Friday, 11 September 2020

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season 4 (1967-68)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea got off to a great start. The first season is about as good as American TV science fiction gets. It has a perfect blend of espionage, political intrigue and not too outlandish science fiction elements. The second season is almost as good, albeit with some slightly more outrageous elements. Things really started to fall apart in the third season. The budget was cut and it shows, the series degenerated into endless Monster of the Week stories, the monsters were often lame, the scripts were weak and there’s too much out-and-out silliness. There are some good episodes but the series was clearly in trouble. Season four, which went to air in late 1967 and early 1968 was a bold attempt to get the series back on its feet.

There was a move away from Monster of the Week stories, there was at least a partial return to the very successful season one formula, there was some investment in new props (such as the full-size rear section of the Flying Sub) and gadgets, an effort was made to improve the special effects and the scripts were stronger. There was a focus on keeping the action happening. There were some good sets. Everyone seemed to be making a bit more of an effort. Even the opening credits got jazzed up a little.

With many science fiction TV series there’s a problem with networks getting more penny-pinching thus leading to declines in production values. There’s no real sign of that here.

The cast remained unchanged but there are signs that most of the regulars are trying a bit harder. Richard Basehart tries to vary his performances, sometimes adding amusing touches of irascibility and sometimes mixing them with an appealing hint of whimsicality. On occasions both David Hedison and Bob Dowdell (as Chip Morton) get to stretch their acting talents just a little.

Part of the problem with the third season was that Irwin Allen was trying to make three science fiction series all at the same time - Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel. It was not surprising that some of the focus was lost. When The Time Tunnel was (very unfortunately and very undeservedly) cancelled it allowed more attention to be given to the final seasons of the two surviving series both of which represented marked improvements on the previous year.

Season four might be a little uneven but the best episodes compare very favourably to the best stories of the first two seasons. The series was showing definite signs of getting back on its feet. Its cancellation at the end of this season must have been quite a disappointment to everyone involved.

Episode Guide

In Man of Many Faces Admiral Nelson assassinates rival scientist Dr Randolph Mason. Of course we know that can’t be true, and Captain Crane knows that can’t be true, but can he prove it? Admiral Nelson and the slain scientist were bitter rivals. Nelson is convinced that Dr Mason’s latest project is not merely dangerous, it could destroy the world. But that doesn’t mean that he shot Dr Mason.

The Seaview somehow has to reach Dr Mason’s secret installation within 24 hours or the Moon will crash into the Earth. That’s not the only problem for Seaview and its crew. Thee’s a killer on board, and he can take on the appearance of any crew member.

The plot might sound hokey but it works quite well in practice. This is a well-executed episode which doesn’t look as cheap as many later season episodes. The best thing though is that it’s a return to the formula that made the first season so terrific - a combination of thriller and science fiction elements with no monsters in sight. An extremely good episode.

In Time Lock Nelson is kidnapped by Alpha, a collector of military memorabilia in the distant future. What Alpha actually collects are generals. Famous generals of history. Then he turns them into mindless automatons. This collector’s agents have taken over the Seaview’s lab. There are various attempts by Seaview’s crew to recapture the lab, while Nelson makes various attempts to escape his obviously crazy captor.

Time Lock actually has a few interesting ideas but they’re not fully developed. You might think collecting historical generals and turning them into zombies is pointless but there is a reason behind it. Nelson’s growing suspicion that what Alpha is doing might be illegal in his future society and that this might be used against him is potentially interesting but not quite enough is made of it. Budgets were very low in the fourth season and that’s a problem in a time travel episode that really needed its future society to be fleshed out a bit. Time Lock is a missed opportunity but it’s not a total failure.

The Deadly Dolls are puppets belonging to puppeteer Professor Multiple. He has been entertaining the crew. He was supposed to have gone ashore after the show but he’s still aboard and now his dolls are taking over the ship. The idea of having the crew replaced by exact doubles is one of more overused tropes in 60s science fiction television but in this case it’s done with style and wit, and a certain amount of intelligence. Plus the episode features Vincent Price as Professor Multiple. There’s obviously the potential for a great deal of silliness in a story such as this but in fact it mostly succeeds in being clever and slightly sinister rather than silly. And there are some actual science fiction concepts as well. Overall a very good episode.

Fires of Death plunges us straight into the action in spectacular fashion, with a volcano erupting and the Seaview being tossed about like a toy in a bathtub. What they’re trying to do is to stop the volcano from erupting since it’s going to destroy half the southern hemisphere. Scientist Dr Turner aims to be able to stop it. It soon transpires that Dr Turner is no vulcanologist - he’s a 500-year-old alchemist mining the volcano for elixir stones to prolong his life. To assist him he has a century-old golden man. The whole thing is completely nuts but the action is non-stop, the effects are remarkably good and somehow it all works. It’s great stuff.

In Cave of the Dead Commander Van Wyck (guest star Warren Stevens) and Admiral Nelson are aboard the Flying Sub investigating the disappearance of four Navy ships. They find something very strange indeed. After flying through a storm that wasn’t there the Flying Sub is forced down by gunfire from a square-rigged sailing ship and they find an island, where there is no island. In a cave they discover skeletons, an old dagger and a curse. Is it the curse of the Flying Dutchman? Now this is an episode that in season three would have been nothing but full-on silliness with pirates with outrageous accents but in fact Cave of the Dead tries to be a bit cleverer than that. It actually tries to rely on building an atmosphere of subtle unease. Admiral Nelson has seen all these strange things but no-one else can see them. He starts to think that he knows what’s going on but there’s no way he’s going to be able to make anyone believe it.

William Welch isn’t one of the more high regarded television writers of the era. The word hack has been applied to him. In this story however he does a pretty decent job.

There are no goofy social effects or silly monsters and there’s some real creepiness and some real suspense. Even when Nelson figures out what has to be done it seems impossible that he’ll be able to it. A very fine episode.

In Sealed Orders the Seaview has to deliver a neutron warhead to Cook Atoll for testing. There’s a radiation leak and then the crew starts to vanish. Other strange things happen as well. It’s another attempt to get away from the Monster of the Week formula and to create an atmosphere of weirdness and unease. Some very simple social effects are used quite cleverly. Even the revelation at the end is reasonably plausible. A good episode.

Journey with Fear is the Chip Morton in Space episode. The Seaview is tasked with launching a manned outer space mission but ends up on Venus and is captured by aliens from another planet. It’s an ambitious episode that works reasonably successfully.

Terror is another alien invasion story, but this time it’s plants from another planet. The good news is that there are no guys in rubber suits masquerading as killer plants. The only plant we see is an orchid in a pot. Which means no goofy special effects. The plants just take over people’s minds. There’s nothing startling or wildly original here but at least it’s not cheesy. An OK episode.

With Fatal Cargo we’re back to guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster stuff, with a white gorilla running loose on Seaview. But this is a kind of unstoppable super-gorilla, controlled by a mad scientist. This one is definitely cheesy. Not one of the better episodes.

Rescue is very much a return to the spirit of the first season. No monsters here, just a taut  multi-stranded thriller story. Seaview is searching for a secret hostile underwater submarine base. Seaview gets disabled and is lying helpless on the sea floor. The Flying Sub gets sunk. It’s a race against time to rescue Captain Crane in the Flying Sub plus there’s an enemy submarine lurking about plus there’s a saboteur aboard. This episode is notable for Admiral Nelson being continuously irritable and exasperated although to be fair he can hardly be blamed given that everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. It’s an adrenaline-rush episode and it’s excellent.

The Death Clock plunges us straight into the action. There’s an accident in the reactor room. Captain Crane gets a hefty dose of radiation and is left in a coma. While in the coma in sick bay he shoots Admiral Nelson. He never left the sick bay, and yet he did. But did he shoot the admiral today or tomorrow? And is it now tomorrow, or maybe it’s yesterday? Captain Crane is going to have to do something about tomorrow but a very dangerous man will try to stop him and that dangerous man is Captain Crane.

So obviously this is a time-travel episode and it’s a pretty good one. No monsters in this one but some puzzles, some paradoxes, some chilling moments and quite a bit of cleverness. David Hedison gets to do his cold-blooded psycho killer thing which he does to very good effect. This really is a top-notch fourth season episode.

Secret of the Deep is a monster episode but not a bad one, and not too silly. A senior Allied intelligence officer joins the Seaview to track down a secret underwater base run by renegade scientists. The scientists have created giant mutant sea creatures capable of destroying all American shipping, the aim being to blackmail the government. The monster stuff isn’t overdone, there’s a fine villain and that villain’s ultimate fate is a very nice touch. Overall not outstanding but an acceptably enjoyable episode.

Blow Up begins, as the title suggests, with an explosion aboard the submarine. Admiral Nelson miraculously survives thanks to a new emergency breathing device but he seems changed, and not in a good way. He’s paranoid and unstable and he makes decisions that could be leading to disaster. This is a psychological drama episode and it’s quite good but perhaps stretches credibility a bit. Richard Basehart gets to do some serious scenery-chewing. At least there are no monsters.

With Deadly Amphibians we’re back to guys in rubber suits. The amphibians are an advanced race living beneath the sea and they want to take over the world, using Seaview’s nuclear power. Naturally the Seaview gets sunk (yet again) and for good measure the Flying Sub gets sunk as well. And the amphibians have some nasty powers that make things look pretty grim for Admiral Nelson and his men. As guys in rubber suits episodes go this one is not too bad. And at least it’s fast-moving. Kind of fun.

The Abominable Snowman is, yes you guessed it, a guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster episode. The Seaview is sent to Antarctica to rescue the Paulson Expedition but when they get there they find a tropical paradise. And crewmen start getting brutally killed. And the two survivors of the expedition are unconscious so they can’t answer any questions. Of course the viewer knows that an abominable snowman is loose on the submarine, but where did he come from? There is an explanation, but it’s not very good. This one might have worked better with a less silly monster - there’s no reason why the monster has to look like an abominable snowman. A routine monster episode.

In The Return Of Blackbeard the legendary pirate Blackbeard, dead for two hundred years and more, takes over the Seaview. He intends to blow up the yacht of the Shah (of Iran presumably) and retrieve the priceless golden throne of Solomon. This one relies too much on ideas the series had already used too many times. On the other hand Malachi Throne is insanely outrageous as Blackbeard, Del Monroe has fun playing Kowalski as a pirate after he’s been recruited as Blackbeard’s First Mate and Richard Basehart gives a very amusing tongue-in-cheek performance. Enjoyably goofy.

A Time To Die is quite ambitious when it comes to ideas. The Seaview’s clocks start doing strange things. They encounter a giant undersea reptile which proves to be merely inquisitive. They suddenly lose all radio contact - with everybody. Admiral Nelson starts to get really concerned when the submarine surfaces and he takes a look at the night sky. Those constellations are not in the right places. The night sky did look like this once, a very very long time ago. Someone is playing tricks with time. The tricks with time idea is developed reasonably well. Henry Jones is great fun as the mysterious Pem. This otherwise very good episode is let down a little by some very poor special effects but it’s still a fairly strong story.

Edge of Doom presents Admiral Nelson with an unpleasant situation. Seaview has to deliver a vital piece of equipment but Nelson has been informed that there maybe an impostor among the crew and the impostor may be Captain Crane. He will have to lay a trap for the impostor, and hope that the information he has been given is correct. Apart from the exact double angle (which was always a far-fetched and clich├ęd plot device) this is a reasonably tense spy drama episode with no silly monsters. And David Hedison’s performance is pretty impressive.

Is The Terrible Leprechaun really the worst-ever episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? I’d have to say yes. It’s basically a very routine episode about threats to yet another secret defence installation at the bottom of the sea. But with leprechauns. The leprechauns make a mediocre episode truly awful. Maybe with a whimsical approach it might have worked as a Lost in Space episode but apart from the leprechauns everything is taken dead seriously, which just makes it worse.

Nightmare has a nicely mysterious opening. Captain Crane is test flying the Flying Sub when he receives a radio message from Seaview indicating that they’re in trouble and that he must return to the submarine immediately. This happens moments after Lee sees a UFO. When he gets back to Seaview it appears to be deserted but he can still hear the crew. And them some guy he’s never seen before tries to kill him. And all this is in the first  few minutes! This episode has plenty of tension and lots of paranoia. Excellent stuff.

Savage Jungle is an alien invasion story. Large parts of Italy have suddenly been overrun with tropical jungle. When the Seaview arrives to investigate it gets turned into a jungle as well. The aliens are trying to change the whole planet into a steamy primeval jungle with an atmosphere suitable for their lifeforms, and fatal to humans. The miniaturised jungle fighters are a nice touch. The special effects are pretty good, especially the submarine trapped by underwater vegetation. The interior of the sub totally infested with jungle plants looks terrific. And to top it all off, it has a decent plot and an excellent villain. A very fine episode.

The Lobster Man is a guy-in-a-rubber suit story but with a few interesting elements. A crustacean from outer space has crash landed in the ocean and Seaview has picked him up. He’s not your standard shambling monster. He’s highly intelligent, polite and articulate and everything he does is calm and deliberate. But what is his agenda? Is he friendly or hostile? No-one is sure. A reasonably well thought-out script although it’s just a little bit flat at times. Still a fairly decent episode.

Man-Beast is a monster story but it tries to be an intelligent monster story. Captain Crane is the guinea pig testing a new ultra-deep diving technique but it has one slight side-effect - it turns him into a werewolf! It’s a silly premise but handled reasonably well. It’s kind of fun.

Flaming Ice is an alien invasion story. As usual the aliens went Seaview’s nuclear reactor. To get it they threaten the submarine with death by freezing and death by roasting. While the plot isn’t dazzling this one does have a lot going for it. It has Australian actor Michael Pate (always fun and a favourite of mine) as the alien leader. It has  great makeup effects. The sets are excellent - the ice caves are exceptionally good. It’s a very visually impressive episode. On the whole this one works for me.

Attack is another alien invasion tale. Seaview is searching for a flying saucer that went down in the ocean. Admiral Nelson and Kowalski in the Flying Sub find it, or at least the aliens find then. Aboard the Seaview there are other problems. There’s a stowaway named Robek and he claims to be an alien, but a good alien who wants to save them from bad aliens. Aliens have tried that line before so Captain Crane isn’t exactly convinced that Robek is telling the truth. Maybe this one’s a bit too reminiscent of too many earlier episodes but it’s still decent enough.

No Way Back is the final episode of the season, and of course the last ever episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was not a bad way for the series to bow out. It certainly starts in spectacular fashion. Seaview is blown to bits and everybody is killed. And this before the opening credits! This can’t be the way things end, can it? Of course things turn out to be more complicated. Mr Pem, the megalomaniacal inventor of a time travel machine (from the earlier episode A Time To Die), has returned and he’s back to his old tricks. Now he persuades the Admiral to let him build a new time travel device, to save Seaview. Admiral Nelson naturally doesn’t trust Pem but he has no choice other than to go along. In the course of which he meets Benedict Arnold, aboard Seaview.

Thee’s not much in the way of special effects in this one but it’s a decent story and it has a bit more emotional punch than most episodes (appropriate given that it was the final episode). And Mr Pem is a delightful villain. On the whole a worthy ending to a great series.

Final Thoughts

The fourth season turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. A vast improvement on the previous season, and while it’s not consistently up to the standards of the first two seasons the best episodes rank right up there with the best of those seasons.

The final season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Highly recommended.



3 comments:

  1. Mr. Pem could have been the precursor to Q, from, "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mr. Pem could have been the precursor to Q, from, "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

      I hadn't thought of that but you're quite right.

      Delete
  2. My least favorite episode, "The Lobster Man," is practically unwatchable to me. Nelson puts together his shoebox with bicycle horn on it, and points it at the monster which suddenly angrily cries out "The end of your world, Admiral!" before it's vaporized.

    Fortunately, it seems, I've never seen the Leprechaun episode. I tired of aliens, time travel, and other stuff that seemed like samples of the Lost in Space/Time Tunnel slush pile. It's a shame to me that such an interesting concept would be reduced to this sort of thing.

    I will concede, however, that Pem was indeed an interesting villain, and certainly inspirational for Q or Trelane of Star Trek.

    ReplyDelete