Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which aired on the US ABC network from 1964 to 1968, remains one of the iconic science fiction TV series of its era. The series was based on the successful 1961 movie of the same name. Producer Irwin Allen was able to re-use sets and models from the movie thus keeping production costs within reasonable limits.
In common with so many TV adventure series of the 60s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea changed direction during the course of its run. The first season dealt with Cold War and international intrigue themes as well as science fiction themes. The second season, the first to be shot in colour, began the move towards more of a “monster of the week” theme, a process that became even more marked during the final two seasons. Many fans prefer the more realistic flavour of the first season although personally I find all four seasons to be thoroughly enjoyable.
Admiral Nelson is an intriguing hero. He’s a scientist who has designed his own super-submarine, the Seaview, for research purposes. The Seaview is however also a serving missile-armed US naval vessel. Nelson is an admiral in the US Navy although he seems to be pretty much given free rein to use the Seaview in any way he pleases. It’s a rather unlikely scenario but the series was a product of an era that saw the scientist as hero and saw no problem with allowing a scientist to use a missile-armed nuclear submarine as a private toy. In fact the exact status of the Seaview is slightly ambiguous. In the episode Hail to the Chief Captain Crane describes it as a civilian vessel and a crew member states that he’s not actually in the navy. The idea of a nuclear-armed civilian submarine is certainly interesting.
While Nelson is a good scientist it goes without saying that there are evil scientists as well, and they figure quite prominently as villains in the series. The evil scientists are, not surprisingly, mostly from other countries. While some episodes deal with straight Cold War scenarios the enemies that the Seaview and her crew encounter are often from unnamed Third World nations. These are usually nations with ambitions to advance themselves into the ranks of the super-powers. While today it’s usual to have fairly romantic notions about the Third World this series takes a rather more sceptical view of the matter. In an episode like The Blizzard Makers we’re left in no doubt that allowing small nations to become nuclear powers is not a terribly good idea, and that such nations are likely to become catastrophically dangerous rogue states.
The science fictional element varies from story to story, being almost completely absent from some episodes and being almost completely dominant in others.
Richard Basehart does a fine job as Admiral Nelson. He’s a dedicated scientist but he’s a man of action as well. Basehart was a little old to be a really effective action hero so that rôle is usually filled, very efficiently, by the Seaview’s younger and much more dashing skipper, Captain Lee Crane (David Hedison).
The potential conflicts of interest caused by Admiral Nelson’s position are not glossed over. The actual commander of the Seaview is Captain Crane and he is quite prepared to assert his authority if he feels the submarine and its crew are being endangered unnecessarily. The responsibilities of command are a recurrent theme, just as they were to be in another US science fiction series of the same era, Star Trek. The divided command structure makes Captain Crane’s position both easier and more difficult than Captain Kirk’s.
The Seaview itself is the same submarine that had appeared in the feature film and the same (very impressive) miniatures are used in the series. It’s a great looking submarine and the fact that unlike actual submarines it has windows is a major plus, and the windows are used to full dramatic advantage. The design of the Seaview was changed slightly for the second season when the hatches for the Flying Sub were added.
The first season tried to retain some degree of plausibility. Nuclear submarines existed in 1965 and the Seaview is simply a bigger more sophisticated nuclear submarine, which is perfectly reasonably given the series was set a few years into the future. The Mini-Sub with features in several season one episodes is just a standard sort of midget submarine. The technology is for the most part extrapolated from existing technologies or at least sounds like the sort of technologies that might have existed within a few years. There are cool gadgets but they’re not overly ridiculous. In The Condemned a scientist devises an ingenious modification that allows the Seaview to dive to the very deepest depths of the ocean. It’s not the sort of thing a conventional submarine could actually do but it’s not outlandish - specially designed research vessels really did reach such depths during the 1960s.
This kind of vague scientific plausibility would gradually give way to out-and-out Buck Rogers-type technologies such as the Flying Sub in the later seasons.
Irwin Allen’s later science TV series would become increasingly far-fetched (although still hugely enjoyable) but season one of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea still stands up as generally intelligent and well-written science fiction. In the very brief interview he contributed to the DVD release David Hedison tells of his extreme reluctance to accept the rôle of Captain Crane and of being pleasantly surprised by how well the first season turned out.
All four seasons are available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2, while the first season has also been released in Region 4. The series looks great on DVD.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is still one of the best-loved science fiction TV series of the 60s and deservedly so. The first season struck an almost perfect balance, taking itself just seriously enough and never descending into self-parody. Superb entertainment.