Confessions of a TV Addict #8: The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen Pt. 1

Irwin Allen  (1916-1991) wore many different hats during his long career: magazine editor, gossip columnist, documentarian, producer, director. He helped usher in the Age of the Disaster Movie with such 70’s hits as THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO, but before that he was best known as the producer of a quartet of sci-fi series from the Swingin’ 60’s. From 1964 to 1970 he had at least one sci-fi show airing in prime time… during the 1966-67 season, he had three, all complete with cheezy-looking monsters, campy humor, stock footage, guest stars (some on their way up… some down!), special effects by Oscar winner L.B. Abbott, and music by John Williams (who later scored a little thing called STAR WARS )! Here’s a look at the Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen:

Allen’s first foray into sci-fi TV was VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (ABC, 1964-68), based on his hit 1961 film. Richard Basehart starred as Admiral Nelson, head of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, in charge of the nuclear-powered sub Seaview, with David Hedison as Commander Crane. The first season was more a straightforward adventure series, filmed in black and white, with Nelson and his crew up against many Cold War threats. From the second season on, now in color, the Seaview began battling more outre’ enemies: aliens, giant sea monsters, even werewolves became the norm!

The series started to introduce futuristic gadgets like the Flying Sub, compete with laser beam, to confront these new monsters-of-the-week. The 1966 debut of BATMAN ramped up the camp quotient a few notches, as the plots got more and more out there. Among the many guest stars featured in the course of the series were Nick Adams , Eddie Albert , Edgar Bergen (without Charlie McCarthy), James Brolin (pre-stardom and Streisand), John Cassavetes, Michael Dunn (diminutive Dr. Loveless of THE WILD WILD WEST), Jill Ireland, Leslie Neilsen, and Vincent Price as a mad puppeteer out to take over the Seaview!

Space Family Robinson (back row, from left) Angela Cartwright, Mark Goddard, Marta Kristen, The Robot, Jonathan Harris, Guy Williams (front row) June Lockhart, Billy Mumy)

Next up for Allen was LOST IN SPACE (CBS, 1965-68), a take on Swiss Family Robinson set in outer space. The Jupiter-2, due in large part to sabotage by stowaway foreign agent Dr. Zachary Smith, hits a meteor storm and veers off course from its destination Alpha Centauri, causing the Robinson family and crew to become hopelessly lost in space (hence the series title). The cast consisted of TV veterans Guy Williams as Prof. John Robinson (ZORRO), June Lockhart as wife Maureen (LASSIE), Mark Goodard as pilot Maj. Don West (THE DETECTIVES), Angela Cartwright as youngest daughter Penny (MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY), and Billy Mumy as ten-year-old Will (practically every TV show made calling for a precocious kid!). Marta Kristen (Lorelei the mermaid in BEACH BLANKET BINGO ) played eldest child Judy, who served as Major West’s love interest.

Jonathan Harris (the TV version of THE THIRD MAN) received “Special Guest Star” billing as the nefarious Dr. Smith, and at first played him as a straight villain. The character was not originally intended to last the entire series run, but Harris, with Allen’s blessings, began to tweak the role, rewriting his dialog to turn Smith into something completely different than originally intended, a comically cowardly character who managed to create chaos wherever he went. Dr. Smith became pals with young Will, though their roles were reversed, as the boy was much more mature than the older doctor!

Dr. Smith  was constantly at odds with The Robot (Bob May inside the suit, Dick Tufeld providing the voice), another popular character on the show (“Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”), berating the mechanical marvel with sobriquets like “You blithering booby” and “You cackling cacophony”. Harris’s portrayal, relationships with Will and The Robot, and catch phrases (“Oh, the pain!”, “IN-deed!”), helped turned the show from straight sci-fi to high-camp fantasy, with the plots getting more and more ridiculous during the series’ three year run. The Robinson family, thanks to Smith’s blundering, encountered space pirates, circuses, cowboys, and Vikings, an intergalactic collector (Michael Rennie of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL in a two-parter), a “devilish” alien (Gerald Mohr), a cosmic toymaker (Walter Burke), a band of far-out hippies (twice!), and sentient vegetables!

Plots from films and fables past were recycled and adapted for the show: the legend of King Arthur, Sleeping Beauty, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD , FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. My favorite episode was a unique original titled “Visit to a Hostile Planet”, where the Jupiter-2 gets trapped in a time/space warp and returns to Earth – but it’s the Earth of 1947, and the small town population they land near thinks they’re being invaded by aliens! LOST IN SPACE enjoyed a long run in syndication after being cancelled by CBS, making it Allen’s most popular (and profitable!) space series.

Next week, part 2 of The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen, spotlighting THE TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS!

5 Replies to “Confessions of a TV Addict #8: The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen Pt. 1”

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