Patrick Duffy is best known as Bobby Ewing on Dallas, the plucky hero who resurrected by stepping out of the shower. But he actually got his start on another show, The Man From Atlantis, about an amphibian superhero.
Duffy feels so strongly that The Man From Atlantis never achieved its full potential, he's writing a book trilogy based on the show. And now that he show is finally coming out on DVD, he feels like maybe people will rediscover his heroic fish-man character. We talked to Duffy about fighting undersea evil, and why 1970s science fiction adventure shows were so limited.
The Man From Atlantis was about a mysterious anmnesiac named Mark Harris, who washes ashore and turns out to be able to live underwater. He discovers that he's actually a survivor of the lost underwater city of Atlantis, and goes on lots of adventures. (Check out an exclusive clip from the new DVDs above.)
We were really excited to talk to Patrick Duffy about the release of The Man from Atlantis on DVD as part of the Warner Archive — and then he dropped the news that he's working on a trilogy of new Man from Atlantis novels. In fact, the first novel in the trilogy is already done — he started writing it in 1999-2000 after his stints on Dallas and Step By Step ended. He's got detailed outlines for the other two novels in the trilogy, but he wants to wait until someone buys the first novel before he writes the other two.
Duffy's novels would delve more into the mythology of the series, he told us — all the stuff they never had the money to explore on television. He wants to show Mark Harris finding the lost city of Atlantis and rediscovering his heritage and his genealogy, and build up the mythos of the character and the underwater civilization he comes from.
"When I first wrote it, I didn't do anything about it for a while, and then after a while I realized maybe I should submit it someplace," says Duffy. "I don't submit things as a celebrity or anything, I just send it out as a self-contained book to see if a publisher's interested. [But] it's a difficult thing to get a publisher interested right now." He's considered self-publishing these books or doing them as print-on-demand. But Duffy hopes that with the DVDs coming out, and Dallas coming back on television with him in the cast, he'll be able to get a publisher interested.
I asked whether revealing too much about where Mark Harris came from would erode the mystery of the character and make him less interesting. But Duffy says it would be more like the case of Superman: we always knew about his Kryptonian heritage. And over time, the comics added more and more elements, including Bizarro and the Bottle City of Kandor, until Superman's mythology became more and more dense, and "there was always the touchstone of his origins." So Duffy thinks, "We could find the Man From Atlantis' origins, and his mystery would still be in place, when he's in this environment [on land]."
So why wasn't the television show able to explore where Mark Harris came from, and what he was about? Duffy says it was a mixture of budgetary problems and overreaching. The creators of The Man From Atlantis, Herb Solow and Robert Justman, had worked on the original Star Trek — and they saw Atlantis as a way to treat the ocean like outer space. Mark Harris could travel around the ocean having underwater adventures and encountering different civilizations and situations, just the way the U.S.S. Enterprise did.
But then they realized something: filming underwater is expensive. And Mark Harris couldn't just arrive on a new planet, with dayglo rocks and a bright orange sky — with breathable air — the way the Enterprise crew could. Says Duffy:
I think Herb and Robert had a real awakening once they had a greenlight for a show and thought, "How do we make this work?" The one drawback is, if you're underwater, everything has to be underwater, and how do you do that? I would go underwater and then appear mysteriously in another dimension. We would do the sets that didn't have to be wet.
So for the four TV movies that were shot before Man From Atlantis became an ongoing series, the producers experimented with ways to make Mark Harris an underwater hero. "They had a budget that lent itself to a little more experimental work," says Duffy. But once they got the green light to make an ongoing series, "we just made him an on-land superhero, who just had to be wet all the time."
"We found out that doing true science fiction is really difficult on a weekly basis," Duffy adds. "Especially in the 1970s, when it didn't involve just creating a computer program" and reusing the same computer-generated effects over and over. The Man From Atlantis had to complete a new episode every seven days, and the grind made it difficult to do anything ambitious.
"When we got it as a one-hour TV series, we knew what it was going to be — it was a wet Batman," says Duffy. The show fell into the same formula as other 1970s high-concept action shows, like The Incredible Hulk, where Bruce Banner deals with fairly minor problems, and changes to the Hulk once or twice per episode.
"All of a sudden, it was [like] The Six Million Dollar Man. You do a couple of slow-motion running scenes and lift a car, and you've got it. You're done. It's the same thing," says Duffy. "And look how many knockoffs there were of that concept, like Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman."
But the thing that set Man From Atlantis apart from those other shows, says Duffy, was the fact that it had an other-worldly quality. Mark Harris had gills as well as webbed hands and feet, which made him able to survive underwater but also suggested that he was not really human. "We always had the potential of getting into really strong science fiction," says Duffy. There were tantalizing hints that there was more to Mark Harris' story than we were getting — like when he met a couple other people who could breathe underwater, in one of the TV movies.
Nowadays, with CG special effects, you can do stuff that's miles beyond The Man From Atlantis, and James Cameron has done much better underwater adventures in films like The Abyss, says Duffy. "You can do stuff now that was impossible" back then. He adds:
The Warner Archive release [of Man From Atlantis] is more of a memory trip than [a way of] finding good science fiction. Just rent Avatar if you want that. If you want to go down memory lane, rent The Man From Atlantis and go, "How cool is that? This show has style. It's not great science fiction. I can see the wires holding up this thing that's supposed to be floating, but it's cool." Our show wasn't about production values. We had great expectations. We always dreamed far ahead of our technical abilities. We were so serious about doing a good job, despite the lack of equipment. I was serious about being Mark Harris.
And as a kid who grew up in Montana obsessed with comic books, Duffy cherished the opportunity to play a superhero. "The big thing was when we would exchange comic books. You would take your box of comic books over to someone else's house and trade comic for comic," getting the issues you hadn't read yet. He would sit at home for hours, reading comics over and over again. He was thrilled that Marvel Comics put out seven Man From Atlantis comics in the 1970s.
The show also became huge in Britain — posing a real challenge to Doctor Who when the two shows were run opposite each other. Duffy remembers visiting the U.K. and being recognized on the street everywhere he went. "It was amazing."
In the end, Duffy sees Man From Atlantis as the story of an outsider who stands for "anybody who's out of the ordinary... The cliché descipriont is the stranger in the strange land." We all deal with our feelings of strangeness, and not belonging, by watching movies and television shows about "the person who's in a strange environment, the alien, or the person who's in another country."
The Man From Atlantis, both the TV movies and the complete series, is now available from Warner Archive.