Taking potshots at a science fiction television show that first aired almost four decades ago is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. Taken as a whole, science fiction television has never measured up to the average standard of science fiction cinema which, in turn, has never quite measured up to the average standard set by science fiction literature. Of course, the key word here is “average” and yes, there are certainly exceptions aplenty to this rule, so please hold your cards and letters.
There's no way to be sure, but it's highly unlikely that the TV series The Time Tunnel left any lasting impact on science fiction as a whole. Today, as was the case when it originally aired, it was overshadowed by a science fiction show that turned out to be vastly more influential. That series, of course, was Star Trek, which originally aired on network television from September 1966 to June 1969.
Star Trek debuted on NBC on Thursday, September 8, 1966. Coincidentally —or perhaps not— the debut episode of The Time Tunnel aired on ABC the very next night. The latter series did not last nearly as long as Star Trek. Only thirty episodes were produced and the show was off the air by April 1967.
It's no secret that much of what passes for science fiction on television —now or forty years ago— is not very good, though obviously some is better than others. Many episodes of the original Star Trek series don't hold up very well four decades down the road. Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, Orson Scott Card waxed quite a bit less charitable, remarking that the first incarnation of the show was “bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad.” Probably not an inaccurate statement, and yet the original Star Trek seems downright masterful when stacked up against The Time Tunnel oeuvre.
The Time Tunnel was the creation of TV and movie producer Irwin Allen. Allen was later dubbed The Master of Disaster for his role in producing such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. His other notable cinematic successes included Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), the poor cousin to Disney's 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. In 1962, Allen filmed Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon before turning his hand to producing a quartet of SF (well, sort of) television shows.
The first of these, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, was an extension of Allen's film. It began a four-year, 110-episode run in 1964. The following year Allen dreamed up Lost in Space, probably the best known of his TV series, though it ran for only three years and 83 episodes in all. Allen was on a roll now and The Time Tunnel followed in 1966. Two years later Allen thrilled TV viewers with Land of the Giants, which ran until 1970 and logged a total of 51 episodes.
Allen supposedly claimed that The Time Tunnel was his favorite of these four TV series. The seed for the project was a 1964 novel by science fiction writer Murray Leinster, a book which, not surprisingly, was called Time Tunnel. Once The Time Tunnel, the TV series, was underway Leinster wrote two more Time Tunnel books. The Time Tunnel (a novelization of the television series) and Timeslip! were issued by Pyramid in 1967 to capitalize on the modest success of the show.
According to some sources, Allen's original notion was to produce a series called Time Travel with Hitler, in which Der Fuhrer moves to New Jersey and rounds up a bunch of American scientists to help him build a time tunnel. Though this concept apparently tested well, cooler heads prevailed. Allen acted on the suggestion that he “lose the Nazi" and The Time Tunnel was born.
The premise of The Time Tunnel is neatly summarized by the voiceover that kicked off each weekly adventure:
"Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on 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."
Newman and Phillips —that's Dr. Newman and Dr. Phillips, by the way— were portrayed by James Darren and Robert Colbert. Darren was something of a minor heartthrob at the time, achieving modest success in a few teen movies and turning out a few middling hits as a singer.
In the first episode of The Time Tunnel, "Rendezvous with Yesterday," the pair is hard at work on the cleverly named Project TicToc, a government time travel project. Tony gets overly excited and leaps into the Time Tunnel before testing is complete, only to find himself on the Titanic. Doug follows and though the two are fortunate enough to get off the ship before the ill-fated rendezvous with an iceberg, they are now trapped in the Time Tunnel. It develops the habit of spewing them forth at various points in time, where they contend with pirates, Roman soldiers, aliens, Robin Hood and more.
If this sounds like it had the potential to be rather ridiculous, that's because it was. If the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 had ever gotten around to tackling TV shows, they would surely have had a field day with The Time Tunnel. Some episodes were so appalling that watching them now in reruns is like being confronted with a three-headed cow or a dog with flippers. As horrifying as such spectacles are, there's something about them that makes it difficult to look away.
Of the 15 writers credited with working on The Time Tunnel, none are affiliated with science fiction literature, a fact which should not be surprising. While there are some notable exceptions —an example would be Harlan Ellison's work on Star Trek and various other series— then, as now, the creators of SF literature and science fiction TV don't seem to mingle much.
Episode 18 —"Visitors From Beyond the Stars"— is pretty representative, though it may actually be just a little more loopy than most. The episode was penned by the husband and wife writing team of Bob and Wanda Duncan, who wrote nine Time Tunnel episodes in all, more than any other writer. Episode 18’s director, Sobey Martin, sat in the big chair for a total of 13 Time Tunnel episodes.
As the episode opens, Doug and Tony find themselves on an alien ship. They somehow deduce that they are 300 years in the future. Taureg and Centauri, two aliens from a planet known as Alpha One, soon appear, clad in red-trimmed silver jumpsuits and silver face paint that would have made the wardrobe crew on Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon cringe. The aliens’ communications with each other are rendered in reverse —the one nifty touch in the entire episode. They also speak English surprisingly well, and keep getting better as the episode progresses.
The aliens' mission on Earth is to gather "protein materials" —that's food to you and me, buddy— and take them back to their starving home planet. For whatever reason —probably because the writers and director were more at ease with this locale and time period— the aliens head for Mullins, Arizona, circa 1885, to make their first raid.
At which point the episode goes from being clunky, goofy and downright laughable, to being so surreal that even David Lynch would probably admire it. Along the way we are treated to nearly five full minutes of Apaches battling the cavalry —or, as several of the characters would have it, the Calvary. This is a piece of badly integrated footage lifted part and parcel from a generic Western of the sort that Arnold Ziffel, the pig on Green Acres, often watched.
Before it's all over, the aliens reprogram Doug's mind, turning him into an obedient automaton who serves their every whim. Fortunately Tony is on hand to save the day by destroying The Projector, a handheld multi-purpose device that serves as a sort of Swiss army knife of alien gadgets.
Part of the problem with The Time Tunnel, or at least with The Time Tunnel as science fiction as opposed to The Time Tunnel as goofy and innocuous entertainment, is that few, if any, of the principals knew what "real" science fiction was, a situation that, arguably, hasn’t changed much to this day. Martin —The Time Tunnel's top director— had previously directed episodes of The Cisco Kid, Rawhide and Gunsmoke, among other series. He was also known to fall asleep in the director's chair, which may go a long way toward accounting for the quality of episodes like "Visitors From Beyond the Stars."
The Time Tunnel's top writers, the Duncans, had previously worked on Western TV shows like Bonanza and The Virginian and had no obvious connection to the world of science fiction. Which is as good a time as any to take a slight detour and point out that Gene Roddenberry's original conception of Star Trek was as a “Wagon Train to the Stars,” a reference to yet another popular TV Western of the late Fifties and early Sixties. On a related note is Ursula Le Guin’s recent quip —speaking of Star Wars— that “you can do it with cowboy suits as well.” Perhaps it was the writers’ and director’s background in Westerns that explains the truly bizarre nature of The Time Tunnel's episode 18.
I admit to not having seen all 30 episodes of The Time Tunnel and I acknowledge there may be gems of science fiction TV awaiting discovery in those unseen episodes, but I think it's probably fair to extrapolate, based on the shows I have screened, that the rest were not very good.
One interesting note about The Time Tunnel is that it served as a temporary home to some guest stars who went on to bigger and better things. Among these were Dennis Hopper, who appeared in the first episode, Carroll O'Connor, Ellen Burstyn, John Saxon, Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall. Also on hand was Michael Rennie —Klaatu from the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still— perhaps the only person involved in the production with a previous connection to a science fiction work of any standing. Another Time Tunnel hand who made good was John Williams. About a decade before meeting up with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the composer provided music for The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants.
It's ironic to note that The Time Tunnel was axed to make room for The Legend of Custer —yes, a Western. This series ran for only 16 episodes and was said to be even less memorable than its predecessor. Even more ironic was the fact that The Time Tunnel was actually achieving relatively decent ratings, even as it was being consigned to the great time tunnel of obscurity.
Which suggests that someone was watching and which brings to mind the question —does bad SF do more harm than good or, for that matter, does it do any harm at all? Were the kids who received their first exposure to science fiction courtesy of The Time Tunnel inspired to go out and seek more science fiction, at which point they presumably encountered books, films, or television shows that weren't so inept? Or do awkward works of SF that somehow make their way to network television or theaters or bookstores just breed more clumsy, half-assed SF?
Perhaps in the right hands The Time Tunnel could have been something great, though that takes a great leap of imagination, given its basic premise. It would be ridiculous to raise such questions or to even bother attempting to dissect a forty-year-old science fiction TV show if science fiction TV had progressed in the intervening years. But the fact is that science fiction TV, even to this day, generally is not very good —and, yes I know there are exceptions, so again, I ask that you hold your cards and letters.
Given the fact that viewers are more likely to be drawn to such SF shoot em ups as Independence Day or The Terminator and their small-screen equivalents than so-called "intelligent" SF fare as Forbidden Planet or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it should come as no surprise that much science fiction TV has not really risen too far above the level of The Time Tunnel. Nor should it come as a surprise that The Time Tunnel nearly made it's way back to TV in recent years. The pilot to this updated series was ordered by Fox in 2001, but was apparently shelved. In a very recent development, the SciFi Channel announced that it is putting together a pilot for a revamped version of The Time Tunnel.
Perhaps the last word on the topic of bad science fiction television should go to Card, whose LA Times essay took the opportunity to savage and bid good riddance to the latest incarnation of Star Trek. His anti-Star Trek screed could just as easily have applied to The Time Tunnel or any one of a number of science fiction TV shows to “grace” the airwaves over the past forty years:
“Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.”