Dive! Dive! Dive! : If Jules Verne had only had access to the high-tech goodies at Steven Spielberg’s disposal, he might have come up with ‘seaQuest DSV'--the producer’s latest foray into TV, and NBC’s big hope for a fall hit

<i> Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer</i>

“Man only uses 20% of the planet,” proclaimed an excited Robert D. Ballard, one of the world’s preeminent underwater explorers. The tall, distinguished Ballard, grinning like a schoolboy, was riding high behind the wheel of a golf cart in a mad dash across the back lot of Universal Studios.

“There are more people alive today than ever died,” said Ballard, 51, his voice rising to a fever pitch. “In the next 25 years, we will have quadrupled the world’s population.”

As his body suddenly lifted over a speed bump, the senior scientist for the department of applied ocean physics and engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, reached up and pulled the cap on his head down tighter--a cap emblazoned with the colorful hammerhead shark logo of producer Steven Spielberg’s new TV series, “seaQuest DSV.”

“Where are those people going to go?” he continued on his messianic roll. “Are they really going to go into space? Really?

Ballard took a hard left at one of the sound stages, cutting off a studio tram full of gawking tourists.


“Of course not! We’re going to go into the ocean and colonize much sooner than space. The ocean is truly the last frontier. We’re going to go there for recreation, food, natural resources, geothermal energy, waste management.”

For the moment, Ballard was just trying to go to the Universal commissary for lunch. Spotting it through a narrow alleyway, he abruptly cut across a sidewalk, bounced down a curb and shot through the alley before braking sharply in front of the commissary.

He paused for a moment and caught his breath.

“I think of myself as a futurist, but I’ve been constrained by current technology,” he said with a distinct twinkle in his eye. “This is an opportunity to live the future I may not be around for.”

If Capt. Nemo sprang to life from the pages of Jules Verne and stepped into the 20th Century, he would probably look and sound very much like Robert Ballard.

That’s precisely why Spielberg--who has been fascinated with underwater adventures ever since he read “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” as a child and later saw the Walt Disney movie--tapped Ballard as the inspiration, scientific consultant and all-around cheerleader for the fall season’s most ambitious new television series.

Spielberg and his executives at Amblin Entertainment want “seaQuest DSV” to be an entertaining adventure for the whole family, a technically superior revision of such campy Irwin Allen series from the 1960s as “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Land of the Giants.” Spielberg calls the series “one part science, two parts fiction and one part fantasy.”

Budgeted in excess of $1.5 million an episode (compared to about $1 million for most drama series), “seaQuest” boasts an array of computer-generated special effects and production spread over five gigantic sound stages at Universal. Spielberg turned to Roy Scheider, whom he had not worked with since directing “Jaws” in 1975, to captain his ship.

Presented with those credentials and the threat that Universal was prepared to take the project to other networks or syndication, NBC agreed to the studio’s demand that it order a full season’s worth of 22 episodes at a license fee of $1 million each--before a frame of film had been shot. The network then opened up a time slot when viewing is at its peak: Sunday nights at 8 o'clock.

As a result, “seaQuest” has an ocean of expectations to fill.

Star Roy Scheider, left, real-

life underwater explorer and

series consultant Robert D. Ballard and producer Steven Spielberg on the bridge of the seaQuest DSV. The show’s creators have fashioned no mere submarine, but a living, oxygenated organism that can descend to great depths.

“ ‘SeaQuest’ is clearly the biggest (television) undertaking this studio has ever had, in terms of size and production and economics,” said Tom Thayer, president of Universal Television. Thayer’s studio has extensive plans to license and merchandise the bountiful hardware and characters in “seaQuest"--a comic book, action toys, plastic model kits and video games for Nintendo and Sega are all due by Christmas--and possibly create a Universal Studios tour attraction.

If “seaQuest” sinks, all those dreams will go down with the ship.

And the pressure has only mounted with the phenomenal success this summer of Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” which has grossed nearly $300 million in the United States and Canada and is expected to become the highest-grossing film ever worldwide.

“Our biggest concern is self-generated press,” said one studio executive. “There’s a direct correlation between self-generated press and people’s expectations. The expectation level is so high on this show already that people have to be aware they are watching television. They’re not going to be seeing ‘Jurassic Park.’ But given that this is television, people will see things they never have before.”

The voyage already has been stormy. During much of the early development and production this spring, Spielberg was in Krakow, Poland, shooting his Holocaust film “Schindler’s List” and supervising the editing of “Jurassic Park.” Spielberg’s distance, plus a poor relationship between the series star, Scheider, and the executive producer, Tommy Thompson, led to a creative meltdown. In May, after the two-hour premiere and two episodes were filmed, Spielberg called and ordered the production shut down.

A new executive producer, David Burke, was brought on board, script revisions were made, and “seaQuest” was put back on course last month.

In “seaQuest DSV,” the year is 2018, and the world’s governments rely heavily on the sea for mining, energy, industry and colonization. A state-of-the-art submarine--or deep submergence vehicle (DSV)--cruises the oceans for the United States with a dual mission: to conduct research projects as a scientific laboratory and to patrol the sea lines as a military peacekeeper.

But seaQuest is not just any old submarine. The massive leviathan can never surface, because its outer shell is a living, oxygenated organism that allows the sub to descend to extreme depths. Instead of a periscope and sonar, several wireless probes, or “Whiskers,” circle the windowless vessel gathering information. When a crew member inside dons special hyper-reality helmet and gloves, he or she can see, feel and even smell what the probes sense.

Traveling through a series of water-filled tubes on board is Ensign Darwin--a dolphin. Darwin swims outside the sub wearing a custom Body Glove aqua-lung to breathe and communicates with the crew through a computer that interprets the mammal’s clicks and whistles into limited human speech.

Darwin belongs to Capt. Nathan Bridger (Scheider), who designed seaQuest and runs it from his holographic command control center. Bridger’s role is, as his name suggests, to bridge the gap between the various members of the crew, who are fundamentally split between naval and scientific personnel with competing agendas.

Bridger is a former attack-sub commander who turned to his true love--the positive pursuit of science--after his son was killed following in his military footsteps. The maverick Bridger allows himself to be coaxed back into service, seduced by the Navy’s promise to let him use his submarine’s vast capabilities for underwater research, because no one else can operate his complex creation.

It was this human drama that attracted Scheider to the project. Scheider was resting in the Hamptons last winter when he received a call from Spielberg, whom he talks to a couple of times a year, urging him to hear a TV series pitch. Scheider, who had never done a TV series, reluctantly agreed to fly to California and take a meeting with a dozen “suits” at the Amblin Entertainment office at Universal.

The 60-year-old Scheider listened to the elaborate presentation, which used the same design concepts, charts and technical bible that were later used to sell “seaQuest” to NBC.

“I said, ‘Hey, this is a fabulous idea, but I don’t know about the character,’ ” Scheider recalled. “I had my qualms. I said, ‘If it’s just a submarine captain, then you don’t need me to do that, and I don’t want to do that. But if the guy in time could become a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Popeye, it might be a character worth doing for some time.’

“Jacques Cousteau because of the science and exploration involved, and Popeye because he’s an eccentric. I want a guy who’s really sort of unpredictable--who’s a professional nuclear submarine captain, but whose obsession is science and geology, just like Bob Ballard.”

Ballard was, indeed, the model for Bridger.

In addition to his military background--conducting covert Army intelligence in the 1960s and later commanding attack submarines for the Navy--Ballard is a serious researcher with a doctorate in marine geology and geophysics. As an explorer, he has visited the depths of the ocean, leading dozens of research expeditions and using camera-equipped, deep-sea diving submersibles he developed to discover the sunken Titanic ocean liner and the German battleship Bismarck. He also suffered the loss of a son in a car crash.

Scheider and Ballard immediately bonded. Through Ballard’s connections, they spent 12 hours together on a fast-attack nuclear submarine at the Groton naval base in Connecticut, taking the ship through all its maneuvers. Upon Ballard’s suggestion, Scheider learned to swim with dolphins at a marine mammal education center in Key Largo, Fla. And Ballard further immersed Scheider and the writing crew in the ways of the sea at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Sea World in San Diego.

Ballard will quickly tell anyone, in the hushed tones of an insider who still does classified work for the Navy, that all the technology featured in “seaQuest” is either currently being deployed or, at the most, a slight stretch from what the Navy is quietly developing.

“The ‘seaQuest’ generation of kids watching this show will grow up and live it,” Ballard said resolutely. “Technology has made it possible to explore the 70% of the planet that’s covered by oceans. So we’re recruiting explorers with this show.”

Ballard’s goal with “seaQuest” is no less than putting the serious cultivation of the ocean--or “the down world,” as he calls it--on President Clinton’s agenda.

“The Navy needs ‘seaQuest’ more than ‘seaQuest’ needs the Navy,” Ballard said. “Because we’re representing the future of this planet. We provide a window into the future--and a mission. Why isn’t there a seaQuest submarine? Shouldn’t there be? Isn’t this a reasonable allocation of resources?”

Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back” for Spielberg’s pal George Lucas, was setting up his next shot in the sculpted metallic cavern of the seaQuest bridge. From where Bridger stands at his command station, every crew monitor and viewing screen flashing vital, multicolored data is visible--another Ballard touch. Kershner was waxing philosophical about his task of directing the two-hour premiere.

“The camera lens is like a funnel,” the tall, lanky director said calmly from the eye of a storm of crew members swirling around him, preparing for the next scene. “All the energy you see around you is sucked into this small lens and then transformed into an image.”

If that’s the case, then Kershner’s lens was probably operating on overload. Rarely, if ever, has a TV series approached the size, scope and expense of “seaQuest DSV.”

About 30% of what is supposed to be a 1,000-foot submarine--about the size of the Queen Mary--has been built as a sprawling set inside Universal’s historic Stage 28, surrounded by the surreal 1925 theater facade still standing from Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Production designer Richard Lewis, who designed the futuristic ABC series “Max Headroom,” devoted most of his energy to the main bridge and the lower-level laboratory called Sea Deck, which includes a decompression chamber and a giant pool to lower divers and equipment into the ocean. Other sound stages contain the interiors of a renegade submarine, the seaQuest shuttle and the small two-man “speeders” used by the crew.

All the underwater images are being computer-generated by Amiga computers with Video Toaster graphics boards, a less sophisticated--and far less expensive--version of the technology Spielberg’s artists used in “Jurassic Park.” On TV screens, the producers say, you can’t tell the difference. There are nearly 100 such special effects in the premiere, including fiery underwater pressure explosions and chases with submarines using brilliant spotlights to slice through the murky water.

To help support the high cost, the producers are selling “seaQuest” to other countries where adventure is big, and Spielberg is even bigger. That financial model follows the one developed by such expensive syndicated series as the successful “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“It’s the same old story,” said Universal Television’s Thayer, who has lured a stable of established feature-film talents to Universal with hopes they will develop must-see TV programs for network and syndication. “Network license fees are static and production costs are going up. The only way to offset your deficits in the hour dramas right now is to find shows that have some kind of foreign potential, home-video potential and merchandising possibilities.”

By paying a hearty $1-million-an-episode license fee, NBC is sharing in the significant financial risk of “seaQuest.” NBC once before committed to pre-ordering, sight unseen, a Spielberg TV series--two season’s worth of his half-hour anthology series “Amazing Stories,” back in 1985. That effort didn’t pan out in the ratings. But the third-place network is in desperate need of a hit series.

“When this kind of package is available to you, you really have to take these risks,” said NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. He marked the failure of “Amazing Stories” down to its anthology format, one that has not done well on network TV in many years.

“We have an opportunity to put value upon the screen for the television audience,” he said. “I think the audience is very discriminating today. God knows they have a lot of choices. So it’s incumbent on us to do more rather than do less. I feel very optimistic that this risk will pay off.”

On a 27-inch TV monitor in a darkened room in the heart of Amblin’s back-lot offices, an eerie phenomenon called a black smoker was belching forth minerals 9,000 feet under the sea. “These rocks are hours old,” Ballard, a natural lecturer, briefed a “seaQuest” creative team gathered around the screen. “You’re watching geology live. We’re starting to think this is where life began on the planet, around these smokers.”

“This is so cool ,” said art director James Lima, staring raptly at the screen with emerald blue shadows dancing off his face. “It’s like a close encounter with an underwater alien. If I were to draw this thing, people would think it’s fantasy. You can’t design this.”

Ballard was showing film footage from his March expedition in the Sea of Cortez, using the remotely operated Jason probe he helped develop for the Navy. The expedition was originally broadcast live via satellite to 700,000 children in schools across North America, the United Kingdom and Bermuda. Now the footage will be edited into “seaQuest,” along with other film--including rare images of ethereal, translucent sea creatures and detailed geographic maps--from Ballard’s 50-plus expeditions.

Every so often, Ballard holds these “reality check” sessions to make sure “seaQuest” maintains an even scientific keel, as well as to suggest possible story lines. In one episode, some toxic bacteria from one of the black smokers are accidentally spilled into the dolphin’s tank.

“We want to be different from ‘Star Trek,’ ” Amblin Vice President Phil Segal said. “When there’s a problem, we don’t want to solve it with some science-fiction mumbo jumbo that means nothing. We want to take people into the real future.”

With so much focus on technicalities--Ballard even insisted that the size of the main bridge be to exacting specifications so that it would not collapse under deep-sea pressure--the inevitable question bubbles to the surface: What about the people on board? Spielberg, after all, was criticized on “Jurassic Park” for creating dinosaurs that were more lifelike than the human beings.

Original executive producer Thompson, a prolific writer for the acclaimed NBC science-fiction series “Quantum Leap,” was hired to create a compelling cast of characters. But from the start, Thompson and Scheider did not hit it off.

“I would have liked to have gotten off on a better foot with Roy,” Thompson said, “but sometimes those relationships start bad and get worse. We were both nervous about the show, and we both wanted to establish our positions, and it’s just impossible for two people to run a show.”

The situation was complicated by Spielberg’s absence. Thompson said he was receiving conflicting input from Scheider, Amblin executives and Spielberg about what “seaQuest” should be.

“The whole time I was the middleman,” Thompson said, “dealing with (Spielberg) through Amblin. I would get these sort of cryptic notes from Poland, and I would have to decipher them. There was never any tension, yelling or screaming, just trying to figure out creatively what was going on.”

Scheider liked Thompson’s two-hour premiere because it lays out his character’s story nicely. But he felt the following two hourlong episodes, although entertaining, were “preoccupied with a kind of chasing-the-bad-guy theme. I said, ‘I don’t want to stand around saying, “Get those guys!” That’s not fun.’ I want to play a guy who, when you can’t find him aboard the boat, it’s because he’s out walking on the ocean floor or buried under a ton of work in his laboratory.”

Finally, Thompson thought he had a script everyone liked, including Scheider, called “Armageddon.” In the episode, the crew members aboard the submarine believe that nuclear war has transpired and that they are the lone survivors. “It was a psychological study of what happens when a group of people believe they are alone on the planet,” explained Thompson, who was trying to create character-rich stories to please everyone involved.

That’s when Spielberg shut down production, because he wanted to portray a more positive vision of the future in which a nuclear holocaust is not possible. “When he pulled the plug, I realized I was in a no-win situation,” Thompson said. “I called my agent and said, ‘You’ve got to get me out of here.’ ”

Scheider acknowledges having pushed for a replacement. “I don’t know how you say this in print without sounding like a wise guy or a malcontent who refused to come out of his trailer--because I wasn’t those things,” the actor said. “I had lots of meetings with Amblin, and lots of meetings with Tommy. His vision was different. What he does he does very well. But I didn’t think he was the right guy for this show.”

Thompson has since signed a two-year deal with Paramount Television, reuniting him on a project with “Quantum Leap” creator Don Bellesario. Amblin’s Segal ascribes the parting of ways to “creative differences,” a common phrase in Hollywood.

“Tommy saw it more as a hardware-based action show driven by external conflict, by people encapsulated in a submarine,” Segal said. “We want our conflict to come from the dynamics of the crew and the natural perils in the sea.”

David Burke was in Florida, lamenting the cancellation of “Tribeca,” his dramatic Fox anthology series that was hailed by critics but assailed in the ratings last season, when he received a call from a senior executive at Universal asking him to fly to Los Angeles.

In addition to creating “Tribeca” for Robert De Niro’s production company, Burke was story editor on “Crime Story” and executive producer of “Wiseguy,” two TV crime dramas. But what he really wanted to do was a family adventure. Two years ago, he was ready to set sail when ABC ordered 13 episodes of “The Adventures of Tim Courage,” a series he created about a group of runaway kids on a clipper ship in the 1800s--until the TV studio demanded that he film the series in Australia, removing him from his own family.

So when Universal--where Burke has a four-year deal--asked him to man “seaQuest,” Burke, looking for an identity change, was definitely interested. “This was a way to demonstrate that I could do more than ply my trade in gritty alleys and smoke-filled nightclubs of urban America,” he said slyly.

Burke found a production in disarray when he arrived on set at the end of May.

“They were having trouble coming to terms with what they were doing. Everyone had their own point of view,” said Burke, 44, echoing Thompson’s earlier comments. “So when I agreed to do the project, I said: ‘I only answer to Steven Spielberg.’ ”

Fortunately for Burke, Spielberg was back in town at that point to answer to.

Spielberg has been criticized before for not being involved enough in his TV projects. He turned down interview requests for this story, and he videotaped an innocuous statement for a gathering of TV journalists and critics last week. Numerous crew members on “Family Dog,” the prime-time animated series running on CBS this summer, say that two years of production delays might have been avoided had Spielberg been more closely involved in that project.

“This is a very talented man who has always overextended himself,” Scheider said. “And he was off in Krakow doing ‘Schindler’s List’ when we were here doing this. As good as he is, the fact that he wasn’t here didn’t help us. He could have been a great help in keeping the direction in the beginning on track, but he wasn’t here.

“Steven has more time now. So he’s been in conversations with the writers, making adjustments all over the place. He himself would like to see more wonder, more suspense. He’s a very clever guy, and his input is needed.”

Burke confirmed that Spielberg has become “intimately and directly involved” in the “seaQuest” stories with him--a condition Burke said he required in order to take the job. Although he is in New York editing “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg regularly receives “seaQuest” footage, speaks with Burke daily and meets with him in Los Angeles every 10 days or so.

Now, Burke is steering “sea-Quest” on Spielberg’s course.

“We speak the same language,” Burke said. “I understand him immediately and I do my best, in a small way, to do what he does in a big way--to introduce characters you care about and then give you a great ride that’s rooted in adventure, not action. Nobody is pulling guns here. We’re not going to fire torpedoes relentlessly.”

One thing Burke was fascinated to encounter was what he describes as a “reckless desire” by people who work on Spielberg projects to please the master. That usually results in an attempt to imitate Spielberg’s grand filmmaking style, Burke believes, at the expense of his internal grasp of wonder.

Spielberg’s best advice to Burke? “Don’t be afraid,” Burke said. “That’s really critical. Don’t be afraid to take chances and do things that the average guy might think is too hokey or sentimental.”

When Burke joined “seaQuest,” the first thing he did was to push everything aside and start from scratch. He thought the stories were too dark, and he’s working to inject some lighthearted adventure into the new scripts. The two hourlong episodes that were completed before he took over will be shuffled to air later in the season. The two-hour premiere, meanwhile, will air as planned Sept. 12.

“There was an inclination (before) to get caught up in what the seaQuest is,” said Burke, who has begun to rely more on Ballard to handle the technical aspects of the stories. “To me, it’s just a building. That’s all it is. When they make the toy, the kids are going to go ‘Vroom!’ and imagine it going through the water, but that’s going to last for a second or two before they take out the human beings and focus their energies on them.

“One of the problems with a show like this is people tend to get caught up in the size of it, and that gets in the way of being creative. I just don’t care that it’s on five sound stages, or they’re spending tons of money. It’s still a 19-inch screen in your living room, and we have to show characters people care about on that screen.”