Monday, September 30, 2013

The Time Tunnel: A Retrospective on Irwin Allen's Classic Science Fiction Series

Cast members Robert Colbert, Lee Meriwether,
and James Darren--from Terry's private collection.
"Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages during the first experiments on America's greatest and most secret project: the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly towards a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time."

-- From the opening credits for Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel, spoken by Dick Tufeld, best known as the voice of “the Robot” in Lost in Space, with a theme song by John Williams. Seriously, even the credits have star power. They do not make television like they used to. 

While science fiction television in the 1960s might be best remembered for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, the backbone of most of the best TV series of that decade was Irwin Allen. Allen was responsible for Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Land of the Giants. But my personal favorite, launched in 1966, was The Time Tunnel, which aired on Friday nights on ABC (right after The Green Hornet!) for one season. While it was Allen’s shortest-lived series, many of us who were kids (or adults!) at the time have fond memories of the Tunnel!

The Time Tunnel set.
The first episode set up the series:  Drs. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) are scientists working on Project Tic-Toc, a time control experiment. Lack of results in their time experiments are leading to budget cuts, so Tony rashly enters the Tunnel before it can be fully tested. A few bright lights and explosions later, he finds himself on the H.M.S. Titanic. To save Tony (and potentially the ocean liner), Doug follows. There are lots of arguments and plans, but the Titanic sinks anyway. 

Then, at a critical moment, the two scientists are yanked from 1912 into another year, beginning a weekly jumping from one historical event to the next. Meanwhile, back at the Tunnel's headquarters, staff members General Haywood Kirk (Whit Bissel, in charge), with Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba) and Dr. Ann MacGregor (Lee Meriwether), are running the science part of the show (and pretty much making up time rules from one week to the next).

A novelization by
Murray Leinster.
There are several reasons that The Time Tunnel appealed to many of us as kids. First, Tony and Doug got to go back in time to see famous events, along with a few imagined ones in the future. History you learned about in school was dramatically presented each week!  It was educational!  Second, producer Irwin Allen used scenes from Fox theatrical films to dress up the production, so it looked much more expensive than many series of the day. So for the Titanic episode mentioned above, there were scenes from A Night to Remember (1958) with a believable sinking. Another favorite episode about a war between Greeks and Trojans, "Revenge of the Gods," used clips from Fox’s 1962 film, The 300 Spartans.

Now, I do think that, for most of these “imagined” episodes, the series relied on props and monsters from other Allen shows. So when you thought that aluminum foil clad alien looked familiar from last week’s episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you may have been right!  But then, that’s what made these shows so much fun! I remember having discussions with my childhood friends on Saturday mornings about the previous night’s episode and what we liked about it. 

A rare image from the View-Master set
that shows Tony and Doug home again.
While the show saved production dollars by using footage from theatrical features, The Time Tunnel was still a very expensive show. At that time, you didn't know that shows were cancelled in advance – or at least, I didn't – so when the series didn't return for its second season, I was crushed. I’d gotten the View-Master reels for The Time Tunnel for my birthday in 1967. I used to have theater shows on the side of our house with my V-M projector, showing the pictures from the first episode and telling the story!  The last slide of the set showed Tony and Doug back in the tunnel. They apparently made it home. I couldn't wait for the second season!

Insert a sad face here. The Time Tunnel was cancelled before the last episode was finished. ABC felt it had room for only one drama in their 1967-1968 season, and replaced Allen's series with The Legend of Custer. Who is writing a blog post about that show now?

Irwin Allen never lost his fascination with time travel  He attempted two more time-travelling series before he passed away in 1991. His wife, actress Sheila Mathews Allen, along with producer Kevin Burns, produced a Time Tunnel pilot for a new series for Fox in 2002. They tried again in 2006, but didn't get a pilot made. 

Lee Meriwether, aka Dr. Ann MacGregor,
signs an autograph for Terry.
As a child of the 1960s, living with reality shows of the 2010s, I still hold out hope for The Time Tunnel to return. Of course, I envision a new cast, new tunnel, new time travel rules--new everything!  But, I really want the first episode to pay homage to the original, with the scientists of Project Tic-Toc (now headed by Dr. Ann MacGregor) finally bringing Doug Phillips and Tony Newman home!

This Café exclusive was written by guest blogger and Irwin Allen authority TerryB. You can "like" Terry on Facebook.


  1. Terry, what an awesome post! As a young girl of the sixties, it was also cool that Lee Meriwether was a doctor and lovely, too. I have always loved science fiction and the thought of time travel is both exciting and scary. View masters were a lot of fun because it was like you could see a snippet of film or television wherever you wanted. Thanks for sharing a fabulous trip into "The Time Tunnel" with everyone at the Cafe!

    1. Toto2, I still have my View-master collection from my childhood and my projector. Maybe I should break out the slides and have shows on my building!

  2. The ship in the pilot episode was the R.M.S. Titanic Terry, not H.M.S. Titanic. R.M.S. stands for Royal Mail Ship. I loved that series because I learned so much history. History in school was really boring. But the same history presented on Time Tunnel was great. The show also served as the launching points of many great careers such Robert Duvall and Mako. It also served to gives us one last viewing of great actors such as Michael Rennie.

  3. Sorry, Tom. Funny, the newspaper that Doug takes back to try to convince everyone the ship will sink was headlined: "S. S. TITANIC WRECKED ON MAIDEN VOYAGE." A guy gets confused!

  4. One of my favorite shows as a kid. Yeah, the aliens looked the same on all of Irwin's shows. Maybe they were the same alien race!

  5. Terrific post, Terry, on what has become a big cult TV series. My favorite episode may be the one where Doug and Tony go back to Hawaii just before Pearl Harbor and we are introduced to a young Tony Newman! And doesn't an ancestor of General Kirk show up in another episode? Finally, I think the STARGATE SG-1 set owes quite a lot to THE TIME TUNNEL--only it's not as cool.

  6. I watched this as a 12 year old kid. Loved it. Now, 50 years later...Total "Cheese-Fest". Oh, and the acting is over the top "Hammy". Of course I'm hooked!

  7. I was only a kid of maybe 8 or 10 but I loved the time tunnel I never met another person since who remembers it I think. What a dilemma they were in falling through the time tunnel absolutely unmatchable drama.

  8. Best show back in my day too.
    Too bad we never got a final episode bring Doug and Tony home.
    They are probably still lost in Time. Lol.

  9. The time tunnel and its control room looks a lot like the set created for The Man in the High Castle. I suspect time tunnel inspired it.

  10. Absolutely loved it then and now..I may be wrong, but when they got involved with the Trojan War, the Greeks were using the Roman names for their gods!!