The Time Machine (1978)

The Time Machine (1978)‘A paper cup! Of course! A small 20th Century miracle that just might work!’

A brilliant research scientist is working to invent a time machine, which he plans to use for the good of mankind. Unfortunately, his superiors don’t agree with his objectives, and he is forced to accelerate his timetable, and try the machine out for himself…

Even die-hard fans of H G Wells might be forgiven for believing there are only two film versions of his debut novel; the classic version with Rod Taylor from 1960, and the deeply flawed 2002 remake with Guy Pearce. However, in between the two, there was another; a made for TV movie from 1978 that starred John Beck.

The first problem serious fans of the source material may have with this version is that we’re not in Victorian London anymore, but modern day America. This update was quite probably inevitable, given the budget available and the target audience. No longer is the Time Traveller a lone wolf working from home either, but the star employee of the multi-national Mega Corporation. This is a perfectly logical development, given the resources that would be necessary to create a time travel device in contemporary times. Of course, it does mean that all the period charm of the original is replaced with the soulless mediocrity of open-plan office space and air conditioned ergonomics, but no matter.

Another problem is leading man Beck, who is handsome but wooden, and most likely to be remembered these days for long runs on network soap operas ‘Flamingo Road’ and ‘Dallas’. Here he rocks a porno ‘tache and a gargantuan shirt collar and saves the day with his pocket calculator when a malfunctioning Russian satellite threatens to facepalm on Los Angeles. Rather than express undying gratitude in the aftermath, his superiors order him to shelve his time travel project and work on a death ray instead. Understandably upset, he locks himselfin his lab and takes the time machine for a spin instead, much to the disappointment of veteran character actors R G Armstrong and Whit Bissell. It’s good to see Bissell messing with temporal reality again, more than a decade after he agonised over Doug and Tony’s exploits in ‘The Time Tunnel.’ There’s also a small role for John Zaremba who was a part of the ‘Tunnel’ team, and 40s veteran Rosemary DeCamp appears as Beck’s secretary.

Up to this point, proceedings have resembled nothing so much as yet another failed pilot for a US TV show in the mode of global juggernaut ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’. Such projects were a dime a dozen in the late 1970s, and inevitably featured an ‘ordinary joe’ who obtains some kind of special abilities, and goes to work for a secret government agency. But this project was actually part of a strand of TV adaptations of literary landmarks produced by the Sunn Classics studio. They were filmmakers best known for quasi-documentary features on subjects of somewhat dubious historical credibility and for TV show ‘The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.’

The Time Machine (1978)

If his machine failed, he planned to fly away on his shirt collar…

Unfortunately, the SFX are abysmal, with the sequences of Beck time travelling looking like rejected footage for a 1980s Atari video game. His machine is also a problem as it resembles a piece of Toblerone spray painted silver with some Christmas lights stuck on. There’s also a disastrous attempt to recreate the classic sequence from the 1960 film where Taylor observed the rapid changes in Victorian London as he moves through time.

The Morlocks are little more than stunt guys in masks, who Beck fights in very dark caves, presumably to conceal the fact that their subterranean city consists of no more than a tiny sound stage and a plywood control panel. Beck also stops in a couple of other time periods; founding fathers almost burn him as a witch (along with his machine, conveniently enough) and he’s rounded up by a posse and accused of bank robbery in the old west. There is a suspicion that these sequences are present because of the availability of the appropriate costumes and sets, rather than anything else, as these seem unlikely destinations for Wells’ original time traveller, even given the move to the U.S.

There is one good touch; when Beck finds his own name recorded as the inventor of the ‘Death Ray’ in the ruins of a museum in the far future. But, even this development is immediately ruined when he spends the next 5 minutes watching a documentary about the end of the world on a portable TV.

A terrible, low-resolution photocopy of a beloved original.

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