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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Time Travelers

In 1976, Irwin Allen tried to launch another time travel television series like he had with The Time Tunnel a decade earlier. Time Travelers (TT) was a pilot film for television. That's why there is a newspaper ad, in lieu of a theater poster at left. But, since Allen was a major name in pop-sci-fi, and TT bears many affinities to his earlier time travel story, it seemed fitting to include it. Sam Groom stars as Dr. Clint Earnshaw. Richard Basehart stars as Dr. Henderson. The original story was by Rod Serling, though he did not write the screenplay.

Quick Plot Synopsis
During Mardi Gras in New Orleans, many people are coming down with a mysterious illness that doctors have dubbed XB. It has a 40% mortality rate and officials fear a nationwide epidemic if the revelers all travel back to infect their home states. A man named Jeff Adams is sent from Washington to conscript Dr. Earnshaw (Groom) to a daring experiment to find a cure. Jeff is cagy and Clint is cranky. Eventually, the beans are spilled that they intend to travel back in time to 1871, just before the great Chicago Fire, to find a Dr. Henderson who cured people with an identical disease. Henderson’s records were all destroyed in the fire. Clint agrees and they travel back. But, the computer wasn’t quite as precise on the date or time. They are 4 days late, and a mile off. The fire will break out only a day later. Jeff and Clint manage to find Henderson at the hospital and tell him the Surgeon General sent them to help. They try to learn Henderson’s secret, but he really don’t know himself. Seeking a blood sample of a “cured” patient goes awry and Jeff must hide out, accused of murder. Client, meanwhile, is succumbing to the disease and getting delirious. Henderson’s niece, Jane, a lonely ‘modern” woman, grows fond of Clint. He’s fond of her too. The fire breaks out in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. With little time left before the fire reaches the hospital, Clint discovers that it was not the drugs Henderson was using, but the elderberry wine he used as the delivery medium. A rare fungus in the fermentation was the key anti-biotic. All the bottles are gone, so Jeff pursues the last patient who left with a bottle. He finds him, and returns just as the hospital is evacuating. Clint does not want to return to 1976, but to stay in 1871 with Jane. While Jeff tries to argue/reason with Clint, Henderson and Jane run in the hospital to fetch a tardy patient when the hospital blows up. Relieved of his conflict, Clint joins Jeff struggling back to the time portal point. They return. Clint recovers from his XB fevers. Jeff and others intimate that he’d be perfect for some other historical-medical adventures. What? The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Time travel sci-fi are amusing food for thought, in themselves. TT is reasonably well paced with enough plot twists to keep it from being totally predictable. It is amusing, too, to see 1871 as seen through the 70s lens. The men have 70s-fashionable long hair. Back in the mid-70s, such hair was simply “normal” — as if eternal.

Cultural Connection
Fire Facts — The writers neatly included some tidbits of the history of the fire, without falling into the trap of retelling myth. On that October night, a man named “Pegleg” Sullivan first reported the fire coming from a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. The actual cause of the fire was never determined. Reporter Michael Ahern made up the story about Mrs. O’Leary milking her cow, which kicked over a lantern into some straw. Her dereliction allowed the fire to spread. Irish immigrants made for easy scapegoats. The O’Leary Cow story became widely circulated and believed as gospel. Ahern later retracted the story as pure fiction, but a cultural die was cast. The writers of TT were careful to include Sullivan and the O’Leary barn, but not the cow and lantern part. The O’Leary’s maintained that they were asleep in bed when the fire started, not out milking any cows.

Time Tunnel 2.0 — Irwin Allen, flush with success at his two big disaster flicks, The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno (’74) thought the time might be right to remake his 1966 television series, The Time Tunnel. TTT was reasonably successful for a television series. It had two seasons. The premise would be roughly the same, with a team of 1976 moderns venturing back in history each week to grapple with some major event. The brass at ABC were not sufficiently convinced, so no series resulted. Perhaps TT was too much a repeat of TTT. Since the moderns could not change the past, it seemed to suggest that all of their adventures result in no particular changes, so what was the point?

Edith Keeler 2.0 — The romantic sub-plot in TT is quite reminiscent to one in the Star Trek (TOS) episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In that episode, Kirk has to travel back in time to try and correct some time tampering done by a delusional McCoy. Kirk falls for the lovely and vulnerable Edith Keeler — leader of a growing pacifist movement. In the denouement, Kirk must allow Edith to die in a traffic accident in order to set time right again. In TT, it is Clint who gets smitten with the lovely and vulnerable Jane. He wants to stay in 1871 with her. It is Jeff who plays the (then-sober) McCoy and has to restrain Clint as Jane goes back into the burning hospital to her doom. Since she died in the fire, Clint could not save her without messing up history. Lesson? Don’t fall for historical babes.

Time Tunnel Ties — Aside from the general premise, Sam Groom, who stars as Clint, also played a minor part in The Time Tunnel. For five of the 30 episodes, he played Jerry, a not too pivotal technician. Watch for the room full of computer banks props in TT. They only get a few minutes of air time, but they are also recycled from the original TTT set.

Bottom line? TT is fun as the usual time travel genre. The production values are not great, but reasonable for mid-70s television. The acting is fair too. Basehart does the best job as the irascible Dr. Henderson. Tom Hallick (Jeff Adams) and Trish Stewart (Jane) come across as more typical of 70s television. Overall, though, TT is entertaining enough.


Randall Landers said...

This is one of those rare instances where I simply didn't care for either character. I suspect that folks at the network might've felt the same way.

Nightowl said...

I rather agree. I suspect the problem lies in Jackson Gillis' screenplay-characterization. Gillis wrote a lot of TV screenplays, so he was no newbie. But, both Clint and Jeff come across kind of shallow. Aside from the snarky-ness both showed, neither seemed all the "on fire" for exploring time. Even the pressure of the modern XB outbreak seemed like only just-enough motivation to undertake the adventure.

Maybe the network execs could see that, as written, neither wanted to "boldly go" on time adventures, so the prospects for future chemistry or tension were weak.

Perhaps better, if I might arm-chair kibitz, would have been to have one of them be the zealot: super-eager to explore time, with the other sent along as control-rod of reason. Rather like how Spock or McCoy were the balancing of Kirk's zeal.

Randall Landers said...

Oh, I agree completely. The interactions of characters often make or break a show. REMINGTON STEELE and MOONLIGHTING come to mind. Two rather different sorts of characters come together and entertain the audience. That didn't happen with TIME TRAVELERS.

Anonymous said...

The story was written by Charles Willard Byrd in the 1950's and didn't become a series probably due to litigation. It was so similar to Byrd's original script that even the Time Tunnel credit possibly belongs to Byrd.