REVIEW: Sealab 2020
“This is the year two thousand and twenty. The place is the Challenger Sea Mount, the top of an underwater mountain, a complex beneath the sea. Two hundred and fifty men, women and children live here. Each of them, a scientist pioneer. For this is our last frontier, a hostile environment which may hold the key to tomorrow. Each day, these oceanauts meet new challenges as they build their city beneath the sea. This is Sealab 2020.”
Hanna-Barbera had to change with the times and as the 1970s dawned, kids and adults alike were tuning into the difficulties planet Earth was facing. Ecology and Earth Day were on everyone’s lips. At the same time, parents’ groups were insisting Saturday morning cartoon shows do more than shill cereal and have characters hit one another.
Their answer was Sealab 2020, which lasted a mere season comprising just 13 episodes. The science fiction setting allowed the adults and teens living at Sealab to have adventures and instill education tips to the viewership. It is an oft-forgotten part of H-B’s proud output with no collection since a 1980s VHS release. The pilot episode “Deep Threat” was included in 2009’s Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1970s Vol. 2. Thankfully, Warner Archive has corrected that oversight with a two-disc complete series set, now available.
Dr. Paul Williams (voiced by Ross Martin) was in charge of the ocean-floor based lab and directed the studies of his 250-plus aquanauts in addition to three younger aides. The cast highlighted only a handful of the staff: Captain Michael Murphy (John Stephenson), and Lt. Sparks (William Callaway). The kids were Hal (Jerry Dexter), Gail (Ann Jillian), and Ed (Ron Pinkard). Imagine an undersea threat (pollution, oil spills, seaquakes, sharks, falling satellites), the series touched on it.
The stories are far more dramatic than H-B’s super-heroic fare from the 1960s and certainly played things straighter than their 1970s smash hit Scooby-Doo. The stories were designed to teach tolerance and teamwork along with copious environment messages that befit the era. In addition to the lab itself, the team ventured around the globe often in the Dolphin, a high-tech submarine such as the time they sought a two-man arctic research station, trapped beneath a capsized ice floe. In addition to deadly sea life, they had to contend with the rival Aquarius operation that did some undersea corporate spying.
Unlike the primary tones found in their previous series, “the tone was curiously muted and sober,” Ted Sennett wrote in The Art of Hanna-Barbera. Clearly, high-minded for its time, it didn’t connect with the audience, running on NBC from September-December 1972 before being canceled. The producers thought they might get renewed and began work on a second season, including three episodes that were in various stages of production before the death knell. “S.O.S.- Sealab Ocean Signal” was partially completed and was resurrected for use when the series was redubbed for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim as Sealab 2021.
The show holds up better than some of the earlier offerings simply because it played straight and many of the ecological issues remain valid today. The animation isn’t the best, nor are the stories fabulous but overall, it’s a noble failed effort and worth a look.