Monday, March 27, 2017

Up, Up and Away

On this night in 1967 the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a great space race. Their international competition to see who could get to the moon first was constantly in the news, and both countries were inclined to jealously guard their information about everything anyway, not just space exploration, although that was high on the list.

Well, that is what I have heard. My memories of the space race are not as clear as they would be if I had been older so I was unaware of any cloak–and–dagger stuff that might have been going on. It really wouldn't surprise me, though, given the atmosphere of fear and suspicion in those Cold War days. Even at my tender age, I was aware of that much. The race was with the Russians, and it had implications that went far beyond space and the moon. The Russians couldn't be permitted to know any of our secrets, even if those secrets meant nothing to national security in the long run.

I guess I always assumed that the Russian people were subjected to the same kind of propaganda that the Americans were. Considering the nature of the Soviet government, it was probably likely.

So it wasn't hard for audiences to accept the national security angle to the episode of Gilligan's Island that first aired 50 years ago tonight, "It's a Bird, It's a Plane." They were conditioned to it.

When the episode began, an experimental jet pack had fallen overboard from a naval ship and drifted to the island, where Gilligan (Bob Denver) discovered it in the lagoon.

Gilligan recognized the resemblance to a pack worn by fictional space traveler Buck Rogers. The Professor (Russell Johnson) recognized the potential the pack had to be their long–sought rescue.

The mere fact that the jet pack was missing was enough for the frantic folks back on the mainland to launch a massive search of the area. This had happened before during the series' three–year run. Amazingly no one ever came across Gilligan's little island during one of those searches when — presumably — no stone (metaphorically speaking) would be left unturned.

Initially the idea on the island was that someone would strap on the jet pack and fly to Hawaii, but the Professor wanted to evaluate the matter first. While he was doing that, both the Howells (Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) and the girls (Dawn Wells, Tina Louise) tried to trick Gilligan into strapping on the jet pack and taking off.

The efforts were thwarted, though. The Professor had come up with a plan that wasn't as dangerous as having one of the castaways fly over the ocean to Hawaii. They would construct a dummy to precise height and weight specifications, strap on the jet pack and aim it at the right trajectory to fly to Hawaii with a note attached to it alerting the authorities to their location.

But Gilligan accidentally wound up riding the dummy through the jungle and burning up most of the fuel. There was enough left for maybe a 15–minute flight.

And then the castaways were given a reason to use it for that purpose.

The search ships would be in their area the next day — according to the radio (which, remarkably, always started reporting on precisely whatever the castaways wanted to hear about the minute they switched on the radio). It was decided that someone would take that 15–minute flight to draw the ships' attention.

What remained was to choose who would take the flight. They needed to undergo a test to see who was least likely to become dizzy and light–headed.

So all four men climbed into a cylindrical contraption that could be made to spin when someone rode a stationary bicycle to generate power. When they emerged, Gilligan was the only one who wasn't dizzy or light–headed so he was chosen to fly when the search party was in the area.

The Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) had an explanation for that. Gilligan, he said, was "dizzy and light–headed all the time — he's just used to it."

So Gilligan piloted the jet pack — with the radio hanging around his neck so he could hear news reports. And he did hear one — the sighting of a UFO from one of the search ships. Not realizing that the report was actually the sighting of Gilligan, he ducked into a cloud — and created an unexpected shower. The Navy called off the search.

Once again, Gilligan had thwarted a rescue.