Tuesday 17 March 2015

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, season 1 (1964)

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 weather seems to be a major pre-occupation of this series with a number of episodes dealing with calamitous changes to weather patterns brought about either through natural disasters or human malice. The obsession with the weather might suggest that the series was anticipating later environmental concerns, and this is true to some extent. On the other hand it’s amazing how often these environmental threats can be defused by the judicious use of nuclear weapons, a method that would be rather unpopular today.

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.

I’m also quite fond of the espionage-themed episodes that were a major feature of season one. Episodes like The Exile, in which the Soviet ex-premier wants to defect to the West, are really pure spy stories without any real science fictional content but they’re well-written and entertaining.

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.


  1. Ah, my favourite season of the favourite TV show of my youth. Actually, the only real problem with the the status of the Seaview and her owner, officers and crew is the presence of nuclear missiles. Nelson is a retired - but on the reserve list - three star admiral (four stars in from second series onward) who has set up the NIMR for research purposes. He built and financed 'Seaview' but she is crewed by naval personnel who are on extended leave without pay. Nelson, plainly, has close links to the Pentagon and the White House, and Seaview is made available to them. In time of war ('Doomsday') she (and Nelson and her crew) is automatically commissioned back into the Navy. It is this relationship, apparently, that allows her to be armed with nuclear missiles.

    The command relationship between Nelson and Crane is much the same as that between, say, Horatio Nelson and Captain Hardy on the 'Victory' or any Captain of a ship carrying a flag officer. Nelson is responsible for the strategy in the ship's missions, Crane for the safety of the ship and its crew, and for getting Nelson where he thinks they ought to go. However, it is complicated by the respect and friendship between the two men. (They are still yelling at each other in Season 4.)

    Season One had the services of one of Hollywood's most inventive scriptwriters in William Read Woodfield at the beginning of a distinguished career that included script editing (with Allan Balter) one of the best seasons of 'Mission Impossible' and some other 'names' such as Robert Hamner. It also had an Oscar winning director of photography in Winton Hoch (and boy, did it show.) Not to mention some of the guest stars.

    Personally, I tend to think there are two Voyage series - this one and the other three. This is not just based on the fact that the scripts after Season 1 were pretty bad but that that the internal dating of the introduction of the Flying Sub as 1973 means that the plots of later internally dated episodes in Season 1 don't work if FS1 is aboard. There was only one supernatural episode in Season 1 (the utterly dreadful Christmas episode 'Long Live the King') and only one episode with aliens ('The Sky is Falling' - which uses footage from 'The Day the Earth Stood Still') These themes would be done to death in later seasons.

  2. The first season is so different that it really is virtually a different series.

    Later on, in Monster-of-the-Week episodes, Nelson would cobble together a shoebox with a bicycle horn on it and use it to defeat Lobster Man.

    Sadly, the same is true of LOST IN SPACE.