Saturday, December 24, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Land of the Giants" (October 30, 1976)

In “Tarzan and the Land of the Giants,” Tarzan and Nakima find strange humanoid footprints in the forest, and follow them into a realm of unusual giants.  They soon learn that the city of giants -- in the trees – is controlled by a despot named Odysseus, who rules by fear.

Right now, the people of the city, Zoran, are afraid of a giant albino rhinoceros, or "great beast." Tarzan rescues the rhino from a tar pit, and demonstrates that it is just an animal.

When a storm hits Zoran, the people again succumb to fear, but Tarzan proves to them that their leader is manipulating them. He also helps them to relocate.

This is another intriguing episode of Filmation’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.  It starts with Tarzan and Nakima dealing with a drought, and then continues with the unusual discovery of a giant footprint.  They follow the trail through a hidden jungle, into a realm where everything is giant. In short order, we see giant ants, giant mushrooms, and the albino rhino, too.

Tarzan’s universe is one of amazing fantasy, but one cannot help but notice that this jungle must be huge! It boasts not only Tarzan’s sanctuary (and the nearby graveyard of elephants), but cities like Zandor, and lost realms of Vikings, alien saucers, and more  In weeks ahead, we’ll also see a realm of knights (Nimmr).

In short, it’s one busy jungle.  But, I will admit, I am a sucker for “lost world” stories, and I’ve enjoyed each Tarzan story, even if the lost worlds have been saddled with very human/Western moral stories.  Tarzan is always our avatar for morality, which he teaches to cities in distress and ruled by despots.

Still, “Tarzan and the Land of the Giants” is a fun story, and another worthy addition to the canon.

Next week: “Tarzan and the Knights of Nimmr.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "Speak No Evil" (October 11, 1975)

In “Speak No Evil,” a trio of adolescent boys break into the school laboratory and begin to break things there.  They steal a typewriter.  And they unknowingly start a fire as well.

The fire is traced back to Paul (Danny Bonaduce), who protects his friends rather than turn them in.  

Billy (Michael Gray) gleans a sense of what is happening, because the Elders have advised him that friendship might be considered a “two-edged sword,” with both “advantages and disadvantages.

When Paul’s friends become trapped in a power plant while fooling around, with electricity sparking everywhere, Paul seeks the help of Captain Marvel (John Davey).

Danny Bonaduce -- of The Partridge Family (1970-1974) -- guest stars in this episode of Shazam.  He plays Paul, a boy who feels peer pressure to go along with his juvenile delinquent friends as they destroy property and otherwise make mischief.

Mentor (Les Tremayne) and Billy (Michael Gray) try to get Paul to tell the truth, but he doesn’t feel compelled to do so until his friends actually get into real danger at the electrical plant. Then, he finds his courage.

This episode is all about friendship (in case you couldn’t guess), and how real friendship is about obligations as well as advantages.  It is the duty of a friend, according to “Speak No Evil,” to stop your friends from doing stupid or dangerous things.

The threat of the week, a power plant gone nuts, is visualized with special effects that resemble Star Trek's "Lights of Zetar."

Next week: “The Odd Couple”

Friday, December 23, 2016

Happy Horror-Days: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Santa Claus begins his yearly Christmas Eve journey before too long, and so it seems like an ideal time to remember a modern holiday-themed horror movie that I’ve come to consider a new classic: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).

Like the best holiday-themed horror films, Rare Exports makes the most out of its premise by juxtaposing the “good tidings” and happy vibes of the holiday season with a far more cynical and sinister reality. 

In this case, the horror in the scenario arises from the presence of an ancient Santa Claus demon, but also the fact that his arrival has caused economic blues for the film’s central family. That family, already dealing with grief, contends with a financial setback that could adversely impact it for a year.

This economic element of the narrative is crucial to the film’s success, and an acknowledgement of the fact that Christmas holiday has become tied, perhaps irrevocably, to commerce and capitalism.

Without enough money to spend, is a Merry Christmas even possible in this day and age?

Rare Exports also functions as a quirky coming of age tale, at least of sorts. The film’s young hero, Pietari, can no longer close his eyes to the reality of his life (or his father’s profession as a butcher). 

Similarly, Pietari forcibly has his young eyes opened to the true nature of Santa Claus as a monster that dispenses not gifts, but punishment for naughty children. Therefore, the Christmas holiday depicted in this Finnish film from Jalmari Helander is not one in which Pietari gets to remain a kid, but one in which he earns his father’s respect as an adult.

Although all of this analysis undoubtedly makes Rare Exports sound like a weighty polemic, the film is light on its feet, and extremely funny, too. The film’s horror is real, but leavened by the comedic elements.

The Coca-Cola Santa is just a hoax.”

A mining company working in the Korvotunturi Mountains in Finland discovers evidence of something buried deep within one rocky outcropping. Dynamite is utilized to blow up the mountain, but the explosion releases an ancient horror…the real Santa Claus.

In this case, Santa Claus is a giant horned demon, tended to by an army of mindless elves, really filthy, naked old men with long beards. These are Santa's Helpers.

A boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila) who lives with his father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila) suspects the truth; that a monster has been unloosed in town. Pietari is unable to convince his father of this fact, however, until after discovering that a herd of valuable reindeer have been massacred…and fed upon.  

When one of “Santa’s Helpers” is captured, Rauno realizes that his son’s story is true, and that a dark force has infiltrated the town.

But it may be too late to stop Santa. All the children of the town -- save for Pietari --- have disappeared and been replaced with creepy straw dolls.  

Now, Pietari and Rauno must save the children, destroy Santa, and stop the onslaught of Santa’s helpers.

“Close your eyes, son. Daddy’s working.”

One delightful aspect of Rare Exports is that it plays like a seasonal (and satirical) version of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Specifically, something ancient and awful is awakened from a long slumber beneath the Earth’s surface, only to go on a reign of terror.  In both situations, the monster emerges (or nearly emerges) from a block of ice.

If The Thing shattered all of our happy illusions about friendly aliens in the summer of E.T. (1982), Rare Exports works to similar ends regarding Santa Claus, drawing on the character’s ancient origins as a figure of menace and mischief.

As Pietari learns from his research (a book called The Truth about Santa Claus), The Coca-Cola Santa is a figure of rational, capitalist modernity, a figure designed to sell products. 

The truth, according to the film, however, is that Santa is something much more sinister; something that possesses a hatred for children and takes glee not in rewarding them, but in hurting them.

All the children in the town are abducted by Santa’s minions, which means that all have been classified as “naughty.”  Pietari realizes that he too is vulnerable, or naughty (because of his actions cutting open a fence near the mountain).  By recognizing his own bad behavior, Pietari also realizes a human truth.  

There isn’t one of us who isn’t naughty occasionally, at least by Santa’s standards.

And that means Santa’s “nice” and “naughty” list is a swindle. There is no nice list. 

Again, this is a crucial piece of Pietari’s coming of age; his viewing of the world in an adult, or mature way, separated from the fantasy and simple-mindedness of fairy tales.

Pietari’s distinctly un-romantic discovery of the truth is mirrored by the film’s unromantic approach to traditional Christmas symbolism. 

A beautiful field of snow is marred by the carcasses of 433 massacred reindeer, for example.  When the dead animals are first seen, one of Rauno’s co-workers notes, cynically “Merry Christmas.”  

He is upset, however, not because the beautiful animals – which in mythology pull Santa’s sleigh -- are dead.  No, he is upset because “85,000 dollars” of merchandise have “rotted away.”  The butcher and his co-workers were going to sell reindeer meat for the holidays. Now their livelihood is threatened.

Pietari, who has closed his eyes to what his father does -- working as a butcher -- opens his eyes to everything in the film. He opens his eyes to economic realities, and the reality of Santa Claus as a monster.  He sees that the “whole Christmas thing” is “just a bluff” to enforce good behavior on the part of children. He takes responsibility for himself, for his father, and for ending the threat posed by Santa Claus.

Accordingly, on Christmas day, Pietari grows up. 

He fights to save his fellow children, blow Santa Claus to kingdom come, and harness the minions of the demons as an economic boon to his family. These minions are trained to be “Coca Cola” Santas and shipped, world-wide, to serve happy children.  

It is no coincidence that the barn holding the giant demon, Santa, is marked in the same way that Pietari’s holiday advent calendar is. But on the final day of the holiday -- on Christmas Day -- Pietari does not open presents like a child would. Rather his gift is his ability to perceive the “truth” of the world.

He has opened not a sickly-sweet, sentimental token of childhood. He has opened up the responsibilities of maturity.

Rare Exports is a delightful film, with some moments of extreme violence. For the most part, however, the horror is merely suggested through its aftermath. The field of dead reindeer is one example, and the wolf pit trap (which snares a minion) is another.  

Although we never see Santa in action since he is locked in a block of ice, the early sections of the film -- which recount the ancient legends -- do a terrific job of instilling fear not only in Pietari, but in the audience too.

A great Christmas horror film like Krampus (2015), Gremlins (1984) or Rare Exports (2010) -- succeeds because it punches holes through the mythology of the Christmas season, and sees another truth instead, about the nature of the holiday in the modern era. 

Rare Exports is so much fun, so sharp in its observations and humor about this most beloved of holidays that it is anything but the proverbial lump of coal in the stocking.

Movie Trailer: Rare Exports (2010)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Happy Horror-Days: Gremlins (1984)

Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, right up there with Die Hard (1988), and Rare Exports (2010).  

But Gremlins is more than just a film for the season, it is a brilliant and wickedly funny horror movie that concerns “corruption and violence beneath the surface of small-town American life,” according to William J. Palmer’s The Films of the Eighties: A Social History.

Yet perhaps Gremlins’ greatest quality involves the fact that the film's central threat -- which Harlan Ellison once termed “The Muppet Chainsaw Massacre” -- can be analyzed or viewed in so many competing ways.

On the surface, of course, the film is all about a small, Norman Rockwell American town -- Bedford Falls -- overcome by violent mischievous critters at Christmas time. One might also view the film as a story of friendship involving a young man, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his unusual pet, a Mogwai called Gizmo.

But peel back the onion a little bit, and one can detect how Gremlins might be read from any number of different view-points, or according to a variety of societal critiques. What's a bit amazing is that the film stands up to scrutiny no matter which lens one chooses to apply. 

One monster -- the diminutive, green-skinned, sharp-toothed Gremlin -- stands in, essentially, for many (cultural) monsters.  

Or, as one character in the film asks of Gizmo: "how come a cute little guy like this can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?

First, for example, there’s the ethnocentric/technophobic angle, which sees WWII veteran Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), lamenting the rise of foreign imports, and suggesting that people should only purchase and trust American-made products. 

His (protectionist?) argument is essentially that foreign goods come replete with saboteur gremlins and should thus be avoided.  The Gremlins, essentially then, are the second coming of Pearl Harbor, an attack concocted by "foreigners" to bring America to its knees.

Since the Mogwai do originate with a dealer from the Far East according to the film’s narrative, there’s a certain plausibility to Futterman's stance, one might conclude. But this particular reading grows more complicated when one considers the fact that original masters/owners/care-givers of the same Gremlins are able to control them safely, without violent incident.  Why can’t Americans accomplish the same feat?   The Old Man, Mr. Wing, suggests that we are not ready to control Gremlins/technology. That we are not wise enough.

That the Gremlins are equated with new-fangled technology is established, in large part, by Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score, which creates a conflict or dichotomy in terms of musical choices.  Much of the film is traditionally orchestral, creating an epic, lyrical sweep.  But the actual Gremlins Theme is electronic in nature, signaling the creatures' origin as something from modernity, from technology.

Also notice that a cold metallic hue is applied or seen in many of the scenes involving Gremlin attacks.  This color equates them either with electricity (again, a technological creation), or the blue static-y glow of television (another technological toy.)  The images below reflect this palette.

Secondly, there’s the economic angle, or critique in Gremlins

In Billy Peltzer’s America, the rich are getting richer, even if it means bank foreclosures for middle class families. At the same time, yuppies (represented by Judge Reinhold) reign supreme...plotting to be millionaires by thirty and bragging about their cable TV. Meanwhile, artists and other creative personalities, like Billy, are being shoehorned into “business” jobs that make them miserable. The pursuit of money has become everything -- the gold standard -- in this version of eighties America.

Significantly, absolutely everything is a commodity in this world as it is rendered, even the Gremlins themselves. Consider the old Grandfather’s (Keye Luke) horror upon hearing Mr. Peltzer’s description of Gizmo being “sold.”  It was really a scam, not a fair transaction, wasn't it? The Grandfather had no say in it, no choice.  

Similarly, Mr. Peltzer seems to view Gizmo primarily as a commodity, noting that he bets “every kid in America would like to have one….this could be the big one.” A unique, un-classified animal --  La life form -- is no more than a get-rich quick scheme. It's something that be used to help one acquire vast amounts of wealth.

The picture-perfect Rockwellian appearance of Bedford Falls -- deliberately likened in the body of the film with the cinematic world of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) -- is thus a contrast to real life there. As Billy learns the hard way, the town is far astray from the American Dream. All the bells and whistles of the holiday season seem empty and cynical when the eighties equivalent of the Wicked Witch -- Polly Holliday’s Mrs. Deagle -- controls the bank, real estate, and the town itself.

Next up, one might consider the season portrayed in the film more closely. Gremlins might actually be considered a “gleeful trashing of everything America holds dear about Christmas,” according to author Mark Connelly in Christmas at the Movies (page 138). Specifically, the 1984 film seizes on the dark, unsettled emotions some people feel during ostensibly the most joyous time of the year.  Once more, Dante's film presents a powerful dichotomy: the appearance (of happiness) and the reality (danger and sadness).

For instance, Mrs. Deagle threatens to throw a family of renters out on the street, informing a mother (Belinda Balaski) and her children that they should wish for Santa Claus to pay the rent.  And late in the film, Kate (Phoebe Cates) shares a haunting story about a family Christmas gone horribly wrong.

All the symbols of the holiday, ultimately, prove dangerous or threatening to Americans. The Peltzer family dog is strung up or hanged in Christmas lights. A Gremlin eats Christmas cookies and is killed in the blender along with the cookie dough…which turns green. 

And a Mogwai even hides inside a Christmas tree, ready to strike an unsuspecting suburban mother. Few Christmas “symbols” survive the movie intact. We get a dead Santa stuck in a chimney, Gremlin carolers, and more holiday-themed atrocities.

When I reviewed Gremlins in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), I considered the environmental aspects or argument of the film too. The film seems to concern, generally, how something innocent, beautiful and unspoiled (in this case Gizmo) can be perverted, or destroyed by its irresponsible use. The Gremlins are harmless creatures if a certain set of rules are applied and obeyed, but if those rules are ignored, the creatures become a hazard.

Yet when I screened Gremlins for the first time with my son, Joel,  I noticed another aspect of the film I hadn’t really considered fully. 

On some level, the film seems to involve responsible parenting. 

Billy and Mr. Peltzer take stewardship of an innocent life: Gizmo. He will grow up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted if the three Mogwai rules are obeyed. These rules are: no bright light, no water, and no feedings after midnight. 

All three rules are violated in short order, and the Peltzers soon find themselves contending not with innocent, cuddly babies, but rambunctious, mischievous creatures who crash cars, tear up the town, and make life miserable for them.

Being a father myself, it’s impossible for me not to view the film as an argument directed at irresponsible parents.  If you want to raise a kid “right” you have to establish responsible parameters (the equivalent of the film’s rules), and then stick to them. 

If you don’t do so, those babies don’t transform into green, scaly monsters, but they transform into something worse: irresponsible, defiant teenagers!  Before you know it, they are listening to loud music, drinking beer, and otherwise acting out. Your baby grows up in a terrible way because you couldn't be bothered to be consistent, or responsible. In the film, the Gremlins go on a rampage that is childishly excessive, like a teenager experiencing freedom for the first time.

Even the film’s discussion of television seems to reflect the parenting angle. Grandfather, or Mr. Wing, returns to find that his wayward child has been allowed to spend his time….watching television.  

And of course, TV is the most common babysitter in the world, right?  Essentially, Gizmo goes from being held in one box (which keeps him safe from the dangers of the world), to being captivated by another box -- the television -- that exposes him to those dangers, at least vicariously.

Gremlins is a manic, unruly film, and one of my all-time favorites The anarchic antics of the wee monsters grant the film its umbrella of unity, but also permit for a series of vignettes which shine a light (or reflect a crack’d mirror) on American life in the 1980s.  

Bruce G. Hallenbeck wrote of Gremlins in Comedy-Horror Film: A Chronological History that “there is a dark and subversive undercurrent that keeps viewers off-guard, wondering in which direction it will veer next.” (page 131)  This is a powerful observation, and helps to explain how one film can be viewed through so many different lenses

Or how one cute little guy like Gizmo can turn into a thousand ugly -- and relevant -- monsters.

Movie Trailer: Gremlins (1984)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

From the Archive: 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 hydro-thermal 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 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.

Action Figures of the Week: SeaQuest DSV (Playmates; 1994)