Thirteen years later and Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has found that some things never change: Roy Scheider is still cool, Stacy Haiduk is still hot, and talking dolphins are still lame.
Beneath the surface lies the future.
Star Trek fans brought Star Trek back. Firefly fans made Serenity a reality. And now, seaQuest DSV fans can throw away their bootlegs; Universal has finally relented and released Season One to DVD.
Facts of the Case
The year: 1993. The setting: a sci-fi television tale of exploration. A fifty-something captain stands at the bridge of a flagship vessel in a spotless uniform, commanding a crew peopled with a mix of scientists and military personnel. Deep range sensors pick up a distress call. He admonishes his first officer to put the transmission on the main screen. The captain forms an away team, including the ship's comely doctor (of whom he is fond), his security officer, and an irritating-but-gifted kid who tags along for the ride. Communications breaches, wonderment, and important philosophical lessons ensue.
There's no escaping seaQuest DSV's stark resemblance to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm sure that fans of the show are tired of the comparison, but there's no escaping it. In this case, the deep exploration is of the sea, not space. The sci-fi is "sci-fact." The captain is Capt. Nathan Bridger (Roy Scheider, Jaws), the comely doctor is Dr. Kristin Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham, Beverly Hills, 90210), and the security officer is Chief Manilow Crocker (Royce D. Applegate, Gods and Generals).
Let's not forget the other crew members that make seaQuest tick:
These creme-de-la-creme officers of the United Earth Oceans (UEO) patrol the seas in seaQuest, the ultimate military/scientific/badass submersible fortress. They encounter a surprising array of undersea colonies, lost treasures, aliens, and plain old kooks (like, say, William Shatner) that make every episode an adventure:
• "To Be or Not To Be"
seaQuest DSV is a painful reminder that you can have all of the pieces in place and still fail.
seaQuest is not a failure at all in many respects. It was the brainchild of Rockne S. O'Bannon (Farscape, Alien Nation) and produced by, among others, Steven Spielberg (he doesn't need an introduction does he? Fine…Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Band of Brothers…). Bob Ballard, discoverer of the RMS Titanic and the Bismarck, advised the series and provided sound bytes. The cast was entirely up to snuff, as was the writing team. And with a list of producers a mile long, there was no shortage of stunning sets and CGI eye-candy that hold up well even now.
Ahh, seaQuest, what a voyage we had. The two-hour pilot was like a movie in scope and style. Roy Scheider's Nathan Bridger might well have emerged right from the other side of Jaws, world-weary and careworn, but with a spark of scientific curiosity kept in check by experience. Wry, humble, and cantankerous, he fights the manipulations of his old friend Admiral Noyce (Richard Herd, V), who wants him to command seaQuest. The pilot cleverly introduces all of the main characters, the premise of the world order, and the rules of the series.
From there, I was treated to a steady stream of imaginative (if not wholly original) stories with decent action, passable camaraderie and conflict, and lots of eye candy (both on the bridge and in the water). Early episodes like "The Devil's Window" and "Treasure of the Mind" were fluffy and didn't do much to distinguish seaQuest from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Indeed, seaQuest made a strong push to mimic its highly successful rival in hopes of drawing cross-viewership. As a ploy to launch a new series, I can forgive such antics.
"Games" plunged the show into darkness, with overtones of genocide, biowarfare, and fascism. A Silence of the Lambs-esque game of cat and mouse gives the episode structure while its characters give it color. Beacham cements her character through intense personal confrontation with a mass murderer. Lt. Benjamin Krieg's opportunistic flair is likewise established by "Treasures of the Tonga Trench," a light episode that brings seaQuest back up to cruising depth. With "Brothers and Sisters" (a dark twist on Peter Pan's Lost Boys) and "Give Me Liberte," darkness and tension flood back in. These intense episodes cement a possible flavor for the show, if not a direction.
The first dissonant note (well, if you ignore Darwin the talking dolphin, that is) creeps in with "Knight of Shadows." To be fair, this is the Halloween episode; as such it has a perfect touch of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed into a supernatural take on Titanic. The long-lost lovers embroiled in a spectral feud are not the problem. The problem is the casual regard given to Dr. Westphalen's character. She is inhabited by a ghost and sexed up. My hormones had no problem with that…good show! But it gave me an inkling that there were too many cooks in the kitchen, and that the writing/producing team wasn't sure where to take the series.
"Bad Water" showcases Bridger's heroic ability to comprehend seaQuest's limitations and Commander Ford's ability to think on the fly to save his crew. Meanwhile, Westphalen's nipples continue to develop her character arc. This is an early victory of team cohesion that set a precedent for the show's direction.
After a filler episode, "seaWest" joins the dissonant refrain begun in "Knight of Shadows." This time, the lucky victim is Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Hitchcock. seaQuest had already taken advantage of Stacy Haiduk's statuesque figure and piercing blue eyes; Lucas had a hormonal obsession with her fantastic body (which I share, by the way) which was highlighted by some swimsuit scenes and sweaty repair jobs in the engine room. But "seaWest" wrangles Lt. Commander Hitchcock into a preposterous barroom diva act in a slinky black dress. She flaunts her body and coos at the drunken miners in the bar while undercover on a mission to recover a lost crew member. Again, the number is well done…good show! But what the hell has happened to the feisty commander who barked Nathan Bridger right out of his seat in the pilot show?
The next episode, "Photon Bullet," seals seaQuest's fate. The man-who-would-be Tuvok, Tim Russ, commands an enclave of Hackers who rule the InterNex. Lucas pitches in and saves the day. This is seaQuest's future? A clichéd spin on computer geeks who live underwater? As a programmer, let me tell you producers something. If you want to accurately depict hackers, get a bunch of gray boxes, make the screens black with green text, and just show a bunch of guys typing while they toss obscure movie references back and forth. We do not, nor have we ever, stared at huge banks of flashing lights and whipped up a reduction algorithm on the spot to bypass sentry programs. None of our equipment glows blue (except for those freaks who put EL wire into their cases behind translucent windows.)
By the time "Photon Bullet" rolls around, Lucas Wolenczak has realized that he is "the kid." Roy Scheider has realized that he will never be allowed to escape the shadow of Jean-Luc Picard; his boredom and frustration leak from every pore. Stacy Haiduk's initial enthusiasm has vanished into the reality that the writers will not be allowed to explore the infinite possibilities of a strong military woman (aside from pathetic asides about wanting children). Indeed, it becomes clear that seaQuest is never going to pick up the anchor, cut the moorings, and head for deep water. Despite (or perhaps because of) its considerable backing and production values, seaQuest limits itself to comfortable waters.
Perhaps I'm overattributing Spielberg's influence over the series, but the best and worst aspects of his style are intensified in the show. Spielberg is sometimes maligned as an emotion manipulator and whitewasher. He uses shorthand where complexity would better serve. On the other hand, no one does high adventure and cool effects like him, and his works have a democratic appeal that captures disparate imaginations. These characteristics are thrown full force into a television milieu. You know, television, that bastion of hammy overacting, truncated logic, and three-minute wrap-ups. No episode of seaQuest is allowed to pass unmolested by a heart-swelling, morally grounded finale. No bad guy is left unturned. No victim left behind.
When seaQuest tipped its hand, the last half of the episodes became a bleary descent. There were high points here and there, most notably the one-two punch of high action that ends the season. But most of the episodes follow a path like that of "Greed for a Pirate's Dream": setup, predictable exposition, intervention, finale.
Let's talk about the last episode, "Higher Power," for a moment. It is all you can ask for in a season (or series, for that matter) finale. Each character is given a moment to shine. An unusual locale intensifies the team dynamic. The world is literally at stake, and seaQuest is positioned to save it. Bridger says "Damn it, Lucas!" All you could hope for and more is here. The episode even allows each character a goodbye. But what most struck me about this episode was the subtext. I saw not the characters, but the actors mourning a reality that was not to be. Their potential to be a unique crew on a unique mission never materialized. seaQuest offered the viewer a lot of bang for a sci-fi television series, but it never became what shows like Farscape, Firefly, Babylon 5, or even its blueprint Star Trek: The Next generation became: its own.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now that I've delivered the bad news, let's go back and see what goodies I might have overlooked. Up until "Photon Bullet" soured me on the series (and to be forthcoming, fake hacker flicks are my pet peeve…go rent Office Space for the real thing) I was wondering how I'd missed such a fantastic sci-fi series. (Well, not actually wondering, because the answer is "freshman year in the remote mountains of North Carolina.")
Scheider is watchable even when he becomes bored. Stephanie Beacham threatens to steal the show, and would have had the cast not been so massive and so entertaining. In fact, the actors were the least of seaQuest's worries. They can't fully hide their frustration in the last half of the season, but the first half is full of corny, affecting good fun. Commander Ford's bravado masks a sense of humor that Lt. Cmdr. Hitchcock gets. Stacy Haiduk seems perfectly willing to ignore how hot she is and play a brass tacks character. Ted Raimi's and Marco Sanchez's characters form a subversive unit. Royce Applegate gives his salty seaman act a hint of depth. Even the comparatively lesser second half of the season is full of great moments, shored up by the arrival of Dustin Nguyen. Nguyen is so outrageously charismatic and physically gifted that I wonder why he isn't a bigger star.
With big money and big producer talent come great sights and sounds. Along with John Debney's Emmy Award for the title theme, seaQuest DSV's first season picked up Emmy noms for music and cinematography. These nods are fully earned. When I plunked the first disc (double sided, ugh) of this boxed set in, I was amazed at the clarity of the transfer, the richness of the colors, and the crisp contrast in dark scenes. Aside from a slight glitch here and there, the CGI is nicely integrated with the footage. Some of the visuals are so arresting that I actually went back to rewatch them, and I'm not just talking about Haiduk's impossibly blue eyes. Moody scores and soaring notes of triumph accent the action, while a plethora of fun high-tech submarine sounds bring the show to life with stereo clarity. Jaded as I am about TV-on-DVD quality, the sheer spectacle caught me off guard. This series is thirteen years old, but it looks and sounds fresh from the can. The only audio anomaly that irritated me was a burst of static when switching between menus, but that isn't a big deal.
You want extras? Well, so do I. There are deleted scenes for some of the episodes which may interest seaQuest DSV fans, and Universal was considerate enough to include "lines notes" on each episode's menu. Otherwise, you have your fond memories to supplement the set.
seaQuest DSV brings ecologically minded, deep sea adventure to you in neat, 45 minute doses. It offers a great (though underutilized) cast and a fantastic sensory experience. The writing is never allowed to breathe, which is a sign of an uncertain helm. The problem with seaQuest DSV isn't so much what is there as what could be; it has more squandered potential than most shows have potential in sum. If you can overlook that, seaQuest DSV is a gem.
The court needs more time to deconstruct the events in this complex case. His honor must personally interview each witness. We'll start with you, Lt. Cmdr. Hitchcock.
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