Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Time Tunnel: Four Episodes (Irwin Allen Productions, Kent Productions, 20th Century-Fox Television, 1966-1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie screening in Golden Hill ( featured four episodes of the short-lived (one season, 1966-1967) TV series The Time Tunnel, producer-director-writer Irwin Allen’s followup to his (at least at first) sensationally successful series Lost in Space — and so similar in its basic formula Allen might as well have called this one Lost in Time. The show’s premise is that the U.S. government has spent $7.5 billion developing a secret project in the middle of the Arizona desert — it’s so secret that a patch of the desert surface opens up to admit people inside its underground headquarters and a Chrysler Imperial limousine delivering invited guest U.S. Senator Leroy Clark (Gary Merrill, Bette Davis’s co-star in All About Eve and her fourth husband), who’s just discovered the secret appropriation for “Project Tic-Toc” in the federal budget (the name of the effort is a perfect example of the weird banality that afflicted a lot of Allen’s projects) and is ready, as head of the relevant U.S. Senate committee, to pull  the plug on it if he doesn’t feel it’s accomplishing anything worthwhile. 

Needless to say, the staffers at the head of Project Tic-Toc (we’re told there are 1,200 people working on it in the bowels of the earth under the Arizona desert but we only see about five of them) are worried about losing their funding, so they respond to Senator Clark’s demand that they project a person through the so-called “Time Tunnel” (a series of concentric rings that’s supposed to look like it stretches to infinity, though despite the best efforts at forced perspective from Irwin Allen and his set painters it’s clearly only about 15 to 20 feet long) and bring him back safely by having one of the engineers in charge of the project, Dr. Anthony Newman (James Darren, in a tight turtleneck sweater and a pair of slacks that shows off a nice ass), leap into the Time Tunnel, which sizzles, smokes and ultimately — in the pilot episode, “Rendezvous with Yesterday” — deposits him on the deck of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912, just hours before the ship is going to have that fatal rendezvous with an iceberg. Another scientist on the project, Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert — one of the attendees at the screening wondered if he’s any relation to late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert, but his page doesn’t say yea or nay), leaps into the Time Tunnel to try to retrieve Newman but only ends up trapped in there with him, and for the rest of the series’ one-season run the gimmick was that the people back at Tic-Toc Central (including a woman, Lee Meriwether as Dr. Ann McGregor — who’s dressed in the baggiest white lab coat 20th Century-Fox’s costume department could find and she looks so decidedly un-sexy it’s hard to believe that within three years she’d be playing the Catwoman on the 1960’s Batman TV show!) kept trying to retrieve their two errant crew members but just kept depositing them in one new time period after another, always in the middle of some imminent peril that could be advertised in a cliffhanger sequence at the end of each episode to get viewers to tune into the next one. On “Rendezvous with Yesterday” the two run into the Titanic’s captain, Malcolm Smith (Michael Rennie, looking oddly un-alien for Rennie in a science-fiction story!) — incidentally the real Titanic’s captain was named Edward John Smith and usually called “E. J.” — who hears them try to warn him that the ship is headed for an iceberg and it should turn around and reset its course southward to move out of iceberg country. Naturally Captain Smith thinks they’re lunatics and orders them locked up so they don’t scare the rest of the passengers with their doomsday talk. 

They also meet up with a sympathetic female, Althea Hall (played by the beautiful and talented British actress Susan Hampshire), who’s a schoolteacher who splurged all her life savings on a vacation on the Titanic, though she also seems to be working her way across by performing in the ship’s lounge as a pianist (in which capacity she’s playing in a half-ragtime, half-jazz musical style far more characteristic of the mid-1920’s than 1912), and a typically obnoxiously cute movie kid whose family is emigrating to the U.S. from France and who’s sneaking onto the first-class decks to steal leftover food to help feed his family and the other “third-class” passengers (the script, by Irwin Allen himself, doesn’t use the dread word “steerage”). Newman and Phillips stage a sort of coup d’état in the radio room to try to broadcast warnings to other ships that the Titanic is about to sink and will need their help rescuing its passengers, but Captain Smith catches them and countermands their orders. (One of the peculiarities of The Time Tunnel as compared to other time-travel stories is its cheery ignorance of the “butterfly effect”; Newman and Phillips come off as time-traveling Mary Worths attempting to prevent the historical disasters they get beamed into without any thought, except in very rare instances, that if they alter the events of history their own time is going to change in unpredictable and possibly catastrophic ways.) Eventually the Time Tunnel crew beams Newman and Phillips off of the deck of the Titanic just in time to avoid going down with the ship — though before they leave they coax Althea into one of the lifeboats despite her protestations that she has a brain tumor which is going to kill her (one of the reasons she was going to New York was to see a super-surgeon who — stop me if you’ve heard this before — was the only person in the world who could do the operation that could save her life) — only they get dumped into the middle of the American Revolution, complete with red-coated British soldiers shooting at them. Also worthy of note is the music credit on “Rendezvous with Yesterday” to “Johnny Williams,” known today as John Williams and probably the most successful film composer of all time in terms of money and awards — though he didn’t compose all the Time Tunnel episodes, and a lot of them were probably filled out with stock music cues, he did write the sprightly, very John Williams-ish theme song that was used throughout the series’ run (over a set of credits in which the series’ title first appears in mirror-image backwards letters, then rights itself — and even the design of the title as it appears in the credits is an Allen self-plagiarism from Lost in Space).

We didn’t get to see the Revolutionary War episode because, instead of presenting the Time Tunnel shows in sequence, the screening’s proprietor had picked the episodes that had the highest ratings on, so the next one we got was “The Day the Sky Fell In.” This beamed Newman and Phillips to Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, one day before the date that will live in infamy, and Newman had a particular reason to be concerned about Pearl Harbor because his dad, a Naval officer, was serving there on the day the Japanese attacked and was never heard from again. There’s a major glitch in continuity between this episode and the pilot which a number of commentators picked up on: in “Rendezvous with Yesterday” we were told that Newman was born in 1938, while in “The Day the Sky Fell In” we were told he was seven years old in 1941 — which of course would put his birth year as 1934. It turns out the young Tony Newman (Sheldon Golomb, later known as Sheldon Collins) is best friends with another kid named Billy Neal (Frankie Kabott) and that night he’s scheduled for a sleepover at the Neals’ home — only the Neals’ home is destined to suffer a direct hit in the attack. The Neals also have a Japanese maid named Yuko (Caroline Kido), who’s still loyal to the Motherland and in league with three plug-ugly Japanese spies, one of whom looked so much like the James Bond villain Odd-Job one viewer at our screening wondered where he’d left his killer hat. They’re determined to keep the secret of the upcoming Pearl Harbor attack, so they knock off the Neals’ butler — who’s Japanese-American but loyal to the U.S. — and capture Newman and Phillips, who are trying (fruitlessly) to warn the U.S. naval officials what’s coming. Eventually, of course, our time travelers escape — though Newman finally learns what happened to his father (he was killed in the attack) and the meeting of the young and the adult Tony Newman has a quirky appeal even though Allen and his writer (Ellis St. Joseph) and director (William Hale) do almost nothing with the Barrie-esque irony of having you meet your younger self. 

Next up on the program was “Devil’s Island,” directed by Jerry Hopper (a veteran of feature-film assignments at Universal) from a script by Bob and Wanda Duncan, which featured Our Heroes being beamed onto the infamous French prison island in 1895, just as Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Ted Roter, later known as Peter Balakoff) arrives there following his arrest on trumped-up charges of treason against France on behalf of … well, in the Duncans’ script it was Germany, though in real life it was Austria. The gimmick this time is that there’s a plan among the other prisoners to get Dreyfus off Devil’s Island (which never happened; he stayed there for two years until the agitation around his case in France got him released to be retried at home) — only it’s a setup by the prison authorities (who speak with some of the phoniest accents ever recorded on film, as if the character actors playing them were used to portraying Nazi German villains and were trying to adjust the accents they’d used for them to sound “French”) so they can end the Dreyfus case once and for all by shooting him “while attempting to escape” (a cover story repeated so often in the history of Mexican political imprisonment it became known in Spanish slang as the Ley Fuga). One of the conspirators, Boudaire (Marcel Hillaire), gets beamed back to Tic-Toc Central via the Time Tunnel (which provoked at least one contributor to wonder why the Time Tunnel techs could successfully beam back a person they don’t want while completely missing beaming back Newman and Phillips over and over again), and at first he wants to stay in the U.S. in 1968 instead of going back to Devil’s Island in 1895, but he agrees to return to warn Dreyfus and the others that their “escape” is a setup — but the trauma of dealing with being time-traveled fries his brain and he forgets that piece of information. Eventually Dreyfus himself refuses to leave (in her book The Proud Tower Barbara Tuchman portrays the real Dreyfus as so totally committed to the ideals of the French military he couldn’t believe they would frame him for treason and so Right-wing he was an embarrassment to the French Leftists who had led the effort to re-open his case) and the Time Travelers are beamed back just as the rest of the prisoners have set off on their escape. 

The final Time Tunnel episode showed last night was one of the better ones, “Kill Two by Two,” in which we’re in World War II again — though at its end rather than at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in it. It takes place on the island of Minami Imo, one of two tiny islands off the coast of Iwo Jima which were held by the Japanese and which the U.S. had to neutralize before they could make a successful attack on Iwo Jima itself. It helps that the script by Bob and Wanda Duncan (again, though this time directed by Herschel Daugherty) doesn’t include any actual historical characters: instead it’s a tight little story with just four people on the island, Newman, Phillips and two Japanese, Lieutenant Nakamura (Mako, the very interesting Japanese actor who’s probably best known as the star of the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, his typically quirky attempt to blend American musican and Kabuki theatre to tell the story of U.S. Commodore Peary’s successful opening of Japan to world trade with an all-Japanese, or at least all-Asian, cast) and Sergeant Itsugi (Kam Tong). The quirk this time is that no one at Tic-Toc Central has any clue as to the geography of Minami Ito, so they hit on the idea of recruiting a survivor of the real battle to talk them through the search-and-rescue mission — only the one they get is Dr. Nakamura (Philip Ahn, the fascinating Chinese-American actor who was probably royally pissed off that even 23 years after World War II ended he was still getting casting calls for Japanese officer roles in World War II-set stories! I’ve long thought that if 20th Century-Fox had wanted an actual Chinese actor for their 1930’s Charlie Chan movies Philip Ahn would have been the best choice), father of Lt. Nakamura. There’s a big, obvious casting glitch here in that Ahn looks the right age to be Mako’s father in a conventional time sequence but not when we’re seeing Mako 23 years earlier than we see Ahn — we’d expect Ahn to look more like Mako’s grandfather than his father with that big a time lapse. At first Ahn is unwilling to help the Tic-Toc crew recover their people unless they also bring back his son (which they can’t do because they’re already pushing their equipment to recover two people at once and they’re sure it can’t handle three), but eventually once he realizes what a psycho his son is — Mako’s character is described as someone who’s going out of his way not only to take out as many Americans as he can but to die himself because he was supposed to be a kamikaze pilot, only at the last moment he chickened out and now he’s determined to sacrifice his life to redeem the stain on his honor — he agrees to help, only of course Newman and Phillips get beamed not back to Tic-Toc headquarters in Arizona but to an alien spacecraft (filled with silver people who look all too much like the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz) whose inhabitants are determined to conquer and obliterate all life on Earth. 

Overall, The Time Tunnel emerges as an O.K. series; when it was on originally I just found it confusing (and I rarely watched it because of a factor someone else at the screening mentioned: it was on opposite The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — which though now it comes off as an almost unbelievably tacky James Bond knockoff seemed really cool then, plus I had a boyhood crush on David McCallum and admired Robert Vaughn for being the first major celebrity to speak out against the Viet Nam war). Now The Time Tunnel seems like a quirky mess, very much in the mold of Irwin Allen’s other projects (the movies Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and the Lost in Space TV show, which was cute when it first went on but seemed abysmal after Star Trek rewrote the rules for science-ficton on TV) — oddly the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series, as represented by four episodes also shown at Vintage Sci-Fi, was refreshingly free from the excursions into camp that usually marred Allen’s work, but they, along with the risible plot holes, were all over The Time Tunnel and, even more than most TV series, then or now, The Time Tunnel’s episodes all seemed pretty much the same: Newman and Phillips get beamed back into some immediately perilous past (or, less often, future) situation and play around in it for a while until the people back at Tic-Toc Central beam them out of that one and into another similarly life-threatening environment.