The Time Tunnel Review
“He seems a little emotional for a scientist.”
I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for Irwin Allen's escapist shows from the sixties, having grown up on re-runs of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space and Land Of The Giants. Sure they were cheesy and camp, recycled the same storyline episode after episode, and often creaked more than the sets, but Allen's vigorous pacing and colourful style made for an entertaining hour or so of seriously low-brow sci-fi adventure. They were aimed at families, or more predominantly young boys seeking courageous heroes, exciting situations and cliff-hanger suspense. With this in mind, his shows never bothered themselves with logic or an overall continuity arc, happy just to pitch their respective groupings of likeable characters into romp after action-packed romp. He found the formula to be a winning one, the low expectancy of the medium, coupled with the equally low attention spans of American TV audiences saw to it that his output was gratefully lapped up like so much brightly packaged fast food. And Allen was determined to keep on churning such soulless products out. However, he hit a seriously bum note with this series. Cancelled after just one season (although nowadays, that can be seen as a mark of quality - Firefly, anyone), even his most loyal fans found the set-up and execution lacking. With this release of the first fifteen, fifty-minute episodes from the season, imaginatively entitled Volume 1, we shall have a look at what went wrong.
“Well, wherever he and Doug are now ... at least they're together.”
Operating from a top secret base deep beneath the Arizona desert, an American scientific experiment going under the banner of Project Tic Toc has run into funding trouble. “A pretty expensive toy,” remarks the penny-pinching politician when he surveys the vast underground complex. Indeed, with its huge columns of energy towers rising through its eight-hundred levels, massive circuit breakers opening and closing and incredible gantries spanning the awesome drop, it's a wonder the auditor doesn't stop, scratch his head and mutter, “Now where have I seen all this before?” Because this impressive introduction has been lifted lock, stock and barrel from the Krell technology witnessed in the classic sci-fi adventure Forbidden Planet. And this pilfering is, sadly, just the tip of the iceberg, being symptomatic of a show that literally steals from all and sundry in an effort to pep up its era-juggling scenario. Rushing the experiment to prove that it works to the top brass, impetuous scientist Tony (pop-heartthrob James Darren) becomes a human guinea pig, launching himself into the vortex that the Time Tunnel creates and getting himself deposited on the decks of the Titanic, just hours before that iceberg I mentioned earlier pays a visit. Back at the base, the boffins and the military are able to get a video fix on their errant tech-head by pressing innocuous-looking buttons on a big plastic desk and are aghast at his unfolding dilemma. But, quicker than you can say “two's company”, square-jawed Doug (Robert Colbert), a fellow scientist and friend of Tony's, dons the appropriate apparel for the time period and hurls himself into the Time Tunnel to effect a rescue. Fat chance, lads. And don't waste your time explaining to the captain that his unsinkable ship is going to go under, or that you're from the future for that matter ... because no-one is going to believe you. And there, folks, is the simple template for the show, ad infinitum, as the dunderheaded-duo being a whopping series of time-hops that continually places them at the epicentre of some famous historical tragedy, battle or natural calamity just before the fireworks commence.
“Time travel ... I wouldn't believe that in a million years.”
Now, I agree that Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (itself a spin-off from the movie of the same name starring Walter Pidgeon) inevitably sank itself with its sub-Enterprise roster of team dynamics, expendable crewmen, tired plotting and ultimately tedious race-against-time finales, and even Land Of The Giants became ridiculously overblown and clichéd. However, Lost In Space, despite suffering from many similar faults, remains a bonafide cult (and camp) classic - and a firm favourite of mine to boot. But The Time Tunnel was an inept show right from the start, lacking the stoic backbone of Voyage, the colourful fun of Land Of The Giants and the inspired lunacy of Lost In Space. Its basic story, which just had to sound terrific as a pitch to the TV execs - we've got two All-American heroes bouncing around history, fighting Injuns one week, the Trojan war the next! - is so spectacularly hamstrung by its own formulaic constraints that, for many, staying beyond the first three episodes will become something of an endurance test. Although the settings will change - one minute the French Revolution, the next a base on the Moon, lazy scriptwriting ensures that circumstances, action and beyond-pointless resolutions (let's face it, Tony and Doug don't actually manage to affect history's outcomes one iota despite all their fisticuffs) will all remain exactly, and irritatingly, identical. The Seaview, the submarine in Voyage, just like the Enterprise in Star Trek (which premiered the same time as The Time Tunnel in 1966) was on a mission. It was acceptable, and even looked-forward-to, that it would encounter all manner of madness, mishap and monstrous malarkey each time she dived below. And Lost In Space kept its good-natured quirkiness and offbeat fantastical meetings with a weekly assortment of bizarre aliens for a full three seasons, using the vital elements of comedy and OTT characterisation to sustain interest. Of course they were daft - but they knew they were. And you can get away with a lot when your tongue is wedged firmly in your cheek.
“Where are we?”
“We could be anywhere.”
The Time Tunnel, however, has none of these essential fallbacks. Absolutely none. Although boasting surprisingly high production values, grand sets and heaps of location work - well, provided the location was the desert, that is - it neglects to populate itself with either a cast that can act, a script that has any wit or intelligence, or a vision that complements its hard sci-fi concept. Even for Irwin Allen's simplistic Boys Own leanings of a punch-up, a chase, a capture and an escape every five minutes or so, The Time Tunnel remained steadfastly un-imaginative. Time after time (pun intended) Tony and Doug are catapulted through a psychedelic swirl to land in awkward slow-motion on the eve of some earth-shattering event that, without even a pause between this and the last adventure (no, not even a toilet break, folks - check it out) sees them bumbling into a quick offensive to help avert the disaster that only they know is coming. This riotous disregard for historical fact sees them attempting to coerce Sitting Bull from fighting the most hilarious-looking Custer I've ever seen (although the naff plot sees that Crazy Horse will disregard his Chief's new blood-brothers with noble savagery, anyway) in Massacre, trying to stem the Afghan uprising that a young Rudyard Kipling is destined to write about in Night Of The Long Knives, or pleading with a scientist on island of Krakatoa that the volcano he is studying is about to erupt, without a single care for the possible repercussions from their actions. But, although all this could be fun (trust me, though, it isn't), Allen's repeated use of footage from other movies, such as Khartoum, The Alamo and How Green Was My Valley among many, many others, to spice up the action in every single episode is downright annoying and visually obvious. This cheating method actually cripples the show, in my opinion, with too many shots of Tony and Doug looking on as costly battles rage in lesser quality amid his shining TV gloss. But perhaps more damagingly is the woeful absence of any attempt by the writers to explore the possibilities of time travel. The world of literature and the movies had already made many insightful stabs at scientific, cerebral and even spiritual takes on the genre. The comic book medium had made extensive explorations of such thought-provoking material, as well. And all had retained that sense of wonder and excitement without pandering to such lowest common denominator standards that Allen opted for. Arguably, the producer just wanted a fast and fun show that offered a different set of costumes each week and a reliable format that could be digested in easy bite-sizes. But even if that was the case, he still made the mistake of assuming that his audience was stupid.
“Professor, you've got to tell me. Can that comet affect us here and now?”
The above quote reflects the utter stupidity of the writing. With Tony and Doug cavorting through the fourth dimension, the back-up team of Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba), Dr. Anne MacGregor (Lee Meriwether) and starched-idiot Lt. General Heyward Kirk (Whit Bissell) are left to stand around that control desk watching snapshots of the boys in action. Just how this time-camera manages to zoom in and even change angles around the mists of time - giving the viewers a contextual history of each new situation while the heroes get knocked on the head and tied up again - is a miracle greater than that of the travelling through time itself. When viewing Halley's Comet in an appearance from the past, the dim-witted General is actually concerned that it poses a threat to the base he is standing in at the present! Whatever the predicament that Tony and Doug are frolicking about in, Clue-less Kirk will always send for all possible information regarding its historical background. Gee, thanks for the history lesson, Mr. Allen. I bet all the kids in the sixties learnt a lot from this. And don't even get me started on the occasional bloke from the past that gets caught up in the Time Tunnel and wrenched forward into the control room for a futuristic wake-up call, or a little skirmish with the button-pushers. Oh, dear God, it's awful. The acting is truly appalling, with the two leads possibly being the worst of an incredibly talent-less bunch. Darren may have had the looks and Colbert may have possessed the granite-jawed go-get-'em attitude that America wanted its people to believe would win them the war in Southeast Asia, but the two actors put together didn't add up to even half a personality.
Anyway you cut it, The Time Tunnel is a clunker. The wave of nostalgia you might want to imagine you'll receive when you hear the young John (or Johnny as he is credited here) Williams' score and see the cartoon title sequence will, I'm afraid, come crashing down with all the deflation of the Hindenburg - which will surely be featured in the next volume of ... duh, duh, DUHHH ...The Time Tunnel. It is a wasted opportunity that should, perhaps, have stayed lost in time.
One to avoid, folks.