Irwin Allen had four, count ‘em, four SF series running on TV in the second half of the sixties, an accomplishment that has never been equaled, though the 90s Trek franchise came as close as anyone ever has with three series running over the course of a decade. That in no way prevented Mr. Allen from trying for five, however, and though ultimately he failed, he still produced a film that is ripe for our riffing.
“City Beneath The Sea” was intended as a weekly TV series. Irwin Allen produced a ten-minute pilot as a sort of proof of concept. It was fairly terrible, and didn’t exactly impress anyone, however based on his track record (271 hours of high-concept SF entertainment on budget and on schedule in just five years!), they decided to give him a shot at a TV Movie. This was intended as a “Backdoor Pilot” as they say (One of those things that sounds dirty, but probably isn’t): if it got good ratings, it’d go to series the next year. If it didn’t get good ratings, it wouldn’t.
PLAY BY PLAY
In the year 2053, we see what looks like an oil-drilling platform explode and crash into the sea. In a futuristic version of New York City, which appears to consist entirely of a massive cyclorama, we meet retired, ruggedly handsome, fantastically wealthy Admiral Matthews. You can tell it’s the future because his suit has no lapels, and he wears a really gay looking cravat. The president (Richard Basehart!) calls up and recalls Matthews to active duty to oversee the current crisis. Matthews isn’t thrilled by this, but what choice do you have? When Admiral Nelson calls you up, and he’s wearing a mustache, you don’t have a lot of options.
There’s a city beneath the sea called “Pacifica,” which is America’s first undersea colony. Matthews more-or-less built the place, and was its first commander, but there was some unpleasantness, and everyone hates him now, so he resigned. No one really wants him back. He flies to the city on the Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Here called a “Hydrofoil”) where we get the normal piloty exposition-heavy guided tour of the city, which introduces our main characters, many of which don’t really have much to do here.
“Pacifica” is farging huge. It’s got a population in the tens of thousands. We’ve got basically several concurrent plots at work here: Since Pacifica is more secure than Fort Knox (Seriously! Auric Goldfinger couldn’t get his planes anywhere near this place!), the US gold reserve is being transported here, and is about 2/3rds done. Plot number two is an increasing number of seismic events, such as the destruction of the oil rig (Or whatever) in the teaser. This is more-or-less what Matthews was brought in to take care of. Plot Number Three is what to do with America’s strategic supply of Explodium-90, a fake, glowy, highly radioactive isotope thing. It’s not actually called “Explodium,” but I can’t remember the name right now, and “Explodium” is a better name anyway.
It eventually turns out that a huge flaming asteroid in space - no, really, it’s flaming in space - is heading to earth, and its gravity is what’s causing all the quakes. The Explodium is being transferred to Pacifica so it’ll be safe - the presence of Gold prevents it from going critical and, well, exploding. As hokey as all this is, it is at least kind of interesting hokum, but since this is a pilot, we don’t spend all that much time on the plot, and instead we spend a lot of time getting to know people who we’ll never see again, though obviously they’d easily have become as iconic in the SF zeitgeist as Francis Ethelbert Sharkey and IDAC (“Kill! Crush! Destroy!”) if the show had gone to series.
But I digress.
Rather than dealing with the major crisis at hand, we get a couple forced “Tense Moments” such as when a “Hydrofoil” gets crushed by a hydro tractor that falls off the gold vault while constructing it. This introduces everyone’s favorite Man From Atlantis, Mark Harris…Oh, no, wait, Patrick Duffy was still in college when this was made. Ok, let’s get Burr DeBenning instead. So DeBenning plays a scientist named “Doctor Aguilla,” who’s modified himself to breathe water (on occasion, it’s not like he’s making a habit of it) who rescues the guy in the stricken flying sub (Which, you’ll recall, is not called a flying sub this time out). We discover that this is how Matthews acquired all the bad feelings everyone has for him: A more-or-less identical accident happened nearly a year ago. Matthews had to choose saving the base or his best friend, and he chose the base. The man’s widow - also a major character - bears him a lot of ill-will, as do his kids.
Running through all this, we have Matthew’s brother, played by special guest star Robert Wagner in surly mode. “Brett,” as he’s called, is mostly in charge of the construction of the gold vault, and he intends to heist it, which, frankly, is a neat trick when you stop to think about it. They’re like a mile down, in a vault, underwater, a jillion miles from anywhere. It’d be tough to pull of even a minor heist, much less nabbing the entire gold supply like he’s intending to do. Of course it turns out that he’s the one who actually caused the accident that killed his brother’s best friend, and which eventually caused Admiral Matthews to quit Pacifica in disgrace, and go on to become a millionaire playboy in New York.
They’re transferring the Explodium to Pacifica because they think the asteroid will hit the continental US, but as the movie lumbers on, we discover it’s actually going to hit Pacifica, which will be an even bigger disaster since, you know, hokey asteroid + explodium + Irwin Allen = special effect spectacular that’ll put them way the hell over budget, so they need to nip this bad boy in the bud.
Pacifica is evacuated, Matthews kills his brother in mid-heist by exposing him to unshielded Explodium, and Pacifica’s heretofore unmentioned “Defense Missiles” manage to change the asteroid’s course so it doesn’t hit earth at all. Yay! Matthews, his brother freshly killed, and his name cleared, settles in for 100 episodes or so of weekly (Some would say Weakly) adventures, which were never to be.
Though it’s tempting to assume this is a sequel to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, none of Irwin Allen’s shows were conceived of as taking place in the same fictional universe. This is not Voyage:TNG, and the president is not an 139-year-old version of Harriman Nelson. Which is kind of a shame, really. Though Allen frequently re-used props and actors (Who were basically just another kind of prop to him) in all his productions, frequently in the same kinds of parts, they’re not the same character, if that makes sense. Ford Rainey played the president in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and he played the president in Lost In Space, but he’s not playing *THE SAME* president, if you follow me.
Yeah, it’s stupid and confusing, but consider the source material here.
That said, it’s much easier to pretend “City” is in the same universe with “Voyage” than it is to pretend any of the other shows are related. Just ignore that crazy “2053” date, and assume it takes place 10 or 15 years after Voyage, and it kind of fits, you know? The feel is the same, equipment that’s experimental in Voyage is in wide usage in City, it’s easy to assume the president *IS* Nelson (Apparently Ford Rainey was busy that day). Hell, the Seaview even makes a cameo appearance early on in the background. It’s easy to go a bit further and assume Admiral Matthews is an older version of Captain Crane, but, of course, that way lies madness. If you’re considering chucking off what you see onscreen to make your retcon fit, you’re putting too much effort into it, and you should go get a girlfriend. If you’ve already got a girlfriend, you should ask her if she’ll let you see her naked, just so you can get your mind off Irwin Allen. She’ll probably say yes. Girls are kind-hearted that way.
Happy pretend worlds notwithstanding, there’s no ties between this show and Voyage, nor any of the other shows. Which is a shame, really, since it would have been kind of neat to have them overlap, and it would have built a big, complex, interesting (But still pretty stupid) universe pretty quickly. Despite all the crossovers of cast, crew, equipment, costumes, and writers, however, the idea never seems to have occurred to Mr. Allen. Odd.
If you’re a big geeky fan of old TV shows, this show is a treasure trove for playing “Spot the prop.” Major sets from all of Allen’s TV shows are re-used here, sometimes pretty openly (As with the Flying Sub/Aquafoil) and sometimes a bit more subtly (The control room is an extensive redress of the Time Tunnel set).
The music is largely incidental music from other Allen shows, but he always had good music, so I can’t begrudge that. What’s original in the score is by Richard LaSalle, a prolific genre composer who doesn’t really get the mad props he deserves. ( http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006161/ ) There’s a recurring theme here - it’s not the theme of the series as a whole, mind you, but recurs quite a bit - which LaSalle later re-used as the main theme in “The Return of Captain Nemo” (1978), another Irwin Allen project that came to a slightly-less-quick end.
Sugar Ray Robinson and Joseph Cotton make appearances in the movie. It’s always fun to see either of them, though they have little to do. Cinematography is the typical mix of dull static shots and trippy shots with interesting lighting. Casting a woman as head of security was pretty forward thinking in 1971, particularly for a guy who wasn’t particularly known for it.
There’s some obvious logical and scientific problems here. The most obvious is an asteroid having enough gravity to cause earthquakes from a kerjillion miles away. If it had that much mass, it’d be composed of degenerate matter. If it *WAS* composed of that, then (A) ain’t no way some wimpy ICBMs would ward it off and (B) it’d destroy the earth before it even got close. Also, while I’m at it (C ) if they *DID* manage to change it’s course at the last minute, it’s more than likely the earth would go into orbit AROUND the asteroid. Degenerate matter: Don’t screw with it. It’s dangerous.
I also don’t quite get the whole explodium/gold thing, which seems to me to be the worst kind of codependent relationship: You need Gold to keep the explodium from explodiating…uhm…excuse me: “Exploding.” But it’s radioactive, so, if you keep it in Fort Knox, isn’t the gold supply getting irradiated? And if it’s irradiated, isn’t it effectively out of bounds as a medium of exchange anyway? I mean, basically, isn’t this whole ‘explodium’ thing basically a case of defeating the bad guys in Goldfinger, and then saying “You know, they had a pretty good idea! Let’s nuke our stuff anyway!”
Though there’s little here that would impress someone who *Doesn’t* like crappy 60s SF, there’s really a whole lot to love, assuming you’re not the kind of person who gets hung up on acting, plot, logic, bad science, etc.
Back when I wrote this review, the entire movie was still available on Youtube. It has since been removed, but a reasonably inexpensive official copy can be purchased here http://www.wbshop.com/City-Beneath-the-Sea/1000116269,default,pd.html?cgid=