Saturday, November 15, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 63: The Time Tunnel (1966-1967)

"Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America's greatest and most secret project...the Time Tunnel..."

-opening narration to Irwin Allen's temporal opus, The Time Tunnel (1966-1967)

Love him or hate him, it's fair to state that producer Irwin Allen boasted a unique and distinctive take on science fiction television throughout the 1960s. His genre programs are undeniably kiddie-oriented, but they also reflect (in an almost reflexive, unthinking way...) a major philosophical conflict of the epoch.

In particular, Allen's adventurous cathode ray tube fantasies straddled the line between almost hysterical "technophobia" -- the fear that new inventions (like nuclear weapons or computers) would annihilate us outright, or at least put us out of work -- and, oppositely, the age's burgeoning Camelot/Kennedy-style "can do" optimism. This was, after all, the dawning of the Apollo Age; a period in which America's space program would achieve what was once believed impossible: a trip to the moon.

If you gaze across the wide array of Allen's TV programming from this age, you can detect how this unusual conflict plays out in various forms and colors. In Lost in Space (1965-1968), the future man of 1997 was able to reach the stars in advanced spaceships (such as the Jupiter 2) and build robots with human personality and individuality (like the bubble-headed booby...) but the first space flight also became hopelessly and irrevocably lost in the stars.

In Land of the Giants (1968 - 1970), the same conflict between technophobia and techno confidence was also present. In that series, man has developed (by the far-flung year of 1983...) high-tech "sub-orbital" spaceships like The Spindrift...but it still plows goes through a storm and ends up marooned on a planet of giants.

And in The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) -- which has aptly been described as "Lost in Time" -- mankind has developed the technology to conduct time travel at a top-secret facility (a huge subterranean complex in the Arizona desert...). But the behemoth, when activated, almost immediately misplaces two scientists (Dr. Doug Phillips and Dr. Tony Newman) in the corridors of time. Permanently.

On one hand: technological achievement and advancement. On the other, technological terror plus error. What these Irwin Allen speculative programs seem to tell us, I suppose, is that humans boast the intellect and skill to create amazing devices; but not the wisdom, perhaps, to adequately control them.

Of all Allen's storied sci-fi series, The Time Tunnel was perhaps the least successful on its original sortie. It aired for just a single season of 30 hour-long episodes on ABC. Broadcast from September 9, 1966 to April 7, 1967, the series involved the aforementioned scientists -- Newman (James Darren) and Phillips (Robert Colbert) -- tumbling (literally...) through various historical (and future!) time periods, a circumstance which enabled the series to frequently re-use footage and costumes from such films as Titanic (1953), The Buccaneer (1958) and Khartoum (1966).

Despite this crafty, cost-saving measure, the Time Tunnel pilot was still one of the most expensive ever produced at the time, costing a then-whopping $500,000 dollars. You can readily observe where all the considerable expense went in the pilot episode: there are some amazing matte-paintings of the Time Tunnel complex...the whole facility looks like it was outsourced to Krell construction workers. Also, the Time Tunnel control room set is vast and impressive: a testament to 1960s-style futurism. There are banks of giant computers with lots of blinking lights, and that massive, whirly-gig tunnel itself taking center stage. The visual effects are opulent too, particularly views of the lead actors somersaulting through a moving, glittering temporal vortex.

The Time Tunnel's first episode, "Rendezvous with Yesterday" (written by Harold Jack Bloom and directed by Irwin Allen), features guest star Gary Merrill as Senator Clark, a budget-obsessed politician who visits Project Tic-Toc (location of the Time Tunnel device...) in the Arizona desert. The colossal underground complex, which houses over 12,000 technicians and stretches over 800 floors, has already cost the U.S. government a whopping 7.5 billion dollars (hey, less than the monthly cost of our presence in Iraq!) This is simply unacceptable!

"Is time travel worth it?"
Senator Clark asks pointedly.

The response from Dr. Phillips is that time travel is "potentially the most valuable treasure man will ever find."

Still, the impatient senator isn't convinced that time travel is a worthwhile endeavor, and he demands a demonstration of the not-yet-operational time tunnel. Scientist Tony Newman impulsively complies and -- without permission or preparation -- jumps through the machine. The result? Lots of smoke and explosions. And then Tony lands on the HMS Titanic on April 13, 1912, just hours before the "unsinkable" liner is destined to strike an iceberg and go to a watery grave.


Unfortunately, the techs at Project Tic-Toc, including the lovely Dr. Ann McGregor (a woefully underutilized Lee Meriwether), can't return Tony to the present. Not even with their high-tech "location probes" or other tools. They are able, however, to visualize Tony's chronological location with a "tele screen." And, as a last resort, the technicians can also yank Tony out of one time period and into to another random one...and hope they get lucky.

It's sort of...a temporal crap shoot.

Back aboard the Titanic, Newman realizes the heart does go on, and immediately attempts to change the time line by warning the ship's captain, a regal Michael Rennie, of the impending disaster. The captain doesn't believe Newman's stories and voices a variation of a line oft-repeated on this series; something along the lines of: "you don't expect me to believe that wild story, do you?"

One might also note, at this juncture, that Tony seems to have no preparation or schooling whatsoever for the event of actual "time displacement." He's one of the key designers/inventors of the time tunnel juggernaut and yet he has no plan, no philosophy, no agenda whatsoever about dealing with the temporally-challenged natives of other time periods. Apparently on instinct, he simply warns people about the future and is immediately incarcerated or beaten-up for his trouble (another tiresome convention that is repeated throughout the series).

Now, my point here is simply this: whether or not time can actually be altered, why does Tony want to change the flow of time at all? Was the time tunnel constructed so that the American government can interfere in the past? I mean, if the captain of the Titanic had actually listened to Tony's warning and averted the nautical disaster, some several hundred additional souls would have survived the maiden voyage and thereby altered Tony's entire time-line (since he is born in 1938, after the Titanic accident).

Let me make this even more basic: what if one of those "new" Titanic survivors caused a car accident that killed Tony's Mom before she gave birth to him? See my point?

Besides wanting personally to survive the Titanic disaster (and I don't blame him for that...), what could possibly motivate Tony to reveal the details of the future to the denizens of 1912? When Doug returns to the past next, he mindlessly adopts the same plan. He even brings a newspaper from the day after the disaster to convince the Captain of Tony's veracity. I mean...jeez, what's the end game here? Saving the Titanic? Changing the course of 20th century history? Altering the time line? What?

Closely examined, the motives of the characters in this story make no sense. By my reckoning, Tony and Doug should be focused on one thing: keeping a low profile and escaping the disaster. They don't need to be sounding alarm bells, and they sure as hell don't need to commandeer the Titanic's radio room! One might expect more dispassion and weighing of variables here. Especially from two genius scientists, right?

It occurs to me while watching The Time Tunnel that the series would have been much more interesting (not to mention a bit more intelligent), if in stories like "Rendezvous with Yesterday," the heroes had to preserve the flow of time as they had already experienced it. Wouldn't it have been more interesting if Tony and Doug landed on the deck of the Titanic and realized it wasn't going to sink at all? That they had to aim it at an iceberg themselves, to ensure that their histories remained sacrosanct? I realize there would be moral questions there, but they'd still be "heroes" in the conventional TV sense, since they'd be preserving our chronology.

Oh wait, this was the premise for Voyagers (1980)...

Anyway, I'm not trying to be dismissive of The Time Tunnel. It is what it is: a product of the time period from which it arose (the 1960s), and for a very specific audience (children). It's harmless escapist fantasy, nothing more...and if you saw it as a child, I'm sure you would get a nostalgic rush watching it. That established, it's not a very smart series by today's standard (and remember, Star Trek was a smart series, and it also aired in 1966). Oh, there's definitely an occasional moment of real drama here, such as the instance in "Rendezvous with Yesterday" when Doug and Tony must inform the captain of the Titanic that he is destined to die that very night. However, for the most part, time travel mysteries and human emotions are curtailed, slighted, or outright ignored in favor of James Bondian fisticuffs and action. It's all cowboys, Indians, soldiers, spies, aliens, and disasters.

During the over-two-dozen episodes of The Time Tunnel, Tony and Doug visited the "Crack of Doom" (don't laugh...), the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. They went to Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941 (but didn't encounter the U.S.S. Nimitz there....) They experienced the French Revolution first hand ("Reign of Terror), averted the (first) assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln ("The Death Trap") in 1861, witnessed D-Day ("Invasion") at Normandy, met General Custer ("Massacre"), Billy the Kid ("Billy the Kid") and...Robin Hood ("The Revenge of Robin Hood.")

Yes, before watching The Time Tunnel, I too always thought Robin Hood was a mythical hero, not a historical one, but who's counting? Another episode "One Way to the Moon," landed our wayward heroes on a rocket ship in flight, one bound for Mars...with a saboteur aboard.

As the series wore on, The Time Tunnel increasingly lapsed into empty-headed, monotonous phantasmagoria. The final episode, "Town of Terror" was set in the future year of 1978 and involved strange aliens with tin-foil faces and black capes who, for some unfathomable reason, are referred to as "androids"(!). These fishy-looking invaders -- rejects, apparently from Lost in Space -- had taken over the idyllic town of Cliffport, Maine (population 700), where they began sucking all the oxygen from the Earth. Tony and Doug landed in the town and put a stop to the plan, but not before an alien saboteur got to Project Tic-Toc and started sucking the air out of the room there too. It takes an inordinate amount of time for the brilliant project scientist, Dr. Swain -- gasping for air -- to realize the oxygen is being depleted. Whatever...

The last moments of the series are actually the most interesting, at least from a certain perspective. Following the landing in Cliffport, Doug and Phillip are shunted back in time the Titanic. Now, on one hand, this return to the beginning was no doubt a lead-in to summer reruns of the first season. However, considering that there was no second season of The Time Tunnel, viewers might interpret this twist of fate to mean that our heroes were not merely stuck in time, but trapped in a loop too. Alas, we may never know...

Again, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade here -- and all sci-fi TV has its fans and adherents -- but The Time Tunnel is tough to take seriously. The lead characters - Doug and Tony - are about as cardboard as could be, not to mention the most physically fit and physically skilled "scientists" of all-time. Some of the technobabble on the series is inconsistent too. Sometimes the scientists in the tunnel control room can talkdirectly with the time travelers on a microphone, and sometimes the men can't hear them.

And you have to wonder, too, why are the time tunnel techies always rolling the dice and scrambling these unlucky guys from one time period to another? I'll tell you what...if I came from 1968 and ended up in 1978 (as Tony and Doug did in both "One Way to The Moon" and "Town of Terror"), you know what? I'd just call it a day. I'd rather live ten years in the future,than risk ending up in 1184 BC ("Revenge of the Gods"), or 1215 AD ("The Revenge of Robin Hood.")

Close enough for government work, and all.


  1. Time Tunnel, like most of Irwin's work, is fun if you put your brain on mute.

    One comment regarding the last few minutes of the final episode, though. Those scenes were, I believe, simply put there for the syndication run, to give the episode another one to go to when the cycle ended. To my knowledge, The Death Merchant was rerun the following week back in 67. So, no time loop idea was implied. It was all just programming.

  2. I've only seen bits-n-pieces of Time Tunnel, though I think I did catch the first episode. I have to agree - it's the least appealing to me of Irwin Allen's 4 great Sci-fi series.

    I tend to shy away from series that use a gimmick to bounce characters in and out of situations. You know for the most part going in that they will be saved when they warp to the next adventure at the very last minute.

    I gave Sliders a whirl, but didn't carry through beyond a few episodes.

  3. After watching the series recently,I noticed either the Tunnel dosen't Doug and Tony or the scientist Project Tick Tock are incopentant.
    See my Project Time Stalkers,Inc.for more on my blogs.
    And Doug and Tony needed to be characters,not talking billboards to advanced the plot along.


  5. Anonymous2:46 PM

    I saw this as a kid, and really enjoyed it...but then again, I was a kid.
    The most memorable sotry for me was when Doug & Tony ended up in Jericho, just before the walls came a-tumblin' down. They are mistaken for Jewish spies, and suddenly become two famous biblical heroes - who, amazingly enough, are not named Doug & Tony in the Bible.

  6. Bird of Paradise1:57 AM

    I can remeber that the time tunnel could teleport a person but couldnt retreive them and the whole facilaty was underground I can acuialy remember something about this car driving into some underground entrence