Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Space Race Comes to Gilligan's Island

"There's space up there, there's space down here, and there's space between your ears!"

The Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.)

I hear people speak of "the '60s" as if the entire decade could be defined by a single word or a single movement — like Vietnam or civil rights. I suppose most previous decades were one–dimensional that way. Must have made things a whole lot simpler.

The '60s were about a lot of things — not the least of which was the space race, which had no obvious connection to Vietnam and could hardly be tied to civil rights. Perhaps not coincidentally, none of the decades since could be narrowed to a single word or phrase, either.

For American sitcoms in the 1960s, it took truly creative writing to make war or race relations into subjects for comedy. That was the kind of thing that TV's comedy writers did in the '70s with shows like All in the Family.

But the space race was different. It tapped into that American desire to explore the next frontier and pride in the courage of the first pioneers — which is why you really don't have to look far to find episodes of TV series from those days, sitcom or not, that focused on space. By its very nature, it was inspirational. It brought people together in a common cause. It wasn't a polarizing topic, like war and race.

As the episode of Gilligan's Island opened on this night in 1965, Gilligan (Bob Denver) had been hired by Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) to gather feathers to stuff a pillow for Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer), but it was strictly hush–hush. So when the Professor (Russell Johnson) and the Skipper (Alan Hale) came too close to Gilligan's hiding place for the feathers, he felt compelled to distract them so his stash wouldn't be discovered.

Well, that's what was happening on Gilligan's Island. It was the same kind of rather innocuous existence that most humans probably led the world over. Gilligan's existence, of course, was dictated by his circumstances. He and his fellow castaways occupied a part of the world that was, apparently, unexplored, but as a frontier it couldn't possibly compare to space. So I suppose that contrast, unspoken though it was, was there for the viewers to see.

Back at Mission Control, a space probe had been sent to Mars and was about to land. The folks back at Mission Control were eager to see if there was any proof of life on Mars. When I first saw this episode, it didn't occur to me that it would take many months at least for a space vehicle, even an unmanned probe, to travel from Earth to Mars. The characters at Mission Control acted almost as if they had been following this mission for a few days, as they would for a trip to the much closer moon. I guess that time discrepancy didn't occur to the adults who wrote the episode or most of the adults who watched it, either.

Somehow the probe had been diverted from its course and had landed on Gilligan's Island instead; Gilligan stumbled onto it — literally — while looking for some feathers.

The castaways, who had been keeping up with the news reports on the probe on their radio, knew when NASA would activate the camera so they were going to use that to get a message out to the world.

Unfortunately, the lens appeared to have been jostled loose when the probe landed or when Gilligan accidentally stumbled over it. Now it was missing, and the castaways had to find it before Mission Control activated the camera, which they did, but then the lens got broken — by guess who? — and had to be repaired. The castaways gathered the ingredients, and Gilligan cooked up some glue to repair the lens, and it worked — but, when he was summoned to join the others in front of the camera, he put a lid on the boiling pot of glue, and the pressure caused a glue explosion. The castaways, now covered with glue, chased Gilligan into the hut where he had been storing the feathers, and they all became unrecognizable with feathers covering their bodies.

The folks at Mission Control thought they had proven that there was life on Mars — chicken people, half man and half bird. As they watched, the Skipper chastised Gilligan and pushed him down. The observers at Mission Control tried to evaluate what they had seen.

"What's that big bird man doing to that little bird man?" one of the Mission Control people asked the other.

"I can't be sure, but I think he's trying to get him to lay an egg," came the reply.

The buzzing of the camera alerted the castaways and they looked for the signs they had prepared for the occasion, but they were behind the camera. Gilligan went to get the signs, then tripped over the camera, knocking it to the ground — and out of commission. Another opportunity for rescue had been ruined by — who else? — Gilligan.