Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Time Tunnel: "Secret Weapon" (November 28, 1966)

Lost in time, Tony Newman (James Darren) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), land behind the Iron Curtain on June 16, 1956. 

These temporal sojourners soon receive messages from Project Tic Toc technicians of “critical importance.” 

Under orders from the U.S. government, they are to act as American undercover operatives -- Williams and Smith -- working on the Russian equivalent of the Time Tunnel. 

That device is at an early stage of development, when a capsule is still being used to test travel inside the vortex.  

Spearheading the project is Professor Biraki (Nehemiah Persoff), who claims to be a friend of the U.S. but secretly hates our country and all it stands for.

He wants to use the Americans as guinea pigs in a time travel experiment. His superior, General Hruda (Michael Ansara) doesn’t care if they live or die, so long as the experiment is successful.

Soon Tony and Doug realize that the Russian tunnel is a death trap because it has not accommodated a “radiation bath.” 

When they go into the tunnel, the two American scientists risk being trapped between time periods in a kind of “time limbo…’

“Secret Weapon” is a routine, slow-paced episode of The Time Tunnel (1966); one that is entirely humorless, and truth be told, without much value in terms of dramatic interest.

In fact, “Secret Weapon” plays in large part like a bad episode of Mission: Impossible, with series leads Darren and Colbert recruited to work on the Warsaw Pact equivalent of Project Tic Toc and ferret out the true motives of its lead scientist, played by Persoff.  

But unlike M:I, there’s no real cleverness to the plot, and no pay-off at seeing a villain tricked and out-maneuvered. There's no real excitement at all.

The first portion of the episode is interminable and not really related to that plot. It involves Tony and Doug trying to receive a message from home base, one sent on a big Lucite brick called an “F-5” probe. 

This device allows Project Tic Toc to deliver messages to them, but malfunctions and explodes.  Three such devices are sent, while Tony and Doug try to interact with it.

This prologue slows the story down considerably, and is an odd plot device. How come Project Tic Toc can sometimes communicate directly with the missing scientists, and at other times must resort to sending these probes?  Why are the first ten minutes of the episode given over to repeated attempts to interface with the probe?

After this narrative blind alley, Tony and Doug motivate nearly nothing in terms of the action. They are forced to participate in a deadly experiment and determine if Biraki is playing a “double game” to sabotage the U.S. and forward his own country’s research. They agree to the experiment, and are nearly killed before being zapped to the next time period (1861 and the assassination of President Lincoln.)  What do they learn?  How do they impact the mission?

There's no real drama here, because these questions are not addressed.  

Nobody in this episode -- outside of Persoff and the bald, menacing Ansara -- displays any sort of character or humanity at all.  

In Project Tic Toc and on the mission, everyone is colorless and bland, totally lacking anything of color to say or do.  Say what you want about the characters of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968), another Irwin Allen series, but at least they have distinctive traits that separate them from one another. Tony and Doug are totally interchangeable.  

The Time Tunnel is all high-tech wizardry (for the 1960s), no humanity. 

Basically, the hour consists of two teams on the same set (slightly re-dressed) pushing dials and reading monitors of the tunnel. The dialogue is unintelligible jargon about “radiation baths,” experiment “A13,” "F-5 probes" and so forth.

The most intriguing aspect of “Secret Weapon” is the fact that other nations have near-identical Time Tunnel technology, which means that Tony and Doug could one day find themselves battling a kind of temporal cold war against foreign agents. 

In the wrong hands, we are told, the time tunnel is a “threatening weapon.”  Certainly this is true, and it would be interesting for the episode to note how America intends to defend against its eventual use, or better deploy identical technology.  But even the Cold War parable here seems to be on mindless automatic pilot, with no real ethical, moral stance beyond the fact that the U.S is good and the Russians are evil.

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