Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TV Review: seaQuest DSV (1993-1996)

by ScottDS

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!

Also, some of their 21st century predictions were, shall we say, off. This was back when virtual reality was considered the next big thing. Even Michael Crichton suggested (in Disclosure) that we’d read our e-mail, not on a small phone, but while wearing bulky goggles and gloves, manipulating a virtual mailbox or some such retro-futuristic weirdness. Hitchcock operates the ship’s external sensors via virtual reality and it looks quite ridiculous today. Also ridiculous: some characters still have early-90s mullets. As with most depictions of the future (at least on TV), popular culture apparently ended the year the show was made, so all the references are current ones - apparently, no new songs or books or movies exist. The Internet is mentioned (along with it’s dated “information superhighway” moniker) but the idea of social networking and streaming entertainment is nowhere to be found. Oh, and meat is banned, there’s an aircraft carried named the H.R. Clinton, and Colin Powell was president at some point. None of this has happened (yet).

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…

…until the third season when the seaQuest and most of her crew mysteriously reappear on Earth… several years later. For this season, the show was re-titled seaQuest 2032 and Michael Ironside was cast as Captain Oliver Hudson, a strict military man. Scheider, who had wanted out, was contractually obligated to guest star in a few episodes. Smith and Ortiz were out, as was Brody half-way through. We find out that, with seaQuest out of the picture for a decade, the bad guys were able to extend their influence, giving rise to the evil “Macronesian Alliance,” presided over by a mustache-twirling Michael York. The Alliance is in bed with the world’s largest evil megacorporation, Deon International, presided over by a mustache-twirling Tim DeKay (White Collar). No more aliens; this season emphasized action, geopolitics, and especially cronyism. (It did NOT emphasize subtlety.) We get one time-travel episode involving the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s kinda like “Yesterday’s Enterprise” but without the nuance, the sense of dread, or the quotable dialogue!

The show was cancelled mid-season after 13 episodes. Watching it today, I think it could’ve kept going, at least one more year. Ironside certainly had presence and there were no doubt plenty of stories that could’ve been told. This show is a classic example of “executive meddling” – taking an intelligent premise and throwing it away for explosions; firing a perfectly good cast to replace them with “young, hipper” characters… the list goes on. The show ranged from mediocre to good, but was rarely, if ever, great. Howard Hawks once said that a good movie consists of "three great scenes, no bad ones." No doubt a similar rule exists for TV. The humor was rarely funny, the ideas rarely thought-provoking in that “wake up at 3:00 in the morning and slap your forehead” kind of way. They never did their “Best of Both Worlds” or their “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” – classic sci-fi television that’s still remembered today. Speaking of “Nightmare,” this brings me to…

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.
I’ve watched this episode three times now and it makes no sense!! To paraphrase Ed Wood, 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.”
“I am a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler.”
“I want your dolphin!” (he later refers to Darwin as “My dear mammal”)
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.

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.


Kit said...

Sounds like an interesting idea screwed royally by idiot executives.

Good review Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the review. I tried several times to get into this show when it was running, but I never found it interesting enough to continue. I see from your review that they struggled to find their footing. So perhaps my decision to avoid it was ultimate vindicated.

I guess the question is, do you think this is worth watching now?

shawn said...

I remember this show. First season was average, certainly better than the first season of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Then came the changes. I made it through 3-4 episodes of the second season and said good-bye. I tuned in for the re-boot that was season 3 briefly, but couldn't get back into it. By that time, better fare was to had be had with The X-Files, Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. And while Shatner is always entertaining, you forgot to mention that Charlton Heston had an appearance in the first season.

Anonymous said...

shawn -

I was gonna talk about the guest stars (not just Heston but also Kent McCord and Mark Hamill, both of whom were involved with the alien episodes) but I kinda ran out of room - I try to keep these reviews to three single-spaced paged on MS Word.

Shatner and Heston were arguably the biggest guest stars they had, but a few familiar faces showed up - mainly in the first season - like Richard Herd and W. Morgan Sheppard.

First season was definitely average - better than TNG's first season... but only because TNG's first season had more bad episodes! (But also a few great ones like The Big Goodbye which this show never had.)

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

You're welcome! I'm wondering how soon they might've found their footing if the network wasn't constantly interfering. (i.e. finding their footing on their own instead of having someone else's footing forced upon them!)

Do I think it's worth watching now? If you had Netflix (I always forget if you do or not), I'd say watch the pilot and go from there. The pilot is good (the last thing Irvin Kershner ever directed) but it still has unfunny humor and a mustache-twirling villain (the Shelley Hack character)... it's interesting, but not thought-provoking at all.

Ultimately, Scheider makes it work, but he's just one element among many.

Anonymous said...

Kit -

Pretty much, though as I said above, one wonders what they would've/could've done if the executives had left them alone.

Enough time has passed... I think it's time for another underwater adventure show. But it's 2014 - it would be "dark and gritty" and heavily arc-based. :-)

Jason said...

Kathy Evison joked that her character was the “sea slut” as Henderson kept getting paired with almost everyone. She even offered herself to Lucas in one episode!

Yeah, Roy Scheider made no bones about hating the show’s second season. “It's childish trash... I am very bitter about it. I feel betrayed... It's (the new season) 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 Trek.” Then he said, “I don't do this kind of stuff. If I wanted to do the fourth generation of Star Trek, I would have signed up for it. I wouldn't have done seaQuest. You guys have changed it from hardball into field hockey and never even bothered to talk to me.” (about the producers)


I find the ageism on the part of the producers particularly appalling. The season 1 cast was good, interesting people you’d want to follow. I don’t need virtually everyone to look like they just came out of high school. It wouldn’t make any sense for the show’s setting. You need experienced people to man and operate a massive ship like Seaquest, and yeah, some of them might have some white in their hair, or shocker, may be in the late thirties!

Kenn Christenson said...

I'll take the Seaview and Flying Sub, any day - over this show.

Anonymous said...

Great review ScottDS,

I too watched this show from day one and saw nearly all of the episodes and it was weird tuning in and sometimes it seemed like you were watching a different show with the same name or concept.

I think you hit the nail on the head with the good, but never great and with the uncanny similarities to Star Trek which I was watching at the same time. And yes the show was never allowed to fail on it's own merit with does suck, in that sense it reminds me of Dark Angel which I loved when I first saw it, but the second season was vastly different and it ended up being the last.


Kit said...

Joan of Arcadia, another show that was interesting (God talks to a teenage girl) but got really dumb in season 2 with characters who were previously nice people acting like dicks for no apparent reason other than to create unnecessary drama.

Its 2nd Season was its last.

Anonymous said...

Kit -

I've heard of the show and I remember when it was on, but I never watched it. Seems like it was a victim to the same "meddling."

Anonymous said...

Scott/Anon -

The Trek similarities I didn't mind, but I guess they were inevitable given the nature of the show. I watched for maybe the first year and a half and then I lost touch with it. Netflix was my first exposure to the latter half of episodes.

I also lost track of Dark Angel after the first month or two as well.

Anonymous said...

Kenn -

That's why I think there's room in the marketplace for another submarine show, but I'm wondering if it's because the major networks still have a fear of sci-fi. Dramas with sci-fi elements are one thing, but shows that take place in the future... on ships? They're not fans.

Anonymous said...

Jason -

I think she offers herself to Lucas in an episode where only X amount of people can fit on a submersible and Lucas draws the short straw. And by the time we get to the next episode, Henderson is on to someone else! (Or someone else is on to her.)

I've read the Scheider quotes and, considering he was a professional actor for years (i.e. someone who should know better), he must've been very pissed off! But apparently, no on at the network was willing to work with him and the producer (not the original creator but the showrunner at the time) brushed him off.

The ageism thing sucks, and you make an excellent point... not every crew member can look 22 years old - it's not realistic!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've seen several episodes in the past and they didn't interest me. I'll see about giving the pilot a watch though. Maybe it will be more interesting starting from the beginning?

tryanmax said...

Star Trek: Underwater was always the derisive name of this show. And quite accurate, as you illustrate. Unfortunately, that perception originated with the execs. If they had been able to think of their show as the different animal it was, it could have really turned into something special. (And there would likely have been no Shatner episode.) I remember enjoying season 1 and feeling nothing but confusion at the rest.

Tennessee Jed said...

good grief, Scott, he's a Serbo Croat dictator, not a starship capt.! (apologies to Leonard McCoy.) Interesting review. I remember the show, but don't think I ever saw it. Liked Roy Scheider, though, and I recognize the one guy from the film Gettysburg. OT - I was watching the new show with McConahey and Harrelson. I think it would be neat if you did a series on the mechanics of Hollywood. E.g. Both stars are "executive producers" What does that really mean? Did they put up money? Is it just a title. Who actually does what in Hollywood today. I think it would be fascinating? Just a thought

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

In this case, I don't know. As a pilot, it functions well: it introduces the main characters, the setting, etc. But the actual plot (hunting down seaQuest's former captain) is just so... been-there done-that. And as I mentioned above, the actress who plays that character isn't very good. Her name is Captain Stark, she does nothing but sneer, and she even carries with her a swagger case you didn't get that she's all military all the time!

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

I don't know how the show was originally conceived. It's possible the creator was inspired by Trek or the network made the comparison and ran with it... the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

If there had been no Shatner episode, I never would've gotten back into it and never would've reviewed it... this is all because of the Shatner episode!!


Anonymous said...

Jed -

I'm not the guy to write that article, BUT...

...1.) I agree it would be interesting, since titles tend to be one of those amorphous things. (I doubt those two guys put up the money but HBO probably roped them in by giving them some creative control. or maybe they don't have any and the job titles are it... who knows?)

2.) That's what always bothered me about BH, whenever they'd complain, "Matt Damon's new movie is propaganda!" Matt Damon doesn't write and direct every movie he's in. To be fair, naturally he'd be attracted to like-minded subject matter, but the films/ideas/scripts often materialize elsewhere.

Rustbelt said...

Scott, I , too, remember this series. Now, to be fair, I saw a few of the previews that had several of the (better looking) actresses in swimsuits. So, being a boy just entering puberty at the time, well...I was interested.

If I recall, the first season's storylines were based mostly on science facts or plausible science- i.e., we could believe this was possible with the right discovery or advancement in technology. Heck, they even had Dr. Robert Ballard (of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; discoverer of the wreck of the 'Titanic') give commentary after each episode during the credits explaining the plot's realistic possibilities.

Then came season two with its genetically-advanced warriors, modified fish-humans, aliens, and God only knows what else. Sci-Fi on steroids with no direction. Season three was political discourse on the future from Hollywood's favorite left-wing political think-tanks. (Wasn't Spielberg a producer at one point?)

And wait a minute...meat was outlawed? Glad I didn't know that or I would've said farewell a lot sooner.

All in all, lots of promise done in by rather stupid decisions from the higher-ups. Glad I discovered Star Trek DS9 as an alternative.

Jason said...

I just realized, sparked by Scheider's quote that Seaquest became "Star Trek meets 21 Jump Street", that the two DeLuise brothers actually were on 21 Jump Street!

Tennessee Jed said...

yeah maybe if it were film, it would entitle them to a share of the gross. I just am interested in the mechanics of the business side of how movies and t.v. series get made. Production companies vs. studios, who gets picked first, a producer or a star etc.Sometimes you would see produce by/written by/direted by. That ability probably goes to guys like the Titanic guy who is rich enough to develop and produce his own projects.

T-Rav said...

Wow. This SeaQuest show sounds worse than life itself.

I liked the few episodes of Joan of Arcadia, but not enough to permanently hold my interest in the show.

Anonymous said...

Rustbelt -

Spielberg was NOT involved by the third season. And it's funny the subject comes up because it ties in with what Andrew was talking about with corporations and Hollywood. In short, they're easy villains. And this show portrayed the company as so evil, it bordered on parody. But it wasn't capitalism: a company conspiring with a group of nations - cronyism, Socialism, what have you. But that would require some subtlety and intelligence. :-)

Anonymous said...

Jason -

That's right! Peter DeLuise even had a cameo in the surprisingly funny 21 Jump Street movie, alongside his original co-star Johnny Depp.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

It can be a long, labyrinthine process. There are books on the subject but I can't think of anything off the top of my head. Some directors start in the indie scene, then they get the attention of the studios. Some folks work their way up in TV, from staff writer to showrunner. Some start in commercials and music videos.

Speaking of Cameron, he was a truck driver who made a sci-fi short with friends, which then led to a job working with Roger Corman, which eventually led to Piranha 2 and finally The Terminator.

No two origin stories are the same. :-)

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

I may have made sound worse than it is, but it was pretty bad at times, and just not good enough. But the one thing worse than a bad TV show is a semi-good TV show that got bad!

PDBronco said...

This was one show that I really wanted to like when it was first on, but it just could not find its way. Then again, the fourth wall fell pretty quickly when the "futuristic" wall com units were the Polycon teleconference phones we had at work.

One bit of trivia from the Shatner ep. Look closely at the communication code displayed on the screen when Shatner is on - it's "NCC-1701".

Anonymous said...

PDBronco -

Yeah, I noticed that. And I swear they play their own version of Alexander Courage's Star Trek fanfare when he shows up. I'd need a second opinion to be sure.

As for future tech, it looked good back then, but I doubt the show had a huge budget and the budget they did have probably went to the visual effects and permanent sets. When the show relocated to Orlando, the production values seemed to drop a little bit.

I swear a few episodes feature characters in rooms that look like something we did in film school: a few flats, some basic decorations, and that was it.

Voz said...

I watched a few of the episodes from the first season when it originally aired...although I remember nothing about plots or particular episodes...I do remember enjoying Schieder and the "talking dolphin" was a neat trick...I was 11 at the time so that was cool. The other thing I remember is that I only got to see it a few times because it was on after my bedtime and my older brother got to stay up and watch it more often than I was allowed.

Anonymous said...

Voz -

I was 10 and yeah, it did seem cool. I stuck around for a while and I don't remember when I lost track of it. (It's still a miracle that I was able to follow NewsRadio through 5 different timeslot changes in as many years!)

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