Plunging Into `seaQuest'

New Spielberg series seeks spectacular special effects - and ratings

WITH a price tag of $1.5 million per episode, ``seaQuest DSV,'' is one of television's most expensive adventure series. It's being described as ``Jurassic Park'' underwater.

The new series is being produced by Stephen Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and has the expertise of oceanographer Robert Ballard (he led the expedition that discovered the Titanic). It boasts one of the best special effects teams in the industry, footage from Mr. Ballard and the National Geographic explorations under the seas, and an ensemble cast headed by Roy Scheider, as Captain Bridger. A two-hour premiere will air Sept. 12, then the one-hour adventure series continues every Sunday on NBC, from 8 to 9 p.m. E.T.

Through computer-generated graphics, the cast will fight the good fight - without having to get its feet wet - to protect cities and other settlements built under the ocean.

There is also an intellectual dolphin named Darwin who engages in a type of high-frequency conversation. Like ``Jurassic Park,'' the merchandising of toys, books, and games could let Darwin give the dinosaurs a run for the bank.

``SeaQuest'' is a floating laboratory and underwater fighting machine.

``When I was a kid,'' Mr. Spielberg says, ``one of the books and movies that inspired me the most was `20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' I used to pretend to be Captain Nemo and live out undersea adventures with my Nautilus crew. As I grew older, the fascination held. I wanted to explore the possibility of the depths of our oceans as a stage for a drama and adventure.''

When he first heard the ``seaQuest'' concept, ``I thought this could only be done as a feature film,'' Spielberg says. But ``as we began to pitch ideas back and forth about the different adventures, we discovered each action-packed segment was so self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and end, it would shortchange the concept to limit it to a two-hour movie. In fact, we could produce 22 single-hour TV adventures.'' That was the concept they took to NBC executives.

`` `SeaQuest' would be part science, part fiction, and pure fantasy,'' Spielberg continues. ``I wanted to combine a real scientific basis, plus imagination and all sorts of inklings into what the future would hold. That's why we based our stories in the year 2018. It isn't that far away. Neither is the possibility of the new frontier, which perhaps isn't outer space just yet, but underwater.''

Unlike ``Jurassic Park,'' where Spielberg was hands-on every minute, he was in Krakow, Poland, filming ``Schindler's List,'' a drama based on the Holocaust, while ``seaQuest'' was being developed.

``We kept in touch,'' Scheider says, ``but I had concerns about the character I was playing. What we needed were scripts as highly developed as the action. I didn't want to be a robot with a mouth filled with cliches.''

The actor fought hard for good scripts. Finally, Spielberg returned to the United States and things started to change. A new producer and writing team were brought in. David Burke, who produced the ``Tribeca'' series for Fox, was put in charge.

``The series is aimed at the family, my own included,'' Spielberg says. ``Anybody who couldn't see `Jurassic Park' can certainly feel safe watching an episode of `seaQuest.' ''

``SeaQuest'' is the largest TV production ever filmed at Universal Studios. They have five soundstages allotted to various sections of the submarine. The only way Amblin Entertainment could deliver the high-tech effects they needed was to get a commitment for a full season of shows. NBC guaranteed the budget on the basis of a 75-page ``bible'' Spielberg gave them describing the concept and action.

``The technology in the series is a logical stretch of what is being done on the drawing boards today,'' says oceanographer Ballard. ``That's the root of my involvement - to make the submarine and the technology believable, to [make sure they] obey the laws of physics.''

Thus ``seaQuest'' writers won't have quite the freedom they did in ``Star Trek,'' which put few limits on their imagination. The verdict isn't in yet on the success and value of the new show, but the consensus of industry leaders contacted is that Amblin Entertainment could add a new dimensions to TV production - if the show can make effective use of the computer-generated graphics and special effects being employed.

``There's no end of topics for the series,'' Ballard says. ``We as a human race only live on 20 percent of our planet. What we're going to see are people going under the sea colonizing the other 80 percent.''

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