Grade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
1964-65, 780 min. (31 episodes), Color
Family adventure
Not rated (would be TV-G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Opening/Closing Theme with snippet
Amazon link

When Flipper debuted in the fall of 1964, it became an immediate hit with boys and animal lovers—which are often the same thing. It was every boy’s fantasy: 15-year-old Sandy (Luke Halpin) and 10-year-old Bud (Tommy Norden) lived with their widowed father, Porter Ricks (Brian Kelly), in a cottage right on a lagoon that was part of the Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve in the Florida Keys that their dad patrolled. As the park’s lone ranger he was responsible for protecting the environment, looking after the welfare of the sea creatures, and also monitoring any scuba divers, snorkelers, or boat enthusiasts that visited the park.

The boys helped their father some of the time, but mostly struck out on their own. It was like a permanent summer vacation, where Sandy and Bud could take the skiff out any time they wanted and go diving or snorkeling to their heart’s content. Often they were accompanied by Flipper, a wild dolphin that took a shine to Bud (who can communicate with it) and hangs around the boys of his own volition. Good thing, because he’s needed to come to the rescue in just about every episode. In a way, Flipper is a marine version of that earlier iconic ‘50s show Lassie. What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s trapped in the well?

Only here, Flipper tries to communicate that Bud is trapped inside a sea cave, or Sandy and another boy are trapped inside a sunken wreck, or one of them is being held captive in a boat by a poacher or treasure hunter or other nogoodnik. But while Flipper is just as wholesome as Lassie and seems to have one foot in those innocent ‘50s, it’s a whole lot more entertaining.

For one thing, there’s that children’s fantasy about living on the ocean and being free to roam and explore. The Miami Seaquarium is credited, and every episode is chock full of underwater footage. It’s where most of the budget went, leaving little to hire talented guest actors or talented screenwriters. Some of the plots are Lassie variations or riffs on typical TV plots, while others are unique twists that utilize the setting. And the underwater footage of dolphins and sharks and reef fish and wrecks is really well done. My son, a biology major who is considering a career in marine biology, saw it for the first time with me on this three-disc Blu-ray from Olive Films, and he liked it. He would have loved it if he were a youngster graduating from the Kratt Brothers shows to something with more underwater footage, most of it shot around Key Biscayne.

I didn’t time it, but I would bet that about 1/4 to 1/3 of every episode is underwater footage. My son marveled that in an episode about poisonous scorpion fish that had invaded the park they actually shot a real scorpion fish underwater. Yet, in the pilot episode where a diver was attacked by a shark and the plasma he needs was dropped into the water and sank to a depth of 300 feet, the original shot showed a tiger shark. But subsequent shots were of a sand tiger shark, and then in a shot where you could see the bottom of the sea and the top of the water it was a reef shark. Younger children wouldn’t notice that both the sharks and the depths changed, though, and the actual quality of underwater filming is quite good for a family TV series that’s now more than 50 years old.

So how does the show hold up? Well, the dialogue can be pretty ‘50s gee-whiz corny, and because NBC designed the series with children in mind—as evidenced by the fact that most of the adventures feature young Bud—there are scenes and lines that seem dumbed down for younger viewers. Case in point? When Bud finds a sunken treasure chest and surfaces with a coral-encrusted dagger to show Sandy and his father, he holds it up and says something like, “What is it?” when anyone can clearly see it’s a knife of some sort. Dad knows it. Sandy knows it. But Bud doesn’t. He’s like Theodore Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, the naive who needs other people to explain things for him. Or maybe him playing dumb so much of the time is a way to make younger viewers feel smart by comparison as they instantly see things Bud seems to be missing.

Many of the plots are predictable, as when a “city boy” who is ironically “out of control” but arrives wearing a suit and tie has a low opinion of his stepfather, you just know the stepfather is going to play a part in his rescue. And really observant young viewers will know exactly what’s going to happen when you see a long rope with a loop on it, as when a baby elephant is trapped in a floating crate after a floating circus boat had an accident. It’s just the thing Flipper needs to pull it to safety.

This season the boys worry about women in their father’s life, Bud listens a bit too much to the stories of an old marine carpenter (Andy Devine), Flipper himself (actually, it was a female dolphin named Suzy) is in danger when he’s accused of eating a fish that’s worth a lot of money, a congresswoman tries to shut down the park, the boys have a few encounters with explosives, they play Hardy Boys detectives, several episodes deal with treasure or found money, lemon sharks invade the park, Sandy falls for a pretty teenager, a rare albino dolphin is pursued by a bounty hunter, toxic chemicals threaten the park, Flipper heeds the call of the wild, and Flipper falls for a star in an underwater monster picture being filmed in the park.

Parents and grandparents who watch this series with their offspring may enjoy seeing Jessica Walter (Arrested Development) as a guest star in the first episode, while Barbara Feldon (Get Smart!) also turns up in a few episodes.

Olive Films did a great job on the transfer, and the bulk of the episodes have rich color and plenty of detail. It’s one of the reasons that such an old TV show still works for a new generation. Forget the DVD. Blu-ray is the way to go with this series, and if you like the first season Olive Films has simultaneously released the second as well, leaving only the third and final season for you to grab.

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