Even though his name has been somewhat forgotten in the ever-changing maze of contemporary popular culture, during his prime time producer Irwin Allen (1916 – 1991) was one of the most powerful driving forces of the Hollywood industry. Because of his expensive and flamboyant productions, Allen could be best described as the Jerry Bruckheimer of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Also, Allen is certainly the one to blame for the craze of disaster films that flooded movie theaters nearly 30 years ago. Indeed, two of his best remembered flicks are The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
However, quite arguably his main legacy to the world will be the four revolutionary science fiction TV series that he produced during the ‘60s: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1967), Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). At the time of their original release, all of these series featured groundbreaking visual effects and relatively expensive set designs. In addition, these shows were characterized by their inspired soundtracks, decent acting, competent direction, and imaginative plots. If not precisely the most brilliant work ever seen on a TV screen, certainly these four shows continue to be loved and admired by legions of devoted fans from around the globe.
The TV series of Voyage of the Bottom of the Sea was actually a spin-off from Allen’s own 1961 film of the same title. In this flick, directed by Allen himself, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) and Captain Lee Crane (Robert Serling) are in command of the Seaview, a brand new type of nuclear powered submarine. When the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth catch fire, the Seaview is the only hope to stop a fiery Armageddon. This plot device may sound as a ridiculous idea today, but the Van Allen belts had been discovered barely three years before the production of this film, and at that time very little was known about them. In spite of mixed reviews, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a rather successful film at the box office.
In an attempt to leverage the big expense incurred in the design and construction of the complex special effects and fanciful sets, Allen decided to transition the film into a TV series. As a consequence, the show based on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had expensive production values rarely seen in that medium before, and Allen only had to pay a small fraction of their cost. The Seaview sailed on public broadcast air waves in 1964 and featured a new cast led by accomplished Shakespearean player Richard Basehart as the gallant Admiral Nelson, and sci-fi veteran actor David Hedison as the intrepid Captain Crane.
It is interesting to note the evolution that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea underwent during its prime time. The first season of the series was mostly devoted to stories about espionage and other torrid military affairs. Quite often these episodes made an explicit connection with several of the anxieties generated by the Cold War, including communist infiltration, the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, and the perceived military threat imposed by the countries that formed the communist block. However, in subsequent years Allen gradually introduced more fantastic elements to the story lines in the form of underwater monsters, supernatural entities, and space aliens. By the third and fourth year of the series, only a handful of episodes did not have some type of otherworldly creature menacing the Seaview and its crew.
As such, nearly all of the episodes from the third season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea have a very similar narrative structure: the Seaview finds a monster, somehow the creature makes the submarine roll, the crew is violently tossed from side-to-side, Admiral Nelson comes up with a new weapon, and the menace is finally destroyed. Allegedly, Basehart hated these scripts and refused to pose with the monsters for the promotional pictures of the show.
Most of the thematic variations during the third season came from the nature of the monsters. For instance, “Monster from the Inferno” has an evil thinking blob from outer space, “The Terrible Toys” feature murderous toys under alien control, “Day of Evil” presents an extraterrestrial being that poses as Nelson, a ghost haunts the admiral in “The Haunted Submarine”, a giant sea monster attacks the Seaview in “Thing From Inner Space”, and the episodes “Werewolf” and “The Plant Man” have titles that perfectly describe their content. In this regard, it is important to note that even if Allen never cared too much about the logical structure of the plots, he always demanded for nice-looking monsters.
Just as important as the weekly monster was the Seaview, which should be rightfully considered a character rather than a mere background to the action. Featuring front bow planes in the shape of a manta and a panoramic window bay, the design of this submarine is rather elegant when compared to real life ships made in the shape of a cigar. In addition, the Seaview carried a “flying sub”, several high-yield nuclear weapons, and a variety of scientific and military equipment.
Although it is never revealed in the series, I firmly believe that the Seaview used TARDIS technology borrowed from Doctor Who. Indeed, the interior of this ship appears to be much larger than what its exterior suggests. In several scenes, characters walk a long corridor, only to find an intersection with an equally long hallway. Not to mention that the torpedo room is bigger than the bridge and appears to be at the wrong end of the ship.
But then again, one should not be very picky regarding the accuracy of the technological and operational details presented in this TV series. After all, Allen was not Tom Clancy, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was not The Hunt for Red October (1990). However, even if Allen’s groundbreaking series were not a faithful representation of the way the Navy operates, they certainly provide an insightful look at the way the American military was perceived during the mid-‘60s.
In this regard, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea remained firmly anchored to the thematic conventions that characterized the war and science fiction genres during the ‘50s. That is, the military is a respected, trustworthy, and reliable authority institution, and the use of superior fire power is the best course of action to solve any type of problem. Furthermore, considering that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was made during the Vietnam War, one could argue that the series trivialized the complexities of the conflict by suggesting that the infallible military establishment is always unquestionably right.
And perhaps more telling, nearly all the threats that were confronted by the Seaview, and which constituted a potential hazard to the Western world, were invaders of foreign origin (they came from the depths of the ocean or from the vastness of outer space, or were produced by some foolish overseas power). A clear allegory for the ubiquitous menace of communism, these monsters had to be annihilated without remorse by the dauntless Admiral Nelson and his intrepid crew.
Therefore, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea swiftly embodies the militarism, paranoia, and xenophobia that prevailed over America during the torrid ‘60s. Interestingly enough, while the communist threat was a theme explicitly presented in a rather bleak manner during the first season of the series, it became a metaphorical subtext of easier popular consumption by the third year of the show.
As a consequence, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea repeatedly makes the point that any type of difference, real or metaphorical, should be dealt with in military terms. In several episodes this attitude leads to truly bizarre situations. Just think about it: any of the Seaview’s weekly encounters with unearthly beings could have dramatically revolutionized modern science. And still, Admiral Nelson invariably preferred the destruction and total annihilation of the monsters, ghosts, or alien invaders.
A perfect example of this problematic attitude is presented in “Night of Terror”. In this memorable episode, the Admiral Nelson and other members of the Seaview are stranded on an uncharted island and are attacked by a prehistoric creature. Towards the episode’s end, Nelson gives the order to nuke the beast using a Polaris missile… talk about overkill.
In many regards it is impossible to talk about the third season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea without thinking about another influential science fiction show that premiered during that same year: Star Trek (1966-1969). Arguably, the popularity and success of the special effects-laden Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was crucial when Gene Rodenberry tried to sell his idea for a space opera show.
But beyond the obvious, both series have profound thematic connections. As previously argued on a PopMatters review of Star Trek, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) traveled across the galaxy preaching the strengths and values of democracy, confronting with superior fire power those who dared to challenge cultural and social human paradigms, and reforming any alien culture that did not conform to the capitalistic scheme of production and commerce. Therefore, Star Trek embodied the exact same militarism and intolerance that characterized Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. However, truth be told, in comparison to Nelson, Kirk looks like a liberal.
The ultra conservative racial and gender politics of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea are also much less progressive than those in Star Trek. In strong contrast to the Enterprise’s calculated cultural diversity, all the crew members of the Seaview are white males. Women and minorities are almost completely absent from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, even as incidental characters. This is a telling situation, considering that Allen’s other TV series featured strong female characters and Land of the Giants starred an African American actor (Don Marshall) in a major leading role (copilot Dan Erickson). If we are to believe Allen’s dubious explanation for this situation, the lack of female characters in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was due to his need to save the time and money involved in the hair dressing process. In any event, the Seaview’s crew remains a testimony to the racial and gender bias that haunted the American military for many years.
For those nostalgic fans of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea like me, or for those who want to explore the adventures of Admiral Nelson for the first time, 20th Century Fox Entertainment has recently released the first 13 episodes from the third season of the series. As with previous installments of the show, the image quality is truly fantastic. Unfortunately, the only extra feature to be found in this set is a rather brief interview with David Hedison, where he reminisces about his days aboard the Seaview.
In retrospect, it is impossible to ignore the huge cultural impact of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Indeed, this landmark TV series was one of the first cultural products that successfully generated a large demand for tie-ins and collectibles such as toys, books, comics, and lunchboxes. Equally important, the success of the seminal Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea allowed Allen to produce his other three series, which proved to be influential on the history of the horror and science fiction genres. And finally, as underwater adventures go, nothing is as fun, silly, and exciting as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.