Monday, February 20, 2017

A Capsule Full of Castaways

On this night in 1967, the world was a little over two years from man's first walk on the surface of the moon.

Space travel was a hot subject on television in those days and a fertile topic for episodes of TV series, especially sitcoms like Gilligan's Island, which aired an intriguing space travel–related episode on this night 50 years ago.

The episode was called "Splashdown," and it was really two stories in one — featuring two space capsules, one carrying a two–man crew and the other unmanned. The mission called for the two to rendezvous in space. Pretty inventive, considering the kinds of space–related episodes that tended to be shown on TV in those days.

It was a grim time for America's space program; idled by the recent deaths of the Apollo 1 crew, it would not resume manned space flights for more than a year.

Incidentally, though, while the name of the episode may be an obscure term to modern viewers, anyone who was alive at the time would instantly recognize a splashdown as the final phase of any space mission.

The emphasis in the first half of the episode was on the manned space flight. The Professor (Russell Johnson) had concluded that the capsule would be directly over the island a few times as it orbited the planet, and he was determined to establish some kind of contact.

Gilligan (Bob Denver), in his usual knee–jerk way, ran off to inform the other castaways that they were going to be rescued — but they all got the idea that the astronauts had splashed down in the lagoon.

The Professor had to explain to them that he had an idea for contacting the capsule. He would use the radio to send a signal when the capsule would be closest to the island. Since he could only transmit a weak signal, he wanted to build a directional cone to improve the strength. To operate it, Gilligan, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.), Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) and Ginger (Tina Louise) would ride bicycle–like contraptions to generate energy. That attempt failed.

Then the castaways recalled that, in an earlier mission, one of the U.S. astronauts had reported seeing the lights of Houston as his capsule passed over. That gave the Professor the idea of cutting down some logs and fashioning a large SOS that would be set on fire when the astronauts were almost directly above them during their next orbit. That was a plan that might have worked — if not for Gilligan, who backed into a torch while he and the Skipper were lighting the logs and knocked some of the logs out of place as he made a beeline for a tub of water.

The astronauts saw the message — but now it read SOL, not SOS, and the astronauts thought it was a greeting. You see, one of the astronauts was named Sol.

Thus the manned capsule exited the story, but the unmanned capsule was about to enter, and it actually did splash down in the lagoon.

The castaways heard on the radio that the capsule had been on the radar of naval ships in the area which would be looking for it because it contained sensitive space data it had gathered. It was decided that the capsule would be set adrift with two people on board who would direct the ships to the island to rescue the other castaways. The Professor insisted that Gilligan and the Skipper should be on the capsule — but the other castaways also wanted to be on board, and they plotted to stow away. Before daylight the next morning, first the Howells (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer) and then Mary Ann and Ginger crept to the lagoon to be in the capsule before Gilligan and the Skipper came to board it at the crack of dawn.

Not realizing that four other people were hidden in the capsule, the Skipper and Gilligan found the capsule too heavy to launch and started throwing overboard anything that wasn't nailed down.

That was when the four stowaways were discovered, and everyone got off the capsule. Gilligan kept an eye on it while the Professor lectured the four, warning them of the consequences of pulling such a stunt, then said there was still time to get the capsule out to sea where it could be spotted by the search vessels. Gilligan had been trying to get their attention, but he was ignored until the Professor was finished.

Then he was given the chance to speak, and he reported that the capsule had broken loose and drifted over to the other side of the lagoon. It appeared to be one more instance of Gilligan's incompetence. After all, the assumption was that he had permitted the capsule to do what it did — and because of that one more chance to be rescued had been fouled up.

What the castaways didn't know — and the viewers did know — was that the folks back at mission control had decided to call off the search and were going to detonate the capsule by remote control rather than take the chance of allowing sensitive information to fall into the wrong hands.

As the castaways looked forlornly at the capsule — which, to them, might as well have been on the moon — it blew up, scattering debris everywhere. The castaways, too, scattered.

For one of the few times they were on the island, Gilligan's incompetence did not cost the castaways their long–desired rescue. It saved their lives.