This might seem like it’s coming out of nowhere. I don’t talk about television much or even watch it anymore. But I grew up while great, thought provoking scifi was on television like Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everybody’s familiar with and loves TNG.
But they are less familiar with its underwater cousin, SeaQuest DSV. That’s a shame, since Steven Spielberg himself was one of the executive producers of the show, and Robert Ballard was the technical advisor! Although the CGI is outrageously primitive and distinctly 1990s, the practical effects remain convincing to this day.
The topics that the show explored are also more relevant than ever. SeaQuest DSV takes place in a future where the rising sea level and dwindling resources have driven millions of people to colonize the ocean. The shallow portions like the continental shelf are home to entire underwater countries(!), while the abyssal plain is dotted with military outposts, research laboratories and other such facilities.
The environmental themes of the show were ahead of their time, but explored in a tasteful rather than a preachy way, showing how humanity has adapted to the new conditions. More than one episode involves bioweapons and the ethics of their development. More than one episode explores the political complications of large undersea human settlements.
As science fiction goes, SeaQuest was thoughtful and detailed, taking place in a believable world. Almost every episode had an important implied message for the viewer that amounted to commentary on current social, political or technolohical issues in the same way as TNG.
It also breathed fresh air into science fiction. There has been plentiful scifi set in space. But how many other scifi TV shows can you think of that took place underwater? It featured subfighters, not spacefighters. Torpedos, not missiles. Pressure resistant exoskeletons, not spacesuits. Hydroaccoustic sound beams, not lasers, and so on.
The themes of what it means to be human, and how humans should interact with non-humans is explored using dolphins (most famously Darwin, a dolphin member of the crew capable of speaking caveman level English using a crude translator) and genetically engineered super soldiers called “daggers”.
This ongoing exploration of how daggers are ignored, discriminated against or even hunted down as unwanted relics from a past war (and living reminders of our limitless depravity) mirrors conttemporary racial tensions, a topic that Star Trek explored using an endless variety of “aliens” that all looked like humans with rubber shit glued to their foreheads.
By not going that route (until season 2, more on that in a bit) and keeping everything more grounded in reality, SeaQuest had a gravity and sense of realism that TNG couldn’t compete with. SeaQuest seemed like a plausible future that could really happen in a couple of decades.
But we can’t have nice things, can we? The network executives didn’t like the cerebral angle Steven Spielberg had taken with the show. They were comparing its ratings directly to TNG and for some reason thought it wasn’t stacking up because it was too intellectual, such that the average viewer found it abstract and difficult to engage with.
The solution? Tits, ass, explosions and “monster of the week” episodes. Every fan agrees season 2 is a regrettable abomination. The dive it takes into lowbrow territory is abrupt and impossible to miss. Towards the end of Season 2, they even meet aliens, and are transported to an alien ocean world to help them fight a fucking alien war.
If that seems stupid and hugely disappointing for you, imagine how fans of the show felt watching it fall to pieces in real time. Only after the viewership plummeted did the network execs accept that they had no fucking clue what the public wanted. They then backed off and let the writers have the freedom they needed to try and salvage the show.
Season 3 was an attempt to totally reinvent the show. Even the title changed, from SeaQuest DSV to SeaQuest 2032 due to some time travel shenanigans in season 2, which shouldn’t surprise you given what you now know about how retarded it was.
I have to say, I liked Season 3. The smart writing came back, but the show went a militaristic new direction. Tensions flared up with the Macronesian Empire and torpedos start to fly. We see more advanced military hardware in season 3, where the vessels other than the SeaQuest herself in season 2 were mainly analogous to shuttlecraft used for transport between the SeaQuest and colonies, outposts or other large submarines.
So the UEO (United Earth Oceans, aka the good guys) is in an all out war, and who better to command the SeaQuest during these trying times than Michael Ironside? That’s right, Starship Troopers’ Lieutenant Rasczack himself. He acts his ass off and could have carried the show by himself, but is joined by aged up members of the original crew (with some notable exceptions) that have become more mature and experienced.
The show was once again back on course and heading into really interesting territory, plotwise. But it was just too late. Season 2 damaged the show’s reputation so badly, there was no coming back from it and the show sank. However these days, with Netflix dumping money on all sorts of risky and interesting projects, who knows?
Will SeaQuest be rebooted by Netflix? It would be a big win for them I think, the environmental themes are more relevant than ever and there’s a renewed appetite for near future realistic science fiction. Games like Subnautica and SOMA show that the public is receptive to undersea science fiction as a theme. Speaking of which, SeaQuest DSV also received a videogame adaptation for the SNES:
I wish I could say it was the adaptation the series deserved. Then again the game is as much a mixture of good ideas and bad ones as the show it’s based on, when you average all three seasons together. It’s admittedly pretty difficult to make a submarine game on a 16 bit console that doesn’t turn out chunky, cumbersome and boring:
I see a potentially bright future for the SeaQuest property though, in the right hands. Demand is high for nostalgic reboots of obscure 1990s movies and TV shows. It has a message that’s more important now than ever, and the world imagined for SeaQuest is deep and rich enough to tell all kinds of stories in.
It would be a shame to leave this one in the grave. Or Davy Jones’ Locker, if you prefer. I’m trying to avoid ocean puns, honestly. But I really am passionate about the show, because of the tremendous potential which was only ever partly realized. Besides the environmental themes, VR was also depicted as a commonplace recreational technology used on submarines in between shifts.
Some of the plots involved events that happened only in VR, and the way the technology is used to stave off cabin fever while submerged for months on end. It served the same purpose as the holodeck in TNG, to spice up the series with episodes not set entirely within the ocean, with VR serving as sort of a parallel dimension the main characters would sometimes drop into.
It’s ripe for reimagining, is the point. It’s more topical than ever, the audience is primed for the message and themes, it’s a show which was ahead of its time but now perfectly poised to reach a new generation…and it would be a damn shame to abandon a show which gave us awesome moments like this:
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