When the Master of Disaster Ruled Sci-Fi TV

Feeling the crunch of studio budgets, Irwin Allen shifted to TV and launched a new wave of Sixties Science-Fiction.

Deep sea diving

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Today, people who recognize the name Irwin Allen usually associate it with the wildly successful “disaster genre” of the 1970s. His name has even become a reference point in other films; Ocean’s Thirteen refers to a plan to fake an earthquake as “an Irwin Allen.” But before the heyday of towering infernos and Poseidon adventures, Allen had filmmaking forays into a variety of action and science-fiction pictures. Sixty years ago this month, he blended the two in a sci-fi disaster movie that would lead Allen into an unexpected direction: he would be become one of the most crucial figures in the development of TV science fiction in the 1960s.

Born in New York City in 1916, Allen headed to Hollywood in 1938. He worked in publishing and radio for a number of years and wrote the syndicated “Hollywood Merry-Go-Round” gossip column for over 70 papers. Allen managed to turn the column into a TV panel show of the same name. He parlayed that stint in TV production to producing films, landing his first movie, Where Danger Lives, at RKO in 1950.

During his RKO run, Allen worked with some of the major stars of the day, including Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Vincent Price, and Jane Russell. In 1953, he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for The Sea Around Us, which was based on the book by Rachel Carson. (Although it was an acclaimed directorial debut for Allen, according to Linda Lear’s book, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Carson hated the script.) Aside from the award, the film was an important piece of Allen’s development, as it demonstrated his proficiency at using stock footage obtained from various sources to tell a story. In the latter half of the 1950s, Allen moved to Warner Brothers, where he continued to dabble in both documentary and drama.

The trailer for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Uploaded to YouTube by Media Graveyard)

Beginning in 1960, Allen did a trio of films for Fox. Working with occasional writing partner Charles Bennett, Allen directed The Lost World, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Voyage was released 60 years ago this month, and while it didn’t light the critical world on fire, it told effective adventure tale against a (questionable) science background; the plot concerned the nuclear submarine, Seaview, and its mission to save the Earth from disturbances in the Van Allen belt. The film proved popular, if not a massive hit. On the other hand, a different big Fox movie caused a hassle for Allen. Films like 1963’s Cleopatra were operating on increasingly larger budgets, sometimes without much return. Cleopatra in particular tied up a lot of money at the studio, making in harder for other pictures to secure the budgets they needed. In that environment, Allen thought that a turn to TV might work.

In turning Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea into a TV show, Allen had one giant advantage in his corner: basically everything from the film had been saved in storage. That gave the production team access to the Seaview sets, props, costumes, and even the special effects models. Allen also had unused (and used) footage of the Seaview that could incorporate back into the show. With so much pre-existing material, the series would look like a hugely budgeted TV show, but operate at a fraction of the cost.

Voyage hit the air on ABC on September 14, 1964. Through its four seasons, the Seaview would encounter enemy agents, sea monsters, aliens, Nazis, and even ghosts in the far future decade of . . . the ’70s. Although its importance to TV science fiction is sometimes overlooked, a few facts demand notice: It preceded Star Trek by almost two full years; with 110 episodes over four years, it was the longest-running non-anthology sci-fi show of the 1960s; and its success made it possible for Allen to fairly colonize TV with his ideas.

Jonathan Harris in Lost in Space
Jonathan Harris (as Dr. Smith) and Robot from Lost in Space (Wikimedia Commons; CBS Television publicity photo, Public domain)

Possibly the most beloved of Allen’s shows was his 1965 launch, Lost in Space. A riff on The Swiss Family Robinson, right down the featured family’s last name, the series was picked up by CBS over another contender: Star Trek. Like Trek, Lost in Space had its original pilot retooled and two new characters were added: Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) and Robot. While the show never set the ratings on fire, it was a medium hit over its three seasons and particularly popular among kids. The series leaned more into the misadventures of young Will Robinson (Bill Mumy), Smith, and Robot over time; Robot’s frequent call of “Danger, Will Robinson!” became a pop culture catchphrase. The theme for the series was composed by “Johnny” Williams; Williams would handle the themes for Allen’s next two series as well, years before he became the go-to composer for Jedis, boy wizards, Nazi-punching archaeologists, and Superman.

Allen went back to ABC for The Time Tunnel in 1966; its debut gave him three simultaneously running science-fiction series, concurrent with pop phenomena like Trek and the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series. The show centered on two scientists travelling through time but unable to get back to their base (shades of the later Quantum Leap); the premise allowed for Allen and company to use preexisting sets and footage for episodes featuring the likes of Vikings and the Titanic. Though its ratings were decent, the show was a victim of network politics when a new incoming managerial regime cancelled it after one season.

Nevertheless, Allen’s last show of the ’60s, Land of the Giants, also aired on ABC. In contrast to the cost-saving measures that were endemic to the other shows, Giants had the biggest budget on TV at the time. A good chunk of the $250,000 per episode went toward effects photography and the making of, you guessed it, giant props. The show turned on a group of Earthlings stranded on a planet where the inhabitants were 12 times human size. The series was quite popular for a time, but ultimately fell victim to its own expense after two seasons.

After his four-sci-fi show run, Allen turned back to film in the ’70s with spectacular success. His productions like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno earned him the nickname “The Master of Disaster.” In the ’80s, Allen shifted back to television, making a mix of disaster-themed films and other projects, like a well-received live-action musical version of Alice in Wonderland in 1985. Allen retired the following year, and passed away in 1991. After Allen’s death, his wife, the actress and producer Sheila Allen, safeguarded his legacy on the board of Irwin Allen Productions. Sheila produced documentaries about her late husband’s work and produced 2006’s The Poseidon Adventure re-make, Poseidon. Sheila died in 2013.

The trailer for Netflix’s Lost in Space (Uploaded to YouTube by Netflix)

Today, Allen’s legacy lives on in a number of ways. Series like Lost emulated elements of his storytelling approach, and the third season of Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot series will launch sometime in 2021. Though occasionally overshadowed by their contemporaries, Allen’s shows helped compose the backbone of sci-fi on TV throughout the 1960s. Only the 253 episodes of Doctor Who that aired during that decade rival the 274 episodes of episodic sci-fi that Allen made. So while Allen’s shows are sometimes overlooked, there’s no danger, Will Robinson, of them ever being forgotten.

Featured image: Lillac / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Irwin Allen sure put out a lot of great TV shows and films in the Soaring ’60s and Sinking ’70s. I mean really, it was all enough to make an 8/9 year old boy’s head spin in 1966, and probably have Dr. Spock looking upward with his mouth open in disbelief! Oh that television: ‘Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea’, ‘The Time Tunnel’, ‘Lost In Space’, ‘Dark Shadows’, ‘Batman’ The Monkees’, ‘The Munsters’, ‘The Addams Family’! What’s a mother to do? Not get a color TV until 1971, that’s what. So used to black & white I didn’t care, to be honest.

    Thanks for the links here. I’ve got to see ‘the ’61 ‘Voyage’ film again; there’s just no two ways about it. Allen’s greatest masterpiece alongside it was ’72’s ‘The Poseidon Adventure’. Even though it was a ‘disaster’ film and shocking thriller, it was a human survival film like ‘Towering Inferno’ and ‘Earthquake’. Fortunately there was Maureen McGovern’s of ‘The Morning After’ as one of 1973’s best songs, period. The one in the film, not so much.

    When all is said and done, the 1965-’68 version of “Lost In Space” is Allen’s greatest legacy. The ’98 film was bad, and typical of films from the mid-’90s to the present. This upcoming new version linked here is exactly what I’d expect, right down to the ever-worsening “color”. At least it’s not completely in that non-color blue-gray whatever. The 2006 ‘Poseidon’ was terrible, with none of the original’s humanity, of course. I wish his wife had said no to both, God; but she didn’t.

    So even though his films ran out of gas around ’79, they’re all far superior to any crappy “remake/reboots” of his works done from the ’90s to the present, interchangeable with all the rest of the indistinguishable reshuffling of the same deck of cards; just like the music and transportation appliances.

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