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The Behind-The-Scenes Drama That Sank 'seaQuest DSV'

A futuristic submarine patrolling the high seas, captained by Sheriff Brody from Jaws, with help from teen star Jonathan Brandis. A massive budget and a lavish ad campaign, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. What could go wrong with NBC's sci-fi series seaQuest DSV? In a word, everything. Despite the power of Hollywood golden goose Spielberg and a great time slot on Sunday nights, seaQuest struggled in the ratings; the writers and producers clashed; the cast was replaced, twice; and the star quit two-thirds of the way through the show's run. Oh, and they encountered aliens for some reason.

Though seaQuest might not have been the mega-hit NBC was hoping for, it endures as a popular streaming choice on Peacock and conjures up found, nostalgic memories for a generation of TV watchers. Here is the story of seaQuest DSV - what went wrong and what actually kind of went right.

  • Photo: John F. Williams / US Navy

    Steven Spielberg Hired Robert Ballard To Be The Show's Scientific Expert

    Steven Spielberg also hired ocean physicist and engineer Robert Ballard, famed for finding the wreck of the Titanic, to be the show's scientific consultant and resident futurist. Ballard was himself a big personality and genuine advocate for colonization of the ocean, which made him practically a co-creator of the series. Ballard was so influential on the initial conception of seaQuest that Scheider patterned much of his Bridger character after Ballard.

    Ballard also ended up hosting a brief segment during the end credits where he explained the real science behind the outlandish stories that made up seaQuest's first season. Chief among them were the numerous plots that revolved around what might be seaQuest's most enduring character: Darwin, the talking dolphin.

  • Photo: NBC

    Contrary To Popular Belief, Darwin The Dolphin Was An Animatronic Creation

    If seaQuest had to have a cast member inspired by every popular character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, who would be its Data, the beloved, guileless android Pinocchio always yearning to be a real boy? This was a tricky question to answer, because seaQuest (at least initially) was to take place in a realistic future without aliens, androids, time travel, or other elements of space-bound sci-fi. After all, they had a real scientist (Robert Ballard) giving mini-lectures during the credits. There was no room for flights of fancy like robot officers or pointy-eared extraterrestrials.

    The solution to the Data problem was Darwin, a dolphin given the gift of rudimentary speech thanks to a translation system designed by genius Lucas Wolenczak. Darwin would "speak" in choppy, child-like sentences such as "Darwin swim" or "Darwin love Bridger." Adult critics in 1993 saw Darwin for exactly what he was, an adorable bit of pandering to kids (and kids at heart). There's a reason Darwin is the biggest thing people remember from seaQuest (other than Jonathan Brandis). 

    What many people might not know is that Darwin was an animatronic creation and not a real, trained dolphin. The expensive, sophisticated nature of the puppet helped secure the illusion. The voice of  Darwin was provided by noted voice actor Frank Welker, whose extensive resume includes turns as Garfield, Scooby Doo, and Megatron in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

  • Photo: NBC

    The Production Of 'seaQuest' Was Riddled With Conflict

    Naturally, the hefty expense of producing and distributing seaQuest DSV led to commensurately heavy expectations of ratings success. "SeaQuest is clearly the biggest (television) undertaking this studio has ever had, in terms of size and production and economics,” Universal Television president Tom Thayer told the L.A. Times on the eve of seaQuest's splashy debut on Sunday nights at 8 pm. 

    No expense was spared to guarantee seaQuest would be a huge hit. Exteriors were filmed in Malibu, CA. Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back and Robocop 2, was hired to helm the pilot. A set the L.A. Times described as "the size of the Queen Mary" was built on Universal Studios' Stage 28. Talent contracts to big names like Roy Scheider and profit participation deals for behind-the-scenes figures like Spielberg meant it would take significant viewership (and accompanying advertising revenue) to get into the black. That left NBC skittish and made every decision made about the show 10 times more difficult to make.

    With Spielberg off in Poland filming Schindler's List, there was no firm hand guiding seaQuest's production in Los Angeles. According to a story published in the L.A. Times, Scheider clashed with executive producer and showrunner Tommy Thompson over the creative vision for the show. Scheider wanted the show to be quirkier and more realistic. Thompson wanted a darker, more action-based show. That caused Spielberg to call LA from Poland to shut down filming following the completion of episode 3. A new executive producer, David J. Burke, was brought in to smooth things over, promising to follow Spielberg and Scheider's vision for an optimistic, inspiring, science-focused series.

    Smoothing over the internal conflict didn't solve the problem of ratings, though. Critics called the show "ponderous" and "plodding," which pushed the huge audience garnered by the pilot to leave the series in droves. The first season of seaQuest finished 83rd out of 132 prime-time network series in 1993. It ended up pulling fewer viewers than its primary Sunday night competition, ABC's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This was despite a late-season push into more outlandish sci-fi concepts, including, inexplicably, aliens. That episode, "Such Great Patience," was episode 21 out of 23 and a preview of things to come. The idea of seaQuest being a grounded sci-fi show was about to get fired out of the proverbial torpedo bay.

  • Photo: NBC

    The Network Replaced Almost Half The Cast For Season 2

    It was a huge surprise when NBC renewed seaQuest for a second season. Network brass alleged that their decision was based on success with viewers ages 18 to 34, the most desirable demographic to advertisers. This rationale seemed specious to industry insiders. An anonymous studio executive told the L.A. Times, “They spent a lot of money and they don’t want to look bad, so they’re calling defeat a victory.” The sole bright spot for the first season was an Emmy for outstanding individual achievement in main title theme music, awarded to John Debney, composer of the memorable seaQuest theme.

    In an effort to save their substantial investment, NBC took the opportunity to overhaul the entire show. Production was moved from LA to Orlando, FL, which allowed for lower production costs. The bridge of the ship was redesigned to be less technically accurate than those in real submarines, but more cinematic. Four of the nine credited live-action cast members (not counting Darwin) were replaced in order to make the series feel younger, and to presumably appeal to more 18- to 34-year olds. Even Robert Ballard was replaced as the host of the end credits "Sea Facts" segment. 

    Michael and Peter DeLuise (sons of famous comic actor Dom DeLuise) joined the cast along with a new doctor played by Rosalind Allen and Edward Kerr as Lt. James Brody, a character who shared a last name with Scheider's small-town sheriff from Jaws. That might have been a transparent attempt to curry favor with the star of the show, a man who was becoming more and more publicly frustrated with his role on seaQuest.