Lost in Space

This post consists of scattered thoughts by a fanboy on a media property from his youth.

There are many who feel that any discussion of a non-Star-Trek SF TV series from the 1960s is a waste of time. Indeed, there are many who feel that any discussion of a Star-Trek SF TV series from the 1960s is an equal waste. If you fall into either of those categories, you might as well skip this post.

The beginning

Lost in Space, as originally conceived by the noted TV (and later movie) producer Irwin Allen, would have been Space Family Robinson. It might have been inspired by a Gold Key comic from 1962 of the same title, which in turn was based on The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss.

For Lost in Space fans like me, it’s fascinating to look at the original pilot for the show. You can see it as the first episode of the series as it’s shown on Hulu. It has many of the elements for which the series would become known: impressive visuals, a fun look at the future (a shame we never launched interstellar craft in 1997), the relationships between the members of the Robinson family, and how they faced the challenges of a strange planet.

But the pilot lacks two elements that would be the center of the show’s popularity, and later the reason for its cancellation: the Robot (played by Bob May, voiced by Dick Tufeld) and Doctor Zachary Smith (played by Jonathan Harris).

If you watch the first five episodes of the first season of Lost in Space (I’m not including the pilot in the episode count), it’s clear why the addition of Doctor Smith and the Robot seemed necessary: it gave the Robinson family an antagonist. It also gave a story arc for Will Robinson, as played by Billy Mumy, as we watched his connection with the Robot evolve.

Those “first five” are also interesting for the kind of story they tell. It’s almost as serious an SF story as any Star Trek episode.

A mention should also be given to Irwin Allen’s production team. Many of the show’s visuals compare reasonably well against modern standards, given that they did not have access to the CGI effects available today.

From Lost in Space S1E3 “The Derelict”; © 1965 Space Productions and Twentieth Century Fox Television, Inc.
The crash landing of the Jupiter 2 was so impressive that both the subsequent movie and the TV series adapted the shot.

Jupiter 2 landing
From Lost in Space S1E4 “Island in the Sky”; © 1965 Space Productions and Twentieth Century Fox Television, Inc.

Another special mention should be made of the composer of the show’s theme. There were actually two themes, one used the first two seasons, and another for the last season. Even after six decades, those themes are instantly recognizable to generations of SF fans. Who was that composer? “Johnny Williams,” later known for his work on Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, the Harry Potter films, and many others.

After those first five shows, the show underwent a change. Part of it was that the episodes gradually became more fanciful and less beholden to the ideas of “science fiction.” In later years the show was described as a “space fantasy,” which to me seems apt.

The other was in the character of Doctor Smith. In the first five, Jonathan Harris played him as a conniving saboteur who found himself out of his depth. Harris recognized that there wasn’t much of a future in that portrayal; the reasonable thing to do would be to kill off the character. So he transitioned Doctor Smith into the personality for which he’s best remembered: bumbling, whiny, self-centered.

Through the nature of this portrayal and the popularity of the character, Harris gained a great deal of control over the role. He was given permission by Irwin Allen to rewrite his lines. Doctor Smith’s famous phrases (e.g., “The pain! The pain!”; “Bubble-headed booby!”; “My delicate back!”) were all created by Harris.

I enter the story

I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of Lost in Space. I was five or six years old. My vague memory is that I was channel surfing (the old-fashioned way, by idly turning the knob on our black-and-white TV set) and I saw the fantastic visuals. I was hooked immediately.

This was either in the middle of the show’s first season or near the beginning of the show’s second season, most likely sometime in 1966.

I recognized the character of Doctor Smith immediately. He was the cartoon villain whose motives were obvious to children but fooled all the adults, much like the villains in Saturday-morning cartoons. In other words, I reacted exactly like Jonathan Harris intended.

The character I most strongly identified with was Will Robinson. Though both character of Will and the actor Billy Mumy were older than I was, to me we seemed to be the same age. He was going off on adventures in space, as I wanted to do. He had a family that got along with each other, as I wanted to have. (I’ll save the turgid soap-opera of the rest of my autobiography for some other time.)

I was not the only one. After every Lost in Space episode was broadcast, the next day my schoolmates were chattering to each other about Will Robinson, Doctor Smith, and the Robot.

We, and many other young kids, were content with this. We were much too unsophisticated to understand that this was a problem; more on this below.

Around this time, my father took my brother and I to see Billy Mumy and Angela Cartwright (who played Penny Robinson) appear at some arena. It was part of a publicity tour for the show. The actors appeared in costume, played the guitar, and sung a few songs; almost certainly one of them was Sloop John B (which they’d performed on Lost in Space) although I have no direct memory of what they sang.

My strongest memory of that event is that it was like a mosh pit; the term didn’t exist at the time, but pushy fans existed long before then. I barely got a glimpse of the actors through the press of bodies. In particular, I remember a photographer shoving himself forward, taking picture after picture of Mumy and Cartwright. My father politely asked him to step out of the way so his children could see the performance. The photographer snarled “Put them on your shoulders!”

So much for publicity.

Lost in Space loses its focus

By the second season of Lost in Space, all pretense of telling serious stories had been dropped. The show was competing with the campy Batman TV series for attention. The stories became more fantastic and cartoonish.

Another premise that was dropped was the notion that the series was about the challenges of the Robinson family. Increasingly the episodes were plotted around Will Robinson, Doctor Smith, and the Robot. Doctor Smith became an exaggerated parody of himself. The Robot acquired whatever “techno-magic” powers were needed for the episode. Will Robinson remained a surrogate for children of my age.

The other regular actors on the series were becoming unhappy. Angela Cartwright and Marta Kristen (playing Judy Robinson) might get at most one episode per season that featured their characters. June Lockhart (playing Maureen Robinson) never had a episode about her at all. Despite lip-service to the idea that by the far future of 1997 women would be equal to men, the show made no effort to respect its female characters.

In particular, the character of Judy Robinson seemed to exist for only one reason: to be the romantic interest of Major Don West (played by Mark Goddard). She literally had no other defining characteristic.

Guy Williams (playing the head of the family, John Robinson) was not happy either. He and Goddard were relegated to playing action scenes with space aliens to provide a break from Doctor Smith’s antics. Williams was good at this (having played the title role in the Zorro TV series), but it became his only purpose on the show.

Bear in mind that all the regular actors on the show had successful careers before Lost in Space, and most of them had successful acting careers afterwards. They had a good reason to object to being sidelined by (with all due respect to Jonathan Harris) a live-action cartoon.

The network executives were unhappy. Lost in Space was the most expensive show on the CBS network at the time. Its ratings were going down, except among one demographic: the young kids (myself included). This was not the audience the network wanted for an expensive TV show in prime time.

The show’s writers became unhappy. They were running out of fantasy ideas and reached to greater and more ridiculous extremes.

From Lost in Space S3E23 “The Great Vegetable Rebellion”; © 1968 Space Productions and Twentieth Century Fox Television, Inc.

Yes, that is Jonathan Harris, an accomplished stage and screen actor, who has been turned into a giant celery. The giant carrot who turned him into the celery is not shown.

It is “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” that’s generally credited for the show’s cancellation. It had all become too much.

But what about meeeeeeeeee?

When I didn’t see Lost in Space on CBS’s schedule for fall of 1968, I didn’t understand it.

I asked my step-mother to call CBS to find out what happened. She called, listened to the voice at the other end, and told me that Lost in Space had been cancelled.

I cried.

By that time, I had discovered Star Trek, but it wasn’t a substitute for my damaged feelings. The following year, when I learned Star Trek had been cancelled, I felt only a mild regret.

Over the next few years, I had a chance to compare the shows when both Lost in Space and Star Trek entered syndication. I reached my teenage years, and my tastes matured (but only a little bit!). I recognized that Star Trek had been the superior series.

Still, Lost in Space always held a special nostalgic place in my heart, especially after we got a color TV set. As you see in the above photos, the first season of Lost in Space had been in black-and-white, but the next two seasons were in color. I could finally see the “mod future” costumes in all their glory.

Also, I began to understand that Judy Robinson filled out her costume nicely. As I said, I was a newly-minted teenager.

Via Wikipedia: From Bill Mumy website (no copyright restriction on particular image): Cast photo; Fair use

The Lost in Space movie

Three decades passed.

Along the way, there had been murmurings of a Lost in Space movie. Bill Mumy had a script that would have wrapped up the story and brought the travelers home, but he didn’t have the rights to the series. Irwin Allen had moved on to disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and was not interested in pursuing his old TV properties.

Lost in Space fans were optimistic with the success of Star Wars and the subsequent revival of Star Trek as a series of movies. Perhaps a Lost in Space movie would finally come?

It did, in 1998. By this time the young kids who’d identified with Will Robinson were nearing their 40s.

After waiting this long, the results were disappointing.

I’ll start with what I liked about the movie.

I appreciated the cameos from members of the original series. In particular, Mark Goddard had a role, not just a few brief seconds of screen time.

(Jonathan Harris didn’t appear in the movie; he said that he didn’t do bit parts. Afterwards, he said he regretted this decision. There’s a small role (played by Jared Harris) that would have been ideal for Bill Mumy, but according to IMDB the director felt it would have been confusing. I speculate that perhaps Mumy’s commitment to Babylon 5 kept him from the film.)

I especially liked that Dick Tufeld, who gave the Robot his voice in the TV series, also did so for the film. If the film had had sequels, he probably would have continued in the role. That tickled my sense of what is right and proper.

I also liked some small production details that harked back to the TV series, including a bit of the spaceship design.

With that said…

The Lost in Space movie is an over-produced mess.

It was written by Akiva Goldsman. His writing credits at the time included Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, two other over-produced and over-the-top films. Some of his later work calmed down (e.g., A Beautiful Mind) but I wouldn’t have predicted it from this movie.

I also question the casting choices. William Hurt, as John Robinson, comes across as flat and bland; I won’t accuse him of “phoning it in,” but it comes awfully close to that. Lacey Chabert plays Penny Robinson as so self-involved that it’s almost painful to watch. Matt LeBlanc is a decent comic actor, but completely wrong for the straight-arrow military character of Don West.

I don’t question the casting choice of Gary Oldman as Doctor Smith, but I do question his acting choices. The script handed him a tough job, contorting circumstances so that Oldman would repeat classic Doctor Smith lines from the TV series. But Oldman isn’t Harris. To get Harris’ lines out, Oldman plays Smith way over the top; I half-expected him to shove chunks of scenery into his mouth. I’ll give him some slack: perhaps, given the script, Oldman felt he had no other option. Even if it was Hobson’s Choice, the choice was a bad one.

Poor Heather Graham was stuck with the unenviable role of Judy Robinson. Once again, the main function of Judy is to be a romantic interest for Don West. Three decades later and women’s roles hadn’t changed.

Since I’ve mentioned everyone else, I should also credit Mimi Rogers in another unenviable role: Maureen Robinson; she’s given no stronger a character than June Lockhart had, to the film’s discredit. Jack Johnson played Will Robinson, who in the film is a petulant genius; I can’t picture anyone seeing this version of Will as their surrogate.

What Goldsman failed to convey was the true strength of Lost in Space, at least in the early episodes: the connections between members of the Robinson family. Blasting spaceships and shooting alien monsters doesn’t show that. There’s something resembling character growth in the second half of the movie, but it’s too little and too late. In particular, the relationship between Will and Doctor Smith, crucial to the fanboys’ appreciation of the series in the 60s, is twisted into something ugly in the film.

The film’s chief contribution to cinema history was that, in its opening weekend, it unseated Titanic‘s first-place run at the box office. After that, the film was a commercial failure.

I saw the Lost in Space movie in the theater out of a sense of nostalgia. I’ve watched it a couple of times since on cable, to shed a tear at the avoidable disaster. Irwin Allen was a master at disaster films; this one unexpectedly rivaled his best work.

The Netflix Lost in Space series

When I first heard that Netflix was rebooting Lost in Space, my first question was “Why?”

It was 2018. By this time, the Will Robinson fans of the original TV series were in their 60s. Yes, Lost in Space had been re-run more-or-less continuously until the 1990s, but after the failure of the movie the series had been relegated to the corners of cable space (it’s presently on Hulu). Why bother to revive a series whose fans’ ages were outside the favorite demographics for most TV shows, and was best remembered after 50 years for a couple of catchphrases?

As one of those nearly 60-year-old fanboys, I knew I had to watch it. I braced myself, and…

The Lost in Space reboot is not as bad as the movie. I know that’s damning it with faint praise, and I’m probably being too harsh.

If the show had been called Space Family Rabinowitz and told the same story with different characters, I’d probably perceive it as another space-based action series. I might have even have gushed praises as I did for Staged and Sense8.

But fanboy I am, and fanboy I be. If you’re going to rely on a connection between your show and a five-decade-old TV series, I’m going to make a comparison to that series.

Setting

I like the changes they made to the overall grand story of Lost in Space. Now the Jupiter 2 is just one of a class of “Jupiter” ships, each assigned to a family. The ships are being ferried to Alpha Centauri within a larger interstellar vessel, the Resolute.

The net effect is that the Robinson family isn’t isolated. There are other families and other vessels. This results in better story settings than the “fantastic monster of the week” that was the framework of 60s series. It also give the Robinsons emotional connections outside the family (no more Judy pining over Don; see below).

In the 60s, prime-time dramas with a serialized story were uncommon; Peyton Place is the only example I can think of. Apart from the “first five,” Lost in Space‘s episodes were mostly unconnected with each other. The reboot is able to tell longer and better-developed stories over the course of many episodes.

I also like that the reboot series returned to the original Swiss Family Robinson concept of a family facing challenges in a strange environment. This is more like the situations faced by the Robinsons in the “first five.”

Because I am a fanboy, I must acknowledge some of the moments of fan service. In particular, Angela Cartwright has a blink-and-you’ll-miss it role; Bill Mumy plays the “original” Doctor Zachary Smith whose identity is stolen by June Harris (played by Parker Posey; more on her below).

The Robinson family

I’ll start with the positive: Finally, the character of Judy Robinson (played by Taylor Russell) is given some sort of character arc. I like that she’s both adopted and regarded, unconditionally, as a full member of the family. This suits my memory of what the Robinson family stood for in the original series.

In the 60s series, Penny Robinson had only fantasy aliens to make friends with. In the reboot, thanks to the presence of other families that I mentioned above, Penny (Mina Sundwall) has kids of her own age to relate to. So far, she has the only “potential romance” sub-plot of anyone in the series.

I’ll also give a thumbs-up to an obscure family member: Debbie. In the 60s series, the Robinson’s family pet was “Debbie the Bloop”; it was a chimpanzee with fake pointed ears to make it look alien. In the movie, Debbie the Bloop was a ridiculous CGI creation that served even less purpose than a trained chimpanzee. In the reboot, Debbie is the pet chicken of Don West (who is played by Ignacio Serricchio). It’s reasonable both as a callback and as a minor plot point; alien pets are cliché, but a pet chicken is interesting.

As for the rest of the family…

In the 60s series, the Robinsons were basically the “perfect family” as idealized by shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver (and satirized in Pleasantville).

It would simply not be credible to 21st-century audiences to present the Robinsons this way. But did they have to go so far in the opposite direction? John Robinson (Toby Stephens) and Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) on the threshold of divorce? Don West is a smuggler?

I understand that, from a script perspective, to give the characters an arc you have to give them someplace to go. Indeed, by roughly the middle of the first season the Robinsons’ family issues settle down. But during that time I was gritting my teeth and wishing for, if not a happy family, a working one.

At least Maureen is now the mission commander. About time!

The Robot

In the TV series, the Robot was a piece of equipment reprogrammed by Doctor Smith into a tool of sabotage; eventually, through his relationship with Will, he overcame his programming and became a member of the crew. In the movie, the Robot was essentially a guardbot rebuilt and reprogrammed by Will.

In the reboot, the Robot is a member of a race of intelligent mechanical beings. I applaud this decision on the part of the show’s creators. It gave a reasoned basis for the “techno-magic” abilities that the scripts occasionally required. It also served as a more plausible starting point for the relationship between the Robot and Will (played by Maxwell Jenkins): this was an alien creature, with alien emotions and motives.

But I had two big problems with the Robot in this series.

The first was too much fan service. The phrase “Danger Will Robinson!” was used so often in the 60s series that it became a cliché. In the movie, the phrase was both used and wasted exactly once.

In the reboot series, these are the only words spoken by the Robot for the first two-thirds of the first season, sometimes more than once per episode. Even after the character is permitted to say something else, his most frequent word is “Danger!”

This was annoying and distracting. Yeah, I’m a fanboy, but you don’t have to write your scripts to mock the fanboys.

My second problem was probably an example of lazy script-writing.

In the 60s series, the Robot was introduced as a non-lethal menace. In the reboot series, the Robot is introduced as a murderer. It’s Will who teaches it that humans have compassion.

Roughly two-thirds through the series, John Robinson has a father-son talk with Will that came closer than anything else so far to the John/Will relationship I remember from the 60s series. In that talk, John reminds Will that there are consequences for our actions; however reformed the Robot might appear, it still must face the deeds it committed.

Later in the episode, Will punishes the Robot. In a bit of superb acting and body language by Brian Steele, the Robot appears to acknowledge what it has done and accept its punishment.

The next episode, the Robot has overcome the punishment and is now the slave of Doctor Smith. There’s no explanation given for this sudden change of heart. The only reason I can see for the change is more fan service, to duplicate the Robot’s obedience to Doctor Smith in the early episodes of the 60s series.

If you’re going to have a character switch motives like that, you could just have them sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

“Doctor Smith”

Jonathan Harris’ antics as Doctor Smith in the 60s series would simply make no sense in any series today, other than as a live-action cartoon. The show’s creators made a choice about how to make the character plausible to today’s audiences.

My problem is that, once again, I feel they went too far. The original Doctor Smith was a villain you loved to hate. In the reboot series, Doctor Smith is an unsympathetic villain that I merely hate.

The character starts out as June Harris (in more fan service, this is a name derived from June Lockhart and Jonathan Harris). She’s a thief and con artist who stows away on the Resolute for reasons that were not quite clear to me. Once disaster strikes the main ship, she steals the identity of the “real” Doctor Smith. She makes her way to the Jupiter 2 and essentially forces herself into the Robinson family for protection.

I kept waiting for some sort of self-insight or reformation. There was none. June Harris kills someone to protect her identity; apart from some flashes of guilt there are no consequences. She lies and manipulates continually, with no sense of conscience.

What’s more, all of this seems without any purpose except immediate self-preservation and long-term cruelty.

Unlike some fans, I don’t blame Parker Posey. She was handed a role and she’s doing the best she can with it, as Gary Oldman did. I can’t even fault her for her acting choices. She’s playing a character with no obvious redeeming qualities. Even the most accomplished actor would have difficulties earning sympathy given the role.

Stories have villains. I don’t have a problem with that. But a long-term villain can be hard to take. In Othello, we have Iago but we only have to put up with him for a couple of hours.

I’ve watched the Harris/Smith villain for two seasons of the Lost in Space reboot. I frankly have had more than I can take of the character.

And now?

In the second season of the Lost in Space reboot, the show lost most of its fan-service rough edges and started telling a more interesting story. I admit it: I’m looking forward to the third season. It’s already been filmed and will hopefully be released later this year.

However, I will be content if Doctor Smith has her head blown off in the first episode of that season.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. William Seligman

    Addendum: For what little it’s worth…

    To demonstrate I have nothing against Parker Posey, I’ll state that I stopped watching the Batwoman TV series because I could not stand the character of Alice anymore. This had nothing to do with the actor portraying her, Rachel Skarsten. Sometimes a performer is tied down by the lines and direction she’s given.

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