I’m a nostalgic and forgiving kind of guy, and so I’m pretty certain that every single thing from my childhood that I loved as a child is something I can look at from the dull light of middle age and see what appealed to me when I was small. Then there’s The Return of Captain Nemo, which ran for three episodes on CBS in 1978. I saw the first two installments and loved that show like you wouldn’t believe.
This morning, we watched The Amazing Captain Nemo, a compilation movie made from the three TV episodes, whittled down from about 150 to 105 minutes. If I didn’t have my six year-old son hopping with excitement from the laser gun fights, underwater action, and explosions, I would have wandered away from this turkey to go play mublety-peg or something. I’d say that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve watched for this blog, were it not for the unfortunate reality that I know what we’re watching next week.
The Return of Captain Nemo seems to have come about because CBS was very much aware of bandwagons, but they were too timid to actually jump on any of them. In the spring of 1977, NBC showed a series of TV movies called Man From Atlantis. They starred Patrick Duffy as a comic book-type hero, with a former Batvillain, Victor Buono, as a recurring enemy. These were so successful that NBC ordered a weekly series, and CBS and Warner Brothers followed suit with an idea for a clone, even casting another former Batvillain, Burgess Meredith, as their show’s baddie. Captain Nemo was in the public domain, and while Irwin Allen had left weekly TV production behind for big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, he knew how to make bottom-of-the-sea television without a lot of money, so they asked him to produce it.
Then Star Wars happened. Suddenly Burgess Meredith got an alien robot henchman and a lot of golden androids. The important rooms of his submarine, the Raven, got turned into black-curtained “limbo” sets like everywhere in the third season of Batman so the set designer could spend money making all the corridors into Death Star hallways to stage laser gun shootouts.
Then Man From Atlantis died as a weekly series. CBS decided that they maybe only wanted three episodes, and called it a pilot mini-series. The mini-series flopped, and Irwin Allen and Warner Brothers got to make a little money back by turning the three hours into a film version, cropping the 4:3 picture into widescreen. The three-part version has apparently never been screened anywhere since an April 1981 broadcast in the UK; the film is the only way to see it. Only Irwin Allen completists need bother.
I’m assuming some of the intricacies must have been lost in the editing, because the speed with which the kind and patient Nemo works out a deal with naval intelligence to be their go-to man to battle the evil Professor Cunningham is really the most amazing thing about this movie. We never learn anything about Cunningham’s alien buddies or weird technology, Lynda Day George is present only because if she wasn’t, there would not be a single female character in this movie at all, and Atlantis itself is treated as a mild curiosity and depicted with a no-budget-at-all white set with two Greek columns. All of the dialogue is hilariously macho – “I’m going alone,” “no time for explanations,” etc. – and the two action man leads, played by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, look like they were cast because there weren’t any cop shows that needed them that month.
But holy anna, our six year-old loved it. He was hopping up and down and shouted “This is AMAZING!” at one point. He liked the underwater gunfights so much that he’ll probably pass out when he sees Thunderball one of these days. He did creep behind the sofa at one point when Captain Nemo was captured and Cunningham uses one of those mind probes you see in sci-fi shows to get the equations and blueprints for the Nautilus and its laser(!) from his brain. We’ve seen Captain Nemo in four films now, and this is the most ridiculous thing to happen to him in any of them.
And it was always thus. In the seventies, my parents were good friends with a fellow named J.D. Faulkner, who always confused me by being unmarried. My folks knew nine thousand people and I swear J.D. was the only bachelor among them. He always arrived unannounced, and one terrible Wednesday – March 22, 1978 – he showed up raving about this restaurant in Marietta, insisting that Mom and Dad drop plans and join him there. It is perhaps amazing that I grew up loving food and restaurants as I do after what happened next. This insidious trip to whatever that restaurant was – my parents never admitted its name under interrogation – cost me the third episode of the show, but I guarantee I ruined their meal by whining about it. I started crying because the second part had a cliffhanger ending. I mean, it said on the screen “TO BE CONTINUED,” so that meant my parents were obliged to let me see what happened next.
Somehow, in that strange logic of six year-olds, I concluded that the cost for missing part three of The Return of Captain Nemo was twenty-four dollars. My father agreed to pay it to shut me up, and I ate my spaghetti in silence. It wasn’t even good spaghetti. Mom made better spaghetti than this. Mom made, and continues to make, better spaghetti than anybody else on the planet. I don’t know why I ordered it.
Then my dad refused to pay the twenty-four dollars. Then there wasn’t an episode four of The Return of Captain Nemo. Somehow I didn’t become a serial killer.