At a press conference commemorating the DVD release of Man From Atlantis, cast members Patrick Duffy and Belinda Montgomery gamely laughed about the well intentioned but ultimately failed series. “It’s a wonder I ever worked again,” Duffy said. The show starred Duffy as Mark Harris, titular man from Atlantis, who was discovered by Montgomery’s Foundation For Oceanic Research scientist Dr. Elizabeth Merrill in a series of TV movies. Although Mark attempts to return to his oceanic world, he comes back to the surface because he still has a lot to learn about these unfamiliar humans. The resulting series consisted of weekly adventurous voyages aboard the FFOR’s submarine, the Cetacean.
Mark is literally a fish out of water: He prefers plankton to hot dogs and is dumbfounded by human oddities like telephone booths. (Yet still loves aviator sunglasses.) Thanks to his bizarre swimming style (an exaggerated dolphin kick with no arms), he was able to travel farther underwater each episode than the viewer might expect, arriving at locales like a South Sea Island whose inhabitants offered up human sacrifice to a two-headed walking seahorse.
There are a lot of great ideas within Man From Atlantis, unfortunately matched with some equally poor execution (see above: “walking seahorse”). First, it capitalized on the 1970s’ fascination with the sea, its inhabitants, and its secrets. Outer space was obviously not readily available for everyday exploration, but the mysterious ocean was right there! The first summer blockbuster, Jaws, kicked this trend off in 1975, offering a terrifying underwater menace, followed by three sequels and imitators like The Deep and Orca. A pair of 1974 books on the Bermuda Triangle (Bermuda Triangle and The Devil’s Triangle), pointing to frequent disappearances of watercraft in the area, added to the topic’s allure by alluding to supernatural or alien forces—all of which was debunked by the 1975 volume The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved.
Man From Atlantis also offered some sci-fi perspective on ecology, which was a popular movement at the time. In the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the first Earth Day, the ’70s promoted ecology like no era before it: Kids even received their own ecology-based mascot in Woodsy Owl’s “Give A Hoot, Don’t Pollute” commercials. The fictional Foundation For Oceanic Research’s missions to protect the seas fit in perfectly with this philosophy. The show even foreshadowed future ecological catastrophes: The very first episode deals with a threat to melt the polar ice caps and flood the world.
The oddity of Man From Atlantis makes more sense within the TV landscape of 1977, less than a decade after Star Trek ended its run on NBC. Producers Robert H. Justman and Herbert F. Solow had taken part in the starship Enterprise’s four-year mission, and, as Duffy later said, the concept of Man From Atlantis was “to use the sea the way Star Trek used outer space.” From a submarine whose crew uniforms and deck greatly resembled those of the Enterprise, Duffy’s and Montgomery’s characters tackled an ecology-related adventure of the week, capturing Star Trek’s exploratory spirit beneath the waves.
But these journeys were restricted by the limits of low-budget, 1970s special-effects technology. Duffy’s webbed hands and feet made an impression on viewers, but his phosphorescent-green contact lenses gave the actor multiple eye infections. As Duffy explained, “Underwater, I’d wear a lens that covers the entire eyeball, under your lids. On land, I would wear these hand-painted contact lenses, which were brutal as well.” Duffy also had to bulk up to appear a likely Atlantis hero, one who rarely wore more than a tiny yellow swimsuit. For the audition process, Duffy said “they made an artificial body for me because I needed to gain weight and muscle… I had about two months plus to work out, gain weight, then get ready for the show.”
The special-effects hurdle was a tough one for the show to get over. “There were no computer-generated special effects in 1977 when I did that show,” Duffy said. To stand in for supposedly terrifying sea monsters, like a giant jellyfish, Duffy described, “We literally shredded a bunch of plastic shower curtains—they were supposed to be tentacles. It was really the-trunk-of-your-car kind of special effects.” But even these efforts incurred higher costs than a straightforward drama would.
These meager effects were not enough to mask the problem at the show’s center: It just wasn’t very interesting. The Man From Atlantis TV movies offered some decent drama, as Mark seeks to learn more about life on land. But as an alien outsider, his whole persona was childlike, innocent, and far from compelling. (And his supporting cast offered even less personality than he did.) Star Trek featured fun fantasy outings as well, but also capitalized on the dynamics of the crew: temperamental Kirk playing off of temperamental Bones, balanced by the quiet Vulcanness of Mr. Spock. Man From Atlantis was set up as if Spock led every mission, with no one to react against. Just check out the show’s opening titles, in which nearly everyone in the cast offers the same facial expression: They all look quizzical, then offer a half-smile (or vice-versa).
Possibly grappling for more interesting plotlines, Man From Atlantis eventually strayed past earnest Foundation For Oceanic Research expeditions into more outrageous territory. Thanks to creative plot inventions like an underwater time wormhole, Mark traveled back to the Wild West (making an unlikely discovery—a double of himself—in “Shoot-Out At Land’s End”), or to the 16th century of the Romeo And Juliet saga (“The Naked Montague”). Ubiquitous dwarf actor Billy Barty showed up in a episode called “Deadly Carnival.” Evil villain Mr. Schubert (Victor Buono, extending his campy turns in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and ABC’s Batman) continued his outlandish world-domination plots. The show’s creative forces stretched the marine motif as far as it could go. In its report from the DVD-release press conference, Collider tells of Montgomery and Duffy revisiting their trickiest and most cockamamie Man From Atlantis dialogue. “‘It’s the Mud Worm and it’s heading straight towards us…’ ‘It took over 10 takes [for us to get it],’ Duffy confided.”
The absurdity of these plots led TV critics to note that the show might have been more successful airing at a kid-friendlier hour. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales called Duffy “the most engaging aquatic acrobat since Flipper,” but suggested a “quick exile to a Saturday morning time slot,” as NBC didn’t “give these shows enough adult appeal.” The Man From Atlantis’ youth-appeal made it a no-brainer for tie-in merchandise: Marvel published Mark’s exploits in comic book form, and the show spawned licensed products like lunchboxes and action figures. Such programming had precedence in the age of network-television fantasy: NBC also broadcast the likes of The Invisible Man and future Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature Gemini Man; its most insane creation, Manimal, wouldn’t arrive until 1983. But young audiences weren’t enough to save Man From Atlantis.
An expensive, probably too-imaginative show that wasn’t paying off in the ratings, Man From Atlantis didn’t make it past its 13th episode. Montgomery didn’t even last until the very end, departing after episode 12. After weeks of freezing underwater swims, hand and foot prosthetics, and painful contact lenses, Duffy called the day Man From Atlantis was canceled, “quite literally, the best day ever.” And he already had a new, much less strenuous job lined up: Bobby Ewing on Dallas.
Wonder, Weirdo, or Wannabe?: Walking seahorses and Wild West time wormholes? This one’s a weirdo.