RETROSPECULATIVE TV WRAP-UP: Man From Atlantis: What Have We Learned?

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Retrospeculative TV is a series in which we look at the classic shows from yesteryear as though they were new. We look at their successes, their failings (Far more frequent, really), and their unique qualities. “Man From Atlantis” is the first of these series we’ve completed since starting this feature, and as we say farewell to a shirtless, hairless young Patrick Duffy for the final time, I think it’s only fair to take a moment to contemplate what we’ve learned form the show.

Of course the obvious answer is “Nothing. What the hell, are you nuts? It’s a stupid, forgotten show that no one liked from thirty-two years ago. How could you learn anything from that, jackass?”

And of course you’d be right if you said that. Pretty much bang-on-the-money, really.

Even so, I’ve never been one to avoid belaboring an obviously belaborable point, and of course I feel that failures are just as important as successes. These ‘wrap up’ editions are where we cast final judgment on the series.

I can really only think of four aquatic Science Fiction shows, and frankly all of them are pretty grim: “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “Sealab 2020,” “Man From Atlantis,” and “SeaQuest DSV.” Not an enviable track record for the concept.

And yet, you know, there’s really something kind of cool about it. Submarines are cool, Science Fiction is cool, TV is cool, there just *must* be some way to make a cool Submarine SF Show. “Voyage” probably came the closest, but it sold its birthright for a mess of pottage in the second season, and never recovered.

Part of this consistent failure of Sub shows is simply that there are very clear logical limitations on what you can and can’t do in a submarine. You can’t go to other planets (Though SeaQuest did that once), you can’t explore New Worlds And New Civilizations (Though Man From Atlantis did that) simply because it’s pretty obvious in the last fifty years or so that the only as-yet-undiscovered civilizations on Earth are stone age, and hence not really all that fun from a narrative point of view. There’s really only a handful of plots that can logically happen on a sub:

1) War

2) Sub sinks and can’t come up again

3) Monster loose on the sub

4) Killer virus loose on the sub

5) Terrorists hijack the sub

6) Sub is in *danger* of sinking and not being able to come up again, possibly as a result of war, or possibly just because the helmsman is drunk and runs into a cliff or a tunaboat or something.

7) Sub is sent out to recover some undersea MacGuffin that is otherwise unrecoverable

8) Someone freaks out and runs amok, endangering the sub

9) Boring fake-science stuff

10) Sub is caught up in international intrigue

11) Supervillains, Supervillains, Super villains (This one is admittedly a stretch)

The limitations of the format are pretty obvious, and every time you bend or break one of these limitations, it reduces the credibility of the show as a whole, which is why these shows invariably start off as reasonably plausible - or at least acceptably implausible - and quickly descend into wholesale silliness.

Man From Atlantis is a pretty typical exemplar of this. Conceived of as a rather half-assed hybrid of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Star Trek, it ran out of things to do very, very quickly, and quickly descended (Pun!) into unexplained voyages through time, to alternate worlds, hokey underwater civilizations, trips to fantasyland, evil midgets, and, of course, sex with carnival workers.

In many ways, “Atlantis” is even worse than its peers, saddled with an ersatz Spock character, which obviously derived from some producer’s over-dinner musings about “What do we need Captain Kirk for, anyway?” The plot erosion was pretty amazingly fast, with Mark obviously originally intended to be a kind of covert asset for the Navy being abandoned by the second episode, then a bunch of episodes that more-or-less ignored anything aquatic in favor of aliens, space, and super villains. The cast eroded pretty quickly, too. The show started up with two main characters, and concluded with only one of them still on staff by the end. Of the other characters introduced during its run, only one of these remained to the end.

As a result of this, or perhaps as a direct cause of it, the show never seemed sure of what it wanted to be. The initial ‘navy’ concept was pretty obviously intended in the vein of The Six Million Dollar Man, with Mark as a shirtless Steve Austin and the Navy as the OSI. That probably would have been the best fit for the show, frankly, but it was abandoned in favor of poorly conceived trekism in the second episode, it became a broad fantasy world adventure farce for most of its run, and by the end, the series was attempting to re-invent itself as a 1970s superhero show in the mold of The Incredible Hulk or Wonder Woman. This last phase was actually better than the previous ten or twelve episodes, which raises the question: why would you want to do a submarine-based show if you have absolutely no interest in the sea?

(Conversely, with SeaQuest the question was “Why do you want to do a submarine-based show if you have no interest in drama?”)

The show never really figured out who its core audience was, either: 12 year old boys? Chicks? Gay dudes? Aquaman fans? As a result, it was all over the map, and never seemed focused. Indeed, if they’d just picked the 12-year-old demographic the way Voyage did, it would at least have been a fun show with lots of cool - if stupid - crap in it. Alas, they didn’t, so it just ended up with all the stupid, and none of the cool. And really surprisingly little adventure as well.

The on-screen cast changes were echoed by behind-the-scenes cast changes, with Herb Justman bowing out after the debut, Co-Creator Herb Solow bowing out at some point during the course of the season, and Herman Miller captaining the sinking ship for the remainder of its doomed life.

Pretty much any impression of this show is going to be pretty negative. It was slammed at the time, and it really deserves no better treatment now, but there are a few positives:

The Cetacean is the most interesting and realistic submarine ever used in a show like this. It’s capabilities were defined by the script, not by any kind of reason, but the design is clever and functional. The set designs were functional and clever, but suffered from an unfortunate bout of 1970s art direction. They’re not nearly so bad as Buck Rogers a few years later, but they’re not nearly so good as the original Galactica, either. Though the sets themselves are clever, they all look a bit cheap, and increasingly dinged up as the series goes along. As cool goes, the show never got any cooler than the sub, but they quickly lost interest in it.

The expansive “Seabase” set is impressive but largely useless. I don’t think they actually have a single scene that makes use of the massive conference table. It’s another cool thing that they just don’t know what to do with, and - as is typical of this show - rather than figure out what to do with something cool, they just kind of ignore it.

Patrick Duffy is actually much better than you’d expect, given it was his first major TV gig, he’s playing a semi-embarrassing character, and the obvious physical requirements of the show must have been grueling as hell, and occasionally dangerous. He pulls it off most of the time rather intriguingly, and even when he fails, it’s not really his fault so much as it is the terrible, terrible writing. To be fair, I can’t imagine any other actor - then or now - pulling this off as well as he did. In fact, in his dual role in the gunslinger episode, he actually pulled off a significant amount of charm. To be blunt, at seventeen episodes, this show ran entirely too long, and I pretty much never want to see it again, but if you told me there was a spinoff featuring the identical old-west twin character, I’d actually be kind of intrigued to check that out. Hmmm….Mister Duffy, if you’re reading this, and you’re up for revisiting your character in a Fan Film, I’m game! I’ve got a cowboy hat you can use, and my friend Earl has horses…it’d be cool!

The Mark Harris character has some intriguing elements - his amnesia is a nice touch, his ‘in the world but not of it’ nature is kind of nice, and there’s an appealing quirkiness about him roughly half the time - but this is continually sabotaged by the bad writing. His superpowers are completely random and inconsistent, and for the most part they’re used once and never mentioned - nor remembered, obviously - again.

The saddest part of the show for me is the quick deterioration of Belinda Montgomery’s “Elizabeth” character. In her first appearance, she’s really super-appealing: she’s independent, she’s got a love-life, but she’s clearly not trying to ‘land a man’, she’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s decisive and something of a leader, and she’s not a science nun, nor a shrill man-hating dude-in-a-dress. The sexual tension between herself and Mark is both believable and kind of endearing. She’s the Mary Tyler Moore of the 1970s SF set. I guess network execs or test audiences must have reacted with a bit “Who does she think she is?” because by the second episode, while she’s clearly commanding the sub, she’s in a subordinate role elsewhere, and she has her last good moment in the third ep - screwing up in the desert, freaking out, pulling herself together, salvaging the situation, and then diving from a helicopter into a pool to save Mark’s life. That’s a genuinely exciting, well-written, well-acted character piece. Unfortunately from there on she was demoted to Expositional Plot Device on an increasingly acutely embarrassing show, and a more or less useless one at that. When Belinda Montgomery quit (I assume), her character was replaced without even a pause. It’s sad. It really is, to take a character like that and trash her in such a short time.

Victor Buono is one of my all-time favorite character actors, and yet this show managed to simultaneously over- and under-use him. He turns up five or six times in just seventeen episodes, which is entirely excessive, and yet it’s obvious that he’s not giving them his A-game. While it’s always nice to see him, it’s sad to see him so close to the end of his life working at something he clearly doesn’t give a damn about.

Alan Fudge is seldom called upon to do more than talk on the phone. He is really only called upon to do more than that on three occasions, and in one of these he’s surprisingly good. I never really got a sense of his talents, or who, exactly, his character was, but I get the sense that both of them/him were capable of a lot more than they were allowed to do here.

Pamela Solow, the producer’s cute Pat Tallman-looking daughter, was really a lot of fun when she was introduced in the penultimate episode. She was obviously intended to be a recurring character. I would have liked to have seen more of her (And I mean that in a non-dirty sense). Hm. Maybe she can be in my hypothetical wild-west spinoff fan film?

And that’s about that, I guess. There’s not really much more to say, except that it started out as a neat - not brilliant - concept that deteriorated faster than Any. Other. Genre. Show. I’ve. Ever. Seen. No hyperbole there, I really can’t think of another show that fell apart this fast. Sure, I can think of worse show, but invariably those started out crappy and stayed that way. This one started out kinda’ good. There were episodes - the two-headed Seahorse one, for instance - that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Saturday morning Kroft live-action show. (Aside from the group sex jokes, of course)

In the end, this is not an unfairly forgotten classic, it’s a deservedly-forgotten fiasco.