The name Irwin Allen doesn’t necessarily set off bells of familiarity the way that Gene Roddenberry’s does, except maybe to those wholly immersed in the world of campy mid-to-late-‘60s science fiction. The names of some of Mr. Allen’s major sci-fi TV achievements, however, certainly do; most notably Lost in Space. Allen was also responsible for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, and The Time Tunnel, and creating these shows crafted an unmistakable aesthetic. It’s hard to say which of the four shows was home to more dated sci-fi weirdness. However, the fact that The Time Tunnel employs time travel as its central theme is proof positive that when you add time travel to the mix, bizarre plot permutations multiply a thousand fold (don’t believe it? Check out the latter day episodes of Dark Shadows.) We see in the show’s final 15 episodes that its conceptual followers like Quantum Leap kept it pretty simple.
These episodes of The Time Tunnel finds Drs. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips continuing to hurtle through time and quite literally tumble into various historical scenarios riddled with mind-boggling anachronisms and enough space-time paradoxes to make Back to the Future 2 look like it has the veracity of a Stephen Hawking manuscript. Dr. Doug Phillips, played by Robert Colbert, is a no-nonsense fellow whose unflappable demeanor is rivaled only by his immovable haircut and wrinkle-proof suit. He speaks in a sonorous tone almost too manly for the humble human ear to handle. James Darren plays the perennially turtleneck-clad Tony Newman. Newman may dress a little more hip, but he’s generally as no-nonsense as Phillips, except, for instance, in “Barbarians Attack”, when he violates his time traveling code of ethics to spit game at the daughter of Kublai Kahn.
The time traveling antics of Newman and Phillips are monitored by Dr. Ann MacGregor (Lee Meriwether), Lt. General Heywood Kirk (Whit Bissell), and Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba), who are inexplicably able to communicate with the two travelers via microphone. In between twiddling knobs in the control room, the observers—higher up in the military’s Project Tic-Toc—wax explanatorily about why whatever unlikely situation that’s occurring is possible. These days, when you see a movie that focuses around, say, computer hackers, verisimilitude is usually sacrificed in the interest of giving the audience something to watch—thus the trend of movies in the early ‘90s featuring hot young cyberpunks doing incredibly exciting things in vast holographic universes when a more accurate account of hacker life would probably involve people with Lord of the Rings tattoos typing away in their parents’ basements. Not so in 1967, where the Project Tic-Toc crew, when not philosophizing, mug dramatically, trying to give the impression that they are really working at getting the kink-in-the-system du jour fixed.
Historical accuracy isn’t the show’s strong point, of course. In “The Ghost of Nero”, we are treated to a factoid any middle-school dork would be glad to take to class with him and bandy about; the notion that the mad emperor’s last words were “I shall return to kill all descendants of Galba”. In fact, Nero’s last words are believed to be “What an artist dies in me”, and he didn’t deliver the line in English. Nonetheless, the employment of cool aliens—usually speaking with stunted, robotic inflection and more often than not with their faces painted silver—makes up for taking license with history. The Time Tunnel Volume 2, “Town of Terror”, finds the doctors doing battle with purple, eyeless creatures intent on draining earth of its oxygen; in “Visitors From Beyond the Stars”, with silver-painted aliens intent on depriving the world of its protein (which would be actualized in a massive cow-napping from the Old West), and more. That doesn’t even begin to get into the saboteurs who manage their way back to mission control to try to frustrate our heroes and trap them in time.
The sometimes Sisyphean, long-winded expliques, the intense melodrama, the constant green turtleneck that only becomes notably soiled one time in 15 episodes, and the tenuous threads of continuity are really what give the show its charm and what make it addicting. In “Visitors From Beyond the Stars”, we see an alien from the future display his might by causing a barrel to lazily, impotently catch fire—the soundtrack to the minor conflagration is the loudest, most dramatic orchestra hit imaginable—as subtle as Irwin Allen himself hitting you in the head with a brick and telling you that something exciting is happening. Foes are routinely disarmed of their weapons with maneuvers anyone anywhere in time would see coming light years away, and each episode guarantees a theatrical fistfight. This is classic sci-fi at its most histrionic.
But none of the actors seem a bit self-aware, there’s nothing ironic about their delivery whatsoever. In the special feature interview with Robert Colbert, he reminds us that this was no small production at its time, the sets were expensive and expansive. This was a slick, cutting-edge production for its day, even despite its completely egregious use of stock footage.
Could The Time Tunnel conceivably be revived? The unaired pilot of the 2002 version found in this DVD set gives the distinct impression that the allure of the The Time Tunnel, from its campy title on, was idiosyncratic to its own time and place. After all, between 1968 and 2002,there had already been a considerably more modern time-travel show with Quantum Leap which, though it owes no small debt to The Time Tunnel (right down to the next jump in time occurring a few minutes before the end of each episode, previewing what was to come) had become the hallmark time travellin’ sci-fi show of the day. A Time Tunnel revival would look like an imposter—not to mention the portrayal of walking into the gigantic swirling energy mass of Time Tunnel ‘02 is an inextricably Stargate visual. With the Sci Fi channel announcing a new take on the show for the 2006/2007 TV season, it’ll be interesting to see if a fresh enough take can be made on Irwin Allen’s concept 40 years later.
The Time Tunnel Volume 2 is crucial watching for anyone who can appreciate men fighting aliens one million years in the future and dinosaurs one million years in the past in the same one-hour episode. Who among us can’t dig that? Even the sometimes grueling dialogue and repetitive plotlines don’t spoil the appeal, except maybe in the case of the insufferably more twee episodes, a’la, the doctors’ traveling to the mythical time of Robin Hood in “The Revenge of Robin Hood”. But more broadly understood, watching The Time Tunnel raises interesting questions about TV entertainment from generation to generation; namely, might our slow-motion bullet dodging kung-fu action and Philip K. Dickian rotoscoping innovations look as silly to audiences of the future as the face-painted aliens of 1967 do today? There’s no way of telling right now, without the benefit of a fancy looking console decked out with blinking lights and some concentric circles painted on the wall to leap through.