British DVD distributors seems to have unearthed the Irwin Allen archives in 2011, given the way they’re releasing the producer/director’s 1960s television series at such a clip of late – albeit some four or five years after they made their way onto disc in the US. Which is just as well because these shows never get aired on TV here anymore – and there’s a probably a reason for that.
For those who don’t know, Irwin Allen was Hollywood’s “golden boy” producer in the 1950s who suddenly became a huge name in television by producing a number of seminal pulp science fiction shows during the 1960s including Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel and of course Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. For a large part of the decade he pretty much defined what TV science fiction was, before the SF bubble burst and he reinvented himself as “The Master of Disaster” by kicking off the 70s era of disaster movies with The Poseidon Adventure. If you want a modern day equivalent, the best I can offer is Jerry Bruckheimer – but Allen had somewhat lower budgets and much, much lower expectations.
I certainly remember watching two of Allen’s shows as a kid – the 4.20pm time slot on ITV’s children’s hour seems the particular slot I recall for Voyage and Time Tunnel in the mid- to late-70s for never-ending reruns. So it was interesting to get the chance to dip into some nostalgia with a couple of episodes of these shows in the last few weeks.
Voyage was set on the experimental civilian submarine called the Seaview and was a spin-off from Allen’s 1961 feature film of the same name (and which bequeathed the TV series its impressive models and FX sequences for no extra cost.) Later on it would descend into a bizarre and hokey mix of monsters, mad scientists and ghosts (yes, really), but it’s interesting to see its early black and white days from 1964 when things were at least trying to be a bit more realistic and even gritty to a degree. That said, both episodes – “Eleven Days To Zero” and “The Village of Guilt” – did both manage to pack in a giant squid for good measure, so all is still right with the Irwin Allen world even this early on.
Given how the series subsequently developed into the most outlandish tosh, the second of those two episodes, “The Village of Guilt”, is particularly interesting – being both very different to and yet still holding the seeds of the series’ later direction. It’s about a mysterious death in a small Norwegian town, giving a sense of menace and conspiracy to the Seaview crew’s on-shore investigation; turns out that the villagers are covering for a local scientist who, yes, has gone a little bit mad; but it’s a strong performance from guest star Richard Carlson, and the secret – that he’s producing the growth serum that creates the aforementioned giant squid – is a solid piece of writing unlike the mess the series would later descend into. Ultimately, though, it shows that not even series star and distinguished thespian Richard Basehart can get away with maintaining his dignity having to perform dramatic confrontation scenes while wearing a full-body wet suit that leaves no one with a portly frame anywhere to hide.
The Time Tunnel was a later Allen effort from 1966, and by now Allen’s science fiction fare had proved successful enough to merit full-colour production and some very impressive sets – particularly the time tunnel itself that everyone who saw the show remembers, being a psychedelic 60s op-art “swirl” with forced perspective receding into infinity.
It’s interesting to compare The Time Tunnel with its British contemporary series Doctor Who because several revealing parallels are evident. Like Doctor Who, The Time Tunnel’s original format was to drop its heroes (scientists Doug and Tony) into real historical situations so that the audience was educated about the real past. Doctor Who actually alternated real history with science fiction before phasing out the historicals around the same time The Time Tunnel came on the scene, but The Time Tunnel was mainly history and only grudgingly moved to science fiction when it was clear that ratings were not holding up and a second season was in doubt. (It was indeed cancelled, whereas Voyage lasted four years.)
What both Doctor Who and The Time Tunnel prove is the basic problem with such time-travel-into-the-past series: you can’t change anything. The episode I saw – “Massacre” – centres around Doug and Tony’s efforts to broker a peace deal between the US Army headed by General Custer and the Indians led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Oh, and tomorrow they’ll meet up at Little Big Horn: basically, this isn’t going to go well. The only element of suspense left is whether or not our heroes are going to escape with their lives, and given that the series continues next week you pretty much know the answer to this one as well. It does rather undercut any sense of suspense – or indeed, any “point” to the whole endeavour, but at least it’s a walking, talking history lesson for the family (together with some cringe-worthy 60s-era liberal “lessons” such as when a modern-day general laments: “Who are the savages … and who the civilised?” to a Sioux university professor brought in as a consultant as they watch Custer’s vainglorious actions unfold compared to the dignified Sitting Bull’s wisdom.)
What the format does do is allow Allen full opportunity to appropriate stock footage from Hollywood’s film banks and blend it in to the action: and especially with the cowboys and Indians of this episode he’s spoilt for choice, and the blend is seamless – resulting in the sort of size and spectacle that could never be done for a television series normally. Together with some incredibly accomplished “outdoors” indoor sets, some California desert location shooting and the whole sumptuous Technicolor look, it still looks impressive to this day – and certainly by comparison with the contemporary episodes of Doctor Who in black and white with their low-budget sets that would make even your local school’s am-dram efforts look light years ahead.
The two shows – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Time Tunnel – are both as good and as bad as you may remember, or their reputation has it. Those with fond memories of watching them as children will still get a pleasing kick out of them; very young kids may still be able to simply enjoy the pure hokum and empty-headed nonsense on display. The older kids, or the adults that always think science fiction is pulp trash anyway, will be able to roll their eyes and say how dreadful it all is.
To my mind, it’s the cynical ones who are missing out on a little bit of television history magic, dated and flawed though it may be.