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What Could This Series Have Been?
Recently I watched the two hour premiere of Seaquest: DSV. For those you who don’t know, Seaquest was a science fiction show that premiered on NBC in the fall of 1993. It premiered under much fanfare at the time: it was Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg (fresh off his summer hit: Jurassic Park) and was the largest budgeted show at the time.
The premise is simple: it’s 2018 (four years from now!) and the world has colonized the oceans. Seaquest is like an underwater Enterprise: a giant flagship that patrols the oceans, acting as a deterrent and arbiter for conflicts.
I loaded up a Seaquest episode guide (there are very few accurate ones around right now!), grabbed a few diet cokes and let let the Netflix marathon begin.
I gotta say, watching the Premiere again after 21 years (I was nine at the time), the old feelings came back. The show’s premise had lots of promise: it explored the complex and scientific obstacles that will await us underwater. What if we find artifacts that rewrite world history? What if we discover the real reason behind the Bermuda Triangle?
The crew was composed of half-military, half-scientific crew. Roy Schneider played Nathan Bridger, an ex-Navy scientist that could command respect from both sides of the crew.
This premise actually reminded me of a much better time in the 1990’s when such a premise seemed plausible. This was written in 1990’s America, a relatively stable time in world history. The biggest problems involved getting military and civilians to get along. The threat wasn’t from outside.
The Pilot: A Solid Set Up
The pilot is actually a really good piece of 1990’s science fiction. It begins with ‘Captain Stark’, the female commander of Seaquest who goes crazy and needs to be relieved of her duty. This is actually the weakest part of the story: the villain.
Captain Stark is an 80’s TV cliche: an overly aggressive, shoulder-pad wearing woman with no clear motivations behind her high strung, aggressive behaviors. On a routine investigation, she decides that she wants to nuke some small subs, ‘because she’s tired of being a policemen’. This sets her up as the main villain, where she seeks revenge against Seaquest for ‘wronging’ her. Again, her motivations aren’t clear, because unfortunately the show’s theme isn’t exactly clear. This is a problem that the show overcomes with Nathan Bridger (in the Pilot, at least), but not with the villain.
Contrast this set up with the modern Battlestar Galactica. The show’s ‘civilian vs military’ dynamic is explored, but there’s a clear reason. Civilization has fallen apart, and the military wants to operate unhindered so that it can do what it needs to keep humanity surviving. This power, left unchecked, leads to tyranny, and indeed Galactica would frequently show military powers abusing their powers to achieve their own ends. Battlestar Galactica was a show built on conflict, and built in the post-9/11, paranoid time where the good guys were no longer good.
Here Seaquest is the flagship representing the UEO (United Earth Oceans), a vague Federation-meets-the-United-Nations type show and is considered to be a benevolent force. No one even questions the motivations of the UEO, which I found quite peculiar.
Nathan Bridger is the man who engineered Seaquest, and so in the pilot he is reluctantly recruited into Commanding Seaquest. The writers here use a neat trick to simulate a character arc without actually giving Nathan Bridger (or the show, for that matter), a strong character arc. He’s reluctant to rejoin any military organization because of a promise he made to his late wife. We learn that he lost his son in the service.
The events of the show basically involve Bridger saying ‘no, I don’t want to run this boat’, while he meets new crew that start to change his mind.
As the pilot progresses, Bridger becomes convinced that he needs to take command of the ship. This is mainly spurred by the return of Captain Stark, who has uploaded a ‘computer virus’ into Seaquest and is attacking it with a nuclear sub.
This is the other weak point of the show. ‘Computer Viruses’ were a pretty new thing. The ‘internet’ hadn’t really entered the public consciousness at this point.
When they discover that they have a computer virus, they go consult the 14 year old Jonathan Brandis for information. Now, this made me laugh. At this time, computers and the internet was something only young kids could understand, apparently. Even though Bridger was an engineer that designed the submarine himself, he needs a 14 year old to explain what a virus is.
Next is a montage of the crew coming together to fight the ‘virus’. You see people drilling holes in corridors and connecting new wires to bypass the ‘infected wires’. Okay, this is silly, but I’m willing to give them a pass. The internet, and viruses, were new and scary things at the time. People didn’t really understand them.
Of course, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they had computers that acted like our internet does now: a ship’s computer that could work and would interact with other computers (other ships, planets, etc.).
But with Seaquest, it still feels like an abstract concept at this time.
Bridger’s character arc, where he goes from a semi-retirement to embracing his role as a Commander, makes for a satisfying Pilot episode, but ultimately sets up the show for failure. It doesn’t set up a central conflict in the series: a menacing force, a cause for the crew to fight for.
The conflicts on this series feel so far away. Which is like in the 1990’s where the big problems were all from places far away, and the threats just didn’t feel real. I would love to go back to that place. Maybe it’s because I was nine years old at the time.
But creating a society where they can’t make believable threats on television because there doesn’t seem to be any in real life? That actually sounds amazing.