The Television Legacy of Irwin Allen – Part IV: The Time Tunnel
For his 1957 feature, The Story of Mankind, Irwin Allen had two things going for him – an all-star cast and access to the massive stock footage libraries of Warner Brothers Studios. The cast may have taken up most of the budget but the film was shot economically by using the already impressively photographed action sequences from other films for the long shots and then filming inserts of the new actors in similar costumes, most of which were still available in the props department. These cost savings made an impression on Allen and he would make use of this technique throughout his long career.
For his third science fiction television series, Irwin Allen decided to return to historical drama while still retaining a modern perspective. He created a pilot film for his new project, The Time Tunnel, using mainly stock footage of the Titanic sinking from the 1958 feature A Night to Remember (tinted in color) coupled with close ups of actors on small boat set. This was tied together with scenes of scientists working to retrieve two of their colleagues aboard the vessel and a brief wrap up that leaves the time travelers being menaced by more stock footage from Allen’s own film The Lost World. The ABC Television Network, who was already enjoying good ratings from Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea which was entering its third season, picked the show up for broadcast.
Premiering in the fall of 1966, the first episode of The Time Tunnel, Rendezvous with Yesterday, was essentially an edited version of the pilot trimmed down to fit in an hour time slot with commercials. The first episode opens with Senator Leroy Clark touring Project Tic Toc, a massive scientific complex said to extend 800 feet down and house a staff of 1200, hidden underground in the Arizona desert. Senator Clark is concerned that $7.5 billion tax dollars have been spent on this time travel experiment with very few results. After ten years of research, so far only test animals have supposedly been sent back through the tunnel but there is no way to retrieve them or monitor where they went. Young research scientist and second in command of the project, Dr. Anthony Newman (James Darren), believes he has solved those problems but his modifications still need to be tested. The Senator is impatient and ready to pull the plug, so that night after hours Newman sneaks back into the lab and sends himself through the tunnel.
The unauthorized use of the equipment signals an alarm that has security and scientific personnel both scrambling to the lab. Once they realize what has happened, they are able to locate Tony and observe him through the tunnel but they can’t retrieve him. The scientists realize that Newman has arrived aboard the ocean liner Titanic on the night that it is set to strike an iceberg and sink. Since they cannot contact or retrieve him, the head of the project and Newman’s friend, Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), volunteers to go in after him. Even though Doug is armed with a newspaper from the following day detailing the ship’s sinking, neither he nor Tony can convince the Captain, played by Michael Rennie who had portrayed The Keeper on Allen’s Lost in Space the previous year, of the catastrophe that lies ahead and history plays out unchanged. As the ship is sinking and the passengers are fleeing in panic, the crew back at Tic Toc manages to lock on to Tony and Doug and shift them in time but they have no control over where or when they will end up.
Rendezvous with Yesterday set the pattern for a typical episode of The Time Tunnel. Tony and Doug would land in the middle of a conflict, historical or otherwise, facilitate it as best they could and then be pulled away at the end through the corridors of time that looked like a bunch of multicolored circular shaped lights. Interestingly enough, regardless of what the two time travelers were wearing when they are shifted through time, their clothing always reverted back to what they had on in the pilot episode once they are in the corridor. Each episode would end with a teaser for the next one that hinted at whatever hot water Tony and Doug had been dumped into this time.
Always observing the plight of the chronol castaways but never able to retrieve them or do much else beyond minor assistance was the military and research staff at Project Tic Toc. Veteran actor Whit Bissell played the stern and logical Lt. General Heywood Kirk who had a passion for history but never forgot who he was working for. Representing the scientific side were John Zaremba as Dr. Raymond Swain and the lovely Lee Meriwether as Dr. Ann MacGregor. Even though she was technically an assistant to Dr. Swain and often the brunt of a kidnapping or hostage situation to facilitate the plot, outside of series’ stars Darren and Colbert, Lee Meriwether was the most heavily promoted character on the show.
For the first half of its solitary season, The Time Tunnel stuck close to historic dramas with the exception of the second episode, One Way to the Moon, where Tony and Doug land on a manned rocket to Mars and almost cause another mission to be lost in space! While many of these stock footage festivals from Fox’s feature films were unremarkable, a few good episodes popped up like Secret Weapon where the guys are forced to work on a Russian version of the time tunnel or be executed as spies. In The Day the Sky Fell In, one of the best episodes of the series, Tony and Doug have an opportunity to prevent the bombing of Pearl Harbor but almost create a time paradox in the process. Tony gets to meet his father who originally disappeared during the attack but his actions could prevent his own existence.
The ratings for The Time Tunnel were never strong so by the mid point of the season Irwin Allen decided to trot out the aliens and try the old standby of adding more fantasy to the plots. In Visitors from Beyond the Stars, Tony and Doug prevent an alien invasion, courtesy of lots of props from Lost in Space, in the old west while in Raiders from Outer Space different aliens try to invade during the British occupation of the Middle East. For Town of Terror the aliens decided to try for ten years in the future, 1978, and a small town in Maine but in The Kidnappers they just keep it simple and abduct Tony, Doug, and Ann. The one stand out from the later episodes is Chase through Time guest starring Robert Duval as an enemy spy. After planting a bomb in Project Tic Toc, Duval escapes into the tunnel and the time travelers spend the rest of the episode trying to catch him in the past and future.
The infusion of fantasy didn’t do much to help the ratings and only detracted from the quality of the stories. American audiences of the 60’s were too worried about the present to be interested in historical adventures and this was a time when spy and detective shows were all the rage. At the conclusion of the first season, ABC decided the tunnel had run out of time. Irwin Allen would revisit this concept with a 1976 television pilot called The Time Travelers but it never made it to a series. In 2002, a pilot was filmed for a re-imagined version of The Time Tunnel where the project was actually trying to correct anomalies in time that had been caused by a mishap in one of their experiments. The concept of a team of time agents traveling to different eras to set history back on its tracks didn’t prove exciting enough to even get it aired.
The Time Tunnel ran for only one season and a total of thirty episodes. This made it more difficult to sell in syndication so it is not as well remembered as other Irwin Allen shows. In the 1980’s, ten episodes from the series were edited together, along with some footage from the pilot to explain what was going on, into five films that were sold to local television stations. Most of the episodes chosen were the ones that relied more on fantastic elements than historical ones and, like the series, the films still left poor Tony and Doug drifting through the corridors of time with no rescue in sight!