seaQuest DSV: Season One Review
It's always been this reviewer's opinion that submarines are not an especially good setting for a regular television show. The pressure cooker atmosphere inherent to all the best sub aqua drama is best sampled on the big screen, in a single sitting: one of the principal elements in the genre is the gradual build-up of nervous tension throughout the narrative before the cathartic release at the end. An episodic format cannot help but dissipate that, both because it is unable to build-up in forty-five minutes the levels of stress really needed and also because those fundamentals of a good submarine story would grow rather repetitive after so many number of weeks. For these reasons I've always found the miniseries version of Das Boot a more unsatisfactory watch than the feature-length version: although the miniseries has more material in it, the full power of the film I feel can only be truly appreciated in a single visit. Add to that factor the generally cramped conditions and, let's be fair, limited range of possible dramas for an extended series of episodes, and it's perhaps unsurprising that there haven't been many dedicated attempts to bring the lives of a crew to the small screen.
It’s even less of a surprise to find that when a producer is sufficiently brave enough to try it, most of the essentials of submarine drama are discarded in favour of stories about underwater sea monsters and beautiful mermaids. The two mainstream examples in the Sixties, Stingray and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, both did this, with the latter eventually becoming simply Lost in Space underwater (even to the extent of borrowing LiS’ old monsters.) Initially Seaquest DSV, the first mainstream submarine series since Irvin Allen’s effort came to an end twenty-five years earlier, tried to take a different, more realistic route based on current scientific predictions about the future, but one gets the feeling even from the beginning that there was a sense it was only a matter of time before talking fishmen started knocking on the hull. Even from the beginning the signs were there, with several elements "borrowed" from the sci-fi leader at the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, including having a child genius as a crewmember, a genial doctor with whom the Captain has a flirtatious relationship, and an opening narration that tries to ape Trek's but ends up sounding a bit daft ("Beneath the surface lies the future" indeed). Even the name sounds like an aquatic synonym for Roddenberry's title.
But that's okay: it could have adopted far worse role models. The series was NBC’s big genre hope for 1993. It was one of the first major shows to be commissioned following the resurgence of television science fiction precipitated by TNG and in the autumn of that year the studio's hype machine was cranked into overdrive, helped along by the huge budget allotted to it and the name Stephen Spielberg among the Executive Producer credits. Although future Farscape honcho Rockne S O’Bannon is credited as creator, the show was really the brainchild of Philip Segal (the guy who three years later would cast Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor) who wanted to bring a submarine show to primetime. A producer working for Spielberg, he used the famous director’s clout to get the show on the air, with NBC commissioning a complete series of twenty-two (eventually extended to twenty-four) episodes after a single pitch meeting, a mammoth undertaking even for a network behemoth such as they given the scale and cost of the project. One of the main hooks Segal was determined the series would have was scientific accuracy: he asked around various aquatic experts exactly how society might develop if, instead of looking to the stars, mankind spent the next two decades colonising the oceans in an effort to solve the growing population. To this end he brought onboard Dr Robert Ballard, the oceanographer most famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic, as a technical advisor. Although underwater exploration ultimately can never be as thrilling as voyages into outer space – if for no other reason other than while the sea is finite, space is not, and there’s a chance of finding something else other than new species of fish out there – it seemed a reasonably attractive prospect, especially with Roy Scheider in the lead role.
Scheider plays Captain Nathan Bridger, the scientist who designed the Seaquest (or, as all the literature tiresomely has it, the seaQuest, an affectation the rest of this review will ignore), the most advanced submarine ever constructed. Running out of land, the gradual colonisation of the ocean floors has led to two decades of growing tension between the world powers as they vie for territorial rights, resulting in the creation of the UEO, the United Earth/Oceans Organisation, as a stronger successor to the UN, to maintain order. The UEO commissions the Seaquest as her flagship, and persuades the retired Bridger to take the helm as the submarine becomes the frontline is resolving the disputes and running delicate negotiations between the various factions.
Although the Seaquest does seem at times to be the Enterprise underwater, there's one crucial difference: whereas Star Trek, especially in its earlier incarnations, was written purely from the heart, Seaquest comes across as a very calculated show with far more attention being paid to the purse strings than to its soul. There’s a very revealing interview with producer Tommy Thompson in the official Making Of book in which he describes how from the first the show was designed as a determinedly commercial franchise, with “a whole set of other businesses built around seaQuest… such as toys, books, video games; (kids) are gonna want the dolphin and the plush toys.” Marketing opportunities seemed to be as important to the makers as the series itself, with the result being a show that seems to tick off all the elements that go into making a great show but not really understanding any of them. Captain with tragic past? Check. Large geopolitical background? Check. Cute character to appeal to the kids? Check. Wisecracking banter between the crew? Check. Any sign of life? Nope, not looking good.
The writing, both of each individual episode and of the series as a whole, is flat, mechanical, functional and dull. Not once does one feel as though anyone really cares about what’s going on in the stories, at no time do we feel any empathy with the characters or their situations. There is not a single spark of genuine creativity or passion to be found anywhere within, resulting in an apparently cynical exercise that almost feels at times like a clinical exercise in Basic Series Construction, as cold and remote as the ocean floors the Seaquest explores. Characters act entirely within their boxes and do nothing to surprise one, whether it be Jonathan Brandis’s stroppy teenager going through typical adolescent angst or Stephanie Beacham’s scientist complaining about lack of funding for her scientific research. Occasionally, they conform to their stereotypes so much it stretches credulity, and much of the writing is consequently rather poor, with little appreciation of these people as real or thought as to what really rings true.
It’s not helped, of course, by the fact that the cast are, by and large, a faceless group of nonentities. Surprisingly Roy Scheider does not make a charismatic captain, with little presence on the bridge and no authority when dealing with a crisis. Those around him are no better; some have no discernable personality at all (indeed, if actor Marco Sanchez wasn’t inexplicably in the opening credits I truly believe you wouldn’t notice his character once the entire season) while others do nothing to elevate themselves above the mediocre material they are given to work with. When I say that the most memorable character is probably Beacham’s scientist, who at times is exactly like Captain Janeway in looks, mannerisms and voice, you know you’re in trouble. There is a certain poignancy in watching the series as both Brandis and Royce D Applegate, who plays a gruff sea shanty-type of character, died in tragic circumstances well before their time, but in a way that makes it all even worse, that such a big part of what they left behind was this rubbish. There is also famously Darwin, a talking dolphin. There’s not much to say about a talking dolphin other than he looks cute and sounds exactly like Slimer from The Real Ghostbusters, unsurprising given they are both voiced by the same actor, the hugely prolific Frank “Fred from Scooby Doo” Welker, a sound which initially sounds rather daft but ultimately works strangely well. And there are some decent guest stars too: David McCallum, Topol, William Shatner and Charlton Heston no less. It's just a shame the crew itself is so wet.
The look of the show is equally uninspiring. The Seaquest herself is made up of large, well-lit sets that do nothing to emphasise the environment the ship is moving through and are designed in a mixture of neutral colours that blend together, making it difficult to develop any attachment to the place: in a series, a sense of place is nearly as important as a sense of the people, and here’s there’s nothing to latch onto. Again clinically the sets look good and conform to what a decent set for a television show should be, but there are no little touches that would bring it to life. Indeed, the episode-specific sets are far more impressive and interesting to look at, and episodes set in such places as a sunken Egyptian library and a colony aping an old frontier town in the Wild West each show more imagination than all the standing sets taken together. The CGI effects too, look pretty good: another of the show’s much-heralded innovations was that it was one of the first series to have all its SFX completely computer generated, and it pays off. Not being a technical expert in such matters I don’t know whether the fact the large majority of them are set in the murky depths means it’s easier to convince with the environment having a built-in lack of detail, but I don’t recall anything too ropey, and indeed they wouldn't look out of place used on a similar show today. Compared to Babylon 5, which debuted in the same year and used the same software packages, it is far more convincing.
At least it takes a while for the producers to succumb to the inevitable temptation and make the show more sci-fi than science-faction. Although pleasingly a giant tentacled monster has wrapped itself around the ship before the end of episode five (as a fan of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea I would have been disappointed otherwise) this proves to be the exception rather than the rule in the early part of the season, with stories instead focusing on such matters as dealing with difficult negotiations and running scientific expeditions rather than monster fish. To emphasise this commitment Dr Ballard appears, slightly incongruously it has to be said, over the end titles of each episode to relate some piece of scientific trivia relating to that particular episode and, while he unfortunately reminds one rather of Troy McClure (“Hi, I’m Bob Ballard, director of the Centre for Marine Exploration at Woods Hole!”) these little snippets of aquatic research are usually the most interesting portion of the entire episode. However, as commendable as such efforts at scientific accuracy are, viewers found it all a bit boring, and turned off in their millions (amusingly, one American paper dubbed it “Voyage to the bottom of the ratings”) although it probably didn't help that it was competing in its timeslot with the spirited first season of Lois and Clark. The drop in ratings, coupled with onset tensions between principal cast members and producers, resulted in a new producer, David Burke, being brought in halfway through the season to replace Thompson, practically his first decision being to throw in the towel and begin introducing far more outlandish elements into the series. It’s fun trying to guess what nugget of truth Ballard is going to be able to sift from episodes dealing with mermaids and aliens (even he has to admit after one show that it is in fact “entirely fantasy”) but it is a bit of a shame that a better compromise couldn’t be found between the two apparently disparate points-of-views: very, very occasionally there’s an episode which suggests that, done properly, the more realistic version of Seaquest could have been just as interesting as one dealing with sand creatures from outer space.
The arrival of Burke does herald a mild upturn in the show’s quality. The writing, while still on the whole trite, does at least feel a little more relaxed about itself, able to expand the character’s lives beyond their official functions, and the premises of the episodes become more interesting and varied. But you can’t spin gold from straw (or sea water for that matter) and with the flaccid crew and apparently limited abilities of the behind-the-scenes staff to create interesting things it’s apparent that it would take a gigantic effort to turn this hulking beast around. The following season did just that, ditching some of the secondary characters (those that didn’t walk out of their own accord, that is) and brought in many more sci-fi elements, such a crewmember with gills and visits to alien planets. Not having seen that second season I can’t say how successful these changes were, but frankly this first season has put me off the show for life. I’m assured there are fans of the show out there who campaigned vigorously to bring the show to DVD but I can’t for the life of me see why. For their sake I’m glad they’ve finally got what they wanted but for everyone else, this is one sea wreck you should be in no hurry to explore.
All twenty-three episodes of the first season are presented on four double-sided dual-layered disks. Each side of a disk holds three episodes, together with any deleted scenes pertaining to that episode. The disks are held in individual slim-line jewel cases which are held in a box. Each case has a separate front following a general design ethic, and the back lists each episode on that disk with a synopsis. (It’s probably being pedantic to note that the series logo used on the boxes is not exactly the same as the episodes themselves use.)
The disk menus are sensible and unflashy. The background is a static image of the Seaquest, accompanied by the series’ theme, and the options along the bottom are Play All, Episode Index and Languages. Selecting each episode from the Episode Index brings up a submenu with a synopsis of that episode, together with airdate and photo, and from there too you can select your language, as well as access chapter stops and deleted scenes, if the episode has any. The chapter stops, usually an unremarkable feature of DVDs, are not good here, unequally spaced so there are sometimes three in the first ten minutes then only a further two throughout the episode, meaning the episode’s individual acts are not broken down as they should be and if one loses one's place it's rather tedious to find it again.
All episodes are subtitled but the deleted scenes are not.
Fine but not dazzling. Occasionally it’s a little blocky, and the palate, while true to its source, is hardly vibrant, leading to a rather dull visual experience (quite aptly really). There are no major digital flaws, however, although there is the odd instance of artefacting and some general softness.
For a show made only twelve years ago, it’s a surprise to find a flat 2.0 track with little aural excitement. However dialogue is always nice and clear, and the music is pitched at the right level. Fine.
There's a fairly generous selection of deleted scenes from nine episodes, including the pilot, some complete with time indexes. Ironically there are nice character moments to be found amongst them which the episodes could have benefited from including.
A flat series gets a reasonable transfer to DVD. Given that everyone has moved on, it's unsurprising there aren't any commentaries (although it would have been interesting to hear the producers' thoughts on it after all this time) but it would have been nice to have had something more - surely there were some Making Of documentaries released at the time? The package is smart though and the episodes themselves look and sound okay, so fans should be happy.