The most underrated '90s sci-fi show is streaming for free right now
What we talk about when we talk about talking dolphins is seaQuest.
Remember when both Mark Hamill and William Shatner guest-starred on the same science fiction show? It sounds unthinkable that Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk walked on the deck of the same fictional ship, but they totally did.
Beyond their iconic Star Wars and Star Trek heroes, Shatner and Hamill exist as the characters Milos Tezlov and Tobias LeConte respectively in the future world of 2018 — as imagined by the ‘90s sci-fi TV series, SeaQuest DSV. Don’t remember seaQuest? Well, what you’re missing is one of the oddest bravest, and easily the most thoroughly nineties sci-fi TV show of all time. It’s currently streaming for free, and you need to watch it right now. Here’s why.
Beneath the surface: a retro-future
Back in 1994, sci-fi shows had to have a cool and absurdly detailed opening title sequence.
Interestingly, while the various post-TNG Star Trek spinoffs of the ‘90s had entirely wordless opening title sequences (nobody is narrating anything in the DS9 or Voyager credits), seemingly every other sci-fi show of the era has a hilariously heavy-handed voice-over narration that not only explained WTF was going on, but also told you exactly what the show was going for. Babylon 5 was “the last best hope for peace” while Quantum Leap told you that Sam was just hoping that the next leap “would be the leap home.” SeaQuest, arguably, topped these taglines with this gem from the late Roy Scheider’s Captain Nathan Bridger: “Beneath the surface, lies the future.”
Why did human beings need to expand into the depths of underwater colonies in the imagined future of SeaQuest DSV? The answer is mostly that the show was made in the ‘90s. At that exact moment, school children and activists were (correctly) concerned with what was happening to the oceans of Earth, in a way in which pop culture narratives are seemingly less worried about now.
Following in the footsteps of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) and the huge success of the 1990 animated series Captain Planet, the basic concept of SeaQuest was simply this: take a super-advanced submarine in an underwater future, and have the crew fight for the environment. Cool concept? Naive concept? The answer to both is yes. But the weird thing about SeaQuest is that it wasn’t allowed to keep its idealism for long.
Gasping for air
Starring Jaws-famous actor Scheider as the Captain of a super-advanced underwater submarine, SeaQuest very clearly sold itself as a “realistic” version of Star Trek set underwater.
That is, at least in the first season.
What makes SeaQuest such a fascinating microcosm of ‘90s sci-fi, is just how often it was forced to reinvent itself based on the whims of the network, or behind-the-scenes issues with the cast and crew. While Babylon 5’s tap-dance with character continuity scans as antiquated, yet elegant, the hard-shifts in each season of SeaQuest are so extreme that it practically exists as three different shows.
In Season 1, Captain Bridger and the crew work for the United Earth Oceans Organization and try to keep the peace. In Season 2, an entirely new rebuilt version of the ship deals with escalating military tensions around the world, and also deals with the issues of various genetically engineered humans. In Season 3, the entire crew is sent over a decade into the future and given a new captain (Michael Ironside) who, depending on your age, is either the bad guy in Total Recall or the good guy in Starship Troopers.
When you watch SeaQuest for free on Peacock right now, you’ll see it listed as two separate TV series: SeaQuest DSV and SeaQuest 2032. This is borderline absurd for two reasons. One, it’s the same show. The “DSV” thing refers to the name of the ship (well, two ships) and just stands for “Deep Submergence Vehicle.” The “2032” thing was changed for Season 3 because the ship and crew jump ahead into the future. But they are absolutely the same show, just heavily renovated from season to season.
The premise of SeaQuest Season 3 is mostly about Oliver Hudson (Ironside) becoming the new Captain of the SeaQuest after the ship pseudo-time travels into a less-than idyllic future. Basically, SeaQuest Season 3 is the forerunner to Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 insofar as it features a ship and crew time-traveling to an unfamiliar future and that crew dealing with the challenge of having to figure out if they’re gonna be okay with a new captain.
Dolphin to Darkness
The one thing most people remember about SeaQuest is the talking dolphin named Darwin.
This is a major plot point in the first two seasons; there’s a legit crewmember on board who is a dolphin who can communicate through a complicated computer translator. This is oddly not strange when you consider the talking dolphin named Darwin in the context of watching SeaQuest. It’s only weird when you think about another show trying to get away with this outside of the context of SeaQuest.
Largely, Darwin-the-talking dolphin works, because the idea of this character is sold to the audience by the resident teenage wiz-kid character, Lucas, played brilliantly by the late Jonathan Brandis, who scans as a Wesley Crusher type. The difference here is, you bought Lucas in a way that we still struggle to buy Wesley. We all love Wil Wheaton, don’t get it twisted. But, there’s something perfectly dangerous and angsty about Jonathan Brandis in SeaQuest that made him one of the tragically underrated actors of his generation. He was Robert Pattinson before Robert Pattinson. And, his untimely death means that, in almost every way, SeaQuest is totally his best work. Brandis also wrote one episode of the series and was tapped to write and possibly direct future episodes of the show had it continued past season 3.
If you love The Expanse and you have some nostalgia for the ‘90s Star Trek, SeaQuest is the moment where those sensibilities collide delightfully. (Naren Shanker of The Expanse happened to write on SeaQuest, for what it’s worth.) Watching SeaQuest, you might start to think that decade was a low-key renaissance for interesting sci-fi on television. In this specific case, SeaQuest was a show that constantly evolved, one that offered a glance at what we all thought the future could look like back in the mid-90s. Sadly, the show was wrong — but watching SeaQuest still feels right.