SeaQuest has become a cult-classic.
But getting there wasn't all that easy.
The first-run plight of show, which originally aired for a few seasons on NBC in the mid-1990s, may be compared to a man overboard, with multiple personalities, drowning without a life jacket:
Confused. Gasping for air. For anything thrown at him to save his hide. No matter what comes his way, he can't hold on. He loses his grip. He tries to stay afloat, but his nerves get the best of him. He becomes desperate for survival. Manic. Panic sets in. He makes all the wrong moves, instead of the right one. Whatever hope he has to stay afloat soon escapes him. The more he moves, the swifter he sinks, drowns...in a pool of his own impatience. Had he kept his head, remained calm, and confident that he would be saved, he would have be able to think clearly. Had his course of action remained steady, he would have moved full speed ahead. Instead, he loses his way, and perishes, never to be found again...except on some deserted island where he becomes worshiped by a small band of eccentric natives.
In like manner, SeaQuest took a no-expense-paid cruise, and ended-up paying through the nose. It started out strong, but lost its compass. Too many cooks were hired to fry the catfish. The ratings suffered. Big-time. The producers became desperate, lost faith in their ideas, and threw whatever they could in to making the show work..to save it. It became a hodge-podge of winning concepts. But mixed together, it was a lost cause, with multiple, though useless, functions. The changes were manic. Too much to swallow. SeaQuest suffocated in a sea of too many ideas. Too many DeLouises from one Dom. It reached for whatever might keep it above water. It's like someone unplugged the cork at the center of the sub. It sunk. No one paid attention to the simplest, yet most essential answer: they should have bailed out, as soon as possible. Cut the losses. Or stopped changing to please others. They should have believed in the initial concept. Remained consistent. But no one saw the forest through the seas. The show tunneled itself into the abyss of lost classics, 20,000 leaks under the TV.
In the end, SeaQuest failed, though not from lack of trying. Just focus.
It all looked good from the dock of the bay. It was Flipper meets Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. On Sunday nights. Just like the old days. Spielberg does Roddenberry, under water. Not Star, but Sea. No Trek, but Quest. Trek's Wesley becomes SQ teen-heartthrob Jonathan Brandis (who committed suicide in 2004) as Lucas. Trek's Dr. Crusher becomes Dynasty II: The Colby's British Stephanie Beacham. Trek's Kirk becomes Roy Schieder, and all that jazz, er, Jaws...light vs. Superman. Lois & Clark be specific...on ABC. Terri Hatcher vs. SQ's Staci Haiduk. Both vs. Angela Lansbury on CBS. But Mrs. Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, wins.
Yet all are renewed.
Ground control to major disaster...in the ratings. Except for Murder. She still writes big ticket. SQ's budget gets bigger. Demographics get higher. But ratings still low. More sci-fi plots. Blow up ship. Redesign. Entire show. Rename title. Change cast. Alter uniforms. Remix music. Move to Florida. Scheider's had it. Bring in Michael Ironside. Focus still murky. All three years. Manic changes. Appears desperate. Save the whales? Or the universe? Keep Darwin? No matter. Watership down. Audience at bay. Dive. Dive. Dive. Cancelled. Lost at sea, though still loved by hardcore fans, surfers, now on the Web.
1993: Big year for Sci-Fi TV. Deep Space Nine. Babylon 5. Time Trax. Lois & Clark. SeaQuest DSV, created by Spielberg and Rockne O'Bannon (Alien Nation, New Twilight Zone). After the pilot's second draft, and after hiring the staff to run the series (including producer Tommy Thompson), O'Bannon steps away to other projects. On the heels of Spielberg's success with the big-screen Jurassic Park, Sunday, September 12, 1993, 8PM SQ debuts, directed by Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back helmer Irvin Kershner. Viewers initially hooked by promos touting the Spielberg connection, but he's really not there. He's still too busy with promoting Park and Schinder's List.
But at least the special effects are awesome. An actual model of the ship is never created. It's all done with computer graphics. There are three Darwins - like there were two Darrins on Bewitched. But Darwin's theory doesn't hold up.
The series is budgeted at 1.3 million per episode.
It has familiarity written all over it. The entire concept screams Star Trek, submerged, with a twist of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And that's what O'Bannon is specifically instructed to do. To make SQ, ST. And he really didn't want to come aboard, but when Spielberg calls, you answer.
In the meantime, there were separate agendas that needed to be catered to:
On the heels (if a decade or so before) of his not-so-well-received Amazing Stories, Spielberg was desperate for a TV hit.
Universal was longing to return to the glory days of its previous dramatic (Columbo, The Rockford Files) and sci-fi (anything Bionic) TV hits of the past.
NBC's Warren Littlefield needed to have a big hit under his wings.All of it mingled with shades of Trek should have spelled HIT. And with a commitment for 22 episodes, they couldn't miss.
But they did.
So whereas Trek had the United Federation of Planets, SeaQuest has the United Earth Organizations (i.e. UEO). But part of Spielberg's idea had to do with presenting a positive vision of the future...detailing how technology could allow humanity to not be chicken of the sea.
Unfortunately, from this perspective, storytelling became a problem.
The problem was, there was no conflict.
Fortunately, into the mix, swims Darwin, the talking dolphin, who squeals into the hearts of former Flipper fans.
But generally, the story(bored) went like this:
SeaQuest DSV, short for Deep Sea Vehicle (and reminiscent of Deep Space Nine?) is set in the year 2019, a time when underwater colonies and research outposts populate the oceans. The world's nations, as we know them today, no longer exist. A war occurred at the onslaught of the new millennium, and a new world order was created, producing a number of international confederations in the place of nations. World peace is now maintained by the UEO, which has the blessing of all the International Confederations. The crown jewel of the UEO's fleet is the SeaQuest. The big boat is a 1000-foot long submarine that is the most advanced design in the world.
Although it's a military vehicle armed with the latest in high-tech weaponry, its primary mission is one of ocean exploration. Roy Schieder, of Speilberg's JAWS fame, takes the helm as Captain Nathaniel Hal Bridger (a three-namer reminiscent of Captain James Tiberious Kirk?). Bridges is the maverick scientist who created the massive sub in the first place.
Don Franklin as Commander Jonathan Ford, the ship's first officer. He was to have been the ship's captain until circumstances forced Bridger to be coaxed out of retirement (can anyone say Star Trek: The Motion Picture?).
Stephanie Beacham played Dr. Kristine Westphalen, the ship's doctor and head of the scientific team. A friendship between her and Bridger may have eventually led to romance had she not left the ship at the end of the first season (can anyone say sexual tension between Trek's Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher?).
Stacy Haiduk as hottie Lt. Commander Hitchcock, the ship's second officer, and the ex-wife of the SeaQuest's morale officer, Lt. Ben Krieg, played by John D'Aquino. As a result, Hitchcock and Krieg often find it hard to work together. In addition to being the ship's morale officer, Krieg always seems to have some scheme in motion to make money (and it's not always in compliance with regulations).
Royce D. Applegate as Chief Manilow Crocker, the SQ's head of security and an old friend of Bridger's (and very similar in look and sound to Scotty from Trek).
Ted Raimi (brother to Sam) as Lt. Tim O’Neill, the ship's communication officer who is fluent in many languages (and who reminds many viewers of Data from Trek).
Marco Sanchez as Michael Ortiz, the ship's sensor chief.
Two of the most popular personas on the show: Jonathan Brandis as Lucas Wolenczak and his mammal confident, Darwin, the talking dolphin.
Lucas is a teen techno-wizard/computer genius who often ends up saving the day. Fortunately for the rest of the crew there are some things that he knows nothing about which allows them at least a chance to provide functions. But one of the first things Lucas is able to do is create is a device allowing people to talk to Darwin. More or less abandoned by his parents, Lucas has in many respects become the adopted son of Bridger, whose own son died. (Ironically, Brandis made his acting debut in Poor Little Rich Girl, with Charlie's top Angel Farrah Fawcett. And in what became his breakthrough TV appearance, he appears in the SQ pilot with another former Angel, Shelly Hack.)
And so SQ debuts, and garners whopping ratings (28% share). Doubles Lois & Clark, its main competition. But as writer/producer Lee Goldberg says, "For all its grandiose pretensions, what the pilot finally came down to was a talking dolphin and Shelly Hack as a vengeful pirate. Yawn."
More episodes concentrate on Brandis, including one with 17-year-old Kellie Martin, late of ABC's Life Goes On (which once aired in the SeaQuest spot, if on another network). She plays lost waif in charge of a band of unruly underwater sea kids. It harkens back to the classic Trek episode, Miri, starring Kim Darby. It brings back Sunday LGO fans, if just for one night. But viewers soon tire of show. Following week, it sinks to 20% share, then 18, then 15, in month. 39% of its original audience has vanished.
Big issue: 2 sci-fi shows opposite 1 die-hard, in the form of Angela Lansbury. Both SQ and Lois & Clarkgear towards same audience, head to head. Neither emerges as smash. But LC takes lead. 58th vs. 73rd. Ratings, overall. Both vie for 18-to-49 year old viewers (the darling demos so attractive to advertisers).
Roy Scheider has bitter words for SQ. Though he favors a few episodes in this first season, including Devil's Window (in which Darwin grows ill) and Whale Song (in which Bridger resigns rather than go to war), Scheider speaks up when something's wrong. Normally, others think it. He says it. He gives an interview in which he badmouths the series. It's widely reprinted, and puts him in hot water with the show's producers and the network brass. But it's all overblown.
The article essentially prints all the negative statements, and ignores the positives, concentrating on a segment Scheider particularly despised. It's called Playtime, in which the SQ time-travels to the future where giant robots rule and only two children are left to seed humanity.
Scheider seeks to bring the show back down to earth. He wants it to remain action-oriented, but with no aliens and no time-travel tales. He wants it to be Jacque Cousteau. NBC wants him to be Captain Kirk (though they're a little late in supporting Trek - for it was this Peacock network that killed the original show three decades before).
Leslie Moonves, today at CBS, then at WB (which produced ABC's L&C), feeds the fire of competition for NBC: "We're seeing every sign that (L&C) is about to take off...We're not a hit yet, but we're on the cusp."
Meanwhile, everyone at NBC is on edge, though they put up a good front.
NBC's Preston Beckman says his network is happy with SQ, because ratings and demos are better than what NBC had in 1992-1993. "Putting aside what others' expectations were for the show, SQ has done what we hoped it would do – put us back in the game."
But who's fooling whom? The audience is bored.
So, mid-season, Beckman promises the episodes "will be more fantastic." New executive producer David Burke is hired to create major changes. Promises more stories with a sci-fi twist, see the gang out of the water and into the "upworld"; expect more realistic and fantastic underwater photography. New look kicks off with guest-stars like Moses. He usually pulls in ratings on a Sunday night for ABC on The Ten Commandments. Will big star Charleton Heston do the same for SQ? No. But he tries. He guest stars as a biologist who has the ability to abide underwater, and spends half his time tracking Lucas at a party where he almost loses his virginity. Heston fails to parley the sea ratings this time.
Familiarity continues to breed contempt. Episodes with William Shatner (Captain Kirk himself), Kent McCord (from Adam 12), and David McCallum (Man From Uncle, Invisible Man), all former NBC stars, fail to win viewers over.
Then, very drastic measures are under way, under water: The SQ team discovers an alien spaceship, buried underwater for a million years, but uncovered after an undersea earthquake. USA Today calls this segment the show’s "finest hour yet," one in which Lucas and Darwin play critical roles. The world may come to an end. And only SeaQuest can save it. But who will save SeaQuest?
Again, certainly not L&C. On opposite ABC, L&C concludes a two-part season-ender with Lois soon-to-wed suave villain Lex Luthor, with guest stars Beverly Garland and Phyllis Coates, TV's original Lois, as mother Lane.
No. It looks like it's all up to Jonathan Brandis. He receives an average of 4000 fan letters a week from girls who want to know what he does in his spare time, whether he's currently seeing someone, and how he enjoys working with Darwin. "Jonathan is Number 1," says Louise Barile, editor for Tiger Beat magazine. "Our readers love him to death." Even though by now SQ ranks in the 60s in the national Nielsen ratings, it's tops with teens, and NBC is impressed.
Meanwhile, Brandis is impressed with himself and his show. He's convinced that SQ is the Trek of his generation. "This is going to be such a hip show in 25 years," he says. "It's ahead of its time. Viewers of the future will find it really accurate and so much fun to watch."
That's very nice. But what about now? At the moment, no one's still watching.
Summer 1994, prior to the second season. Despite the low-season-to-date ranking of Number 82, NBC renews the show for a second year, says it's happy with its performance, due to the young demo thing. But the show is too distant. Too restrained. Viewers have a tough time making the connection. But apparently, that's being repaired. The spin-doctor goes into full cycle.
David Burke says they've now solved the production problems of this first year. Says being pre-empted added to the problem. Next year, he promises, "We will be competitive…Water is hard to photograph. A show like this should have blue sky and bright lights. Our opening episodes [from Season 1] had murky, dark water. The new episodes [for this Season 2] will be bright."
A move to shoot in Florida is to enhance the illumination. A blow to the ship, paves the way for an all-new SQ. It's a whole new world. Says writer/producer Lee Goldberg: "What saved SeaQuest was a budget-cutting move from LA to Orlando, and a promise to tackle highly-promotable, action-oriented storylines that would take place above and below the sea with a younger, more attractive cast."
Roy Scheider, Don Franklin, Ted Raimi, Marco Sanchez, Jonathan Brandis and Darwin all return. But this new sub is on a new night (Wednesdays, but at the same time, 8:00 PM, on a new location shoot, and with some new cast members). John D'Aquino and Royce Applegate are let go. Sexy Stacey Haiduk is gone (never to be seen again).
Stephanie Beachman jumps ship. Doesn't want to move to Florida.
The new cast and characters are younger and, for one reason or another, related to Dom DeLuise:
Rosalind Allen (fresh off of guesting on the Seinfeld seg in which George pretends to be a marine biologist who saves whales) as Dr. Wendy Smith, a biophysicist and psychologist with ESP.
Michael DeLuise plays crewman Tony Piccolo, a misfit and troublemaker. In order to get out of the stockade, Piccolo allowed himself to have an experimental operation performed on him which grants him gills and the ability to breath underwater (can anyone say Man From Atlantis, SubMariner, Aquaman?).
Michael's brother, Peter DeLuise, plays Dagwood, a genetically-altered janitor of the Dagger denomination. Daggers are genetically engineered people who are designed to battle in war. Dagwood possesses great strength and the ability to survive in conditions that would kill a regular human being. He's also a bit slow and naive.
Ed Kerr joins the crew as Lt. James Brody, a cocky weapons expert who had been assigned to the Dagger prison.
Kathy Evison comes aboard as Ensign Lorrie Henderson, a rookie whose first assignment is on the SQ.
These new additions are considered "young" and "pretty."
But these big (and arguably bad) changes translate into dismal debut. Only 12% share. Down 36% from previous year. Underwater cameras still produce blurred pictures. Murky plots. Lack of focus. Show continues descent. NBC brought down with it. SQ finishes fourth for seventh time in seven telecasts. Come December 1994, SQ anchored on ocean floor of ratings, with a mere 7%.
Overall, this second year fails to inspire. It's littered with mammoth crocodiles, trips to Atlantis, and murderous plants. Though the audience seems to like when Star Wars star Mark Hammill makes a guest spot in a segment called Dream Weaver (in which he plays blind, with no aliens in sight).
And darn it, the kids continue to love that Darwin and Jonathan Brandis. Brandis can't explain his own appeal, but attempts to decipher Darwin's. Dolphins are like young kids, he says. "They have mood swings, but they're also patient, smart and clairvoyant."
Meanwhile, Spielberg tries to raise morale. Drops by on the set, more often than he did last year in LA. Encourages the cast to bond. But that happens naturally. Due to the Florida move. Cast members call the experience weird. On the same set, but 3,000 miles away. Their lives change. Back in Los Angeles, they dispersed quickly, to their individual homes. In Florida, they become closer, go out together every night...to Pleasure Island. All the different clubs. Off-screen, everything's fine. Everyone's having a gas.
On-screen, they're losing fuel, fast. What was supposed to be a demographically correct cast of characters on a neato-keen submarine show still churns out to be a poor-man's kiddie show.
NBC decides to replace the show with two sitcoms, and put two new action hours on the air. One on Saturday nights, and another on Wednesdays. They settled on JAG for Saturdays, but Rolling Thunder, the show they had in mind for Wednesdays about a high-tech truck, was as Lee Goldberg says, "awful." So NBC hangs in there with SQ, because at least it's action oriented, and at least some viewers have already seen it. And they give it a renewal for a third season. 13 episodes. But they expect big changes for the next year (again!).
Patrick Hasburgh, Clifton Campbell and co-executive producer Carleton Eastlake bring in new staff, including Lee Goldberg and partner William Rabkin (both of whom worked on She-World in London, Sliders, etc.). The latter two are hired as the new supervising producers, replacing Lawrence Hertzog, who leaves to create and run Nowhere Man.
But the producers are still desperate for ratings, and grab at the sci-fi straws. They send the SQ sub across interstellar space to battle a civil war on an alien, watery world. It gets destroyed Again.
By now, Scheider has really had it. He's made his decision. He's not coming back next year. On regular basis. Only recurring role as Captain Bridges.
So the hunt is on for someone new at the helm for next year, and higher ratings. But they better do something quickly.
SeaQuest DSV now ranks at 57th for the season.
Fall 1995: From SeaQuest DSV to SeaQuest 2032. In the opening episode of this third season, the SQ shows up in an Earth wheat field and members of the crew are scattered across the world, with no memory of what happened. As Lee Goldberg puts it, "We didn't want to get bogged down in dealing with back-story from the previous season, particularly since it was so different in tone from the new direction of the series." As Daily Variety puts it, "Sailing into its third season and second format change, timeslot and title, SeaQuest 2032 retains the titular submarine, talking dolphin and junior crew member from previous incarnations with a [still] younger demographic. If this version tanks, which is likely, all things considering might consider converting the boat into a restaurant serving submarine sandwiches."
The viewers try to enjoy new theme music, and attempt to figure out the new year in the new title. 2032 leaps the show ten years into the future, from the first season, when it was set in 2018. Apparently, ten years in real NBC time calculates as 2021, while ten years in sci-fi time translates as 2031. Then NBC must have just added a year for momentum. Ten years into the future is supposed to justify a darker, more dangerous world, somewhat different than the previous two seasons (certainly distant from that bright Florida premise).
No, this third season world is on the brink of war, where the United Earth Oceans (once called Organizations) finds itself threatened by merging military forces.
The biggest change rests at the helm:
The producers hire Michael Ironside, late of ER (and sci-fi properties V, Scanners, Total Recall), to take command of their troubled submarine as Captain Oliver Hudson, a more "military" presence than Scheider's Bridges. And it doesn't hurt that his bald head may remind viewers of Trek's Patrick Stewart. But at first, the rugged, crag-faced Canadian actor turns the job down, flat. He sees problems that will not allow him to do the work he prefers. That was the problem with Ironside playing Dr. William Swift on NBC's ER. He doesn't want to repeat that scenario on SQ.
So Jonathan Banks and Terry O'Quinn are momentarily considered for as replacements for Scheider. But since Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment produces both ER and SQ, Ironside feels an obligation, so he bends. But not too far, 'cause the producers allow him to essentially run the show. They're desperate for structure. Ironside seemingly offers it, via his ideas and general concept. He condemns the surface world of SQ, and says the year 2022 looks vaguely like upper-middle class West Palm Beach, Florida (which it was). "It's arrogant to think the world is going to be in that kind of balance," he says. "And I think it's arrogant to go around saving the whales in a 47-minute TV format."
Ironside suggests a "corporate reality," in which multi-nations are even more influential, aggressive and imperialistic than some nations. Says the crew of the SQ over the last two years "looked like they were all on Valium." "I've never been in a work environment, artificial or real, where the people have had that much empathy for each other...the idea of drama is to have conflict."
So, after weeks of discussion, Ironside agrees to play Hudson, a career Navy man. Ironside, of course, has in-put into the character. He wants to have an adversary relationship with members of the crew and with characters in the stories. "As one gets resolved," Ironside explains, "I want to move to the next."
He also says the cast is not etched in stone. Characters are going to die this year. "There are a couple of people on whom the show is really dependent," he says. (Brandis as Lucas is now an Ensign.) "But the rest are up for grabs as the storyline dictates."
Those new grabbers include Elise Neal, who joins the cast as Lt. JJ Fredricks, a subfighter pilot with a "psyche implant," a device in her skull that keeps her from going insane, and allows her extra courage during dangerous missions.
And so it goes...In the third episode of this third season, SQ (now less interested in exploration than defense) is assigned to escort ships hauling valuable ore from "a desolate mining colony in the middle of nowhere" to various Asian destinations.
Other episodes have Hudson and crew battle a renegade admiral threatening to nuke the world because he considers peace a sickness...the crew takes on a fascist dictator, played by Michael York (of Logan's Run). Roy Scheider guest stars here in what turns out to be only one of his three appearances in this third year.
Meanwhile, too, the show continues to be pre-empted for magic Las Vegas specials, and the like.
Then, there's all that uproar from fans on the Web, specifically regarding SeaQuest 2032, but dating back to when the show first began to change hands...on deck.
It's the fans vs. the SQ producers, and the battlefield is the Internet. It was all taking place on alt.tv.sequest. Fans are writing online bibles to the show, and complaining about all the changes.
Even Rick Marin, a TV critic from Newsweek, gets in on the action. Tries to play mediator. Says it's all good for publicity.
Fan at the center of the debacle was Mary Feller, a passionately emitted SeaQuestian, who started voicing her concerns about the direction the show was taking in the middle of the first season…when the ship's crew was first forced to battle high-concept dangers.
But Feller, who abides insane Francisco, says she never envisioned tangling with the show's producers. She was merely partaking in AOL - and then CompuServe - forums, simply commiserating with other disappointed fans.
That's how he got the idea to write a petition in late 1994. Feller posted the petition, which advocated a return to the show's earlier premise of undersea explorations, on CompuServe and, soon, 400 people had signed it. So she went into all the online SeaQuest discussion groups, and garnered the support of AOL's SQ fans, as well.
Soon, Fellar new the fans needed a Web page to organize their movement to pressure NBC to revamp (or devamp) the show. She hired a freelance Web consultant to come to her house one night, and by 4 AM, she had a Web address.
Feller started getting support letters and other feedback from fans in Australia, Greece, and Spain. By Spring, she had collected 5000 signatures which she’s sent to NBC.
Soon, as Lee Goldberg recalls, he was "deluged with people telling me what a loathsome scumbag I was, a sniveling worm, and I would get lists of demands that you must do these 15 things or else."But the producers didn’t listen, and SQ's descent into the abyss continued.
Writer/producer Lee Goldberg sums up the show's demise, concentrating on the final year, waxing wishful about the potential for Deep Space Nine/Babylon Five arc storylines:
"During the final season of SeaQuest, I think we were achieving that complexity of character and story...while keeping each episode exciting on its own level. It's hard to get sucked into the complexity if you don't watch every week. Problem was, it wasn't possible for anyone to do that. SeaQuest 2032 never had a run of more than two episodes in a row before a week or more of pre-emptions until we were already cancelled."
This transpired during the production of the unlucky 13th episode, Weapons of War.
In the end, Goldberg says, "SeaQuest stayed on a year and a half longer than it had any right to, thanks largely to the perseverance of Patrick Hasburgh. Like Amazing Stories, it was purchased from Amblin with a full 22-episode commitment. Rarely due these full season commitments, whether to Spielberg or anyone else, work out. I think had SeaQuest been sold like any other series, based on its pilot, there never would have been a SeaQuest series."
"SeaQuest will not be remembered as a television classic," Goldberg concludes "(though it was certainly more watchable than [the original] Battlestar: Galactica). It will be remembered technically as a ground-breaking show for computer animation, and creatively as a hugely expensive mistake."