[31 July 2006]
These are truly Halcyon days for retro, with studios from one side of Hollywood to the other rummaging through their archives for vintage product to DVDize and hump onto video shelves. For the studios this probably works out pretty well. Their biggest expense in re-releasing old TV shows is undoubtedly the packaging, and they can rest assured of a guaranteed, if niche, market. A lot of Boomers and Gen-Xers remember these programs from broadcast primetime or syndication and will cheerfully plop down 50 bucks or more for old time’s sake—no matter the inferiority of what they’re buying. Such is the kitschy draw of yesteryear.
Up for current consideration is the inaugural season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a boy’s-club water opera from ‘60s television potentate Irwin Allen. As with other Allen titles of the time—Lost in Space and Time Tunnel—I remember Voyage largely from its resuscitation as weekend filler on independent stations during the Carter years. And, as with Lost in Space, Voyage‘s early seasons are much better than its junior and senior years. Only the die-hards cited above are likely to hang on through Voyage‘s later forays into Batman-inspired camp—presumably the eventual release of the entire series is inevitable—but this collection, a three-disk set including 16 episodes in all their black-and-white glory, offers many quaint charms. (The set of extras on the other hand is unfortunately a trifle lean, featuring a brief interview with star David Hedison and a fleeting blooper reel.)
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea debuted in the mid-‘60s on the heels of a hit film by the same name. (Having spent many thousands on the fabulous set pieces of the futuristic Seaview submarine, Allen allegedly conceived of the series to maximize his return on investment.) However, those who have seen the movie, and so are expecting laugh-a-minute monster fight scenes, are likely to be disappointed. Of these there are a handful—and where they occur they tend to look a bit silly, yes—but for a seaborne action show Voyage is surprisingly talky; it’s also about as steeped in Cold War dramatics as a show with giant mutant jellyfish can be. For every episode with a goofy undersea battle, at least two are character studies (typically revolving around the friendship between Admiral Nelson [Richard Basehart] and Captain Lee Crane [David Hedison]) or cloak-and-dagger intrigues pulled out of the day’s headlines.
Set in 1964’s idea of 1973, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea pits the United States and the “Western Alliance” (as intrepidly defended by Nelson and Crane aboard the Seaview) against the amalgamated communist “People’s Republic”. These black hats are emblematic alternately of Soviet Russia and the Red Chinese, depending on the purpose of a particular episode: where torture and brainwashing are at issue the communists become the Asian Other, whereas the vodka and fur caps are dusted off for narratives involving nuclear stalemate and mutually assured destruction. In either case, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is typically more caught up in stories about deterrence than outright conflict; hence, the talking heads and surprising paucity of giant monsters. “Doomsday” takes a page from Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove to wonder whether fallible humans aboard a nuclear sub would really launch their missiles if ordered. In “The Exile” an apparently defecting Russian ex-premier (played with startling ferocity by Ed Asner) is in fact bent on sparking World War III for personal gain. “The Human Computer” has the solitary Captain Crane chaperoning a fully computerized Seaview only to discover a spy from the People’s Republic has stolen on board to assassinate him.
“The Human Computer”‘s protracted game of cat and mouse is necessitated because the enemy assassin can’t simply kill Crane outright; rather, to capture the Seaview and its technology without causing a wider conflict Crane’s death has to look like an accident. This last episode is particularly neorealist—for something like 20 minutes Crane sneaks around the empty Seaview with a handgun in a kind of chess game with his nemesis—but all episodes are, in their own way, less about force than dilemmas concerning its use. In “Doomsday”‘s familiar scenario (which 1983’s WarGames replicates almost word for word) missile launch requires several officers to turn authorization keys simultaneously as a safety measure; it’s hard not to sympathize with one of the officers when he refuses, deciding his affinity for human life outweighs his allegiance to military chain of command.
The big brass’s Strangelovian answer to this problem—they suggest fully automating the launch system to eliminate the human factor from the equation—nods at another one of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘s favored themes: the role people play in a technological society that was, even then, rapidly threatening to outstrip the agency of the individuals in it. On a certain level this is endemic to the whole proposition of the Cold War, the first conflict whose contours were shaped entirely by its weapons. Nukes are so devastating no sane person would countenance their use and yet the threat they posed needed to be credible, or at least so the powers in Washington and Moscow believed. Consequently people saw themselves gradually subsumed into a system created by humans but progressively more intractable to their wishes; and as a corollary, they become more and more uncertain what it even meant to be human.
You see this not only in “Doomsday”—where the people become components in the mechanism, their pangs of conscience like malfunctions or design flaws—but also in the several episodes where drugs or experimental science transform the Seaview’s crew into something irrational or alien. Captured by unseen torturers in “The Saboteur”, Captain Crane is brainwashed (in a pop-cult version of the methods employed in Korea by the Red Chinese) and subsequently behaves as though he’d been bodysnatched. He deactivates the Seaview’s weapons and even tries to kill Admiral Nelson, but when he’s captured he’s not held accountable on the grounds that he wasn’t himself at the time. It’s Nelson’s turn in “Mutiny”, as the venom from the aforementioned giant squid causes the usually humble admiral to lapse into megalomania and, finally, insanity.
Although normalcy is reestablished at the end of each episode, it’s striking how regularly this theme pops up, how adventurous the writers are in playing with the viewers’ sympathies for the Seaview’s heroes even as some form of duress regularly turns them into bastards. The most interesting episode of the lot, “The Enemies”, has both Crane and Nelson stranded on an uncharted island where the People’s Alliance maintains a secret laboratory conducting mind control experiments. The communist scientists have created a drug that causes friends to hate each other with homicidal fury and introduced it into the island’s ecosystem. Thus the island itself becomes poisonous, a place no one can stay for any time and remain themselves. (Peering at it from the distance through the Seaview’s periscope Nelson reports feeling that everything on it is “coated with slime.”) When Crane eats some native berries and turns on his friend Nelson in a murderous frenzy he becomes irritating and detestable, but the viewer doesn’t mind. We know all about Crane and Nelson’s true devotion to one another because their fastidious torturers, to make sure the drug really works, have carefully conducted behavioral tests to prove the authenticity of their friendship by trying to make them betray each other. Thus the scientific project of designing secret weaponry (much like the one that gave rise to the atom bomb in the first place) makes it possible to reveal the real Nelson and Crane, but only in the ultimate interest of obscuring them.
Like the other episodes in this collection, “Enemies” is far from flawless—its broad stereotyping of the Chinese is in fact thoroughly embarrassing—but there seems to be a thoughtful honesty in its fascination with Nelson and Crane’s friendship, and more generally in its concern for the political and existential dilemmas of its time. Maybe shaking the mothballs off an old show like this one is therefore a worthwhile gesture not simply because of the modest profits it yields for the studio or the autumnal pang of nostalgia it can offer those of a certain age. Maybe these shows relate a peculiar take on history that can be retrieved no other way.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Season One, Vol. Two - Interview