Chief Justice Michael Stailey forgot his water wings.
"The safety of all of us, depends on each of us."
With an opening music cue evokes Bernard Herrmann's score to Journey to the Center of the Earth, before devolving into a disco-era action adventure riff, our narrator speaks…
Facts of the Case
"This is the year Two Thousand and Twenty. The place is the Challenger Sea Mount, the top of an underwater mountain, a complex beneath the sea. Two hundred and fifty men, women, and children live here, each of them a scientist pioneer. For this is our last frontier, a hostile environment which may hold the key to tomorrow. Each day, these oceannauts meet new challenges, as they build their city beneath the sea. THIS IS SEALAB 2020!"
Sealab 2020 is a utopian look at the world of the future, where progressive scientists have built a working community under the sea, populated by a racially and culturally diverse team. Of Sealab's large population, the series primarily focused on the station's key research personnel: Dr. Paul Williams (Ross Martin, The Wild Wild West), head scientist and father figure to our junior researchers; Hal (Jerry Dexter, Shazzan), Gail (Ann Jillian, Mr. Mom), and Ed (Ron Pinkard, Emergency!), Dr. William's team of top notch researchers who often forget to employ common sense; Captain Mike Murphy (John Stephenson, voice actor extraordinaire and narrator of Dragnet), Sealab's hard-nosed operations chief whose military mindset often conflicts with scientific exploration; and Captain Mike's grandchildren Bobby (Josh Albee) and Sally (Pamelyn Ferdin, A Boy Named Charlie Brown), the requisite Hanna-Barbera kids who routinely get into trouble only to teach everyone a valuable life lesson.
I originally viewed Sealab 2020 as part of Warner Bros. Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1970s, Volume 2, in which the pilot episode was included. Since the show wasn't in my wheelhouse as a kid (I was only 3 at the time) and came across as overly preachy, I dismissed it outright. Revisiting it here, informed by Adult Swim's hilariously warped variation know as Sealab 2021, I can appreciate what the creative team was going for. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to find its footing, and by the 13th episode—which NBC didn't even bother to air—the writing team was positioning it as a more globetrotting adventure. Needless to say, that never happened, but we do have this archive of Johnny Quest meets Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as evidence of its existence.
• "Deep Threat"—Irresponsibly disposed of barrels of nuclear waste are damaged during an undersea quake and begin leaching high levels of radioactivity into the waters surrounding SeaLab. As Captain Murphy begins contingency planning for a possible evacuation, and Dr. Williams' team seeks to understand the danger the threat poses, young Bobby and Sally do a little investigation of their own and wind up in a heap of trouble. Can the Sealab senior staff possibly save everyone in time?
• "Lost"—When the surrounding sea life begins leaving Sealab en masse, Dr. Williams sends his team to investigate, only to come upon a baby dolphin trapped in a deep sea fishing net. Their new pet, christened Tuffy by his surrogate mother Gail, is a quick learner but also a bit of a troublemaker. As the research team deals with an unexpected Red Tide, Gail and Bobby get lost in the tide's limited visibility, only to be rescued by Tuffy and the senior staff tracking her dolphin training beacon.
• "Green Fever"—A vicious hurricane prevents the delivery of SeaLab's monthly supplies, and the supply ship's departure causes their mooring to crack the hull of Sealab's control tower. The senior staff faces a race against time to complete repairs before a full breach claims the lives of everyone in the station. If that weren't bad enough, residents with the longest tenure are suffering from a desire to see real trees and walk on actual grass. When Captain Murphy's brilliant idea to pump in fresh air from the surface to ease both problems backfires, the impending destruction of Sealab makes more than a few people a threat to themselves and everyone else.
• "The Singing Whale"—As a Captain Ahab / Moby Dick situation develops on the surface, the Sealab team is visited by Dr. Lawrence, the world's foremost expert on marine mammals, and his wheelchair-bound son Roger. As Bobby attempts to coax his insecure new friend out of his shell, by teaching him how to swim the deepest parts of the ocean and setting up a special lab for them to study sea life languages. Responding to the sound of a distressed whale, Roger and Bobby interfere with the Ahabian sportsman and save the creature's life, but he's not about to let two kids keep him from the biggest kill of his career.
• "The Shark Lover"—A rise in shark incidents puts Captain Murphy on edge and the staff on high alert. The arrival of rebellious shark enthusiast Dr. Alonzo is meant to put the Sealab team at ease, but a quadrupling of the shark population and the appearance of a Great White poses a bigger problem than anyone anticipated. When electric fences and imported dolphins fail to drive away the sharks, Dr. Alonzo takes it upon himself to craft and disperse a potent new shark repellent, even after being ordered not to. When Bobby and the Sealab rescue team head out to save him, they must overcome a vicious Great White hell bent on discovering a new food supply.
• "The Basking Shark"—When a wayward NASA space probe falls into the ocean, the recovery team calls on Sealab to help locate the device within 48 hours before its battery dies or a "foreign power" obtains its valuable research information. Could Henry Lucas, one of Sealab's own researchers, be working for an unfriendly foreign country and have snagged the probe for his own nefarious purpose? Or could the senior staff's theory of a strong jetstream be the cause of its disappearance? And what does the ocean's most playful shark have to do with all this?
• "Where Dangers are Many"—Remote control deep water mining equipment threatens not only the infrastructure of Sealab, but all sea life in the area. Attempting to educate the president of the mining company on the ramifications of his actions falls on deaf ears, so the senior staff must take matters into their own hands.
• "Backfire"—Craig Brackett (Casey Kasem, Scooby-Doo! Where Are You?), cocky submarine oil geologist, is stirring up trouble with the research team who were unaware of Sealab Senior Staff's granting approval for exploratory oil drilling in the area. Ed's anger fuels to his resignation, but Gail and Hal are convinced they can locate an alternative oil rich area that won't threaten the health and safety of Sealab's beloved marine life. But Brackett's foolproof oil field is no match for a Japanese tsunami, which means Sealab to rescue!
• "The Deepest Dive"—A successful test run of Sealab's experimental diving bell makes it two miles deep, but must go even lower for Dr. Bell's (see what they did there?) cutting edge equipment to predict the next major undersea earthquake. Imagine Gail's surprise when she glimpses what appeared to be a sea monster on their ascent. Hal and Ed poke fun, but their arrival at Sealab reveals the seismograph they anchored in the trench has gone missing. Rushing another dive, with Dr. Bell in tow, brings them face-to-face with a giant squid who happens to be a kleptomaniac! With the closest rescue submarine two days away, Hal and Ed must get creative to save their lives before the power and air runs out.
• "The Challenge"—Archeologist siblings, Chuck and Alex, locate the wreckage of a ship sunk in the early days of WWI. With the help of Dr. Williams team, a base camp is established to explore The Viking and locate what legend claims is a fortune in Mayan artifacts being transported at the time. With no ability to communicate with Sealab and dangers around every turn, will our treasure hunters' efforts yield more than fools gold? Will a greedy Chuck prove to be a danger to himself and every member of the team?
• "Collision of the Aquarius"—Bitter rivals from their school days, Dr, Glenn and Sealab's Captain Mike Murphy square off over what's best for their respective crews, while freeing the core of trapped nuclear submarine before the reactor goes into meltdown. Can two pig-headed men, whose pride continually overrides their better judgement, work together to save their combined teams? Or will their respective hero complexes doom everyone involved?
• "The Capture"—Bobby and Sally trail a modern day Noah—marine aquarium trapper Mr. Harlan—as he robs them of all their favorite Sealab creatures. They do their best to convince Sealab's senior staff and research team that Harlan's actions, though fully sanctioned, are morally wrong. When that fails, the kids take matters into their own hands…and find themselves in a heap of trouble.
• "The Arctic Story"—Sealab submarine "Dolphin" is heading to an arctic observation station for retrieval of a prehistoric fish trapped in ice, when a vicious storm causes them to lose contact. The last communication indicated the outpost was completely iced over and in danger of tipping into the ocean. On arrival, the Sealabbers find no sign of the station or its crew, and initiate a search and rescue. This first surface adventure seems to open up story options for Season Two—world travelers, adventures above and below the sea—but this would be prove to be the crew's final voyage. That is until Adult Swim's Sealab 2021 surfaced in 2000 with 52 eleven minute adventures of a familiar but oh so different Sealab crew.
Debuting at the heigh of explorer Jacques Cousteau's popularity, it's never made completely clear where on earth Sealab is located, though there are several references to "other research stations along the Pacific Rim" (The Deepest Dive). Sometimes Sealab appears miles below the surface, and other times they can see a boat drop anchor from hundreds of feet (120 ft free dive from surface to Sealab, "The Shark Lover"; Record breaking 3-mile dive (15,840 feet) into a nearby trench, "The Deepest Dive"). Then again, nobody is looking to Hanna-Barbera for factual accuracy and animation consistency.
Presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full frame, you get exactly what you'd expect from a 40 year old traditionally animated series—occasional dirt and scratches, muted often inconsistent colors (watch Ed's skin change from dark brown to pasty grey), and some shaky framework (a hazard of cel animation), all forgiven by character design from the great Alex Toth (Space Ghost, Thundarr the Barbarian) and production design by the legendary Iwao Takamoto. The Dolby 2.0 mix works just fine, with voice work clearly heard and composer Hoyt Curtain's awesome scoring. Why someone at Warner Animation has not assembled a tribute collection of CD of this man's work is a mystery to me.
Since this is a Warner Archives release, the menus are static, there are no bonus features, and there's a risk these DVDs won't function in every player.
Certainly a departure from the anthropomorphic animal comedies and teen sleuth shows that made up the bulk of Hanna-Barbera's creative output at the time, Sealab 2020: The Complete Series is a time capsule of so-so animation and so-so adventures. Geared for fans of classic Saturday morning TV and Sealab 2021, everyone can be content knowing in this world a whale song sounds just like a kazoo. Seriously.
Salvaged from the depths; Not Guilty, but barely breathing.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
Review content copyright © 2012 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.