While Richard Lewis was credited as Production Designer for Steven Spielberg’s undersea adventure series, the real auteur of the show’s pioneering visual style was a young man named James Lima.
indeed, as one of the ‘founding four’ (The others being creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, Production exec. Philip Segal, and Amblin President Tony Thomopolous) not only was Lima responsible for the final designs of the interior and exterior of the futuristic submarine and supporting vehicles but also the creator of the series iconic logo (designing the ‘LimaOblique’ font from scratch).
As described in the 1993 ‘Submerged Special’ from UK Publication TVZone above, Joe Nazzaro’s feature on the design of seaQuest reveals that despite originally being conceived as a ‘large aircraft-carrier type’ of vehicle, the seaQuest went through many incarnations before Lima wowed producers with a more organic design based on his philosophy of ‘Nautical Nouveau’. His concept for the main sub,for example, was unabashedly based a Squid, and the U-boat’s ‘offspring’ (the ‘Stinger’ and the ‘Speeder’) followed the same aesthetic. So radical were his creations that they were an instant hit with the target demographic and hurriedly translated into model kits and toys to kick off the inevitable merchandise campaign.
Lima would eventually be made visual effects supervisor, overseeing his creations in the many demanding CGI sequences. Though critics had originally branded the show’s visuals ‘dark and murky’ the underwater FX sequences were gradually improving with each episode under Lima’s direction. With 10 episodes of the first season in the can, however, Lima, like so many other key creative personnel (O’Bannon included!) decided to part ways with the show and move on to features (his next project being Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days).
Thankfully the production was shrewd enough to maintain Lima’s visuals for the remainder of the first season and beyond (despite a proposed Hammerhead revision of the sub for season 2) and though the show would go on to showcase an impressive armada of vehicles throughout its three-season tenure, none would surpass the standards and sheer innovation as initiated by Jim Lima, the true designer of the seaQuest.
We continue the fascinating barnacles-and-all story of the creation and development of seaQuest with these two contrasting vintage articles. The first, Christopher Bland’s piece for Starweek Magazine from 1993, is a vanilla promotional write-up that, like most others, attributed the show’s shaky start to its young co-executive producer.
Tommy Thompson’s replacement, (‘Relief Pitcher’ David Burke) while going to great lengths to credit Thompson as a ‘terrific guy’ nonetheless echoed the general perception that Thompson had indeed been ‘overwhelmed’ by the production. ‘Big Bear’ Burke was now assuring the nations press that the show was back on track, (despite admitting it wasn’t too far off in the first place) none of which made for a positive introduction for audiences to the show.
Two years later after the show’s cancellation in 1995, Thompson finally got an opportunity to tell his side of the story to TV Zone’s David Bassom, where in the second of a two-part conversation he passionately refutes any claim that he caved into any ‘pressure’ and left of his own accord.
Resolute in his belief that the show was going to sink based on the leading man’s insistence on the show having an educational rather than an action/adventure theme, the resulting clashes between Thompson & Scheider became so counter-productive Thompson confessed to jumping ship rather than having been pushed. In his defence at the time, Scheider professed “His (Thompson’s) vision was different. What he does he does very well, but I didn’t think he was the right guy for this show” whereas Thompson’s lasting impressions of Scheider were “He’s a good actor, but not a very nice guy”
Ultimately Thompson may have walked the plank but soon fell into another, more lucrative collaboration with Paramount while seaQuest’s troubles continued throughout the first season and beyond. Ironically, the theme of the show was changed to that of ‘traditional science fiction’ for the second season and while Scheider continued to protest, one can’t help but think Thompson’s input may have been a welcome and positive one with such experience in the genre had he stuck it out…
The ethereal image of an alien-looking probe reaching out from the murky depths under the headline of ’20 Gazillion Megabytes Under The Sea’ would be the first tantalising glimpse for US audiences of the bold new joint venture between Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and the NBC Network, seaQuest DSV.
Daniel Cerone’s five-page cover story for the LA Times Calendar (read transcript here or click on images for larger) serves not only as an exciting introduction to the concept and theme of the show, but also showcases exclusive images, including the first photograph of star Scheider on-set and in uniform alongside producer Spielberg and a gallery of detailed sketches from production designer James Lima.
While the wisdom, aspirations and dreams of scientific consultant Bob Ballard regarding the future of the ‘Down World’ are laid out clearly here, between the lines already there is an undercurrent of tension behind the scenes due to a volatile combination of creative differences and a hitherto absent Executive Producer. Indeed, with such a clear and concise brief for the show as created by Rockne S. O’ Bannon, financed by NBC, pitched to Scheider and overseen by Ballard & Spielberg, one wonders just how why and when the show got off to such a false start.
The fall guy (at least as of this writing) seems to be one Tommy Thompson, ambitious young producer fresh from ‘Quantum Leap’ and apparently keen to make seaQuest into a Saturday evening adventure show of the same ilk. In fairness to Thompson, it would appear that a suitable compromise between the factual/documentary aspects favoured by camp Ballard & Scheider and the action/adventure genre had yet to be determined and in trying to please all parties had failed to accommodate either.
Despite sensationalist reports that would emerge later suggesting Thompson and Scheider would have furious rows onset, Scheider is eloquent in his determination here that Thompson was simply the wrong man for the job. Nevertheless, the conflicts resulted in production being shut down merely two episodes in, and while the introduction of Producer David Burke may have steadied the course of the show, it could be argued that the compromise between fact and drama would plague the entire season and beyond…
The second and final part of the retrospective on legendary director Irvin Kershner comes from Issue #69 of Starburst magazine, where interviewer Joe Nazarro teases out some startling commentary on the seaQuest pilot broadcast in the fall of 1993 –
Foremost among the revelations here is that Kershner’s version of ‘To Be or Not To Be’ was in fact never aired. Despite his cut being preferred by most, NBC executives intervened and re-shot and re-edited without his input. To add insult to injury, the network edition was recut entirely for European territories with around 20 minutes of footage excised.
The problems with the beleaguered production had started early according to Kershner, who, while enthused about the concept (and casting of Roy Scheider) was less than enamoured with the script. Branding it simply ‘very bad’ Kersh seemed to share Scheider’s concern early on that the focus of the show was not exploration but ‘who sends the torpedo’s first’. Between this and the constraints and politics of shooting for Television (as opposed to features where the Director has creative control) Kershner is clearly frustrated about how his contribution was diminished and rightfully outraged about how his work was butchered.
In the midst of this, the turmoil during production about who did have creative control of the show was seemingly never fully resolved. From creator Rockne S. O’Bannon’s unprecedented early departure to Quantum Leap Producer Tommy Thompson’s furious on-set clashes with Scheider (more about that to come!) all compounded by Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s absence meant the show could and would not depart on an even keel.
Despite the odds being against him, Kersh, (who died in 2010 aged 87) managed to deliver the highest-rated Drama Fall Premiere in six seasons for NBC with a 17.8 Rating and 28 share. Kersh himself may not have been proud of it but his efforts were acknowledged by by the Writers and Artists Agency (who took a out a congratulatory ad in Variety) and the pilot is still regarded by many as one of the best episodes of the first season.
Having left such a legacy (not to mention being responsible for countless global box-office receipts) it seems almost evident and proper that The Kershner Cut of the seaQuest pilot should rise from the depths and be not only released in his memory, but as testimony to a visionary whom, for all we know, may have set the seaQuest on the right course…