Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Locked in Time: Time Machine Classics [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The fourteenth episode of the popular sit-com The Big Bang Theory, "The Nerdmabelia Scattering," featured a prop from George Pal's 1960 film The Time Machine. The four main characters go in together to buy the original time machine prop, leading to neurotic Sheldon Cooper's dreaming and crying out, "Not flesh-eating Morlocks!" The disk-backed machine is described by Penny as "something Elton John drives through the Everglades!" But my favorite joke was when the guys simulated the sped-up time effect from the movie, pretending to be moving at advanced speed like the people in the street. Besides being hilarious, this cultural reference to the 1960 film is very telling. The show did not feature any references to the 1978 TV movie or the 2002 film. Why? Because no one, despite big budgets and CGI, has surpassed George Pal's film.

Of all the films based on HG Wells' four major SF themes, "The Time Machine" has received the least formal adaptations. This is probably due to the expensive nature of creating a future world. The concept of time travel has become widely familiar though, from comedies to super-hero fare. Anyone from the Three Stooges to the Flash can travel in time. The idea became a mainstream trope while actual adaptations of the story have been sparse.

"The Time Machine" (1895) catapulted HG Wells into the top tier of science fiction writers. The story (some call it a short novel) follows an anonymous inventor who goes to the future, seeking a time when Science will have solved all of humankind's problems. What he finds instead is a garden world populated by two separate races: the Eloi, with their pleasant bovine simplicity, and the evil Morlocks, dwelling below with their sinister machines. The tale works on so many levels that I've re-read it more times than any other of Wells' stories. The SF extrapolation is wonderful, following a split in the human species, as well as a look at the eventual death of the solar system. This post-Morlock portion of the tale has been as inspirational as the first part, influencing writers like William Hope Hodgson and John W Campbell. Wells also uses fantasy tropes like the dream journey and return, but the story also works as a horror tale, with the Morlocks slowly exposed and their terrible secret revealed. Perhaps most important to Wells is that the story is also a socialist cautionary tale about the division between proletariat and those who exploit them.

The very first TV adaptation was made by the BBC and appeared January 25, 1949. No recordings of this show exist. The Time Traveler was played by Russell Napier and Mary Donn was Weena. The script shows a fairly accurate adaptation and the photos look like typical BBC television, shot on a stage but with impressive sets.

Eleven years later, science fiction filmmaker George Pal would bring the story to blazing color with astounding special effects. The classic film starred Rod Taylor as the Time Traveler and Yvette Mimieux as Weena. The film won an Academy Award for its time-lapse photography. It is this film that gave us the chair with the spinning dish that supplied the prop for that episode of Big Bang. Unlike Pal's adaptation of The War of the Worlds (1953), this film did not update the setting but stays in the Victorian age of Wells. Because of this, the time machine does not have a futuristic look, but a quaint Steampunkish one. The only deviation from Wells' vision is the deletion of the scene where he goes beyond the Morlocks to see the end of the Earth.

Pal's film lingered on in TV reruns and re-releases at theaters for decades. It took until 1978 for someone to approach the material again, this time as a television movie, part of Sunn Pictures' Classics Illustrated series. Sadly, the producers updated the background, making the Time Traveler, played by John Beck, a scientist working for the military. The theme of the piece is also updated to being about the military industrial complex and not humanity's overall evolution. The film has numerous strikes against it. First, the almost Western-style music. This, along with jaunts back to a Salem-style witch-burning and the Old West, brand the picture as very American in what was a quintessential British novel. These past episodes take up almost half the movie, leaving only the last 50 minutes for the Eloi. The bad writing is accompanied with much bad acting. Priscilla Barnes, as Weena, is the only convincing performer.

There is a good laugh for people today when we learn that in 2004, in a world with environmental challenges, a three-day work week and test tube babies, World War III breaks out and annihilates the planet. Humans are driven underground and only the Eloi choose to come up again, leaving the underworld to the Morlocks, who look like Frankenstein monsters with glowing eyes. What was a series of fascinating mysteries and reveals in the novel is baldly and boringly stated in this film. Even the message of peace is twisted when the Time Traveler helps the Eloi to destroy the Morlocks. Wells would never have done this for he knew that the Eloi are too docile and stupid to produce clothing, food and other things necessary to survive. The Time Traveler returns to Weena when he learns the corporation he has blindly worked for, wants to use the time machine as a spying tool to keep their competitive edge on all future technology.

If the 1978 film was a disappointment, the 2002 film by Wells' grandson, Simon Wells, was an intriguing failure. Guy Pierce plays the Time Traveler, appropriately set before the turn-of-the-century, but in America. He is Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, a professor of Engineering at Columbia. The film supplies a romantic back-story in which Hartdegen's fiancée is killed. Using the time machine he tries to change the past, but finds doing so only causes her death in other ways. Disconsolate, he goes into the future to find Earth being ravaged by the destruction of the Moon. In this future time he encounters Vox, the computer library, played wonderfully by Orlando Jones. Later in the film he would encounter him again, in the dilapidated library of the Eloi. Jones is funny, singing an imaginary Andrew Lloyd Weber musical based on Wells' book, but he even manages to make us a little sad for the AI personality that can forget nothing. He also supplies the background info that is usually done at this point in the story. In many ways the film is an homage to the 1960 and even the 1978 films. Hartdegen's design has the same levers and spinning disk (though two) that we all know. The time lapse sequences use the same growing plants and passing suns that the other films did. And like the other two, the sequence after the Morlocks is ignored.

Now the bad news: once the time traveler goes 800,000 years into the future, the film stumbles. The success of the recent Tim Burton film, The Planet of the Apes, had a dire influence on the producers. The Morlocks are no longer small, apish creatures but several separate types, one large and brutish and the other thin and vampire-like, their king played well by Jeremy Irons. The Eloi are no longer pleasure-seeking cows but barbarians living in huts built on the sides of cliffs. I imagine the producers did not want the second portion to slow in momentum, taking their time to slowly reveal the Morlocks. Instead they dove Planet of the Apes-style into a world of hunter and hunted. The second half tries to be an action film and loses itself for a while. This said, much is the same as the 1960 film, with the main character's discovering the Morlocks' slaughterhouse and the eventual destruction of the underground caves. Before this, Hartdegen and the Morlock King get to argue about evolution and time paradoxes. They fight it out on the time machine instead of the usual bunch of Morlocks and the film ends with the machine destroyed. Hartdegen, with his Weena (named Mara) at his side, is ready to face an uncertain future. Even though the earlier parts of the film played homage to 1960 (like the dresses in the shop window), the second half tries to satisfy action fans and fails.

One side film I would like to mention is Time After Time (1979). This film featured Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells, who has created an actual time machine, and David Warner as Jack the Ripper. The Ripper's killing spree ends because he steals the time machine and escapes to our time. Wells follows him to the future and has to hunt the madman down. The film was directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer, who had a bestseller with the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Seven Per Cent Solution (1974). The movie also stars Mary Steenbergen as the love interest, Amy, who would appear in another time travel franchise, Back to the Future. Time After Time is a delightful bit of fun for Wells fans, but isn't actually an adaptation. The Ripper's death is similar to that of the Morlock King twenty-three years later and I have to wonder if the film didn't have some influence.

The legacy of Wells' "The Time Machine" is too wide to clearly outline. His idea of traveling in time has been part of so many science fiction novels, TV shows, comic books and films. Without the Time Traveler's adventures there is no Captain Kirk going back to 1968 in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" or saving whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. No Red Dwarf. No Doctor Who or Back to the Future. No crappy ending of Superman II. Mainstreamed SF like The Lake House by James Patterson or better yet, Somewhere In Time by Richard Matheson. Classics like The Door Into Summer by Robert A Heinlein, "The Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury, "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock, and on and on and on... Time travel is one of the major SF themes and like so many others, the man who gave it to us went by the name of Wells.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

A thoughtful look back at the book's influence and how its adaptations have been shaped the times that made them.

Dave said...

I am a big fan of your site. The original Time Machine is my favorite all time Science Fiction movie. Have you read it's sequel Time Machine II? You can buy it on Amazon.
As you can see, it is co-written by George Pal himself and takes the story further. I really enjoyed it.


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