Man from Atlantis: Scavenger Hunt

My last post about Doctor Who was perhaps an indication of how I have been thinking about Atlantis and other mythologies as treated in the cult TV world. Of course Doctor Who has been able to make remarkably free with any mythology of earth or created for another planet, but here w have a show also drawing on the mythology of Atlantis, just about the supposed last man from Atlantis. In fact Atlantis as far as I can see doesn't really occur in it at all, except as a pretext for a man being remarkably aquatically able. I had somehow managed to get to this great age without actually seeing an episode of The Man From Atlantis, a lack which has been remedied by the purchase of a boxed set from The title translates as Der Mann aus dem Meer in German, btw, and if you have region 2 equipment and are in Europe, the German edition is much the cheapest way to buy this series. The boxed set - with alternative language tracks in German and English - comes in at under £17 when paid for in sterling, and the same set costs more than £30 on Region 1 releases are also more expensive on
I haven't watched it all the way through yet, but I have watched a few episodes, which are enough to give me an impression - and of course an opinion. And I have placed Man from Atlantis in a completely new category of television, which I have just coined in my own head, that of supermen. I'm afraid it is largely supermen, although of course there was Wonder Woman as well.
My tentative genre of TV entitled supermen is the fulfilment of the sort of dreams of progress we often see in the TV of the era I write about here. While the warnings of the dangers from human perfidy or just weakness came thick and fast, there was also a sense that the future would be bright...if we would be careful how we approached it. The impetus was completely on humans to take responsibility for how we create our future. Is it therefore any wonder that come the 1970s there were a whole series of TV programmes featuring people who were (at least mostly) apparently human or else looked human in a dark room, who were gifted with literally superhuman abilities? It is as if the warnings of dangers found in technology in the sixties have morphed into having examples of superhuman strength or virtue held above us. I wanted to mention the Incredible Hulk but his gifts are rather ambivalently for the good (although what boy has dreamt of turning green and growing big muscles when he becomes slightly cross?). I mean rather shows such as the Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman... I'm sure lots of other shows will come to my mind when I actually publish this post!
In The Man from Atlantis the idea of an apparently human person (whose gifts in this case are completely aquatic along with being a generally kind person and all round nice chap) meet the totally 1970s obsession with lost cultures in that he just happens to have been the only survivor of Atlantis. Merging super men with lost civilisations - could that have happened in any other era? This show is actually the one which for me brings home the real nature of these super men shows - the super abilities are things which I can never aspire to. The reason is I hate swimming! In theory I can swim, but it's only ever a leisurely doggy paddle, and I'm never comfortable going out of my depth. I'm also never likely to get better at it since somebody told me about an eye infection he contracted in a swimming pool. That has made the possibility of getting good at swimming unlikely in the extreme. For me this is one of the strange things about TV - we watch other people's lives, captivated by them whether they are much better or worse off than ourselves. It can't simply be that we like to be comforted, since I'm watching this show and the super powers shown will never be mine. They don't cause pity or envy in me... he is just a super man who I will never be, and thus this tentative genre of cult TV's main function is to make its viewers feel inadequate.
If not downright jealous. There is another thing in which Mark Harris will always be ahead of us. You may say it's rich coming from me with my approach to clothes, but Harris gets a pass to walk around in yellow swimming trunks quite a lot of the time. This is whether indoors or outdoors, and I imagine it's just purely because he's odd. The rest of us don't get that, and it once again places him in a rather enviable position. Come to think of it, I'm not doing that good a job of making this TV show sound entertaining to watch, am I, since I'm making it out as designed to create envy in the viewer. I actually wasn't going to write about this show at all, because I didn't want Harris's pecs to show my own nonexistent ones, but I bit the bullet and realised that that jealousy was part of the thing of the show. That's the point, that we don't look like him and unless we commit hours in the gym or swimming, we never will.
The episode I have chosen to write about is Scavenger Hunt, and my reason is simply that it features Ted Cassidy, the actor who played Lurch in The Addams Family. A brief search on the interent has indicated that he had a far broader career in film and TV than I was aware of, and in fact guested in many TV shows of this age. His great stature makes him the natural leader of a Polynesian nation.
And that's where this episode of Man From Atlantis begins to go wrong...well, frankly the titles haven't even finished when it goes wrong. I will confess that I have been very influenced by the hilarious (yet fond) review of this episode at the Retrospeculative TV blog, which was what made me realise why the natives on the Polynesian island look all wrong. They're not even one ethnicity. It's a random collection on Hispanics and Asians and other non-white people. I have a feeling that that would have been done differently nowadays - but I also have a feeling that it would have been more acceptable and less noticeable in the culture of the time.
The other wonderful thing about this show is that if you wanted to, in addition to the above bloop, you can pick absolute holes in it. The plot has more holes than my grandmother's lace tablecloths. The contents of the cylinders is never noticeably explained. The pearls are rather obviously not pearls. The monster is very obviously a man in a costume.
I love the dodgy spiv character of Muldoon. You can tell he's a con man because he wears clothes. I know that's being rather simplistic because so do the people who work for the United Nations, but part of the point of this show is the good guys don't need the facade given by clothes, whereas Muldoon so obviously does. He also rather obviously fibs - isn't it obvious that the Man from Atlantis can breathe under water?
If you haven't seen this show, the production values are very much of the time. It moves at about the pace of a Columbo.
The fact that this show is so open to criticism does not explain the reason it is still available forty years on. I think the key to that can be found in escapism, and the sort of super-hero dynamics I talked about above. Some of us liked our TV to be unreal even in the 1970s, and Man From Atlantis is about as unreal as it gets.


  1. Chicago Calling:

    Welcome once again to More Than You Wanted To Know!.

    The Man From Atlantis was NBC's attempt at a pre-fabricated cult series.

    The Bionic shows were big hits on ABC during this period; NBC and Paramount TV wanted in, and so Man From Atlantis came into being.

    All the ingredients were carefully assembled:
    - Handsome hero, just other-worldly enough to be interesting, played by a newcomer who was game for anything (Patrick Duffy);
    - Supporting cast, attractive without being overwhelming (the female lead, Belinda Montgomery, specialized in this);
    - Producers with experience in fantastic series such as Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and a few others;
    - Writers who sought to build a mythos for the series, with recurring characters (including villains);
    - Hollywood's Old Familiar Faces to play the Guest Roles (the Major Get here was Victor Buono, who was in 6 of the 17 episodes; he got almost as much publicity as Patrick Duffy).
    - A major publicity push from NBC, which really needed a hit badly.

    With all that, The Man From Atlantis was one of the major flops of the 1977 season.
    The major reason was Hawaii Five-O on CBS, which owned Thursday night that year.

    But after MFA was dropped by NBC, something curious happened:
    Paramount decided to put the show into syndication, which wasn't normally done when you only had 20 hours to sell; the first shows were 2-hour TV-movies (long-running series - 100 episodes or more - were in much greater demand).
    But MFA was picked up by many stations, who put it on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, where a sizable kid audience turned it into - A Cult Hit!
    There was some talk about bringing The Man back, but by that time Patrick Duffy had already joined up at Dallas (you may have heard of that one), and the rest is history.

    Disclaimer: I never actually saw any of these episodes in their original run.
    (I did see some of the syndicated reruns, but only because the Chicago station was showing them before the reruns of The Invaders - but that's another story ...)

    Up above, I mentioned that Victor Buono was in almost half of the extant episodes; his character, a renegade scientist named Mr. Schubert, would have appeared in more shows had MFA lasted longer.
    Reading your review was the first I'd heard of Muldoon the spiv (that's not a term we use here in the States, but I love the sound of it); apparently the plan was to have him recur as well.
    Ted Neeley, who played Muldoon, was a sort of semi-Major Get for MFA; he was best-known at the time for having played the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar, both on Broadway and in the movie (insert your own joke here).

    The foregoing is really all I have about Man From Atlantis; I'm intrigued enough by what you've written here to try and find it over on the this side of the water.

    So There Too.

    1. Hooray, I've converted someone to Man from Atlantis (and to using spiv in daily life)!

  2. Chicago Calling Back:

    John, you might want to hold on to that "conversion" thing for a bit ...

    I've only just ordered up the Man From Atlantis DVDs, which come in two sets from Warner Archive (one set is the first 4 TV movies, the other is the 13-week hour series); price for the two sets, around $60, including shipping charges (I'm not up on the rate of exchange, so if you think I'm being taken here ... just keep it to yourself, OK?)

    Looking over the credits, I find a lot of names on the production end who were working most of the other Hollywood TV adventure shows in the '60s/'70s (the studios were great believers in full employment).
    Some of the writers worked on shows like Star Trek, UNCLE, Batman, Naked City, and just about every other show that was on during this period.
    Same with the directors; in fact, one of them even directed a Columbo! (This was Edward M. Abroms, who passed away just last week; he'd won an Emmy for editing an early Columbo, which earned him the directing gig.)
    And of course the Old Familiar Faces in the supporting casts, but I already mentioned that, didn't I?

    As to spiv:
    What I know about British expressions come mostly from a book titled British English A To Zed, initially compiled by an American named Norman W. Schur in 1987; It's in its fourth revision, from 2013, having outlived Mr. Schur by a few years.
    This book (and its predecessors) has formed a major part of my forays into the GB end of things; I can't read a British book or watch a British DVD without it.
    Basically, the book's a glossary of various words and expressions that you would know, accompanied by an American equivalent (sometimes approximate), and when necessary a clarifying explanation.
    In the case of spiv, the US equivalent given is sharp operator, which is pretty much approximate. The accompanying paragraph clarifies this a bit, using racetrack tout as an example, but that's also an approximation, sort of.
    A formal definition is given: A person who lives by his wits, managing to skirt the law.
    That's twelve words, which makes spiv more convenient, certainly.
    The problem here is finding an American type to match up with the British models I've seen - so I most likely won't be using the word all that often ...

    So I guess that's it from Chicago for tonight.
    Happy Day-After-Presidents Day!

    1. Lol, thank you.
      I know you didn't want to know but I think being charged the equivalent of £43 for those discs is the best example if spiviness you could wish for!

  3. Chicago Calling (at long last):

    Over the weekend, I took delivery of the two Man From Atlantis DVD sets.
    I watched "Scavenger Hunt" first, which was likely a mistake; I wasn't up on the backstory.
    So today (Sunday), I watched the original pilot film in its two-hour glory (OK, actually 1:35 without the commercials).
    What surprised me was how deadly serious it all was in the early going; the only humor seemed to be a number of "fish-out-of-water" gags (so to speak) about Mark's having to figure out human behavior on his own.
    The first half was mainly exposition; at about the 50-minute mark, the plot proper kicked in with Victor Buono's entry as Mr. Schubert, the designated villain.
    Actually, Buono had the brakes on here; normally he would be way over the top in a part like this, but he made Schubert almost charming in his malevolence. This was doubtless a factor in the decision to bring him back for the series.
    I "previewed" most of the other shows, to see what I was in for later.
    Since NBC dropped it in mid-season, there's no way of knowing what would have happened if MFA had lasted, so we just have to regard it as a missed opportunity.

    The one outcome that nobody figured on:
    NBC booked Patrick Duffy on Johnny Carson's show a couple of times, where he proved to be good at off-the-cuff humor, resulting in Carson taking a liking to him and booking him even when he didn't have anything to promote (not long after, Dallas came along, and that problem was solved).
    This is how you make a career ...

    1. My own conclusion is it's a lightweight bit of fun, which would go for the other superhero shows too.
      I'm most intrigued at an hour and a half film being extended to two hours with commercials. What on earth? I'm sticking firmly to my DVDs where there are no interruptions!

  4. Chicago Calling (with an observation):

    Haven't you ever noticed that many of your own TV series play out in uneven timings?

    Here in the States, we learned at an early age that a "half-hour" show actually only had between 22-25 minutes of actual show content.
    Commercials were a given; most of us learned to use them as bathroom breaks, or to make a sandwich for Act II, or the like.
    Similarly, the first movies to be licensed for TV were the "programmers", second-feature B movies that generally ran about an hour and fifteen minutes, give or take. To fill an hour and a half, local advertisers were more than willing to take up the slack.
    Over time, the run times came to be standardized: "half-hours" were between 22-25 minutes, "hours" were around 50 minutes, "long-forms" were between 1:15-1:20 for an hour and a half "Movie of the Week", or 1:35-1:40 for a two-hour "World Premiere", and so forth.
    Watching many shows from GB or elsewhere, I note that the producers seem to go along with the American style: "act breaks" (for local commercials), "bumpers" (to let the locals know where to put the ads), and various format formalities, so that series would play off on the clock.
    This the TV I grew up with, and it seems to be the template that the whole world seems to have adopted.
    ... Which I guess means that the USA owes the world an apology (?).

    1. Oh, I was more getting at the sheer length of the commercial time - I think that's longer than here.
      Of course in the old days the snobs would only watch BBC, that is if they allowed television in the house at all!

  5. Chicago Calling (after a few words from our particpating advertisers ...):

    You are spot on about there being more time for commercials over here - but in recent times it's gone further than that:

    See, when I was growing up in the '50s qnd '60s, commercials were generally one minute long (60 seconds), with a two or three second "bumper" separating the show from the spot at either end.
    When he began his TV series in '55, Alfred Hitchcock would make merciless fun of the interruptions, and how much time they took; it was one of the things that helped make his show so popular.

    Sometime in the '60s, the ad agencies started to split the commercial minutes - first into two 30-second spots, and not long after that into three 20-second spots (and taking a second or so off the bumpers).

    By the '70s, the time allotted for the commercials increased, a few seconds at a time, said time coming out of the programs themselves.
    Today, an hour-long show is generally about 44-46 minutes of show, the rest being commercials, promos, Public Service Announcements, and the like.
    And no bumpers - if you're scanning through the show, you'll likely overshoot and have to backtrack to get all the story.

    All of these things happened incrementally, over a long period of years.
    The results, to American TV viewers, were the opposite of "incremental" ...

    The Intercontinental TV Tutorial will continue - whenever I can think of something else.


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