Now then, SFcrowsnest readers and all-round sci-fi enthusiasts, brace yourselves as we prepare to dive into a U.S. TV show that gave up the ghost (or in this case, the aquatic lizard) all too soon: Surface.
When it comes to our odd genre, the line between “captivating and groundbreaking” and “frustrating and ridiculous” is often a thin one, crossed with reckless abandon. Surface straddles this line like an oceanographer on a wave runner.
A collaborative creation of Jonas and Josh Pate, Surface made a splash on NBC in 2005. Our lovely network executives obviously thought it had the makings of a classic, even though its lifespan was slightly shorter than that of a mayfly with a heart condition. After 10 episodes, it went on a brief hiatus, only to return for a 5-episode swan song before it was permanently banished to the briny depths of cancelled shows.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Surface wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was a somewhat endearing hodgepodge of sci-fi tropes, featuring mysterious underwater creatures (that suspiciously resemble rejected Pokemon designs), government conspiracies, an oceanographer who has more in common with Nancy Drew than Jacques Cousteau, and a web-footed “Nim” that was about as threatening as a goldfish with a mean streak.
One might think that the show was an attempt to explore the potential implications of genetic engineering and modern biotechnology, only delivered in a style that would make even the Sharknado series wince. As an example, one scene involves a scientist interviewing for a secret company that reveals it recovered the Archaeopteryx, the first known bird, and casually drops the fact that Dolly the Sheep was a quaint afterthought for them. These big revelations are handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, making one wonder if the writers were constantly locked in a competition to outdo each other with the most absurd plot twist.
Each episode reads like a patchwork quilt of aquatic chaos. In one, we have a carcass washing up on a beach leading to the government cordoning off the area, citing a beached whale poisoned by red tide (because that’s less alarming than a giant sea lizard, I suppose). In another, a 14-year-old finds an “egg” that hatches a creature with the ability to zap objects and heal instantaneously, demonstrating that the show’s idea of evolution took a detour via Hogwarts.
The early part of the series, dubbed by fans as the ‘Water Years’, were where our heroes spent more time swimming than walking. It’s worth noting that, in this innovative middle segment, every episode started and ended with an underwater shot. With the CGI budget of a small nation’s GDP, it was like watching a particularly verbose episode of ‘Blue Planet’ narrated by David Attenborough. Still, it was decidedly more intriguing than watching the pattern of spilled coffee in your office canteen.
The central trio took on the unofficial titles of ‘Aquaman’, ‘Aquawoman’, and ‘Aquakid’. Well, everyone but Miles, who was usually too busy wrestling with a mutated seahorse or getting another dose of salt.
Dr. Cirko was resurrected – no, not as a zombie. That’s a twist not even ‘Surface’ would stoop to. Instead, he was alive all along, faked his death, blah blah, the usual script loophole. Yet, the miraculous comeback was remarkably unexciting. So much so, that the only memorable part was his constantly water-drenched hair, presumably due to all the time spent under the ocean.
If anyone remembers anything about the ‘Water Years’, it’s probably Miles’ love affair with Nim. No, not romantic. More of a ‘boy-and-his-dog’ type thing, except the dog could breathe underwater and electrocute people. At times, it felt like the showrunners were straying dangerously close to the territory of ‘Free Willy’. Thank God, no one tried to jump over a wall with Nim.
After the series’ ‘Water Years’ washed over, we returned to dry land for what could be termed as the ‘Land Years’. You’d think the characters had grown gills with how difficult they found life back on terra firma.
In the ‘Land Years’, the showrunners, in a clear attempt to regain audience attention, decided to make everything BIGGER. More significant monsters, larger conspiracy, greater stakes – it was like an intergalactic domino effect. I almost expected them to introduce Godzilla, but then they introduced something even more intimidating – government bureaucracy.
In one episode, our intrepid trio spent more time filling out forms in triplicate than they did battling marine monstrosities. If that’s not a thrilling viewing experience, then I don’t know what is.
In these later episodes, it became apparent that the showrunners had started mining from the bottom of the idea barrel. In one remarkably unforgettable episode, an important plot revelation hinged on a character misreading the sell-by date on a carton of milk.
One might think that after the shocking government conspiracies, the scientific revelations, and the constant parade of aquatic oddities, the last few episodes would have ended with a bang. Instead, it closed on a note that was less of a bang and more of a “plop”, akin to a stone dropped in a very calm pond.
‘Surface‘ was a wild ride that teetered between the intensely compelling and the compellingly intense. It dipped its toes into various genres – from science fiction to horror to thriller – and occasionally managed to create something that was, if not entirely original, then at least surprisingly entertaining.
The series had its high points and its low points. For every electrifying underwater battle, there was a scene of questionable dialogues. For every revelation of deep-sea mystery, there was a soap opera plot twist.
However, for all its absurdities and inconsistencies, ‘Surface‘ will always hold a special place in the hearts of those brave, true, and few Fans who watched it. In its ambitious storytelling and its unabashed enthusiasm, ‘Surface‘ encapsulates the spirit of sci-fi television: daring, imaginative, and always just a little bit mad.