One thing on Netflix kept me company during finals week: seaQuest, the ill-fated mid-90s sci-fi show that premiered on NBC in September, 1993. It was re-cast several times and even went through a name change in its final season. Watching it now proved to be a fun and interesting exercise, what with the “gritty,” arc-based, post-Lost, post-Breaking Bad world we live in today.
seaQuest was created by Rockne S. O’Bannon, who would later go on to create Farscape. The show chronicles the adventures of the high-tech submarine seaQuest DSV (“Deep Submergence Vehicle”). The seaQuest is operated by the United Earth Oceans Organization (UEO), a world-wide coalition of countries and undersea groups. (Yes, it’s very much like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets and yes, there will be more Trek comparisons!) The show takes place in what used to be considered the far future: 2018. Humans have exhausted all the natural resources in the ground and have now begun mining the ocean floor. The UEO is tasked with patrolling these new colonies, as well as defending their interests from hostile nations. In the pilot, we learn that the UEO has also started to engage in heavy scientific research. Early episodes stress the science/military conflict but it’s mostly much ado about nothing.
Roy Scheider is Captain Nathan Bridger, original designer of the seaQuest. In the pilot, he’s cajoled into assuming command after the ship’s previous captain (played by Shelley Hack) was relieved for disobeying orders... and over-acting. Stephanie Beacham plays Doctor Kristin Westphalen. She and Bridger share a brief romance near the end of the season (yes, not unlike Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher). Jonathan Brandis plays teenage genius Lucas Wolenczak (yes, not unlike Wesley Crusher). The rest of the senior staff consists of sensor officer Ortiz (Marco Sanchez), comm officer O’Neill (Ted Raimi, brother of Sam), engineer Hitchcock (Stacy Haiduk), supply officer/comic relief Krieg (John D’Aquino, a.k.a. Seinfeld’s “Todd Gack”), security chief Crocker (Royce D. Applegate), and first officer Ford (Don Franklin).
They give it their all but the three that get most of the attention are Bridger, Lucas, and Westphalen. Scheider’s presence was always appreciated and he comes across as a believable naval officer-slash-father figure. Lucas wasn’t quite as annoying as Wesley Crusher was in early TNG, but “teenage genius” is such a tired trope – hell, it was a tired trope 20 years ago! In the pilot, Lucas demonstrates the vocoder technology that allows the ship’s resident dolphin (Darwin) to talk. This is the one element of the show that most people remember. Technically, the dolphin didn’t “talk” – the vocoder simply translated the noises into language, most of it cryptic. On one hand, it could be a bit of a crutch; on the other hand, Darwin actually came in handy sometimes. TV shows tend to either re-use an idea till it’s no longer dramatic (cough, holodeck)… or they introduce an interesting idea only to forget about it.
As a production of the early 1990s, the show isn’t serialized. A few characters show up more than once and a couple of plotlines are followed up on, but this show was written back in that prehistoric age when a new viewer could randomly tune in and not miss anything. Nowadays, if you were to miss one episode of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, you might as well not tune in again! As critic Daniel Carlson wrote in a recent defense of episodic television: “[…] this isn’t about which type of show is better. There is no inherent ‘better,’ because that assumes that one form automatically trumps the other. But TV doesn’t have to look like any one thing to be great, or even good.” This show is also refreshingly light, for the most part. Things get a little heavy later on but you won’t find any rape scenes or bloody beheadings. It’s not a kids’ show per se, but it’s mostly “safe.” 10-year old ScottDS watched it from day 1!
At the end of the first season, the seaQuest is destroyed. The show relocated to Orlando for season 2 and most of the actors over 35 were fired. No more Westphalen, Hitchcock, Krieg, or Crocker. Krieg would return for one episode but none of the other characters were mentioned again, and even the Bridger/Westphalen romance was forgotten. The “younger, sexier” characters brought on board the new seaQuest were security chief Brody (Edward Kerr), chief medical officer Smith (Rosalind Allen), and helm chick Henderson (Kathy Evison, who bears a slight resemblance to an old crush). I think nearly every male character develops a crush on Henderson at some point. Smith, on the other hand, has no chemistry with anyone. Oh, and she’s a telepath (yes, like Counselor Troi).
We also meet two more new characters, both freaks in their own way. Michael DeLuise plays Seaman Piccolo, an ex-con who rebels at first but later tries to better himself. Oh, and he has gills! Michael’s brother Peter DeLuise plays Dagwood, a genetically-engineered life form (GELF, or “dagger”). He serves as the Data character, in which other crewmembers help him make sense of humanity. It was about this point when Scheider started voicing his displeasure at the direction of the show. No more stories of scientific exploration or current events (they even did eco-terrorism); in the second season, we had time travel, aliens, telepaths, killer plants, a killer crocodile, and even an encounter with the Roman god Neptune. I’m not joking! In the season finale, the ship is taken millions of lightyears away to another planet where the crew becomes involved in an alien civil war. Only Lucas, Dagood, and Darwin survive…
The Shatner Episode
The only reason seaQuest reappeared on my radar after 15 years was because a friend of mine – who had never watched the show – decided he wanted to check out the episode “Hide and Seek” because it guest starred William Shatner. Needless to say, this episode needs to be talked about. I’d love to host a panel at Comic-Con dedicated to it! Shatner plays Milos Tezlov, an ousted Serbo-Croat dictator (!), recently escaped from UEO custody. Shatner doesn’t speak with any kind of accent, but we know he’s evil because he has a mustache. At the same time, Darwin the dolphin starts appearing in everyone’s dreams, including Teslov’s. Teslov has visions of seaQuest and it turns out Darwin can help his mute son talk again. Or something.
it’s “stupid, stupid, stupid!” We never find out why Darwin appears in dreams at this particular time and it’s never mentioned again. Shatner gets around way too easily, considering he’s public enemy #1. (Imagine bin Laden just showing up in your backyard one day.) Westphalen is held hostage along with a scientist, Malcolm Lansdowne. Lansdowne is played, not by an actor, but by the writer of this episode. I’m sure he’s talented, and they try setting up a love triangle between them and Bridger, but: a.) this guy isn’t that good an actor, and b.) he’s just a… schlub!! And I kid you not, Shatner delivers the following three lines of dialogue with a straight face:
“Bloodshed follows me like a wedding train.”Yeah, that happened. At the end of the day, my friend and I had a lot of laughs. Like I said above, the show could be good but just wasn’t great. I don’t see seaQuest ever coming back in any form and, unlike other 90s sci-fi shows like Babylon 5 or The X-Files, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of thriving fanbase. Despite a line of action figures, a couple of video games, and model kits, history will most likely consider seaQuest a footnote next to Earth 2 and M.A.N.T.I.S.
“I am a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler.”
“I want your dolphin!” (he later refers to Darwin as “My dear mammal”)
And now, the unfortunate epilogue: Roy Scheider died of natural causes in 2008. Jonathan Brandis committed suicide in 2003. He was only 27. Royce D. Applegate (Crocker) died in a house fire in 2003. He was only 63.