Thursday, May 28, 2015

Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon: Let's Go on a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea!

What was the longest-running science fiction TV series of the 1960s? If you answered Star Trek, Lost in Space, or even The Outer Limits, you'd be wrong. That distinction belongs to producer Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which debuted in 1964 and ran for four years.

Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson.
The show's "star" was the Seaview, a futuristic, atomic-powered submarine designed by Admiral Harriman Nelson. Although Nelson essentially lived aboard his super sub, the vessel's commander was the younger Captain Lee Crane. The relationship between these two men--paternal, respectful, and occasionally at conflict--formed the central core of the series throughout its run. It was enhanced by the casting: film veteran Richard Basehart played Nelson while handsome, likable David Hedison was Crane. The two actors became lifelong friends off-screen.

The episodes from Voyage's first season featured a canny mix of suspense, espionage, and science fiction plots. In “Hotline,” the Seaview’s crew has to disarm a nuclear reactor aboard a Soviet satellite that crashed into the ocean. “No Way Out” finds Nelson and Crane trying to provide safe passage for an uncooperative Communist defector. In “The Sky Is Falling,” Nelson tries to negotiate with apparently-friendly aliens (this was the first of many episodes about extraterrestrials).

Captain Crane looks concerned.
It’s a strong season that benefitted from quality guest stars such as Robert Duvall, George Sanders, Carroll O’Connor, Hurd Hatfield, Everett Sloane, and June Lockhart. Additionally, three episodes were penned by notable film and television scribes: Charles Bennett (Foreign Correspondent, Curse of the Demon); John McGreevey (The Waltons); and the amusingly-named Cordwainer Bird--which was a pseudonym for acclaimed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

The colorful Flying Sub.
A modest ratings hit, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was renewed for a second season—but one that brought changes. Gruff but lovable Chief Curley Jones was nowhere to be seen, because actor Henry Kulky had died from a heart attack at age 55. Terry Becker joined the cast as Chief Sharkey. The realistic mini-sub was replaced by a spiffy, colorful “flying sub.” And most notably, there was a shift toward more science fiction plots, starting with the first episode. Titled “Jonah and the Whale,” it found Nelson and a female Russian scientist literally inside a gigantic whale after the beast swallows their diving bell. (The elaborate, colorful sets for this episode was the subject of a TV Guide article.)

By the third season, the Seaview had become a popular place for strange creatures to visit. The crew had to battle a werewolf (Admiral Nelson no less!), a mummy, a “heat monster,” some “fossil men,” a deadly cloud, a mean mermaid, “wax men,” and Nazis revived from suspended animation. This monster-of-the-week approach wore thin, although Basehart and Hedison still kept the show watchable. Despite placing #63 in the Nielsen ratings for the season, Voyage was renewed for a fourth and final season.

A dinosaur borrowed from The Lost World.
I've chosen not to dwell much on Irwin Allen’s entertaining theatrical film, 1961’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which served as the basis for the series. However, it warrants a mention for two reasons. First, the budget-minded Allen was always looking to get the most out of existing sets and stock footage. So, the TV series’ season 2 episode “The Sky’s on Fire” ripped off the movie’s plot about the Van Allen radiation belt “catching fire” and threatening to scorch the Earth. Likewise, the season 1 episode “Turn Back the Clock” recycled footage from Allen’s 1960 theatrical film The Lost World—which conveniently starred David Hedison. The dinosaur scenes (actually, they were live lizards on miniature sets) from that movie also cropped up in other episodes.

The movie’s other contribution to the TV series was its special effects wizard L.B. Abbott. The head of 20th Century-Fox’s special effects department from 1957-70, Abbott won Academy Awards for Doctor Doolittle (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Logan’s Run (1976). He also earned three Emmys for his special effects, one for Allen’s Time Tunnel and two for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. They were the only Emmys won by Voyage.

A blueprint of the Seaview.
As a youth, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was my first “favorite TV show.” It also inspired me to write my first fan letter, which yielded a black & white photo of the Seaview and a copy of its blueprint (I wrote about this in an earlier post). I had a model of the Flying Sub and a toy Seaview propelled across my bathtub waters courtesy of a wound-up rubber band. I am not alone in my affection for this show either. You can find all kinds of cool stuff about Voyage at the Irwin Allen News Network and my 2013 interview with David Hedison ranks as one of the Café’s most popular posts.

This post is part of the Classic TV Blog Association’s Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon. Click here to check out the complete blogathon schedule. And don’t forget to set your video recording devices for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which airs weekly on MeTV on Sunday at 1:00 a.m.


  1. Kool.
    Love the personal touch about your VttBotS collection and decades-long love of the show.
    Well-done, fellow fan!

  2. Great look at Voyage! This was my favorite show growing up, and my first favorite as well. My family watched it over and over. I nearly went into the Navy because of this show (until I found out women couldn't command a sub), and I have a deep abiding love for all things submarine. Rewatching it nowadays, I'm always a bit in awe of how serious Richard Basehart played things, even when faced with the most ridiculous aliens. His acting alone elevates some of the sillier episodes.

  3. I don't think I've ever sat through a full episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but since it's my habit to tune into at least a portion of Me TV's Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night, I'll sometimes leave it playing in the background. The characters strike me as a little dull, though maybe that's not fair to say when I haven't made any serious attempt to watch it. It just seems to me like the kind of series that's more difficult to appreciate if you don't have fond memories of watching it as a kid. Still, sometimes the goofy plots will grab my attention. A couple weeks ago, I almost went to bed after Lost in Space was over, but then I caught a glimpse of a little person in a clown outfit skulking around the Seaview, which was such a surreal image, I had to stay up and find out what the heck was going on.

  4. Voyage really does seem incredibly serious to me also, especially the B&W season -- gravitas goes better in B&W! Irwin Allen knew how to pick effective actors -- you don't get much better than Richard Basehart and David Hedison -- and since I always loved submarine movies and monsters this was a must-watch, especially later in reruns. Irwin Allen also knew to throw in some crazy stuff, guaranteeing kid appeal which helped the series in reruns early on. And rocketdave, I am so sorry I missed the episode you describe which must have been the one starring Michael Dunn, one of my favorite actors ever. Darn! I'll have to search that one out!
    Since I just did a post on "Lost in Space" it's clear that Allen had very different ideas for both shows and wasn't aiming for the same audience at all. "Lost in Space" was a family/kids show -- "Voyage..." something very different, mermaids and werewolves notwithstanding! Thanks for a great post!

    1. The 3rd season episode "The Wax Men" with Michael Dunn ran a week or two ago on MeTV.
      Both Voyage and Lost in Space had fairly serious first seasons, but, when both went to color in their second years, the plots went towards the juvenile.
      By the last season of Voyage there are some episodes that seem more like fever dreams than coherent sci-fi.

  5. I watched Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a teenager, and was delighted when it was re broadcasted on ME-TV. Sure some stories are silly, but the acting of Richard Basehart and David Hedsor and the relationship between the characters and the crew helped overcome some of the silliness.

  6. Those lizards appeared in a number of episodes if I recall right. That Irwin Allen certainly was a shrewd ( or rather, tight ) producer. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is much more entertaining than Lost in Space and I think it appealed to both children and parents alike. My mother was a fan of the show growing up and watched it solely to moon over David Hedison. She also wrote a fan letter and received an autographed photo of Hedison in return.

  7. I love Irwin Allen's stuff. (Hanging By A Thread, anyone?... well, maybe just me.) But, I've never watched Voyage to the Bottom... This is a great write-up. The personal touches really enrich it. Now, I want to watch the show. Here I go...

    Thanks! Excellent post.

  8. Our cable tv provider aquired METV in January and I am hooked! My family has asked it I like it better than TCM! Anyhow, my youngest and I have been watching Voyage every week and part of the fun is to see what crazy new monster(s) will the crew of the Seaview have to deal with. I have to shake my head at some of the plots-the money must have been good for a caliber actor such as Basehart to agree to be on the show. I never saw Voyage growing up as I was just a baby when it's second season aired. My sister-in-law has fond memories of watching it and loved the pinging noise that was used when the Seaview was in action. I do wonder if the cast got tired of all the roller-coaster scenes, they having to sway wildly from side to side, throw themselves to the floor, etc.

  9. Rick, we of Team Bartilcci loved the like of Irwin Allen when we were kids, and my hubby Vinnie, including StingRay! Thanks for the memories!

  10. I always liked Voyage so much -- I've loved Richard Basehart since seeing him when I was a kid in Moby Dick. Very interesting info, Rick. Did you ever notice that the sound in Voyage was a little odd -- it seemed to have an echo -- or then again, am I thinking of the movie with Walter Pidgeon?