I can’t really remember what possessed me to watch the whole first season of Seaquest DSV. I have a feeling it must have been about the time I finished the first series of Robotech (which unlike what you’re about to learn about is worth seeing) and thought about other ‘crew-based’ shows that weren’t Star Trek. Unimpressed by the mess that was Stargate Universe and having had my cynicism ramped up to 11 by the new Battlestar Galactica, Seaquest seemed like a return to a simpler time. I just wasn’t prepared for how simple it really was.

Rockne S O’Bannon had a pretty good track-record before and after SeaquestAlien Nation, Farscape and the new V were all created by or written by him. The premise which we can only assume was pitched as ‘Star Trek under the Sea’ and the parallels in the two titles should be obvious. Like Star Trek, the show features an opening narration from Roy Scheider playing Captain Nathan Bridger outlining the show/vessel’s remit:

The 21st century: mankind has colonized the last unexplored region on Earth; the ocean. As captain of the seaQuest and its crew, we are its guardians, for beneath the surface lies the future.

There’s some pretty vital information there to begin with – seaQuest is not a vessel for exploration primarily, the sea has been explored, rather it’s a patrol boat, the sea’s ‘guardian’ (whatever that means). In practice this should set up a conflict between scientific investigation and military or political conflict, as so often happened in Star Trek. Sometimes the show pulls this of such as in the episodes ‘Give me Libertie’ and ‘Treasures of the Mind’ which places the point of discovery as the point of conflict. However the option to see the seaQuest as a big weapon to neutralise problems which is followed by Bridger having a moral crisis over his orders, seems to be the favoured choice of writers – you can see this theme in the pilot ‘To Be or Not To Be’ and then in episodes such as ‘Whale Song’, ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘The Good Death’. It would be this focus on military stories that would lead Scheider to quit the series after season 2. Some of the cast however didn’t wait as long as that.

It’s interesting that the show’s two female leads, seemingly the only two women on board ship from the regular cast, also decided to call it quits after this first season. While the real reasons may remain obscure, it is arguable the under-use of both Stephanie Beacham (as sexy scientist MILF Dr Kristin Westphalen) and Stacy Haiduk (as sexy engineer Lieutenant Commander Katherine Hitchcock) contributed to them walking. Beacham, as big a star as Scheider in 1993, never had one episode focused on her, with the exception perhaps of the risible and misjudged Halloween adventure ‘Knight of Shadows’ (Westphalen becomes possessed by a ghost, but just sighs and faints a lot). Even during ‘The Good Death’ when Westphalen rescues her daughter from a mock Latin American dictatorship just has her being scared and hiding a lot. It gave a strong and vibrant actor little to do. The same can be said for Haiduk. Despite a memorable turn trying to seduce an aging David McCallum (eww) by singing in the episode ‘Seawest’ she rarely has the spotlight to herself. Her friendship with Ford and her former marriage to Krieg are never really explored as a source of conflict and when she’s captured by terrorists in ‘Nothing but the Truth’ she more or less does nothing. We’re still in a pre-Buffy world in 1993, but even Tasha Yar had kicked some ass before this.

Instead the focus of the show falls to Scheider’s Bridger, his near-constant moral conflicts, his hot-cold enthusiasm for the job and his father-son relationship with the show’s other star Jonathan Brandis. Brandis plays Lucas Wolenczak, teenage super-genius and computer hacker, abandoned by his parents to join the seaQuest with Bridger acting  in loco parentis.  We’ve been here before, of course, one need only mention Adric and Wesley Crusher to inspire shudders in the most ardent genre fan. Lucas however is a little bit cool. He hacks, he creates a program to understand a dolphin – in short he’s the teenage genius that teenage girls (and some boys) could get on with. However most kinds of rebellious streak are quickly stamped out and despite occasional, sulky lapses, Lucas is a team-player. Like most teenagers he spends most of his time locked in his room either online or, um, talking to the dolphin. He downloads music and makes his own (using that state-of-the-art technique in 2019 ‘sampling’). His encounters with girls are either awkward (he completely fails to lose his virginity in ‘Abalon’ to the woman he’d happily been getting off with in ‘Photon Bullet’) or apparently misplaced  – his crush on Hitchcock is quickly extinguished instead of becoming an amusing feature of the series. Compare this to his relationship with Westphalen who he comes to see as Mother figure – when he accidentally sees her and Bridger getting it on in the final episode, he grumpily shuts off the vid-link. In the next scene he is angrily (and hilariously) jerking his joystick while playing what looks like Afterburner. Westphalen tries to comfort him and he shuns her, Freud would have a field day.

If the Afterburner clone and sampling seem like a throw-back to the past in terms of technology then the just-on-the-verge-of-arriving Internet also plays a part in Seaquest. Files and video are all accessible on line, but all in a very lo-res sort of way. The Internet is called the ‘Internex’ and looks like a very crude interpretation of Second Life. While Tim Russ’s hacking school in ‘Photon Bullet’ (run as a sort of Youth Camp for those who like Telnet) may seem silly now, it does seem to prefigure groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec. Other futuristic tech includes the VR display and the WSKRs, complete with VR headset and gloves (pointless, as the show can’t communicate what the sensation of looking through it would actually be like).

Other commentaries on the near future just seem unfortunate now. William Shatner playing a Balkan dictator who has apparently murdered thousands of people in sprees of ethnic cleansing, but somehow is redeemed through letting his son swim with Darwin, is a TV plotline unthinkable in the light of war crimes committed by Radovan Karadzic. Meanwhile Bridger’s comment on the undersea volcano in ‘Higher Power’  – “The polar ice caps will melt… You’ll have to stand on the roof of the World Trade Centre in your Scuba gear!” must have been quite funny in 1993.

This being the 90s there’s also a hint of the New Age about proceedings. The crew encounter genuine ghosts, Darwin causes people to dream about swimming with dolphins, the UEO employs psychics to help in its investigations. It all seems touchingly naive compared to the cynicism and debunking that was to follow in the lead-up to the millennium. The show that was to force this issue – The X-Files – premiered two days before Seaquest on the 10th of September 1993.

Unlike The X-Files this show would only run for three seasons and no movies. The cast is seemingly so different for seasons 2 and then again for 3 that it feels like three different consecutive shows with the same name. The series drifted towards greater fantasy elements and then jumped forward over ten years as Scheider was replaced by Michael Ironside, alien encounters more than black smokers were the order of the day.

This is a shame, at the heart of a Seaquest is a show about scientific discovery in the face of overwhelming odds created by political and economic need. Conflict would have been inevitable on an over-populated planet running out of resources, but Seaquest never took this far enough (in fact we’re never alerted to that many problems on the surface). In a post 9/11, post-Battlestar world this is easy to see, but in 1993, with the Cold War over it must have been a time for optimism and bright new beginnings hence the dislocated and troubled approach that Seaquest has – it wants to present a progressive and technologically advanced world, but the conflicts are all too easily resolved – how can you take a show where terrorists take over the seaQuest but ‘won’t kill anyone’ seriously? Where a deal with an undersea black-marketeer results in an orang-utan running around the submarine and a dolphin being kidnapped?

A family show needs broader themes than Seaquest could offer, as an adult show it might have worked so much better, a more in-depth look into the politics and science might have saved it. As it is, you feel a sense of relief when Bridger scuppers the seaQuest at the end of the season. In fact, you don’t just feel the sense of relief, it’s clearly written across the face of the cast.