“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” ran to four seasons of hour-long episodes which aired between the years 1964 and 1968 and resulted in a total of 110 episodes in all, making it the longest running show with recurring characters to appear on American network television over the course of that decade. The creation of the obsessively energetic mind of Irwin Allen, this addictive show was a beautifully made film series that played like an insane hybrid of everything the producer had been previously involved in binging to the screen up to that point in his career.
The influences on the series date right back to the ‘50s when, among Allen’s many and varied productions there was an early documentary called “The Sea Around Us”, based on the work of the renowned marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson. Carson went on to become one of the first high-profile conservationists after the publication of her book about the proliferation of synthetic pesticides, “Silent Spring”, played a huge part in spawning the popularity of the environmentalist movement. The documentary showcased the mysterious untapped world of the deep ocean, following underwater expeditions and creating striking underwater visual effects to illustrate this strange, previously uncharted landscape.
This wasn’t the only influence on the series though: In 1957 Allen directed his first feature film, the truly bizarre and insanely camp B movie “The Story of Mankind”, in which aliens deliberate on the fate of the human race after it risks total annihilation by the invention of a potentially cataclysmic nuclear device. As Vincent Price and Ronald Coleman – who play the Devil and ‘the Spirit of Mankind’ respectively -- battle it out before the “Great Court of Outer Space “in order to decide whether or not divine Intervention shall be used to save the Earth from destruction, the history of humanity itself is presented as the ‘evidence’ for and against each of their cases.
Then in 1960 Allen filmed the Arthur Conan Doyle classic “The Lost World”; and in 1961 he directed and wrote the film version of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” starring Walter Pidgeon and Joan Fontaine. This film’s outrageous plot rehearsed what would quickly become the standard Irwin Allen mishmash of earnest but completely made up science, disaster movie suspense dynamics, action-packed espionage conspiracy stories, and broader-based fantasy -- all of which later came to characterise his TV fantasy series of the 1960s. The first of these series was the ambitious TV version of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” itself, and viewing the thirty-two black-and-white episodes that make up season one today (now being released in the UK by Revelation Films in a limited edition 9-disc set) is to undergo a crash course in Allen’s utterly fevered but hugely fertile imagination.
For the show’s format manages to incorporate just about every element in the producer/director’s arsenal of obsessions: paranoid Cold War politics and James Bond-like spy capering; disaster movie-style cataclysm in which natural disaster threatens to wipe out large swathes of the world’s population; fantastical giant sea creatures and mythical lost civilisations; technologically superior aliens from outer space and mad scientists plotting to take over the world from their undersea kingdoms: you name it and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” manages to find a place for it – and that’s just in its first season!
Later, the colour series would come to deal in a much broader, increasingly cartoonish science fantasy realm inhabited by increasingly outrageous and unlikely monsters; but this first collection of episodes offers what is possibly one of the broadest genre profiles ever developed for television outside of a show like, say, “Doctor Who” -- which has a particularly unique format that allows it move into just about any area one might care to imagine.
The pilot episode of season one, “Eleven Days to Zero”, seems to establish a fairly rigid set of genre rules though. The episode initially encompasses a fairly broad disaster movie format incorporating action-adventure and strong espionage motifs as we follow Admiral Nelson and the crew of his top-secret experimental submarine the Seaview on its desperate mission to save the world from a giant tidal wave that threatens to extinguish most of Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the forces of an unnamed foreign power attempt to sabotage the mission, hoping that the worldwide chaos that would surely ensue in the wake of the disaster would allow them to overthrow nation state democracy and establish their own form of world government. These shadowy powers seem to have a limitless ability to infiltrate the U.S.’s top-secret Navel facilities at will, eavesdropping on Government meetings and disrupting Admiral Nelson’s plans. The group of Dr Mabuse-like master-criminals who are in charge of the operation are presented as being very much in the mould of James Bond villains, with the ability to summon up their own navel bombers and to monitor the actions of the Seaview with the aid of some sophisticated high-tech surveillance equipment. It’s clear that the heroic all-American crew of the submarine assigned to save the world, are up against some very formidable foes.
The tone of the episode is that of a sixties version of the 19th century adventure stories of Fu Manchu or of Dr. Mabuse, but cross-pollinated with the disaster movie genre. In later episodes, we learn that events are set about a decade into the future, no doubt to give the series some leeway in how far it can stretch its crazy science and fantasy storylines. This spookily prescient pilot episode displays better than any other, though, the ambivalent attitude to scientific progress that is seen to be present throughout the first series. Later stories will fall back heavily on the ‘Mad Scientist’ motif, with obsessive science researchers often depicted as being willing to endanger humanity for the sake of their various madcap schemes. Here though, the doughty Admiral Nelson (himself a former scientist) comes up with a plan to save the Earth which, to our ears, sounds like utter lunacy on stilts. So much so that you actually find yourself hoping the villains succeed in their plan of disruption as, in reality, detonating a large nuclear bomb at the arctic circle in order to ‘counter and oppose’ the forces of the coming tidal wave, would presumably see the threatened regions dealing with radioactive nuclear fallout for decades to come as well as the tsunami-wrought devastation. This rather comical, can-do, militaristic technocratic sensibility, where anything “nuclear” becomes a simple clean manmade solution to what is otherwise an intractable natural event (and in which the crew of the sub are apparently immune to the effects of radiation, which is never mentioned in relation to the detonation) runs uneasily side-by-side with the aforementioned mistrust of scientists, psychologists or indeed political theorists seen throughout the rest of the series -- all of whom are consistently portrayed as possessing towering egos that make them prone to treachery or to manipulation by the shadowy powers aligned against the American democratic way of life.
As this first series develops though, the stories switch between those that are replete with wild, Bondian espionage plots with vivid fantasy elements worked in, and other tough, sometimes surprisingly gritty and realistic, suspense tales set in something that at least approximates the real world. Eventually, plotlines begin to turn more and more towards the broader areas of science fiction, featuring stories such as “The Sky is Falling”, where the crew of the Seaview track a flying saucer that has disappeared into the ocean, and end up actually making first contact with an alien civilisation.
This wide-ranging format sometimes makes for a slightly inconsistent tone between episodes: by the time we get to a late story such as “The Mystery of the Loch”, for instance, in which the Seaview discovers a secret underwater tunnel running underneath Scotland, which implausibly allows it pop up in Loch Ness (!), one can’t help pondering why Nelson and Captain Crain are so sceptical about the “Nessie” legend that tells of the prehistoric Monster that supposedly lives there, given the kinds of experiences they’ve already had in previous episodes by this point (where plenty of whacky science gets espoused in order to justify a convenient plot device when it’s needed) such as the story where they encountered a tropical jungle paradise hidden in a lost region of the Antarctic (some great pseudo-scientific gobbledygook is used to justify that one!) inhabited by dinosaurs and a primitive society of cannibals!
Before we encounter alien creatures and Galactic intelligences in the series, though, we get plenty more espionage and sabotage plots in tales such as “The Fear-Makers” in which an experimental gas that causes nervous panic in human subjects is unleashed aboard the Seaview by a psychologist working for the shadowy cabal of anti-democratic powers. This is one of those episodes which is intensely mistrustful of scientific professionals: the rogue psychologist comes aboard the ship after being appointed to conduct a survey on the crew of the sub in order to determine whether the unprecedented depths to which the Seaview is capable of descending might not have a detrimental effect on the mental health of its crewmen. Admiral Nelson is adamant that it is perfectly safe, but, of course, the effect of the gas (which the psychologist has stealthily secreted in one of the air vents) appear to prove him wrong. Here Nelson is apparently placed in the same position as many of the series’ extremists – rejecting the scientific dangers out of fanaticism even when the evidence seems clear. In the end, the gas’s inventor, who is unaware of its unsanctioned use aboard the Seaview, mentions that it is unstable, and acts as a fatal nerve poison when it breaks down in the atmosphere after a set number of hours, forcing the psychologist to fess up to the real cause of the wave of mutinous panic that has swept the sub. Before that, though, he’s shown to be unbearably smug and sneaky; bamboozling the strong, honest, simple and decent men of the sub with his mendacious line of questioning in the course of interviewing them as they go about their duties.
One of the best examples in the run of this style of sabotage/espionage plotlines, “Hail to the Chief”, makes good use of the series’ future setting to present a scenario in which the President of the United States is brought aboard the Seaview to have a top-secret brain operation after a bad fall necessitates the use of a new procedure to remove a blood clot in order to save his life. Unfortunately, the brand new high-tech gadget which makes it possible to dissipate the clot without invasive surgery has been tampered with by a technician working for the other side, and if used on the President will instantly kill him! Once again, the unnamed forces working against the U.S.A. appear to have agents placed at every level of the military and Government in order to get their saboteur aboard the Seaview, despite the ludicrously convoluted security precautions Nelson and Crane are forced to take.
Another type of spy story that the series pays homage to is more in line with the James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. style of spy-fi fantasy already popular with sixties audiences, where the crew of the Seaveiw are pitted against insane, megalomaniacal outsiders or deranged scientists who are, in the episode “The Amphibians” for instance, intent on creating their own civilisation of gill-men to take over the Earth; or in “The City Beneath The Sea”, have created a secret underwater fiefdom as a centre for their criminal activities. In “The Village of Guilt”, the crazed scientist in question is creating giant-sized sea creatures using hormone injections, leading to a number of attacks on fishing vessels apparently being made by ‘sea-serpents’.
These types of stories are a great deal of fun, but there are also a surprising number of episodes that take a much terser, more serious approach to the drama. Episodes such as “The Magnus Beam” in which a magnetic device is used to down American U2s over the Pacific and “The Mist of Silence” where crews appear to be going missing in Marie Celeste-like events after, it turns out, being drugged and removed from their vessels, augment their plots about secret deadly weapons being directed against the U.S. with a strain of real-world Cold War politics. Both stories feature fascistic South American military juntas being propped up by anti-U.S. forces and are noticeably more brutal in their portrayal of such regimes: in “The Mist of Silence” for instance, Captain Crane and some of the crew from the Seaview are captured by the evil dictator General d'Alvarez, and Crane is told that unless he makes a public confession of his Government’s wrong doing, one of his men will be taken into the courtyard and shot in front of him, and then one more every hour until he complies. Crane can’t sumit to this blackmail of course, and the General does indeed start carrying out his threat. This is the kind of tense scenario one is more used to seeing in series like “24”, not the light-hearted action-adventure genre to which “Voyage …” ostensibly belongs.
But there are several other relentlessly serious treatments of major issues in this first series: the very real prospect of nuclear war and the dilemmas of loyalty and patriotism that are engendered for the people tasked with actually carrying out the orders that would potentially result in the annihilation of the human race are confronted head-on in the episode “Doomsday”. The story starts with perhaps the weirdest ten minutes of the entire series as we watch the off-duty crew relaxing by staging an anarchic pantomime in which they play mutinous pirates. A nuclear alert suddenly ends the ribaldries though and with no indication that it is a drill, the crew find themselves faced with the very real prospect of being called upon to fire a nuclear warhead at an approaching target. This is one of the tensest and most suspense-filled episodes of the entire run, with the claustrophobic atmosphere closing oppressively in as the countdown begins and with at least one of the crew refusing to ‘do his duty’ when the decision looks imminent. It’s difficult to conceive of an episode less frivolous in tone than this; it’s possibly as serious-minded and hard-edged as U.S. adventure series of the sixties ever got, and there are no easy answers given at the end despite the high-minded rhetoric Admiral Nelson uses to try and rally the men to their stations: he’s no more sure of his position by the final scenes than many of them – and neither is the viewer.
The issue of loyalty is one which the writers get to play with in several episodes where the series’ leads appear to turn bad or are forced into treachery, this comes up particularly in the episode “The Traitor” where the enemy (represented by George Sanders at his smarmiest) abducts Admiral Nelson’s sister (the only family he has, we’re told) in order to force him to give away the positions of some top-secret underwater missile silos. As the episode progresses, it appears that Nelson really is being forced to cross the line and even Crane gradually starts to believe his old friend and colleague has been turned.
The series is largely carried by the two regular leads, the soft-spoken and portly Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson, and the spry, darkly handsome Captain Lee Crane (David Hedison). Although there are many other recurring characters among the crew, they’re fairly anonymous and get very little character development or screen time over the course of the series. Instead, Basehart and Hedison are very much the Kirk and Spock of the show, and some of the more engaging episodes occur when they’re forced to come to blows, usually after one or both have been brainwashed by the enemy. The character of Nelson starts off as rather square and straight-laced in the beginning, but becomes more likable as the series goes on once Basehart is allowed to express more of a sense of humour and lightness in his portrayal. Hedison is given most of the action hero duties and is sometimes allowed a mild dalliance or two with one of the series’ glamorous female guest stars (although the world of Irwin Allen remains resolutely chaste: there’s no room for any of Captain Kirk’s shenanigans here!) who are brought in from time to time to relieve the tedium of an otherwise all-male cast.
The episode “The Invaders” is the one that most represents the way the series would eventually go in future colour seasons, of course. Here, the crew discover hundreds of silver coffin-like canisters scattered across a previously uncharted region of the seabed after an underwater earthquake. They bring one of them aboard, and discover that it is made of an alloy previously unknown to science. Peering inside the small panel opening, they realise that it contains a humanoid figure – and it’s alive! After eventually removing the figure from the canister, the bemused crew are presented with the strange and effete being known as Zar: a humanoid with great strength and bizarre powers; and clear blood that causes sickness and death in humans once they’re exposed to it. Zar comes from a race that flourished millions of years before humans evolved; but unfortunately, after a short time mingling with the Seaview crew, he declares his human hosts unworthy inheritors of the planet and nonchalantly declares that he must go back and awaken the rest of his people, who shall then dispose of Mankind and reclaim the planet for themselves!
Zar -- as played by the young Robert Duvall -- is fey, completely earless, and utterly bald, and rather like the grey-skinned creatures that have come to represent in popular culture what an alien ‘otherness’ is meant to look like ever since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. The episode is about as far away from the tough realism of “Doomsday” as the series was capable of going at this stage in its development, but future seasons would see the strangeness evinced here becoming the norm and reaching ever new heights of off-the-wall surrealism. The characterisation of the alien threat is quite interesting in this episode; it’s clear that the stoutly masculine all-American crew of the submarine are nonplussed and disturbed by Zar, even before his inevitable evil intentions are revealed to them. Let’s just say in explanation that his style of dress and general demeanour steer towards the camper end of the scale!
The 32 episodes of season one are featured across eight discs and arranged in production order (although the American broadcast order is contained on the ninth disc for those who want to follow that). The ninth disc of special features includes the original un-aired colour version of the pilot episode (also restored and looking gorgeous), over forty minutes of Irwin Allen’s behind-the-scenes home movie footage, a brief interview with star David Hedison on his time working on the programme, a Blooper reel put together by Allen himself, and several stills galleries.
I remember the colour version of this series best of all, with its crazy monsters and surreal plots, but this more serious action-orientated black-and-white season -- grounded in the espionage plots of the Spy-Fi genre and in ‘nature rebels’ storylines -- proves just as compelling and exciting as its later cartoon-like fantasy incarnation. The transfers look excellent and are nice and sharp with consistent black levels throughout, and there is a choice offered of original mono or stereo audio mixes. “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” remains the good, fun, entertaining series I remember, with many varied and imaginative storylines, and it gets a complete DVD package from Revelation Films here. The set is well worth seeking out.