Friday 3 March 2017

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, season 2 (1965-66)

The first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a major success in 1964 and established this series as an excellent and fairly intelligent blending of science fiction and espionage adventure. The ABC network clearly had a winning formula on its hands. So naturally studio executives decided to start making changes. They wanted a less serious tone. The result was that the second season featured more monsters and more outlandish story lines.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the studio executives ruined the second season. It’s not quite as good as season one (but then season one had been very very good indeed). It does however have its charms. Even when it gets a little silly it’s still fun and interspersed with the monster stories are more straightforward spy stories that revert to the tone of the first season. The best season two episodes compare quite favourably with the best of the earlier episodes but the quality is just not quite as consistently high.

There were also major changes to the look of the show. It was now shot in colour. The trouble with the interior of a submarine is that it’s not very colourful but that problem is solved by giving the crew outrageous coloured uniforms.

This season also marked the debut of the Flying Sub. The Flying Sub might be a slightly dubious technological concept but it’s certainly great fun and it looks cool. It also adds a certain flexibility to the story lines, allowing Admiral Nelson to jet about all over the globe while still being able to return ton the Seaview whenever he wanted to.

Overall the visuals were spruced up in this second season and they give it a more futuristic science fictional feel.

The cast remains mostly unchanged. Richard Basehart and David Hedison play things fairly straight and it works. 

The Left-Handed Man is in some ways more like a first season episode. There are no monsters and no real science fictional elements; it’s essentially a tale of political intrigue. And a good one. The Deadliest Game is another political intrigue episode although this one does have some mild science fiction content. A power-crazed American general plots to kill the President in his new battle headquarters deep beneath the sea. Admiral Nelson musty try to avert a nuclear war as a consequence.

The Peacemaker is in more or less the same vein. An idealistic scientist wants world peace and he’s prepared to kill everyone on the planet to bring it about.

The Cyborg is fairly typical second season stuff with some fine science fictional silliness. A evil mastermind has a crazy plan to force world government on the nations of the world. This will usher in an era of world peace. He hates war and violence. Of course in order to end war and violence he will have to kill millions of people. The world government will be run by his army of invincible super-intelligent cyborgs. To make his plan work he creates a cyborg duplicate of Admiral Nelson. There’s nothing startling in the plot but it’s executed with a great deal of style. There are some rather good special effects. The cyborg costume s would have cost almost nothing but they look reasonably creepy and effective. Victor Buono is delightfully over-the-top as the insane mastermind. The real highlight though is the set design - again probably quite inexpensive but the secret cyborg headquarters in Switzerland manages to look rather cool and slightly goofy at the same time. This episode is a triumph of style over substance but luckily the style is very impressive indeed.

Leviathan is very typical indeed of season two. This is Monster of the Week television at its goofiest. A scientist working in a deep sea lab discovers a fissure in the Earth’s crust that goes all the way down to the core. Could this have something to do with the gigantic fish that the Seaview keeps encountering in the vicinity of the lab? If so, why do the monstrous fish keep disappearing? Has the whole crew gone crazy? 

Monster from Outer Space is even goofier. A space probe has returned from Saturn, with a creature of some kind attached to it. Of course the creature, a sort of inflatable plant-monster blob thing, naturally wants to take over the Seaview. And then the world! The Monster's Web is, obviously, another monster story - this time it’s a giant undersea spider. At least this episode has an interesting variation on the mad scientist theme - Captain Gantt might be a bit mad but he isn’t evil.

The Silent Saboteurs is another non-monster story, this time a spy story with science fictional elements (spacecraft, force fields and super-computers). US space probes are being destroyed on re-entry and the destruction is carried out from a base in an unnamed Asian country. Captain Crane has to make contact with an agent but there are two people both claiming to be the contact. One is obviously a traitor. The Machines Strike Back follows a similar pattern, espionage blended with science fiction elements. The US has built a fleet of missile-armed drone submarines but now they’re started to go rogue and launch their missiles at the US. These two episodes keep the science fictional content fairly plausible - in fact they deal with technologies that were already on the horizon at the time.

The X Factor is a spy story with a few touches of the fantastic. A toy company is being used as a front for a spy ring and a top scientist working on the ultimate weapon has been kidnapped. This is a fast-paced episode with plenty of action. What really makes it stand out is the inspired job done by director Leonard Horn. There are lots of interesting camera angles, some well-considered high-angle shots and even a brief use of a hand-held camera. It all contributes to the excitement. It was exactly the right approach, given that this episode has a very James Bond feel to it. One of the best episodes of the second season, in fact one of the best episodes of the entire series.

Dead Men’s Doubloons is typical of the slightly more lighthearted approach of season two but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and it’s clever even when it’s just a little silly. The Seaview is a routine mission, inspecting undersea launch sites for intercontinental missiles, when something goes terribly wrong with one of the launch sites. It could be a simple malfunction but Captain Brent, seconded to the Seaview from Allied High Command, has another theory - it’s an ancient pirate curse! 

The Death Ship opens with an exciting submarine vs submarine battle, something of a rarity (surprisingly) in this series. This occurs just before a trial of a new automation system. During the trial the Seaview will be crewed only by Admiral Nelson, Captain Crane and eight civilian scientists. This episode is actually like a country-house murder mystery in which the guests are murdered one by one and they know one of them has to be the murderer.

A wrecked World War 2 submarine and five survivors who don’t know the war is over living in a cave on a deserted island provide the subject matter for ...And Five of Us Are Left. To add some extra interest four of the survivors are Americans and one is Japanese.

At times the silliness rises to potentially dangerous levels. There are no prizes for guessing that happens in Jonah and the Whale, although this episode is still thoroughly enjoyable. The Menfish on the other hand it’s just a bit too silly and isn’t helped by unconvincing special effects. A mad scientist (played with enthusiasm by John Dehner) is creating human-fish hybrids. The idea isn’t terrible but it’s not developed in an interesting way and the execution is poor. 

While the second season is much less consistent than the superb first season (which I reviewed here) it’s still fine television entertainment. Highly recommended. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great look at a long-time favorite of mine. It seems to be a rule of thumb with the Irwin Allen shows (except TIME TUNNEL, which only ran one year) that the type of stories presented in later seasons, while still enjoyable, deteriorated in quality. But Allen knew how to put together fun shows with colorful characters & exciting stories.