Sometime last year I was searching YouTube for something to watch that would not tax the grey matter too greatly. It was after work around midnight and I thought it had been a long time since I had last seen an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. As with most Irwin Allen TV series the best episodes are in the first season. I remember being dismayed as a young fan of the series, watching each new episode as it degenerated into ever more bizarre stories with pathetic aliens and assorted monsters. Watching it again after so many years I had to agree with my younger self but he was not yet familiar with the concept of something being so bad that it was actually good [ e.g. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room]. A strong point of the Irwin Allen series was that the characters were well defined and engaging and played a big part in making them hugely successful. Even if some of the stories were ridiculous you would still be subconsciously empathizing with the characters, if, for instance, Kawolski was walking along a corridor of the Seaview and there was a monster waiting for him around the corner, you would find yourself muttering, ‘watch out Kawolski, ya big lug!’. But sure enough Kawolski walks straight into it. While Kawolski puts on a good show of being knocked about, your sympathy should be with the flailing green monster, or more to the point, the poor actor in the tight rubber costume who probably can’t even see Kawolski and is saying to himself, ‘if I have to do another take I’m going to die of heat stroke!’
It seems that Irwin Allen produced science-fiction he would have liked to have seen when he was a ten year old. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in particular seems to be very much like a Jules Verne adventure. Irwin seemed determined to have more monsters than Star Trek or The Outer Limits, but I noticed he had other obsessions as well. I lost count of the number of episodes that featured an island with an active volcano that is sure to explode in the last ten minutes of the show. Paranoia and Possession were other popular themes the writers kept returning to, sometimes with interesting results. One particular episode had a puppeteer (played by Vincent Price) entertaining the crew on the Seaview with puppets that look uncannily like the crew. As it unfolds it becomes clear that the puppeteer has a sinister plan for his ‘living dolls’ to take control of the Seaview from their human counterparts. This episode, which I might have dismissed as too bizarre on a previous viewing, I found to have other levels to it with some surreal dialogue from the puppets. The writers used many other storylines to keep the show going. Admiral Nelson became a werewolf in two episodes and he had to rely on Chief Sharkey to lock him in his cabin whenever he sensed a transformation was about to happen. After swearing he would not open the door under any circumstances Starkey stood outside the cabin listening to the commotion as the Admiral made animal sounds and smashed furniture. Sharkey is about to open the door but remembers his promise, shrugs and walks away. (I think he shrugged, but it was such a priceless low key reaction)
The relationship between Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane was an important thread in most stories but there were a number that focused on the Nelson, Sharkey dynamic. On one occasion they crash land the flying sub on an island (possibly with an active volcano) with numerous dinosaurs. Sharkey’s foot gets wedged between two rocks. Sharkey who is usually protective of the Admiral reluctantly has to rely on the Admiral to save him from the prehistoric beasts. In one of the shots of the monster, instead of a dinosaur growl, a woman screamed. This was confusing as there were no female characters in this episode. My mind tried to solve the mystery of the scream as Sharkey and Nelson tried to get to safety. ‘Voyage’, was produced at Twentieth Century Fox studios and I assumed Irwin would be able to access a lot of stock footage to cut production costs. I remember the Fox Journey to the Center of the Earth which used lizards dressed as dinosaurs and I also remember Arlene Dahl screaming in that movie as a dinosaur moved in her direction. I could be wrong, because Irwin also made ‘The Lost World’, for Fox and he used lizards for that one to save money, much to the disappointment of Willis O’ Brien who was hoping it would use stop motion as did his 1925 film version. Anyhow, whichever film it was taken from you would think there would so much footage to choose from, yet they included the one with the scream. Such sloppiness only adds to the enjoyment, and, in episodes such as the one where a search party is swallowed by a giant Sperm Whale and they continue their search in the well lit innards of the Whale, trudging over squishy whale matter, the facts are no barrier to the adventure.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was made in the early 60s a time when great science-fiction shows such as Star Trek, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone first appeared. The Twilight Zone came about primarily due to the frustration Rod Serling felt in his efforts to write stories that referenced current events yet was stymied by the sponsors and the network who deemed his ideas too controversial for their audience. Using science-fiction as vehicle for some of the ideas that were previously rejected Serling was able to somehow make it palatable to the sponsors.
In comparison to such trailblazing shows, Irwin Allen’s science-fiction was more anachronistic, borrowing more from the previous two decades of film and television. Irwin even used a device of the ‘40s serials with Lost in Space in having a cliffhanger ending to every episode then freeze framing it with the words, ‘to be continued’.
Irwin Allen’s shows remain popular for a number of reasons. For those who watched the shows as kids, sentiment is a big factor, but for many who are seeing them for the first time it must be refreshing to see the studio sets with their paper mache’ rocks and plastic flora with painted backdrops and no CGI. Most of the characters were well written also but with Irwin you knew there was going to be plenty of action and adventure. Whether it was the crew of a submarine being tossed from side to side with pyrotechnics happening all around as a giant squid wraps its tentacles around the Seaview or the Jupiter Two being buffeted by meteors.