The Time Machine(s)

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Rod Taylor (January 11th, 1930 to January 7th, 2015)

On January 7th, 2015, Australian actor Rod Taylor died four days short of his 85th birthday which would have been January 11th, 2015. His last screen role was in 2009, making a cameo appearance as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds, but the role that gained him most notoriety was playing the lead in the The Time Machine. Despite only being referred as “the Time Traveller” in the 1895 novel, Taylor’s character was given the name H. George Wells, after author Herbert George “H. G.” Wells; “manufactured by H. George Wells” can be seen on the control panel of the time travel device as the character hurls into the future, letting the audience understand the character is Wells himself.

George Pal, who also produced and directed the 1953 movie adaptation of  H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, led the 1960 screen adaptation of The Time Machine. The film was a success and won an Oscar for time-lapse photographic effects showing the world changing rapidly when the protagonist travels through time. Pal was already known for pioneering work with animation. He was nominated for an Oscar almost yearly during the 1940s.

Time Machine 1960 Poster

After visiting a few closer future times, the main plot of The Time Machine lands the Time Traveller in an idyllic future in which a gentle and beautiful race of humans known as the Eloi play in an Eden like paradise. Food, clothing, and shelter are provided for the Eloi who seem to want for nothing, but are childlike in their ignorance. This future, however, is not what it seems, but is actually part of the reconstruction after apocalyptic war that led humans to hide in underground shelters and over time evolve into two separate races. The sinister underground dwellers are the “sub-human” Morlocks who can not come out during the day due their sensitivity to light after having lived beneath the surface for generations, but have trained the Eloi to come to them. The Time Traveller discovers that the Morlocks are actually in control, and that the passive Eloi are merely cattle for these flesh eating “monsters.”

George Pal had always intended to make a sequel to The Time Machine, but he died before it could be produced; the end of Time Machine: The Journey Back functions as a sequel of sorts. In 1985, elements of this film were incorporated into The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, produced by Arnold Leibovit.

Russell Napier

Rod Taylor remains the distinctive face of the Time Traveller, but he was not the first to play the role; in 1949 fellow Australian actor Russell Napier took the controls of the time machine and journeyed into the future. On January 25th, 1949, the BBC broadcast the first visual adaptation of the book in a live teleplay broadcast from Alexandra Palace. No recording of this live broadcast was made; the only record of the production is the script and a few black and white still photographs. The script, however, suggests that this teleplay remained fairly faithful to the book.

1978 Time MachineAnother TV movie adaptation of The Time Machine was produced in 1978. Sunn Classic Pictures produced a television film version as a part of their “Classics Illustrated” series. It was a modernization of the Wells’ story, making the Time Traveller a 1970’s scientist working for a fictional US defence contractor, “the Mega Corporation”. Dr. Neil Perry (John Beck), the Time Traveller, is described as one of Mega’s most reliable contributors by his senior co-worker Branly (Whit Bissell, an alumnus of the 1960 adaptation). Perry’s skill is demonstrated by his rapid reprogramming of an off-course missile, averting a disaster that could destroy Los Angeles. His reputation secures a grant of $20 million for his time machine project. Although nearing completion, the corporation wants Perry to put the project on hold so that he can head a military weapon development project. Perry accelerates work on the time machine, permitting him to test it before being forced to work on the new project.

A year later saw the 1979 release of the feature film Time After Time, which while not being a direct adaptation of The Time Machine deserves a mention for its contribution to the story’s mythos. The protagonist of Time After Time is H.G. Wells himself, played my Malcolm McDowell, who invents a time machine and shows it to some friends in a manner similar to the first part of the novel. However, he does not know that one of his friends is Jack The Ripper, played by David Warner.

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H.G. Wells (McDowell) left and the Ripper (Warner) right.

The Ripper, fleeing police, escapes to the future (1979), but without a key which prevents the machine from returning home. When it does return home, Wells follows him in order to protect the future (which he imagines to be a utopia) from The Ripper.

Time After Time plays heavily upon the “fish out of water” trope to present H.G. Wells as some innocently bumbling eccentric on the streets of 1979 San Francisco, which as anyone with a basic knowledge of H.G. Wells knows is an unfair representation; Wells may have been an idealist, but he was far from naive and innocent. Perhaps the best social commentary of the film comes from Jack the Ripper’s observations that compared to the future, his violence is merely that of an “amateur.” The film is rather campy, but might be worth it alone for putting Jack the Ripper in seventies disco attire.

TImelash 1Another noteworthy mention of H.G. Wells appearing as a character in a time travel related story is Doctor Who. In the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie “The Enemy Within,” we first encounter the 7th Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, reading a copy of The Time Machine which is later picked up at the end of the movie by the now regenerated 8th Doctor, played by Paul McGann.

It is, however, in the 1985 Doctor Who story “Timelash,” with the 6th Doctor, played by Colin Baker, in which H.G. Wells is actually a character. This story was actually the last of the classic Doctor Who episodes to involve an actual historical figure, and the strong implication is that young Herbert’s adventure with the Doctor is the inspiration for his famous novel.

The most recent film adaption of The Time Machine was actually directed by H.G. Wells grandson Simon Wells. Released in 2002, the film stars, yet another Australian actor, Guy Pierce as the Time Traveller, but in this production he is given the name Alexander Hartdegen.

Time Machine 2002

Unlike previous adaptations, this version provides the Time Traveller with a much more emotionally deep rooted motivation to create the time machine in hopes of going back in time to save his beloved Emma from being murdered by a mugger, but things don’t go as planned. Hartdegen does end up in the future of the Eloi and the Morlocks and this is where plot changes in Simon Well’s version have the unfortunate effect of inadvertently losing the major theme of his grandfather’s work.

H.G. Wells believed strongly in a socialist utopian future and was an active member of the Fabian Party; as such, many of the underlying themes in his stories contain a social criticism that lead reader toward his political and sociological ideology. In War of the Worlds the invading martians with their superior technology are allegorical of European Imperialism and its ravaging actions in pre-industrial nations, and in The Time Machine Wells is making a barbed attack against the rich and over privileged; it is a novel about class warfare in which the subversive message is “eat the rich!” The effete Eloi of the novel and the 1960 movie adaptation are absolutely co-dependent on the “working class” Morlocks who labor underground to run the machinery of this future, and for them, the Eloi are food.

jeremy-irons-morlock.jpg~originalDespite being visually stunning and having perhaps the best design of the actual time machine itself, Simon Well’s version undermines the socialist plot of the novel by changing the Eloi. In this telling of the tale, the Time Traveller encounters the Eloi as a tribe of peaceful and self sufficient people. The Eloi are presented in the “noble savage” manner of a romanticized utopia in which people have returned to a “living in harmony with nature” fashion. The Morlocks at this point are reduced to a mindless race whose only control over the Eloi is to hunt and capture them, as opposed to the novel and 1960 film, in which it is the Eloi who mindlessly comply with their shepherds as they have been trained to do. There is an attempt to add some “philosophical” debate between the Time Traveller and the evil wizard like leader of the Morlocks, played by Jeremy Irons, but it only acts as yet another distraction away from the main point of the story.

Film review site Rotten Tomatoes rates the 2002 adaptation of The Time Machine at 29% with a one and a half star rating out of five, “This Machine has all the razzle-dazzles of modern special effects, but the movie takes a turn for the worst when it switches from a story about lost love to a confusing action-thriller.” It truly is a shame that this version fails to deliver as there was so much potential with a great cast and strong visuals, but ultimately it is just a pretty “razzle-dazzle.”

Over half a century since Rod Taylor took the controls of his time machine, it would appear that his portrayal of the Time Traveller is still the definitive one. A fitting tribute to his recent death, and a legacy that will live on in the hearts of many science fiction fans and the Steampunk Community. Mr. Taylor we salute you, and still ponder what three books you took with you back into the future at the end of the 1960 movie . . . ah the eternal mysteries.

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