The Time Tunnel: Well worth your… time

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Time Tunnel from Irwin Allen TV reviewsThe Time Tunnel from Irwin Allen

By the time Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel premiered on ABC TV on September 9, 1966, the versatile producer/director/screenwriter had already released two hugely successful television programs. His first, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, itself based on Allen’s 1961 film, ran for four seasons, from 1964 – ’68, and can almost be viewed as Star Trek underwater (actually, since Voyage preceded Trek by two years, it would be more accurate to say that Star Trek was Voyage… in outer space!); it remains a favorite of this viewer even today, 50 years later. Irwin’s second TV success, of course, was Lost in Space, which lasted three seasons, from 1965 – ’68, and, for some reason that continues to elude me, was an enormous fan favorite. Personally, I’ve always found the show to be inane, embarrassing, and borderline unwatchable… only partially because I cannot stand Jonathan Harris’ Dr. Smith character. Hoping for yet another megahit, Irwin constructed his biggest set yet for The Time Tunnel and assembled a grade-A cast and crew. Time Tunnel, sadly, was not a success for Allen, lasting only a single season. I absolutely adored this program when I was a kid, but had not seen it in almost 50 years… until several months back, that is. Now, thanks to the DVD sets available from 20th Century Fox, all 30 episodes of this fondly remembered program (fondly remembered by aging baby boomers, anyway) can easily be seen again, in stunning-looking restorations and with a remarkable roster of “extras.”

In the program’s spectacular first episode, the viewer is given a tour, along with a U.S. senator (Gary Merrill; the first in a long string of impressive guest stars to come), of Project Tic-Toc, a vast complex beneath the Arizona desert. When the senator informs the project’s senior members that government funds may soon be cut off, headstrong scientist Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren) enters the titular time travel device and is thrust into the past, with no means of return. He fetches up in the year 1912, aboard an ocean liner called… the Titanic! Meanwhile, fellow Tic-Toc scientist Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) enters the Tunnel to try to rescue his associate, also landing on the doomed ship. And thus, the basic pattern for the series is set. Every week, our boys appear in some equally dangerous historical location, while back in the “present,” a trio of Tic-Toc workers — project leader General Heywood Kirk (the great character actor Whit Bissell) and scientists Raymond Swain (John Zaremba) and Ann MacGregor (cult actress Lee Merriwether) — watches them via the Time Tunnel apparatus and attempts to render long-distance (both spatial and temporal) assistance. Over the course of the 30 episodes, our boys kerplop down in such diverse scenarios as World War 2, the War of 1812, on an island right near the erupting Krakatoa, at Custer’s “last stand,” in the midst of the Trojan War, at the Alamo, in King Arthur’s realm and on Devil’s Island. They help prevent an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, fight Barbary pirates, go up against Cortez, battle the Mongol hordes, and join up with Robin Hood! Later episodes become even MORE sci-fi oriented, with no fewer than four outings dealing with various invaders from outer space (one during the Battle of Khartoum!). It’s all highly improbable, terrifically entertaining stuff, with our two brave (and remarkably fit) scientists continually pinballed around both time and space…

Despite the inherent silliness of some of these story lines, several factors combine to put the weekly conceits across. First and foremost is the inherent likability of the show’s two handsome leads, Darren (already a hugely popular actor and recording artist prior to Time Tunnel) and Colbert. Then there are the special FX, which are uniformly fine; the Time Tunnel set itself is most impressive, while the FX in that opening episode are often eye-poppingly spectacular… especially for ’60s TV. And then there is that aforementioned impressive roster of guest stars, including Michael Rennie (the captain of the Titanic), Warren Stevens, Carroll O’Connor, Nehemiah Persoff, Michael Ansara, John Hoyt, Eduardo Ciannelli, Victor Jory, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, and a seemingly endless parade of what I like to call Star Trek alumni. As the series progresses, viewers will likely begin to wonder about three pressing questions: Why do our boys constantly seem to land in the middle of dangerous/violent historical situations — why can’t they ever touch down in some peaceful little town in 1950s Ohio or something? (Because there’d be nothing interesting or dramatic to fill 50 minutes up with, I suppose.) Why do all the people they encounter, no matter in what country or era, be they Trojans, Hebrews, Mongols or French Revolutionaries, speak perfect English? (Even Star Trek tried to explain its similar conundrum with a “universal translator.”) And finally, why is it that no matter what period garb Tony and Doug happen to be wearing, before they get whisked back into the (truly psychedelic) time vortex, Tony’s trademark green turtleneck sweater appears on him, and ditto for Doug’s tweedy jacket? (I have not a clue about this one.) Those viewers who manage to overlook such imponderables may find themselves in for some truly engaging television here.

From the vantage point of five decades of hindsight, it is also a mystery just why The Time Tunnel only lasted a single season. In all likelihood, the stiff competition on the other channels — The Wild Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Hogan’s Heroes — had a lot to do with it. Allen, of course, would go on to even greater success in his next TV series, Land of the Giants (which ran two seasons, from 1968 – ’70), and especially cinematically, with his blockbusters The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Though it might be deemed one of his less successful ventures, The Time Tunnel yet remains ripe for discovery and reevaluation today. Further good news regarding these DVD packages is the truly generous raft of extras to be found in them; around four hours’ worth, including the unaired pilot, home movies, camera tests, concept art, storyboards, merchandise, still galleries, and modern-day interviews with Darren and Colbert (both hunky dudes, still), Merriwether and Bissell, PLUS the 2002 unaired TV pilot for a Time Tunnel remake, AND the 90-minute Time Travelers TV movie. Just try to find the, uh, time to watch all this stuff! Truly, a package of wonders! My only real complaint, after having reacquainted myself after all these years with this fantastic series, is this: I now find that I have a “man crush” on James Darren and Robert Colbert!


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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One comment

  1. I loved this show when I was a kid and didn’t know any better!

    And I liked LOST IN SPACE too, even though I knew it was bad. That’s not rationalization or nostalgia — I knew it was stupid while I was watching it. It was the only thing close to a science fiction show that was on. And Lassie’s mom was in it.

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