It’s Always Later Than You think

Logged: 22 April 2020

Watching The Time Tunnel has become a treasure hunt for those special moments in a script where actors’ souls die a little from the humiliation of what they have to say in exchange for money. I partially watched (i.e. watched parts of the episode in real time, and the remainder in fast forward) an episode where the two lead characters landed in the Biblical character Joshua’s camp outside the walls of Jericho.

It was the usual 1960s take on ancient history; everyone is dressed in blankets that looked like they’d just been bought at K-Mart (which to be fair they probably had); there’s a sneering wrong-un wearing an acorn-shaped helmet who’s obsessed with the idea of “loosening tongues”; there’s the local bigwig who behaves badly just for the sake of it because a stone god who looks a lot like the late comedian Marty Feldman is apparently on his side; there’s the obligatory dungeon guard who leers and turns his back on his prisoner so that he can be rescued (and on the subject of prisoners, they always seem to end up against a wall with a few bits of straw at their feet and their wrists crossed above their heads so they can chat to each-other and plot their escape); and of course there’s the ever popular scheming servant who betrays everyone for gold. Into this mix came a moment of genuine crackpot grandeur. A writer deliberately and with forethought had the actor portraying an Airfix kit sort of take on Joshua (a fabulously-named man called “Rhodes Reason”) blurt out without shame or irony:

“Let the Rams’ horns be blown!”

The Time Tunnel is what happens when ambition and business meet a punishing and soul destroying work schedule. In the 1960s it was common for a prime time American TV series to demand 30 episodes per season. Actors and crews could be working from 07:00 to 19:00 six days a week for eight or nine months of the year. Under those conditions television is little more than a meat grinder. That any shows of genuine value and entertainment were made during that period is a tribute to the stamina and professionalism of the people involved (many of whom it’s worth mentioning also worked on Hollywood feature films and brought those high production values to children’s TV).

Time Tunnel was an idea whose ambition could never be realised under the conditions that existed at the time. It’s a shame because it’s an interesting idea, and many of the actors involved really gave of their best under the most punishing circumstances. At this juncture it’s worth just touching upon how the two lead characters are almost polar opposites. Robert Colbert was an actor of some subtly and presence. What he lacked in Time Tunnel was the material to give a proper account of himself. James Darren by contrast was the eye candy. His was the sort of face that looked down from posters on the bedroom walls of pre-pubescent teenage girls. He did his best with what he had, but ultimately his presence was that of a man who had made tortured anxiety his soul mate – perhaps comprehending dimly even as The Time Tunnel was in production how the scripts would never get any better. Everything he said seemed born of inner agony and dread.

Time Tunnel staggered on for a single season. Although the premise is that “Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages” the reality is they were lost in the swirling maze of 20th Century Fox’s stock film vaults where clips from films involving great historical events could be re-used for little additional cost. Typically this gave brief outings for men dressed in medieval costumes who thundered about on horseback to the accompaniment of a 72 piece orchestra before the action switched from Cinemascope back to a few self-conscious actors clustered on a sound stage to fit into the 4:3 aspect ratio TV screen of the day. 

In essence, Time Tunnel is a blizzard of unintentionally comic moments, high production standards for the time, and some occasional truly sublime performances from guest actors such as Carrol O’Connor. Beyond that it’s assembly line disposable 1960s American children’s TV at its best and worst.