Judge Cynthia Boris takes a trip through time when she falls into Irwin Allen's The Time Tunnel: Volume One.
Our review of The Time Tunnel: Volume Two, published June 21st, 2006, is also available.
"In theory, this should give us a magnetic fix, like a homing device to
enable us to locate him in time."
-- The concerned Dr. Doug Philips to senatorial whiner Leroy Clark.
From Pearl Harbor to the Siege of Troy, D-Day to the Alamo, The Time Tunnel was a full-on weekly history lesson. You got the costumes, the battles, the pageantry, the corny lines, the clichéd conundrums—and two good-looking, angsty leads dragging you in week after week. It's stock footage heaven and it's TV history (part of the amazing Irwin Allen four pack!). Doug and Tony need our help, so let us all travel through The Time Tunnel: Volume One.
Facts of the Case
It looks like an ordinary desert, but miles beneath the surface is a super, super-secret complex known as Project TicToc. This multi-leveled wunderkind (which looks eerily similar to the interior of the Death Star) cost seven and a half million dollars—and what have they got to show for it? One big-ass spiral cornucopia that may or may not send people into the past. (It's quite possible that it's really just a high tech, expensive incinerator.) So when a government bean-counter arrives to shut down the money pit, our heroes are forced to take action. Young and brash, Tony Newman (James Darren, Gidget) decides to play human guinea pig and promptly plants himself firmly on the deck of the Titanic just hours before it is due to sink. (Smart move, college boy.) Thanks to scientific trickery (and a top-notch special effects department) the TicToc team is able to see and hear Tony—but they can't communicate with him. And, oh, whoops, apparently the tunnel doesn't have a "Go Home" button. (Do not pass go and do not collect $200.) The only thing they can do is move a traveler from this time to some other time (no they can't pick the time—jeez, what genius built this thing) and only when the cosmic alignment is just right.
And since one scientist in danger isn't enough, Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert, The Young and the Restless) joins Tony (okay, they can't pick a time but now they can send Doug to the exact place and date—make up your minds…) on the Titanic where they try to convince the captain (the marvelous Michael Rennie, The Day the Earth Stood Still) that the unsinkable ship is going down. Since you can't change history, the ship sinks like it should only seconds after Tony and Doug are snatched away by the TicToc crew and sent hurtling through time to another historical destination.
This is the world of The Time Tunnel, and I'm so happy it's out on DVD. This boxed set is half of the one-and-only season. It includes an interesting mix of well-known and not-so-familiar historical events.
• Episode 1: "Rendezvous with Yesterday" (Titanic)
Okay, I snark, but only because I love. I am a 100%, dyed-in-the-wool, "can't shake my faith no matter how bad the special effects are" fan of Irwin Allen. And if you read that name just now and went, "who?," I'll slap you! Irwin Allen was the king, the precursor, the groundbreaker of science fiction on television. In 1967, Allen was at the helm of FOUR hit TV shows: Voyage the Bottom of the Sea in its third season, Lost in Space in its second season, The Time Tunnel finishing its run, and Land of the Giants just gearing up for the first of its two seasons. As the creator, producer, and sometimes director, Allen had the ability to create movie-sized worlds on the small TV screen. He gave us submarines and helicopters and space ships, mini-monsters and giants, and epic battles between man, beast and machines. Hey, I warned you, I'm a fan.
The Time Tunnel was one of Allen's most ambitious—and in the end, least popular—series. It only ran one season, and never pulled in the cult audience that is so rabid about the other three parts of the Big Four Block. The series was ambitious in two ways. The obvious one is its historical settings. Each week Doug and Tony traveled to another place in time, and unlike shows such a Quantum Leap where most of the settings were in the twentieth century, The Time Tunnel preferred period set pieces—the kind that require extensive costuming and props. The 1700s this week, the 1800s next week. France, the US, Russia, the deserts of Arabia…it was a massive undertaking. The second challenge was the TicToc complex itself. Instead of following the boys as if we were with them, the series always featured scenes in the complex where scientists (Lee Meriwether (Barnaby Jones), Whit Bissell, and John Zaremba) viewed Doug and Tony like a drive-in movie projected on the back of the tunnel. Allen took up several sound stages in order to have a full-scale model of the tunnel flanked by bank after bank of machines with lights that flash and reels that spin. So cool, in fact, that special effects master L.B. Abbott won an Emmy for Individual Achievements in Cinematography for his work on the show.
The plot of each episode was pretty much the same. The boys land squarely in the middle of some historical coup. They run into some villain who doesn't like Darren's pretty boy South Philly looks and bam! they're in trouble. Trouble means they're generally on the losing end of whatever skirmish they land upon. (Don't worry, General Custer, those Indians are known to be quite peaceable and friendly.) Back in the control room, the scientists work feverishly to find the "outta here" button, which they always manage to find just minutes before the end of the hour. Push button, boys are whisked away in a swirling psychedelic haze and deposited in another place, another time—cliff hanger—tune in again next week.
Once again, remember: I snark because I love.
And there is a lot to love about this DVD set, particularly if you are a fan of Irwin Allen. The extras are exactly the kind of boring details that average TV watchers will snore through while fans will drool and slurp (yes slurp). Included are several really fun network promos and radio spots advertising the show. There's an extensive still gallery with production art, behind-the-scenes photos, merchandise, and every single page of The Time Tunnel comic books. (I know, but please contain your excitement.) Next up is footage (sans audio) of the tunnel effects being tested—it's as exciting as watching cows eating grass, but as a fan I found it tremendously cool.
Finally, the biggie: Irwin Allen home movies. Well, "home" meaning "on the set." Someone followed Irwin around with an old 8mm camera and shot this wonderful footage of the master in action. There's no sound (8mm, remember) but it's still such a delight to watch. And it's long—I don't know how long, but you get tons of time on the desert set, the Titanic, the control room, and lots of James Darren and Robert Colbert hanging out and laughing. It's really great stuff when you think about the era it comes from. This is footage that was shot for Irwin to watch at home. They didn't know about DVDs, and they probably didn't think anyone would even care. But we do care, so I'm glad someone found and preserved this.
And speaking of preservation, I would take my hat off (if I had one) to 20th Century Fox for the restoration of these prints. The episodes are clear and crisp and the colors are just right. Excellent quality and a joy to watch.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'll admit it. You don't have to look too closely to find the flaws in this series. But let's cut them some slack. The show was made in the late sixties with a budget that was probably an eighth of what Will & Grace gets to make their half hour comedy show every week. The effects are cheesy, but remember this was long before the advent of digital special effects. And it is a stock footage librarian's dream series. The show uses so much stock footage, it's a wonder they needed to hire guest stars! Oh, Oh! And look for Irwin Allen's trademark Gila monster stock footage—he uses that in everything he makes (with the possible exception of Poseidon Adventure). It's kind of like spotting Hitchcock when you see it.
Probably the biggest "huh?" comes from the fact that no matter what our heroes are wearing when they're plucked from their historical dilemma, they always arrive in the new time wearing the clothes they started out in in the pilot. Obviously this little unexplained bit of magic was done so they could reuse the same brightly colored "tumbling through time" sequence week after week. Hey, I like James Darren in that green turtleneck so I'm not complaining.
What I will complain about is the presentation of this DVD set. First of all, regarding the cover art: Color me confused. What is that? It looks like a placeholder for where the real art is going go, and it's repeated on the interior plastic cases! They used photo art on the back of the box so why didn't they use it anywhere else? More importantly, why didn't they use the proper The Time Tunnel logo? Where's the hourglass? I miss the hourglass.
Once you pop the DVDs in things get even stranger. I might give them a tiny bit of credit for trying to be "b-movie" creative but frankly, I think they were just being cheap. No sound on the navigation screens—where's John Williams' lovely theme music? And the font effects are just plain cheesy. Hey, wait, there's my hourglass! It's just such an odd mix.
And finally, my usual grumble, double-sided DVDs with no indication of which side has the special features. I like to watch the features first and I had to keep flipping the discs to make it happen! Come on Fox, spend the extra two dollars next time and give me a decent package with single-sided discs. Please, I beg you.
You know what I'm gonna say. I love it. Irwin Allen made it. I bow down and pay homage. And if you're an Irwin fan, you already have this DVD on order, so go sit in your corner and wait, you're gonna love it, too. If you've never heard of Irwin Allen (sacrilege) you may find this boxed set a bit on the cheesy b-movie side. But to me, that's the real joy. I love overly dramatic, angst-filled buddy shows with giant Gila monsters and Napoleon Bonaparte. I mean, seriously, where else can you find such an eclectic mix?
For breaking the laws of physics and rewriting more than a little history, the court finds The Time Tunnel: Volume One a guilty pleasure.
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Scales of Justice
• Rendezvous with Yesterday (unaired pilot)
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