Man from Atlantis
premiered in the early spring of 1977 on NBC. The show was reasonably well promoted, and debuted to decent numbers. Decent enough that NBC followed it up with three more movies, The Death Scouts
, The Killer Spores
, and finally The Disappearances
the following June (I remember it clearly because my family moved that day, and my big concern was getting settled enough so that a TV was hooked up and tuned in time for the film to air!). In the fall of 1977, a 13-episode "second season" premiered on NBC, but by that point, the show had drifted too far from its original premise to catch on with the public.
The premise of the original telefilm was not original - in fact, one fan writer traced significant parallels between Man from Atlantis and Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land - but it was different for its time. In some ways, it's similar to DC Comics' Aquaman, but again, different. Instead of the tacky spandex that typified television scifi of the time, Man from Atlantis featured more normal looking characters, working scientists and even older people, in sharp contrast to shows like Logan's Run, with its youth at any cost themes. At the core of Man from Atlantis was the man himself, clearly not of our world, aloof, seemingly emotionless, with no context in which to process our complex world. He was a tabula rasa, yet he possessed skills and abilities the US military wanted to exploit. And while he couldn't remember who he was or where he came from, he remembered much about the sea.
Mark Harris made his entrance into our world, gasping for breath and nearly dead in the roiling surf following a massive storm. Good Samaritans called for help for him, and he was rushed to a local hospital, where the emergency room team fought to save his life. At the same time, Dr. Elizabeth Merrill was at a party chatting with an attractive doctor who was called to the hospital to try to save the mystery man, and Elizabeth tagged along. Her expertise was marine life, and she quickly realized that the mysterious man dying on the table didn't need more air - he needed water. Elizabeth managed to save him by dragging him back to the water, and took custody of him in order to nurture him back to full strength. He couldn't be "hey you" forever, so she dubbed him "Mark Harris."
In stepped the US Navy, a surrogate villain in the early part of the pilot film. When computer analysis failed to identify Mark's origins, the computer posited that he might be the last survivor of Atlantis. Of course, in 1977, computers weren't really capable of such leaps of logic, but this was television after all. Much of the viewing public at that point wasn't even familiar with computers.
The original pilot went on to introduce the real villain of the piece - because of course the gruff admiral finally admitted to his own humanity and let Elizabeth loosen the reins on Mark. He also realized that the best way to gain Mark Harris's cooperation was simply to ask for it. Mr. Schubert, played with gusto by the great character actor Victor Buono, was a simple junk man with a simple dream - world domination. The world above didn't even know he existed, but the Navy knew that one of its experimental vehicles - very hush-hush, need-to-know - had gone missing, and only someone who could survive crippling depths could find it. Mark established his usefulness by agreeing to deep dive to find the missing submersible, and ended up face to face with Mr. Schubert in a battle to save the world.
The other three telefilms followed on in roughly the same vein, with varying degrees of success. Personally, I loved them. When the episodic series premiered the following fall, much of the elements that differentiated Man from Atlantis from other quasi-scifi of the time were gone. Mark was no longer the emotionless stranger caught adrift in the modern world. Several of the supporting cast - including my personal favorite, Dr. Miller Simon played by Kenneth Tigar - were off the show. In their place were several young and fairly generic - although multi-ethnic - characters manning the Cetacean, as it launched into weekly excursions into a '70s scifi sensibility.
The series was not a success, and was taken off the air before it completed its run. It was brought back just long enough to burn off the unaired episodes. By this time, star Patrick Duffy had already shot the 5-part mini-series that would become Dallas. In fact, I kind of remember the final episode of Man from Atlantis aired right around the same time that the first episode of Dallas aired. After four telefilms, 13 episodes, four novelizations, and seven issues of the Marvel comic, Man from Atlantis slipped into relative obscurity and a brief cycle of syndication.
The pilot film has been released on DVD by Warner Archive, and it appears the series itself has been restored and dubbed into Chinese - I'm trying to find out if there's an English language track to the Chinese release!
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Mark Harris is the name given the mysterious man who washed up on a beach following a storm. He can breathe underwater, and in fact needs to be immersed every 12 hours, or his gill-like membranes in his chest cavity begin to shrivel, turn black, and the cells start dying off. Under water, he has remarkable vision, enhanced by eyes that become cat-like and glow green, but on dry land, he frequently must wear protective sunglasses. His hands are webbed, like a sea turtle's. When he is first introduced to land civilization, he does not speak, and there is speculation that he cannot. When he finally feels he has something to say, he speaks clearly and decisively, shocking all of those around him. He can withstand enormous pressures and unheard of depths. He swims, above and below the surface, at incredible speeds, and exhibits extraordinary strength while immersed. He can also communicate with aquatic life, especially dolphins. It appears that he is the last of his kind until he discovers an identical twin through a kind of wormhole. His brother, Billy, is equally lost, and Billy resolved to blend in, slicing the webbing from his hands. Given an opportunity to join Mark, Billy opts instead to stay in his new life, with the woman he's come to love.
Once considered a Navy asset, Mark Harris eventually was allowed to settle in at the Foundation for Oceanic Research, a quasi-civilian marine research center, where he is often drawn into missions using the Foundation's submersible the Cetacean.
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Dr. Elizabeth Merrill is an accomplished scientist, with an expertise in aquatic life. That expertise means the difference between life and death for the mysterious dying man she meets in the original Man from Atlantis
pilot. While the Navy would use him as a military asset, Elizabeth introduces him to humanity and compassion. She recognizes that he is his own person, and although it pains her, she is willing to let him go to find his way home. It is that quality that causes him to remain on dry land with her.
Although there was never an actual romance between them - Elizabeth tended to treat Mark more as a sheltered younger brother than a potential love interest - they are clearly very close. Mark's focus is protection of the sea and its inhabitants, but through Elizabeth's eyes he learns to see the surface dwellers as worth his protection as well.
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