Look Back: seaQuest DSV

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In theory, seaQuest DSV should’ve been a successful series. It was a no-brainer. Rather than outer space, it was a scifi show set in a near-future in which mankind explored the vast depth of the ocean. Steven Spielberg backed the project. Yet the show tanked after just three seasons, and after each season the show got re-tooled until the series was barely recognizable.

Okay, confession time: I was actually a huge fan of the show. Hey, it was the early 90s. Babylon 5 had only just come out, I didn’t know better. Besides, seaQuest combined my two loves, scifi and marine biology. It even had Bob Ballard at the end of each episode!

So stick with me here, the year was 1993, the only real scifi dominating the screens was Star Trek, and then came along a new TV show about a submarine named seaQuest.

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Utopian Future

Personally, I really liked the premise of the show. The year is 2018. There is now a United Earth’s Ocean’s Organization (UEO) and the seaQuest Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) is kind of a peace keeper as Earth consortium’s compete for resources and build colonies beneath the ocean.

Roy Scheider played Nathan Bridger, the designer of seaQuest and a 30 year Navy veteran. After the death of his son, he and his wife live on an island in self-imposed exile. When his wife dies he becomes a bit of a hermit, until one day, he is called back to duty to command the seaQuest.

Like all Spielberg shows there was a goofiness meant to cater to kids. For one thing, the show featured a talking dolphin named Darwin. Well, he couldn’t talk exactly, but his clicks had been translated to human speech by wonder kid, Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis), who, thankfully wasn’t nearly as insufferable as a certain TNG teen.

SeaQuest is primarily a science vessel, although it has a military contingent which causes some nice friction between the crew. The story, at least initially, grounds itself in reality. But as the show is forced to compete with the likes of Star Trek and Lois and Clark, it continues to grow increasingly outlandish. Episodes start to become more about Lucas Wolenczak, because, you know, they need those teen demographics. Soon aliens, ghosts and mad scientists creating mermaids start popping up in the scripts. And certain stars, ahem, Scheider, become rather vocal in their discontent about the direction the show is going. Scheider believed the series needed to have more plot arcs and less of an episodic feel, but this was before Babylon 5 made that model of storytelling popular. The first season ends with the destruction of seaQuest, but no worries, the series is picked up for a second season, offering the perfect excuse to re-tool the show and perhaps win back some viewers.

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Sex and the Submarine

The one thing I liked about the first season of seaQuest is that it wasn’t all about characters hooking up. Sure there was some hint of a relationship between Doctor Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham) and Captain Bridger, and you had the relationship of divorced spouses Krieg and Hitchcock, but the show was primarily about the “science”. The second season featured a newer even better looking seaQuest. But it wasn’t just the submarine which got younger and sexier. Several cast members were cut from the show, including Krieg and Hitchcock (my favourite characters) and Westphalen. Although some actors, like Beacham asked to leave the show, others, like John D’Aquino and Royce D. Applegate were considered “too old” for the new series. Basically, only the younger hotter characters, plus Bridger, were left.

I haven’t even got to the uniforms yet. Gone was the un-sexy boiler suits from the first season, to be replaced by a sexier Navy uniform. I’m pretty sure they got rid of the science contingent too (including Bob Ballard!), but I didn’t watch much of this season, so correct me if I’m wrong. Seriously, in the publicity pics for the second season, you had the cast posed sexily in sleevless shorty dive suits.

The look of the show wasn’t the only thing different. It was the outlandish storyline. Amongst the new cast members was Rosalind Allen as Doctor Wendy Smith, a psychic. Yep, you read right. A money-saving move to Florida made the production cheaper to produce. And apparently, they decided the problem with the show wasn’t “not enough science,” but “not enough action and aliens.” Which meant the second season had not one but two Deluise actors join the cast, both of whom have been genetically altered. You also had stories featuring prehistoric crocodiles, the discovery of a helmet from Atlantis, more aliens, time travel, oh, and the season ends with an alien ship transporting seaQuest billions of light years to a world called Hyperion. Yes, all true.

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Grittier Future

Surprisingly the show did return for a third season but only after another major re-tool. Roy Scheider left the production and scifi regular Michael Ironside came aboard as career military officer Oliver Hudson. The show is re-named seaQuest 2032, owing to the premise that seaQuest is suddenly found in a field in the year 2032 post-alien abduction. Some cast members returned while others were let go. Lucas Wolenzcak becomes an ensign on the show, and the series essentially takes on a more militaristic feel. This is mostly Ironside’s doing. As he made clear in interviews, he wouldn’t be talking to Darwin and he wanted to create a show that wasn’t so utopian. Unfortunately, the show by this time had lost most of its core fan base. Rather than win back viewers, the re-vamped show alienated the few loyal fans it had, and thus the series ended with a fizzle after a short, 13 episode season.

So there you have it, the story behind seaQuest DSV‘s demise. Clearly, it wasn’t just one thing, it was a whole lot of things. But I think a big factor was the constant re-tooling. Were the early episodes great? Not by any means, but it was a show in its first season, still trying to find its way, and if it didn’t try so hard to be like every other show, but instead stuck to its basic premise, it could have had a pretty decent run. Who knows, maybe with this constant re-imagining, we’ll see a new seaQuest DSV that actually works. But probably not.