Sunday, September 29, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: seaQuest -- Steven Spielberg's Waterlogged Flop

Roy Scheider (center) flanked by the second season cast of seaQuest DSV
Yet another twentieth anniversary this week as we look back on seaQuest DSV, a high profile NBC series that debuted to considerable hype on September 12, 1993, but quickly took on water. As envisioned by Rockne S. O'Bannon (who previously developed Fox's Alien Nation and would go on to create Farscape for Sci-Fi Channel), seaQuest was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and thus launched with all the pomp and expectations that come from having the most successful filmmaker in the world lending his name to your venture (remember, this was just months after Spielberg's Jurassic Park first set theater turnstiles ablaze).

Set in the near future of 2018, seaQuest DSV (Deep Submergence Vehicle) posited a world where the UEO (United Earth Oceans) has colonized the oceans, with exploration turning inward as we chart and discover Earth's last unexplored frontier ("Beneath the surfaces lies the future!" the marketing trumpeted loudly). In addition to Spielberg's name prominently placed on the bill, seaQuest also boasted the presence of film star Roy Scheider, re-teaming with his Jaws director for the first time in almost two decades as he made his series TV debut, as the title sub's skipper, Nathan Bridger. 

Bear in mind also, this was around right around the same time when Star Trek: The Next Generation, then entering its final record-breaking season, was the undisputed king of TV syndication, and it seems like a big chunk of NBC's marketing campaign was directed at least partly toward winning over the Trek auds, while at the time spinning how different their high tech exploratory vessel helmed by a distinguished elder statesman captain was. The latter had a talking dolphin, for one thing. Observe:

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, seaQuest was scheduled opposite ABC's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, with both premiering on the same night. In the pre-DVR wilderness of the early '90s, if two shows were competing against each other, you chose up sides, and in a battle between Superman and, well, anything else, I had to back my boy Clark. Regardless, seaQuest initially did quite well, with its feature-length pilot (directed by The Empire Strikes Back's Irvin Kirschner) winning both the slot and the demo, even with reviews that were, to put it charitably, mixed. Here's the first year intro, with theme music by film composer John Debney:

As the year wore on, the same audiences lured in by the marketing onslaught and the catnip of Steven Spielberg started to drift away. This led to Lois & Clark's rise, which we chronicled previously, but the subsequent ratings dip for seaQuest prompted the dreaded canard of network interference to rear its ugly head. What was initially envisioned as a "science fact" skein about negotiating treaties and underwater earthquakes, started looking a lot like Irwin Allen's old Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, with space aliens, living plants, etc. bedeviling the titular sub from week to week.

Although seaQuest managed a skin-of-its-teeth renewal, NBC was now fully vested in moving it away from its science-fact sailing orders, with creator O'Bannon and most of the first season cast (including Superboy vet Stacie Haiduk) set adrift, replaced by younger, hotter stars in the vein of teen heartthrob Jonathan Brandis, one of the few breakouts.. And though star Scheider was still around, he was pissed, telling every outlet within earshot before the second year even started that the show had become "trash," likening it to "21 Jump Street meets Star Dreck" (no idea if this was a dig toward new co-star Peter DeLuise, himself a Jump Street vet).

Here's the second season intro:

Despite the net's ratings hopes, seaQuest's new full-bore sci-fi approach (as well as its new batch of co-stars, including DeLuise brothers Peter and Michael, and Edward Kerr as Lt. James Brody, named in honor of Scheider's Jaws character) didn't pay many dividends in terms of winning over (or winning back) viewers, and it was now regularly being trounced by Lois & Clark. By the end of season two, all illusions of exploring oceans and "science fact" had been left by the wayside, with the seaQuest spirited to a planet in another solar system for the finale, joining an intergalactic civil war in the process.

Amazingly enough, despite the rapid descent (both ratings-wise and qualitatively) Spielberg still had enough pull with the network to get Peacock brass to sign off on a further-retooled season three, though by this time Scheider had had enough, and he begged out of his mutli-year contract in exchange for a few token appearances in year three. Stepping in as captain for the renamed seaQuest 2032 (with the storyline jumping ahead twenty-some years) was veteran actor Michael Ironside as the no-nonsense Oliver Hudson, whose more militaristic, authoritarian presence reflected a renewed focus on geopolitics and global conflict. Here's an NBC promo hyping the new direction:

With Ironside's addition and the new direction, seaQuest had finally found its footing (or, if you like, its sea legs) -- at least creatively. Of course, by then the damage had been done in terms of perceptions, and even with the show being moved to Wednesdays (a tacit acknowledgement that Lois & Clark had prevailed), there was no arresting the ratings freefall, nor was there any last-minute reprieve. After an abbreviated thirteen episodes, seaQuest was finally cancelled by NBC in November '95, burning off its last eps the following summer. The mere fact that it made it as far as it did -- 59 episodes -- is a testament to Spielberg's persuasive abilities.

Here's the retooled intro, with new theme music:

Today, seaQuest (whether DSV or 2032) is the very definition of Nostalgia Theater, never having made enough of a mark during its initial run to last past its mid-'90s shelf life in the public consciousness. Actor Jonathan Brandis, one of the few cast members who lasted the duration of the show, committed suicide in 2003, and series star Roy Scheider passed away in 2008 after a battle with cancer. While the mediocre first two seasons have been available on DVD for awhile now, unfortunately the final (best) batch is not (though it can be viewed instantly via Netflix), which is a shame. Like another subsequent sci-fi'er, it got good too late to make a difference.

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