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By Mandi Bierly
Updated April 10, 2012 at 10:19 PM EDT
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Phil Harris, Deadliest Catch
Credit: Discovery Channel

Tonight, Discovery’s Deadliest Catch returns with a season 8 premiere that also marks the Emmy-winning series’ 100th episode. With the Cornelia Marie not out this season, Captain Phil Harris’s boys Josh and Jake fish on other boats: Josh joins the Time Bandit crew while Jake suits up on the Northwestern. “That plays out really well. It’s a cliffhanger as to whether the guys get invited back to those boats,” exec producer Thom Beers says. “And obviously, those guys would love to get back on the Cornelia Marie and skipper their own boat.” Below, Beers teases what’s to come and looks back to name his five essential Deadliest Catch moments.

Adding more drama to season 8:

• The red king crab quota was cut in half, so the captains have to decide whether to settle for half the payday or gamble and go after the elusive blue king crab.

• A massive storm forces the fleet to hunker down behind St. Paul Island. “There’s an old saying, when you see seagulls sit down in the water, you know the s— is gonna hit the fan. I’ve seen it happen twice, and it’s chilling,” Beers says.

• Retirement still looms for some in the wheelhouse, and the questions remain: “Who’s gonna inherit the boat? Who’s gonna be the skipper? Who’s gonna get screwed?”

• A Wizard greenhorn starts having a seizure, and they can’t figure out what’s wrong with him. “It’s a real health crisis. It’s real,” Beers says. “It just goes on and on, and then the Coast Guard comes and rescues him with a helicopter. The whole thing is just unbelievably dramatic.”

• One man goes overboard — at the dock. “The last time that happened it was to Johnathan Hillstrand [in season 4],” Beers recalls. “They decided to celebrate Halloween early because they’d be at sea, and Johnathan was pretty hammered. One of the crewmen was dressed as Spider-Man, and Johnathan says, ‘All I remember was Spider-Man reaching down and pulling me out of the ocean.’ Just the insanity of it,” he says, laughing. “When this show is really working, it reminds me of that scene in Apocalypse Now, when the bullets and fireworks are going off and it’s completely insane and Martin Sheen says, ‘Who’s the commanding officer here?’ and the guy looks at him and says, ‘Ain’t you?’ When this show’s working, you have no idea who’s in charge.”

NEXT: The five Deadliest moments

Beers never expected the show — which began as a 1999 special and a 2004 miniseries before premiering as a series in 2005 — to make it to 100 episodes. “My goodness, no. I thought after the first season of 10 episodes, Okay, we’re done, and the network would say, ‘Thanks very much, move on,’ because eight years ago, they weren’t doing long-arc television shows. Discovery was making specials. There was no appointment viewing in cable. When the network came back and said, ‘We’d like some more,’ I was surprised as anybody, to be honest with you. I thought we’d told the story. And now 100 episodes in, we’re still finding new story. I see the show running another five years,” Beers says. “I couldn’t be prouder of all the contributions of the men and women who risk their lives to make this show happen. It’s not like any other show on television. When you go out there, you’re doing exactly what everybody else is doing.”

In honor of the series’ milestone, we asked Beers to name five moments that defined Deadliest Catch.

1. “What I love about the show is that it’s the ultimate male soap opera,” he says. “It’s about man working together against nature. So clearly, the things that always stick in my mind are the biggest tragedies, the biggest storms. When I went to sea the first time and made the very first show, The Deadliest Job in the World, back in 1999, I went out with a cameraman and sound man, and the three of us were going to go out for four days. We ended up being out there for 11 days because a storm rolled in. Within 24 hours, we’re 200 miles at sea, and the wind’s pushing 70 knots, and the waves are cresting up 40 feet. During that season, two boats sunk and seven guys drowned and they never found the bodies. It was that tragedy that kicked the show off. That will always be a defining moment because when that show went on the air, it was so different and unique that Discovery said, ‘We need to have more of these.'”

2. “Conversely, I made a three-parter [that aired in 2004] called America’s Deadliest Season. In that, nothing happened. It was dead calm, flat seas. It was the absolute opposite of the first show, to the point where I think the network thought that this was just not gonna work,” Beers says. “They put all three hours on the air on a Sunday night, and in those three hours, the audience went from 800,000 viewers to 3.8 million. Everybody was just turning the channel looking for something to watch — there was no promotion — so in that three hours, three million more people showed up. Now that said something. The show looked different than any other show on television, particularly when you’re filming in the winter in Alaska. You’ve only got four hours of sunlight, so you’re shooting most of it in the dark. You’ve got those bright yellow sodium lights that are just poppin’ on the orange and yellow slickers that the fishermen are wearing. The light tapers off, and it goes into this black, black ocean, the darkest of all abysses. When people were tuning in, they said, ‘Woah, what’s this?’ It tapped into that primal instinct of fight or flight. The dead calm sea allowed people to actually take in this really unique story.”

3. In season 1 of Deadliest Catch, the episode “Dead of Winter” followed the hunt for the missing vessel Big Valley as captains featured on the show learned the news and assisted in the search. “Losing the Big Valley was just a terrible, terrible crisis. I had leased that boat a year or two before when I went looking for mummiess in Alaska for another Discovery special,” Beers says. “I actually knew all the guys on that boat, so it was a personal tragedy for me, too.” Only one crewman survived the sinking.

4. The Bering Sea ice, which at times becomes its own villainous character on the show, led to a defining moment in season 4. “When the Time Bandit got stuck up in the ice above St. Paul Island, and they were really worried about sinking and took big creases in the side of their boat from the icebergs, that was incredibly scary,” Beers says.

5. Season 6 will live forever in fans’ memories. It’s when we lost Captain Phil Harris, who, after suffering a stroke on the docked Cornelia Marie in February 2010, awoke from a medically-induced coma and insisted cameras keep rolling so the story had an ending. “Obviously the loss of Capt. Phil was the deepest of all losses for us,” Beers says. “And at the same time, it was a bittersweet victory because we got a chance to make one of the most near-perfect television episodes that I’ve ever made, which won us four Emmys.” Phil would be proud.

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Deadliest Catch

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