Although this middle sixties Irwin Allen series ran for only one full season, this still constitutes a sizable catalogue of thirty episodes of matinee style time traveling adventure in glossy Deluxe colour to enjoy over this rather nifty nine-disc UK boxed set, now available from Revelation Films – all of them looking fresh and as sharp as a tack in a beautifully re-mastered collection. The show is a typical Irwin Allen concoction redolent of its time: founded on a strong premise that initially grips the imagination, it quickly becomes a platform for the kind of standard action adventure stories that, although played and written absolutely straight with no irony intended whatsoever, eventually tend more towards the way-out and whacky after the very strict narrative formulae Allen shows always obsessively obey becomes exhausted of original story possibilities.
More than any other Allen TV productions of the 1960s (which include “Lost in Space”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Land of the Giants”) “The Time Tunnel” seems to exemplify the weird combination of traits that define our subsequent image of the producer-director’s own personality, according to the anecdotes one hears retold about Allen and his somewhat humourless attitude to his work. The show’s time traveling premise certainly seems to allow for unlimited possibilities: different kinds of stories might be told every week in varying genres, potentially giving the show endless opportunities for renewing itself – a tactic which has often been utilised with some success by “Doctor Who”. “The Time Tunnel”, though, is the opposite of innovative and adventurous in its choice of material and the way in which it handles its subject matter. Instead, no matter where in history the show’s two handsome scientist adventurer-explorer protagonists, Doug and Tony, ended up each week (not many shows aim to make heroes out of nuclear physicists, but then you’d never know they were from the show’s fantasy version of science), their ensuing adventures would usually follow almost exactly the same formula: the duo would be catapulted into the middle of a pantomime version of a well-known historical occurrence (or legend, which is treated as straight history throughout the series) and almost always either engage in a punch-up, during which they might save the life of someone about to be killed, or they’d end up getting taken hostage.
Either way, they’d inevitably become embroiled in an adventure involving escape, saving the life of an important historical personage or exploiting their knowledge of history to get them out of a tight spot; usually varying combinations of all of these story points would be employed. This is a version of time travel in which the Universe somehow refuses to allow the paradoxes that so occupy and perplex other science fiction that deals in this area; it is established early on that no matter what the two protagonists do, things will play out as the history books all say they do. The show seems to pique our interest, presenting the viewer with a world of endless possibility, but then spends all its time following the same humdrum routine from episode to episode. In fact, displaying the TV equivalent of Asperger’s syndrome, the series is so routine orientated that the mechanics of time tunnel travel always reset everything -- including whatever the two heroes happen to be wearing when they’re next shifted in time – back to the series’ initial starting conditions, so that each episode takes place in a self-contained bubble, unaffected by anything else around it: when Tony Newman is trapped down a mine in one episode, his green turtleneck sweater is restored to immaculate condition and his face is clean again once he materialises in another location in the following adventure. The only space for manoeuvre in plot terms comes about when the time travellers find themselves in the future (where the sixties Irwin Allen version of 1978 allows for manned flights to Mars to be portrayed as a routine occurrence) or when a fixed event in history turns out to have only come about in the first place because of the activities of the Time Tunnel project. The best example of this occurs in the episode “End of the World” when the destruction of the Earth by Hailey’s Comet in 1912 is averted only because the tunnel’s connection to the past allows the Earth in 1968 to exert an extra gravitational tug from the present, which draws the Comet from its original crash-course.
The show became infamous for recycling stock footage from the vast film library of 20th Century Fox, in order to flesh out individual episodes with huge period battle sequences featuring lots of extras, or to provide the series with great special effects set-pieces such as the sinking of the Titanic in the first episode, which is culled from Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film “A Night to Remember”. Nevertheless the series looked pretty slick and glossy for its time, and the Project Complex itself is a wonderful voguish example of sixties set design -- decked out with all the usual banks of computers, with their blinking lights and spinning tape reels (and presided over by white lab-coated technicians perpetually consulting their clipboards) and bulging screens displaying the obligatory oscilloscope waves. The tunnel is decorated with a stylish-looking Op Art design with black and white spirals creating a forced perspective effect. The first episode introduces quite a sizable Government-financed secret facility as the centre of operations: Project Tic-Toc is housed in an underground bunker in the Arizona desert, where a city-full of American scientists are experimenting with time travel. A US senator is being shown around the complex, which is portrayed as a vast Metropolis-style city containing thousands of workers, sweeping gangways and ramps crisscrossing underground tower blocks, together with a huge flashing power generator. We only ever see any of this in the first episode in any detail; thereafter we rarely see anything other than the central control room (apart from when the same clips from episode one are replayed during a site ‘emergency’).
“Rendezvous with Yesterday” sees boyish scientist Dr Antony Newman (James Darren) forced to prematurely test the time tunnel, sending himself back through time before the control mechanisms have been adequately tested, after it emerges that the expensive project is threatened with closure if the team cannot demonstrate progress soon to justify the Government money it’s been eating up. He ends up appearing aboard the Titanic the day before it is due to be sunk by collision with an iceberg, but of course he cannot convince anyone -- passenger or crew -- on the ship of this fact, since they’ve all swallowed the propaganda that it is unsinkable. Newman’s scientist colleague, Dr Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) persuades project head honcho Lt General Heywood Kirk (Whit Bissell) to let him go back in time to rescue Tony (armed with a newspaper from the archives dated the day after the Titanic disaster) and from here on in, the two will find themselves being shifted backwards and forwards in time for the next twenty-nine episodes as their scientist colleagues back in 1968, headed by Dr Raymond Swain (John Zaremba) and Dr Ann MacGregor (the gorgeous Lee Meriwether – Catwoman in the original “Batman” movie) attempt to bring them back home each week with little success.
With its strident score from John Williams (credited as Johnny Williams) and the entrancing opening time tunnel transportation sequence, which see Tony and Doug tumbling in slow motion against an effects backdrop of blinking disco lights at the start of each episode, then materialising in a new time period by literally being dropped into frame in another slow motion tumble, the series was always an enjoyable if rather superficial weekly spectacle. As the clean-cut heroes (Irwin Allen heroes are always clean-cut and square jawed, with matinee idol good looks) travel back to Pearl Harbour the day before the attack (“The Day the Sky Fell In”), pitch up at the Battle of Little Bighorn (“Massacre”), or at the siege of the Alamo (“The Alamo”), or arrive in North-Western France a few day before the D-Day Landings (“Invasion”), their colleagues back at home twiddle nobs and watch their exploits on a giant image screen in the centre of the tunnel after each week eventually ‘getting a fix on them’; sometimes the watching technicians are able to help out by sending objects through the tunnel to Doug and Tony’s time period, transporting Time Tunnel personnel through the vortex and then back again, or even by transporting historical figures from the past into the present day, such as General Kirk’s identical-looking ancestor from the French Revolution. The one thing they are never for some reason able to do is to bring Doug and Tony home -- although there seems little reason why they can’t do so. After a while, there’s barely any attempt made to try!
After a number of episodes in a standard historical adventure mode occur, as seems to be the case with all Irwin Allen’s sixties series, the stories start to get crazier and crazier (and arguably much more entertaining in the process, even though it’s rather a kitsch appeal -- since everything is presented completely seriously). At first, this allows the hidden possibilities of time travel to finally be addressed in the episode “Secret Weapon”, when the Pentagon assign Doug and Tony espionage work behind the Iron Curtain in 1952, where they discover that the communists were once working on their own prototype Time Tunnel project. The fantasy side of the series becomes more apparent when Biblical stories and Greek legends are treated as pure fact in “The Walls of Jericho” and “Revenge of the Gods” but then things really start getting weird when Nero’s ghost turns up in a WW1 adventure, Nicolai Machiavelli appears in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg and Merlin the magician materialises in Time Tunnel headquarters. In “Visitors from Beyond the Stars” ponderous silver-skinned alien humanoids are intent on invading the Earth; indeed, the final few episodes of the series all deal with hostile aliens: “Raiders From Outer Space” sees bug-eyed creatures plotting to invade the Earth during the Battle of Khartoum -- which took place between the British and Arab forces in the Sudan in the latter half of the nineteenth century; and “The Kidnappers” sees more silver suited creatures materialising in headquarters and kidnapping Dr MacGregor in 1968; lastly “Town of Terror” features aliens who take on the form of human beings in order to steal oxygen from Earth’s atmosphere for their own dying planet.
By this point, any pretence at a concern for enacting historical drama has long since vanished, and the series has reverted to the standard Irwin Allen toolkit of niave fantasy/sci-fi adventure, before fading out altogether, with Doug and Tony never making it back to their original period in time. But the show retains its innocent appeal when viewed in small doses (however, try watching a whole bunch of these back-to-back and the appeal quickly begins to fade), and is a colourful, honest-to-goodness example of prime time US adventure TV at its most stylish, good-natured and endearing.
All thirty episodes of the original series are featured over the course of eight discs, with the eighth disc also featuring the original unaired pilot version of the first 1966 episode, plus a 2002 attempt to remake and re-launch the series concept which doesn’t have a millimetre of the charm or style that makes the original series work, despite the flashy graphics and modern setting. Over on disc nine, the final disc devoted exclusively to extras, we find a grainy-looking, unrestored and unaired pilot episode for a 1970s attempt to reformat the time traveling idea, also made by Irwin Allen and titled “The Time Travellers”. It’s an interesting curiosity piece and a rarity that will certainly intrigue Irwin Allen fans.
Disc nine also features all the cliff-hanger trails which always used to be tagged on the end of each episode to set up the next. In my region, when I used to watch the series as a kid in the 1970s, the ITV network always used to screen the episodes in a random order, which meant the cliff-hangers never matched the episode you were presented with the following week! Revelation Films have arranged the episodes on these discs in production order and removed the cliff-hangers from the end of each one to avoid this problem. They’ve included them all here instead -- in a single one hour and ten minute reel. The extras disc also features plenty of silent behind the scenes footage and special effects shots, interviews with cast members and production galleries, making this the definitive DVD set for all things Time Tunnel and a must-buy for those interested in classic adventure/sci-fi TV of the 1960s.