs -- and other types -- today work with smaller budgets (in adjusted dollars) due to much lower ad revenues. This was not exactly news to me, but it was interesting to review. The myth of TV budgets being huge today will not go away.