seaQuest DSV #1
Roy Scheider and Steven Spielberg hit the water again.
The result is…less than spectacular.
Writer – D. G. Chichester
Penciller – Keith Pollard
Inker – Alfredo Alcala
Letterer – Dan Nakrosisr
Colorist – Clydene Nee
Associate Editor – Brian Selzer
Editor-in-Chief – Sid Jacobson
I’m sure it began with the best of intentions.
The concept for the seaQuest DSV show grew from plausible current oceanographic science and rooted in real-world geopolitical machinations. Oh, and there was a giant submarine that floated around while looking cool. And a talking, intelligent dolphin. It’s these two statements above that expose the internal conflict for the soul of the show the entire three seasons seaQuest DSV was on the air.
The original premise was that by the year 2018 man had extinguished much of the natural resources on the surface of the planet Earth and now had to look to the seas for salvation. A United Nations-type organization called the United Earth Oceans Organization (UEO) is loaned a giant submarine called the seaQuest DSV 4600 by a military organization mentioned in the pilot called NORPAC. The boat was built by retired Navy Captain Nathan Bridger (Roy Scheider), who reluctantly signs on as her Captain to prevent needless military deaths. His son was killed in such an action, and Bridger vowed to his dying wife that he would do everything in his power to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
The crew was made up of your standard Star Trek: The Next Generation tropes, right down to Jonathan Brandis doing a Weasley Crusher as the teenaged computer genius Lucas Wolenczak. Universal and Amblin Television were backing the show, going all the way up the chain to citing in ads that the program was executive produced by non-other than Steven “Jaws” Spielberg himself. It was to be a show about real life oceanographic research, environmental issues, national diplomacy and interpersonal relationships of shipmates.
I was pretty excited for this. The year was 1993 and ST:TNG was starting to wind down. Deep Space Nine was spun off this same year, but the fact it had a stationary setting dismayed me. I really hoped that seaQuest DSV would become a substitute for my weekly craving of otherworldly adventure.
Disappointment soon followed, however. seaQuest DSV arrived something like a dead fish. The special effects were all top notch, but the pilot and first two episodes left me bored. Some part of the back of my mind was looking for the melding of Star Trek with the goofy settings and action-centered heart of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. What we got were slow crawl shows that provided little in the way of action or drama. I gave up on it.
Plenty of other people did as well. seaQuest DSV’s ratings were so poor that the producers didn’t know if it would be renewed for a second season. The first-season finale had Bridger sacrifice the seaQuest DSV ship to prevent an ecological disaster and it seemed likely to be sunk forever.
To be fair, the show had been given a hugely competitive timeslot. It ran against Murder, She Wrote on CBS and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on ABC. I assume the latter took a lion’s share of seaQuest DSV’s sci-fi geek audience and the former any of the older ladies crowd tuning in for Scheider’s good looks.
Surprisingly, the series was renewed for a second season. However, the torpedoes of its demise were already in the water. The first salvo arrived in the form of recasting / moving production. Vast swaths of the ensemble crew were removed, and more cast members decided not to return based upon the production moving from Los Angeles to Orlando. Imagine if something similar had been done after the first season of ST:TNG?
The second strike could be seen as a mixed blessing. In an attempt to juice up the action, the show stepped away from the hard science premise and moved toward a more science-fiction based theme. Aliens, genetic engineering, parapsychology, time travel and a few monster of the week episodes were written and shot.
While I think these changes sound like moves in the right direction (namely adding action to a dull show), Scheider disagreed. Vocally. In the press. Scheider is quoted by the Orlando Sentinel as complaining the show runners were “going to present human beings who had a life on land as well as on the boat. We’ve had one script that has done that. The other shows are Saturday afternoon 4 o’clock junk for children. Just junk – old, tired, time-warp robot crap. I don’t do this kind of stuff…I said (to the production Executives), ‘If I wanted to do the fourth generation of Star Trek, I would have signed up for it. I wouldn’t have done seaQuest. You guys have changed it from handball into field hockey and never bothered to talk to me.’”
His other complaint was that his character became more of a combat commander instead of scientist, which in a show with tanking ratings and an audience falling into comas, was probably also a smart move. Audiences did look at seaQuest as a star trek under the sea, and Scheider maligning steps in this direction as moving to “childish trash…I am very bitter about it. I feel betrayed…(season two) it’s not even good fantasy. I mean Star Trek does this stuff much better than we can do it. To me the show is now 21 Jump Street meets Star Dreck.”
While some of his criticism, such as replacing large portions of the cast with younger cast members to target a demographic instead investing a few seasons building an ensemble cast, are valid, the overall negative attitude had to go. With the ratings again suffering at the end of season two due to poor scripts and audience bleed as seaQuest’s timeslot was preempted time and again by sporting events, cancellation looked likely. NBC ended up renewing it for 13 more episodes after a replacement action show failed in pilot. However, the studio made some more big changes for season three.
Scheider requested to be released from his contract. NBC only partially agreed, feeling that having Bridger make a few appearances would be good for audience carry-over. Michael Ironsides was brought in as the more militaristic Captain Oliver Hudson. Ironsides wouldn’t sign on without changes made to the tone and scripting of the show, and after the debacle that had been season two, the producers agreed. The show now morphed yet again into something that tried to take the best of season one and meld it with the workable parts of season two. The plotlines moved from pure science and science-fiction, to focus on international politics as a corporate conglomerate tries to muscle in on leadership of the undersea civilization. While this darker tone was seen as a step in the right direction, the show’s ratings didn’t improve fast enough and NBC scuttled seaQuest once and for all.
There you have the twisted path that seaQuest took. The ship was blown up at least once and transported to an alien world for ten years. Yet no one seemed to care.
What killed it? The cast changes are something I believe had a major impact. With the exception of Firefly, very few casts gel in a short number of episodes. Wholesale replacing them is a recipe for losing what little audience you might have. Without familiar actors, you have some sets and a bunch of models for people to hang their fond memories off of. The change in tone isn’t as worrisome, as we have seen episodic versions of Star Trek turn into seasons with larger persistent story arcs that feed back into each others work. Poor scripts definitely share the blame throughout. Nothing like boring your audience for an hour. And the heavy competition and pre-empting for Sunday Football meant that people had ample reasons for watching something else and sometimes little choice but to do so.
It stood a decent chance of succeeding, but the cards were stacked against it.
Just as the cards were stacked against this comic book of additional adventures of the seaQuest crew. The book was produced by newbie publisher NEMESIS and touts some impressive talents. Along with the list of contributors above, that’s a Howard Chaykin cover painted by Richard Dry.
The book came out near the middle of the first season, around about the time the twelfth episode was airing.
And the story in the book…is pretty tight with a nice cliffhanger. Let me give you a peek and then we’ll talk about what a tragic end this one gets.
We open the book with Captain Bridger (Scheider) in a deep sea diving suit with Darwin, the intelligent dolphin, on a mission to save lives. They are headed to this small undersea pod where someone is yelling about “making people taste water again” and clanging something off the breakable windows.
Here is our problem: a religious extremist has gone off the deep end and is attempting to kill himself and his family by letting the sea into his habitat. His wife and child are awaiting rescue after notifying the UEO. seaQuest is in route, with Bridger arriving first. The rest of the team and their roles will be shown as the rescue unfolds.
Which is really a bit of genius on Chichester’s part. Here is second-in-command Commander Jonathan Ford (Don Franklin) looking all concerned that Bridger is out there risking his life and directing all the participants in this rescue attempt.
Next up is Lieutenant Commander Katherine Hitchcock (Stacy Haiduk), the Chief Engineer, about to remote pilot a rescue mini sub that is being given one last once over by two other crewmen. Those two prepping it on the dock are Senior Chief Petty Officer Manilow Crocker (Royce D. Applegate), who is Chief of Security, and the wunderkind teenage computer wiz Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis), whose rank and position are unclear other than he’s kind of our Weasley Crusher. They get the ship underway just as the crazy husband gets serious about making things all wet and wild.
Bridger has Darwin the dolphin draw the nut's attention…
…while he makes for the hatch ahead of the swiftly docking sub. Once inside he makes a quick joke about which organization he’s a part of (the U.E.O. – United Earth – uh, something…) and…
…hustles the mom and her kid into the rescue craft.
With his family safely away, Bridger attempts taking the religious nut by force…
Unfortunately, Ned is too far gone. He fights back while saying he wants to “go back to the sea,’ a concept that cracked window makes a relative certainty.
Not only that but his fury is so great that he overpowers Bridger and goes to work on the faceplate of his suit. If broken, Bridger would be dead in the water in a very literal way.
Lucky for Bridger that Darwin has been watching all this unfold and chooses to burst through the cracked window before Ned can break the water-tight seal of Bridger’s suit. As for Ned himself? He gets his wish about returning to the sea.
While this resolves the current situation, Ned’s mysterious religion – the Oceanids – is now on Bridger’s radar. Having cost Ned his life and nearly the life of his family and Bridger, means the Captain of seaQuest wants some answers from the cult-like religion.
And look at this: we are on page seven of the book and we have characters distinguished from one another, nicely drawn and inked pages with plenty of color, an action sequence that was exciting, and a plot about a mysterious religious cult. By damn, they’ve pulled off an actual start of a STORY here. In seven pages. I WISH every book in the Crapbox understood how to do this.
Next we tease out a bit more about these Oceanids by watching over Bridger’s shoulder at a informercial of their beliefs. The guy speaking is the cult’s leader, Neptune, but I’m gonna go on ahead and nickname him Dr. Weirdbeard for obvious reasons.
Note that the book even goes for a slightly raunchy joke between the Captain and communications officer Lieutenant JG Tim O’Neill (Ted (brother of Evil Dead/Spider-Man director Sam) Raimi – which begs to ask what was Ted doing “shemping “ around on seaQuest DSV. Dead-heads will get that joke). In the book, O’Neill will also go by “Mac” a holdover from a prior naming of the character.
Unfortunately, it’s right about here that we start to uncover some of seaQuest’s trouble with the introduction of two other characters: Dr Shimura and Bridger love interest/Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kristin Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham). Shimura is such a minor character that he doesn’t even pull up in any of the seaQuest character wikis or IMDB listing, and Westphalen was to be along with Lucas the third leg of the Star Trek stool of Bridger/Lucas.
The problem is that very Star Trek-approach to the cast is missing some key ingredients. In Next Gen (and DS9 for that matter, which was airing at the same time) you had huge casts of characters that might tax an audience’s mental ability to keep track. The difference is that with ST:TNG / DS9 each character was distinct in personality and physical appearance. seaQuest has little of that going on. It’s hard to keep track of bland generic people (outside of Rami and Brandis) orbiting around Scheider. These people needed to be way more fleshed out and slowly introduced to the audience. Instead, the book and the show drops you in the middle of pool of people and asks you to swim.
How was I to know if Shimura was important? Why wasn’t this scene all done via Westphalen’s Chief Medical Officer? Not sure. There are so many characters vying for page space that it seems silly to include more.
Moving on from this, the Captain and Westphalen catch Lucas hacking classified schematics for seaQuest DSV when it was being designed as a warship. Bridger doesn’t arrest the boy, but instead pulls up current schematics to explain what has changed. Then he requests Lucas him the results of his little hacking for the angels on Dr. Weirdbeard’s cult.
And speaking of Dr. Weirdbeard, in a place called The Aquadrome, he’s putting the moves on this tasty sea dish and coaxing her into his hottub of delights.
But duty calls, as Weirdbeard’s assistant breaks in with urgent news about detecting Lucas’s hacks into his background. Dr. Weirdbeard makes apologies, but has the tables turned on him as his date persuades him to stay a bit longer…
…which ends up going to a place the young lady (and audience) couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Well, we knew Weirdbeard was the bad guy, we just didn’t realize he was a “bad guy” too. How much more evil can you make a cult leader than to turn him into a crazy serial killer? I suppose we’ll see.
But not before we have this weird interlude during Bridger’s staff meeting where our only black character has to have a gangbanger past that he is haunted by. Note that all of this was revised for the show and Commander Ford ended up the son of wealthy parents and NOT a street smart hustler…
…who might have had to shoot a guy. I’m glad this is changed. We don’t need cliched black stereotypes, we need actual people. Imagine if ST:TNG had made Geordi a ‘banger? It’s a racist paintbrush that doesn’t just need to be put down, but also burned to kindling.
I can’t blame Chichester for including it, given that at the time of writing, it was part of the character background. AND this portion of the book drags a bit from lack of action as we get to the characters running a game on Weirdbeard. Speaking of which, we should get on with that.
At The Aquadrome (which every time I type it I want to throw in a few lines from Jethro Tull), these two techs are shocked as seaQuest appears on their radar.
Which when combined with the following page, really shores up just how vast the seaQuest is. And with that imposing size comes a bit of intimidation which gives Bridger access to the facility.
And while O’Neil and “Ray” (not coming up in any of the character lists I find) are infilutrating the organization from the bottom up…
…Hitchcock, Ford, and Bridger are heading straight to the top and Neptune/Weirdbeard.
And as for Lucas…
He’s left to be a “boy” for a bit and blend in without any real mission to accomplish.
So he spends it lost in memories of how his dad forced him to be like a computer….
…before deciding to hack the entire Aquadome.
O’Neil and “Ray” settle in, but it looks like Ray is about to get the futuristic version of a Swiss army knife treatment as his short-skirted handler reaches for a familiar looking red sacrificial tool.
And Bridger, Ford, and Hitchcock meet with Neptune briefly, being left alone by his fountain as he is called away…
…only to have a surprise Deep One pop up in a most disturbing manner. Nice one, seaQuest DSV! A Lovecraftian beastie that is perhaps making some kind of Innsmouthian bargain with Weirdbeard. Love the implications of this…
…and we are out.
That’s correct. seaQuest DSV got one and only one issue to shine. The story I’m hearing is that Nemesis, the publishing house folded up after this one issue. Mike’s incorrectly lists this as being a Harvey book, but the cover clearly states Nemesis. And this is the only book I can find from them.
Which is sad. Chichester had the beginnings of a good tale here. The art by Pollard and Alcala was grand. This thing had promise. But the lack of popularity of the TV Show this far in made the property a hot potato no one wanted to pick up when Nemesis folded.
Mores the pity. Look at these great blueprints and full page stills included as backup material.
Certainly someone thought the book would make for a hit addition to the show and help further the brand.
But there it sits. One lone issue. Dead in the water and with no hope of making it back to shore. At least any shore but the Crapbox’s.