Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Season One Volume One Review
Beyond its name, not a lot is remembered these days about the first of Irwin Allen’s science-fiction series of the Sixties, other than it was set in a submarine and had silly monsters. That little else has survived in the general cultural consciousness is hardly surprising: it doesn’t have the iconography modern popular culture needs to latch onto to remember reference its own heritage and which Allen’s other shows had in abundance. With none of the memorable characters from Lost in Space, the absence of an arresting central image a la The Time Tunnel or the pleasingly self-explanatory visuals that summed up Land of the Giants it is, indeed, arguably the weakest in concept of Allen's quartet: the central characters are stiff and stereotypical, its principal sets functional but unremarkable and its style utterly typical of many other adventure serials of its era, adding up to a functional but unmemorable whole. It's somewhat ironic, then, that despite these stylistic flaws, for many serious Allen fans it is easily the most successful of Irwin’s endeavours in the Sixties, and coming back to look at it today – or, more accurately (given the set under review holds the initial sixteen episodes) looking at the first half of the first season – it’s a series that holds its own extremely well, and makes for an enjoyable, if typical, slice of Sixties television.
As with many producers working in television at that period, Allen had come to the medium via a circuitous route. He was born in 1916 and began his career in Hollywood in the Thirties as a journalist, first by editing a local entertainment magazine called Key and then going nationwide with a syndicated newspaper column called “Hollywood Merry-Go-Round.” By the 1940s he had also had stints as a radio commentator and a literary agent, this latter job paving the way to his becoming first a packager for film deals and then a film producer himself (his first production credit, Double Dynamite, having an impressive cast list including Frank Sinatra, Jane Russell and Groucho Marx). Although nowadays he’s remembered mainly for his television shows of the Sixties and disaster films of the Seventies, he had not unreasonable success in the Fifties too, winning an Academy Award for the documentary The Sea Around Us in 1952, and it was during this period that he met many of the people he would later collaborate with on his more famous projects.
In 1961 he directed a film that would change his career forever. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, starring Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lorre and Joan Fontaine, was a futuristic yarn, vaguely based on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which the crew of the submarine Seaview battle to save the world from a catastrophic natural disaster. It’s typical Allen, with lavish special effects, nonsensical science, little characterisation and lots of end-of-the-world type drama, and was a moderately big success. When his next film, the rather more tranquil Five Weeks In a Balloon (another Verne adaptation), bombed the following year, Allen turned his attention for the first time to television, hitting on the idea of adapting Voyage for the smaller screen, using the leftover sets from his movie version to help cut costs. The pilot, which recast Richard Basehart in Walter Pidgeon’s role as Admiral Harriman Nelson, was snapped up by ABC, effectively deciding the course of Allen’s career for the rest of the decade - and, in some respects, for the rest of his life - and the series debuted on American television on 16th September 1964.
The series eventually ran to four seasons (the longest running of Allen’s four series, and indeed for many years to come the longest-running science-fiction series broadcast on network television) but the purists will tell you that this first season was by far the best. There again, purists will always tell you the first season of Allen’s shows are the best, generally because it's only in that first period of his shows that Allen's writers were able to eschew his constant demands to ditch character stories in favour of tales featuring giant wolfmen and talking carrots, bringing a seriousness to the titles that all-too-soon evaporated under Allen's often misguided approach to television making. This is certainly true of Voyage's premiere year, although fans of utter daftness shouldn't be too disappointed as it’s as soon as episode five that the first monster, in the form of mutant plankton, attacks the sub, and only two episodes later before the first giant octopus wraps its tentacles around the submarine. (It wouldn't feel truly like Voyage without seeing that happen). There are plenty of other such schlocky joys too, such as grisly alien doppelgangers, mad scientists living under the sea and prehistoric monsters roaming a previously-undiscovered island (good old Allen, he was never one to throw away a beloved pulp cliché).
Despite how that all sounds, however, the majority of episodes do at least aspire to something approaching sense, and even throw in some simplistic black-and-white political allegory, with Admiral Harriman and his crew constantly coming up against evil dictators styled after such American bogeymen as Latin Americans and those rotten Commies. For some reason the episodes dealing with run-ins with these foreign types reminded me of the later Mission: Impossible’s similar handling of such lands, and, as you would expect, are not subtle in their treatment of the enemy. However, they do provide a mildly interesting sociological look at the concerns that preoccupied America at the time, and provide more interesting enemies for the crew of the Seaview to battle rather than killer seaweed.
In general the episodes are entertaining enough, although their fifty-minute running time does make most feel a little stretched, especially those instalments in which it’s clear from an early point how things are going to play out. That said, there’s usually enough excitement and spectacle to divert attention (typically for Allen’s shows, punch-ups and chases are sprinkled liberally through each story) even for the more obvious of stories. There are some real gems to be found in these first sixteen shows too, the undoubted jewel in the crown being the atypical “Submarine Sunk Here” which focuses far more heavily on characterisation than old Irwin generally liked as the crew face a slow lingering death at the bottom of the ocean after the submarine runs into a mine field. Wracking up the tension, and using a secondary crewman far better than is usual, this is a great fifty minutes of television and one of the best episodes of any of Allen’s series. Other noteworthy stories include “The Ghost of Moby Dick” (guess what that one’s about) and “Hot Line” which at least attempts to present the Soviets as something other than simple-minded Commie nutters.
As mentioned, none of Allen’s series of the Sixties, with the exception of Lost in Space, boasted what could conceivably be called three-dimensional characters, but Richard Basehart as the Admiral does his best to infuse his lacklustre character with personality and soul. Basehart brings a presence to the screen which is often sorely lacking at the heart of Allen’s shows and, while not a man of the tallest stature (he’s usually the smallest actor on screen, and indeed later on in the series took to standing on a box to disguise the disparity in height between himself and co-star Hedison) he has a gravitas about him that commands respect. He’s often given precious little to work with – this is not a show geared towards meaningful character introspection beyond the occasional argument among officers on the best course of action – but he lends even the most absurd situations the writers throw at him a sincerity they would otherwise lack completely. He’s a man with certain mannerisms – listen to how he rolls the last vowel in nearly every line he utters – but he’s unquestionably the best lead actor Allen ever cast in his shows.
Hedison, as his subordinate, is a more traditional Allen actor, giving his playing the broad strokes that Irwin would have loved (“Right, now look shocked! Great, now look concerned! Fabulous, now just stand there impassively while the others say their lines! Perfect!”) That said, he has more of a presence about him than, say, Mark Goddard (who played roughly the equivalent role in Lost in Space) and has a certain glint his eye which counterbalances Basehart’s more serious approach. He was also reportedly fairly popular during the show’s tenure: however, to say he puts in a powerful performance would be incorrect. Those who play the remainder of the crew tend to be a bland bunch, although a fair few get their moments in the spotlight, even in this first half of a season: a standard technique of the show was to highlight a particular crewman’s distress in an episode, giving the various backroom boys a chance to shine. The one regular secondary character to make any sort of impact is Henry Kulky as Curley. Curley the character just says lines the other characters don't, but Kulky the actor has a lived-in character-filled appearance and husky voice, entirely in keeping with a man who has spent his best years at sea, and as such is always notable in his appearances.
As with all of Allen’s shows, no matter how blank its denizens their environment always look great. By re-using the sets from his feature version the ship's environs are far more lavish and impressive-looking than otherwise would have been the case: indeed, as Allen noted, the sets (which had originally cost some $600,000) alone would have cost more than the entire series if they had been built from scratch. As well as an impressively-crowded and realistic looking bridge, complete with multiple stations, map readouts and that all-important central periscope, there’s also a large engineering area as well as the usual assortment of laboratories, corridors and crew quarters. All of these are put to good use by the directors on the show, who, unusually for the time, aren’t afraid to move their cameras around and really get into the sets themselves, while the number of extras that populates the ship ensure this always feels like a fully-functioning submarine with a complete crew. And it’s not just inside the Seaview either: much use is made of outdoor locations, as well as several impressive underwater sequences which, although I don’t know this, look to me as though they’ve been nicked from elsewhere (a favourite trick of Irwin’s here and elsewhere: the most blatant example here being in the episode “Turn Back the Clock” which re-uses footage from his own film The Lost World - handy, really, as the hero in that movie was played by Hedison). In addition, the modelwork of the Seaview is second to none, and, as much as it pains me to say it, looks just as good as the work Gerry Anderson was doing at the time over in Britain. The submarine itself has a bit of a boring design, but watching it cut through the waters, or burst out of the sea in a dramatic (although hardly practical from the sailors’ point of view) arc one can't fail but be impressed.
The effects work was one of two ways Voyage broke new ground (it won many awards for its SFX through the four years). The other was that it was the first really successful series to militarise science fiction. Although the genre by necessity has always featured an abundance of trained personnel such as astronauts, before this series they had never been presented in a realistic manner, and certainly employed few of the army conventions beyond giving its characters such titles as Captain and Commander. A few films had flirted with the idea but what Voyage did was show that it could work for a weekly television series. At roughly the same time Gene Roddenberry was busy working on his first Star Trek pilot, and was surely influenced, even if only slightly, by the set-up shown in this show. Star Trek, of course, went on to not only establish the military style but to normalise it within the genre, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Voyage got there first and as such made a significant, although nowadays unrecognised, contribution to science fiction television.
Looking back at it today, the show holds up quite well. It's very much of its time, and the modern viewer will find it lacking in the key areas of realistic characters and vaguely believable scenarios, but it still manages to entertain and there's plenty of fun - some intentional, some not - to be had with it. In Basehart you have a decent screen presence, while the mixture of pseudo-politics and nonsensical creatures will appeal to anyone with pulpy appetites. In the Allen pantheon it rates somewhere behind Lost in Space (nothing Allen did could ever better Dr Smith and the Robot's double act) but somewhat ahead of The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. If you've never seen it before, these sixteen episodes are probably the best set to check out, and indeed you could do a lot worse - season four, for example, which really does deserve to be consigned to Davy Jones Locker.
The first sixteen episodes of Season One are presented on three double-sided dual-layered disks. Each disk is housed in a slim-line jewel case which has identical artwork on the front and brief episodes synopses and airdates on the reverse, these three cases housed in a holding sleeve, again with the same cover artwork.
The menu design is functional but dull. Following on the usual FBI warnings and studio logo we got straight to the static, silent Main Menu, which consists of the show's logo and the four episode titles, which is not thrilling (Allen wouldn't have approved, that's for certain). Each episode has its own submenu, each of which at least has a still from its appropriate episode. There are four options on each of these menus: Play Episode, Scene Selection, Language Selection and Disc Main Menu, all of which lead to similarly styled submenus of their own.
All the episodes are subtitled, as is the unaired Pilot episode. The Promotional Reel, however, is not.
After the mediocre transfers seen on the Lost in Space disks, Fox seem to have woken up and started to clean these Allen series up properly, with both these and the recent release of The Time Tunnel looking far better than one might expect. Admittedly, the visuals on this disk don't quite measure up to those on Time Tunnel: the scenes shot on film have a noticeably poorer quality with plenty of grain splashed about, but those shot on video have a nice, crisp appearance, bar the odd artefact. The black and white video is handled well, although there is often the suspicion of slight edge enhancement on much of the foreground action, but other than that, and a couple of episodes which seem to have suffered far more in the intervening years than the others, these are pleasing disks to watch.
Sadly not nearly as good as the Video. After a decent start on the first couple of episodes, a persistent hiss invades the soundtrack, constantly drawing attention to itself and refusing to blend into the background. It doesn't completely muffle the actors but it doesn't help either, the result being that the dialogue is often harder to hear than it should be, giving the impression the episodes are much older than they are. The option to listen in stereo or the episode's original mono tracks doesn't help one iota, making the newer mix fairly redundant. A disappointing surprise, given how good the visuals are.
Unaired Pilot (50:26)
I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but this appears to be pretty identical to the Pilot that was transmitted with the exception that this is in colour – which, apparently, is how the thing was shot in the first place.
Irwin Allen Home Movies (32:34)
It’s not clear who actually filmed this extensive behind-the-scenes footage, as Allen himself is on-camera practically the whole time, but whoever it was certainly kept an extensive record. Although silent, this provides a good look at how the show was made, as well as sadly rather lessening the impact of the impressive sets, which don’t look nearly as impressive when seen in their soundstage context. The two main drawbacks to this collection is that there’s no audio and there’s no indication as to who some of the crew are, but otherwise this is still enjoyable to watch, with the highlight being Allen enthusiastically demonstrating to his actors how they should throw themselves around the set when the submarine is under attack. That said, it is a bit long, so could be worth watching at double-speed… as I did.
ABC Presentation Reel (5:04)
“The Seaview is a modern magic carpet that will transport viewers to the far-flung corners of the globe, all in the never-ending search for high adventure on land, sea and in the air.” So Allen sells his series at the end of this trailer which, rarely, he presents himself. He seems a bit ill-at-ease in this role – he’s no Hitchcock that’s for sure – and can be seen reading off a card below the camera, but it’s a highlight of these extras to see the man himself in action.
A goodly collection of material from the period the show was on, albeit not quite as extensive as the impressive lot from the Time Tunnel disks, made of the categories Presentation Book, Production/Behind the Scenes and <>Merchandise:
This appears to be essentially the press pack for the launch of the show, in the form of a book. It covers the basic premise of the show, the stars, the plots and has a complimentary biography of Allen, all illustrated with large scale pictures. Unfortunately, whoever scanned the book did a lousy job: the text becomes increasingly faded as it nears the edge of a page, and even in the middle one has to squint to read it, which virtually makes the exercise null and void. Which is a shame as otherwise this would be a really nice extra to have. Still, the pictures look good.
Production/Behind the Scenes
I’m never very keen on this sort of extra but there’s a generous selection of stills from episodes and background material here. None of Allen surprisingly, but plenty of Basehart, Hedison and the rest having fun. Some of the pictures, such as the one with the pair of them standing in front of the Mona Lisa, sum up the absurdity of the series quite well.
Dangerous this one if you’re a bit of a collector, this has images of everything that sold on the Voyage name: games (good old MB), books, annuals, Viewmaster sets, the works, the sort of thing you find yourself wasting money on at collector’s fairs and car boot sales.
A fun series gets a relatively decent release on DVD. The audio is disappointing, but the visuals (and episodes themselves) hold up well, while the extras are good without being comprehensive. The second half of the season promises to come with some new interviews, the one area where this set is lacking, but as a look back at the time the series was originally released these extras are very evocative.