Bookshelf: The Time Tunnel

Bookshelf is a monthly column examining printed matter relating to television. While I love watching TV, I also love reading about it, from tie-in novels to TV Guides, from vintage television magazines to old newspaper articles. Bookshelf is published on the second Thursday of each month.

The Time Tunnel
By Murray Leinster
First January 1967
Published by Pyramid Books
143 pages

The Time Tunnel is one of those shows I’ve always wanted to sit down and watch. The hour-long sci-fi drama was created by Irwin Allen and aired for just one season on ABC from 1966-1967, producing 30 episodes. James Darren and Robert Colbert starred as Dr. Anthony Newman and Dr. Douglas Phillips, respectively, two scientists working on Project Tic-Toc, a top secret government initiative to develop a device for traveling through time.

The Time Tunnel worked but unfortunately Tony and Doug found themselves unable to return to their own time. Each week they were sent to a new period in time, either in the past or the future, and often got mixed up in some historical event. That sounds like it could get repetitive, and I’m sure it did, but it probably wasn’t any different than dozens of shows on the air in the 1960s.

Front Cover to The Time Tunnel
Front Cover to The Time Tunnel – Copyright 1966 Kent Productions, Inc., and Twentieth Century-Fox Television, Inc.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Time Tunnel but never a full episode, despite the fact that it has been available on DVD since 2006 and can also be viewed at Hulu. You can watch promotional spots for the series here and here.

Prolific sci-fi author Murray Leinster wrote two tie-in novels based on The Time Tunnel. This first one was published in January 1967 and was titled simply The Time Tunnel. Confusingly, in 1964 Leinster published an original novel called Time Tunnel which involved a physical tunnel connecting 1964 and 1805. Wikipedia suggests that this novel was the inspiration for the TV series and that the rights were purchased by 20th-Century Fox. I’m not sure that has ever been confirmed, only speculated.

In any event, Leinster’s 1967 novel bares little resemblance to the TV series. It is not a novelization of the pilot episode but a complete retelling with only the basic plot and characters remaining the same. In the pilot episode of the TV series, a United States Senator pushes for human testing of the Time Tunnel and threatens to cut funding. In Leinster’s novel, however, the Senator rails against Project Tic-Toc, which was funded without the approval of Congress.

Both the pilot episode and the novel have Tony going through the Time Tunnel in an attempt to prove it will work. In the pilot, he winds up on the RMS Titanic. In the novel, he finds himself in Johnstown, Pennsylvania shortly before the catastrophic 1889 flood. Doug soon follows in an effort to save Doug. Leinster’s novel then sends the two to Adobe Walls, Texas in 1874 the day before a brutal three-day siege by Comanche forces. Finally, they travel to the future before being returned to Time Tunnel and the present day rather than being stranded in time like the TV series.

In the novel, Tony and Doug wear time harnesses that connect them to the Time Tunnel and allow them to be moved through time. There were no such harnesses in the TV series. Two other characters from the TV series are also in the novel: General Heywood Kirk (played by Whit Bissell) and Dr. Ann MacGregor (played by Lee Meriwether). A fifth character from the series, Dr. Raymond Swain (played by John Zaremba) does not appear in the novel.

I’m not sure if I’d like the novel as much if I was more familiar with the TV series. Fans of the show likely won’t recognize much. On the other hand, it’s an enjoyable read even if it doesn’t match the series all that well. Leinster does a particularly fine job of describing the Johnstown Flood. There are occasional footnotes pointing out what was historical fact and what was Leinster’s fiction.

Back Cover to The Time Tunnel
Back Cover to The Time Tunnel – Copyright 1966 Kent Productions, Inc., and Twentieth Century-Fox Television, Inc.

I do have a question for those who have watched The Time Tunnel. The novel refers to Meriwether’s character as “the MacGregor” rather than just “MacGregor” or “Dr. MacGregor.” Was this something Leinster came up with or was she called that in the TV series as well?

(Leinster later wrote three tie-in novels based on another Irwin Allen series, Land of the Giants. He again took liberties with the concepts and introduced a recurring character of his own creation. You can find my reviews of the first two novels here and here.)


6 Comments

  • Lurky McLurkson says:

    Not a big fan of ‘Tunnel’, but have seen quite a few eps.
    What I’m finding viewing many shows from the mid-’60’s today (which I watched originally) is, even with my beloved ‘Batman’, they seem painfully padded at an hour long.
    I don’t think my attention span has changed but, man, are some a slog to get through.
    ‘Tunnel’ had that slick Allen look but, imo, was sunk by the huge amount of stock footage used.

  • Dale says:

    Tunnel was a horrible TV show. Who would actually watch it? Lost In Space was even worse. And some people say today’s TV shows are bad. Sheeesh…

  • Jim Ryan says:

    I actually did watch the series pretty regularly, and was surprised that it held up as well as it did when I re-watched episodes years later. In answer to some of the points above:

    * Yeah, it could get a little repetitive, the weekly “what mess this week?” grind that prompted the writers to abandon the show bible for the back end episodes and get sillier. This happened a lot with Irwin Allen shows, unfortunately…

    * They explained away the need for harnesses in the series with “atomic tracking articles” being sprayed on them when they first entered the tunnel, which allowed Anne to get a fix on them in time. Speaking of which…

    * Dr. Anne MacGregor was never referred to as “the MacGregor;” this seems more like an editing error than Leinster taking liberties…

    * …of which there were a lot that appear to have been taken, reading the description above. I’d read his earlier “Time Tunnel” book, so I could see why he would go so far off the script given a chance; the same thing happened when Fox gave Isaac Asimov the chance to adapt FANTASTIC VOYAGE, which shows how little the studio oversaw their tie-ins then…

    If you ever wanted to give the show a try, the two best episodes to try out are “Rendezvous with Yesterday” the pilot that sets up the series, and “Secret Weapon” which gives a good justification for why Project Tic Toc came on line; the rest, to taste.

  • Curtis says:

    I liked how they ended the series, instead of just bringing them back, they land back on the titanic to put the show into a permanent cycle. I kinda hoped that they would have rebooted the series to finish the characters and try new things out.

    • Jim Ryan says:

      Unfortunately, that wasn’t a conscious choice on anyone’s part. Every episode used to end with a few moments from the next episode as a teaser for what to expect, and since ABC was going to run the series from the beginning, they just went with that.

      The sad truth is, Irwin Allen’s TV shows are really bad to follow if you have closure issues. This, LAND OF THE GIANTS and LOST IN SPACE were series that had overriding arcs that because the networks would pull the plug without granting enough time or warning to wrap them up, would just end with their stories unresolved. Imagine if ABC had cut the cord on LOST or Fox just walked away from FRINGE without giving J J Abrams a chance to finish the main stories, and you’d get a sense of the frustration at dealing with an Irwin Allen series…

  • Sam says:

    I like TV tie-in novels, kind of a guilty pleasure. The trick is not expecting too much, just a bit of junk food between a front and back cover. In that respect I think they’re fun.

    As for the Time Tunnel TV show I think what holds up is the acting. That more than anything is what makes the show “tick”, not the special effects or the outlandish stories. The acting keeps things grounded and is much more solid than you would expect.

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