NBC has been toying with science fiction for years now, with a few hits and many misses. Surface is one of the latter, being cancelled after 15 episodes in 2005-06.
The show introduces us to four separate locations and character groupings: some kids in North Carolina, the crew of the U.S.S. Ronald Regan in Antarctica, a group of fishing buddies in Louisiana, and an oceanography team in Northern California. It establishes the strangely-connected-incidents-happening-to-otherwise-unconnected-people-in-disparate-places element that Heroes would do more successfully a year later.
We meet the kids first. Since they’re out drinking and screwing around we can expect something bad to happen, so the suspense builds quickly when one of them, Miles (Carter Jenkins) is separated from the boat. The Scary Thing we’re expecting is more mysterious, since we are not sure what we’ve seen. A dark creature slithers from a buoy into the water, freaking out the kid who witnesses it. But it’s forgotten pretty quickly when the Coast Guard busts the kids for drinking.
The scene on the aircraft carrier has the air of an action movie, something that would star Harrison Ford. A gruff military officer has little patience for the “civilian biologist” and his team who have come to check out an abandoned submarine.
We spend the most time with the oceanography team. The hero is Marine Biologist Dr. Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell). She is the divorced mother of a little boy. The introductory scene of these characters is warm and humorous, conveying that Laura both loves her son and refuses to take any crap from him. She holds a pair of scissors, ready to cut the ear off of his stuffed pal until he agrees to get ready to go to his dad’s.
Once we have gotten to know Laura as a woman, we see her as a researcher. She is off to visit some vents on the ocean floor in an expensive submersible. “More people have been to the moon than have been to the hot vents,” she informs us. Despite being a supposedly highly respected scientist, Laura has a decidedly girlish air, wearing her hair loose and chewing gum while she works; you can decide whether this is endearing or just makes her hard to take seriously. Weird note: in this super high-tech craft she writes with a pen and paper? You would think she’d at least have a laptop.
Things get intense while Laura is on her dive, with some pretty cool special effects and a moment where we would think she was a dead woman if the writers hadn’t invested so much time in introducing her.
The juxtaposition of different settings, and different tones, keeps the audience off balance, always waiting to grasp onto the common thread. We know that thread is some type of sea creature, but just what kind of danger it represents remains unknown until one of the fishermen is killed. Before long, intimidating government officials have arrived to learn more about Laura’s encounter. Why are people on TV always smart asses when they’re being questioned by the authorities?
The most exciting moment of the episode comes when one of the creatures bursts out of a fish tank, where Miles has stowed an egg. The moment isn’t a complete surprise, but the look on Miles’ mother’s face is pretty entertaining.
This pilot feels really long. It’s as if you’ve sat through a whole SyFy original movie (which is okay if you’re into that). Perhaps too much is revealed too early. Coming right out with the mention of sea monsters, and even showing them to us, probably could have waited an episode or two. It seems like these writers wanted to tell the whole story in the pilot instead of drawing it out. I have not seen any subsequent episodes, but perhaps this is why the show didn’t last.