Between 1971 and 1972, three separate live-action adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut's work hit movie theaters and television screens. Two were films: Slaughterhouse-5, which won critical acclaim, nabbing the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize Award; and an adaptation of Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which flopped pretty miserably.
The third production was released the same year as Wanda June, but came and went without much fanfare. Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy was part of the National Education Television (predecessor to PBS) series NET Playhouse, which aired from 1964 to 1972 and was a mixture of theatrical adaptations and wholly original works. Vonnegut’s contribution was a sort of Frankenstein-ing of characters and narratives from some of his most popular works: Cat's Cradle, Sirens of Titan and the short story “Harrison Bergeron.” It is also amazing.
A full-length version of Between Time and Timbuktu hard to come by, though there are some disparate clips available on YouTube. Two outlets appear to have copies for sale on DVD-R: Roberts Hard to Find Videos ($24.99) or STOJO.com (£3.99, listed as “low quality”).
Perhaps the most readily accessible full-length version is the printed script, which was published the same year the production hit the small screen. It features the full shooting script, production stills and a fantastic preface from Vonnegut himself, in which he announces his retirement from film:
Between Time and Timbuktu is a pretty solid note to go out on. The script was written primarily by David Odell, a television writer and director who would later go on to win an Emmy for his work on The Muppet Show. Vonnegut himself contributed as a consultant, saying that helping to put the script together made him feel a bit like Dr. Moreau from H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. He wasn’t far off in making that connection, as Between Time and Timbuktu, with its jammed-together scenes from different Vonnegut works, has a sort of jangly, eerie feeling, similar to the hideous beasts the madcap Moreau stitches together.
The chief narrative of Between Time and Timbuktu follows Stony Stevenson, a minor character from Sirens of Titan, as he becomes the first civilian to ever fly into space. A seemingly unemployed wannabe poet, Stony secures the opportunity by winning the “Blast-Off Space Food” jingle contest and, despite confused protest from his mother, is whisked away to undergo an intensive, three-month astronautic crash course. The main purpose of Stony’s trip is to reach the “chronosynclastic infundibulum,” a time-warp of sorts which was described in The Sirens of Titan as a wormhole which allows for a simultaneous existence in the past, present and future — or, as Vonnegut put it, it takes you to “these places where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch.”
Stony blasts into space, and it takes several months for him to reach the time warp. In between checking in with Stony via mission control, the story dips in and out of news broadcasts, anchored by the legendary comedy duo Bob and Ray (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding), who respectively play the parts of Bud Williams Jr., former astronaut, and Walter Gesundheit, television broadcaster.
Bob and Ray’s newsdesk interstitials just about steal the show as they deliver absurd bits in the driest manner, kind of like Vonnegut’s prose. The funniest scene is an extended, seemingly improvised bit where the two debate what the first words from the first moon excursion were while awaiting a missive from Stony:
Eventually, Stony reaches the chronosynclastic infundibulum, at which point he can experience multiple realities all at once. He zips from the island of San Lorenzo, where he encounters Bokonon and his followers from Cat’s Cradle to a television studio in the far future, where he witnesses Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, shoot down Harrison Bergeron with a shotgun for removing his state-mandated handicaps. Stony has no control as to where he lands, much like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-5, who becomes “unstuck in time,” and endures near-constant leaps through history without any warning.
Despite this slapdash cobbling-together, Between Time and Timbuktu is truly hilarious, dark and bizarre. It’s unclear what exactly the overarching message is, but it doesn’t really matter as the ride through Stony’s multiple existences coupled with Bob and Ray is just plain fun. And, what’s more, it truly honors Vonnegut’s voice.
In the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu, Vonnegut makes this remark about his influences:
"I would like to say something about American comedians: They are often as brilliant and magical as our best jazz musicians, and they have probably done more to shape my thinking than any other writer."
That comedic sensibility, while present in nearly all of Vonnegut’s work, is especially palpable in Between Time and Timbuktu. It’s a shame the television special never gained any big time, commercial success because if it did, it probably wouldn’t be so hard to snag an actual copy of the damn thing. But, as Vonnegut himself might say: So it goes.