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.
'SeaQuest' Joined A Glut Of Other TV Sci-Fi Shows Built On The Success Of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
Before the 1990s, science fiction on TV was a fairly niche genre. Sure, there were success stories like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space (both produced by legendary Hollywood mogul Irwin Allen), but television airwaves were traditionally dominated by more earthbound cop shows, Westerns, and sitcoms. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea only lasted four seasons; Lost in Space a mere three. Even the original Star Trek had a tough time in its original run and was canceled after three tumultuous seasons. The expense of sci-fi tended to not match up with audience demand, making it a tough sell for networks looking at profit margins.
All of that changed with the successful syndicated launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. TNG had grown into an era-defining hit by 1993, reaching 11 million households at its peak. When TNG left the air in 1994 (one year after the premiere of seaQuest) and made the leap to motion pictures, TV was stuffed with sci-fi stories. The X-Files, Babylon 5, Quantum Leap, Sliders, and countless other shows on both broadcast and cable TV were competing for audiences.
Into that fray leaped Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment production company, which had what it thought was a can't-miss idea: mixing Star Trek with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
'SeaQuest DSV' Took The 'Star Trek' Format And Moved It Underwater
SeaQuest was the brainchild of Rockne S. O'Bannon, who came to prominence as the writer of the 1988 cult classic sci-fi movie Alien Nation - a buddy-cop action film where one of the cops happens to be an alien. Alien Nation went on to become a TV series on the Fox network, without O'Bannon's involvement. His next big idea was seaQuest, a swashbuckling adventure series about a future (2018, to be exact) in which humanity had colonized not space, but the oceans on this very planet.
There are clear similarities between Star Trek and seaQuest, beyond the blatantly derivative title. Star Trek's United Federation of Planets would become seaQuest's United Earth Oceans (or UEO). Grumpy, stern, moralistic, but lovable Captain Jean-Luc Picard would become grumpy, stern, moralistic, but lovable Captain Nathan Hale Bridger. In place of boy genius Wesley Crusher, seaQuest had boy genius Lucas Wolenczak (played by Jonathan Brandis, at the time a teen idol thanks to roles in the popular kids' films Sidekicks and Ladybugs). Motherly Dr. Beverly Crusher morphed into motherly Dr. Kristin Westphalen. Hotshot young first officer William Riker became hotshot young first officer Jonathan Ford. You get the point.
The similarities go on and on, but as is often the case in the entertainment industry, a huge hit series like TNG breeds imitators hoping to carve a bit of profit from the trend. But no one would dismiss seaQuest as a mere ripoff, thanks to the involvement of one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.
Steven Spielberg Was Executive Producer During The First Two Seasons
The idea caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who could seemingly make any idea a success just by putting his name on it as a producer (Back to the Future, Poltergeist, Gremlins, and countless more). Even though Spielberg's last major foray into broadcast TV, the anthology Amazing Stories, failed to catch on after NBC committed to over 44 episodes in 1985, his presence practically guaranteed seaQuest would be made, and with a substantial budget behind it.
NBC paid Universal Television and Amblin Entertainment $1 million an episode (at the time unheard of) as a license fee. The large price tag was the result of not only Spielberg's pedigree, but also the sheer expense of making a series about a futuristic submarine. Each episode of seaQuest cost $1.5 million to make, and NBC ordered 22 episodes for the first season, far more than the 13-episode industry standard for a brand-new show at the time. Universal also deftly used the threat of taking seaQuest into first-run syndication (a model proven successful by, you guessed it, Star Trek: The Next Generation) to strong-arm NBC into terms that were financially onerous and incredibly risky.
'Jaws' Actor Roy Scheider Was Tapped To Play The Captain
Spielberg was able to obtain the involvement of Roy Scheider, the lead actor from his first blockbuster, the similarly ocean-bound thriller Jaws, as Captain Nathan Bridger. Scheider had never done a TV series before and was reluctant to sign on to seaQuest.
“I had my qualms," Scheider said in 1993. "If it’s just a submarine captain, then you don’t need me to do that, and I don’t want to do that. But if the guy in time could become a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Popeye, it might be a character worth doing for some time."