I just finished watching the entire first season of The Time Tunnel. Never heard of it? That’s because there was only one season, back in 1966. The show starred James Darren as Dr. Tony Newman, Robert Colbert as Dr. Doug Phillips, and Lee Meriwether (Catwoman) as Dr. Ann McGregor.
It was produced by Irwin Allen who also produced some other classic 60s shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, which in fact, were also running on television the year Time Tunnel premiered.
The Time Tunnel was a super-secret government science project, but the project was about to be shut down because it was a huge taxpayer money pit producing no results. In the first episode the Time Tunnel facility is being inspected by a senator for the budget committee who doesn’t believe the tunnel actually works since all they sent back in time were mice and monkeys, which never returned. He sets them a deadline, send someone back in time or he’ll cut the funding.
Dr. Tony Newman, the junior scientist on the project, volunteers to go, but Dr. Doug Phillips, the head scientist, tells him no, they aren’t ready. Tony sneaks into the top security facility and uses himself as a guinea pig to test the project. He ends up being sent back in time, but in doing so, causes damage to the tunnel, so he can’t be brought back.
The special effects are kind of cornball, flashing multi-colored lights as Tony moves in freefall, then he ends up falling in slow motion onto the deck of a ship. It turns out to be the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Tony tries to warn the captain, but gets locked up.
The Time Tunnel team tries to find where he went, finally makes visual contact through the tunnel’s viewing projector. They realize he’s on the Titanic, locked in a forward cabin that will get slashed open by the iceberg.
For some reason, the tunnel doesn’t have the power to retrieve Tony, so his partner on the project, Dr. Doug Phillips suggests that the only chance Tony has is if he can escape the cabin, then he’ll have a fighting chance to get to a life raft.
Doug decides he’ll be the one to go back in time to help his friend escape. Dressed in period clothing with a newspaper that has the headline of the Titanic disaster, Doug time jumps too.
Through a series of adventures, the two end up on the deck as the ship is sinking, an explosion hurls them toward the sea but the Time Tunnel team is able to catch them in midfall, suspending them in time. But again, they don’t have the power to bring them back, so to keep from killing them, they have to transfer them somewhere else in time. Which becomes the storyline for the rest of the first season. Unable to get back, they keep getting bounced through time ending up on a moon mission, Pearl Harbor, the War of 1812, on Krakatoa, in Troy, with General Custer, meeting Rudyard Kipling, Marco Polo, and so on.
For the entire first season, Tony is always dressed in his green turtleneck and Doug is dressed in the turn of the century suit he was sent to the Titanic in.
Like all of Irwin Allen’s television shows, they started out serious, but gradually degenerated into entertaining nonsense. The first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was about the cold war and espionage until it degenerated into the monster of the week. Lost in Space also started out rather seriously. Doctor Smith was evil, always trying to destroy the Family Robinson, until later episodes when he became a cowardly buffoon and they faced the silly alien of the week. So too with Time Tunnel. The majority of episodes were interesting takes on history, striving for realism and accuracy of past events, however, several episodes, including the last few started to feature aliens and silver skinned humans from the future. Some people blame the success of Adam West’s “Batman” for the shift. If camp was what the people wanted, then Irwin Allen was sure they’d get it. High camp was in.
But it wasn’t the silliness that eventually killed Time Tunnel, nor was it bad ratings. In fact, for ABC, which had no shows in the Top 20 that year, Time Tunnel came the closest. So what killed it? The cost. Just as the fictional Time Tunnel project was costing the government too much to run, so too was the television show. At the time it was the most expensive show on television, the pilot alone costing $500,000. And politics. Someone else at ABC had a pet TV show they wanted on called “The Legend of Custer.” Poetic justice befell Custer, however, because it was skewered by the critics and by Native America groups and was canceled after only one season.
Time Tunnel is available in 2 volumes, with a total of 4 discs. Included is the original unaired Irwin Allen pilot, some interviews with cast members, and an unaired pilot for a 2002 revised Time Tunnel. I’m glad that one never made it, aside from the fact that they made Tony Newman a girl, it was just boring. The Department of Energy is trying to create hot fusion and instead creates a time storm. They manage to shut down their end of the storm after 4 hours, but when they leave the facility, they discover that history has been changed randomly. Now their mission is to go back in time to correct these anomalies and restore history. To me it sounds more like a new take on “Voyagers!” a horrible 1982 time travel television show that starred the late Jon-Eric Hexum.
For more information on the original Time Tunnel go to TVParty! For info on the newer one, you’re on your own.