In the middle of a New Orleans Mardi Gras, another victim (this time a fifteen-year-old girl) comes down with the feverish symptoms of "XB," a disease with a forty-percent mortality rate. Overworked university pathologist Dr. Clinton Earnshaw needs bacteriologists and virologists to keep the contagion from blossoming into an epidemic. This may be why he's so rude to offers of help from visitor Jeff Adams, who isn't either. Allen's announcement that a White House jet is waiting for the two of them, however, causes Earnshaw to take him a bit more seriously.
Aboard the jet, Jeff and Clint discuss Dr. Joshua Henderson, a physician who cured many cases of the disease back when it was known as "woods fever," but died in the Great Chicago Fire over a hundred years ago. Jeff hints that Clint might find out the secret of Henderson's cures -- by talking with Henderson.
At their destination, a private research center located in a ranch house (location unidentified), Clint is introduced to two more people: Dr. Helen Sanders, and Nobel-winning physicist Dr. Amos Cummings. The secret that Jeff hinted at is revealed: from this ranch house, they will be travelling back in time to just a few days before the Great Chicago Fire. The laws of time travel prevent them from changing history, but they hope that Clint's medical knowledge will help them figure out Henderson's cure and bring it back to the modern day.
The time travel puts Clint and Jeff down in the wrong place and time: in the middle of Chicago rather than in the quiet, rural spot on the North Side that was planned, and instead of having four days in which to work, they only have 29 hours before the Fire begins.
Clint and Jeff, pretending to have been sent by the Surgeon General, meet up with Dr. Joshua Henderson (played by talented actor Richard Basehart) and his daughter Jane Henderson (played by Trish Stewart). Clint and Jane soon fall for each other. Meanwhile, Dr. Henderson reveals that even he doesn't know why his patients get better.
Clint tries to piece together the answer from blood samples that come from different patients, but contracts XB himself. Dr. Henderson discovers that they are not who they say they are, and they have to prove to him that they are, in fact, from the future. Finally, they discover the secret: the elderberry wine with which he has his patients wash down placebos contains a previously unknown antibiotic.
Jeff manages to secure a sample of the elderberry wine to take back, but as time is running out and the fire rages, the feverish Clint wants to stay with Jane Henderson. Jeff argues with him, and finally has to carry Clint back to the rendezvous point after he collapses.
Back in the future, Clint recovers from XB -- a case he might have caught in the present day, or in 1871. Jeff, at Clint's request, finds the tombstone of Jane Henderson in an Illinois cemetery, and discovers that Jane died the same night as her father, in the Great Chicago Fire.
Jeff Adams attended a "cow college" on an athletic scholarship, and "barely got" his M.A. His records could not have been too bad, however, since he was accepted for astronaut training after that, where he learned the useful trick of "instant sleep" -- refreshing himself with instant short-duration naps.
He realized, however, that he was "too old for the Moon program, and too young for the Mars program." (The mention of a Mars program is the only indicator, by the way, that the time travelers are from the near future rather than the present day.) Presumably it was at NASA that he met Dr. Cummings, and had the opportunity to join the time research project, which he considered more exciting.
Memorable quote: "I fell in love with history. That's where the people are."
It's clear that Jeff isn't reluctant to use a bit of trickery to accomplish what he needs to do. He holds back the nature of the time research project in order to get Clint to the ranch house, and on the mission, he uses several ploys of misdirection beyond just the obvious need to keep up their cover story.
Clint finished medical school at the age of 23, and in his late twenties or early thirties, is a pathologist at "the University." He was the first one to identify XB, and possibly the first to recognize the connection between XB and "woods fever" of 1871.
Clint is brusque and impatient when he's first introduced, but this seems to be mostly due to the pressure he's under. Once he realizes that the time research project is real, and holds the hope of stopping the XB epidemic, he is willing to do his part -- though he doesn't really believe what will happen until he's actually in the past.
It's clear that Clint is more than a little driven. One of the reasons he falls for Jane Henderson is that she makes him aware of the experiences he's left out of his life. Then again, that driven quality is what allows him to continue working even after he's come down with woods fever himself.
Not much is revealed about Dr. Sanders except that she has five degrees, from Oxford and Cal Tech among others. She presents Jeff with the bag that Clint will carry into the past; the bag has a layer of medical equipment appropriate to the period, and a secret compartment with minaturized, battery-operated modern equipment. Jeff compliments her on the workmanship, so she may be a historian responsible for the period equipment, an engineer responsible for the hidden equipment, or both. Certainly both would be needed on such a project.
Dr. Sanders seems more attuned to people's feelings than either of her co-workers are. She also seems more concerned about honesty in her dealings; she is the one who makes sure Clint knows what he's getting into.
Dr. Amos Cummings, middle-aged in contrast to his thirtyish colleagues, is a Nobel-winning physicist. Apparently, he's of some fame; Clint recognizes him by name, and mentions that he thought Cummings had moved to Africa. Dr. Cummings left NASA and a chair in physics to begin the time research project; he considers that he only left "specialization."
Dr. Cummings is clearly excited about time research and all there still is to learn; he talks eloquently about regaining knowledge from the past, and being able to start at the root of the tree of knowledge.
It's possible that he's a little too enraptured by intellectual discovery: Clint is less than thrilled when he discovers that he and Jeff were returned from the past to New Orleans rather than to the ranch house, a procedure that had never been tried before; and Dr. Cummings seems more excited by when Clint caught his case of XB than the fact that he's recovering.
The research center is located inside a large, tastefully furnished ranch house. Its location is unknown, though it's far enough from New Orleans that a jet is dispatched for the trip from one to the other. There is apparently a rather large basement where the time-travel apparatus is located.
Most of the time travel seems to be made possible by the computers in a mid-sized, windowless control room. The control room is not decorated; there is, however, a 30,000-year-old arrowhead made of black stone kept under a glass dome. This is presumably kept in memory of a deceased time researcher, who returned with the arrowhead in his back.
Clint and Jeff walk down a wide stairway to enter the past. The stairway descends into a faintly bluish fog that looks like a clouded sky seen from above. The time travel activates while they are entering the fog, and deposits them in the past.
Time travel is unreliable; Clint and Jeff land on a crowded stairway in central Chicago, rather than the quiet rural area on the North Side they had planned on. They also arrive twenty-nine hours, rather than the planned four days, before the Great Chicago Fire sweeps through the city.
Time does not pass during a trip into the past. This does not mean that you can take as long as you like in the past; it is crucial to be at the exact spot where you landed at exactly the time that the return transfer happens. (A previous time researcher, unnamed, was "twenty minutes late" in returning. He did return -- dead, decomposed, with 30,000 year-old arrowhead in his back.)
Even though there have been plenty of time-travel stories and series in the history of television, they can vary widely depending on what "rules" for time travel are established. Unlike Irwin Allen's previous time-travel experiment, "The Time Tunnel," the rules are fairly well established here: You can go back in time, but you can't change history; and you'd better make the rendezvous for the return to the future.
However, the rules get problematic when examined more closely. (Which is usually the case with time travel.) Clint thinks that Jeff could not have killed Sharkey, the sailor, because that would have been changing history. Yet when time is running out, Jeff grabs Henderson's records, presumably with the belief that he can bring them back through time. And the travelers successfully return with the vital new antibiotic.
One could say that both the antibiotic and the records would have been destroyed by the fire, so taking them through a hole in time instead doesn't change history. That view of history, however, has been proven untrue by chaos theory; even the presence of a few extra ounces of ash in the remains of the fire could have changed the course of history.
It seems more plausible, then, that the prohibition against 'changing history' is not an absolute barrier; rather, changing too much history is either not possible or causes tremendous backlash -- which might explain how the luckless fourth time explorer suffered his fate.
Who knows about the time travel project? Obviously, someone connected with the White House did, but it's not certain how far down the levels of government the secret is shared. Hopefully we'd never have seen yet another scenario where a scientist hurls himself or herself into the time-stream when the government bureaucrats threaten to stop the funding.
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