Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sealab 2020: Undersea Saturday Mornings

by G. Jack Urso

 Sealab 2020 crew, left to right:  Ed, Gail, Captain Mike Murphy, Dr. Paul Williams, and Hal.
"This is the year two thousand and twenty. The place is the Challenger Sea Mount, the top of an underwater mountain, a complex beneath the sea. Two hundred and fifty men, women and children live here. Each of them, a scientist pioneer. For this is our last frontier, a hostile environment which may hold the key to tomorrow. Each day, these oceanauts meet new challenges as they build their city beneath the sea. This is Sealab 2020.
                                                                 —     Opening Narration to Sealab 2020 

Sealab 2020 is a NBC Saturday morning animated program produced by Hanna Barbara for the Fall 1972 television season. With designs by Alex Toth, who also did Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, and others, the show featured state-of-the-art underwater scuba gear, and technically plausible undersea vehicles. The show, noted for its scientific accuracy and environmental awareness, sunk like stone in the ratings and was cancelled after only 13 episodes, not quite making it to the end of the year. The regular cast includes Captain Mike Murphy, his grandson Bobby and Bobby's friend Sally; Dr. Paul Williams, chief scientist; Sparks, the radio technician; oceanauts Hal, Gail, and Ed; and the teacher, Mrs. Thomas. The series episode list with descriptions is available below at the end of this article.

If Sealab 2020 is known at all today, it is due to the parody series, Sealab 2021, produced by Cartoon Network for its Adult Swim late-night programming block from 2001-2005. Delightfully demented, the show recreated the original series look with a decidedly late-night sensibility. In doing so, Sealab 2021 generated new interest in Sealab 2020.

The show itself was a response by Hanna Barbara to a growing chorus of discontent with the “violence” of the action-oriented cartoons of the post-Jonny Quest era that seems to have come to a head in 1968. In retrospect, it is difficult to see what problems one could have with shows such as Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Birdman, but 1968 was a tumultuous year. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the Tet Offensive and the riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, put violence on the forefront of the nightly news. Understandably, parents wanted one place on TV where children could escape the violence they saw elsewhere — usually at their side while watching the six p.m. news. It is much easier to control the violence on TV than in real life

In 1968, President Johnson created the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (NCCPV) which quickly targeted Saturday morning action-oriented cartoon shows as a cause for the perceived rise in violence. Shows like the aforementioned Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Birdman, all battled invasions and fought criminal masterminds who threatened destruction or who would frequently kidnapped their young wards, which made parents long for the days of the slapstick humor of Loony Tunes. Like CBS’ “rural purge” of the early 1970s that saw the cancellation of popular shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, and many others, by 1970 the entire catalog of action/superhero cartoon shows were essentially gone from Saturday mornings. When they reappeared, as in Superfriends (1973), Hanna Barbara was careful not to show any physical violence, so most episodes in the first two seasons revolve around life-saving and disaster-relief scenarios.

The Race Issue

Hanna Barbara took a bold step in integrating two African American characters into the show, Ed and the teacher Mrs. Thomas, at a time when there were few characters of color on Saturday morning TV. The networks began featured Black characters in higher profiles in the animated shows of the 1970s, but the effort was in fits and starts. The only animated series in the fall of 1972 to feature Black characters were Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in its debut season, reruns of the short-lived The Jackson 5ive, and Valerie in Josie and the Pussycats. The only one of these shows produced by Hanna Barbara was Josie and the Pussycats and they didn’t seem to know what to do with the smart and capable bass player Valerie. Originally African American, Hanna Barbara changed her to Caucasian until protests from the producers forced them to relent, according to the liner notes from Josie and the Pussycats: Stop Look and Listen: The Capitol Recordings (Rhino Handmade).

In contrast to some of the other adult characters in Sealab 2020, like Hal, Gail (voiced by actress Ann Jillian), and Sparks, Ed particularly stands out. He is not a bland character just filling in space — he is passionate, dedicated, opinionated, and often the first to take umbrage to any threat to Sealab and the ocean environment. Interestingly, although an adult, Ed's mother, Mrs. Thomas, the school teacher, is also on board (suggesting his full name is Ed Thomas). This is mentioned very briefly in Episode 1, "Deep Threat," when Bobby tells Ed, "Your mother told us about it in school." For some reason, this relationship is not explored nor is it explained why only Ed's mother is on board. Is his father still alive? Are the parents of other crew members on board Sealab? While the their relationship is only very briefly alluded to in the episodes "Backfire" and “The Deepest Dive,” only in "Deep Threat" is it mentioned they are mother and son. Additionally, throughout the entire series they are never actually seen together — not once. This seems something of a lost opportunity. Ed was voiced by, Ron Pinkard, who played Dr. Mike Morton on the 1970s TV series Emergency! With their high cheekbones, they share a slight resemblance.
Sealab crew member Ed and his voice actor Ron Pinkard.
Dr. Paul Williams, the head scientist at Sealab, is a curious creation. Despite his name, his physical appearance is clearly Latino. Ross Martin, best known for playing Artemus Gordon in the TV series The Wild Wild West (cancelled in 1971 due to the influence of the NCCPV), was tapped to play Williams, but I always thought that an odd choice. Martin was best known for his ability to play different ethnicities. Indeed, that was his stock-in-trade for The Wild Wild West and much of his later career. Although Martin was a well-respected actor, he wasn’t really a popular children’s TV show star, so why choose him to play yet another bland, purportedly “white” character? 

Dr. Paul Williams
There is no information on the creation of the character or pre-production development of the series, but one can speculate that Martin was chosen because the Williams character may have been initially intended to have a Latino background and Martin’s use of accents would have been an advantage for such a role. Why else spend money on a relatively famous actor, at the time, likely little known to the target audience, when the notoriously cheap Hanna Barbara could have literally tapped any voice actor and paid him scale? Sealab 2021 picked up on this discrepancy and cast Erik Estrada (ChiPs) to voice the Williams character, renamed in the series as Marco Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As noted, this is all speculation, but considering that Hanna Barbara tried to change the race of Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats the same year, the idea that Williams may have been originally designed as Latino, and later changed, cannot be entirely dismissed.


The Sealab Complex on the Challenger Sea Mount, designed by Alex Toth.

Sealab 2020 aired at 11:00 a.m. Saturday mornings opposite The Flintstones Comedy Hour on NBC and reruns of Bewitched on ABC. Fans will notice similarities in the animation style between Sealab 2020 and the first season of Superfriends — no surprise considering that production designer Iwao Takamoto also served as creative director of Superfriends. Alex Toth created a unified design for an undersea community, from the dwellings and uniforms to the technology and vehicles. Musical director Hoyt Curtin turns in an excellent theme that suggests both action and sea-going adventure. Incidental music from Hoyt’s previous work on Jonny Quest turns up from time to time, as it did on most Hanna Barbara shows of the era (see the Aeolus 13 Umbra article Jonny Quest: Music From The Original Television Series). Fred Freiberger, a producer who worked on Star Trek and Space: 1999, is credited as a writer for the show. 

Child actor Pamelyn Ferdin voices Sally, friend of Captain Murphy's grandson Bobby. In the unaired pilot, based on the "Deep Threat" storyline, Sally was originally Captain Murphy's granddaughter, though this was changed for the series. Ferdin was fairly ubiquitous during the 1960s and 1970s, playing everything from Lucy in several Peanuts specials, Felix Unger’s daughter Edna on The Odd Couple, as well as appearances in Star Trek and Space Academy, and turned in a complex performance in the 1971 Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled.

Submarine design by Alex Toth for the episode “Collision of the Aquarius.”

It is hard to call Sealab 2020 a classic, except in regards to its age. With its emphasis on education and information, many episodes are long on exposition, which likely contributed to its short run of only 13 episodes. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of adventure and the show accurately predicted many of the environmental issues plaguing the sea today, such as pollution, oil spills, and toxic waste. While all the aired episodes are available on DVD, the pilot and the two final episodes, which were never aired during the original run, have yet to be released, so a comprehensive collection of Sealab 2020 will have to wait for some future date. Given the relative lack of interest in the show, however, that seems unlikely.

Was it unreasonable for the producers of the show in 1972 to speculate on such extensive undersea habitats as the Sealab community in 2020? Not really. In the fifty years between 1920 and 1970, technology advanced from biplanes to Moon landings, so the promise of Sealab 2020 seemed reasonable at the time. In the nearly fifty years since the show first aired, however, the pace of undersea exploration has not matched our expectations, so the future predicted in the show may not come about exactly by the year 2020.

Of course, there’s always 2021.   

Sealab 2020: Episode List
Descriptions by G. Jack Urso.
Sealab 2020 crew, left to right:  Ed, Gail, Captain Mike Murphy, Dr. Paul Williams, and Hal.
Opening and End Titles theme.

Episode 1: "Deep Threat" | Original Airdate: September 9, 1972

Radiation from an undersea toxic waste dump threatens Sealab. Captain’s Murphy’s grandson Bobby and his classmate Sally go missing while visiting the kelp forest.

Episode 2: "Lost" | Original Airdate: September 16, 1972
Sealab’ oxygen supply is threatened when a red tide algal bloom suddenly appears. Meanwhile, Gail trains a young lost dolphin to become a part of team Sealab and help rescue divers.

Episode 3: "Green Fever" | Original Airdate:  September 23, 1972
A ship’s anchor crashes into Sealab creating a cascade of events that threatens their oxygen supply and results in one Sealab crew member having delusions.

Episode 4: "The Singing Whale" | Original Airdate: September 30, 1972
A scientist who studies whales visits Sealab with his disabled son. When an obsessed undersea hunter chases down a blue whale, it’s up to the scientist’s son and Captain Murphy’s grandson to save the hunter’s life.
Various Alex Toth designs for Sealab 2020.
Episode 5: "The Shark Lover" | Original Airdate: October 7, 1972
Increased shark activity threatens the activities of Sealab workers. A shark expert is called in to try and solve the problem and he needs to act fast before Captain Murphy is forced to take drastic measures.

Episode 6: "The Basking Shark" | Original Airdate: October 14, 1972
A space returns to Earth and lands near Sealab. When it disappears, a Sealab crew member falls under suspicion of being spy and it’s up to Sealab personnel to find the probe and clear his name.

Episode 7: "Where Dangers Are Many" | Original Airdate:  October 21, 1972
Destructive mining operations threaten Sealab until the dredge operator gets caught under his own machine. After his rescue, the Sealab team shows him how to more safely conduct his operations
The Sealab 2020 board game. Ed and Sparks weren't included in the artwork. Though only
on air for half a season, Hanna Barbara didn’t miss merchandizing opportunities.
Episode 8: "Backfire" | Original Airdate: October 28, 1972
When Captain Murphy and Dr. Williams give permission for an oil company to look for undersea deposits, Ed is outraged and wants to take action, but the oil workers refuse to move. When a tsunami hits the oil rig and is destroyed, it’s up to the Sealab crew to save the workers.

Episode 9: "The Deepest Dive" | Original Airdate: November 4, 1972
Sealab personnel take a new undersea vehicle, dubbed the Crystal Ball, down deep to set up seismograph units and encounters a giant squid which threatens to destroy the vessel and the crew.

Episode 10: "The Challenge" | Original Airdate:  November 11, 1972
An archeologist finds a sunken treasure ship containing lost Aztec artifacts. Excited by the discovery, the scientist ignores Sealab’s safety protocols putting both him and the Sealab crew in danger.

Episode 11: "The Collison of the Aquarius" | Original Airdate: November 18, 1972
A nuclear-powered cargo submarine has an accident near the Challenger Sea Mount, requiring Sealab to evacuate, but an old grudge between the sub’s commander and Captain Murphy makes a difficult situation more problematic. Sealab 2021 remade the episode under the title “7211” and was the only “dramatic” episode of the parody series.

Alex Toth’s design for the Deep Diver vessel.
Episode 12: "The Capture" | Original Airdate: November 25, 1972
A biologist collecting undersea specimens has his plans upset by Captain Murphy’s grandchildren, Bobby and Sally. When the children try to release the animals, they put themselves in danger and must rely on their underwater survival skills to survive until help arrives.

Episode 13: "The Artic Story" | Original Airdate: December 2, 1972
When an Artic research team is trapped underneath a capsized iceberg the Sealab crew moves quickly to locate the team before they freeze to death.

Episode 14: "S.O.S.: Sealab Ocean Signal" | Original Airdate:  Unaired
No synopsis available.

Episode 15 "Utopia of Cassidy" | Original Airdate:  Unaired
A newly discovered island paradise is not what it seems to be.
More studies of the Deep Diver vessel by Alex Toth.


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