By the time SeaQuest DSV finished its second season in May of 1995, it had long since veered off course from its original mission. The brainchild of future Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, the show’s initial brief was a little like Star Trek, but underwater: imagine a near-future where the oceans were the true final frontier, with undersea colonies, militaries, and mercenaries fighting over territory and the mysteries of the deep rife to be explored.
Throw in a Federation-style organization (in this case, the United Earth Oceans Organization, or UEO), and a highly-advanced submarine that basically functioned as an aquatic USS Enterprise, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
As Told By
Where SeaQuest DSV Squandered its Promise
The promise was there from the start: executive producer Steven Spielberg threw a lot of money at the production, a primetime NBC series with feature-quality sets and big-name stars. Jaws’ Roy Scheider starred as the Bob Ballard-like captain, Nathan Bridger, and we also got teen heartthrob Jonathan Brandis as Lucas Wolenczak, the cocky whiz-kid who ran the computers (and developed a technology to help the ship’s resident dolphin, Darwin, talk).
But the show’s ratings quickly flatlined, and SeaQuest DSV Season 2 saw a boatload (heh) of new changes that all but sealed the show’s fate. Skittish producers, hoping to cut costs, moved the production to Florida; half the cast was jettisoned, many of them replaced by a younger, sexier crew; the storylines turned from dorky undersea exploration to shoot-em-up kitsch featuring aliens and psychics.
The Season 2 finale, ‘Splashdown’ (S2, Ep21), featured the SeaQuest literally getting sucked into a spaceship and flown to an alien planet to fight in an underwater war, ending in the ship getting destroyed and most of its crew presumed dead.
“The show had been such a high-profile disappointment,” says Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a veteran of shows like Lost and The 100, who cut his teeth on SeaQuest DSV as an executive producer (and later writer).
Part of that could be laid at the feet of the troubling feud between showrunners Patrick Hasburgh (a TV veteran whose claim to fame is the teen-cop series 21 Jump Street) and David Burke. The latter wrote scripts from Florida, where the show was being produced, while the former stayed in LA; neither of them talked to the other.
“That’s why, for example, the King Neptune episode [‘Watergate’ – S2, Ep16] is about a demonic possession, and then it’s followed two episodes later by an episode about a demonic possession,” Grillo-Marxuach jokes.
“As the network executive, I’d call and be like, ‘Guys, you’ve got two episodes here about demonic possession! Didn’t you guys have a conversation about this?’”
The answer, of course, was no; not only that, neither producer wanted to withdraw that script.
With two captains feuding over control of the ship, the series fractured even further. Characters got little to do or were called different names depending on the producer (sometimes, Lt. Lonnie Henderson was ‘Lenore’ in the scripts), and shows focused more on high-octane intensity than storytelling.
This did not go down well with Scheider, who resented the more schlocky direction the show had gone and engaged in a very public feud with the producers of the show.
“It’s childish trash,” Scheider once remarked to the press, describing the second season as “Saturday afternoon 4 o’clock junk for children. Just junk—old, tired, time-warp robot crap… 21 Jump Street meets Star Dreck.”
But hope shone anew, as it turned out that the show that was set to replace SeaQuest – a series called Rolling Thunder, in which spies fought crime in monster trucks (“Because that’s what you do when you’re a spy, you roll around in your monster truck,” says Grillo-Marxuach) – was even worse. At the last minute, NBC renewed SeaQuest, and the voyage was back on.
Some changes would need to be made, not just to find a replacement for Scheider (who was adamant about not returning to the captain’s chair) but to revamp the show to fix the problems of its first two seasons. The result was SeaQuest 2032, a darker, more serialized take on the show that had the potential to right the ship… even if it was more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
How SeaQuest 2032 Corrected the Course
All but ignoring the wild circumstances of the previous season’s finale, 2032 flings the titular sub back to Earth ten years into the future, where the UEO’s power has weakened and the oceans have fallen under threat from the authoritarian Macronesian Alliance – a group of Australian(?) despots led by Michael York’s President Bourne. (“We turned the nicest people in the world – the Australians – into the fascists!” laughs Naren Shankar.)
To usher SeaQuest into this new, more militaristic world, they replaced Scheider’s soft-touch captaincy with the hard-nosed authority of Canadian actor Michael Ironside’s Captain Oliver Hudson – a UEO hardliner and old friend of Bridger’s, who’d searched for the boat ever since it disappeared ten years prior.
This had the added benefit of giving Scheider the out he wanted, though he was contractually obligated to return for a few episodes.
Grillo-Marxuach stayed, as did fellow producers Carlton Eastlake, Clifton Campbell, and Patrick Hasburgh; virtually everyone else, save most of the cast, was fired or jumped ship. But Grillo-Marxuach brought in Naren Shankar – a veteran of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the future showrunner of Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse – to help write scripts and produce, which led to a close friendship that lasts to this day.
“The mandate was to make a more hard-edged, realistic, grounded show with Ironside’s character leading the way in that new direction,” asserts Grillo-Marxuach. And so it was: gone were the episodic jaunts to shoot space aliens or chase off killer plants underwater, replaced by more serialized sorties against the Macronesian Alliance, murder mysteries aboard speeding underwater monorails, and defections from enemy pilots.
Few of the show’s goofier elements remained. Sure, Lucas the whiz kid was still around, but Hudson forces him to formally enlist in the UEO, and episodes actually explore the ways this thrusts him from the cocksure civilian into the responsibilities of adulthood. Darwin remained on board as the resident talking dolphin, but he was pushed far into the background (Captain Hudson hardly ever talked to him, reportedly a stipulation for Ironside taking the role).
If Season 1 was Star Trek: The Next Generation underwater, and Season 2 was a bizarre mix of The X-Files and Baywatch, Season 3 became Das Boot meets Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Hudson’s command of the ship was dramatically different from the gee-whiz friendliness of Nathan Bridger – he was stern, brash, authoritative, barking orders and never suffering fools lightly.
Ironside played him much more like a submarine commander, as opposed to Scheider’s blend of his character from Jaws and the wide-eyed explorer styled after noted oceanographer Bob Ballard (who famously bombarded audiences with sea facts in the closing credits of the show’s first season). It’s an interesting portent to other militaristic characters he’d play later in his career – the following year, he’d hone Hudson’s gruff authoritativeness into Sgt. Rasczak in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997).
That said, Hudson wasn’t a complete hardass: despite his tough exterior, Ironside imbued him with his own charming quirks and an unexpected soft side that crew members got to see in the right moments. He was a virtuoso violin player, an appreciator of classic art and literature, and a firm believer in the character-building aspects of military service. For both Lucas and Dagwood – who were forced into service to stay on SeaQuest – Hudson showed a tough but gentle hand, leading through discipline and offering object lessons on dedication throughout the season. We even occasionally saw glimpses of his personal life, including recurring run-ins with Patricia Charbonneau’s headstrong Elaine Morse, security officer and ex-wife of Hudson’s. While Scheider’s Bridger was ostensibly the warmer, more open skipper, it felt like we actually got to know Hudson more intimately in 13 episodes than Scheider got for two whole seasons.
That more character-centric approach was reflected in the rest of the crew, who at least got marginal opportunities to develop under Hudson’s stern, fatherly mentorship. Commander Ford (Don Franklin), ever the steady hand, wrestled with mistakes in his military past and forged a relationship with the ship’s helmsman Lonnie Henderson (Kathy Evigan), who found herself the focus of storylines for basically the first time. They elevated the nerdy Lt. O’Neil, played by Ted Raimi (brother of Spider-Man and Evil Dead director Sam), from background comms guy to a major character.
Even hunky security officer James Brody (Edward Kerr) – a tongue-in-cheek reference to Scheider’s character from Jaws – faced a few intriguing command decisions before producers decided to kill him off six episodes into the third season. (Despite rumors this was because Kerr wanted off the show, Grillo-Marxuach and Shankar credit it with the producers’ constant desire to shake up the series.)
Maybe the most heartening character developments came from paroled-prisoner-with-gills Tony Piccolo and genetically-engineered janitor Dagwood, played respectively by Michael and Peter DeLuise, whom Hasburgh had cast in Jump Street. (Peter, of course, would go on to play a major role as a writer, producer, and director on Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe.)
While their characters were some of the few new players from Season 2 to stand out from the pack, 2032 finally started giving them things to do. Piccolo, in particular, developed an interesting relationship with Hudson, who saw a plucky potential in the dyslexic ex-con. A frequent subplot in 2032 was Hudson constantly pushing books on Piccolo, including The Red Badge of Courage. (He also handed Piccolo a pair of futuristic pink glasses to cure his dyslexia; what wonders the future holds!)
As for Dagwood, he was played less for laughs and more for pathos this season, torn more realistically between his friends on SeaQuest and the genetically-engineered life forms (GELFs, or pejoratively, ‘daggers’) treated as second-class citizens in the world of the show. It was a nifty way to play up a character who, by today’s standards, treads the line of ableism a little too precariously – but DeLuise’s wide-eyed innocence somehow makes it work.
Was it Too Little Too Late?
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 3 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 to Shankar:
“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!’”
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.”
SeaQuest 2032’s Cancelation
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,” says Shankar. “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.”
Looking Back on SeaQuest 2032
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.
For 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 the 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 writers/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.”
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 shows 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.
This article was first published on November 30th, 2020, on the original Companion website.
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