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Voyage to the bottom of the ratings

I am pleased to be appearing for the first time as a guest blogger on Billie's Blog, especially since I was initially stumped about what to write about. The problem is a simple one, all too often I feel like Billie is reading my mind with her writing. We seem to agree on most science fiction and have for many years now.

In the search for an appropriate topic, I read back through her blog and found something we disagreed on: the (recently canceled) NBC program Surface. I loved this show and was sad to see it go (despite the constant taunting of my wife who referred to it as "that soggy sea monster soap"). It is actually the last in a line of largely unlamented undersea sci-fi which has graced television and movie screens for the more than half a century. So without further ado, I would like to present my own short, secret (highly selective) history of submerged and submarine Sci-fi.

Let's start with Surface. A child begotten of Lost’s success (along with the equally ill-fated Invasion and Threshold), this was good old-fashioned popcorn Sci-fi. It had giant electrified sea monsters, smaller poodle-eating baby sea monsters, mad scientists, clone assassins, weird Dr. Moreau-esque talking apes, mysterious humanoids swimming around at the ocean's bottom, and all sorts of other cheap thrills. Lake Bell, the aptly named female lead (apparently Ocean Briese was unavailable), stripping to her bra and panties and rubbing herself with motor oil before diving into the surf on her way to steal a boat was my favorite, but this is a family blog so I'll say no more. By the time the season winds to its close, we discover that the invasion of the sea monsters was engineered by a mysterious scientific corporation and that said scientists have apparently absconded to a secret city in the Marianas Trench at the bottom of the Pacific. All of this happens just as a tsunami strikes the east coast of the United States and apparently leaves the whole world changed. You want payoff for your viewing dollar, Surface had it. Okay, it was silly and didn't always make sense, but hey, hobgoblin of small minds and all that.

It all starts with Jules Verne

How did all this begin? The modern era of submarine sci-fi has to begin in 1870 with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, this book might not have had close to the impact it did, but for the confluence of two events in 1954. The first event, the premiere of Disney’s movie version, had two immediate impacts. It made me eat Calamari with a passion of a man fighting against a natural enemy, and it led to my lifelong fascination with Kirk Douglas' chin which, along with the rest of Douglas, played the uncouth harpooner Ned Land. What most people remember is the big fight with the giant squid and the great model work with the Nautilus, but this movie set the standard for sub-genre. It had the wonder of the undersea world, environmental impact, social engineering and sea shanties. And it was a huge hit.

The second event was the realization of what had been a fantasy of living underwater for long periods with the launch of the not coincidentally named nuclear submarine Nautilus. This submarine could go deeper and stay down for so long that the dreams of really exploring the depths finally seemed within the reach. 1954 is really year 1 for underwater science fiction on the big and small screen.

The first sci-fi movie of real significance in the sub-genre, On the Beach (1959), should carry a warning that it not be taken with alcohol as it may cause suicidal depression. Much more obviously the child of the nuclear rather than literary Nautilus, it followed the last submarine on its forays into a world ended by nuclear holocaust. Radiation is creeping south towards Australia where the last people on earth are awaiting the end. This story was so depressing that when I first saw it in the summer of 1979 that I suffered from a near breakdown from nuclear hysteria (as opposed to the actual breakdown which Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! caused me during high school). Fortunately for all of us (okay, mostly for me), fare that didn't take itself quite so seriously followed and rescued submarine sci-fi from a maudlin end.

The Sixties and Seventies (or my upbringing on Submarine Sci-fi)

Disaster loomed again for planet Earth in 1961, but from a significantly less likely source. It seems that the Van Allen Radiation Belt (later voted top fashion accessory of 1963) caught fire and threatened to destroy the planet. Fortunately in the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), the USS Seaview was on duty and averted the disaster. It also spawned what I consider the greatest submerged sci-fi series of them all. The series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) was built on what we have come to know as the "Space: 1999, We built these models and we are going to darn well use them" school of filmmaking. The adventures were usually a trifle silly, featuring monsters who worked on this series in the morning and Lost in Space in the afternoon (literally, as both were produced by the legendary Irwin Allen) and science facts every bit as likely as the burning radiation belt, but they were earnest and fun (something that many later series lacked). In many ways, this series foreshadowed many science fiction series to come, most notably Star Trek with its voyages from adventure to adventure in a heavily armed military vehicle in the name of peaceful exploration (basically the cold war model).

I am happy to confess that my fondness for this program has as much to do with the context in which I saw it as the series itself. I first watched these adventures during long summer afternoons ten years after they were first run. When the sub encountered trouble (as it always did), my brothers, sisters and myself would throw ourselves from one side of our wood paneled rec room to the other, simultaneously hurling cards and other games into the air. This was, of course, in imitation of the cast which was hurled about in much the same manner in every episode (we never did manage to simulate the sparking electrical equipment which accompanied the Seaview’s every mishap, and indeed the less said about the ill-fated sparkler incident of 1976 the better).

Irwin Allen went on to produce City Beneath the Sea (1971) which foreran space station sci-fi in the same way that the earlier series foreran the mobile series. In its mix of military and peaceful purposes one can see the basic tension that characterized Star Trek: DS9, Babylon 5 and Stargate Atlantis. Sadly this pilot (eventually shown as a TV movie), which unsurprisingly made good use of the models from the earlier series, was not picked up, and Allen shifted to disaster movies. It also was the beginning of a hiatus for underwater sci-fi until the late 1980's when Science fiction of all sorts saw a renaissance on the small screen. Okay, we did have The Man from Atlantis (1977-78 starring a Pre-Dallas Patrick Duffy), but we'll just consign that one back to the deep.

The Golden Age (?) of Underwater Sci-fi

1989 proved to be a banner year for underwater science fiction. Three movies in descending order of quality, The Abyss, Leviathan, Deepstar Six (as one IMDB wag put it "Ummm, which 1989 Underwater/horror movie is this again...?"), revived the genre in the course of only a few weeks. All featured diverse (in terms of gender, race, class and acting ability) crews who promptly encounter a variety of scary things lurking below. Each monster displayed the protean qualities associated with the sea since the earliest human myths. Mayhem ensued in each feature. Similarities aside, I would recommend only one of them. It was in the thoughtfulness of the writing and the quality of the acting that James Cameron's The Abyss really distinguished itself. One extended sequence follows Ed Harris as he sinks miles beneath the ocean to try an avert disaster, not in all of science fiction will one find a more profound expression of the alien-ness and solitude of exploration as in these scenes. Oh yeah, the special effects were ground-breaking and remain awe-inspiring even years later.

Oh, you should remain worried as something (still) lurks beneath in such more recent films as Sphere (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), and Deep Rising (1998). Take the description of the above movies and substitute monsters from the id, brainy sharks and tentacle beasts respectively, and you have a pretty good summary of each.

The relative success of the crop of late eighties movies and the revival of science fiction on T.V. with the return of Star Trek, the advent of The X-Files and a host of other less well remembered series led to the major new series. Seaquest DSV (1993-1996) featured top-notch effects and Roy Scheider as Captain Nathan Bridger. They had people who could breathe underwater, a boy genius, and a pet dolphin. They tackled a lot of environmental issues but tried to keep it fun. Unfortunately not many people watched, and so after two seasons Michael Ironside replaced Scheider and the entire series took on a darker militarized feel. When this happens it is almost always the kiss of death for a sci-fi series (see Star Trek's DS9 and Enterprise for example, although Babylon Five was an exception). Good story-telling generally vanishes in the explosions of big special effects battles. Overall, this was a good series, but one which constantly left you with the nagging feeling that maybe I had seen this before and maybe it was done better then.

Why doesn't it work better?

With a pedigree dating back so far back, why is it that these series and movies have never really ignited people's imagination? After all, humankind has stood on the shore of the world's oceans for millennia looking out and wondering what was beyond the horizon. Indeed, starting with Nemo (the Captain, not the fish) and Verne is really a little disingenuous as one can as easily begin with Jason and Odysseus. These are stories that inspired Columbus and Captain Cook hundreds of year before any of us were born. I think two things have hurt underwater science fiction (three if you count the inordinate cheesiness of much of it), first it is just too relevant and second the frontier has just moved on. Science fiction has always been able to make a strong comment about our world because it isn't set in our world, but underwater science fiction really doesn't have that luxury. It is about a place we all know is threatened and dangers that appear on the evening news. Indeed, the next big thing in Submerged Sci-fi is going to be The Swarm, an environmentally themed movie from a German novel currently in preproduction, which will feature the ocean fighting back with, among other things, poisonous crabs.

An even larger problem is that this is a frontier that we are awfully familiar with and not the "Final" frontier. I was thinking about this and remembered a scene from near the end of the movie The Right Stuff in which Chuck Yeager soars in his jet to unbelievable heights and then barely escapes the ensuing crash. He is the greatest pilot in the world but nobody cares because now men are flying into space. It is still a thrilling adventure, but yesterday's thrilling adventure. Submarines just cannot compete with starships in our imagining the future, and it is a pity when this is the alien world we all can explore (if only with a snorkel and swim fins).

The Purple Duck rambles on further at: http://sirpurpleduck.livejournal.com/


  1. Ben,

    As I'm going through and adding coding to the older entries, I just wanted to post a comment about how much I've always loved this essay of yours. As a life-long sci-fi geek, I've seen nearly everything you mentioned, but I'd forgotten a lot of it (read-only memory). You brought back a lot for me. Thank you so much.

  2. Sorry, but I have to disagree. IMNSHO Seaquest started to return to it's origins in season three. Yes, with Ironside. It absolutely sucked in season two, with aliens, ghosts, and even Neptune, not to mention there onboard psychic. Or laser guns (in season one they were equipped with much more believable sonic guns). Or human-eating plants. OK, I can probably go on forever, but the point is that season three brought back relatively solid plots and even some environmental issues. Sadly, it was cancelled before it could return to it's former glory.


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