As I’ve said in a previous post ( “Finding “Lost in Space” ), my feelings on the classic series that spawned the current Netflix reboot are decidedly mixed. While I loved it as a kid and would catch reruns quasi-religiously after school, its charms have dimmed considerably for me as an adult. While I’ve matured (or so I tell myself), the show hasn’t. At all. It is exactly the same as I remembered it. No deeper subtext, no further levels to mine beyond simple, dated, family-oriented action-adventure. The characters are stalwart, archetypical and shallow. While many past favorite series of mine gain deeper meaning upon repeated viewings (“Star Trek,” “Twilight Zone,” “Doctor Who”), the original “Lost in Space,” sadly, does not.
The rebooted 1998 “Lost in Space” movie tried to update the show with flashier effects work and more ‘90s angst, but it was still very much rooted in simplistic action-adventure fare, with little to no evolution. There was also a failed 2004 TV series reboot, but that never got past the unsold pilot stage.
The original “Lost in Space” is quaint, even anachronistically charming, but it doesn’t really hold up as a viable entertainment for this new millennium, beyond the nostalgia factor. But, like 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica,” (which redeemed itself later on with a far superior remake), there was still the seed of a good idea somewhere within the “Lost in Space” concept; it was just waiting for rich, fertile soil in which to take root.
In 2017, Netflix announced its own remake of “Lost in Space” was in the works, and I was intrigued by the initial trailers for it. I definitely wanted to see more.
Luckily, I had a chance to see the first episode of Netflix’s “Lost in Space” a month ahead of its mid-April release date at this year’s WonderCon 2018 in Anaheim, followed by a Q&A session with the entire cast afterward.
That first episode was very promising. It had gorgeous feature-film production values (better than the 1998 feature film, in fact) and a solid cast. Watching it on a big screen in the Arena auditorium at the Anaheim Convention Center was certainly fitting. Nothing about it felt too ‘television.’ This version of “Lost in Space” spared no expense.
The full first season became available for streaming in mid-April (last week, as of this writing) and I binge-watched the remaining episodes within a single week. By the third episode, I was officially hooked. I watched it while I exercised on my home Exercycle or when I ate lunch, on whatever device was handy (my iPad, my iPhone and finally, ironically… our TV set). I was impressed. The new “Lost in Space” leans almost as much toward science as it does fiction. In some ways, it’s more akin to “The Martian” or “Interstellar” than “Star Wars”; and certainly more realistic than its scientifically-illiterate/kid-friendly 1965 source.
So, without going into any specific episodes at length, I’d like to take a look at all 10 episodes of the first season as a whole, since it is much more serialized than its predecessor(s).
**** WARNING! WARNING! ****
**** DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! SPOILERS AHEAD! ****
Things I enjoy/appreciate about Netflix’s “Lost in Space”:
* A more immediate and critical motivation for the colonists’ voyage.
The mission to leave Earth also has more drive to it now, since the Earth has been ravaged by a falling “Christmas Star” meteorite, which kicks up much dust and debris into an already polluted atmosphere. We later learn it was not a meteorite, but in fact, a possible attack by an alien robot race, in retaliation for the theft of their hyperdrive technology.
In the original version of “Lost in Space”, there was some talk of the Jupiter-2 mission being driven by an overcrowded Earth. The 1998 remake had Prof. John Robinson (William Hurt) stating in dialogue that human life on Earth was facing extinction due to a lack of resources (addressing current ecological concerns of then and now).
The 2018 series’ reason for fleeing Earth is even more direct, and it better ties in with the mysterious robot’s presence as well. The late Prof. Stephen Hawking often warned of the dangers of humanity having all of its eggs (literal and metaphorical) in one planetary basket…
* Humanity as a whole is better represented in this new version.
Rather than a single ship and a single family being the sole ‘space pioneers’ (which was more apt in the Project Mercury days of the 1960s), the new show sees an exodus of many families docked to a giant mothership (“The Resolute,” which remains in orbit after being attacked by a race of alien AIs). The families and crews aboard the Resolute represent a vast cross-section of humanity; with representatives of Japan, India and other nations. The Robinsons have a biracial daughter Judy (Taylor Russell) as well.
The Jupiter spacecraft is no longer unique to the Robinson family, either; every family/team from the Resolute has its own identical Jupiter. After the emergency evacuation from Resolute, each Jupiter lands at various points on the alien planet.
The wider cross-section of humanity visible in this version feels more accurate these days. Spaceflight today is a shared endeavor of multiple nations, such as those represented with the International Space Station.
* The new Robinson family are brilliant, but flawed people.
This single change is the most noteworthy. The 1998 movie took a half-hearted stab with this concept (mainly with making the kids more angsty) but the new series makes the entire family flesh-and-blood people. The Robinsons are a family that argues, harbors secrets and has rivalries, but ultimately loves each other very much.
Before the flight, family matriarch Maureen (Molly Parker) got some shady help in altering her son Will’s application status to approve him for the flight (though he didn’t qualify). This is something June Lockhart’s uber-wholesome version of Maureen (or even Mimi Rogers’ 1998 version) wouldn’t dream of doing. But it’s also in keeping with this new Maureen’s ‘alpha mother’ vibe as well. New Maureen isn’t a bad person, nor is she a criminal; she is doing what perhaps many parents with the means would probably do for their kids. Sometimes you break the rules for the ones you love, especially your kids.
Ex-military dad John (Toby Stephens) is no longer the astrophysics professor of the first two versions; he’s now a rugged military guy who (muchlike William Hurt’s 1998 version) is something of an absentee father. We also learn that he even re-upped for an extra tour of duty rather than accept an earlier discharge to be with his family. John is career military, and while he loves his family very much, he’s a bit new at being a full-time dad. In the series, we clearly see that he’s ‘learning on the job.’ This is an interesting departure from the ‘father-knows-best’ patriarchy of the original John Robinson (played by the late Guy Williams). Maureen, the wife of a military guy, got used to assuming both parental roles. While new John Robinson isn’t necessarily the smartest person in the room (even among his own kids), he does have the survival training, instinct and intuition of a finely trained soldier; and that proves to be every bit as vital in this version as the scientific prowess of his family.
Daughters Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) are also more dimensional than their predecessors, and their rivalry is sharpened as well. Judy takes after her mother, and is a driven, focused, 18-year old medical student who gains much experience in emergency medical procedures during the course of the first season. Penny is literary, romantic, and (like her previous incarnations) a bit angsty (that word is the short definition of a teenager). She even has an old-fashioned schoolgirl crush on the son of a colonist community leader.
Older daughter Judy’s most harrowing moment of the series comes in the pilot episode, as she is trapped beneath flash-frozen ice while trying to retrieve batteries from the family’s temporarily sunken Jupiter-2 spacecraft. It’s a nail-biter of a sequence, as the spacesuited Judy is frozen in place beneath the ice and running out of air. Though Judy is ultimately rescued by Will’s newfound robot, the incident takes its toll and leaves her with an acute case of PTSD. As a result, she is now more cautious and even a bit gun-shy at taking risks. It was Judy’s previous tendency to rush in “where angels fear to tread” that nearly got her killed in the ice.
The issue reaches a head when the still-traumatized Judy is reluctant to attempt a dangerous rescue of Will and her parents from an approaching storm. It’s up to kid sister Penny to jump right in. Penny quickly finishes assembly of the Jupiter-2’s “Chariot” (a giant all-terrain vehicle cleverly reimagined from the old series) and sets out (sans driver’s license) to rescue her brother and parents. Penny doesn’t do this from a place of anger against her sister. Penny clearly understands that Judy is still traumatized from her hours-long ordeal in the ice, so she just takes up the slack, no questions asked. The reward for her bravery is a big bag of Oreo cookies (nice product placement there, Nabisco!) that she later shares with her reunited family.
Over the course of the season, we see Judy regain her confidence, as she forms a budding relationship with fellow Resolute survivor Don West (Ignacio Serrichhio), much as the first incarnation of Judy (Marta Kristen) did in the original series.
Youngest sibling Will (Max Jenkins) is an intelligent, sensitive boy who initially washed out of the space colonist program, until his mother (unbeknownst to Will) ‘took care’ of that for him. Will tends to freeze in emergency situations, but after assisting with repairs of, and befriending an otherwise hostile alien robot, his confidence slowly builds. Will’s relationship with the robot reminds me of young John Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) or Hogarth in “Iron Giant” (1999); a boy in charge of what is essentially a domesticated lethal weapon. Will tries to teach the robot about human empathy and kindness. The robot, in turn, teaches Will about responsibility through a process of trial-and-error. A bit more dangerous, yes, but effective.
Later in the season, Will tearfully abdicates responsibility of his dangerous robot and (like John Connor and his terminator) has to aid in the creature’s self-destruction. Which leaves an opportunity for…
* The new female “Doctor Smith” (Parker Posey), who is more cunning than her bumbling ‘60s counterpart (Jonathan Harris).
A few things are different with the character of “Dr. Smith” now, beyond the obvious gender change. She is not really “Dr. Smith” anymore; that identity was stolen by Parker Posey’s character of June Harris (named from original series’ stars June Lockhart and Johnathan Harris). We see the real ‘Zachariah Smith’ as a wounded would-be evacuee, played in a clever cameo by the original series’ “Will Robinson” Bill Mumy. June steals the dying man’s jacket and name and flees the Resolute aboard his assigned Jupiter transport. Posey’s Smith/June does have one thing in common with her original counterpart; a desperate, utterly unprincipled, unhindered capacity for self-preservation at all costs. We see (in flashbacks) exactly what she did to get aboard the Resolute; stealing the identity of her straight-laced sister (Selma Blair) and tying her up (after drugging her tea). Once aboard the Resolute, she flushed her sister’s lover out of an airlock for fear that he would out her. Unlike Jonathan Harris’ bumbling, sillier brand of villainy, this Smith is lethal.
At her core, Smith/June is also a pathetic, middle-aged party girl who never quite learned to take responsibility for herself or her actions. She also has an unerring ability to do or say whatever is necessary to get herself to the next level. She pretends to be a psychologist (and not a psychiatrist) in order to avoid having to treat anyone’s specific medical issues (“I’m not that kind of a doctor”), and she uses whatever props are handy (such as a St. Christopher’s medal) to give her lies substance.
Things really go from bad-to-worse when she gains control of Will’s discarded robot. Smith/June is clever enough to deduce that aiding the robot in its own self-repair somehow ‘bonds’ it to a new master, just as it bonded to Will after he’d helped it previously. She knows that the restored robot will be her ticket back onboard the Resolute, where no one will be able to prosecute her for any of her past crimes, since her pet robot’s advanced alien technology and power make it one hell of a bodyguard.
Which, of course, brings me to…
* The new robot.
Having the robot go from an oversized piece of the Robinson’s luggage to a newfound piece of alien technology is the opposite approach of “Battlestar Galactica”’s take on the robotic Cylons; which went from being hostile alien robots in 1978 to humanity’s own rebellious cybernetic offspring in 2003. Reversing that approach works in 2018’s “Lost in Space” for several reasons. Since the new robot is alien technology, we no longer know the limits of its powers. It also allows for exploration of his/its race. There is also the question of who, or what, created the new robot’s race? We already know something of their motivations by the end of season one. Humanity somehow stole advanced space travel technology from the robots, and that’s why they attacked Earth with the ‘Christmas Star.’ Later, the robots attacked the Resolute, forcing the premature evacuation of the colonist mothership. Learning more about the robot’s race (as well as further motivation for their attacks) begs for exploration in season 2.
It’s interesting that the original 1965 “Lost in Space” robot “B-9” (get it? Benign?) of the also began its life as a series’ villain, when it was reprogrammed by Dr. Smith in the first episode to sabotage the Jupiter spacecraft during flight while the Robinsons were in suspended animation. The original Dr. Smith’s exact motives for reprogramming the robot were never made clear (beyond his being a dastardly “foreign agent”). So the original robot’s initial ‘bad programming’ is reflected in the new version as well, as it evolves from a berserker killing machine into a protective family guardian (just like the original).
Another major difference in the two robots; the original robot (acted by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld) was very vocal and gesticular (with its flailing arms and mechanical pincers). The new robot only utters a few words (“Danger Will Robinson!”) and has a a solitary, featureless screen for a face that seems to reflect both nothing and everything in the same instant. It’s eerie and effectively alien.
The new robot’s blank slate face sort of reminds me of the unreadable camera ‘eye’ of the HAL9000 computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). I’ve also read many online comments about the new robot looking very much like a robot from the “Mass Effect” video game series, and that may very well be true. As a non-gamer, I take those comments at face value.
* The new “Don West” (Ignacio Serricchio) is a bit more Han Solo now…
… and that’s perfectly fine by me. The charismatic actor playing the new Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) is clearly enjoying the role. In previous versions, West was little more than a quicker-tempered, younger partner of Prof. Robinson (and potential love interest for eldest daughter Judy). In the 1998 movie, he was an obnoxious, sexually-harassing creep (played by “Friends” costar Matt LeBlanc). The new Don, like Smith/June, has a bit of a checkered past. We learn that he smuggles contraband to the ’new frontier.’ Convincing himself that he is callous and greedy, he masks a more self-sacrificing true nature. I don’t mind grafting of Han Solo traits onto Don West. Serricchio plays it for all its worth, too. He also provides the show with some of its earthier, more lighthearted moments. I remember Ignacio Serricchio (at the WonderCon panel) being sort of a ‘class clown’ of the cast, and that aspect of his persona definitely seeps into this version of the Don West character as well.
West’s pet chicken “Debbie” is another subtle homage to the original 1960s show, wherein Debbie used to be Penny’s alien pet “bloop” (a uncomfortably-dressed live chimpanzee). Frankly, I prefer the cute clucking chicken over a ‘bloop’ (which sounds more like a noise produced by a bodily orifice).
* The new “Chariot” is more NASA, less sci-fi.
The new version of the classic “Lost in Space” ground vehicle, the Chariot, is much more in keeping with current NASA technology, and could’ve been driven right in from the set of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Much more functional-looking (and a bit more bad-ass) than the clear-bubble, tractor-treaded ‘space car’ of the original series. Apparently several were built for the production, since we see various colonists using multiple Chariots in the same shot.
Once again, hats off to the production team…
* Beautiful re-orchestration of John Williams’ original series’ third season title music.
While there is new music for the reimagined series from composer Christopher Lennertz, the original series’ third season title track is given the full orchestral treatment, and it sounds better than ever. While the first two seasons of the original “Lost in Space” had a very different main title theme, it lacked the clearer melody of S3’s theme, which, by no coincidence, became the music most associated with the show. Original composer “Johnny” Williams is, of course, the same John Williams who would go on to do “JAWS” “Godfather” “Superman” “Harry Potter” and, of course, ”Star Wars” (which has more than a trace of S3’s “Lost in Space” in its main title).
The S3 title track music was one of the things I enjoyed very much about the original show that I was hoping they wouldn’t screw with, and they didn’t… in fact, they made it even better. Well done.
* Various other little nods to the original series.
Much as 2003’s “Battlestar Galactica” would occasionally make fleeting references to the 1978 original (the ‘frak’ expletive, “Felgercarb”-brand toothpaste, the original TV series’ theme used as the “Colonial anthem”), 2018’s “Lost in Space” has a few references to its source series as well. Beyond the aforementioned “Debbie”, the Chariot, new Dr. Smith’s real name of “June Harris” (two names from the original cast), I’d also noticed another survivor from Don’s Jupiter was named “Angela Goddard” (played by Sibongile Mlambo), which is another combination of original series’ stars Angela Cartwright (the original Penny Robinson) and Mark Goddard (the original Don West).
There are other familiar-sounding names and references that have zipped by me, but I haven’t mentally catalogued all of them in my rusty old cranial case just yet.
A few more re-watchings, perhaps…
* Beautiful production values.
As I’ve mentioned before, each episode of this new series looks like a feature film.
The Jupiter-2 interior sets are amazing, as are the Chariots and the beautiful location photography. This series makes for some great eye-candy.
And of course, there are my usual list of nitpicks with the show…
* Pacing of individual episodes is sometimes an issue.
Netflix has each episode of the new “Lost in Space” running at just under an hour without commercials (compared to the 40 actual minutes of a typical hour-long program on commercial networks). So yes, the Netflix audience gets its money’s worth, that’s for sure. However, some of the episodes just feel a little bit… padded. Lingering static shots, or action sequences that go on a tad longer than necessary, etc. This is certainly not a fatal issue for the series, nor would I label it boring either. But there are moments when I wish some of the episodes would move along a bit faster and tighter.
Maybe I’ve become too used to today’s jump-cut, blizzard-style editing? Jeezus, I sure hope not…
* The loss of the other colonists from the Resolute as the series goes forward.
The end of S1 sees the Robinsons, Don West, Smith/June and the robot lift off from their unstable planet as they, and the other surviving Resolute colonists, use reclaimed biomass to fuel their Jupiters for blast-off. They all successfully rendezvous with the mothership Resolute, except for the Robinsons’ Jupiter-2, which was delayed due to their rescue of both John and Don West. In a way, I suppose that’s how the season is supposed to end, with the Robinsons truly being on their own. However I was kind of getting used to the idea of the Robinsons being part of a community as well. I rather liked the idea, in fact. It certainly made for a more diverse cast, and allowed for all kinds of new and different story possibilities.
It was also a nice way of reimagining why the original series’ Robinsons used to have space cowboys, prospectors and other human riff-raff dropping by on their supposed ‘uninhabited’ planet. Having other colonists from Earth in the 2018 version was a nice way of having that particular cake and eating it, too.
Summing it up.
While the original “Lost in Space” was a once-favorite childhood chestnut of mine that has since gone to seed, I’m grateful that Netflix had the foresight to try yet again to resurrect the idea for a new millennium.
Wrapping up its 10-episode first season, I think this may be the version of “Lost in Space” that finally gets it right. Wisely jettisoning the camp (which I don’t miss at all), using bits of real science (biomass fuels, magnesium to melt ice, etc), cinematic production values, and a very relatable (and well-acted) Robinson family, I think this new “Lost in Space” has finally found its way.
Nice to see that an old childhood favorite of mine has finally matured into the new millennium.