The second season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is notorious, or at least notorious within the world of sci-fi TV, for introducing the “Monster of the Week” principle to up-until-that-point comparatively tame Irwin Allen-produced series. The second season was also the first Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season to be filmed in color.
Allen took advantage of this new opportunity to bamboozle the audience with bright, shiny things, and introduced “The Flying Sub”. A yellow craft that launches from the bottom of the submarine Seaview, The Flying Sub is indistinguishable in function from, say, a swimming plane. It does manage, however, to increase exponentially the amount of unlikely situations in which Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart), Captain Crane (David Hedison), a few other cast members, and a crew of extras marked for death find themselves.
The shift towards camp zaniness aside, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘ s second season is a more rewarding watch than some of the other shows in Allen’s oeuvre. Though Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Season 2 Volume 2 does feature, for instance, an island that randomly rises forth from the sea and is occupied by dinosaurs. It does not depict a single silver-painted alien a’la Time Tunnel. Most of the weekly villains on the Season 2 Volume 2 DVD actually look pretty cool (in an ever-so antiquated way) as if more thought went into them than some of the more hackneyed, schlockier extra-spatial-threats-du-jour in the history of Irwin Allen television. The fist-fights are better orchestrated and the orchestra hits are more appropriately placed. The sets look – if not excellent for the time – at least incredibly expensive (which is probably why they were often reused, both within Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and throughout other Allen shows and films.)
“Terror on Dinosaur Island” kicks off the Season 2 Volume 2 DVD with the blend of camp and drama that characterizes the whole second season. Admiral Nelson and Chief Sharkey (Terry Becker) crash the Flying Sub on the episode’s eponymous island, and spend a lot of time injuring their legs and limping around. Meanwhile, shockwaves hit the Seaview, causing the cast to pretend to like they’re falling all over the place while the camera shakes back and forth to imply chaos. This camera trick is a fixture of Allen action. Since the Flying Sub and Seaview are apparently prone to regularly being struck with shockwaves, projectiles, and monstrous tentacles, the convention gets used about five times an episode.
Goofy (if not inspiring) attempts to look unbalanced, and dinosaur footage cribbed from Allen’s ’60 film The Lost World aside, the episode has some dramatic moments that are actually kind of striking. Paul Carr is introduced as Benson, kind of a ne’er-do-well officer who switches shifts with officer Grady. Grady drowns when the shockwaves hit the Seaview, and Benson, wracked with guilt, blames Captain Crane for ordering the hatch that Grady died in to be locked. He follows crew members Kowalski (Del Monroe) and Riley (Alan Hunt,) along with Captain Crane, to Dinosaur Island in search of the lost crew members. Benson’s rage at Crane comes across more realistically than you’d expect out of a guy who was about to meet his end by being stomped on by a lumbering giant iguana the size of a bus.
The only special feature on the Season 2 Volume 2 DVD is a collection of interviews with David Hedison. The interviews are short and seem oddly edited and strung together, but they nonetheless present an interesting picture of what it was like to work on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Hedison touches on his antagonistic professional relationship with Allen, giving credence to the conventional wisdom that Allen ran Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea into the ground when he increased the camp-factor.
In the last couple of episodes on the DVD set, the new, goofier face of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea begins to show itself. The two sans-Richard Basehart episodes – “The Menfish” and “The Mechanical Man” — seem to mark a turning point in the series, where the over-the-top element is increased and the traditional spy-fi feel is sacrificed.
“The Menfish” features Dr. Borgman (John Dehner), taking juice from peoples’ pineal glands and using it to create fish people. Menfish begin their hybrid lives as fish-tank sized and non-threatening. Upon being irradiated, though, they become human-sized and angry. If they’re exposed to a lot of radiation, they turn into the kind of Godzilla-esque fish-monster that has no qualms about shaking the shit out of a submarine. Dehner’s attempt to approach the “Menfish” concept with classic mad scientist gravitas is incredibly silly, and it doesn’t help that the subject of his research is far beyond ridiculous. It’s hard to sound serious when you’re talking about “Menfish”, and it’s even harder to figure out how to pluralize it properly.
“The Mechanical Man” continues the amped up camp, with none other than The Time Tunnel’s James Darren offering up an Ed Woodianly wooden performance as Dr. Peter Omir, an electricity eating cyborg with a circuit board imbedded in his back, created by Dr. Paul Ward (Arthur O’Connell). Dr. Omir is so cool and proto-cyberpunk that not only does he wear sunglasses indoors, he wears them while conducting experiments in an underwater laboratory.
Omir is in charge of a dangerous drilling expedition for a previously undiscovered energy source he’s dubbed “Substance 116”. Ward is a sniveling faux-Dr. Frankenstein character who alternates between bellyaching over what he’s created and acting as a venue for Omir to explain his nefarious plot. For some reason, Omir finds a suitable potential buddy-cyborg in Captain Crane, who throws a grenade at him and stomps on his sunglasses, allowing Ward to touch together two energy cubes and presumably make the power-hungry android explode. The unlikely relationship between the cyborg’s energy absorption abilities and his totally awesome sunglasses is explained by Captain Crane within the last 10 seconds or so of the episode. The end of this particular voyage to the bottom of the sea also marks a descent into the depths of ridiculousness.
The DVD set, and the season, finishes off with “The Return of the Phantom”. This episode features Alfred Ryder reprising his role as Gerhardt Krueger, the spectral WWI submarine pilot who wanted to take over Captain Crane’s body in “The Phantom Strikes”. This episode is one of those moments where you see the profound differences in the way we watch television in the age of re-runs and surefire DVD releases. Audiences without the luxury of knowing they’d be able to obsessively scrutinize the details of their favorite shows didn’t demand the fastidious attention to internal consistency they do these days. It’s a good thing, because Allen probably couldn’t have provided it.
In “The Return of the Phantom”, the ending of “The Phantom Strikes”, which was actually one of the season’s best episode finales, gets a ret-con bulldozing of epic proportions. Krueger’s bidding the crew farewell with an “I’m just not made for these crazy times” monologue at the end of the original “Phantom” episode is entirely erased from existence. Krueger (and his atrocious attempt at a German accent) instead returns along with a Dark Shadows-¬esque ghostly hula-girl named Lani (Vitina Marcus) who won’t stop haunting poor Admiral Nelson. Krueger again goes after Capt. Crane in the interest of taking over his body and returning to the corporeal world, and is also shopping around for a body for Lani, who would actually rather stay dead.
Although conceptually campy, “The Return of the Phantom” is a decent episode and barely a hint of the ridiculousness to come in later seasons – the ratings murdering Lobster Men and Fossil Men so derided by David Hedison. So, Season 2’s standard blipping and bleeping computer consoles, stock footage abuse, confused Cold War metaphors that fall way short of resonating like Rod Serling’s, and the flagrant disregard for continuity seem a little antiquated. This actually helps to make Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s second season entertaining on two levels. It’s packed with enough decent acting and cool spy-fi concepts so that you can enjoy it without irony, but enough camp to keep it interesting. Remember that two-tiered viewing experience every time you hear the announcer belt out, “Voyage! …to the Bottom of the Sea! Starring Richard Basehart! David Hedison!” Then, a moment later, announce once again for no clear reason, “Voyage! …to the Bottom of the Sea!”