Irwin Allen was either the worst or the best producer of TV science fiction in the world, depending entirely upon your point of view.
Irwin Allen produced four of the best known science fiction series of all time through the sixties and early seventies – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. The first one started life as a movie starring Walter Pidgeon, the second two become kitsch movies in the 1990s and no-one’s had a go at the fourth one yet, but it is probably only a matter of time.
None of the series had any pretensions to great art or deep concepts, but, as Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin might say, “By Crikey, they were entertaining.”
Irwin Allen deserved the nickname “Mr. Entertainment,” if anybody did. He was born in New York in 1916. He was given no particular advantages as a child – he attended public schools and when on to study journalism and advertising at Columbia University. At the tender age of 22, he became editor of “Key” magazine in Hollywood, and within a year was working as the producer of a one-hour show for radio station KLAC. His reputation of a workaholic started to form as he wrote, narrated, produced and directed the show which ran without a break for more than a decade.
As television began to make inroads into the entertainment business, Allen took his imagination to the small screen and came up with America’s first celebrity panel game, Hollywood Merry Go Round, which ran for four years.
In his spare time – what spare time there was, anyway – Allen went on to run his own literary agency, which led in turn to him putting together ‘packages’ for motion pictures.
His first Oscar was for The Sea Around Us which starred Rachel Carson, and for which Allen wrote the screenplay and produced. His stock was high with the Hollywood studios, and he went on to produce and direct the circus flick The Big Circus. He switched studios to Twentieth Century Fox and produced his first Sci Fi-Fantasy movie The Lost World, starring Michael Rennie.
Small screen success
His next science fiction epic, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, starred Walter Pidgeon at the helm of a futuristic nuclear-powered submarine, the Seaview. The Van Allen belts which surround the Earth caught fire, and the Seaview is all that stands between the human race and extinction in a planet-wide slow cooker. But it led to a spin-off TV series, which saw the Seaview take on a variety of undersea adventures in more than 110 episodes from 1964 to 1968. Sadly, the series degenerated over the years until it became a parody of itself. (I vaguely remember a series of monsters which generated fear – one was called the fear monster. Anyway, once they’d run out of fear spiders and fear jelllyfish, they ended up with a fear phobia, which seemed something of a contradiction in terms). The series economically used, re-used and and re-used again stock special effects footage of the Seaview underway, surfacing, and diving, and so on – a tradition which later Irwin Allen productions (and indeed most other science fiction series) repeated.
1964 was a bumper year for Allen – another long-running series that debuted that year was Flipper, which also ran to 1968 and featured the Ricks family who lived and worked in a Florida marine reserve with a friendly pet dolphin, Flipper. The series – filmed entirely in colour – lived on for decades in syndication and is still a staple of cable nostalgia channels.
A year later, Allen came up with another hit series, this time in outer space. Lost in Space featured Dr. John Robinson and his wife, Maureen; their children, Judy, Penny, and Will; their pilot, Don; and their robot, imaginatively named “The Robot.” Dr. Zachary Smith stowed away, throwing their spaceship off course (hence the title) and they spent the next three years (recurring) trying to find their way home. Similar production values to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea ensured plenty of carrot monsters (which, curiously, often look like the previous series lobster men). I watched it as a child and thought it was a great. My little boy watched re-runs at the same age as I did and dismissed it as silly. That goes to show we were less sophisticated in the olden days. (Trivia fans note that when CBS was looking around for ideas for the series, they called in a producer from another studio to talk about his plans. They turned them down as being too cerebral. That producer’s name? Gene Roddenberry. Paramount/Viacom hasn’t done badly out of his Star Trek franchise, all things considered.)
The Time Tunnel was less successful, only running for thirty episodes. The premise of the series was great – two scientists taking part in a U.S. government project are accidentally flung back in time. Sadly, history repeated itself and the plots did too, and The Time Tunnel came to a dead end.
In Land of the Giants, a routine space flight spirals out of control and lands on what the crew think is Earth, only to find it is populated by huge human beings, and they are the size of dolls. The series was the same as the other three in many ways, but had a darker edge to it, with less sympathetic and stereotypical characters and a genuine air of menace from time to time. At least there were no carrot monsters. The series lasted from 1968 to 1970.
Back to the big screen
Irwin Allen’s astonishing career continued to bloom, cornering the market in disaster movies. The Poseidon Adventure was a world-wide megahit based (very loosely) on a Paul Gallico novel. The Towering Inferno starred the entire population of Hollywood in a burning building. The Swarm is, arguably, one of the worst movies of all time but features a constellation of A-list celebrities being attacked by killer bees. Irwin Allen continued to work on TV, but now mostly in Made-for-T.V. Movies such as Fire!, Flood!, and When Time Ran Out…
Time ran out for the Master of Disaster in 1991, when he suffered a heart attack and died. By then Irwin Allen was one of the best known names in Hollywood, with a string of hugely successful TV series and film productions to his credit.
So was he any good? No one could survive as long and as successfully in Hollywood without being good. Allen’s great talent was to take an idea and make it run, and run, and run. Sometimes, as in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the idea was stretched so thin it became invisible. Other shows, like Land of the Giants had genuine moments of well acted and well produced drama. Allen had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the way Hollywood worked. After all, very few people have worked in radio, TV, and film, as a writer, producer, and director. He had, in fact, done it all, and been a success at all of it. Whether you love his stuff or hate it, you have to admit he did what he did very well.