All That, and Dustin Nguyen Too
I watched all of the first season of seaQuest DSV on DVD last week, which, while not actively painful, was a bit of a labor of love. Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon, who later went on to create the SciFi Channel series Farscape, and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, this 1993-1996 NBC series had many things going for it: good sets, a healthy budget, a handful of interesting ideas, decent special effects, and a strong cast, which also happened to be chock full of attractive young actors. And yet, if I had to boil my opinion of seaQuest down to a single word, I’d have to go with… lame.
I don’t want to be cruel. I like seaQuest, mostly, except when I despise it, but there’s definitely a pervasive air of lameness about it (example: that bizarre capitalization of the title. Kind of lame, right?). Set in the near future (circa 2020), the plots center around the crew of the seaQuest DSV, a submarine operated under the auspices of the United Earth Oceans Organization (UEO), a UN-esque political body in charge of keeping the peace in a brave new world of undersea exploration and colonization. The seaQuest is captained by crabby, hermitic Captain Bridger (Roy Scheider), who, in the pilot episode, is dragged kicking and screaming away from his island paradise to command the state-of-the-art vessel. Bridger’s closest friends among the sub’s personnel are Security Chief Crocker (Royce D. Applegate) and Chief Medical Officer Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham).
Bridger soon develops a quasi-paternal relationship with neglected teen genius Lucas Wolenczak, played by Jonathan Brandis. (According to the seaQuest wardrobe department, teens of the future will wear nothing but oversized sports jerseys over chunky colorful turtlenecks. The future is a grim place). Depending upon who writes his dialogue in any given episode, Lucas is either an emotionally-damaged but kindhearted boy who, adrift without adult supervision, challenges his boundaries while seeking the approval of father-substitute Bridger, or a mouthy brat. Comparisons between Brandis and Star Trek: The Next Generation survivor Wil Wheaton are obvious: both were teen idols shoehorned into “precocious kid genius” roles on science fiction shows scripted by adults who often had disastrous ideas of what precocious kid geniuses should act like. It took him years, but Wheaton finally shrugged off the baggage of Ensign Wesley Crusher and evolved into a savvy, insightful adult; Brandis’s 2003 suicide at age twenty-seven deprived him of the opportunity to make the same transition.
SeaQuest also features Darwin, a talking dolphin who frolics in specially-designed tanks and tunnels located throughout the submarine. The world is divided into two camps: those who think a talking dolphin is a marvelous thing, and those who think such a plot device is destined to be unbearably twee. Careful readers may be able to determine which camp I belong to.
The ranks are filled out by the Quintet of Underutilized Cuties, five attractive and talented actors who get little to do other than pose attractively on the bridge, deliver snippets of expository dialogue, and frown prettily at banks of equipment. First and foremost are the ship’s second- and third-in-command, Commander Ford and Lt. Commander Hitchcock, played, respectively, by Don Franklin and Stacy Haiduk. Franklin and Haiduk are smart, likeable actors, yet their characters remain grossly underdeveloped for the duration of the season: we know they’re tough, they’re earnest, they’re competent, they’re loyal, they’re a couple of stone-cold knockouts, and that’s all we know. (While Hitchcock never develops any distinctive personality traits, Ford gets some eleventh-hour characterization in a late episode, whereupon we discover he’s really into ballet, mineral water, and mermaids. Try harder, seaQuest writing staff).
John D’Aquino plays Krieg, the supply chief and morale officer, who keeps the crew equipped with nudie magazines and other contraband (in his finest moment, he supplies a mortified Lucas with condoms in anticipation of a big date). When the series begins, Krieg and Hitchcock are newly divorced, not that you’d know it from a casual viewing of episodes; their relationship is rarely mentioned, apart from a few “my ex-wife is now my commanding officer” jokes. It’s an uphill battle, but D’Aquino manages to find some grace notes in a character designed solely to provide tired comic relief.
The quintet is rounded out by Ted Raimi as sweetly goofy communications officer Lieutenant O’Neil (think Uhura, minus the knee boots) and adorable Marco Sanchez as Lt. Ortiz, the ship’s… you know, after twenty-three episodes, I’m not at all sure what his position is (IMDB informs me he’s the “sensor chief”, which… is not much help). He stands on the bridge looking fetching and uttering a few lines of exposition, and that’s pretty much it for Ortiz.
The guest stars, in fact, often get more lovingly fleshed-out personalities and backstories than the regular crew members: William Shatner as an Eastern European war criminal! Charlton Heston as a mad scientist! David McCallum as an evil Australian mine boss! Seth Green as yet another teen genius! Luis Guzman as a South American dictator (named, in a touch of giddy brilliance, “Luis Guzmano”)!
One of seaQuest’s major hurdles, and one it never overcomes, is the nonspecifically futuristic setting. Maybe this isn’t surprising: it’s probably harder to realistically create an imminent future than a far-flung one. In early episodes, seaQuest drops tantalizing hints of new world orders, rearranged political structures, and emerging cultural conflicts. Designing a new world order takes a great deal of time and research, and after a few episodes, it becomes clear seaQuest hasn’t done its homework. The series suffers from a schizophrenic purpose: sometimes the submarine’s primary mission lies in settling international conflicts, sometimes it involves itself more in scientific research and deep-sea exploration. And sometimes the show goes off the rails: Ghosts! Mind-readers! Aliens! All of these wormed their way into episodes, and none has much place in a show purportedly grounded in scientific realism.
(It must be noted that, thanks to the technical advisement of legendary oceanographer Bob Ballard, science is generally something seaQuest does well. If viewers don’t remain absolutely vigilant against such an eventuality, there’s a real danger of accidentally learning something about undersea exploration.)
SeaQuest suffers in comparison with O’Bannon’s subsequent series, Farscape (though sometimes it seems the two shows exist in the same universe: Kent McCord’s recurring role as a legendary astronaut on seaQuest is a ringer for his recurring role as a legendary astronaut on Farscape). Whereas Farscape averaged a proportion of about 75% brilliance to 25% sheer unwatchable crap, it was rarely lame. It’s not as though Farscape didn’t have its own crosses to bear: sure, seaQuest had to contend with a talking dolphin, but come on -- Farscape had Muppets. You know what Farscape had that seaQuest lacked? Farscape was sleazy. As in, suhleeeeeazy. (Oh, Farscape. I miss you). Just think of how much seaQuest would have improved had Hitchcock and Ford traded in their baggy jumpsuits and ball caps for Farscape’s tight black leather pants and matching vests.
In the last cluster of first-season episodes, seaQuest picked up steam and shook off the mantle of lameness. It might be coincidence, but these improvements came at the same time as the addition of Dustin Nguyen as high-kicking ultra-competent Chief Shan to the cast. Nguyen is best known for 21 Jump Street, where he did yeoman’s work providing background support for showponies Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco; his turn on seaQuest, however, revealed Nguyen as a blast of charisma and personality. Who knew?
The season ended with the series looking like maybe it was going to start gelling together and fulfilling its potential. It’s an understatement to say that didn’t happen. Unhappy with the direction her character was going (i.e. nowhere), Haiduk pulled a Denise Crosby and quit. Lest you think Haiduk was overreacting, bear in mind that this is a woman who hung in there through all three seasons of Fox’s campy wreck, Superboy. (Haiduk, who played Lana Lang, stuck it out through any number of indignities, including an episode where she had to eat a hot dog while wearing a bikini, and indeed was the only regular cast member not replaced after Superboy’s dismal first season. Never let it be said she isn’t a trooper.) Nguyen, Beacham, Applegate, and D’Aquino also did not return for subsequent seasons, and while the show found able replacements (Peter DeLuise and Michael DeLuise among them. 21 Jump Street, represent!), it never found its footing. Season Three attempted a full reboot: it jumped ahead a decade, Michael Ironside replaced Roy Scheider, and the series was given a new name: seaQuest 2032. The reboot proved disastrous, and the series was canceled midway through the season.
In the final episode of Season One, the action stops down while the crew plays a little beach volleyball during a rare bit of shore leave. It’s nice seeing everyone relaxed and happy together, for the first and last time. They earned it.