Today’s Guest: David J. Burke, executive producer, “seaQuest DSV”
(Originally published in Sci-Fi Universe, Winter 1994)
On a vacant lot in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis), Tony Piccolo (Michael DeLuise) and Dagwood (Peter DeLuise) are searching for clues to this week’s seaQuest DSV story.
A few blocks north, Lt. James Brady (Edward Kerr) and Ensign Henderson (Kathy Evison) are catching some rays poolside at a five-star resort, surrounded by scantily-clad hardbodies of both sexes.
Apparently when seaQuest DSV executive producer David J. Burke promised to get his cast out of the sub this season, he wasn’t kidding. After joining the NBC-TV show two hours into its troubled first season, Burke is determined to remake the show in his own image during its sophomore year.
So few people saw seaQuest in its first season that Burke didn’t feel any great remorse in making dramatic changes to the look, feel and cast of the show. For example:
• The show physically abandoned Southern California for Central Florida, primarily Orlando and St. Petersburg.
• Numerous actors from the first season were dumped, including Stephanie Beacham, John d’Aquino, Royce Applegate and Stacey Haiduk.
• Blowing up the original seaQuest deep-submergence vehicle allowed for the design of a more TV-functional sub.
• Storylines are moving away from science fact and into science fiction.
Patrick Hasburgh (21 Jump Street) is overseeing the restructuring of the stories so they’re more sci-fi, packing in more of what Burke calls the show’s “sense of wonderment.”
“One of the problems with doing science fact is it takes an enormous amount of research,” Burke says. “And you discover, when you start talking about the future, that no matter what degrees the people that you talk to have, they are frequently in disagreement with their colleagues. So at some level the issue is, can you literally do science fact when your primary sources of knowledge and information do not concur?”
Desperately searching for elements that will cause viewers to choose seaQuest over its 8 p.m. Sunday night competition, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and The Simpsons, Burke is casting his lot with sci-fi. “The best show we did last year, in my estimation, is the one we did about the alien. That was clearly science fiction and it played really well,” he says. “We are leaning more that way because we think it will be appealing to the audience.”
New toys on the seaQuest set include the arrival of General Motors “cars of the future,” as well as an underwater motorcycle. “We’ve gone out of our way to put our hands on anything that reflects the future,” Burke says. At the same time, he’s steering his creative staff away from their past reliance on special effects. “We want to limit the use of CGI to when it’s really necessary. Then we can do something really spectacular. I think we invariably rely too much on special effects. It’s very time-consuming.”
Within this restrained “gee, whiz” environment, Burke and Hasburgh want to make their characters interact in a more substantive way. That was a problem last season because when the action was always on the DSV, monumental technological and environmental issues didn’t allow much chance for relationships to develop. Getting out of the sub more often, Burke hopes, will let his characters bloom.
There are five significant new characters being introduced on seaQuest DSV this season. Each has a specific role to fill, from sidekicks and love interest to resident X-Men-style mutants. The one Burke is particularly excited about is a bald, genetically-engineered life form – GELF, for short – named Dagwood. Dagwood has superhuman strength and reticulated skin, not unlike a giraffe’s.
“Peter DeLuise has imbued this character with such genuine, simple nobility that he’s wonderful to watch, just wonderful,” Burke says. “The truth is, he is our Spock, our Data. He is the outsider who everybody wants to embrace. The way Peter performs, the character is so much more alive than I ever imagined him. When I look at dailies, I just love the guy. I think he’s pretty special.”
The show’s second GELF is DeLuise’s younger brother, Michael, who plays Tony Piccolo, a former prison inmate who was given gills for breathing underwater as part of a genetic prison experiment. Piccolo shares a room aboard the DSV with teen techno-wizard Lucas .
“It’s really nice for Lucas have a relationship with somebody who is not an adult keeping him at bay,” Burke explains. “Letting him be a young man with another young man is nice. They can love each other, they can hate each, they can squabble, they can conspire, they can go through all the colors 20-year-olds go through.
“And it’s very cool having both Peter and Michael together,” he adds. In fact, episode four, Vapors, features the boys’ dad, actor Dom DeLuise, in the role of Tony Piccolo’s father.
DAVID J. BURKE excerpt: “It is completely fair to compare this to Star Trek. I was a major Star Trek fan. Of the first one. I did not watch Star Trek: The Next Generation because of the time and place it was on in L.A., but when I’ve seen it, I’ve enjoyed it. I think the actors are terrific, it plays very well. There are people who don’t want that comparison but you’ve gotta compare ’em. But those of us old enough to remember will compare the original Star Trek to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It’s the same arena. It is an exploration/military vessel that is conducting science and defense initiatives. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what Star Trek did and that’s what Voyage did.”
As for the rest of the new crew, Burke says he and Hasburgh – who chose the new cast members – wanted “the energy of youth. We wanted the energy of dangerous characters in terms of their personal behavior.”
They’re hoping for a swashbuckling rogue in Ed Kerr, who plays Lt. James Brody. Brody is an aggressive military guy who flies through life by the seat of his pants. He’s intended as foil for Commander Jonathan Ford (Don Franklin). “His presence bridges the gap of rank that exists between Ford and subordinates Ortiz (Marco Sanchez) and O’Neill (Ted Raimi),” Burke says. “He’s the missing element we needed to make these guys mesh in a social way so there can be a little less rigidity in the relationship and a little more friendliness.”
And while the show skews younger and sexier, the executive producer expects Kerr to join first season stars Don Franklin and Marco Sanchez as break-out hunks.
“Kerr is a great looking guy, very charming,” Burke says. “He does add sex appeal. But for us, it’s more than that. Nobody can be sexy if they don’t have a good relationship with other people. And I think Don, Marco and even Ted will be more hunk-like because they’re having relationships. You can see their charm.”
A chance reaction shot between first season veteran Ted Raimi and newcomer Kathy Evison (“Ensign Henderson”) may be the ticket to more airtime as the show’s writers push them together as a couple. Their first date was in St. Petersburg’s Salvador Dali Museum.
“When you see people spark together, you tend to write that spark more,” Burke says. “Theirs came from one camera angle we had on an earlier episode where O’Neill looked over his shoulder at Henderson a level above and gave a little wave. He had this little smirk and we thought, ‘That’s cute. There’s something happening between those two. We can play that.’ ”
Finally, Rosalind Allen plays biophysicist/psychologist Dr. Wendy Smith, who is a telepath.
“That was an interesting opportunity for us,” Burke says. “I’m much more interested in what it’s like to be telepathic when you don’t want to be. There’s a murmur in this room right now that if you could hear everyone’s real thoughts and you couldn’t shut them out or if they were directed at you, it must be maddening. The value of her character is to bring someone in with empathic sensibilities, someone who has a sense of what the future holds based on what she’s picking up from people.”
Dr. Smith (there’s a family TV sci-fi name) will be a confident of Captain Nathan Bridger, played by the show’s star, Roy Scheider. Her relationship with Bridger has the weight of her mother having been an admiral and her grandmother also being a naval veteran. And Bridger knows her mom.
Asked if he looked at Star Trek: The Next Generation for inspiration in melding such a wide and varied cast, Burke answers quickly.
“No, I do not,” he says. “No. No, I do not.”
Pausing a moment, he reconsiders the haste in which he responded to the inevitable ST:TNG question.
DAVID J. BURKE podcast excerpt: “One of the problems with doing science fact is it takes an enormous amount of research. And you discover, when you start talking about the future, that no matter what degrees the people that you talk to have, they are frequently in disagreement with their colleagues. So at some level the issue is, can you literally do science fact when your primary sources of knowledge and information do not concur?”
“It is completely fair to compare this to Star Trek,” he says on second thought. “I was a major Star Trek fan. Of the first one. I did not watch Star Trek: The Next Generation because of the time and place it was on in L.A., but when I’ve seen it, I’ve enjoyed it. I think the actors are terrific, it plays very well. There are people who don’t want that comparison but you’ve gotta compare ’em. But those of us old enough to remember will compare the original Star Trek to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It’s the same arena. It is an exploration/military vessel that is conducting science and defense initiatives. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what Star Trek did and that’s what Voyage did.”
Plans for the second half of the season are uncertain at this point. However, Burke isn’t expecting any more stunt casting, as when the network brought in William Shatner late last season. “It didn’t reflect in the ratings at all,” he says. “Not that that’s a criticism of anybody; it’s a problem we’ve got with the show. We have to engage our existing characters. People watch television because they’re plugged into the people they always see, not the guest stars.”
One storyline will come from an idea suggested and possibly written by Jonathan Brandis.
“He’s been bugging me to write and I am going to guide him through the process of writing an episode,” Burke says. “The foundation of it is very good. Lucas has a psychic moment, precognition. He doesn’t understand it, doesn’t know how to deal with it. He goes to Dr. Wendy Smith and she takes him into the world of psychics and psychic phenomenon research. It’s his journey into discovery of things beyond the hard scientific truth. That, I know, will be a pretty cool story. And if he doesn’t write it, I will.”
Anyone familiar with location Burke’s past work shouldn’t be too surprised by his decision to move seaQuest DSV out of Southern California. Wiseguy was shot in New York; Crime Story in Chicago; and Tribeca in New York City.
“The business of seaQuest is underwater and we were unable to effectively shoot underwater scenes in Los Angeles,” Burke says. “When we did, we had to use tanks. While there are areas with spectacular underwater environments in Southern California, they are very far south of where we were or in a small area in Catalina, both of which were very difficult to get to and prohibitively expensive.”
As big a problem for the show itself was the limitation of being underwater all the time, a problem the producers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine understand all too well. There’s only so much a cast can do on the same soundstage week after week before it gets boring for all concerned.
“It was very claustrophobic to be in seaQuest all the time,” Burke acknowledges. “When we stepped outside in the sunshine, we saw some potential to engage the real environment. But we couldn’t do it as well in Los Angeles because Los Angeles has been shot out. We can’t reach out to buildings that haven’t been shot before that are futuristic and, at the same time, under-utilized as exteriors or interiors. So there were two places – Hawaii and Florida – that worked for us, providing us with modern-looking buildings, even though they may be 25 or 30 years old. In television terms, they were completely new as visible edifices.”
Hawaii was too expensive, Burke decided. Florida, on the other hand made a lot of sense, offering production capabilities at Universal Studios/Florida and exotic wet sets everywhere the eye could see. It didn’t hurt that Burke spent a good portion of his formative years in St. Petersburg, either
“My secondary reason for moving to Florida is it’s unfettered by the interruptions of network and studio execs, who, because of the proximity to their own offices, wander down to the stage or set. Or, in the case of actors, their agents, lawyers and publicists wander over to their trailer and try to do business that is not seaQuest business, whether it’s the next job they have or P.R. In this environment, the actors work with each other more intimately because they’re focused more on their craft. This is an experience that exists anyplace other than L.A. or New York. So, having shot a show in Chicago, Vancouver and even Miami, I saw that the effort is focused on the work. It’s not as diluted by outside interference,” Burke says.
The second season begins in 2021, two years after the end of the first. Bridger has rebuilt the seaQuest DSV, making most of his changes to the interior of the 1,000-foot submarine. The new seaQuest is more user- and viewer-friendly.
Last year, Ortiz and O’Neill spoke over their shoulders to Ford and to Bridger. Ford and Bridger hovered in the center of the ship over the domed navigational charts, giving them no central place from which to command the ship. “Whether it’s a standard navy frigate or the U.S.S. Enterprise,” Burke says, “there’s this tradition of a focal point for command. So we turned all of our principal players in to face that so the interaction is more direct.”
Other, more subtle changes were made in relation to colors found in the sets. And Bridger’s personal quarters and ward room reflect an increased seafaring tone, from rustic leathers to the oil paintings of ancient ships.
Even with all this work and rehabilitation of the show’s sets, cast and direction, Burke knows he’s got an uphill fight ahead.
“I think there’s an opening for our show this year because we’ve invigorated the show in a lot of ways. If the audience tries it once or twice, they might come back,” he says. “The network is very supportive of the show.”
Can seaQuest survive another year with the same ratings?
“No, no,” Burke says.
“Wait – let me alter that,” he snaps. “The real problem is Lois and Clark, and The Simpsons. It’s like a bloodbath, the most competitive time slot in television. If it’s a dead heat with our competitors and the show’s working a lot better, then I think it can stay around a third year. If our competitors are whipping us handily, no, we won’t be back. I want to stay on the air. Four months ago, I wanted to shoot the show, beat it to death with a brick. Today, I am in love with the show. I’m in love with the characters, I’m having the time of my life. Now I’m scared to death it won’t succeed. I’m having too good a time. I don’t want to stop.”