by Billy Ingram
There was an Irwin Allen produced science-fiction series on the air every year from 1964 - 1970. One of those years, 1966, he had three series running concurrently on two networks: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (ABC, 1964 - 1968), Lost in Space (CBS, 1965 - 1968), and The Time Tunnel (ABC, 1966 - 1967).
Allen was from the old school, starting out as an announcer on LA's KCAL radio, entering television briefly at first, long enough to be credited with inventing the first celebrity panel show in the late-'40s. In the '50s and early-'60s he produced lightweight theatrical feature films like Double Dynamite and A Girl in Every Port starring Groucho Marx, the sci-fi cult classic The Lost World, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
It was Voyage that brought Irwin Allen back to television in 1964. By using existing sets, miniatures, and special effects from the film, he was able to bring big-budget excitement to the small screen for the first time. The longest-running Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea started out as a serious adventure series with cold-war overtones and realistic underwater scenes, later degenerating into a weekly monster costume fashion show.
In 1965, Lost in Space took TV sci-fi to new heights and new depths at the same time. The story of a family set adrift in space due to the machinations of a villainous stowaway, the first few episodes of LIS stand out as thrilling entertainment even if the scientific underpinning was a bit shaky.
Though Irwin Allen's programs fell in the mushy middle of the Nielsens, ABC was riding high with Batman and knew Allen understood what that audience wanted better than they did. That's how he ended up with the most expensive television show on the air in 1966 - The Time Tunnel.
Directed by Irwin Allen himself, the pilot (which cost a whopping $500,000, tying with Batman as the most expensive of that time) told the story of Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), two research scientists who become entrapped in a top secret portal through time.
The first adventure had Tony and Doug captive aboard the Titanic hours before it struck an iceberg. That opening episode was one of the best science-fiction dramas produced in the '60s. The pacing was exciting throughout, the Emmy-winning special effects colorful and hypnotic, and guest-star Michael Rennie performed admirably as the doomed ship's laconic captain.
To demonstrate the wider possibilities the series held, Tony and Doug dive from the deck of the Titanic at the show's conclusion only to materialize inside a rocket capsule about to be jettisoned into the atmosphere. Every show ended with the two time-travellers in a cliffhanger situation to entice viewers to tune in next week. This was something Irwin Allen pioneered with Lost in Space the previous year and a trick the producers of Batman picked up on as well.
At the controls of the Tunnel were Whit Bissell as General Heywood Kirk, John Zaremba as Dr. Raymond Swaim, both veterans of many "B" horror movies, Lee Meriwether as Dr. Ann McGregor, and Wesley Lau as security officer Jiggs. The Time Tunnel was unique in the fact that the regular supporting cast almost never got to work with the two lead actors. Consequently, they had little to do but yell "Tony!" and "Doug!" at the tunnel while frantically mashing the buttons and twisting the dials on the surplus NASA computers that made up most of the set.
Several times the guys had to push poor Ann out of the way so that they could turn the dials and push the buttons while she had a panic attack on the sidelines. It's no wonder she was so stressed—just like all of Irwin Allen's inventions, the Time Tunnel exploded every time you used it.
Maybe one reason The Time Tunnel is so fondly remembered is the subliminally sexual quick-cut sequence that comes every time there's a Time Tunnel emergency. First you see the pulsating, phallic power core of the complex, then the deep inner corridor, a close-up of the power core, and then the camera rests on the tunnel itself, spitting sparks and smoking profusely. Hello!
As the season progressed, our heroes entered into a gunfight with Billy the Kid, searched for Tony's father during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fought in the War of 1812, become imprisoned on Devil's Island, and landed on the scene at General Custer's last stand. By mid-season, more far-out plotlines found Tony and Doug rescuing Ann from futuristic kidnappers, fighting space aliens in 1885, and following a criminal through several centuries into a beehive of the future.
Along the way, kids at home got to learn a lot about history. For instance, it was Nero's ghost who made Mussolini so evil and it was Robin Hood who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta after a mortar attack on his castle.
I remember being very disappointed when Halley's Comet came back around in 1986, it was so small you could barely see it. On Time Tunnel, it filled the sky!
"There was absolutely no pressure on us to depict history accurately." Time Tunnel series writer Robert Duncan told an interviewer, "Once we entered that combination of aliens from outer space woven into historical episodes, there was no need for accuracy."
Irwin Allen's brand of ‘science' fiction was popular fare during the '60s, you just had to forget the major lapses in logic and enjoy the ride. When writers or directors objected to a major lapse of basic common sense in the script, Irwin Allen's edict was simple, "Don't get logical with me. This is a running and jumping show."
Allen would direct only the pilot episodes of his TV series himself, a consistent problem became his tendency for blowing his wad during the first quarter of the season and then hacking out the remainder.
Fortunately for the writers, The Time Tunnel was able to take full advantage of the large stock footage library at 20th Century Fox to provide blue screen and cut away shots where elaborate historical settings or large numbers of extras were needed. Too often it was obvious that the plodding scripts were written around some old film clip of marauding medieval hordes or a trojan horse, with an obligatory fist fight or two written in for good measure.
Writer Robert Duncan approached one of the leads with his desire to create more substantial material but was cut short. The actor was content with basic utterances like "Let's go!" or "We have to get out of here!" so that was the end of that. At the end-of-season wrap party spirits were high as cast members said their goodbyes for the summer, relieved that their show was renewed for a second season.
TVpartyer OM tells us what happened next: "Time Tunnel wasn't cancelled due to bad ratings. Granted, it had the Friday night ‘slot of death,' but the ratings were no worse than Star Trek depending on what was showing on the other two channels. In fact, ABC was internally hailing it as the one true success in what was a really bad season for them. Not one of their shows was in the top twenty end-of-year averages and the only new show that came close for even one week was The Time Tunnel.
"Why cancel it then? Well, someone at ABC pushed for a series called The Legend of Custer and managed to get enough of his fellow execs laid sufficiently to allow the series to not only get on the '67 fall schedule but to get additional promo funding. The only problem was that the fall schedule had been decided (but not officially announced) and there was no room for an additional one-hour drama. The exec in question argued for dropping Time Tunnel on the grounds that ‘Irwin Allen's giving you phony history lessons wrapped inside cheap sci-fi schlock. Custer was the real thing!' The argument apparently held just enough water to get Project Tic Toc shut down for good.
"On a side note, Custer was ruthlessly nuked by the critics and denounced by various Amerind and Native American groups. No other western save for The Men From Shiloh two years later was so ruthlessly derided and Custer was thankfully shitcanned after only one season."
The Time Tunnel was Irwin Allen's favorite of all of his series, but with three productions going simultaneously in 1966 - 67, his team at 20th Century Fox was stretched far too thin. "The set was definitely not a place to take our kids or relatives," Duncan recalled, "They were always behind schedule and fuming. They were under pressure to make up time." I have to assume that was said with some degree of irony.
1966-67 was season two for Lost in Space and three for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Both suffered greatly from hastily-written scripts and diminishing production values during this period—and those shows could ill afford any slide in quality.
THE BATMAN INFLUENCE
Partly to blame for this deterioration was the success of Batman, another 20th Century Fox property.
If, as some were saying, the key to Batman's success was that it was so bad it was good, Irwin Allen seemed to think he could make his shows god-awful to be great. As a result, LIS and Voyage were reduced to hosting the freak of the week in 1966: lobsters, carrots, frogs, and houseplants all took on humanoid form that season, appearing along with assorted fairy tale characters, werewolves, and space vikings.
If you want to know the reason why people who are serious about their science fiction hate Irwin Allen, those wretched episodes stand out as shining beacons.
Competition on the other networks severely split the available audience for a show like The Time Tunnel as well. Viewers had The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on NBC and The Wild, Wild, West on CBS to choose from, this on a Friday night when most young people were out doing other things anyway.
The Time Tunnel slipped into history on September 1, 1967. When LIS and Voyage returned for a new season in 1967, the quality of both shows was (somewhat) improved but it was to be the last season for both.
In 1968, Land of the Giants took over the 7:00 pm Sunday night slot held by Voyage since 1964. Giants was Lost in Space redux, right down to the built-in villain but little people running around in a big weedpile, occasionally encountering a gigantic stiff hand, stray cat, or garden weasel made for dull sci-fi. This bewilderingly bad series meandered through two seasons before getting the giant axe.
The '60s were over and Irwin Allen was destined for even greater success in the next decade in the motion picture business where he became known forever more as "The Master of Disaster."
American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages
during the first experiment of America's greatest and most secret project—The
Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward
a new fantastic adventure somewhere along the infinite corridors of time."
More on Irwin Allen here
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