Surface: The Complete Series Review
Strange things are happening beneath the surface of the oceans. When a gang of young schoolkids sneak out from on a boat, they see something in the water a little distance away from where they're swimming. Something that doesn't look anything like the sea creatures that normally inhabit the surface waters. Elsewhere, the military track a nuclear submarine that is drifting without a crew, which, when it is taken to a dry dock, is found to have giant bite marks across its hull. And, on a deep ocean dive, oceanographer Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell) sees something very odd, a creature flitting about in the waters around a field of giant craters, including a tunnel in the ocean floor that that extends to a depth of over eight thousand feet. Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, Richard Connelly (Jay Ferguson) loses his brother on a scuba fishing trip, watching helplessly as a giant sea creature drags him into the depths of the waters.
Strange things are happening in seaside locations all over the world and very soon Daughtery finds that she is being cutting out of ocean research and from investigating any further by the military and government scientists. But its getting harder to keep covering up the number of incidents, no more so than when a strange carcass is found on a South Carolina beach, which is dismissed as a poisoned whale that has been beached by the tides. Daughtery isn't convinced, questioning why the authorities would be so keen on suppressing a story about a beached whale and soon - after meeting in military custody - she and Connelly pair up to uncover the mystery that everyone is so very keen on keeping out of the headlines. Meanwhile, teenage Miles Barnett (Carter Jenkins) looks in at the strange egg that he found in the sea and which he is now keeping in his fish tank at home. Miles, though, is unaware that the egg is just about to hatch...
So far, so very much like Invasion, the recent television show that made it to the end of its first season before being dropped from the schedules. However, where that drama burned slowly over six months, being very coy about actually revealing anything about the alien presence in the water - like the audience, even the military eventually appeared to simply lose interest and drift away - Surface jumps right into a big old conspiracy within its very first episode. Indeed, thanks to a film and television tradition of government scientists rarely being up to any good whatsoever, we know from the very first episode that the white-coats-and-beards in Surface are desperately trying to keep something under wraps but which, largely in the same kind of tradition, will eventually be outed by a plucky handful of Ordinary Joes. In Surface, these are, as you might well have guessed, Laura Daughtery, Richard Connelly and Miles James, the last of whom is somewhat unrelated to the others but is a thorn in the side of the authorities nonetheless.
All of which leads to an entertaining enough show but which, even by the standard set for sci-fi on television, is far-fetched. As with The Triangle before it, Surface sets up a reasonable premise, that of mysterious sea creatures of unknown origin piquing the interest of various ordinary folk, the world's scientists and shady government organisations, including the CIA. In being caught somewhere between a global conspiracy and the goings-on in the lives of Laura Daughtery, Richard Connelly and Miles James, Surface has to contend with both but, in doing so, it's not particularly good at either. Laura is not only at the forefront of attempting to break the news of the existence to the world but drags her young son along with her, whose time she has to manage between staying with her or with her ex-husband. Richard also has a young family who he tries to keep together in spite of his money running out, his wife becoming increasingly confused as he takes her to conspiracy conferences and, in the manner of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, appears to be mentally unraveling by covering the walls of his house that he says were based on things shown to him by his dead brother. Miles, meanwhile, struggles with an apparently alien lifeform and, doing nothing for the hormones of a fourteen-year-old boy, the many pool parties that his sister organises in between she and her friends walking around the house in nothing more than a bikini. As well as the gadgets, monsters and offshore hardware, Surface never aims for an audience of men any clearer than by having Leighton Meester wear very little for most of the first half of the series.
Surface does move faster than Invasion - treacle off a shovel moved faster than Invasion - but covers much of the same ground. The problem with such a long-running conspiracy drama is that it doesn't must become more and more unbelievable the longer it goes on - it was never believable to begin with - but it eventually loses sight of all the mysteries that it poses for itself. A three-part drama like The Triangle is just about right, not that it effectively answers all of the questions that it asks but it doesn't force itself to keep doing so in order to fill sixteen hours of television. Where, I'm sure, many viewers of Lost are, episode-by-episode, wondering how long it will be before falling ratings force the show to be wrapped up with a, "It was all a dream!" ending, Surface finds itself with the same problem. In order to create a ratings splash, all of the big action sequences are in the first few episodes, making it a wonder that the press don't follow up on the downed planes, the missing people, the sudden appearance of maelstroms in the water or the sighting of a fully-grown creature in a popular tourist spot. Eventually, there are so many threads to Surface that the series seems to forget to keep track of them all - a dead body washes up on the beach from the missing submarine, which doesn't appear to be worthy of being followed up and in spite of Laura taking the story to the press and being fairly sympathetically interviewed, there doesn't appear to be very much interest in her filming of the creatures underwater. All the while, a shadowy government agency looks to keep a leash on the story but as a militia takes to the shores to shoot the creatures, their efforts look to be entirely in vain. When a hundred or so armed men show up to bag as many of the animals as they can, you have to wonder how the government can suppress the story. Of course, it may be that the general public don't have that much of an interest in the creatures but it's more likely that the scale of the production doesn't allow for the billions of people in a panic.
Unfortunately for Surface, it shared something else with Invasion, that of being cancelled such that just as the show starts to reveal some of the conspiracy at the same time as a tsunami caused by the creatures surges towards the coast. With the government admitting some kind of defeat at controlling the story and angry mobs storming Miles' home, believing him to be in league with the creatures, the season and the entire show comes to an end. Had this been six hours long, it would have been much more entertaining but at fifteen forty-minute-long episodes, Surface has a hard time at sustaining the conspiracy as it does the everyday events that make the show's characters more interesting. I suspect that problem with the show rather than its premise is the reason behind its cancellation, with audiences simply running out of patience with the pacing of Surface and becoming ever more frustrated in their wishing it to move forward with more purpose. When it spends almost an entire episode with Laura and Richard stuck at the bottom of the ocean in a makeshift bathysphere, which proves to be as bad an idea in practice as it sounds, you can't help that someone had taken to the script with a pair of scissors and a set of black markers long before production began. However, it's obvious that such a thing never took place, which might have better suited the filling of a single season of a television show but which damned Surface to that season alone. If you, as the viewer, can forgive Surface its lack of a conclusion then by all means set about enjoying the better moments in this sci-fi conspiracy drama but, personally, I would stick with The Triangle, a show that does many of the same things but with a conclusion and a shorter running time is so much more appealing.
Only two years old, Surface looks it already. The CG effects are really quite poor throughout, although also comparable to those of The Triangle, and are only remarkable for standing out in such a manner that they might as well have a man in Victorian costume waving their presence via the waving of a red flag. Even with the picture looking as soft as it does here, the standard of the effects are obvious but they do have an enjoyably shambolic air to them with spotting the blurring between the CG creation and the live-action footage being as much of a pleasure as actually watching the thing. Otherwise, the DVD does a fairly decent job of showing the soft lighting of military installations, the sparkle of sunlight on the water and the darkness in which much of the action takes place but it's not a release that really stands out. Indeed, Surface really only serves its purpose and, in the heavy banding around the lights mounted on ROVs, sometimes not even that.
On top of that, it does look as if this is pan-and-scanned from the original aspect ratio. All of the Deleted Scenes and the Making Of are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen but the actual show is in fullscreen, suggesting that we're not seeing Surface as it was originally produced for the screen. It is odd to have a major drama show to have been produced in 1.33:1 in the last couple of years and a look at the Region 1 release of the show reveals that it was originally produced in 1.78:1 widescreen, leaving Region 2 with a fairly unimpressive version of Surface on DVD.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track - again, a step down from the DD5.1 on the Region 1 set - isn't bad but does show up the odd moment when the dialogue is lost behind the soundtrack with there being a small amount of distortion in the show's more frenetic moments. However, things are generally quite reasonable throughout and though there are no subtitles, Surface makes for a decent listen with the occasional use of the rear channels via Dolby Pro-Logic decoding something of a treat when they occur.
There are only two bonus features on this four-disc set, a set of Deleted Scenes (25m17s), which are rather sparse given that they span all fifteen episodes extras on this DVD and don't add very much to the production. The shorter Making Of... (8m36s) is much better, allowing time for the show's creators, Jonas and Josh Pate, to be interviewed alongside the main cast. In doing so, we hear that Surface was originally written to be a feature film but given the success of several similarly-themed shows, which I took to be Lost, was extended into being a television drama. Eventually, this goes into some detail on the CG effects, including interviews with those responsible for them but given the sate of them, they'd have been better had they not said a word.