A History of The Time Tunnel
Mark Twain invented the time travel story. Six years later H.G. Wells perfected it and revealed its paradoxes. Between them they left little for latecomers to do. Many have tried, successfully, thanks to the diverse theories and hypotheses of the consequences of time travel. Through a variation on a theme, every science fiction writer has attempted to preach his own theories. But regardless of how many novels, stories, comics, motion-pictures and television programs have been created, as author Robert S. Heinlein once wrote, “they are still fun to write.” Enter stage left… Irwin Allen who, through the love of science fiction, brought the concept of The Time Tunnel to life. Almost fifty years later, fans of the short-lived television program still discuss the television show as if it was the greatest series ever created and telecast. Because James Darren and Robert Colbert are among the celebrity guests for the 2012 MANC Convention, it seems fitting to revisit the television program.
Each week, television viewers watched as Dr. Tony Newman and Dr. Doug Phillips spiraled about time, both past and future, courtesy of a massive government project known as the Time Tunnel, hoping their next leap would bring them home. They met Billy the Kid, Robin Hood, helped thwart an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, witnessed the construction of the Trojan Horse, watched as the walls of Jericho fell and battled visitors from outer space.
The Time Tunnel was by no means a superb product of Friday night entertainment. If the plot holes were not as large as the tunnel itself, viewers noticed the same props from Allen’s other television programs (Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) popping up on the show. Fan boys to this day still debate whether the futuristic episodes involving space aliens were better than the historic adventures, but few would deny that Lee Meriwether made a lab coat look sexy. Meriwether herself recalled how the cast received letters from school teachers who used The Time Tunnel to stimulate interest in history in the classroom. So why did a show so successful last a mere 30 episodes? Because it was renewed by ABC-TV for a second season and weeks later, the network cancelled the renewal.
“Had The Time Tunnel gone a second season, the possibilities would have been expanded,” James Darren remarked. “We could have gone into a parallel world. We could have bumped into ourselves from another travel. The possibilities were limitless. Writers often run out of ideas but with Time Tunnel, we would have still come up with ideas.”
“I believe, had the series ran longer, by the third season there would have been more control over where we would have gone and we probably would have been in contact with the Time Tunnel [personnel] more often,” remarked Robert Colbert. “There probably would have been a couple recurring characters, arch nemesis and maybe even meet up with other time travelers.”
Regardless, the series is now available on DVD commercially and all 30 episodes can be viewed at the convenience of the fan boys who enjoy watching the episodes four decades after the series went off the air. In the premiere episode, the boys found themselves on board the Titanic. No one, not even the captain of the ship, would believe their warnings until the fateful night. Allen spent more than $500,000 to create the pilot… four times the expense any network expected for a color hour-long television drama. To ensure money was not wasted, Allen filmed an ending in which Doug and Tony both arrive back home. Should the network decide not to purchase the series, Allen had intentions of releasing the film, with the ending, in movie theaters as part of a double feature. The series sold, however, and ABC-TV began broadcasting the series in September of 1966.
Weeks before the series premiere, The Time Tunnel was selected for a preview showing at Tricon, the 24th World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. It met with an adversary and guest speaker, Gene Roddenberry, who agreed to attend the event in the hopes that buzz would begin with his newly-produced Star Trek series. Star Trek was ultimately chosen as the “Best Science Fiction Telefilm Ever Screened for Conventioneers” and was predicted as the “best TV show of this coming season.”
When the Time Tunnel pilot was screened at Tricon days before its network debut, novelist Jerry Sohl recalled the reaction was mixed. “The fans there had very high standards for televised science fiction. When they saw thousands of soldiers running up and down the Time Tunnel corridors with sirens blaring, the fans hooted and booed. There was another scene where the desert literally rolls back and a car drives underneath it. Those scenes were over the top. Spectacle rather than true science fiction.”
Andrew I. Porter, assistant editor of the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (and later a Hugo winner for his semi-prozine Algol in 1974) was a 20-year-old Tricon attendee in 1966. “The one thing I remember from Time Tunnel is that hilarious bit when they’re trying to convince the Captain of the Titanic to turn around or slow down or something by holding up a copy of the newspaper that says, ‘Titanic sinks.’ Yeah, that oughta do it. Star Trek made a much bigger impression on fans than Time Tunnel did.”
Critics loved the series, as evident from the reprints below:
The September 14, 1966, issue of Variety
“ABC has given Time Tunnel the onerous task of trying to bridge three proved rating busters on the other webs, and if the show is shot down by the tested competition it will not be for want of trying. If Tunnel were just a routine sci-fi meller, it might just as well have crept into its time device and projected itself into an easier slot. As it is, this elaborately wrought and well-scripted (albeit trickily) show should give a good account for itself.”
The September 9, 1966, issue of the St. Petersburg Times
“The Time Tunnel, a new adventure series on ABC with science fiction overtones, is so handsomely and expensively produced that you wish it were better written. There seems to be an obvious attempt to please younger viewers based on its first episode which too often employs childlike dialogue. The Time Tunnel is a U.S. research project 800 floors below the American desert (and there are some breathtaking glimpses into this deep pit). What the machine can do is send a man backward or forward into time. In the first episode, Gary Merrill plays an itchy cost-conscious Senator who provokes regular James Darren, an eager-beaver scientist, into trying out the tunnel before it has been perfected. Amazingly, he lands on the Titanic on the eve of the ship’s sinking in 1912. He is soon joined by another regular and scientist, Robert Colbert. There is some suspense as you wonder if the scientists can change history. The other regulars, all members of the American team, are Lee Meriwether, Whit Bissell and John Zaremba. They fret a lot.”
The September 10, 1966, issue of the Christian Science Monitor
“The new TV season’s score at the end of the first inning is three hits, five runs and six errors. The hits are all from ABC: The Monroes, Man Who Never Was and Hawk. But there are two more possible runs with Star Trek and The Time Tunnel. Both deal with the breaking of the barriers of time and space… For the first episode it’s a trip back to the Titanic, just before the fatal collision with the iceberg. But it is guest star Gary Merrill, as the investigative Senator, who steals the show. Both Time Tunnel and Star Trek have dizzyingly intricate machinery that contributes to their impact.”
Fans managed to visit the set just to get a peek at what was going on. “Carol Burnett came down one day when we were shooting—her daughter loved Time Tunnel,” James Darren recalled. “Jayne Mansfield came down, because she also loved the show, and Sugar Ray Robinson too.” Lee Meriwether’s daughter, Lesley, visited the set many times. Tom Hanks, as a guest on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show, once recalled how he was a fan of The Time Tunnel and would do a slow-motion tumbling on the sofa, imitating Darren and Colbert.
One story that was conceived for the first season but never used was Doug and Tony’s encounter with Christopher Columbus while on his way to discover America in 1492. Titled “Landfall,” Theodore Apstein was originally contracted on April 11, 1966, to write the script. The boys land on Columbus’ ship and soon find themselves fighting off a mutiny aboard, which temporarily impaired the famed explorer’s discovery of the new world. “The story editor, Arthur Weiss, liked the idea and I developed a story outline, but later, he told me they had spent too much money on a previous show and Columbus was too expensive to do.”
The tremendous library of stock film neatly catalogued from all the 20th Century-Fox movie epics provided inspiration for Irwin Allen and his writers, who reviewed films and worked out Time Tunnel storylines based on what was available in the film library. Story and plot proposals often featured notes of what footage from specific movies could be inserted in various scenes that would normally cost a big scale arm and a leg to reproduce for the small screen.
“From a practical standpoint, it was a brilliant idea,” recalled writer Ellis St. Joseph. “The studio backlot had everything from ancient Babylon to the Hawaiian islands. The centuries were built next to each other. Allen knew more about producing a series under budget than anyone else in Hollywood. He was extremely severe in his budget restrictions, but if you knew what he wanted, he was fine. If he didn’t respect your talent, he could be arrogant and contemptuous.”
“We did take advantage of a lot of the film Fox had in their library, Irwin used a lot of that old footage,” James Darren commented. “He was brilliant in that sense too. Irwin was such a control freak—and I say that kindly—that he demanded as close as he could get to perfection, he demanded that whatever he visualized in his head be put onto that screen. And he did want to know everything that was going on–and you really didn’t do anything without Irwin knowing it, believe me. Because it just didn’t fly. Everybody behind the scenes, maybe because of their respect for Irwin, did an outstanding job. I have to say that Irwin held that ship together, that’s for sure.”
With a weekly television series taking an average of six day to produce an episode, scripts were often written steadfast. Leonard Stadd’s first draft of “The Revenge of Robin Hood” was supposedly written in four days, after his plot proposal, “The Tyrant,” was accepted by Arthur Weiss, the story editor. “Everything at Irwin’s was done in a rush, and I wrote that script quickly,” recalled Stadd.
After reading the first few scripts of the series, James Darren personally proposed a story to Irwin Allen. Doug and Tony would land in the future, on the planet Earth, following an atomic war. “They thought it was too depressing for viewers,” said Darren. “I told them, why not make it another planet, then. That didn’t go over, either.”
The introduction of an outer space menace in “Visitors From Beyond The Stars” marked a new chapter in the Time Tunnel saga, that of more frequent trips to the future and brushing encounters with extraterrestrials. The script writers were notified of the change and many of the writers expressed divided opinions.
Bob and Wanda Duncan wrote two episodes involving visitors from outer space. Had the series continued, Bob Duncan confirmed that more aliens were waiting in the wings. “The stories were definitely going to drift further into that vein because we were running out of historical outtake footage,” he recalled to author Mark Phillips. “Personally, I found many of Time Tunnel’s later episodes, including the ones we did, silly in the extreme. The series’ basic premise had to be taken with more than a scientific grain of salt, but aliens from outer space were more than the show could handle. It was desperation, and it shifted away from Time Tunnel’s original and singularly better format.”
“The aliens were a weakening of the series’ format,” recalled writer Ellis St. Joseph to author Mark Phillips. “They weren’t necessary, but perhaps there was a vogue since other shows with aliens were successful.”
Nevertheless, ABC renewed Time Tunnel in March 1967 for the 1967-68 season and scheduled it to play Wednesday evenings, opposite Allen’s Lost in Space, a decision which infuriated the veteran producer. “Time Tunnel was not cancelled because of low ratings — it did relatively well,” recalled Darren to author Kyle Counts. “It was dropped because Tom Moore, head of ABC at the time, left the network. When the new regime came in, the shows that were put there under Moore were cancelled, with the exception of those that were very highly rated. Yes, we had been renewed. Irwin Allen called me on the set and told me, and I immediately told Bob Colbert the good news. Then, Irwin called me two weeks later and told me we had been dropped. I was very sad. I was hoping the show would go on for years and years.”
“At the end of the first season, we’d had a huge party for 256 people and their families, that worked on the show,” recalled Robert Colbert. “We had 256 actual people getting a salary off of the thing, and we had the biggest blast you ever saw on one of the big sound stages–I think it was the stage where we had the Tunnel set. We had a huge party there after we were picked up, Irwin was happier than hell, and everybody else was too; we were all happier than clams. We went home and about three months later we were told that ABC had changed their mind and cancelled it, and that was the end of that. It was a big letdown. Our ratings weren’t very high; our share, whatever the hell that was, was mediocre, but, Jesus, we were up against everything in the world. There wasn’t enough share to go around for that hour that we were on.”
“On the final day of shooting, we had a cast and crew party,” recalled Meriwether. “Instead of being sad, it was a joyous time because there was a rumor that we had been picked up. After the festivities, I was leaving the soundstage and heading to my car when an electrician yells from the back of a passing truck, ‘We’re gonna miss you, Lee.’ I assumed he meant until next season but no. I found out that we had been canceled. No one wanted to spoil our last days together with the bad news.”
Allen smarted to columnists about ABC’s decision to cancel the show. “I received letters and petitions with between 400,000 and 500,000 names protesting that cancellation,” he said, “so somebody out there liked it.” Months later, Irwin Allen was quoted in another paper of attempting to revive the series, picking up where it left off. “We have received over 600,000 signatures from people in all walks of life protesting the shows’ cancellation,” he explained, “and not only were those letters unsolicited, they arrived before most viewers even knew the program was not coming back. When ABC moved us to 7:30 this summer and permitted us to start on equal terms with Tarzan and Wild, Wild West, we clobbered them. I fully expect to bring back The Time Tunnel. Maybe not this season… it’s too late to tool up… but it’ll be back.”
“I’m a big believer in time travel and hope to still do a program based on it,” Irwin Allen told columnist Kay Gardella for the May 9, 1977, issue of the New York Daily News. Time Travelers was scripted by Rod Serling, recycling unused material from The Twilight Zone. In the mid-sixties, Rod Serling considered producing a Twilight Zone movie, and wrote a story about two researchers who travel back in time to 1871, in the hopes of discovering the cure to a modern-day epidemic that plagued the city of Chicago a hundred years previous. Irwin Allen purchased Serling’s story and produced the Friday Night Movie, in what Variety magazine reviewed: “If the plot and the script seemed the product of a feverish 12-year-old with a smattering of scientific interest and, maybe, even a little knowledge, so what? The mind of the creator was talking to his peers. Groom and Hallick were perfectly cast as iron men for the wooden dialog.” The made-for-TV movie starred Sam Groom and Tom Hallick as two scientists who travel back to Chicago, 1871, to solve a medical mystery.
A third attempt at a time travel series was on the drawing board in 1982, Time Project, which Allen referred to as “the Godson of Time Tunnel.” In it, Lt. Col. Casey Redman and Dr. Lucas Royce use a time capsule called Kronos to travel one million years into the future, to learn how humanity solved the energy crisis. They meet Omega, a strange being who is master of the time stream. They also travel back to 1896, a trip that gives Redman the creeps. “We’re walking into a world of ghosts!” he bristles. A memo from Allen noted: “We want to evoke the spirit of Time Tunnel yet must acknowledge the sophistication of today’s audiences.” This included something Tony and Doug never had: a time travelers’ Prime Directive that, “under no condition may you tamper with the past.” Time Project ended on the storyboard stage after a similar show on NBC, Voyagers!, failed during the 1982-83 season.
Authors often premiere their latest books at the MANC Convention. 2012 will be no different. A new book about The Time Tunnel will premiere at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, from Bear Manor Media. Gossip through the grapevine is that this book will be do detailed it will be the final word on the subject. An amazing 400 pages revealing dates of production, music cues, bloopers, production costs, memories from cast and crew and never-before-published photographs (three of which are featured in this article courtesy of the publisher). If you plan to attend the convention, consider buying a copy and having both celebrities autograph the book! We’ll update you with more information when it comes along.