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December 2006
"Stand By For Mars!"
December 2006
The Sea View dives. The Flying Sub flies. Find them both on Ebay.

The Thunder Child Television Sourcebooks
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
by Joe Umberto

Irwin Allen graduated from New York's Columbia School of Journalism and went on to become known as "The Master of Disaster" in the 1970s due to the tremendous success of his two special effects-laden epics, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Somewhere in between he won an Oscar for his documentary he Sea Around Us (1952), and defined Sci-Fi television for a generation.

Irwin Allen may be considered kitsch today, but he produced a hit list of classic 1960s shows, such as: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and Land of the Giants, to name a few. At the time most associated Sci-Fi with adventures set on an alien world deep in outer space, but here Allen helped to redefine the genre most notably with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a sci-fi adventure show set beneath the surface of the ocean.

Richard Basehart and David Hedison

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea started its journey as a theatrical release for 20th Century Fox in 1961 with a stellar cast that included Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lorre, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, and Frankie Avalon. Nowadays a few of these names may ring a bell, or roll some eyes, but all the same this was still considered a Hollywood blockbuster destined to sell plenty of tickets, pop-corn and soda. The film introduces us to Admiral Harriman Nelson and his newly commissioned atomic submarine called the Seaview.

Barbara Eden, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre and Walter Pigeon
The sets and effects seem antiquated by today's standards but at the time they were considered state of the art. The Seaview model and set cost $400,000. So expensive were they that Allen wanted to get some additional use out of them, hence the TV series.

The Plot:
While the submarine Seaview is on diving trials in the Arctic Ocean, the Van Allen radiation belt catches fire, causing a deadly global heat wave. Admiral Nelson (Pidgeon) and Commodore Emery (Lorre) come up with a plan to extinguish the orbiting flames -- exploding a nuclear missle in the Van Allen radiation belt to put out the fire -- but the UN refuses to allow them to put this plan into action.

Nevertheless, the admiral and submarine still race off to the Pacific to launch a nuclear missile from the Marianas Trench, implementing the notion of fighting fire with fire. Trouble for those on board the sub begins when it emerges there is a saboteur amongst them. But is it a rescued scientist, or the stress-observing psychologist (Fontaine)? Familiar subplots abound but Voyage is big-budget Sci-Fi fun for its day.

The film submarine's design is unique in that it features an eight-window bow viewport which gives panoramic undersea views (in the novel of the film by Theodore Sturgeon, the windows are described as "transparent hullplating", a process developed by Nelson as "X-tempered herculite"). The Seaview submarine bow/nose also has a shark-like bottom flare, and the stern has extended V-shaped wing/tail surfaces. In the film, the USOS Seaview (United States Oceanographic Survey) is under the authority of Admiral Nelson and the Bureau of Marine Exploration. The novel mentions the Bureau as being part of the US Department of Science. (Pyramid Books published a novelization of the feature film by Theodore Sturgeon. The book was very successful and was reprinted several times throughout the 1960s).

The film is riddled with scientific and technical absurdities (for instance, the Van Allen belt is made up of subatomic particles which cannot catch fire, even if there were oxygen in space), and the plot is driven by piling one disaster on top of another (a minefield, a hostile submarine, a giant squid, a near-mutiny and a religious fanatic).

Near the end of the film the saboteur is unmasked, then falls into the sub's aquarium during a fight and is eaten by a shark, which the sub's marine biologist (Lorre) just happens to have on board for research purposes. Eventually, despite the efforts of the fanatic to prevent it, the sub launches a nuclear missile into the belt, extinguishing the fire and saving the world.

After the receipts were counted the film was a success and a TV series on the ABC network was planned. The cast and story line was reworked for an episodic Sci-Fi adventure series. The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series premiered in 1964 and ran until 1968. The series chronicled the adventures of the world's first privately owned nuclear submarine, the SSRN Seaview. Designed by Admiral Nelson, she is a ship in the service of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research and her primary mission is oceanographic research. Though the show is known for its occasional "monster" episodes, many plots were thinly disguised commentaries of what was seen happening on the evening news. Such plotlines as nuclear doomsday, environmental pollution, foreign intrigue, and theft of American technology are all still relevant today as they were at that time.

The first season was an action adventure series that was gritty, atmospheric and intense with story lines devoted to Cold War themes. Many of the episodes involved espionage and appealed to an audience immersed in the new-James Bond craze that broke loose in the early 60s. While fantastic, there was a semblance of reality in the way the scripts were written. Most fans and many critics will argue that the majority of the series' best episodes aired during the first season, and that the more adult theme that the series took during this year stands up far better than the next three seasons' episodes have.

Due to the ABC network's demands for a somewhat "lighter" tone to the series, the second season saw an increase in monster-of-the-week type plots, yet there were still some episodes that harkened back to the tone of the first season.

Basehart and Hedison on the cover of TV Guide

The most important change in the series occurred during this season when a slightly redesigned Seaview was introduced, along with the Flying Sub. A shuttlecraft type of vehicle, the Flying Sub was launched in a bay under the Seaview. The Flying Sub would wind up being the most recognized element of the series, even more so than the Seaview itself.

The final two seasons cemented the shift towards campy storylines that were popular in the late 1960s. Mummies, werewolves, talking puppets and an evil leprechaun all prowled the passageways of the Seaview. There were also fossil men, flame men, frost men and lobster men.

Ratings for the fourth season took a significant drop as the season progressed, but were not drastic enough for ABC to immediately cancel a fifth season for the series. During renewal discussions between Irwin Allen, 20th Century Fox and ABC, Allen instead proposed replacing Voyage with Land of the Giants. Based on a proposal consisting of only a reported two dozen pre-production concept paintings, ABC accepted Allen's proposed new series, and Voyage was cancelled.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the longest running American science fiction television series in broadcasting history, until the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation broke that record.

Web and Bibliography Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea website
Irwin Allen Television Productions, 1964-1970: A Critical History of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants by Jon Abbott
Leonard Maltin's 2000 Movie and Video Guide by Leonard Maltin

The Thunder Child quick tips:

  • Daily Space blog entry: The Plankton! The Plankton! VTTBOTS's first "monster" episode
  • Brief Candle: Tribute to Steve Ihnat

    View the Volcano Seven: Photo page for "Eleven Days to Zero"

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