I wrote about The Time Tunnel a few years back but I’ve now had the opportunity to watch a lot more episodes and my views on this series have changed somewhat so I think it’s appropriate to take another look at it, and in a bit more depth.
The premise is a good one - a top-secret U.S. government time-travel project. Although the technology is very advanced in theory in practice it doesn’t work so well and our two unfortunate time-travellers are hopelessly lost in time, shuffled from one historical era to another but with no way of returning to the present. So it’s a bit like Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space but with the heroes lost in time. It is however notably lacking in the high camp excesses of Lost in Space. In fact as time-travel series go it takes its subject more seriously than you might expect. There is for example a much greater awareness of time paradoxes and the inherent limitations of time travel that you don’t find in Doctor Who.
One of the things for which The Time Tunnel is sometimes criticised is the very extensive use of footage from various 20th Century-Fox historical movies. I don’t really see this as too much of a problem. It’s done quite skilfully and in any case a series in which every episode takes place in a different historical period and always at a time when major historical events are unfolding would have been astronomically expensive to make without the use of existing footage.
Of course this technique means that the series is limited to dealing with historical events for which 20th Century-Fox had suitable colour footage from their movies but since the studio had made a lot of movies by 1966 this was not a major constraint.
All American science fiction television programs of the 50s, 60s and 70s had budgetary problems. Science fiction television is expensive to make and there’s really no way to avoid spending a lot of money if you want decent results. This tended to make the networks very nervous, and tended to make them fairly hostile to science fiction. Network execs figured that if cop shows and westerns could be made dirt cheap then why risk big money on science fiction shows? Most American TV sci-fi series in this era had limited runs, not necessarily because of poor ratings but simply because the bean-counters were unwilling to continue spending money on series they considered to be risky to begin with.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, suffered rather grievously in this respect in its third and fourth seasons. The use of existing footage helped to keep The Time Tunnel’s budget within reasonable limits but it was still inevitably a lot more costly to make than a cop show. It’s therefore not entirely surprising that the series was cancelled after a single season despite very good ratings.
Doug and Tony, the two heroes of the series, always seem to arrive at a particular time and place in which something incredibly historic is about to happen. It’s a bit unrealistic but after all the aim is to provide entertainment so it’s forgivable.
Science fiction writers tend to agonise over the dangers of time paradoxes and to take two different approaches to the question. One approach stress that time travellers would have to be very careful not to change history as this could have disastrous consequences in the present. The alternative point of view is that even if you tried to change history the Universe would not allow it to happen and history would stubbornly follow its allotted course. The Time Tunnel seems mostly to adopt the latter approach. Doug and Tony do on many occasions try to change history but they seem doomed always to fail. In some episodes they seem oblivious to the problem while in others they seem to be very aware indeed of the impossibility of changing history.
There is one curious unexplained aspect of this series. What exactly is the purpose of the Time Tunnel? Obviously it’s time travel, but for what purpose? It’s established very early on that any attempt to change the course of history is doomed to fail. So why is the U.S. government spending billions on the project? We do get a tantalising hint in the episode Secret Weapon that the CIA might have an interest in the project.
Rendezvous with Yesterday was the pilot episode. The DVD release of the series includes the unaired extended version of this episode. Irwin Allen himself directed it and shares the writing credit as well.
An ultra-secret US government project is getting very close to unlocking the secrets of time itself and making time travel possible, but when the pesky Senator Leroy Clark (played by Gary Merrill) turns up to find out exactly how the many billions of dollars poured into the vast project have been spent they have to admit that they haven’t done any actual time travel yet. They’re sent mice back in time, or at least they think they have but they can’t be sure because they’ve never been able to get the mice back to the present. Senators being annoying creatures Clark wants to close the whole project down unless they can demonstrate some real results right now. As in today.
So we now have two scientists hopelessly lost in time.
In One Way to the Moon Doug and Tony are transported ten years into the future, onto a spaceship bound for Mars. The difficulty is that with two extra passengers the spaceship is now dangerously overloaded. There’s plenty of action and excitement and there’s the neat twist of an important character in 1968 watching his future self in 1978.
End of the World is a clever idea. Doug and Tony are in the middle of a mine disaster in 1910 but no-one wants to help rescue the trapped miners because there’s no point - Halley’s Comet is about to hit the Earth and everyone is doomed anyway. Doug and Tony have to find a way to convince the townspeople the world isn’t going to end, which means they have to convince the great Professor Ainsley that his prediction is wrong and that the comet is not going to hit.
Crack of Doom takes our intrepid time travellers to the year 1883, to a little island named Krakatoa where a volcano is about to erupt. In fact the whole island will blow up, the explosion making the most powerful H-bomb seem like a toy. The explosion was heard 3,000 miles away. And the Time Tunnel has dropped Doug and Tony onto the island the day before the eruption. Apart from trying to save themselves they also hope to save a curmudgeonly vulcanologist and his daughter.
Secret Weapon is a spy thriller episode set in eastern Europe in 1956 and Doug and Tony find out that the time tunnel is not as unique as they’d thought. This is the first episode that really plays around with the time travel concept in a creative way rather than just as an excuse for adventures in other historical period. It’s also the first episode that gives us a hint as the actual purpose of the Time Tunnel. It’s intended as a weapon. It’s a weapon that both sides in the Cold War are trying to develop. This is the best and most interesting episode so far.
The Death Trap has quite an amusing setup. There’s a plot to assassinate Lincoln, in 1861, and the would-be assassins are Abolitionists!
As far as The Alamo is concerned the title pretty much explains it. The trick for Doug and Tony is to get out of the Alamo alive. A reasonably good episode.
Night of the Long Knives takes Doug and Tony to India, to the North West Frontier, in 1886. Naturally they run into Kipling, and they get mixed up in a planned rebellion. Lots of stock footage in this episode (from King of the Khyber Rifles) but there’s also plenty of action and excitement even if the plot is totally unoriginal. I happen to be fascinated by this area of history so I loved this story.
It’s rather surprising that we get to episode fifteen, Invasion, before we get our first conformed Nazi sighting. Nazis were everywhere in 1960s action adventure TV series. In this story Doug and Tony are in Cherbourg, two days before D-Day, and the Gestapo is convinced they are spies. Doug gets brainwashed into believing he’s a Nazi. This is an OK episode.
That takes us up to the halfway point in the series. There’ll be another post at a later date covering the rest of the episodes.