January 30, 2014

Science Won't Save You

Poster - The Time Travelers (1964)
Now Playing: The Time Travelers (1964)

Pros: Inventive glimpses of future technology; Unusual ending illustrates a time travel paradox
Cons: Unoriginal, cookie-cutter plot; After a promising start, film bogs down with portentous dialog, dumb humor and a tour of an android factory that goes on way too long

With regard to the future, it’s hard to figure out what to be afraid of anymore. I’m pretty sure the country isn’t going to be overrun by angry jihadists determined to impose Sharia law on us. My blood runs cold (ironically) when I read about the scientific consensus on global warming, but it’s such a complex abstraction for most of us that it hardly registers in the cacophony of the great 24-hour media parade. And like many Americans, I don’t see the economy getting a whole lot better, especially on the jobs front, but hey, the guvmint and all those smart people at the NY Times and cable news say the recession has been over for several years now … time to get a haircut, get a job and move on.

I may not know exactly what to pin my worst fears on, but being an eternal pessimist, I just know that the future is going to be worse than the present – maybe by a little or maybe a lot, but worse for sure (not that the present is anything to crow about).

Cold war era duck and cover drill
What?! Another State of the Union address and the
Republicans' response? Time to duck and cover!
Time was, every red-blooded American knew exactly what to be afraid of: the Commies and their A-bombs. It was a much simpler, more auspicious time for stark, raving fear … and we liked it! We did duck and cover A-bomb drills in school, then came home and gathered around the old console TV to watch Walter Cronkite solemnly reciting what the nefarious Reds were up to in Cuba, Vietnam and other places we’d never heard of. On the weekends we’d go to the matinee or watch Creature Features to see the ravages of all-out atomic war in some cool sci-fi flicks. Good times!

One week there’d be astronauts returning from space to find the Earth blowed up real good (World Without End, 1956); the next, astronauts traveling to Mars would find the remnants of an alien civilization buried under radioactive rubble (Rocketship X-M, 1950). Then there were the here’s-how-it’s-all-gonna-go-down-day-after-tomorrow flicks whose atomic shocks hit a little too close to home: Five (1951), Invasion U.S.A. (1952), and Panic in the Year Zero! (1962), among others. And of course, there were always the pompous aliens warning us of complete annihilation if we continued our war-like ways. If they weren’t talking our ears off (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951; The Cosmic Man, 1959), they were taking the liberty of blowing up our warhead-capable spaceships to save us from ourselves (War of the Satellites, 1958).

The Time Travelers are about to have the portal close up on them
"Hey, what's this 100" flat screen doing
out here in the nuclear wasteland?"
Writer-director Ib Melchior’s Time Travelers encounter a pretty standard B movie post-apocalyptic world 100+ years into their future. The film is one of a large number of variations on a theme near-and-dear to sci-fi moviemakers of the era: modern day travelers/explorers/astronauts stumble upon a lost, isolated city/civilization/colony and bring new hope and vitality to it as they help the proud yet weak/corrupt/dying members fight off external threats in the form of mutants/dinosaurs/aliens, etc.

In fact, Time Travelers so closely parallels the earlier World Without End, it's easy for someone who's seen the two films to get them confused or to perhaps think that Travelers was a remake: both feature accidental time travel to a post-atomic war future; the explorers are chased by mutant humans into an underground sanctuary of science and civilization; the accidental visitors are at first wowed by the technological prowess of the colony; one of the male travelers falls for a cute but naive colonist; in spite of their technological wizardry, the constant mutant threat is grinding the colonists down, and they're succumbing to desperation and corruption; the visitors start to wear out their welcome, and one of the hosts plots to feed them to the wolves/mutants; as things come to a head and the emboldened mutants breech the colony's defenses, the comparatively unsophisticated but courageous visitors prove to be invaluable allies in fighting off the mutant threat. (See my write-up of World Without End here.)

Preston Foster as Dr. Von Steiner and John Hoyt as Dr. Varno
The 20th century scientist and the 21st century one are
grimly determined to save what's left of civilization.
For all their similarities, the two films differ from each other in subtle but important ways, to the point that they are very different in spirit. I much prefer the spirit of Ib's Time Travelers. While World Without End is by far the better looking and more polished film, the basic message is standard, loutish, '50s Red Scare stuff. The effete colonists' love of culture and desire to live in peace are fatal weaknesses in WWE. It's up to the 20th century guys in bomber jackets to save the day with bad-ass attitudes and homemade bazookas.

On the other hand, Melchior’s film is a sort of love letter to higher culture and all the amenities and technology trappings that go with it. If the film fails, it’s because it spends too much time touring the wonders of the nuclear wasteland sanctuary. The film meanders around as we see in minute detail how the android workers are assembled. Then we see how the cavern-dwellers (mainly the females) get their needed vitamin D in futuristic sun-tanning rooms (certain parts of the anatomy discreetly covered of course). Then we peek in on sanctuary nightlife as sensual Reena (Delores Wells) treats her new 20th century boyfriend Danny (Steve Franken) to a wild musical lightshow courtesy of the Lumichord! Next, the venerable Dr. Varno (John Hoyt), head of the colony council, demonstrates to the appreciative time travelers how they grow food in advanced hydroponic chambers. Then, the show-stopper — he reveals that the entire colony is preparing to take off in a sleek, needle-nosed starship for the Alpha Centauri system, where they’ve identified habitable planets with oxygen and plant life. (The humans will spend the long trip in suspended hibernation while the androids attend to the ship. One kicker—the slimy councilman Willard, played by Dennis Patrick, calculates that there won’t be enough supplies and rocket fuel to accommodate the extra 20th century guests. Uh oh!)

The starship is being readied for its trip to the Alpha Centauri system
"All aboard the Alpha Centauri express!"
By the time we’ve digested all of this, the atavistic parts of the brain are thinking, “hey, we haven’t seen the mutants in awhile… it’s about time for them to kick some colonist butt.” Screenwriter/director Melchior is clearly enamored of technology, and sees it as an unmitigated good in the right hands. In World Without End, the sensual Lumichord and tanning scenes might have been used as further proof of the colonists’ corruption and depravity. In Time Travelers, it’s proof that life can still be good, even in the middle of a nuclear wasteland, as long as there’s someone around to preserve culture and technology from barbarism and decay.

Of course in the long term entropy always wins. Ib’s storyteller instincts take over in the last part of his movie, as he unleashes the mutants upon the underground sanctuary to great effect. For all their hard work, the colonists’ science won’t save them, but perhaps there’s still time for a few survivors (hint, hint). I won’t give away the ending, which is wild and hallucinatory (and prefigures, to a degree, the ending of the much bigger budgeted and more celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey).

The mutants attack at the climax of The Time Travelers
For these Walmart shoppers of the future,
every day is Black Friday.
Time Travelers writer/director Ib Melchior is primarily known for a handful of sci-fi B’s that have become cult favorites over the years. Melchior is such a fascinating character (as of this post he’s still going at the age of 96), that a biopic of his life would put some of his own wild-and-woolly sci-fi/fantasy pictures to shame:
"Losing his mother as a child and unable to live with his father, Lauritz (who as a world-famous tenor roamed the world), Ib, in the care of a housekeeper, was left more or less to survive on his own on the streets of Copenhagen, before he was enrolled in boarding school. During those early days, he grew fascinated with motion pictures and determined that some day he would create such miracles on his own.

Ib Melchior, Six Cult Films From the Sixties, BearManor Media, 2009
En route to that goal, he became an actor, a set designer, a singer, a stage manager, and a theatrical director. He embarked on activities that found him traveling across Europe, learning several languages, immigrating to the United States, and discovering a new thing called science fiction, the discovery of which was interrupted by World War II. Inasmuch as he spoke six languages and knew Europe intimately, he volunteered his services to the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, during which service he would master parachute jumping, fight the Nazis, capture a general, risk his life behind enemy lines, solve life-and-death cases, practice combat tactics and cryptography and survival techniques -- all under extreme circumstances. This resulted in his being decorated by three countries and invested as Knight Commander, awarded a Knight Commander Cross, and gave him material for a dozen best-selling novels based on his own experiences." [From the foreward by Robert Skotak, Six Cult Films From the Sixties: The Inside Stories by Writer/Director Ib Melchior, BearManor Media, 2009.]
Whew! It's enough to make you tired just thinking about it! Maybe we don't have it so bad in the here and now after all, and as for the future, well, at least we won't be fighting Nazis. And maybe, just maybe, we've dodged the all-out nuclear war bullet too. But you might want to take a look at The Time Travelers anyway, in case you ever have to survive in a barren, radioactive wasteland.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Prime Instant Video

"Crash thru the time portal to the world of the future!"

Timely Bonus Coverage: The Time Tunnel (TV series, 1966 - 1967)
Editor's note: Continuing with the time travel theme, I asked my good friend and science fiction television enthusiast Doug Mappin if he would do some nostalgic mind traveling and contribute a piece on his favorite Irwin Allen-produced sci-fi series. Side note: Ib Melchior would come to rue the day he'd ever heard the name Irwin Allen. But that's a long, sad story for another day, and to my mind, doesn't detract from Allen's short-lived but highly regarded time travel series.

DVD cover art - The Time Tunnel (TV series, 1966 -1967)
In the 1960s, Irwin Allen was the Aaron Spelling of science fiction. In 1964, he launched a continuation of his 1961 film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It recounted the exploits of the crew of the SSRN Seaview. A year later, he fixed his gaze (and tripped) on the stars with Lost in Space. In 1966, he looked to history books and wondered “what if we could travel to the past and the future?” and with that came my favorite (and shortest lived) of his four science fiction series (Land of the Giants in 1968), The Time Tunnel.

The Time Tunnel remains, to this day, my favorite of Allen’s four television series. Arguably, it has its flaws, but to me, it was the most intriguing.

The lively series was led by Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), two travelers trapped in a not yet perfected time machine. Back home the tunnel was headed by the scientific team of Lt. General Heywood Kirk (Whit Bissell), Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba), Dr. Ann MacGregor (the lovely Lee Meriwether) and on occasion, the technician Jerry (Sam Groom). For 30 episodes, the series traveled to the time of the Bible, to the far future, to an attempt to assassinate President Lincoln (not the assassination), to Krakatoa, to Robin Hood, to the time of King Arthur and Merlin. My two favorite episodes dropped the travelers into two real time incidents of personal interest.

The Time Tunnel awaits a guinea pig.
"Go straight down that weird, circular hallway, take a left,
and the bathroom is right there. You can't miss it!"
In the pilot episode “Rendezvous with Yesterday,” it is revealed that a U.S. Senator has arrived to shut down Project Tic Toc after numerous failures to prove its worth. Rather than permit this, Tony sneaks into the complex in the stealth of darkness and propels himself into the past aboard none other than the RMS Titanic! A rescue attempt is formulated and Doug goes after him in the hopes of attempting to change the past and save the Titanic… and return to their own time, 1968. They fail and the two travelers are (for sake of the series) condemned to travel from place to place, time to time.

In a subsequent episode, the two are faced with the conundrum often posed by science fiction writers: “What if you met your ancestor in an earlier time?” In “The Day the Sky Fell In,” we learn that Tony was with his widowed father, a Navy Lt. Cmdr., when the Japanese launched the insidious sneak attack on Naval Station Pearl Harbor and the adjoining Hickam Field. In that period, Tony’s father would turn up missing, presumably killed in the attack.

I would posit this was one of the finest (if not THE), episode of the show. Unlike many of Allen’s other shows, this episode dwelled on the emotion rather than just “run, jump and shoot.” When Tony finds his father wounded by a dropped and yet undetonated bomb, Tony reveals to the Lt. Cmdr. that he is his son as the father dies in his arms after heroically warning the carrier fleet out-to-sea that the station is under attack. I defy anyone to have a dry eye at the end of this episode. This was not Irwin Allen’s normal MOD.

One of the great things about The Time Tunnel was many of the episodes were tailored to famous (or infamous) periods of history that had been previously recounted in big budget films. Allen raided the film vaults using footage to accentuate their stories. We got to see the Trojan Horse in all its glory on a budget that a television series could never have accommodated. It was great and yeah, at times, it was corny.

Montage of stills from The Time Tunnel TV series
The Time Tunnel lasted but a season and to me, was the one Irwin Allen production that was canceled long before its (pardon the pun) time, leaving its potential of historical adventure untapped. One interesting notation regarding the series: the travelers never once, in my recollection, questioned whether it would be appropriate to change the flow of time. In the two episodes I recounted above, both Tony and Doug made valiant attempts to warn the residing occupants of the time that danger was imminent. Both failed.

Of course, as was so typical of Allen’s series, with the good, there was the bad and the silly. We met numerous silver and green skinned aliens, with plans of dominion of the earth and of man. Thankfully, the series never fell to the lows that plagued Lost in Space.

Many fans, myself included, pined over the loss of the series and in 2002, a new pilot for the series was filmed. Unfortunately, the Fox Network failed to pick it up, deeming it too similar to Stargate SG-1, a claim I reject. It was a superior production, and while I don’t like some of the changes they made, it would have proved a worthy successor to its older parent. If you get the chance, look up the series on DVD, which incidentally includes two other time travel projects from Irwin Allen.

-- Doug Mappin

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Available online

IMDb Videos (Beta)

The catchy theme to The Time Tunnel...


  1. Hi, Brian!
    I like that you started by listing all of the apocalyptic B films during that time. They do all sound very similar. Just switch out the means by which the earth and everything on it will be destroyed. Same way I feel about all of the B movies which had giant spiders, bees, blobs, hornets, rats or scorpions. Ha Ha Not the heaviest or rich in content but still fun when you want to waste an hour basking in the early 'special effects' and cheesy dialogue.

    I haven't seen this one or most of the ones you've listed and of the ones I mention above I only remember seeing The Blob as a young girl when my parents took us to the Drive-In.
    An enjoyable read.
    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hi Page! What I find fascinating about B movies is that in spite of formulaic plots, low budgets and tight schedules, the talented people behind them often "made them their own" with oddball touches and quirky bits of business. There's a freedom in not being under the microscope that the studios and money people bring to bear on big budget A pictures. Even with the formulas, no two are identical-- in spite of the almost identical plots, Time Travelers and World Without End are very different pictures. :) Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Thanks, Brian, for the opportunity to share a blast from the past! I also remember "The Time Travelers." I've not seen it in more years than I can begin to count.

    I recognized the name Ib Melchior so I had to look him up. Wow! I had forgotten he was the creator of the comic book "Space Family Robinson" and I have been a long time admirer of his "Robinson Crusoe on Mars."

    After reading an online bio I can certainly see how he might hold some rather unkind thoughts of Irwin Allen.

    Incidentally, in 1976, Irwin Allen attempted to launch another time traveling series, also called "The Time Travelers." It starred Richard Basehart and Sam Groom (both actors starred on earlier Irwin Allen productions). The film was written by Jackson Gillis and Rod Serling (yes). The pilot failed and subsequently the project was aired as an ABC-TV Movie of the Week.

    Thanks again!


    1. Doug, thanks for sharing your appreciation of The Time Tunnel, which, despite having only lasted a season, still has devoted fans like yourself to this day. I suppose the upside to its short life is that ol' Irwin didn't have a chance to turn it into a carnival sideshow like he did Lost in Space and Voyage to the bottom of the Sea. Let's do this again!