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.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Night Gallery Blogging: "The Caterpillar"

This classic Night Gallery episode concerns a "little beastie" called an earwig. This tiny insect from Borneo boasts a fondness for the warmth of a human ear...but -- as host Rod Serling reminds viewers -- it doesn't exactly "whisper sweet nothings" once inside. Nope. It does something...horrifying.

"The Caterpillar," directed by Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws II, Somewhere in Time) aired in March of 1972 and is based on the famous short story by Oscar Cook (1888-1952), a former civil servant who actually served in Borneo from 1911-1919. Cook's story is set in Borneo, but the old wives tale about earwigs burrowing inside human ears (and brains...) has been chronicled as early in history as 1000 AD. A quick search on the Internet will reveal a number of news and science sites debunking the gruesome notion that Earwigs can crawl through the human skull. But still...ick.

"The Caterpillar" (adapted by Rod Serling) follows the arrival in Borneo of one extremely prickly British civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey). This cruel, nasty, arrogant man moves into the home of two other Brits, sixty-sixty year-old Mr. Warwick (Tom Helmore) and his gorgeous young wife ("an absolute knock-out"), Rhona (Joanna Pettet). As you might suspect, Macy soon makes trouble. He is disturbed by the incessant rain in the tropical location, and -- battling cabin-fever -- turns his obsessive eyes towards Rhona.

Macy's attentions are unwanted, but that hardly stops him from making lewd remarks and undressing the married woman with his eyes. When asked if he is hungry for dinner, if he has an appetite, Macy stares right at Rhona and notes that indeed his appetite is "slowly growing." Later, Rhona advises a cure for Macy's loneliness and abstinence: a "cold bath."

But Macy is a prick, and isn't content with the status quo. He is convinced that Rhona should be with him rather than the kindly old man, and meets with a local rogue, Tommy Robinson (Don Knight), in a bar. Robinson suggests not an assassination, but rather an "act of destiny." For a price, Tommy will send one of his native friends to deposit an earwig on Mr. Warwick's pillow.

These bugs are so light, so small, that they are practically unnoticeable. And, according to Robinson, earwigs have this"decided liking" for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand to one. They can't turn around you see, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seeks an escape route.

The pain caused by these "stealthy chaps" is agonizing, horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Still, this sadistic plan appeals to Macy. He feels that after her antiquated husband dies, 28-year old Rhona will turn her affections to him. With little shame, Macy authorizes the plan. However, Robinson's thug makes a fatal mistake that very night...and puts the earwig on Macy's pillow instead of Mr. Warwick's.

Macy wakes up the following morning with a bloody ear and immediately realizes what has occurred. The earwig is inside his ear! In the ensuing two weeks, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands have to be bound to his bed-posts so Macy doesn't claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the skittering bug feasting on his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an "agonizing, driving, itching pain," and the earwig exits his ear. An unrepentant Macy tells the Warwicks that what he did, he did "for love," and that he paid the price with two weeks of Hell.

Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy; a fact you will recall if you remember the segment's final punch-line before the fade-out (one revealed in intense, declarative close-up). I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that "The Caterpillar" boasts one of the nastiest and most macabre twists ever featured on Night Gallery (and likely network television, for that matter.)

Rod Serling's teleplay is whip-smart, witty and terrifying, but the episode likely belongs to Laurence Harvey, who plays Macy as a smarmy, monstrous bastard. You may hate Macy, but after witnessing his ordeal (again, in harrowing, unrelenting close-up...), you do feel some compassion for the man and his painful odyssey. There are moments here -- with Macy tied to the bed, gasping for air -- when it looks as though Harvey's bulging eyes are actually going to explode out of his head. His pain is palpable, and you can just imagine what's going on inside; how that thing is probing and pushing its way through his skull.

There's no real gore in "The Caterpillar," and the titular insect is never glimpsed, even for a second. Instead, we simply see what the bloody thing does, a torture painted on Harvey's expressive, gaunt face. And we listen as a physician (John Williams), Robinson, and a survivor describe the pain experienced...and the pain yet to come. Despite a lack of horrific visuals, the episode proves utterly harrowing (and involving).. Kathryn had to turn away from the last ten minutes because she felt the episode was so disturbing in nature.

"The Caterpillar" is probably Night Gallery's most famous episode; and for very good reason. Next time you have an ear ache, I defy you not to think of this episode. And of earwigs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Night Gallery Blogging: "Silent Snow, Secret Snow"

In 1934, writer Conrad Aiken penned a short story of a most unusual variety: one concerning a seemingly normal pre-adolescent boy named Paul who succumbs to a voice "inside" his head; the voice of immaculate, glittering, and unending...snow. The boy uses his mental "snow" as a barrier "between himself and the world."

Paul's concerned, frightened parents attempt desperately to reach their son, to pull the boy back to their reality, but the ubiquitous snow -- an all-consuming yet strangely intimate mental blizzard -- buries Paul's mind inside itself. This progression towards isolation continues until Paul is simply...unreachable.

"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" was dramatized on radio in the 1950s and also very memorably on Rod Serling's Night Gallery in 1971 (now available on DVD). It's one of my all-time favorite installments of Night Gallery, actually. It's very, very disturbing, but also discomfortingly beautiful. One of the things I admire most about Night Gallery is that it dealt with horrors of all varieties, whether monstrous (like vampires and ghouls) or very real. On the latter front, it mused seriously about the horror of loneliness and regret ("They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"). Or, as is the case here, the horror of mental illness.

Whether you view this Night Gallery tale and young Paul's plight as a metaphor for autism or for schizophrenia, it's a terrifying journey. As the worry-wart and occasionally paranoid father of a two-year old boy, I lived through the common parental fear of "autism" (especially as incidences of the condition have mysteriously multiplied here in the States). Fortunately, my son is absolutely fine -- gregarious, outgoing, and extroverted to an amazing degree -- but my point is simply that "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" taps into a universal parental fear of losing your grip on your child; of losing him (or her) to something insidious that you can't control.

Orson Welles narrates this distinctive segment of Night Gallery, and his mellifluous voice captures some strange, artistic quality about this story. As scary as Paul's turn "inward" remains, the narration reads like fine, lyrical poetry; and the visuals are dynamic, glorious and well-chosen. In a certain sense, this is simply the darkest story of winter ever created because it concerns an interior winter; a metaphorical season of death that arrives like a storm and heralds the cessation of innocent youth.

As the story commences, Welles' recounts for us how Paul's unusual journey into mental illness originated; how his descent into the the never ending snow started simply as "nothing...just an idea. But then Paul's fantasy methodically grew worse and worse, becoming an obsession he couldn't turn away from. The notion is that Paul's real world is somehow dirty, muddled or confusing, and so his mind seeks out "the counterpoint of snow," that immaculate, perfect cleanliness of snow fall. His mind finds the purity it desires, and can't let go of it once it is located.

In keeping with this visual theme of "whiteness" symbolizing purity, there are moments in the episode in which the audience sees Paul drinking milk (notably also white), or glaring at a glass chandelier, which promptly transforms into ice-laden tree branches. Everything Paul sees is soon affected by the unique filter (his filter) of snow.

When Paul's disassociation from reality grows more pronounced, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" begins to depict outsiders (a school teacher, parents, and a prying doctor) in the point-of-view subjective shot. They appear more than a little distorted this way; almost like aliens. The effect is that we -- like Paul -- find ourselves distanced from them and their hysterical concerns.

In a despairing, unhappy denouement, Paul finally turns away from the "inquisition" of the outside world for another place, an interior dwelling that "no one will ever again be able to enter."

In this white blizzard, the snow beckons more strongly than before, promising to tell Paul a beautiful story. It is a tale that gets "smaller and smaller," like a "flower that blooms into a seed." Again, that's a perfect metaphor for Paul's unexpected turn inward; for his shrinking world. In pre-adolescence, we expect the youth seed to bloom; for a child to "mature" and become something more than the sum of his or her parts. Imagine the terror when a child's journey is the opposite. A doubling down, a turn away from the wonders of the outside world. Welles' narration is especially good in this latter part of the episode, whipped-up into a strange, almost sensual frenzy.

Mental illness can blot out life's colors. It can blot out life's vibrancy and nuance, creating a kind of obsessive blindness, and .here it is visualized as a snow blindness. I don't want to say something corny or cheap about an elegant, scary show like this, but "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is truly and inescapably...chilling. The pristine, cold beauty of this most singular Night Gallery episode will make your blood run cold. Especially if you're a Mom or Dad.

X-Files Double Feature

If you live in the Los Angeles area (and I don't, unfortunately...) this news item might be of some interest, especially for X-Philes:

"The "Inspired By" team, in association with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment... will be holding a fundraiser screening of Fight the Future (1998) and I Want To Believe (2008) back-to-back!!

This is a charity event being held to solely benefit the organisation Neurofibromatosis, Inc. 100% of the proceeds from the screening will be sent in Ms. Anderson's name on behalf of Philes worldwide."

This X-Files double feature is being held December 6, 2008 from 2:30 pm to 7:30 pm at the Regency Fairfax Theatre at 7907 Beverly Blvd.

Tickets are on sale now (here) for $50.00. That price buys you the X-Files double feature, refreshments, a commemorative programme (and a brief speech from Neurofribomatosis Inc.) If you can't make it to the West Coast for the screening, there's also an option for "long distance" support.