RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Man From Atlantis: “Man From Atlantis” (Episode 1)

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Since it’s the winter doldrums, and there’s really nothing on TV for us to review; and since the season won’t really get back into full swing until February/March, I decided this would be a fine time for us to introduce a feature I’ve been toying with the idea for some time now: “Retrospeculative TV.” The concept is simple: These are really old shows, which we’ll be reviewing as if they were new shows. We’re going to avoid the heavy-hitters - I don’t think anyone in the civilized world wants another overview of Star Trek:TOS or The Twilight Zone - but we’ll be doing the shows that had a formative influence on us back in the day. In most cases, we haven’t seen these shows in twenty years or more, so we’ll be trying to put aside our fanboy nature, and viewing them with the critical eye of hypercritical adults. Adults who like SF. Fanmen, rather than Fanboys, I guess.

Wow. I’m not sure I could have written that show any worse if I tried.

Anyway: as our inaugural series we’re going to start off a mostly-forgotten 1970s series, “Man From Atlantis.” We're also hoping to do "Space: 1999" and "Star Blazer" eventually, as well as continuing my "Chronological Macross" coverate, and probably "Robotech" as well. We'll start the feature off at more-or-less random openings in our schedule, until we find a slot that works best, and scale it back some as the regular broadcast season gets on its feet again.

“Man From Atlantis” was a short-lived oddball series from 1977 and 1978, a strange hybrid in many ways: Firstly, it was a submarine-based SF show, and there have never been very many of those. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Stingray, Man From Atlantis, and SeaQuest DSV are really the only ones I can think of. Secondly, it was an attempt to sort of merge the Science Fiction Superhero genre of the ‘70s (The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Invisible Man, etc) with the more classical ship-based exploration SF shows from the ‘60s. (Star Trek, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space, Doctor Who, etc.) Thirdly, it was an attempt by Star Trek producers Herb Solow and Bob Justman to recapture lightning in a bottle, telling swashbuckling tales of adventure with a chewy center of ideas and moral dilemmas, and to do it free of the dictatorial didacticism of Gene Roddenberry.

So how did they do?

Well, the show was unpopular and short-lived enough never to be syndicated in any fashion, nor officially released on VHS or DVD, so I honestly haven’t seen any of these episodes in thirty-two years, so I can’t honestly say how they did off the top of my head. I assume they failed, however. It was the 1970s, after all.

A little more preamble before we get to the review: “Man From Atlantis” was first commissioned as a Movie of the Week in 1977. It got surprisingly good ratings, so a second Movie of the Week ran a month or two later. A third came after that, and a fourth one. Ratings tapered off a bit for these - I only vaguely remember any of my friends talking about the third one - but were still pretty respectable, so the network decided to go start an actual weekly series in the fall of ‘78. Though this “Series of Movies of the Week” thing sounds fairly strange to us, in fact it was they way they tested out high-concept shows like these in the ‘70s: Shoot a couple TV movies, and if audiences respond favorably, go to series. If not, ditch the concept. “The Six Million Dollar Man” did three TV movies before it was picked up as a series, “Fantasy Island” did two, “The Love Boat” did at least three, possibly more. The original “Battlestar Galactica” was originally commissioned as a series of four Movies of the Week for the ‘78/’79 season, but the network decided to bump it up to a regular series while the second of these was still filming. Frankly, it’s not a bad concept, and I’d like to see it revived. I think I’d prefer 3 or 4 movies of the week every year, with high production values and better writing, to 22 mediocre episodes.

So, without further ado, I give you: “Man From Atlantis.”

PLAY BY PLAY

There’s a storm at sea. We see a lot of stock footage of waves, kelp forests, at least one clip from John Houston’s “The Bible,” and then we see some dying fish, gasping for breath on a beach at night. A family walking along the beach discover an unconscious man face down and gasping. They run to call the hospital.

Meanwhile, at a party, Dr. Elizabeth Merrill (Marine Biologist) and her boyfriend (Medical Doctor) are smooching around at a party. At the hospital the beached man was sent to, the ER team is freaking out - they keep pumping oxygen into the guy, but he gets worse. His extremities are showing cyanotic, his eyes are weird, his fingers are webbed. They call Dr. Boyfriend at the party, and he agrees to come in. While he’s talking on the phone, a naval officer - Commander Phil Roth - starts openly hitting on her. It’s obvious they were a couple in the past. Evidently Elizabeth has a thing for guys with receding hairlines. Dr. Boyfriend interrupts them, and says he has to go back to the hospital to see about an odd case. Elizabeth agrees to come along. Mildly jealous, Dr. Boyfriend asks what the Commander was talking to her about. She says that he just got the command of “The Seaquest, the Navy’s new super-science research sub. I think he just wanted to talk to someone about it.”

At the hospital, everyone is confounded, excepting Elizabeth, who does some quick endoscopy of the mystery man’s lungs, and sees something that surprises her. Suddenly she knows how to save him. After a brief pissing contest with the ER staff, she loads the guy in an ambulance, without explaining herself to anyone, she tells the ambulance to drive to the beach, and then the driver and Dr. Boyfriend carry the guy to the water. She floats him face down, and keeps saying “Breathe.” Presently the guy comes to, and there’s a couple creepy/cool scenes of him staring at her completely emotionless - like a shark - from under the water.

That’s the end of Dr. Boyfriend - he won’t be scene or heard from again, he‘s a utilitarian character who‘s outlived his use. How about a big hand for him, ladies and gentlemen!

We jump forward a month or three, when Elizabeth is briefing an Admiral about the man, whom they’re calling “Mark Harris” (Which is an oddly specific name to assign to an unidentified person - it’s not like “John Doe” or “John Smith,” but no one ever questions it). He can breathe water, but he can only handle land comfortably for about 8 hours at a time. After 12 hours, he’s hurting, after 16 hours, he’s suffering a lot of physical problems. (How do they know this? Did they just park him under a sunlamp and see how long it took him to black out?) He tires quickly on land, but underwater he’s got superhuman strength. He doesn’t talk, but there’s no physiological reason why he doesn’t, they suspect he’s simply choosing not to. They believe he understands much of what they tell him, and he seems quite intelligent, as far as mute water-breathing humanoids go. His eyes are super-sensitive to light, and adaptation for seeing at great depths. They don’t know what he is, they don’t know if there’s more like him out there, but they think he’s got amnesia, owing to a bump on the noggin he sustained in the storm.

The admiral wants to meet Mark, but Mark has chosen this moment to escape from the lab, and goes wandering around the land, walking in front of cars (The stunt involving the truck actually looked dangerous!), getting trapped in a phone booth, until a child lets him out, etc. Eventually he wanders back to the lab, which is on a Naval base. The admiral tries to introduce himself, but it doesn’t go well. He tells Elizabeth that she’s got every resource she needs to test Mark - they’ve been limited as to what they can do up until now for financial reasons - and they want to find out how much he can do. There’s a neat scene of Mark in an large water pressure tank, with some Navy deep-sea floats, rated for different depths. As they increase the pressure in the tanks, the floats begin slowly, somewhat spookily, to crush, but Mark is just fine. They go to a pressure equivalent to 5 miles down, and he’s fine.

Sometime thereafter, the Admiral calls Elizabeth to his office, and tells her that the Seaquest has been lost with all hands, and they want to use Mark to locate the wreck and assist in the recovery. Elizabeth is shaken that Commander Roth is dead, and hesitant to commit Mark to anything dangerous, particularly since the terms for the mission are clearly treating him more like a trained dolphin than a sentient being. She suggests he ask Mark directly. The Admiral does, and, again, it goes badly, with Mark making a break for it, and being taken down by a whole bunch of Navy guys.

Elizabeth mediates a better agreement, and the enraged Admiral slams his fist down on the desk. Mark comes over and puts his webbed hand on top of it and speaks for the first time: “Yes. I say ‘yes’ to the Admiral.”

They get on a navy ship, and head out to the site, with Mark’s true nature hidden. He’s befriended by a diver, who takes everything Mark says as a joke. “Are you giving me the raz?” There’s a lot of really bad dialog here. They get to the site, and Mark and the Diver head down in a dive cage. At 200 feet, Mark strips out of his (useless) dive gear in front of the horrified diver, and heads down. He’s got a transponder in him so they can track him on the surface.

He swims down 35,000 feet - just about 7 miles - and is looking around for the wreck, when he sees a big, mysterious sub - not the one he’s looking for - cruising around down there. He follows it to an undersea base built into a mountain, and gets inside just as the sea doors are closing. On the surface, Elizabeth looses his signal, and assumes him dead. Search and Rescue operations begin, but of course they find nothing.

In the secret undersea base, Mark sees four people get off the sub, go to a dressing room to change, and then head down to a reception desk, where they sign in and are fitted with “Identification Bracelets.” These are actually some kind of mind-control device that removes volition, but leaves intelligence intact. Mark changes into some clothes in the dressing room, and goes to reception. They slap a bracelet on him, but it does nothing - he’s not human, so why should it? - and is quickly met by “Mister Shubert,” the leader of this installation.

Shubert takes Mark on a tour, patently not believing him when he says he just swam into the base, but he gives a story about how they’re trying to use science for peaceful means, how they’re trying to commune with the ocean, how they’re trying to develop a water-breathing man. Mark observes that once you make those kinds of changes to man, he will become something other than a man, and Schubert is impressed. He takes Mark to see his whale tank, where they’ve been very successful with translating Whaleish into English. Mark says “The whales are unhappy and wish to leave,” which the technician agrees is actually what they were saying. Impressed - but still not quite believing Mark’s story - Schubert explains that for 3000 years, man has been destroying the environment, but now he’s about to put an end to that. He’s been hijacking super-subs in these waters for years, and getting all kinds of secret information from them, which he’s used to crack the security of every ICBM-carrying ship afloat. He can control all of them, though only for 15 minutes or so. He’s going to start a nuclear war to basically kill off everyone on the surface, and then repopulate the world with lackies of his own choosing. Mark opposes this, naturally. In the control room, Mark sees Commander Roth, who attempts to attack Schubert, so Schubert’s guards knock him out. Mark attempts to help Roth, and is himself knocked out. Both of them are pub into a James Bondian cage being lowered into the water in the sub pen. Schubert starts the nuclear war countdown at 15 minutes.

Mark uses his underwater super-strength to bend open the bars and rescue Roth. Freeing him of the mind control - simply taking off the bracelet - he instructs him to free the others, and take the sub and get out of there, then he heads back to control to open the sea doors and stop the missiles. Schubert, meanwhile, gets a biological report on Mark - his people were surreptitiously scanning him during the tour to figure out why the mind control wouldn’t work - and they’ve uncovered that he’s not human, and modified a mind control bracelet that should work on him. Schubert has his goons attempt to bring Mark in once he realizes the man’s a water breather, but Mark is able to avoid them effortlessly in several tedious scene.

We get the Bond vs. Supervillain showdown in the control room, with Schubert being very affable, and Mark being very forthright and naive. He tells Mark how to open the sea doors, and then when Mark goes for the button, he slaps a new mind control dealie on his wrist. Mark instantly goes into zombie mode, but it’s all an act to get Schubert to let his guard down and when he does, Mark whips the bracelet off and slaps it on the super villain, who promptly spills the beans about the workings of his base. Mark has Schubert open the doors and flood the place, then takes off the bracelet and we get a looooooooooong and forlorn staredown between the two, before Mark runs off as the base floods. The sub gets away. Schubert speaks to Mark over the PA - “A valiant effort my boy, but that’s all it was: an effort. This is a setback, but I will not be stopped.” An explosion goes off, evidently killing Mark. Schubert is sad - “What a waste” - and then wanders from his control room.

Back on the Navy ship, the sub has surfaced with the freed scientists, and everyone is assuming Mark is dead. Then Mark climbs up on the deck, and everyone is stupid-happy. Back at the navy base, he’s leaving, and he’s got several awkwardly-acted goodbye scenes with the other characters, culminating with Elizabeth, who explains to Mark why she’s crying and what emotions are. He doesn’t have ‘em, so he doesn’t understand. He jumps in the water to swim off, then has a looooooooooong series of flashbacks of all the major scenes in the movie, then swims back to her, still crying on the beach.

“I have not learned enough,” he says.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

How strange and wonderful to know where I was and what, exactly, I was doing on Thursday, September 22nd, 1977, between the hours of Eight and Ten PM. It’s strangely giddy, and I can’t quite explain why. I feel like I’m in touch with my younger self in some way that’s not commonly available outside of Time Travel. I catch wisps of my ten-year-old thought processes that have long-since been overshadowed by more mature ones, I see glimmers of thoughts I had a generation ago while watching this for the first time. I can hear my mom complaining about how I’m staying up too late on a school night, and my dad saying to let it go, it’s a one-time-only thing. I feel my fascination with Schubert’s mysterious sub and his undersea base as solidly as I did back then. I feel my love for space sliding back somewhat, to be overtaken by my childhood love of submarines. I remember long-forgotten discussions the next day at school in which Mike Brooks and John Polson and I compared and contrasted this show with the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea repeats we watched on Saturdays. I feel my keen longing for more adventures of the Water Breathing Man, and I hear our arguments about what he was, specifically. I remember the smell of chlorine and a water full of nose as I tried and failed repeatedly to swim like he did. I am rapt, I am content, I am born anew.

Pity it’s such a crappy movie, though.

Actually, “Crappy” is too harsh. For the time it was made, it was perfectly adequate. It suffers from the same symptoms as all the pilots of the day - a great setup, a neat premise, a tedious expository second act as we’re laboriously told what all this means, and then a more-or-less tacked-on plot in the third episode that is easily resolved, simply so there can be a story in the story, rather than endless setup with no payoff. Seriously, it comes from the same playbook as the “Six Million Dollar Man” pilot movie. The acting is all over the place, but Belinda Montgomery is much better than I remembered her being: she’s pretty without being distractingly so, and she does actually seem smart. Her obvious attraction to Mark is underplayed, and I like that she’s not a scientist/nun. She’s got a romantic past, evidently a fairly crowded one (By the standards of the television of the day). She was about 27 when they filmed this, and she makes little effort to hide her Canadian accent. I’d heard that she died a few years ago, but evidently she’s still kicking, and working occasionally.

Likewise, Patrick Duffy is actually pretty freakin’ great in this. I mean, really the only thing the role really called for was a handsome guy who was comfortable running around in shorts most of the time, and could swim well. Duffy adds a nice alien presence to all this, a slight confusion and bemusement that never make him seem ignorant, just not-from-around-here. He plays the character’s emotional remove interestingly, and while he’s not given a whole hell of a lot to work with, he manages to play what amounts to an alien stoic without simply doing a Mister Spock impression. Also, the guy really does seem supernaturally comfortable underwater. Thanks to clever editing, it makes him seem like he’s down on the bottom for ten minutes at a time with no strain, and this mostly wasn’t a special effect, he really was underwater, with his mouth open, swimming around, doing stuff. Apparently it was pretty grueling, and he nearly drowned at one point, and had to be hauled from the water and given CPR. Allegedly he came up with Mark’s signature swimming style all on his own.

The only other character who matters in this is one of my all-time-favorite over-the-top character actors of the ‘60s, Victor Buono. He’s got a history playing evil geniuses in genre shows. He did several episodes of The Wild Wild West, one of the best Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episodes ever, and a Matt Helm flick http://www.republibot.com/content/movie-review-%E2%80%9C-silencers%E2%80... but he’s probably best known for his role in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” He plays Schubert in a way that’s surprisingly at odds with all his previous super villain turns - rather than being a polished, articulate, manipulative man, Schubert is a walking trash heap - big, bushy, unkempt beard going to grey, bald on top, overweight as always, though to me he appears to have slimmed down a bit - shuffling around in jeans, a sweater, and a shirt with food stains on it - he’s a sloppy man who simply doesn’t care. He speaks with a slight southern accent that mostly works, but Buono sometimes forgets and wanders in and out of it. His odd personality is “The result of a warped adulthood, and an insatiable desire to be friends with everyone.” We’re told he was a seagoing garbage man for 20 years, before he somehow made his fortune. While Schubert isn’t quite as memorable as some of his characters, he is interestingly off-balance enough to make him an interesting presence.

We’ll see him again. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s funny the stuff you remember and the stuff you don’t. I remembered Elizabeth’s rescue of Mark, I remembered one or two guys being with her at the time, but I’d totally forgotten one was her boyfriend, and I’d honestly never noticed that he utterly evaporates from the story from that point on.

Schubert’s plot never quite holds together, and it seems to be culled from several rewrites, overlapped haphazardly. First he seems like an environmental terrorist, then he seems like he’s simply trying to make the world a better place, then he seems like a megalomaniac, and the quest for a water-breathing man really doesn’t fit in with any of these. It doesn’t hang together, or make much sense, but it *does* treat us to some surprisingly expensive and expansive sets. They’re so good I found myself wondering if they’d been repurposed from some other production, but as far as I can tell, no, they were built for this. And evidently mostly trashed in the mêlée at the end. The decoration is nice - the halls are filled with statues and vases and other object d’art that - we’re told - have been looted from centuries worth of wrecks.

Schubert’s sub is, likewise, super-cool. It’s composed of four spheres, with a engine at one end and a conning tower at the top. Obviously designed to go very deep, with windows in the front, just like the Seaview. We’ll see this again in the series. Conversely, the Seaquest, the Navy’s “Super science” sub, was pretty disappointing: Just a deep-sea submersible. It looks to me like they actually were filming “Wet” as they say: the special effects - or most of them - seem to have involved actual miniatures under actual water. But while the miniature work is good, we’re treated to hokey stuff like this:

Ah well.

We’re routinely told that they’re hanging out at depths of six and seven miles, but in fact no point in the oceans is deeper than five miles. Furthermore, how exactly does the ‘pressure tank’ they put Mark in work? Everyone knows water is incompressible. And wouldn’t the windows into the tank blow out?

The navy guys need some work. They’re completely out of uniform, their rank and insignia are all in the wrong places, their hair is non-regulation, and they don’t behave or talk like navy folk do.

Really, the whole thing is too long by a half an hour or so. Most of the expositional stuff and conflict in the middle act is uncalled for, slows the proceedings down, and has no real payoff. My hunch is that this was written as a pilot for a series, then expanded to Movie Of The Week format. Thus, it starts off strong - the ER stuff and Mark’s initial rescue is well done - but it quickly looses energy, and never quite regains it. I do have to applaud them for long stretches of dialog-free space, which was as unusual then as it is now. Mark is left alone with his thoughts, to stare pensively. There’s that looooooong forelorn staredown between Shubert and Mark that meant nothing to me at the time, but now plays a bit creepy. Is Schubert’s interest in Mark…uhm…physical? I’m not saying Schubert’s gay, but if you watch that scene with no context, it kind of soaking in a ‘betrayed lover’ vibe. His “I very much want to be friends with you” speech is similarly rife with 21st century double entendres that may or may not have been intentional in 1977.

Bottom line: despite many failings, I really enjoyed it, both for the contact buzz of essentially being in a room with my ten-year-old self again, and also because the thing didn’t entirely suck like I thought it would. Granted, it did suck a bit, but it’s not a full-scale suckfest embarrassment, like I remember some of the later episodes being. I remember one or two eps that terribly embarrassed me as a kid, they were so bad, and I’m sure there’s several episodes I never ever saw. It’ll be fun to rediscover it, to see things I missed the first time though, and to cringe anew at the terrible stuff.

As I said, the show has never been syndicated, nor was there ever any official DVD release, and it doesn’t appear to be online anywhere. I got the series as a Christmas present, and it appears to have come from here http://www.ioffer.com/i/MAN-FROM-ATLANTIS-DVD-SET-COMPLETE-GREAT--779351... but I appear to have gotten the last copy, for the time being anyway. This site has the same thing with actual packaging for a slightly higher price http://www.tvdvdmania.com/product.php?productid=138906 Both appear to be of questionable legality, so, you know, buyer beware.

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