For some reason, 1960’s sci-fi show The Time Tunnel doesn’t seem to have the nerd appreciation of other shows from the era, and that continues today. I never saw re-runs of it myself growing up or heard people talk about it, but I vaguely knew about it, mostly from a gag in the second Austin Powers movie, and that intrigued me. I mean, at a time when the AV Club can pump out thousands of words on the 60’s British Avengers show, how is it that one of the earliest American TV programs to regularly deal with time travel is so overlooked?
Well, I looked, and there’s a simple reason: The Time Tunnel is not very good. But goshdarnit, there’s something about this show that worms its way into you all the same after a while.
Each episode follows the sweaty, sweaty adventures of two white bread American scientists lost in history: square-jawed brow-archer Doug Phillips and hotheaded Tony Newman (Robert Colbert and James Darren, respectively). If you follow the Ray Bradbury/”Sound of Thunder logic of causation, then these guys probably made roughly 8,000 Hitler presidents per minute: they don’t just step on the butterfly, they punch it in the stomach and throw its family down a flight of stairs. While they grapple with whatever war, natural disaster or conflict they’ve landed in that week, their associates back at the headquarters of Project Tic Toc follow their actions and try to help, usually by causing something completely insane to happen about three fourths of the way through an episode before they zap Doug and Tony to the next time period.
Even by its own standards, The Time Tunnel lacks so many of the qualities that would seem vital to creating good television: memorable characters, intelligent writing, nuanced acting and compelling storylines were all chucked out the window in favor of explosions, fights, and remixed stock footage of explosions and fights. This is the kind of weirdly joyless show where you don’t know much about the main characters by the end of the series, but you have seen them punch a single person in the face together at the same time more than once. Grading on a very, very adjusted bell curve, the following are some episodes that I can “recommend,” as long as you’re in the right mindset and don’t mind rolling your eyes like a slot machine once every five minutes. Of course, the internet being what it is, you could always ignore this list altogether and just watch every episode at the same time if you hate your attention span that much.
10) The Death Trap
Years before the famous assassination that took Abraham Lincoln’s life, Tony and Doug stumble upon a different plot to kill him using a crude pipe bomb. This makes the list solely for one of my favorite absurd moments in the entire series: a boy from the 1860’s ends up trapped in the tunnel (AKA standing in the stripey set right in front of everyone) holding the explosive device. He needs to disarm it, but rather than help him get rid of it, General Kirk, the head of the project exclaims: “Try one of these tools!” Then he dutifully chucks a clunky bundle full of screwdrivers to the poor kid without any more guidance than that. Gee, thanks a lot, guys.
9) Reign of Terror
Seriously, why is everyone in this show so sweaty all the time? Every man, woman and child looks like they’ve just been interrogated in the hot box for five days. Anyway, this is mostly a pretty ho-hum French Revolution-set episode, except it unusually shows us an ancestor of one of the main characters, specifically a French counterpart to General Kirk, played by the same actor, Whit Bissell. I love that he apparently didn’t even know he had French relatives at all. Eventually he finds out, and he just says the whole experience “cured him of any tendency toward ancestor worship,” as if that explains everything. This is why it always pays for you to take your genealogy seriously, boys and girls. Stop all that ancestor worship, already!
8) The Kidnappers
Later on in its sole season, The Time Tunnel stopped being about punching people in the face throughout history and started being about fighting invasions from stupid-looking, one-dimensional aliens throughout history. This episode would be just another boring version of that template if it weren’t for three words: Lee Friggin’ Meriwether.
Most famous for playing Catwoman in the Adam West Batman movie, Meriwether here played Dr. Ann McGregor, the sole regular female scientist on the show. Though she was given criminally little to do aside from sit behind a control panel and wince, she provided a strong counterpoint to the sausagefest that was Project Tic Toc (and it’s even suggested that she might be a pre-Scully skeptic, perhaps even an atheist).
“The Kidnappers” saw Ann and the boys working together when taken to an alien planet far in the future. Even these brief interactions show how much more interesting it would have been if Ann had tripped through the tunnel with Tony and Doug on the reg rather than being stuck in the lab: the dynamic changes completely once she shows up and she, intriguingly, seems a little more interested in Doug (maybe she has a thing for orange ties). But as juicy as the fan fiction possibilities might have been, this of course didn’t happen, and at the end of the episode Ann returns to her own time while T&D keep traveling, which makes the show 5,000% worse than it might have been otherwise.
7) Attack of the Barbarians
For guys who usually get into full-out brawls within minutes of landing anywhere, Tony and Doug got on pretty well for most of the series, so much so that despite the age difference they barely seem like separate characters much of the time. Usually, the most personal thing they ever said to each other was their names. But “Attack of the Barbarians” throws that for a (very mild) loop when swingin’ Tony falls in love with a princess in the 13th century. He wants to stay, but Doug tells him it’s not worth it and he should leave. Ooooh! Conflict! Enjoy it while it lasts, suckers, because in the next episode Moondoggie (look it up) is back in the saddle with his tunnelmate, and taking care of business with a very low-rent version of Merlin who can magically turn people into Vikings. Not kidding.
“Barbarians” also showcases the hilariously unethical approach our protagonists took to using scientific knowledge from the future to rig some deadly weapons in the past when fighting the Mongols. You think that’s bad: in “The Revenge of Robin Hood” Doug fucking poisons some medieval dudes by mixing some apothecary stuff together and standing near a window (he only knocks them unconscious, but still). The things the U.S. had to do to secure history: the world still hasn’t thanked us for stopping Carmen Sandiego…
6) Chase Through Time
I had big hopes going into this one after reading the synopsis. Robert Duvall as a villain! Future people! Multiple trips through the tunnel in one episode! The actual story fails to deliver, but it’s still pretty good, mainly because of the completely ridiculous “dinosaurs” that are so clearly just real reptiles with prosthetics glued on them and forced to fight each other: I find it hard to believe these scenes didn’t violate some sort of animal cruelty laws, but knowing series creator Irwin Allen the footage was probably taken from something else anyway.
Then there’s a weird part where all the characters fall into a prehistoric hole that turns out to be “a giant beehive,” although it looks so much like a set that I thought there was going to be a big reveal that the whole thing was a Matrix-like ruse or something. Nope. Overall, I wish Duvall had gone more over the top here, but in a way his greatly under the top performance while wearing a metal skull cap is just as silly.
5) The Death Merchant
Of all the craziness our time travelers witnessed, the strangest thing has to be the sight of Niccolo Machiavelli walking his dalmatian through a Civil War-era battlefield in full daylight. Yes, you read right: in what is sure evidence the writers were just picking historical ideas at random at this point, everyone’s favorite Italian strategist/philosopher/asshole tries to manipulate the outcome of the War Between the States just cuz, a situation that’s complicated when Tony loses his memory. But the oddest thing about this is the show’s nonsensical concept that because he already died in history, Machiavelli literally cannot be killed in the nineteenth century. Bullets get fired into him and he just laughs (that and his absurd wardrobe make him seem more than a little Dracula-like). Even for this series, time travel granting you immortality is a bit hard to swallow, and it’s weirdly one of the few bits of continuity the show has, as an earlier episode floats the same idea. If so, how come Tony and Doug are at risk when they travel to the future? Huh? Or anywhere, for that matter?
Head-spinning pseudoscience aside, this is still a (relatively) great episode because it has a few more turns than usual, and the chocolate-and-anchovies approach to combining historical periods suggests yet another road the show could have taken, had it lived longer. If nothing else, we get some more immortal dialogue: “We’re not going to kill you, Machiavelli! No: we’re going to tie you up and put you in that cave!”
4) Rendezvous With Yesterday
If you only watch one episode of Time Tunnel, and there’s no real reason why you should watch any more than that, you can’t go wrong with the show’s premiere. It’s got everything: the mysterious opening with the car disappearing under the desert, the shots of the interior of the complex, and the classic dilemma of trying to fix an unalterable point in the past (which might have been more surprising had it not been given away by a big fat establishing shot before Tony landed).
Also, because it has to establish the premise that will carry the show, there’s a lot more happening plotwise here than in most of the other standard capture/escape/fight/leave episodes. The most interesting origin story given here by far, however, is the explanation for why Doug wears that gross suit and tie all the time: it was a disguise to blend seamlessly into 1912, you see, and he’s been wearing it ever since, except for when he doesn’t and then suddenly he’s wearing it again next episode and I’m already losing interest halfway through this sentence. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to Tony’s turtleneck. I suppose that leaves room for a prequel…
3) Secret Weapon
Landing in Soviet Russia in the 1950’s, Doug and Tony are given a new mission from the future in a weird melting rectangle to infiltrate a secret government project. They do, and surprise: the Russians are building their own time tunnel and want to use these American chumps as guinea pigs!
The Cold War metaphor may be layered on a little too thick, but it’s refreshing to see the main characters actually involved in a real time travel story, rather than just being fish out of water: we also get a little more background about the project, for what it’s worth. With a little more effort, the scientist Doctor Biracki could have evolved into a tragic figure, or perhaps a recurring villain. Then again, with a little more effort I probably wouldn’t have needed to write a “Least Terrible” list at all.
2) Kill Two By Two
Pretty much every Time Tunnel episode had at least one villain, but not all of them were memorable and some were pretty damn boring. Out of the whole show, the Japanese-American actor Mako hands down played the best one, a downed WWII fighter pilot named Lieutenant Nakamura who decides to pull a Most Dangerous Game when he discovers Tony and Doug on his island.
Although the story does play on the stereotype of Japanese people as being overly committed to honor and duty, it also gives us by far the closest thing the show ever got to a morally complex antagonist, someone with tragic and understandable motives that made them a lot more interesting to watch than a guy with goofy green makeup on. It’s hard to think that just 13 episodes later, we’d go from this to aliens that look like sparkly purple versions of Wilford Brimley, but so it goes.
1) The Day the Sky Fell In
Ok, once again we have to make a major caveat for this episode: yes, it’s set during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and nearly all of the Japanese characters are scheming bad guys, thugs and/or servants. So why give this the time of day? Because it’s the only episode the show produced that even tried to wring pathos out of its heroes’ backstories. See, here (and only here) we learn that Tony used to live in Hawaii with his family as a boy, and that his military father disappeared during the raid. This sets up the predictable but satisfyingly tragic arc where Tony struggles to change history by warning his Dad about the surprise attack: needless to say, it doesn’t go according to plan, but there’s a genuinely crushing scene toward the end where we actually sort of feel for our turtleneck-wearing time traveler.
Of course, next week it would be back to fights, escapes and FANTASTIC ADVENTURE! But at least we have this one demonstration that the show did have some depths, however seldom it plunged into them.