Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nostalgia Theater:
The Sinking of NBC's Man From Atlantis

I've said in a previous entry that between the time the first Star Trek left the air in 1969 and the second one showed up in 1987, there was a lot of sci-fi programming that flitted ever-so-briefly across our collective TV screens despite the very best hopes for all concerned to pull together something memorable. Certainly, this is a category that NBC's short-lived Man From Atlantis -- chronicling the exploits of an undersea adventurer loosely modeled on DC Comics' Aquaman and Marvel Comics' Sub-Mariner -- falls into. Here's the intro from the '77-'78 TV series:

The concept, as spearheaded by Trek alums Robert H. Justman and Herbert F. Solow, centered on a man (Patrick Duffy, just a few years shy of his star-making breakthrough as the noble Bobby Ewing on Dallas) who washes ashore (I want to say it was in California, but I'm not 100% on that) with no recollection of who or what he is, and who has gills and webbed appendages. In danger of dying due to extreme dehydration, he revives when placed underwater.

Given the name Mark Harris by comely scientist Elizabeth Merrill (Belinda Montgomery, who went on to play the title character's mom on Doogie Howser, M.D. and, more recently, the main character's grand-mom in Tron Legacy), they (and we) soon discover that Harris is the last survivor of the lost, submerged city of Atlantis, and is possessed of great strength, and is able to survive and thrive in the water. Here are the closing moments from the first Man From Atlantis TV movie, which aired on NBC in March of 1977, as it lays the pipe for future installments. 

(What's amusing about this is that it's giving us a detailed montage not of clips we saw several weeks ago, but all within the last ninety minutes. And they say we have short attention spans!)

Those future installments came in the form of three more TV movies that aired through June of that year, and were received well enough to lead to a regular series that premiered the next fall...which died quickly after a brief thirteen episode run. And in hindsight, it's not hard to see why. While Man From Atlantis (note the deletion of a definite article in the title...weird) didn't lack for earnestness or ambition, it lost a little something when those ambitions rushed headlong into the wave walls of creative and content limitations, not to mention financial realities of '70s TV. 

While the initial plan may have been for Mark Harris to explore underwater worlds as varied and interesting as anything the crew of the Enterprise came across, practical restrictions on filming in water meant the show's creatives had to either keep Harris on the shore in a wetsuit, or have him face off with ho-hum villains like the portly Dr. Schubert (played by Victor Buono, best known as King Tut on the '60s Batman show), a sort of "casual day" James Bond villain with designs on conquering the oceans. As an aside, these restrictions are probably the same reason that the CW's planned Aquaman series a few years back didn't go anywhere

Another, more pressing problem may well have been Harris himself, a stranger-in-a-strange land naif who views humanity with detachment, and fights for us even though he doesn't fully understand us (think Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation). While such a character might have worked well as part of the ensemble, his general passivity made it increasingly difficult to make him the center of the action as the weekly grind wore on, and it's very telling by the end, despite Duffy's game efforts (and he has enough charisma that it's easy to see why he became a true star shortly thereafter).

Those qualms, coupled with a general uncertainty over whether the show was to have a tone of hard sci-fi or simply "reality-plus-one" make it easy to see why Man From Atlantis faltered. Nonetheless, though it left a relatively minuscule footprint in the cultural landscape, it did spawn some merchandising, with tie-in novels and a decent comic series from Marvel (which came and went after seven issues thanks to the show's quick cancellation). There were even plans for a Kenner toyline (following their successful licensing of The Six Million Dollar Man a few years prior), but that didn't even get past the prototype stage.

While Man From Atlantis has retained too little inter-generational awareness to warrant a wide home video release, the TV movies and subsequent series did come to DVD last fall via Warner Bros.' "manufacture on demand" release program, which made me very happy, as I still hold onto some very fond memories of watching this one as a kid growing up in Saudi. And while I can't say the series holds up particularly well (though the initial pilot film is probably the best of the lot), I also can't bring myself to mock it completely. It had a lot of high ideas, but just never quite found its...(wait for it)...sea legs.

(Thanks. I'm here all week.)

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