Irwin Allen’s much loved adventure series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” ran for five years in all, during which time there were four series produced in total. First airing in 1964, the initially black and white episodes of season 1 dealt with gritty Cold War espionage themes with a dash of fantastical ‘60s science fiction providing that extra wow factor. Allen was a consummate showman -- an inventive, imaginative producer with a restless creativity. His first series brought unprecedented production value to US TV, largely because Allen was able to absorb the cost of sets for this expensive show by re-using those that had originally been built for his self-directed 1961 feature film of the same name. The strategy paid off in a collection of episodes that still impress today with their diverse, unpredictable storylines and the quality of acting by the regular cast -- especially from leads Richard Basehart and David Hedison: both excellent, well-regarded actors who initially jumped at the chance to work with a visionary producer-director such as Allen.
Revelation Films have been releasing each series collection over the last twelve months and it’s been interesting to chart the gradual change of emphasis in Allen’s approach as the successive years of the show’s production rolled by. “Voyage …” was the first of Allen’s 1960s adventure shows; by the time it reached its fourth and final season, “Lost in Space” and “The Time Tunnel” had also gone into production (the latter for one season only), both shows indicating a shift towards more science fiction influenced material. “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” had undergone the same transformation after its switch to colour at the start of the second season. In many ways the high point of the show, the second series still featured Cold War espionage adventures but mixed them cleverly with stories that exemplified typical 1960s science fiction concerns such as rampant computer intelligence technology and cyborg replicas being used in espionage plots against the state, etc. By the end of the second year though, paranormal themes were creeping in as well, and this became more and more the defining feature of a series which had originally started out as an ode to the militaristic, rationally based technological know-how of the United States -- with Richard Basehart’s Admiral Nelson the apotheosis of both military virtue and scientific excellence, his self-designed atomic powered nuclear submarine The Seaview an idealised totem of the West’s superiority in the battle against foreign-backed totalitarianism.
By the third and fourth seasons, stories with magical forces and legendary figures come to life formed the backbone to the majority of the increasingly tongue-in-cheek absurdist plots. In “Land of the Giants” -- the show that eventually replaced “Voyage …” in its Sunday night slot on US network TV -- this melding of science fiction and fairy tale magical themes worked surprisingly well. But by its fourth and last series, the vastly reduced budget on which “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” was now being made had started to adversely affect the quality of the episodes to the point where silliness was being used as a distraction for the paucity of new sets, costumes, effects shots and ideas. The third series still holds the line surprisingly well (even though watching the episodes all in close succession reveals the same footage and sets being recycled again and again), mainly because there is still a dynamism to the direction and inventive, if increasingly far-fetched, ideas discernible in the writing. Unfortunately, the advent of the fourth series seems to have seen massive budgetary cuts coincide with the point at which the show had pretty much exhausted all its credible options story wise, to leave us with impoverished re-runs of past ideas executed with little imagination or verve -- or just episodes so wildly silly that they made practically no sense, even by the show’s own highly liberal terms for what constituted believability.
The silliness quotient stars high with an early episode that reunites David Hedison with his co-star from “The Fly”, Vincent Price. In “The Deadly Dolls” Price plays a puppeteer, Mr Multiple, whose puppets bear an uncanny resemblance to the crew of the Seaview. Pretty soon it emerges that Multiple’s puppets have the ability to grow into life-sized replicas of the crew, intent on assuming control of the Seaview in aid of a glowing disembodied alien intelligence which wants the ship as its new external shell. The ‘replica crew’ plot and the ‘amorphous alien intelligence’ plot had both been used numerous times in the past during the show’s run. This particular combination hits upon an idea which would come to be important later in DOCTOR WHO, resembling in some ways the plastic Autons controlled by the Nestene Consciousness first seen in “Spearhead from Space (1970). But “The Deadly Dolls” takes a much more whimsical approach, making copious use of a Muppet-like doll of Admiral Nelson for awkwardly placed comedy purposes, which perches on Vincent Price’s shoulder throughout most of the episode. One of the delights of this particular run of episode is Richard Basehart’s acting of Admiral Nelson’s increasingly blasé responses to ever-more ludicrous events. When Basehart first took on the role of Nelson, he probably didn’t imagine the show would take quite the route it eventually did. Nelson started out as a serious, rigidly rational man; then, his first few plot lines involving ghosts haunting the sub and werewolves running amoke on-board, revolved around the Admiral questioning his sanity or his crew questioning it for him. But by this later stage in the game, the most outrageous conceits are simply being accepted with a resigned shrug. Basehart develops an amusing habit, here, of issuing a disbelieving groan whenever that week’s storyline suddenly threatens to veer off into the outer reaches of craziness -- as though saying ‘here we go again.’
One of these crazy plotlines also involves an imposter ‘doppelgänger’ of Admiral Nelson in “Man with Many Faces”: a bonkers story about a scientist who, for no apparent reason at all, wants to control the earth’s tides by establishing a powerful electromagnetic field around the moon. As a result, the moon comes to be drawn towards the earth on a soon-to-be apocalyptic collision course. But to discredit Admiral Nelson -- his main scientific detractor over the matter -- Dr Mason (who is also, conveniently for the daft plot, an expert makeup artist) impersonates him, and stages his own assassination live during a TV debate over the matter. An unwitting colleague, perfectly disguised as Mason, is shot, apparently by Admiral Nelson – although it’s really the real Mason doing the shooting. Nelson is now on the run and wanted for murder, while only having a matter of hours in which to save the earth from destruction. This is yet another of those silly episodes where someone is able to assume a perfect likeness, in appearance and voice, of a variety of crew members on-board the Seaview, just by donning a simple rubber mask.
There are several monster-on-the-loose episodes as always this season: “Fatal Cargo” is a particularly amusing one in which a giant white gorilla, which is secretly being controlled by the evil assistant of the now dead scientist who originally invented the gorilla mind control device, runs amok when the assistant for some reason lets the creature loose on board the Seaview with predictably destructive results, even though it threatens his own life just as much as everyone else’s. “Man-Best” is the Irwin Allen version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous story “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, in which poor Captain Crane is transformed into a snarling, violent, hairy humanoid creature by an artificial atmosphere developed by a sociopathic professor who knowingly uses the unwitting Captain as a guinea pig in his experiments. There’s a genuinely moving moment when the stricken Captain comes to believe that, under the creature’s influence, he has murdered one of his own crewmen in cold blood. It turns out he hasn’t, and that the professor is the one who has realty done the dirty deed – although it makes no sense why he should have; it just conveniently gets the Captain out of a morally tight spot so that he can continue on as normal the next week!
Alien invasion plots had appeared as the basis for a number of stories going right back to the early black and white episodes of the first series, but by season four they had taken on a curiously old-fashioned, 1930s aspect. The diminishing budgets are made achingly apparent in a series of episodes featuring a number of appalling alien costumes: “Journey with Fear” sees amusing toad-like humanoids from Venus teleporting various crewmembers to a psychedelic-looking Venusian cave in an attempt to disrupt a Seaview rocket launch project. Perhaps the most memorable episode in this vein, though, is the infamous “The Lobster Man”, in which guest actor Victor Lundin looks genuinely aggrieved to be clad in a pitiful mollusc costume with fur trim, as he clumps about the Seaview in an attempt to implement his Trojan Horse-like invasion plan.
Several episodes make use of time travel storylines, perhaps left over from the cancelled Irwin Allen series “The Time Tunnel”, but there are also some even more fantastical episodes in which Leprechauns and the ghost of Blackbeard invade the Seaview and cause magic-related havoc (including a mutiny of possessed crewmen in the latter case).The ludicrousness of these storylines and the often lazy, nonsensical plotting during this season overall, places most of this collection pretty low down in any list of best episodes, yet these were the ones I saw as child, when they were run on weekday afternoons on ITV, and I’d hurry home from school to watch them. Consequently, the nostalgia value outweighs their objective worth. This set will appeal to those who remember seeing the show on British TV in the early seventies, but the other three sets are where Allen’s imagination really shines. As usual, the transfers are immaculate, the colours vibrant and sharp. Once again you get the choice of the original mono mixes or a stereo remix of the audio tracks, and the final disc of the set features the last part of an interview with David Hedison, a photo gallery and three different versions of the original pilot episode, including one archive version that includes all the original sponsorship idents and commercial break adverts. This is certainly still an enjoyable collection, but it is easier to see now that in contrast to previous seasons, the show was on its last legs by this stage, and Allen’s shift towards increasingly more wacky storylines made “Land of the Giants” the show best suited to provide a platform for his increasingly outlandish tastes in fantasy fiction.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog Nothing But The Night!