This classic fantasy adventure series, produced for American TV by the legendary oddball producer-director figure Irwin Allen, ran for four seasons between 1964 and 1968. The first successful season had introduced a unique mixed genre format which allowed the show to range across standard accounts of gritty Cold War-era espionage and environmental peril suspense dramas marking the show’s origins in the world of the paranoid, post-war, post-nuclear atomic age of the‘50s, into metaphorical illustrations of the same themes as promulgated by the horror and science fiction genres of the day. Thus, one week the intrepid crew of the SSRN Seaview – a technologically advanced nuclear submarine, based at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research in Santa Barbara, California – would either be embroiled in a cold war plot in which shadowy foreign powers plotted to steal America’s military secrets, or they’d be mixed up in the real-world affairs of a fictional South American junta, reflecting the country’s very real political concerns in the mid-sixties; but then, as the lengthy first season of atmospheric black-and-white episodes played out, the fantastical sci-fi elements that underpinned the secret weapons the crew were often trying to protect or to recover from its country’s political enemies, became much more central to the stories, so that the invasion anxieties, the cold war paranoia, and the ambivalence about the scientific revolution that had provided both the country’s prosperity and the threat of its instant annihilation re-emerged in tales of crashed UFOs, invasion threats from alien beings, or previously dormant aquatic civilisations that awake to reclaim the planet they now consider to be theirs. Although the show’s middle-aged portly hero Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) represented both America’s patriarchal military might and its spirit of scientific enquiry (he’s both the designer of the Seaview and the sub’s Admiral in charge), the series’ enemies were increasingly just as likely to be power-mad scientists (often Admiral Nelson’s former colleagues) whose Utopian, Promethean dreams of human advancement tended to involve their hideous hybrids and mutations being allowed to run amok. Although there was always a strong element of the adventure comic book serial about the show, which found the space to accommodate everything from the disaster movie, the spy drama, the ‘Lost World’ fantasy adventure with dinosaurs and sea monsters, and the monster-of- the-week horror vehicle, within its very broad borders, there was always a delicate balance act being struck that came down more often than not on the side of a more realist treatment of the themes. The best episodes often dealt head on with the tension between the nobility of the idea of scientific advancement and the dread of a reckless and hubristic tampering with nature; the need for military power to defend against transgressive enemies, and the threat of the total destruction of the human race that its obtainment seemed to risk.
Series Two sees a marked change in tone from the shadowy black-and-white paranoia of the first batch of episodes. On the surface, the reasons for this are aesthetically grounded: after its initial un-aired pilot episode was shot in colour, the rest of the series was made in black-and-white, which allowed its makers to emphasis the contrast between the murky depths of unknown waters and the gleaming, metallic interiors of the exploring submarine; or to shroud the sub’s long, claustrophobic corridors in noirish shadow when the requisite atmosphere was required. Now, though, series Two introduced a flatly lit, primary coloured aesthetic which gave the show a much more comic book appearance. Furthermore, this led to the crew members now being costumed in different coloured jump suites to emphasis their various roles in the running of the sub. This colour-coded approach to costuming was to become familiar with the advent of “Star Trek” of course, but it’s an innovation here which very much helps to distinguish what had previously been rather a faceless bunch of regulars, all of whom had before been clad in standard brown army uniforms. Now, only the top ranking regulars – Admiral Nelson (Basehart), Captain Crane (David Hedison), Lt Commander Chip Morton (Robert Dowdell) and Chief Sharkey (Terry Becker, replacing Henry Kulky who played Chief ‘Curly’ Jones in series one) – wear the authority-giving khaki uniforms. The comic book approach now informs the series treatment of technology, which often takes the design form of state-of-the-art banks of computers with lots of dials, blinking lights, spinning tape reels and ticker-tape print-outs – all of which looks like a charmingly sixties-retro vision of future computer technology (the show is set in the 1970s, but the computer technology is credited with powers far beyond anything imaginable even today). The Seaview seen here has been given a sleeker makeover and also now harbours a flying saucer-like mini-submarine which is endowed with the capacity to become airborne, allowing the heroes to get about a great deal more easily than before and thus offering greater plot opportunities. With its attractive bright primary colours and emphasis on cool-looking miniature models, the series now looks more like a live-action version of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation sixties shows such as “Stringray” and “Thunderbirds”!
But there is a more profound reason for the show’s change of style and emphasis. Although the same mix of espionage stories and sci-fi adventure informs the storylines of series Two, the harder, more realistic tone of series one is gone and a more fantasy, comic book approach is evident even when the plots don’t involve monsters, aliens or other science fiction staples. David Hedison, the younger more conventionally handsome of the show’s two stars, is often given a James Bond role in these episodes and is cast with a beautiful co-star and sent undercover on top secret missions to retrieve a secret code (“Escape From Venice”) or to find a secret weapon that is forcing a series of U.S. space probes to crash, against a backdrop of shadowy agents and counter agents (“The Secret Saboteurs”). An ostensibly real-world story like “…And Five of Us Are Left” which involves the Seaview in a rescue mission to pick up five survivors from a crashed US Navy sub, the Tetra, who have been stranded in a network of underground volcanic caves near Hawaii, is founded on a fantastical scenario – for the survivors have been missing-presumed-dead for twenty-eight years and are thus unaware of the outcome of the Second World War, which was still being fought when they were first marooned! Included among their number is a Japanese submarine commander, Nakamura (Teru Shimada), who was originally captured as a prisoner of war by the U.S. crew, but whose friendship with his former captors grew as the survivors struggled to endure their isolation across the years in which, one by one, most of the original members died in failed escape attempts, leaving just five left alive. When Admiral Nelson and his crew finally come to the rescue all these years after the cessation of the war that once defined their struggle, the men’s hostilities -- which had become buried over the years -- threaten to re-emerge, as Nakamura cannot accept his country’s defeat at the hands of his ‘enemies’.
An episode such as “The X Factor” appears on the surface like one of series One’s standard espionage plots involving a secret organisations on home soil, clandestinely operating a spy network that smuggles U.S. secrets out of the country to a foreign power abroad; but its bizarre comic book-horror approach to the theme underline’s series Two’s much altered, lighter sensibility. Acting on a tip-off from one of Captain Shire’s (Bill Hudson) agents Nelson attempts to infiltrate a toy company that’s somehow involved in the trade in secrets and also in the disappearance of an American scientist, Dr Liscomb (George Tyne), who carries a vital state secret in his head. It turns out that the company, headed by the fiendish Alexander Korby (John McGiver), is kidnapping scientists, paralysing them and coating them in wax with the aid of a futuristic machine, then painting and dressing them as life-sized dolls to be exported abroad, where the information they harbour can be extracted with advanced brainwashing techniques! This is precisely the kind of outlandish, unfeasible, comic book plot involving a diabolical mastermind one would expect to find in the surreal Pop Art world of “The Avengers”. Here, the “House of Wax” pastiche is rather more prosaically dealt with in standard adventure fantasy terms and conspicuously minus the knowing irony of the British series, yet it emphasis how far the show had come from the tense claustrophobic dramas of series One, such as the memorable episode “Doomsday”, for instance. Incidentally, this episode also graphically illustrates the budget-conscious nature of even such a glossy looking show as this, for it includes a lengthy extended action sequence taken from the colour pilot of series One and then used again shot-for-shot, but now in an entirely different context!
But the series’ heightened air of fantasy and comic book exuberance really comes into its own when we turn to its treatment of the more overtly science fiction/ horror movie-based storylines which now dominate the majority of these twenty-six episodes, rather than constituting simply an occasional diversion from the norm. The standout example here must be the episode “The Cyborg”, which manages to distil just about every science fiction and horror trope that the show ever dealt in and combine them in a story that also bundles in the threat of nuclear annihilation just for good measure. Episode director Leo Penn starts proceedings with a matt shot of a castle that looks like it’s been lifted straight from the oeuvre of early-sixties Hammer Productions. Admiral Nelson is visiting the cybernetics laboratory of Professor Tabor Ulrich (Victor Buono), which just happens to be situated in this medieval-looking castle among the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps, immediately evoking a Hammer-esque “Evil of Frankenstein” vibe. The interior of the castle laboratory is furnished in a mix of the gleaming trappings of retro-sixties computer tech and sleek pop art design. Ulrich wants to replace human beings with his army of cybernetic creations and plans to do so by swapping Admiral Nelson with his exact cyborg replica on-board the Seaview, programmed to sabotage a world peace conference and start World War Three. The cyborg Nelson brings a piece of Ulrich’s computer hardware with him that, unbeknownst to Captain Crane and the rest of the crew, blocks all the sub’s communications with the outside world and replaces them with the professor’s fake information, which leads the crew to believe that the US is under attack from an alliance of foreign powers, and authorises them to strike back in retaliation by firing nuclear missiles at many of the countries participating in the peace conference.
This element of the story is very similar then to that of “Doomsday”, but hardly as potent because we know we are dealing this time with a ‘fake’ Admiral Nelson, and scuppering the plan simply involves Crane uncovering that fact rather than having to try and work through the moral minefield that is suggested by having to actually follow (what appears to be) one’s patriotic duty in this instance. Far more interesting is the web of science fiction and horror ideas included here. Once again, “The Avengers” dealt with very similar ideas in the stories “The Cybernauts” and its sequel “Return of the Cybernauts”. The first of these, like “The Cyborg”, posits a crippled genius inventor, played by Michael Gough, who is confined to a wheelchair; Ulrich though, is confined to a golf buggy more because of his great obesity rather than injury. The Frankenstein connection is clearly deliberate but the story adds the fillip that Nelson’s cyborg has been programmed with all of the Admiral’s knowledge downloaded into its memory banks. This makes the cyborg potentially indistinguishable from the human version – a conclusion which the story at once acknowledges in the form of Ulrich’s beautiful assistant Gundi (Brooke Bundy) – who doesn’t realise that she is actually a cyborg replica rather than the ‘real thing’ and eventually helps Nelson destroy Ulrich’s laboratory through her human-like empathy. Yet, at the same time, it draws away from such a disturbing idea, making the cyborg Nelson a malevolent extension of the megalomaniacal Ulrich posing as Nelson, rather than a straight copy of the original. The real Nelson is eventually able to make the replica’s imposture known to Captain Crane by taking central control of its nervous system from Ulrich’s main computer terminal, and making it tap out a distress signal in Morse Code with its finger against its will! It is very striking how the scene when Nelson first confronts his own double is very reminiscent of the 1970 “Doctor Who” story “Spearhead form Space”, in which plastic replicas of heads of Government and key members of the military establishment take the place of their human counterparts, controlled by the Nestene Consciousness; the base models for Ulrich’s cyborg clones are very similar-looking featureless humanoid models -- just like the Autons, although far less convincing for being dressed in stretch-fabric polo shirts that make them look like a troupe of avant-garde mime artists.
The hackneyed trope of the power-crazy scientist soon becomes a frequent recurring plot thread in many of these series Two narratives though: “The Menfish”, for instance, features the diabolical Dr. Borgman (John Dehner) in a story which is one of a handful not to feature series lead Richard Basehart due to illness. He’s replaced here by Gary Merrill as Admiral Park – which is unfortunate because the good Dr. Borgman happens to harbour a long-standing grudge against Park for his interference in shutting down one of his previous experiments on moral grounds. Usually it’s Admiral Nelson who incurs the wraith of resentful experimenters who then devote all their considerable intelligence to gaining their revenge. Here, the Seaview has been detailed with conveying Borgman and his assistant Hansjurg (who fulfils the Hans role in the equation, to Borgman’s Frankenstein) to a region of the ocean bed that is just the right Goldilocks temperature for their experiment -- which is to create a race of miniature amphibious humanoids from ordinary fish. It’s interesting that neither Park nor the crew have any moral objection per say to Borgman’s genetic experiments; but they are unaware that the scientist’s method depends on extracting hormonal fluid from the pituitary gland of a living human subject and injecting it into the fish specimens, before a blast of radiation is used to magically transform them (the fish) into the ‘Menfish’ of the episode’s title!
Unfortunately, Borgman is not too bothered about the fate of his human participants and he starts abducting Seaview crew members to provide the required hormone, and implants a device into Admiral Park’s brain that forces him to go along with this nefarious scheme. The story is a mix of Frankenstein and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, with the violent creature created in Borgman’s first experiment running wild aboard the submarine. In the final act, the creature is subjected to a further blast of radiation and, with the logic of atomic-age monster movies, grows into a giant underwater behemoth (in actuality, a bloke in a fairly poor monster suit wrestling with the miniature Seaview model). If men in monster suits and aquatic giants aren’t your cup of tea then the prosaically titled “The Monster From Outer Space” provides a “Quatermass” mixture of sci-fi chills and horror when an unmanned space probe, fresh from a mission to Saturn, crashes in the ocean after being infected by an alien organism. The Seaview is sent to retrieve the probe and to decontaminate the capsule, but their rigorous procedures fail to deter a minute fungal growth from expanding into a hideous, pulsating, free-living tumour which takes over the minds of the Seaview crew. Only Admiral Nelson and Chief Sharkey manage to avoid the process and it’s up to them to save humanity from the designs of the alien organism. The amorphous alien creature is a throwback to the 1958 creature feature “The Blob”, and is achieved by using a mass of inflatable rubber bags with all sorts of grotesque appendages and lumps (including straggles of coarse hair) attached to it!
Among all these stories of mad scientists’ devilish experiments, alien takeover bids and outlandish diabolical masterminds plotting to take over the world with armies of cyborgs, there are two episodes in series Two that stand out in particular and would be almost inconceivable as part of series One. “The Phantom Strikes” sees Admiral Nelson, Captain Crane and the crew of the Seaview having to battle against an unambiguously supernatural force. This excursion into areas of spiritual horror marks a real departure for the series, and opens the way to the even more bizarre stories to come in series three and four. The spirit in question is that of Captain Gerhardt Krueger (Alfred Ryder), a German U-boat captain who perished aboard his ship, U-444, during the First World War. The story approaches the whole idea very tentatively, as though acknowledging that even for a genre-bending show such as this one, this was still rather a big stretch! The key to the success of the story is to make the whole idea of a supernatural manifestation as wholly confusing and perplexing to the protagonists as it potentially could be to the audience: when the story starts with the sudden appearance of a phantom WW1 sub, which then continues to appear and disappear miraculously in different locations, we’re led to assume there will later be some real-world though probably fantastical scientific explanation for it. When Krueger comes aboard the Seaview, claiming to be a survivor from a shipwreck, he seems solid enough but very quickly it becomes apparent that some very strange occurrences are associated with him: he can be touched and physically manhandled, and can even be chained up, but he can also appear and disappear at will, walk through walls and materialise in several different places at once; he can also affect the operations of the Seaview and her navigation equipment. While Crane and the others try to figure out an explanation for it all, Admiral Nelson discovers the truth – that Krueger died during WW1 – but is unable to confide it to anyone else, including his close friend Lee Crane, for fear of being thought insane. Worse, the phantom starts visiting Nelson in his quarters and tells him what it is he really wants: he plans to possess the body of Lee Crane so that he can live incarnate in the world once again. For this to happen, Crane must die and if Nelson doesn’t murder his own friend to allow this to happen Krueger will cause the life support systems of the Seaview to fail, killing everyone on board!
It soon becomes apparent that there is no way whatsoever for the crew to battle this manifestation. As the nature of it becomes more and more difficult to escape, the crew get edgier and edgier; eventually, one of the series regulars, crewman Kowalski (Del Monroe) has a complete screaming mental breakdown after he shoots the escaped Krueger dead at point-blank range, only for him to appear again seconds later in another part of the sub. The crew attempt to bring the unfathomable events to a close by giving the body of Krueger an official Christian burial at sea, yet he appears once again at the end of the episode, materialising in full view of the entire crew on the bridge, making his supernatural origins impossible to ignore. Luckily for everyone, by this time the WW1 commander has had a chance to study the awesome power of a nuclear age submarine, and decides he doesn’t want to be part of such a world after all, so Crane is let off the hook. Which is fortunate, since there really does seem no way for the crew to fight back against such a force -- all the more so because they are clearly unable to accept its true nature.
But the story gets even stranger from here. “The Phantom Strikes” is one of the few episodes to have its own sequel, “The Return of the Phantom”, although, perplexingly, even though the story carries on from where the first left off, the episode wasn’t screened until the end of the series. In reality it completely re-writes the end of “The Phantom Strikes”. The final act, with Krueger appearing to the assembled crew of the Seaview and renouncing his intention to become incarnate in the body of Captain Lee Crane is omitted in the pre-titles recap of the previous episode, and the story simply carries on from where the crew bury Krueger’s body at sea, but goes in a completely different direction from there, despite being both written and directed by the same people responsible for the other episode (writer William Welch and director Sutton Roley). It plays more like an alternative version of the first episode rather than a sequel, examining what would have happened if the phantom had actually achieved its objective. “The Phantom Returns” sees Krueger haunting Admiral Nelson once again, and this time there is no escape from his demands. Not content to play about with constant dematerialisation games before finally making his intentions known, as he did all the way through the first episode, on this occasion Krueger actually does make Nelson shoot Crane by forcing the sub to the ocean floor and cutting off the air supply until Nelson agrees to his demands. Once in possession of Crane’s body (actor David Hedison affecting Ryder’s German accent), Krueger takes the flying sub and travels to a remote island where the grave of the love of his life is located. It turns out, then, that Krueger wasn’t telling the full story in the last episode: he doesn’t just want to live again, he also wants to bring his long-dead lover Lani (Vitina Marcus) back to life in the body of a local island girl Maria. The climax to the episode takes place in a mist shrouded island graveyard that conjures memories of the Val Lewton classic “I Walked with a Zombie” and ends with the spirit of Lani rejecting the methods of her former lover as the whole island is blown to smithereens by the Seaview (showing a marked lack of concern for all the other inhabitants!)
This second series of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” certainly isn’t as strong in its storytelling as the first black-and-white series. This is a half-way house between the tense, suspense-filled dramas of the previous season and the monster-of-the-week comic book excess that came to dominate the final season. Fans have differing opinions about which of these two phases in the show’s history they prefer (I have a love of the more outlandish later series episodes because these are the ones I remember seeing after school as a kid) but series Two was an indispensable marker on the way to its complete abandonment to the fantasy side of the equation, toning down the edginess of the espionage stories and populating rather too many episodes with mad scientists and their creations. Nevertheless, visually the show is colourful and slick and has a real charm about it when seen today, even if some of the storylines are already becoming repetitive and stale.
This seven disc set features all twenty-six episodes in glorious vivid colour, with excellent transfers and the choice of mono or stereo English audio soundtracks. The extras are confined to the final disc and feature a selection of stills galleries featuring production photos, merchandise and even the MAD magazine strip entitled “Journey to See What’s on the Bottom” featuring the adventures of the crew of the Seapew. There is half-an-hour of effects footage (silent) and a six minute interview with David Hedison talking about his memories of Irwin Allen on set and his favourite series episodes.