About half a century ago, in the dim and dusty land known as my childhood, there was a TV show called “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. It was one of a stable of shows made by Irwin Allen – a man whose ambitions would outgrow children’s TV eventually and flourish in disaster movies. Some unkind people use the word “disaster” on a broader canvas in an Irwin Allen context, but that’s beyond the scope of these comments.
TV in those days was a meat-grinder that destroyed writers and actors in equal measure as a result of a punishing production schedule. It wasn’t uncommon for an American series to have anything from 25 to 30 forty-eight minute episodes in a season. In effect, anyone involved in making one of these shows was producing about half a film in no more than six days, week in, week out, for 25 to 30 episodes. It’s a tribute to human endurance that anyone survived.
I, along with most of my friends at school, liked Allen’s shows to varying degrees. Most of us had a favourite (I certainly did). What impressed us most were the major props and special effects (especially the work of the great Howard Lydecker), and the music. Some of the industry giants produced music for TV in those days. In addition, many of the people on the production side who worked on first feature movies (in this case at 20th Century Fox), also contributed to television. There’s much more of a divide today, probably due to expense.
Even as children, we knew Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had barking mad conventions and clichés about it that got madder with each season. This was a especially the case by season three, while season four was riddled with them and little else. We didn’t care because a lot of the clichés and conventions were very funny. I suppose you had to be there to understand. It’s only by re-visiting the show decades later that I’ve discovered just how unintentionally funny it all was.
Admiral Nelson & Chief Sharkey
I watched a third season episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea recently, and how the memories came tumbling back. The basic plot synopsis for a season 3 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode is as follows:
“Some mad stuff happens; sparks fly everywhere; the actors fall from one side of the set to the other; the sub hits the same bit of rock on its way to the ocean floor it hit last week on its way to the same bit of ocean floor; somebody says “Damage Control….report!”; the Flying sub crashes; the reactor’s dampening rods are pulled and it’s about to go critical; there’s a werewolf loose on the sub; the Admiral knocks together another gimmicky piece of tech in the lab; fires start everywhere, but it’s OK because they have CO2 fire extinguishers that somehow repair all damage to equipment. Everyone laughs at the end. Running time – 48 minutes.”
The basic premise of the episode I watched is fairly plausible. The submarine Seaview (a nuclear powered research sub the show was based around) and its crew had been given the task of transporting a 3000 year-old mummy back to its place of origin. The mummy had been taken by an American archaeologist many years previously, and the US administration felt returning a national treasure like that to a country in danger of being destabilised by general unrest in the region would help to calm things down. So far, so good.
The plot starts to show signs of unraveling almost from the opening scene as the two principal characters of the show – Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane – take the Flying sub (an unobtrusive bright canary yellow manta-ray shaped jet-powered sub that can fly, as the name implies) on an “incognito” mission to Manhattan in order to collect the mummy. To be fair, they make their final approach to Manhattan submerged, so I’ll let that go. Despite the physical dimensions of the sarcophagus for the mummy being bigger than any of the hatches into the Flying sub, Nelson and Crane manage to heave it on board. On this evidence, if they’d been in the Laurel and Hardy film where they’re trying to get a piano up an enormous flight of steps, Nelson and Crane would have managed it one go, though it wouldn’t have been as funny as Stan and Ollie’s version. Anyway, this is an Irwin Allen show, so physical dimensions aren’t gospel. They can be changed or ignored according to the whimsical needs of the scripts. TV was more carefree then. In any event, no sooner has the mummy been stowed on the floor of the Flying Sub, than the classic “Voyage” plot event of “stuff happens” begins to happen. To kick off, Crane feels faint and eventually passes out. While Nelson’s back is turned, a rope securing the sarcophagus snaps, and it cracks open to reveal a groping, bandaged hand reaching out to a crescendo of dramatic music. There might be many reasons why a 3000 year-old mummy would choose that particular moment to come back to life, but this time my best guess is it had something to do with providing a mini-climax just before the main titles. Once the titles were out of the way, the hand withdrew and the sarcophagus shut. Nelson missed it of course. He was too busy making sure all the cosmetic blinkey lights were working in the Flying Sub.
When they reach Seaview the mummy is dumped in a nondescript store room already holding a pile of jetsam in it that looks like it was found on a beach during someone’s shore leave. As is standard procedure, a mute guard is stationed outside of the (inevitably) unlocked store room door. Almost immediately the lid of the sarcophagus pops open again, and this time the mummy gets out to see how the world has changed in 3000 years. The guard is drawn to investigate because of the noise. There’s an unwritten doctrine among guards on the Seaview that whenever they spot something threatening, they do not make a run for it and sound the alarm (the first rule of Fright Club is nobody runs in Fright Club). Instead they stand rooted to the spot, gaping at whatever it is until it’s within arm’s reach of them. Then – too late of course – they begin fumbling about trying to draw a gun. By that time the “monster” is already throwing them about like a dog with a rag.
As the episode wears on, it becomes clear the mummy has psychic powers that enable it to posses Crane. Instead of using this talent to take control of the missile silos and fire off everything with Fu-Manchu delight, all the mummy does is keep trying to make Seaview late through minor acts of sabotage. I kept thinking to myself that a few things might infuriate me sufficiently to bring me back to life 3000 years after my death, but being taken home punctually isn’t one of them. As the clock ticks away the final minutes remaining in the episode, Nelson comes up with one of his famous “get some fantasy-stuff cables and put all the reactor power through them” solutions. The mummy is sent back to its maker (I don’t mean Fox’s props dept.) in a nuclear-powered variant on the electric chair. Right at the end there’s a golden moment where someone asks Nelson why he thinks the mummy came back to life after 3000 years and did what it did. Nelson gives a coy smile and says “Maybe it’s best that we never know.” Well, it’s certainly best for the script writer, because evidently he didn’t know – or care, or give it any thought. This episode was just a great excuse to have a 3000 year-old mummy running amok without even a semi-plausible reason for it.
A word about the actors:
It’s easy to make fun of shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but there’s a sort of majesty to its long-suffering regular cast – and I’m not being flippant or facetious. Week after week the regular cast of “Voyage” turned in performances that verged on the heroic in view of some of the genuinely lunatic scripts they were landed with. There’s a professionalism and subtlety to some of their work that went way beyond what would normally have been expected from a children’s TV show, and they should be honoured for it. They certainly brightened my childhood, and I’m grateful to them. Tragically, the same can’t be said of a lot of the writers.