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I am a citizen of the ocean.


Man from Atlantis
Pilot (1977)


As far as I’m aware, the notion of aquatic Atlanteans is a strictly fictional – providing, of course, you credit the legend with any legitimacy to begin with – conceit. Can it be found prior to Marvel’s Submariner (created in 1939)? There are accounts of fish/humanoids, sure, such as the Amazonian creature that inspired Creature from the Black Lagoon. And then there are mythical mainstays of various traditions and cultures – mermaids and mermen, Adaro, Atargatis (transformed into a fish, but her head remained human), the Blue men of the Minch (they swim like porpoises, but do they have gills?), Heget and Hug (frog headed), Nommo, Siyokoy and Vodyanoy – but none of them are going to pass for human (Alexander Belayev’s 1928 Amphibian Man has a surgeon give his son shark gills, however; it was made into a movie in 1962).

Doctor: Our man seems to have forgotten how to breathe.

Certainly, though, by the time Patrick Duffy’s “Mark Harris” is beached, with gill-like membranes informing the functioning of his chest cavity, he’s conforming to a popular fantasy of anyone in Atlantis swimming with the fishes (as opposed to lore of a destroyed civilisation that ended up submerged; in Doctor Who’s Atlantis-set The Underwater Menace (1967), humans – and Atlanteans? – are converted to fish people, so representing something of an intermediate stage between the naturally gilled Atlantean and Amphibian Man). In outline, though, the Man from Atlantis pilot bears more resemblance to the previous summer’s The Spy Who Loved Me (an insane mastermind – here Victor Buono’s Schubert – attempts to wipe out the planet by triggering a nuclear war, surviving to start afresh in his underwater base… which is called Atlantis in the Bond movie).

Of course, the other touchstone is the superhero on a TV budget. The Six Million Dollar Man was a hit for ABC in 1973 and was still going. Various attempts at invisible heroes – Ben Murphy and his digital watch in Gemini Man, like Atlantis only running to half a season and itself a cheaper version of also-NBC’s also-half-season The Invisible Man with David McCallum the year prior; it was the digital watch gimmick that stuck with me – floundered. Wonder Woman saw Lynda Carter’s spinning cleavage fronting 3 seasons, more impressive than most, while The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) suffered both from being expensive and not hitting the spot with CBS’ precious older demographic (ratings were generally high, however). Probably the biggest success story, post Steve Austin, was The Incredible Hulk, which began on CBS the season after (NBC’s) Man from Atlantis. 

Elizabeth: As far as his origins, well, he’s given us very little to go on.

As pilots go, Man from Atlantis is suitably engaging, reliably penned by Mayo Simon (who was responsible for the Phase IV, Marooned and Futureworld screenplays) and directed by Lee H Katzin (Le Mans). As a product of the ’70s, the first thing that occurs to humans on discovering a water-breathing humanoid is naturally how they can put him to military use, so there’s an appropriate vein of cynicism as a contrast with Mark’s impassive sincerity. It was probably a mistake, however, to give the show that title and then never even intimate as to him originating there (here or in the subsequent 3 TV movies and 13 episodes). The most we get is budding AI Defence Department computer WR12000 processing the available data and responding “Last Citizen of Atlantis???? 

Later episodes feature aliens (of course), who ambiguously suggests Mark may be one of their kind, space exploration (well, a capsule from space, proving definitively that outer space is real), the return of villainous Schubert (could he not just rebuild his nuke-triggering device?) trying to melt the polar ice caps with microwaves, a statue from Lemuria/Mu Schubert is after, a giant jellyfish he plans to release (what?!), giants from beyond a fissure in the ocean floor, Mark meeting his identical twin in a Wild West town (???!), Schubert attempting to steal crystals that power an undersea city (to power, in turn, a satellite weapon for the purposes of deactivating Earth communications), a sea monster, and Mark being transported to Verona (in a Shakespearean sense). 

Which sounds like the usual grab bag of throwing anything at the wall during a story conference, rather than anything coherent to an overall concept. Man from Atlantis starts with an inclination towards verisimilitude, however, with Mark washed up on a beach and subjected to standard – debilitating; one is eerily reminded of suggestions early coof patients, the ones with the reported symptoms that scared everyone silly, were being given treatments that only exacerbated their difficulties  – ER procedures until Dr Elizabeth Merrill (Belinda J Montgomery), a super-keen diver, has the bright idea of dunking him in the ocean. Of course, anyone apprised of that gilly chest and webbed fingers, dolphin characteristics and cat-like eyes capable of seeing at ocean depths might have assumed as much, but such nuggets come with later, more extensive examination. 

Mark: I do not speak the language of fish. The inner current took me to the deep sound channel and I listened to the whales talk. I felt the presence of your submarine and I followed it. 

Mark’s diet is one of kelp and plankton. Yum.  He has amnesia. Cripes. What’s clear from what he does know and is aware of, however, is that he’s a very different kettle of fish to your average human. He (or his race) didn’t simply adapt to underwater conditions following a catastrophe. When Schubert describes one of his goals – to create Homo aqualis, the water breathing man – Mark “philosophically” replies “When he learns to breathe water, he will no longer be a man”. He doesn’t speak fish, but he does speak killer whale (“They tell me they wish to go home”). Least winningly, Mark displays a guileless innocence when it comes to human emotions and customs, suggesting a by-now-somewhat-hackneyed Mr Spock sheen that’s only tarnished slightly at the very end, when his memory’s flooded with flashbacks of all the larks he had with humans – and especially Elizabeth, in a slightly less queasy, interspecies fashion than The Shape of Water (he asks her to explain feelings and tastes her salty tear).

Admiral Pierce: The water. Keep him away from the water!

One might posit that the “Atlantean” represents a distinctive stratum of awareness, a metaphor for a higher density (albeit, Mark is above humans in an almost naïve sense). Or alternatively, that they represent the “things” of Cayce (animal characteristics mixed with a human form). Or even, with his detachment and ignorance of emotions, that he’s in the lineage of the Lumanians and the limitations they placed on free will (and particularly a capacity for violence). The problem with any such speculation is that there’s no intimation any thought was given to Atlantis – or any lost civilisation – beyond the title. Plus, much as Mark comes into his own underwater (bending steel bars with a single length), he’s afflicted by very defined frailties that provide a counterpoint to his superior traits: he can be blinded with light, or fried with ultrasonics, or just kept away from water “until you gasp like a frog in the desert”.

Mark: There are no sea monsters in the place you call the trench.

Admiral Pierce (Art Lund) is amiable but unswerving over Mark’s responsibilities (orders are “When people older and wiser tell us what to do. As long as you are here, you have to obey orders too”). Mark isn’t too chuffed at this, but he’s even less so at Schubert, who effectively wants to release the Earth from the blight of man; Mark, in response to Elizabeth’s negotiating, has agreed to dive down the Mariana Trench to find a lost submersible (also where a Russian research sub and French sub have gone missing: “A very dangerous part of the world”). 

Schubert: I am the original recycle king.

He discovers Schubert and his underwater base are responsible; various scientists have been pressed into working for rotund villain, compliance ensured by mind-control bracelets. Buono is a lot of fun, considerably more so than Curt Jürgens in The Spy Who Loved Me, but the pilot otherwise culminates in your usual countdown to destruction, averted in the nick of time (00.03) and preceded by entreaties to join the bad guy in his triumph (who, this being a series, lives to flaunt his bushy beard another day).

Mark: I have not learned enough.

Duffy’s swimming is impressively athletic, particularly considering that’s clearly him striking a fishy pose (those contacts are also evidently uncomfortable at times). He was a hit, even if the series wasn’t, as he immediately went on to Dallas, where he didn’t need to strip down to his shorts and shave his body hair every day. The series is perhaps a move on from the sword-and-sandals approach to Atlantis pictures found during the ’60s, but its reticence over the status of its leading aqua man leaves it neither fish nor fowl.

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