Ib Melchior was something of a science fiction specialist in the early 1960s, when the genre was still seen as exclusively kids’ stuff. We’ve already reviewed The Angry Red Planet and Reptilicus that he was involved in, and as director, he helmed this ambitious, if somewhat low rent time travel story that I would suggest is a precursor to Star Trek – not in plot, but in style and atmosphere. It’s a fascinating story, and has an open ending that had burned itself into my memory when I first saw the film as a child. In many ways, it feels like a film that is straddling old-school sci-fi – angry scientists, misplaced comic relief – and that which would come at the end of the decade and into the 1970s, with a pessimistic, almost nihilistic narrative and a fascination with a computerized, robotized future.
The film doesn’t waste any time – right away, we find scientists Dr. Erik von Steiner (Preston Foster), Dr. Steve Connors (Philip Carey) and Carol White (Merry Anders) about to test their ‘time window’ – literally a viewing screen on the wall of their lab. The power that they are using is about to have them shut down, but sympathetic technician Danny McKee (Steve Franken) allows them one last go before he cuts the juice. Lo and behold, they open up a portal to 2071 – surely not that far in the future even in 1964! – that shows a barren landscape where the university campus once was. Danny discovers that the window is in fact an open portal, and predictably enough, hops through and then wanders off into this unknown world. Just as predictably, the rest of the scientists follow him, even though the portal is becoming unstable. Sure enough, it collapses, stranding them in a post apocalypse world full of angry mutants, but just when you think you have the flavour of the film, it smartly switches direction. Our heroes stumble upon an underground city, where a dwindling band of surviving humans, led by Dr. Varno (John Hoyt) watch a dying world, desperately building a spaceship to take them to a distant planet where they can rebuild human civilisation. The scientists – unable to join the survivors on the ship because of strict weight ratios – work on building a new time portal and become part of this new society, even as the mutants gather to prepare a final attack before the ship can take off.
The Time Travelers makes the most of its crude production values – the time portal uses a mix of back projection and props to create an effective enough illusion of the characters leaving the lab and entering the strange new world in a single shot, and the robot characters that they encounter as workers in the future are more effective that they have any right to be. But it is the storyline that impresses the most. Melchior’s future world is full of dangers, but his human survivors are not the sort of one-dimensional fascist villains so often found in such stories. While some characters clash with the newcomers, it’s not seem as anything more malicious than cultural differences (the attitudes shown towards the mutants and a human, feral survivor could be said to be an allegorical look at racism in 1960s America, but I’m reluctant to read too much into this – certainly, the film suggests an irrational fear of The Other, but it doesn’t labour the point – and the mutants are never shown as anything other than violent savages). Nor does the film suggest – as in many a time travel film – that the people from ‘our’ time are smarter, better or more culturally sensitive than the people of the future – there is no suggestion that the technologically advanced can learn any homespun human philosophy from the newcomers, thank God. The look of this new society – almost a utopia if it wasn’t for the pesky fact that the outside world is dying – is very much reminiscent of the way Star Trek would feel a few years later (interestingly, Melchior has claimed that he had the original idea for Star Trek – and on the basis of this, I’m not sure I don’t believe him) and despite the destruction of the planet through nuclear war, the film suggests that humanity can grow and evolve.
The ending of the film makes it one of the few science fiction films to look at the problematic elements of time travel – namely that if you don’t time your return exactly, then you might find yourself overlapping with your own past. With both 2071 and (what I assume was supposed to be) 1964 closed off to the survivors, they are left with no choice but to push on into an even more distant future, which is nothing more than a black, unknown world, even as time loops over and over again, giving the film an ending that is intriguingly frantic and inconclusive. These days, it might be seen as leaving things open for a sequel – back then, I doubt that such considerations were on anyone’s mind.
I don’t want to over hype The Time Travelers. It certain suffers from many of the problems that befell sci-fi of the era, with main characters who seem rather stereotyped, cheap production values and iffy performances from several cast members. But there is an ambition in this story, and a bleakness that was rare for the period. Those elements make this a far more interesting film than many might give it credit for, and it certainly deserves to be better remembered than it is. Those of you who like pure, intelligent science fiction could do a lot worse than giving this film a go.