Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”: Four Episodes (20th Century-Fox TV, 1964-1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d been a bit dubious about whether Charles and I should go to last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie screening in Golden Hill (, since the program on offer — four episodes from the first season of the 1964-1968 TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which kinda-sorta counts as science fiction because the script for the last episode shown last night, “Doomsday,” specifies the setting as 1973 even though it was filmed in 1965). I hadn’t seen the series when it was new (or since) and I was not looking forward to the experience because I had seen the movie the series was based on, a ridiculous Irwin Allen production from 1961 which cast Walter Pidgeon as the commander of the high-tech research sub Seaview (there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether the sub’s name is one word or two, but when we see it printed in these shows it’s just one word) which is designed to look like a giant shark and has big picture windows on its front, not that such would be needed because it also is ringed with TV cameras so the crew on board the Seaview can get a visual image of where they are, where they’re going and where they’ve been on the monitors any time they want. The 1961 movie started to go wrong from the opening credits — and the romantic ballad by Frankie Avalon (who’s also in the movie as a Seaview crew member!) heard during them — and it had a bizarre cast list (including Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Henry Daniell and Barbara Eden before she was bottled) and a stupid plot. Surprise! These four episodes of the TV version proved to be much better than the movie, mainly because, though Irwin Allen was once again in charge, he eschewed the camp elements that had made the 1961 movie and most of his other productions (including Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, as well as 1970’s features like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and The Swarm) virtually unwatchable. Indeed, if the TV scripts for Voyage had a flaw, it was that they were too unrelievedly tense and grim — one imagined Allen telling his writers, “More tension! More grimness!” — and a few lighter moments à la the charming character bits in the original Star Trek (a show that actually owed a lot to Voyage) would have helped. 

The four episodes shown last night were “The Fear-Makers” (originally aired September 28, 1964), “The Sky Is Falling” (October 19, 1964), “Submarine Sunk Here” (November 16, 1964) and “Doomsday” (January 18, 1965). “The Fear-Makers” was quirky but the least interesting of the four, and its most appealing element was the amusing anti-type casting of former ventriloquist Edgar Bergen as Dr. Kenner, a psychiatrist who’s assigned to the Seaview because its commander, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Richard Basehart, playing the part Walter Pidgeon played in the movie and for my money playing it considerably better; he’s far more believable as a spit-and-polish naval officer and his presence puts Irwin Allen one degree of separation from Fellini!), is having an argument with Navy brass over whether people can actually survive both physically and mentally at depths of over 4,000 feet. A previous sub, the Polidor (now why would the U.S. Navy have a sub named after a German record company?), crashed below the surface with all hands lost, ostensibly because the crew freaked out at the depths they were at but really, it turns out, because of a “fear gas” Dr. Kenner invented and which his assistant, Dr. Davis (Lloyd Bochner), somehow smuggled onto the Polidor in the form of a gas bomb that detonated when they reached the fearsome depth so the U.S. would conclude people can’t survive undersea too far below sea level and the mysterious country that was paying Davis to do this would have the depths of the ocean all too itself. (As usual in scripts of this vintage, the mystery country is not named but it’s not hard to figure out, especially when we see Davis put in a phone call to his secret boss, a mystery man who is driven around in a black right-hand-drive Rolls-Royce, smokes cigarettes out of a long holder and speaks in an accent seemingly blended from equal parts Erich von Stroheim and Boris Badenov.) Davis smuggles the “fear gas” on board the Seaview concealed inside a reel-to-reel tape recorder (actually quite a few reel-to-reel tape recorders feature in this show, from little portables like the one Davis has to big capstan-driven ones with which Naval Command records the transmissions from its subs; there are also quite a lot of slide rules — this is a great show if you’re into watching retro technology in action), only he loses control and he is the one who freaks out before he’s finally subdued, the Seaview’s mission continues and it’s established that humans can survive and maintain their sanity at the depths the sub is designed to reach. Given that Edgar Bergen’s assistant is the bad guy, of course I couldn’t help but joke that he’d have been better off taking Charlie McCarthy instead! 

Fortunately, the next three episodes on the program were better than “The Fear-Makers.” “The Sky Is Falling” is a quite engaging tale, written by Don Brinkley and tensely directed by Leonard Horn, in which a UFO flies over the entire west coast of North America, freaking people out as it goes all the way down from Seattle to San Diego, after which it ditches itself and crashes into the sea. The overall UFO disgorges a miniature version that has the capability of docking itself onto the Seaview, but that’s a capability that only becomes a plot device after the episode’s guest star, Rear Admiral Tobin (played as his usual coarse villain by Charles McGraw), insists that the Seaview fire its nuclear-armed missiles at the spacecraft because it’s obviously hostile. Of course, Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) and his second-in-command, Captain Crane (David Hedison, who’d been “Al Hedison” when he played in 20th Century-Fox’s 1958 horror-sci-fi classic The Fly), are resisting this because they see the possibility that the craft’s incursion onto Earth was just an accident — as indeed it turns out to be: the spaceship (whose fly-by of Earth was represented by stock footage from previous sci-fi films, including the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still) simply got lost in space, drifted out of wherever it was supposed to be going and ended up on Earth simply by mistake. Only its captain — whose natural appearance would be so repulsive to Earthlings (we do get a glimpse of him au naturel, and it looks like his face has been plastered not only with cottage cheese but also spaghetti with white sauce) he assumes the appearance of whichever Earthling he’s talking to, which means that Richard Basehart plays him in one scene and David Hedison does in another — can’t leave because their drifting off course has used up too much of the craft’s radioactive fuel. 

Over the opposition of both Rear Admiral Tobin and the gung-ho generals running the war on land, both of whom want the Seaview to fire nuclear missiles at the craft and destroy it, Nelson offers the spaceship’s captain some of the Seaview’s spare supply of strontium-90 atomic fuel, which isn’t what the spaceship usually runs on but can be converted to work. (The strontium-90 comes in plain cardboard boxes stenciled “DANGER-RADIOACTIVE FUEL!” but without the usual three-triangle logo for a radioactivity warning and without any hint that the packaging in any way shields the people handling it from the radioactive effects.) The spaceship captain makes it clear that if the U.S. military destroys his craft, the people back on his home planet will regard this as an act of war and will retaliate in force, and since they have higher-tech weapons than we do this will result in the total destruction of Earth and everything alive on it. Eventually the U.S. fires on the ship but our weapons don’t hurt it any, but the ship retaliates by firing an “ion ray” that turns off the ship’s power (only temporarily, but Nelson and the Seaview crew don’t know that!) and thereby shuts down all its systems, including the life-support filtration system that keeps the ship’s air breathable and without which the crew will suffocate. Nelson and the Seaview crew are able to forestall a second attack and give the space people — who have used the remaining power on their own craft to raise the Seaview to 100 feet below sea level, where the Seaview’s mechanical snorkel system can be raised to provide the crew air — their strontium so they, like E.T., can just go home: a surprisingly anti-war script for 1964. 

“Submarine Sunk Here” was hardly as political but it was an interesting meditation on individual responsibility and the ways crew members do or don’t work together, and the trouble a craft like the Seaview can get into when its crew let their feelings as human beings take over from their responsibilities to the craft and its mission (which appears to have been a running theme on this show). It opens with one of the crew members so anxious to get off the sub for its scheduled shore leave — his wife is about to have a baby and he wants to see the kid as soon as possible — he takes a poke at another, and a third crew member gets up from the sonar system he’s supposed to be monitoring in order to break them up. Because of his inattention, the sub drifts into a field of derelict mines and starts setting some of them off, resulting in it being frozen in place on the bottom of the sea (for once the sub in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea actually got there!), and the rest of the show is a race against time between a crew on land attempting to fix the diving bell (owned by Nelson’s own underwater research company — in the 1961 movie the Seaview was a privately funded oceanographic research sub but in the TV series its status was considerably more ambiguous, and in most of the shows we saw last night it was pretty firmly a part of the U.S. Navy and thereby under naval command) and bring oxygen to the Seaview before the crew suffocates to death — with the added complication that if the Seaview is at too steep an angle underwater (its “list”), the diving bell can’t attach itself to the sub. Eventually the Seaview tilts at more than the 30° “list” at which the diving bell, bringing oxygen tanks (one viewer at our screening wondered what would have happened if the diving bell, full of oxygen tanks, had hit one of the mines) to give the men a fighting chance to breathe, can latch on — and the only way to get the sub righted again so the bell can attach is for one of the crew members to flood one of its water-tight compartments so the ship’s internal balance will change and reduce the “list.” Of course, the person writer William Tunberg chooses to have volunteer to do that is the one whose screw-up at the sonar screen caused the accident in the first place. This show included the closest Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came in its first year to having a comic-relief character, Curley Jones (Henry Kulky), whose stout stature, shaved head and whiny voice couldn’t help but recall his namesake Curly Howard from the original Three Stooges — he’s an obnoxious character but fortunately he’s not on-screen enough to detract from the surprisingly grim high-tension nature of the show. 

The fourth episode, “Doomsday,” was in some ways the best, though one gets the impression that when producer Allen commissioned this script from writer William Reed Woodfield he was thinking of the sensation caused the year before by the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, both of which were about the dangers caused by how easily it would be for a nuclear war to start, quickly get out of control and ultimately annihilate the human race. In this one the Seaview receives word that the U.S. and that sinister power that dared not speak its name on U.S. television were already involved in a war, and Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane get orders that they’re supposed to get ready to fire all four of the nuclear missiles with which it’s equipped — only the person in charge of turning the key on one of the missiles so it can be fired, Corbett (the quite good-looking Donald Harron), refuses the order because he doesn’t want to be party to an all-out nuclear war and the resulting destruction of all life on earth. Nelson grabs the key and arms the missile himself, chewing out Corbett for his insubordination. Eventually it turns out that the sinister unnamed power didn’t mean to start a nuclear war, and did not in fact do so — they simply launched 25 rockets carrying weather satellites, only they launched them all at once and didn’t give the U.S. a heads-up that they were doing this, so it looked like a nuclear attack. In the meantime, however, one of the missiles has been jammed inside the Seaview, and it will detonate and incinerate the sub if the sub surfaces — which will lead the representatives of the Sinister Unnamed Power (can we just call them SIP — or, for that matter, USSR?) — so what’s a poor peace-loving sub commander to do? He could fire the missile from 4,500 feet below the surface so it will detonate 1,000 feet below and not hurt anything, but to do that he literally needs permission from the President of the United States (Ford Rainey), who, showing a gravitas and an awareness of the seriousness of his responsibilities notably absent from the current occupant of the Oval Office, is very nervous about giving Nelson even a five-minute time window because that would allow anyone in the U.S. military to fire a nuclear missile during that time period. In any event, the Seaview’s crew can’t get the missile launched in the narrow window of both time and distance from the surface, and as the sub rises their next idea is to drain some of the fuel from the missile so they can launch it higher up in the water and it still won’t explode on the surface — only Corbett screws things up again, though his second act of insubordination buys them enough time to disarm the missile without firing it at all. Nelson is left with the Captain Vere-like dilemma of having to recommend a court-martial against someone whose actions turned out to be right. 

Overall, these Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episodes are profoundly dated — there are no women in the dramatis personae (though given how silly the women’s roles were in the 1961 Voyage movie, that’s probably just as well) and no people of color either — at the end of “Submarine Sunk Here” we see two women walking by as extras on a hospital set, obviously meant to be nurses — and though the show’s cinematographer, Winton Hoch, had previously worked for John Ford on some of Ford’s classic Westerns, the photography is pretty bland, dull and grey. But overall the show is quite impressive and surprisingly dour and serious for the work of Irwin Allen!