Times Staff Writer

To test its response under war conditions, a U.S. Trident submarine is assigned to carry out a secret exercise in which everyone but the top officers on board will be led to believe that conflict has begun and they must launch their nuclear weapons.

"The whole thing is crazy," the executive officer says.

It certainly is. "The Fifth Missile," a three-hour movie that NBC has scheduled Sunday night (8-11 p.m., Channels 4, 36 and 39) against the beginning of miniseries on CBS and ABC, has to be the season's most ludicrously contrived story (topping even the mean-spirited "Dynasty" plot in which Krystle Carrington was locked up and tormented while a look-alike was living in her home and trying to poison her husband, Blake).

"The Fifth Missile" asks that all-important question: What would happen if the commander of a nuclear submarine went bananas during a war game because he'd inadvertently been sniffing toxic paint fumes?

Why, then it would be up to the executive officer to try to keep him from starting World War III. The officer would be able to do this because, while the rest of the crew also has been affected by inhaling the same poisonous fumes--strangely, though, they only get cranky, not loony--he is immune thanks to the tranquilizers he's taking, which, don't you know, would render him unfit for command if the Navy only knew.

A review of its drug policies obviously is in order.

Even if the plot weren't so inconsistent and illogical, the movie would be laughable for its inertia. Someone apparently forgot to tell director Larry Peerce that this was supposed to be exciting. His pacing fails to build tension and he has gotten performances from stars David Soul, Robert Conrad, Sam Waterston and Richard Roundtree that are low-key to the point of being lifeless.

Based on the novel "The Gold Crew," by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, "The Fifth Missile" was written by Eric Bercovici, who also served as executive producer. Arthur Fellows was the producer.

Setting sail against the NBC movie at 9 p.m. are "Blood & Orchids" on CBS (Channels 2 and 8), a two-part drama about a 1930s rape case in Hawaii, starring Jane Alexander and a beardless Kris Kristofferson, and "Crossings" on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42), a three-part miniseries set on an ocean liner in 1939, with Jane Seymour, Cheryl Ladd, Christopher Plummer and Lee Horsley.

"The Fifth Missile" isn't the only misguided TV movie scheduled Sunday. "The Girl Who Spelled Freedom," which airs at 7 p.m. (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42), shoots down its good intentions with a bad case of cultural bias.

The title of the film and the manner in which ABC has been promoting it would suggest that the movie is about young Linn Yann, a Cambodian refugee who came with her mother and siblings to Chattanooga in 1979 under the sponsorship of George and Prissy Thrash, a well-to-do white couple with one daughter. Within four years, Linn had learned English well enough to win the local spelling bee.

It sounds tailor-made for the family-oriented "Disney Sunday Movie"--a classic story of triumph over adversity, additionally enhanced by the prospect of seeing the United States through the eyes of a new immigrant.

But writers Christopher Knopf and David A. Simons have focused their screenplay instead on the Thrashes (played by Wayne Rogers and Mary Kay Place). We never get inside Linn (engagingly played by Jade Chinn) to learn what she thinks of her new surroundings, or what it's like adapting to a new culture and how she managed it so well. We do see, though, how trying it was for the Thrash family to share their home with seven foreigners who didn't even know what a toilet was.

In a brief interview with the real Linn Yann at the conclusion of the movie, she is asked who helped her the most in preparing for the spelling bee. "My sister Yieng helped me a lot. . . . The whole family got involved," she responds.

Not in the movie, they don't. Only Mrs. Thrash and another adult white woman are seen helping her. That sums up what's wrong with the attitude here.

While the Thrashes are sanctified for their benevolence, Linn's mother, a woman of seemingly incredible courage who kept her peasant family intact during a perilous escape and strange journey to a new world, is relegated to hovering quietly in the background after submitting willingly to the paternalism of her white hosts.

Here are other weekend programs:

TODAY: Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner will discuss why he decided to drop the election law case against Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge) on "Newsmakers," 3 p.m. (2). . . .

. . . .

"Star Search" crowns its champion performers for the season at 7 p.m. (11). . . .

Jeff Goldblum, Peter O'Toole and Drew Barrymoore star in three back-to-back stories on "Ray Bradbury Theater," 8 p.m. on Home Box Office. . . .

"Remington Steele" debuts in its new time slot, 10 p.m. (4) (36) (39). . . .

Comedian Jay Leno hosts "Saturday Night Live," with music by the Neville Brothers and a special appearance by Mike, the dog from "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," 11:30 p.m. (4)(36)(39).

SUNDAY: Former political commentator Bruce Herschensohn, now seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, will be interviewed on "Channel 4 News Conference," 8:30 a.m. (4). . . .

"Meet the Press" will be seen at 9:30 a.m. (4) (36) (39). . . .

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and former astronaut Joseph Allen will discuss the space shuttle investigation on "This Week With David Brinkley," 11:30 a.m. (7) (3) (10) (42). . . .

Duke Ellington and Mario Lanza are the subject of profiles on KCET Channel 28 at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively. . . .

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) will be interviewed on "Face the Nation," 4:30 p.m. (8), 5 p.m. (2). . . .

"60 Minutes" reports on allegations of corruption in Mexico's oil industry, checks in on the investigation of an alleged $750-million fraud in Dallas and profiles a New York millionaire who returned to his grade school to offer to pay the tuition for any children who went on to college, 7 p.m. (2) (8).

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