Time Tunnel lasted for only a season (1966-67), but it was an obsession; I bought (or rather, asked for) every merchandising tie-in available, a coloring book, Gold Key comics, a Viewmaster, a board game.
When the government threatens to shut down the costly Time Tunnel project for lack of verifiable results, impetuous scientist Tony (former teen idol James Darren, dark and intense in a green turtleneck sweater) decides to become a human guinea pig. He runs through the tunnel, and is transported through time and space to the Titanic hours before it hit the iceberg. Coworker Doug (Robert Colbert, tall and broad-shouldered in a dumb-looking business suit) decides to follow, for no logical reason except that he can’t imagine living without Tony.
In each episode, Doug and Tony are transported to moments of tremendous danger (Jericho just before the walls fell, Krakatoa just before it exploded, Pearl Harbor just before the attack). Fortunately, they are experts in many forms of self-defense and fluent in dozens of ancient languages. Their co-workers can only watch in horror, and sometimes repair the tunnel sufficiently to send them on a new jump to a moment of tremendous danger. “At least they’re together,” fellow scientist Lee Meriwether muses.
Doug and Tony are constantly landing on top of each other, being tied together by villains, and otherwise forced into intimate physical contact, as if the Time Tunnel is playing matchmaker. But perhaps it has no need: neither of the scientists ever refers to a wife or girlfriend back home, and only rarely do they flirt with any of the women they meet on their travels. Instead, they grab wrists, touch shoulders, wrap arms around waists, exactly like romantic partners in peril. Nearly every episode has one of them captured and imprisoned or strung up somewhere, so that the other can embark on a daring rescue and say teary-eyed, “Doug [or Tony], I thought you were. . . .”
Tied spread-eagle side by side in “Pirates of Deadman’s Island” (February 1967), they seem to be holding hands; Tony’s hand is actually poised slightly above Doug’s, but this is discernable only with a modern freeze frame. In the last episode of the series, “Town of Terror” (April 1967), Tony is startled by gunfire and jumps against Doug, pressing both hands flat against his chest, a gesture that I have seen elsewhere only in women seeking comfort in the mighty arms of men. They are being presented quite overtly as lovers.
I cannot imagine that anyone could be oblivious to the romance between Doug and Tony, even in the dark ages of 1966; certainly not the producer, Irwin Allen, whose 1970’s science fiction series often resist heteronormativity , and least of all the actors themselves. Robert Colbert, who has guested on forty years of tv programs, from Hawaiian Eye to Frasier, is best known as James Garner’s foppish (i.e., gay) brother on Maverick.
James Darren spent his twenties playing outcasts, loners, victims of prejudice, a jazz musician in love with Gene Krupa (Sal Mineo), and a race car driver so smitten with a male acquaintance that he marries his sister (in The Lively Set, 1964), while hitting the pop charts with remarkably bitter songs about romantic betrayals: “Goodbye Cruel World” (1961), “Hail to the Conquering Hero” (1962), “Pin a Medal on Joey” (1963). After Time Tunnel, he took no more outcast or loner roles. Perhaps playing someone who found love cheered him up.
By the way, in 2006 there was an execrable tv movie version that heterosexualized the characters.