Friday, January 30, 2015

Blazing the Trail for Sitcoms' Social Consciousness

Fifty years ago tonight, Gilligan's Island hosted an unusual guest.

Now, mind you, the island was always being visited, as I mentioned in this space before, by someone. But the guests were usually human. On this night 50 years ago, the guest definitely was not human.

The U.S. Air Force decided to test a new missile on an island that, as far as the Air Force was concerned, was completely uninhabited. The Air Force had announced that the missile could kill every living thing within a 100–mile radius so an uninhabited island was deliberately chosen. You guessed it. The uninhabited island was Gilligan's island, which was definitely inhabited — by the castaways.

What I am about to say never occurred to me when I was a child watching reruns of Gilligan's Island — but it did occur to me years later. The episode that aired 50 years ago tonight, "X Marks the Spot," was an early example of TV mirroring the anxiety of Americans about and assuming its role in an ongoing political discussion of the issues of the day. On this night, it was Americans' growing concerns about nuclear missiles and radiation. At the time, the United States was trying to develop smaller but higher–yield warheads to arm its missiles.

Until this night 50 years ago, TV regarded its primary function to be entertainment. Serious topics were primarily covered in newscasts and the occasional documentary. Otherwise, TV was about escapism.

The country was only a couple of years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War was really warming up. In the episode, the castaways first learned of the missile and assumed they would die when it detonated on their island. Consequently, they began acting extraordinarily nice to each other, but then the Professor (Russell Johnson) remembered that, before conducting such a test, the military sent out a plane to scout the area and be absolutely certain no people were on the intended target. The castaways then began to put together a huge mirror to use to reflect the rays of the sun to attract the pilots' attention, but Gilligan (Bob Denver) managed to break the mirror.

Thus, with no boat to carry them to safety, the castaways had no choice but to wait for the missile to come.

However, it turned out that there were technical difficulties with the missile so an unarmed missile was sent instead to test the guidance system. The castaways didn't know that so, when it failed to detonate, the Professor (Russell Johnson) grew concerned that the experimental warhead might still go off; as a result, he dispatched Gilligan (Bob Denver) to climb inside the missile and try to disarm it.

That was just one of several slapstick moments. Trusting something as sensitive as disconnecting the right wires to Gilligan was inviting disaster — but Gilligan was the only one who could fit in the missile so they had no choice. Of course, he did it wrong and caused a short circuit, which in turn ignited the missile's engines and sent it careening around the island.

There are always purists, and I have heard people complain about technical aspects of the story that were blatantly mistaken.

A ballistic missile would never land intact the way it did on Gilligan's Island, I was once told. Only the nose cone — the unmanned capsule at the tip (which carries the warhead) — would land. The other stages would fall away as they served their purposes.

OK, I concede the technical points. But adhering to the technical aspects would have robbed the story of its gags. Gilligan's Island was, after all, a sitcom, and it deserved credit for being topical — if not entirely accurate — at a time when few sitcoms were tackling current events topics. It would be several more years before sitcoms became so topical.

The castaways of Gilligan's Island were pioneers 50 years ago tonight.