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Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Time Tunnel : Time Traveling TV series BACK on your eyes .....

Time Tunnel : The Time Traveling TV series BACK on your eyes .....

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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 toward a new fantastic adventure somewhere along the infinite corridors of time...

- Opening narration


HG Wells was a clever old sod. Not only is he considered the father of science-fiction, but he also managed to introduce and use the genre in ways that have scarcely been bettered since. In the hundred-plus years since The War of the Worlds was first published, no one has since produced an alien invasion story more concisely brilliant or as significant, while his equally influential The Time Machine managed to pin down the fundamentals of what makes a good story about travelling through the fourth dimension, namely the fusion of science-fiction metaphor with the psychology and sociology of history. At its best sci-fi explores the great truths of what it is to be human; at its best, history tells us why we are who we are and allows us to understand, through the actions of those who came before us, both our current situation and also the consequences of our future actions. They both hold mirrors up to human nature itself, the only difference being that whereas science-fiction is speculation, history is illustration, literally opposite sides of the same coin. What Wells did in The Time Machine was realise you could fuse the two together; his tale of the Time Traveller’s encounter with the Eloi and Morlock was telling a futuristic story from a historical perspective, the novel’s socialist writer relating a parable about the downfall of capitalism. From that impetus all subsequent time travel stories have grown: while the superficial prefer to play with the idea as an end to itself, contending itself with the sheer coolness factor of seeing hundreds of years before one was born or millennia into the future, the more intelligent have used it as a continuing device to putting a modern-day sensibility into a historical situation (literally, in the form of the time travellers) or reflecting on the future problems our current culture might be setting up, drawing parallels between the times to particular ends. Media as varied as the sublime first Back to the Future, and the wonderful last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation have each in their own way shown that, done properly, time travel is not so much about the outward adventures of its protagonists as introspection about themselves.

It’s not something Irwin Allen ever realised though. Actually, that might not be true, but even if he did appreciate the finer points of the genre he wouldn’t have given a stuff about them. When ABC approached the producer in 1964 to make them a series on the subject he didn’t see the finer philosophical points that could be drawn from such a project (although, to be fair, given ABC’s choice of producer, they probably weren’t expecting such an approach either) he just saw an opportunity to make another of his action-packed series that would appeal to, as he saw them, the lowest common denominator, with no time for such optional extravagances as proper characters or interesting plots. This misguided approach, which is consistent with pretty much all of his output both on television and in the cinema, is one of the reasons that today The Time Tunnel is perhaps the least remembered of his four major series: whereas something like Lost in Space could get away with being unremittingly stupid, a show with the premise of two scientists visiting famous historical times practically demands a modicum of intelligence, as well as a respect and appreciation for the study of history and historical figures. With the Sixties being a particularly volatile time, here was an excellent opportunity for some serious reflection about the past and what lessons it could have for current conduct, whether it be from the metaphorical legends of the Siege of Troy right through to the tragic stupidity of Custer’s Last Stand (a moment with particular relevance for a nation busily getting itself embroiled in the tragedy of Vietnam). Just as Roddenberry was using futuristic metaphor to preach (Star Trek launched the same season as The Time Tunnel in 1966) so Allen could have used past examples, and there were plenty of writers around at the time who would have been more than happy to contribute to such an exercise.



But no. Instead of taking advantage of essaying such characters as Lincoln, Marie Antoinette and the men at the Alamo, he instead presents a series of straight-forward romps with characters straight out of stereotype and conflict for the two leads no more complex than escaping from the latest prison they’ve been captured in. Anything approaching intelligent argument and debate is non-existent with every situation painted in clear colours black and white. Essentially Allen had a contempt for his audience, believing them to be fundamentally stupid consumers who didn’t want to have to engage their brains at all and would be kept quite content as long as there was an explosion or fist-fight every five minutes. He made what he liked to call “running and jumping shows” and had no interest in anything aside from that, including such trivial things as logical plot development and scientific – and in this case, historical – accuracy. Anything in the series that actually corresponds with the true events being depicted is entirely coincidental, and there are plenty of basic errors, some of which are gob-smackingly stupid; gems in the first fifteen episodes include the Captain of the Titanic being given the wrong name while in the episode based around Pearl Harbour, The Day the Sky Fell In Tony's age is stated to be seven at the time of the attack - odd, considering in the Pilot his birthdate was 1938 (three years before the attack).

The two time travellers Doug and Tony are cut from the same all-American-hero mould as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s Admiral Nelson and Lost in Space’s John Robinson and Don Smith, all square chin, deep voice and wholesome image; they want nothing more than to do the right thing and serve their country. It’s one of the most perennially boring aspects of US television before the Seventies that most of the heroic characters in mainstream family shows had only the vague flaw of slight impetuousness to mar their otherwise apparent saintliness and so it is here; Doug and Tony are dull leads, not helped by their playing by Robert Colbert and James Darren. Colbert in particular is blandness personified, seeming to think his mission is to stand and pull a firm face in every scene he’s in (it doesn’t help that he sounds exactly like Spottswoode in Team America: World Police) and while Darren (whose day job was as a heartthrob singer) tries to put a little emphasis into his delivery he still a rotten actor with little charisma. (He got better; thirty years later he travelled to Bajor to play Vic Fontaine on Deep Space Nine, and while it’s correct to point out he’s virtually playing himself, at least he’s more convincing; shame the character was an utter waste of space, but that was hardly his fault). Together, they are absolutely typical Allen characters, and as actors even seem to have shared his ideals: one frustrated writer told an anecdote years later about how he tried to put more emotional speeches into the scripts only to be told by one of the two leads (he doesn’t specify which) that he only wanted short things to say which didn’t tax him, with the ideal examples being “Let’s go!” or “We have to get out of here!” Years later, a show almost identical in format and yet completely dissimilar in tone would realise that the heart of any good time travel show is in the characters, exemplified by its two leading men who brought heart to their adventures, but things weren’t going to go ga-ga for Sam Beckett for a while yet, and in the meantime Tony and Doug (even their names have a clich├ęd feel) make poor substitutes.



So, if one gets past the fact that the approach to The Time Tunnel was a missed opportunity and its leading men have all the excitement of a particularly bland rice cake, how does the series fare based on its own merits? Admittedly not that badly. At first glance the show appears to be an impressively expensive venture as each episode features extensive recreations of whatever historical incident Tony and Doug find themselves involved in; we see hordes of Greek sacking Troy, scenes of panic as people flee the oncoming Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbour, the last moments of the Titanic before it sank, complete with large sets or location shoots and sometimes hundreds of extras. However, all is not as it seemed: once again crafty old Allen had hit upon a way of doing the series on the cheap, namely plundering Fox’s back catalogue of movies and nicking bits from them. Using a standard cut 'n' paste method, he inserted scenes from films such as Krakatoa, East of Java, How Green Was My Valley and even To Catch a Thief into Tony and Doug’s adventures, often alternating the pilfered scenes with reaction shots of our two heroes “watching” events unfolding. While this is just another example of Allen’s general cynicism and opportunism (one does wonder sometimes why he became involved in the business at all), and as much as it pains one to allow such tactics any credit at all, it does work extremely well, especially given the attempts made by production staff to marry the old clips and newly-shot Time Tunnel material together. If it wasn’t for the fact one is often familiar with the clips being used, as well as the difference in quality in film stock between them and the newly-shot material, it’s quite conceivable it would be difficult to tell which bits were new and which were not. This element certainly lends an impressive range to the series, and immerses the characters far more in each adventure than a regular television budget would allow. As well as this, the main standing set of the tunnel itself is very impressive, arguably the most visually striking of Allen’s shows, with the Tunnel itself a minor icon in the genre: shame the actual effect of travelling through it is nothing more exciting than a few weak explosions and a bit of smoke. Visually, though, there is much to enjoy in the series.

But then, as mentioned, it’s hardly surprising that the show’s strength is in spectacle rather than drama. The thematic problems have already been covered in some depth, but on a basic level structurally this is a show highly repetitive in nature. Each week Tony and Doug seem to find themselves landing in the middle of a situation about to reach boiling point (it's very unlucky for the pair that they never arrive just in time for something like VE day or the day after the Armada was defeated). They then spend the majority of the time fruitlessly trying to dissuade whoever is involved to back off from their disastrous plan-of-action, only to be totally ignored, forcing them to sit back and watch destiny take its course, before they’re scooped up and dropped in another time zone. Along the way they are regularly captured and escape, while back at the Time Tunnel base the other scientists observe events on a viewscreen, aghast. One feels very sorry for actors John Zaremba, Lee Meriwether and Whit Bissell who play said team, as most of the episodes they get little to do other than gasp in horror as they watch Tony and Doug’s adventures and push the odd button on their console; perhaps because of this, later on there comes a spate of episodes in which another character from whichever period the two travellers are in gets transported through the Tunnel to chat – or, more usually, attack – the team. Overall though, all the episodes follow a set formula, the only variation being the location of each adventure.

Despite it all, it is pretty entertaining, as long as you disengage your brain beforehand and don’t watch more than one episode in a sitting. As far as Allen was concerned, it’s an entirely successful show in that it’s never dull with characters are pulled constantly from one crisis to another (typically each episode ends with a cliffhanging preview of next week's adventure, another Allen-trademark). There’s a certain joy in hearing stupid dialogue such as “What do you think are our chances?” “About a million to one.” “Hmm, we have to go for it,” (an exchange which occurs regularly), although that joy would be a lot more if one didn’t appreciate the cynicism behind it. Ultimately that, and the cold disinterest in trying to make anything more, means that ends up being an extremely annoying series, one that makes one rather cross at Allen and his opinions in a way that none of his other shows do (despite everything said, I'm a relatively big fan of his output, even if it's often in spite rather than because of his active input into the episodes themselves). It’s a wasted opportunity certainly, but more than that it’s the purest example of the producer’s excesses with none of their compensations. Worth watching a couple of episodes, but it’s an almost impossible show to like long-term.




The Disks
The first half of The Time Tunnel’s single season is released on this current volume, totalling fifteen episodes, from the pilot Rendezvous With Yesterday through to Invasion. The four double-sided dual-layered disks are held in two slim-line jewel cases, two disks per case, which have identical covers and episode synopses on their back. These two cases are held in turn in a holding box with, again, the same artwork on the front.

The menus are uninspiring but perfectly functional. After getting past the regular FBI warnings and Fox logos one is presented with the Main Menu, which features a static silent image of the Time Tunnel workers watching as Doug and Tony’s silhouettes are pulled in. Scattered around are the names of the episodes on that particular disk and also any extras. Each episode has its own submenu made up of a different picture of the Time Tunnel workers, apparently watching a static image of that particular episode; the options here are Play Episode, Scene Selection, Language Selection and Home, which leads back to the Main Menu. One’s place on all the menus is marked with the Time Tunnel’s logo of an hourglass which is a vaguely nice touch.

All the episodes are subtitled but none of the extras are bar the extended version of the Pilot.

Video
Very nice. The prints have evidently been cleaned up and come across as clear and fresh, with a nice clarity that, while below today’s standards, is better than many other television releases dating from a similar period (including Lost in Space, the release of which in terms of video quality doesn’t compare to the transfers here). The only problems comes from the footage from other movies, which are almost always far grainier than the new material, but other than that there’s little signs of digital artefacting, although there might be the tiniest hint of edge enhancement at times. Colours are bright and vivid, however, and all in all this is a very pleasing transfer.

Audio
Unremarkable but effective. The mono tracks sound fine and clean and, while not as sharp as they could be, are entirely acceptable.

Extras

Unaired Pilot
A slightly longer version of the Pilot, with an alternative ending, which is vaguely interesting. A nice inclusion.

Irwin Allen’s Home Movies (67:49)
Extensive behind-the-scenes footage of the Pilot being shot that goes on significantly longer than the episode itself. As there’s no audio track, the lengthy scenes of Irwin Allen directing operations and actors pulling faces at the camera eventually grows tedious, but it is fascinating to watch. That said, there’s a certain amount of frustration to be had as the camera focuses on obviously significant people but with no clue as to who they are. Of casual interest to see the activity on the studio floor, but it is a hell of a long slog to watch all in one go, so it's just as well the extra has a submenu dividing the film up into more manageable chunks.

Promotional TV and Radio Spots
A collection of different styles of ads used to advertise the series. Three network trailers make up the bulk, with each one combining clips from several episodes (“The exciting past! The breathtaking future! The Time Tunnel – next week on this channel!”) all of which not unsurprisingly emphasise the action element of the series. Another TV Spot, for ABC, is more general with just a random medley of clips, but of more interest is the original trailer for the very first episode, which is surprisingly muted in tone, even down to the rather sombre announcer. The three brief radio spots, meanwhile, are composed of a very bored-sounding James Darren reading some rather dull, uninspiring, copy about the show. Completing this small collection is a version of the opening sequence identical to that on the episodes themselves aside from one difference: at the end, when the announcer proclaims: “The Time Tunnel!” in this version he goes on to say “Brought to you by…” although we don't get to hear an example of who it actually is brought to us by. Which is disappointing.

Visual Effects Camera Test (1:49)
Not the most thrilling extra you’ll ever see, this is a silent test of the Tunnel’s lighting, and consists of the camera pointing down the impressive set while lights flicker on and off. About as good as it sounds.

Stills Galleries
A large collection of media from the series, with the images divided down into the following categories: Concept Art, Production Stills (including some of Allen directing operations), Merchandise, Storyboards and Comic Book. This latter appears to be a complete edition of a Time Tunnel comic, the only problem being the pages are too small and cannot be read properly, which rather defeats the purpose. That aside this seems to be an excellent and comprehensive series of images.


Overall
This is not a good series and, unlike Allen’s other shows, there’s precious little to enjoy even if one does embrace and enjoy its many absurdities, leading to an ultimately empty experience - it's Quantum Leap with everything that makes Quantum Leap great taken out. A shame, too, as this disk set is first-rate, with nicely cleaned-up transfers and a goodly selection of extras - a real effort has evidently been made to bring together a disparate collection of materials from the time. A shame there aren’t any retrospectives – plenty of the actors are still alive to share their memories – but perhaps we’ll get that on the second half of the season, which various sources have being released either in the middle of this year or very early next. If you're already a fan of the show it's a superb release, if you're not it's worth giving a miss.



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