This is Part 2 of our deep dive-dive-dive on Steven Spielberg’s SeaQuest DSV and the wasted potential of its darker, more mature third season – you can read Part 1 here if you missed it.
As ambitious as SeaQuest 2032’s revamp was, the deck was still stacked against it, given the two seasons of torched goodwill from fans and the loss of Scheider as the lead. The season three premiere had to be postponed because it would have conflicted with an interview with O.J. Simpson (the trials were also happening in 1995), which naturally meant fewer people knew about the new airdate.
Still, through the mismanagement and strife, Grillo-Marxuach and Shankar have fond memories of their time as rebels off on their own at Universal Studios Florida. The two were sequestered in an office in a production building across the hall from none other than William Shatner (who was doing TekWar at the time). “I could look from my office into his door and see Captain Kirk,” Grillo-Marxuach recalls.
But for Grillo-Marxuach and Shankar, the people running the show were heavily informed by the television production sensibilities of the ‘70s and ‘80s: heavily episodic, sensationalized, throwing everything at the screen to see what stuck. Even in the more cerebral TV environment of the 1990s, where The Next Generation and The X-Files were immensely popular, the sweeps-week kitsch of SeaQuest felt old-fashioned.
“SeaQuest was my second work experience after Star Trek, which was such a calm, well-functioning machine, with a lot of real creative unity amongst the writers. And then to come to this, I remember looking around and going like, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’”Naren Shankar
Part of the reason 2032 shook that inconsistency, they argue, were the more focused directives from showrunners Hasburgh and Campbell. Unlike the second season, there weren’t warring camps of producers feuding over the tone of the show. They didn’t have to worry about high-concept beasties, or ripping off whatever blockbuster had come out that week. The show had trimmed off much of its fat and was finally finding a focus.
For much of the cast, it was too little too late, though, as the low ratings and inconsistent writing left many of them unmotivated as performers. “I’m sympathetic to actors in these situations because they don’t know what to do,” laments Shankar. “You’re not giving them a character. So at a certain point, the actors are just going to tune out.”
Compounding the innate tragedy of the show’s lifespan is its association with Brandis, who was one of only three cast members who stayed on the show from beginning to end. SeaQuest solidified his status as a teen idol, and was arguably (apart from Darwin) one of its biggest draws as a property. He was growing up to be a true movie star, but was reportedly depressed about his flagging acting career; in November of 2003, he ended his own life
“He was a superstar,” Grillo-Marxuach gushes. “He was a committed actor. Every time we had to explain some cockamamie thing that made no sense, we gave it to Lucas. Because Brandis was such a good actor, and so committed to the role, he could sell any of it. Honestly, if you watch that show, you really see somebody who, given the right tools and the right role, would have been phenomenal.”
The Lost Potential
After all that hard work to craft a show that more closely matched the potential of the premise, SeaQuest 2032 wasn’t quite enough to save the series. Midway through the season, NBC executives abruptly canned the show. Only 12 episodes were aired, though 13 were produced.
Watching the show now, it’s a shame to see the show’s potential wasted throughout its run – a modern version of the show, filtered through the Peak TV sensibilities of 21st-century TV writing, could have led to some wonderful results. The production design was particularly praiseworthy, from the detailed sets of the ship to the CG effects from Amblin Imaging (Spielberg’s effects house specially created to do the effects for SeaQuest) – which hold up well for early-’90s TV VFX, mostly thanks to the deep-sea setting obscuring many of its flaws.
“But they had nothing at the creative tiller like that. Everybody thought the show was something else; they kept changing what it was over and over again. Audiences get tired of that after a while.”Naren Shankar
The Silver Lining
Despite the show’s failure, Shankar and Grillo-Marxuach cherish the experience of working on SeaQuest – not just for their television careers, but for their friendship. “The show was a doomed endeavor by the time SeaQuest 2032 started,” Grillo-Marxuach admits. “But I was there to learn as a writer, and I had somebody like Naren who was willing to be a mentor to me.”
The episodes they penned together – ‘Equilibrium’ (S3, Ep8), where the crew squares off against a rogue Captain Bridger, or ‘Weapons of War’ (S3, Ep13), a thrilling defection story that would have introduced a new character to the show – are some of the show’s strongest, borne of a desire to prove the series had potential. “I still think ‘Weapons of War’ ranks in my top five of scripts I’ve ever written,” boasts Grillo-Marxuach.
or Shankar, the fundamental problem with SeaQuest was a lack of passion and a stubborn dedication to old TV formulas: “I always got the impression that the people in the show didn’t love it I think what happened was it just became another show. It was the same as a cop show, but we just had a submarine. There wasn’t an emotional connection.”
“I think that’s why you get some individual episodes that are extraordinarily heartfelt, and others that feel tossed off,” adds Grillo-Marxuach.
Shankar recalls one day when Patrick Hasburgh pulled him from his office into the editing bay one day while scripting an episode. Shankar wanted to grab his script on the way; Hasburgh, not missing a beat, bellowed “The script is dead!” Hasburgh then practically tossed him into a golf cart and sped across the backlot to the editing room (“he drove like a maniac, I thought we were gonna get killed”), dropped him into the editing room, and forced him to watch the edit.
“What he was saying was that the point of editorial is not to try to recreate the script,” Shankar muses. “Which is a good lesson.” It’s a kind of mentorship and apprenticeship that he doesn’t see in the business anymore – “I think it’s a shame.”
“There are lessons to be learned from those guys that are being forgotten now,” adds Grillo-Marxuach. Most modern showrunners and writer/producers aren’t going to set as much as they used to, and shows are written before they’re even filmed. “These older guys were forged in the crucible of doing 22 episodes a year and making the trains run on time,” he muses, with showrunners often not knowing how to read a budget or make a schedule.
“Some of the old-school methods of making television would be really helpful nowadays.”
Is SeaQuest Worth Dredging from the Depths?
Amid the messy production, the schlocky stories, and a revolving door of cast members and showrunners, there’s something innately appealing about revisiting SeaQuest from a modern perspective. (All three seasons are currently available on NBC’s streaming service Peacock, by the way, rendered in high-definition.)
It’s absolutely a relic of a previous generation of TV production – network cop show producers dipping their toe into prestige, high budget science fiction – but there’s a shopworn charm to the elements that work. The cast remains charming, particularly Ironside, Brandis, and the DeLuises; the production is lush from a ‘90s context; the Emmy-winning theme tune from John Debney lays on the John Williams-esque bombast. (Russ Landau was brought in to pen a more militaristic theme tune for 2032, which I might like even better than the original.)
Revisiting today, it becomes doubly tragic that SeaQuest 2032 didn’t save the show. In fact, it feels like the kind of show it should have been from the start: if you were going to jettison the let’s-learn-about-fish educational angle of its original brief, at least turn it into an honest-to-God submarine show. Under Oliver Hudson’s command, SeaQuest was allowed, for a brief moment, to be the kind of show dedicated audiences deserved.
Shoutouts: A huge thanks to Ian, Sanjiv Jain, and Gareth, some of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!
Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.Follow him on Twitter @clintworthing