A Fun Look at the Master of Disaster Producer Irwin Allen’s Groovy Sci-Fi Shows
Irwin Allen: The Master of Disaster
Who doesn’t like a good disaster movie? Along with shark movies, disaster movies are a particular guilty pleasure of mine. The titles are endless: 2012, San Andreas, The Day After Tomorrow, Geostorm (well, maybe we’ll forget about that one), et al. Anyway, you get the idea. And one man was an absolute master of the genre: producer Irwin Allen, who gave us two of the greatest of all time: The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
Years before that, he had a stranglehold on the TV business in the mid to late ‘60s, with not one, not two not three, but FOUR family friendly sci-fi shows on the air. He worked for years at 20th Century Fox producing films, so when the studio reached out to Allen to produce TV shows, he brought his considerable filmmaking skills, not to mention personnel, to bear. This brought a big budget look to shows that would have otherwise come across as bargain basement. Want to know about them? Here we go!
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Allen’s first foray into TV was to adapt the 1961 feature film of the same name he wrote and directed. Fox absolutely loved the show for artistic and financial reasons. Allen’s penchant for using his film cronies made a huge impact on what ended up on the screen. He used special effects wizard L.B. Abbott as well as the legendary composer John Williams, winner of 5 Academy Awards including Jaws and Star Wars.
But what really endeared Allen to the studio was his uncanny ability to repurpose sets and props from previous projects into his shows, including liberal use of stock footage from any 20th Century Fox he could get his hands on. That meant shows were finished on time and on budget, which is the only thing TV executives really care about. Let’s be real.
The show revolved around the crew of the nuclear powered super sub the Seaview, helmed by Admiral Nelson and his crew. And make no mistake: it was the quintessential “Monster of the Week” offering, with virtually the same setup every week: a monster attacks the Seaview and its crew, the crew fights the monster, initially getting their asses kicked, until they figure out a way to beat it. That involved using either the nuclear gizmo that powered the sub, or Nelson would make with the science and come up with some laser thingy to save the day. On more than one occasion, the stakes would be raised, with one or more of the crew getting infected in some way, becoming a monster themselves. It always seemed something would turn said crew member into a werewolf-like creature. Maybe that’s the only monster mask they had available. Oh well.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea ran for 110 episodes over 4 seasons, making it the longest running Allen series. Like most of Allen’s efforts, it started out as a fairly serious endeavor, but over time became silly, aimed primarily at children. A year later, Allen’s 2nd show had its debut, and this one is probably his most well known.
Lost In Space
Allen literally envisioned this series as “Swiss Family Robinson In Space” (the initial title for the show was “Space Family Robinson”), with the titular brood actually named Robinson: father John, wife and mother Maureen, daughters Judy and Penny, and son Will. Other cast members included the hunky 1st officer Don West, the evil stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith, and a robot named, well, Robot.
The initial setup had the Robinson family jetting off on the spaceship Jupiter 2 to colonize a planet, only to be sabotaged and thrown hopelessly off course by the evil Dr. Smith. What followed was a typical storyline: the Jupiter 2 went from planet to planet, encountering increasingly goofy aliens and situations, while Dr. Smith’s sole focus was to do whatever he could to get back to sweet Mother Earth.
As was the case with Allen’s other shows, Lost In Space started out with a fairly serious tone, only to degenerate into childish nonsense, centering on Dr. Smith, Will, and the Robot getting into all manner of hijinks. Dr. Smith started out as an evil saboteur, but over the course of the series did a complete 180, becoming a scared, annoying little dandy.
The show’s “monsters” were strictly G-rated, becoming more and more kid friendly as time went on, including my all-time favorite: a talking carrot. Yes, you read that correctly. A TALKING CARROT.
The Talking Carrot episode, titled "The Great Vegetable Rebellion,” ranks as one of the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) TV episodes ever produced.
Lost In Space lasted 3 seasons, totalling 83 episodes. At the end of season 3 the show was unexpectedly cancelled, leaving our intrepid family stranded on a planetary junkyard for all time. Netflix has announced a series reboot, with a debut expected sometime in 2018, but with a much darker tone.
The Time Tunnel
Allen’s 3rd attempt at sci-fi was The Time Tunnel, centering around a top secret government program called "Project Tic-Toc" (I kid you not), with our heroes Tony Newman and Doug Phillips hurtling through The Time Tunnel from one time period to another, hitting the high points throughout history you would expect: the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Alamo. You get it.
The problem was all the smarty pants scientists could never actually retrieve Tony and Doug and bring them home. Instead, they could only manage to send them from one time disaster to another. Allen used the stock footage from the 20th Century Fox film archives to the Nth degree in this one, which made the show fun and semi educational, except there were so many historical inaccuracies that it was totally laughable.
The Time Tunnel only lasted one season, but had an episode count of 30. THIRTY episodes in ONE season! That would NEVER happen now, that’s for sure, which brings us to Allen’s final ‘60s sci-fi show.
Land of the Giants
This puppy centered on the crew of the supersonic ship the Spindrift, which hit one of those pesky magnetic storms (don’t you just hate it when that happens?), sending our heroes to an Earth identical to ours, except everything is 12 times the normal size. No explanation was ever really given as to where this Earth was in the solar system, or if it was possibly in an alternate dimension.
None of that really matters in the end: the show is simply an exercise in showing our heroes battling giant people, animals, hell everything. Almost every episode followed the same template: someone screws up, gets captured by a giant, and the rest of the episode consists of the escape/rescue. Pretty standard stuff.
Production costs were insane. Unlike now, many of the props the actors used had to be manufactured. No CGI here.
The cost of the “practical effects” drove the weekly show budget to $250,000 an episode, making it the most expensive TV show ever produced at that time.
To offset the expense, Allen did what he did best: recycle. Sets, props, footage, and monsters from all his prior shows and movies were used whenever possible. Unfortunately, the costs were so prohibitive the show only lasted a total 51 episodes over two seasons.
Irwin Allen didn’t let the diminishing returns of his TV projects stop him: he invented the disaster movie template in the mid ‘70s still followed to this day. That is a pretty good bounce back from talking alien carrots, wouldn’t you say? The fact is, Lost In Space is a legendary TV series that will be loved and remembered by sci-fi fans forever. Allen was a true visionary: a creator with an endless imagination, and an astute businessman who knew how to get the most out everything.
FYI, the series are available to stream via Amazon.