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Saturday, January 22, 2011


Not one of my favorite shows as a kid, I regarded the truly schizophrenic "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" as either too grown-up for me in its early episodes or too childish and silly later on.  After the adult-oriented first season, the network urged producer-director Irwin Allen ("The Time Tunnel", "Land of the Giants") to turn the series into a kid's show, and boy, did he ever. 

At times, the final half season contained in the DVD set VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA: SEASON FOUR VOLUME TWO makes Allen's "Lost in Space" look like FORBIDDEN PLANET.  Yet, some episodes are fairly straightforward sci-fi action thrillers.  This makes the collection a bit like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates--you never know what you're going to get.

Now that I'm a grown-up (so to speak) I get a big kick out of watching the more absurdly juvenile science-fantasy episodes.  It's fun to see just how cavalierly the writers will disregard logic and scientific accuracy to concoct colorful adventures that sometimes resemble the world of Adam West's "Batman", only totally lacking the self-mockery.

Things often don't make sense on the Seaview--the laws of physics operate in certain ways just because the writers want them to, while situations and character behavior may seem totally illogical.  Plot holes are blithely ignored and the juxtaposition between serious drama and deadpan farce is fascinating.

Based on the 1961 film which was also written and directed by Irwin Allen, the series takes place in the (then) near-future of the 70s and 80s and follows the adventures of the colossal atomic submarine Seaview and her crew.  Richard Basehart plays ship's designer Admiral Nelson (replacing Walter Pigeon, who starred in the film), a brilliant scientist whose research institute coordinates Seaview's missions along with the government.  David Hedison is Captain Lee Crane, the dynamic young skipper.  Rounding out the main cast are Robert Dowdell as executive officer Chip Morton, Del Monroe as sonor man Kowalski, and Terry Becker as Chief Sharkey.

The DVD collection sets sail with one of the dumbest episodes imaginable, "The Return of Blackbeard", with the titular pirate (Malachi Throne) somehow taking over the will of crewman Kowalski (Del Monroe) and others, and wreaking havoc aboard the Seaview.  Throne plays the character as though he were cavorting blind drunk through a dinner theater production of "My Favorite Year", and the episode is padded with so much empty action that it resembles a chapter from a bad serial. 

I remember seeing the preview for the next episode when I was a kid and being flabbergasted to find the Seaview menaced by...a leprechaun?  "Terrible Leprechaun", in fact, features twin leprechauns, both played by an ideally-cast Walter Burke.  The evil one is bent on using the submarine to obtain a horde of gold coins buried beneath the ocean floor, while the good one is out to stop him.  This episode just had me shaking my head in disbelief the whole time.

"The Lobster Man" boasts one of the hokiest monster suits in TV history.  Ditto for "Abominable Snowman", although it's surprisingly serious and not a bad story--a good example of how some of the plots straddle the line between adult and juvenile fare.  Fortunately, these are the last segments which feature such ridiculous-looking creature suits.

In between the two is the first truly riveting episode in the set, "Nightmare", which harkens back to the more grounded-in-reality feel of the first season despite its fantastic elements.  While piloting the Flying Sub, Crane spots a UFO in the vicinity of the Seaview.  He returns to the ship to find the crew gone and encounters a mysterious stranger (Paul Mantee) who claims to be a UFO expert sent by the military. 

A morose Nelson, Morton, and Kowalski suddenly appear and subdue Crane by force, sentencing him to death and announcing their plan to fire nuclear missiles at Washington, D.C.  With a darker, less kid-oriented tone and more real drama, this one's a corker.

Mark Richman guests in the exciting "Secret of the Deep" as a double agent trying to keep the Seaview from discovering a hidden underwater base while the sub is attacked by a number of impressive sea monsters.  "Man-Beast", with Lawrence Montaigne ("Stonn" of ST:TOS' "Amok Time"), is a genuine old-fashioned horror yarn with Captain Crane turning into a hairy, snarling werewolf after a failed extreme-depth experiment in the ship's diving bell. 

Next comes "Savage Jungle", in which an alien (Perry Lopez, CHINATOWN) smuggles three silver-skinned soldiers aboard in doll form so that they can use the Seaview to turn the entire world into a jungle.  The aliens of "Flaming Ice" are Frost Men who sport Flock of Seagulls hairdos and are led by an almost unrecognizable Michael Pate.  The story takes place beneath the polar ice cap and gives Kowalski another chance to freak out, which he's prone to do with disturbing regularity.

"Attack!" is a lively conglomeration of more aliens, more flying saucers, and more jungle scenery as Nelson and his crew struggle to stop a full-scale invasion from space which begins with the destruction of an entire fleet of ships.  Kevin Hagen ("Little House on the Prairie") leads a force of hostile spacemen in really bad uniforms while the great Skip Homeier totally awesome-izes the episode as peaceful alien Robek.  This one makes the next tale, "The Edge of Doom", seem almost mundane by comparison, although the story of a Seaview officer being replaced by an enemy lookalike bent on destroying the ship will keep you guessing.

The jungle set is reused yet again in "The Death Clock", the first of two time-traveller tales.  In this one, the evil Mallory (Chris Robinson) creates a time warp in which a future version of Captain Crane murders Admiral Nelson, then strands the crew in another dimension where they'll be blown to bits when the device of the title counts down to zero. 

The final episode of the series, "No Way Back", features venerable character actor Henry Jones as Mr. Pem, whose time travel device whisks the Seaview back to Revolutionary War-era America and pits the crew against Benedict Arnold (Barry Atwater).  It sounds goofy, but it's actually one of the best episodes of the set and treats its subject pretty seriously.  

The distinguished Basehart (THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, MOBY DICK) is such a fine actor that his performances are always rock-solid even when he seems less than enthusiastic about dealing with pirates and leprechauns.  David Hedison, on the other hand, acts his way though each story as though his life depended on it.  I never realized how good he is before--he's always on his best game. 

The pacing of some episodes lacks momentum and tends to get a little monotonous.  However, the bizarre, anything-can-happen nature of the stories usually compensates for this.  The special effects are always interesting to look at, especially those beautiful models of the Seaview and the Flying Sub in action (much stock footage from the feature film is used).  Musical scores by composers such as Alexander Courage, Leith Stevens, and Harry Geller are consistently good.

An often-spoofed feature of the show is the "rock and roll", in which the actors hurl themselves repeatedly from one end of the set to the other as the camera lurches back and forth.  Unless I'm mistaken, this occurs in literally every episode of the set.  The ship's electrical circuitry bursting into flame or exploding as though packed with Roman candles is another familiar sight.

The DVD from 20-Century Fox is in full-screen with English and French mono sound and English subtitles.  The 13 digitally-remastered episodes are on three double-sided flipper discs.  Side six contains the special features, including a photo gallery.  Best of all, though, are two versions of the show's original pilot episode, "Eleven Days to Zero"--the unaired version, and the broadcast version complete with extra footage and original commercials, from a rare print furnished by Mrs. Irwin Allen.

This ragged black-and-white print is a priceless, dazzling piece of film that shows writer-director Irwin Allen at the height of his creative powers.  The opening alone is an audacious and breathtaking action setpiece, paving the way for a riveting sci-fi thriller that moves at a breakneck, almost frantic pace from start to finish. 

There's a sense of genuine gravity as the Seaview sets out to prevent a worldwide calamity with a powerful enemy trying to destroy them.  This malevolent organization, which resembles SPECTRE from the James Bond stories, is led by the mysterious Dr. Gamma (Theo Marcuse) and gives the film a Cold War vibe.  The Seaview is bombarded by depth charges and attacked by another sub (commanded by Werner Klemperer) while trying to stop an underwater earthquake which will flood the world's coastal regions.  A team of divers also encounter a giant octopus during a hazardous attempt to effect repairs. 

Lead performances are top-notch.  Baseheart, in particular, takes the whole thing as seriously as though he were starring in a big-budget war film.  Hedison is also sharp as a tack here, and guest star Eddie Albert lends even more weight to the episode.  Direction is lean and imaginative with some nice stylistic touches.  There's a robust musical score by Paul Sawtell (his main theme music became a permanent part of the series) which at times recalls Max Steiner's music for KING KONG.

Although uneven in tone and frequently downright silly, most of the thirteen episodes in VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA: SEASON FOUR VOLUME TWO are nevertheless wonderfully entertaining.  Fans of the show will know what to expect--others should just sit back and let this wildly unconventional series take their grasp on reality apart piece by piece.

Buy it at


Anonymous said...

Nice review. The sub models, which are great, were not stock footage, though. The flying sub debuted in season two and the movie Seaview had eight, not four forward windows. I like your review because you're able to see the considerable strengths of this much maligned show along with its flaws. And yes, the actors pull all that crazy stuff together.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks for the info and the kind words! Glad you liked the review.

CVB said...

I haven't seen this show - or "time tunnel" - since childhood, but I'm happy they're out on DVD. I used to love watching those subs. I also remember that a model kit of the "sea view" was released back then....