When I was a kid, “Lost in Space” was one of those shows that I watched in afternoon reruns in the mid-1970s (I was a few years too young to have watched it in first-run from 1965-1968). My earliest impression was that it felt like a wonderfully goofy hybrid of “Star Trek” and “Gilligan’s Island.” Unlike “Star Trek,” it was aimed solely at a juvenile audience (which I very much was at that time), and its ambitions were little more than simple family adventure. It had little-to-none of the allegory, social commentary or adult themes of “Star Trek” or (that other favorite of mine) “The Twilight Zone.” And at age 10 or so? I was fine with that.
Watching the obnoxious Doctor Smith (Jonathan Harris) getting his weekly rap on the knuckles from stalwart Prof. John Robinson (square-jawed Guy Williams) and his wholesome-as-home-baked-bread family was entertaining enough, if a bit repetitive at times. I never quite figured out then (or even today) exactly why the Robinsons kept Smith around knowing he’d simply screw them over the following week (?). Oh well…
Kids related to young Will Robinson (played by “Twilight Zone” vet Billy Mumy), with his trustworthy, loyal B-9 robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld, performed by dancer Bob May). B-9 was pretty nifty in those innocent, pre-R2-D2 days. Many years later, I would meet Bob May at a convention, and he told me some interesting anecdotes about working with Elvis Presley on “Jailhouse Rock” in the 1950s. He described the B-9 suit as “a sauna.” He was a nice guy, and I was saddened to hear when he passed away not long afterward in 2009.
There was also that very memorable “Johnny” Williams theme (yes, future “JAWS” “Superman” “Star Wars” musical maestro, John Williams) created for the show’s third and final season, which has since become the theme most associated with the show. After I saw Star Wars, I would go back and listen to that S3 theme again, and it seemed there was some foreshadowing of Star Wars’ main title in there as well:
As a kid, I enjoyed the more colorful later episodes of the show (literally so, as the first season was in black & white; I preferred the B&W episodes when I got a bit older, as they were better stories). Those last two seasons in color were chock full of bat-dung crazy ideas, such as sinister space hippies (which predated Star Trek’s own space hippies of “The Way To Eden”), a planet of rebelling vegetation (led by a giant carrot played by Star Trek alum Stanley Adams), a space prison with a familiar-looking robot guard (Forbidden Planet’s own “Robby”), and even a time-travel episode which saw the Robinsons finally return to Earth…a few decades early.
All in all, “Lost in Space” was shallow, silly, perfectly okay childhood entertainment.
Years later, as an early twenty-something, I was boarding at a friend’s house (shortly before I got my own apartment) and USA cable network began airing the series again. It was a bit harder to sit through as a adult, and my friends and I found ourselves snarkily commenting on the series’ shortcomings rather than enjoying it on its own merits. The character of Dr. Smith was a lot harder to accept as an adult, too. The late Jonathan Harris played him at such a irritatingly high pitch all of the time that he often left me with a bit of a headache. Yet… there was still something powerfully nostalgic about the show. It’s focus on family, as well as its archetypal characters reminded me of simpler times, and that’s a powerful lure. So much so that I wound up buying the Season Three DVDs when they were eventually released (I have yet to see the show on blu-ray, though I hear it looks amazing).
Watching the show in my late 30s and early 40s (and now early 50s) was a very different experience. For some reason, my middle-aged self can barely sit through a whole episode anymore. I don’t know if it’s the onset of adult attention deficit disorder, or just the nagging realization that I only have so many years of my life left, and there are so many better shows that I could be watching…
Lost In Space impacts the big screen.
Before my wife and I were married, we saw the long-gestated big screen remake of “Lost in Space” in the spring of 1998 and it was…problematic. It started off fairly engaging, giving the whole “Lost in Space” concept a thoroughly ‘90s makeover. Even the John Williams’ score got a 1990s techno-remix at the end credits.
Many of the characters were predictably updated as well. Professor Robinson changed from a Mercury/Gemini-inspired space pioneer of the 1960s to a frazzled, workaholic, often absentee-dad of the 1990s (William Hurt). The Robinson matriarch Maureen (Mimi Rogers) went from a contended space homemaker to being the real strength of the family. Daughter Judy was no longer mom’s doting helper and arm candy of Major West; she was now a brainy doctor who oversaw the health of the space pioneers (though played by a regrettably unconvincing Heather Graham). Daughter Penny went from a wide-eyed teen who dreamed of being a princess to a more cynical, bratty bucket of angst played by “Party of Five”’s Lacey Chabert. Will went from upstanding little do-gooder to a pint-sized hacker/genius, played by Jack Johnson. Major West slid down the furthest; going from a steely-eyed missile man to a jarringly sexist creep (played by “Friends” costar Matt LeBlanc); he makes lewd innuendo at Judy right in front of her family, for chrissakes. Dr. Smith went from bumbling, timid twit to genuinely sinister and credible menace (recent Oscar winner Gary Oldman). There was even a turbocharged version of the B-9 robot (and still voiced by original robot voice Dick Tufeld). While the character upgrades looked good on paper, they faltered somewhat in execution.
The plots of several early original episodes are combined in the first hour of the movie (“The Reluctant Stowaway” “The Derelict” and “Island in the Sky”). But after the Jupiter 2 crash-lands on an alien planet, it starts to meander. Soon, there is some “Star Trek: TNG”-ish technobabble about a time ‘bubble’; apparently created by an older, orphaned (and deeply bitter) Will Robinson, whose new father figure is a freakishly mutated spider-like Doctor Smith.
Eventually all of the space pioneers are freed from their temporal fate and escape the now-imploding planet using their ship’s hyperdrive… only to be ‘lost in space’ yet again.
Although the ending clearly sets up a sequel, it was mercifully scuttled due to low box office returns. Needless to say, I was not saddened to hear this.
The lost Lost in Space.
A few years later, my wife and I were attending a science fiction convention in Pasadena in the spring of 2004, and I remember seeing a trailer for a pilot of a revised “Lost In Space” television series (which ignored the events of the 1998 movie).
The pilot was directed by Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo (“Face/Off”) and it costarred Jayne Brook, who would later play Admiral Cornwell in “Star Trek: Discovery” (2017-present) as Maureen Robinson. I later saw a VHS cassette of the full, unaired pilot and it was deeply underwhelming, as well as a bit depressing.
Taking an even more joyless tone than the 1998 movie, Woo’s pilot of 2004’s “Lost in Space” adulted-up the series’ concept to the point where it vacuumed every ounce of fun right out of the damn thing. The pilot was never picked up.
This was an act of mercy.
Lost in Space… found?
After a couple years of rumors, Netflix (the HBO of the 21st century) has finally given us a peek at their newly revised “Lost In Space” series, set to debut April 13, 2018.
Here’s the full trailer:
The trailer has has much potential. It’s high space opera with broad appeal, yet seemingly mature enough in tone to appeal to adults. Most importantly, it also seems to retain a sense of adventure very much missing from the previous two revival efforts.
Some of the revised elements I’m intrigued by:
* The new Robinson family robot appears to be a found creature, and not a piece of cargo brought along with the Robinson family.
The new robot appears to be a mysterious artificial life form found on an alien planet. We see young Will Robinson befriending the robot early on, imbuing their relationship with a bit of an “Iron Giant”-vibe. This new origin may give the new robot (not sure if it’s still called ‘B-9’ anymore) an intriguing backstory to be unraveled. Possibilities for exploration of the robot’s abilities and intelligence are more interesting now than if he were just another piece of Robinson cargo complete with an instruction manual.
* Parker Posey as a new, female Doctor Smith.
First off, I’m a fan of Parker Posey. She is a wildly talented actress whom I still think should’ve played Lois Lane in “Superman Returns” (instead of the dreadfully miscast and underaged Kate Bosworth). Instead, Posey was relegated to playing Lex Luthor’s arm candy in that film. A huge waste of her considerable talent. But I was very pleased to see her in the FX series “Louie” playing Louis CK’s ill-fated, eccentric bookstore girlfriend, “Tape Recorder.”
Posey’s performance in “Louie” was both frenetic and haunting. She appeared in several episodes of the series, including the series’ finale. She was a high point in that already superlative comedy series. So yes, I think Parker Posey is that good; and I honestly can’t think of a better Doctor Smith, male or female. She can do comedy, yet she can give it depth. This bit of casting for the show has me genuinely excited.
Some diversity in casting.
Both older daughter Judy (Taylor Russell) and pilot Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) appear to be played by more diverse actors than their predecessors. I don’t really care how or if Judy’s appearance will be explained (or not). It’s not important anyway. Families come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Glad this new “Lost” reflects that fact of life.
* A genuine feeling of exploration.
From those beautiful vista shots of the family vehicle (the new version of the old Robinson ‘Chariot’?) overlooking an alien landscape, to lovely shots of icy glaciers. Even in that two-plus minute trailer, there is a vibe of exploration going on. The look of the spacesuits and hardware have a bit of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” aesthetic about them, much as the 1960s series tech reflected the gleaming silver pressure suits and helmets of then-current Project Gemini. I think this is a nice way of making the show relevant to young audiences; by showing these fanciful flights into space using somewhat relatable tech and hardware. And who knows? Some of those kids streaming the show today may indeed be the future explorers who’ll walk on Mars themselves someday…
* The tone of the new show.
The show’s tone feels somewhere between “Star Trek” and Ron Moore’s reimagined “Battlestar Galactica”, at least from what I gleaned from the trailer. There is seemingly enough heft to take it seriously and invest in the characters, but enough hope and light to make it worth revisiting every season. This could finally be the “Lost In Space” I’ve waited for most of my adult life. Here’s hoping, anyway…
* Netflix…a very smart choice.
I’m glad that we’ll see the entire first season of “Lost in Space” from Netflix all at once; unlike network television, or even CBS All Access, whose new episodes air/stream on a weekly basis. Science fiction on US network television (save for the occasional cable network breakout like “Battlestar Galactica” or “The Expanse”) is pretty much dead on arrival these days (despite “The X-Files” annual resurrections); and CBS-AA has to tease out their episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” on a weekly basis so that new subscribers don’t just binge-watch the entire season at once and quit. But Netflix (which already had me at “House of Cards” and “Stranger Things”) is unveiling “Lost in Space” the smart way; all at once, and on a proven streaming service that offers a lot more content that CBS-AA (not trying to slam CBS-AA, but their content thus far is somewhat paltry). Kudos to Netflix.
Netflix is to the 21st century what HBO was to the late 20th.
* Subtle callbacks to the original.
“Danger, Will Robinson!” Yes, the new robot actually repeats the old catchphrase yet again. Nice that they’re bringing back the Robinson’s Chariot, and I also loved the slow piano riffing on John Williams’ third season theme. These were nice nods to the original, and they were appreciated.
Here’s hoping that “Lost In Space”, after one classic series and a couple of unsuccessful reboots, finally gets found.
I’ll be watching.