I stand by a statement I once made to the effect that the 1990s gave us a bounty of amazing scifi TV shows. Once you start counting them, you can go on and on for a long time. These shows included Star Trek-ish knockoffs that seized upon the idea of a vessel taking a crew on voyages to strange locales.
One of the most prominent Star Trek wannabes had to be 1993’s SeaQuest DSV. When this show came out, let me tell you, it was a major event. Steven Spielberg’s name was flashed everywhere as the show’s executive producer. Jaws’ Roy Scheider was tapped to play the lead as Captain Nathan Bridger. John Debney composed a stirring theme song that ranks among my favorites. NBC went all-in on the concept, greenlighting a huge 24-episode first season at a then-staggering $1.5 million per hour. The promotion and marketing for this was crazy, and I wasn’t the only one who was both excited and intrigued.
Flipping the script a bit on Star Trek, SeaQuest DSV exchanged outer space for the vast unknowns of the ocean. It’s the year 2018, and a United Nations-like organization creates the SeaQuest DSV, the most advanced submarine ever, to help patrol the oceans as nations start exploiting underwater resources and colonizing the deep. The ship would be captained by Bridger and a top-notch crew as it traveled the world to deal with various crises, political conflicts, and strange discoveries.
The large cast included a couple of very notable names. First, there was Ted Raimi — brother of Sam — who played Lieutenant O’Neill for most of the show’s run. Then there was a mechanical talking dolphin named Darwin that was voiced by Scooby-Doo’s Frank Welker. But outshining even Scheider was the presence of Jonathan Brandis (It, The Neverending Story II), a massively popular teenage hearthrob who single-handedly created a whole new demographic for the show. Brandis kind of took up the Wesley Crusher role as prodigy Lucas.
Initially, SeaQuest was a crushing success. Its pilot episode garnered a 17.8 Nielsen rating to become the second-most watched show that week (after Monday Night Football). Unfortunately, the uneven first season failed to live up to the weighty expectations, and ratings began to slip. With the high cost of the series, there were concerns that NBC might axe it after the 24-episode order was up.
Instead, the studio authorized a second season with some heavy retooling, including a changeover of a good chunk of the cast, a new filming location, and a shift in focus to more high-concept scifi (anomalies, monsters, time travel, and the such). The original ship, which was destroyed after the first season, was replaced by a “more organic” successor. The finale even took the DSV to an alien world in the middle of a civil war, stranding the crew far from earth.
The changes deeply upset star Roy Scheider, who felt betrayed by the shift and vocally badmouthed the series. “You guys have changed it from handball into field hockey and never even bothered to talk to me,” he reportedly said to the production team.
There wasn’t a huge turnaround in the ratings in season two, and once again, it looked like SeaQuest’s days were numbered. However, it did get one final shot at the cost of even more extensive changes. The third season rebranded the show as SeaQuest 2032 and let the frustrated Scheider go in favor of bringing in Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers) as Captain Oliver Hudson.
The third season moved the timeline forward 10 years, tried to backpedal on the more fantastic scifi elements, and embraced an ever-darker, more militaristic tone. Oddly enough, this was hailed as a good move by the show’s audience and critics, who saw the series finally coming into its own. However, NBC refused to stick it out any longer, and after the 13-episode season was up, SeaQuest was cancelled in June 1996 after just 57 episodes.
SeaQuest DSV’s creator, Rockne S. O’Bannon would get another shot at making an epic scifi series, this time with the four-season Farscape around the turn of the century. As for SeaQuest itself, the show and its surrounding phenomenon has largely receeded into the distant memory — an expensive flash-in-the-pan that could’ve been the next Trek… but wasn’t.