In the past, I’ve fretted that today’s generations aren’t being educated in the TV classics. Back in the 80s, when there were just three to four channels, no Internet, no DVDs, no games consoles, no smartphones, et al, TV networks had a captive audience. So as well as making plenty of original shows, they could air repeats from decades earlier (sometimes even in primetime) and know the audience wouldn’t change channel or even turn the TV off. It ensured that the nerdy likes of me were introduced to The Man From UNCLE, The Avengers, The Invaders, the various ITC shows of the 60s, Champion the Wonder Horse, black and white sitcoms like The Addams Family or Car 54 Where Are You? and more.
The chances that any of today’s generation are going to watch these is pretty close to zero. Even if they wanted to, no channels are airing these old shows and few if any streaming services are offering them. There’s almost no chance they’ll get seen by the youth of today unless said youth have a lot of cash and patience.
Lost in Space? Good
However, I have absolutely no concerns about the youth of today not getting to watch classic 60s sci-fi show Lost in Space. Produced by the famous TV auteur Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and originally titled Space Family Robinson (kids: that’s a reference to a another thing we used to call ‘books’), it sees a family called the Robinsons blasting off into space in the then-far-flung-future of 1997 to colonise a planet around Alpha Centauri that’s fit for human life. However, their ship goes off course and before you know it, they’re… lost in space.
Why do I have no concerns? Because frankly – sorry, Lost in Space fans, if there are still any of you – it was terrible. Just awful, in fact. Forcing a child to watch it today is tantamount to abuse.
That isn’t just because of its patriarchal 60s values, with father Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams) and ‘Space Corps’ Major Donald West (Mark Goddard) going off doing action things and solving problems, while mum Maureen (June Lockhart) and daughters Judy (Marta Kristen) and Penny (Angela Cartwright) basically stayed at home and did the housework. It isn’t because of its shiny 60s idea of what space travel would be, either.
No, it’s because of what was actually the show’s most iconic character: one Dr Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). He wasn’t in the original pilot, but in keeping with other Allen series and the post-Bond fever for spy shows in the 60s, the show included Dr Smith for an element of international intrigue. In the new first episode for the show, he’s introduced as a saboteur whose presence on board the Jupiter 2 is what causes it to go off course. Never intended to last more than a few episodes before being written out, Harris soon hatched a cunning plan: he started writing his own lines and playing up his character as a colossal coward and pompous oaf.
Irwin was no fool and seeing what Harris was up to, he told him: “I know what you’re doing. Do more of it!” Before you knew it, ‘special guest star’ Jonathan Harris was in every single episode and was the star of the show. Most episodes were about him, his relationship with the Robinson’s very trusting son Will (Bill Mumy) and the almost equally iconic ship’s robot voiced by Dick Tufeld, whose catchphrase “Danger, Will Robinson!” is far better known than even the show itself, despite only having been used once.
To cope with a man screaming “Oh the pain! Save me, William!” as though he was being attacked by Puss in Boots every episode, the writers naturally shifted the tone of the show’s writing, taking it from a surprisingly gritty and even dark piece in its initial episodes to one in which actors were spray-painted silver and giant carrots turned up. Watch anything more than those first few episodes and you’ll discover that if you have any actual choice in terms of what’s available to watch, you won’t be watching Lost in Space unless you also happen to be smoking something a little exotic.
And now for something completely different
For reasons unknown, people had fond memories of the original show – presumably because they hadn’t watched it since they were three years old – and producers have been keen to tap into that misplaced nostalgia. In 1998, a movie version tried to turn the TV series into something watchable, but even the acting talents of the likes of Gary Oldman (as Dr Smith), William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham and Jared Harris still weren’t enough to save it. The less said about it, the better – particularly if you’re in the company of anyone who worked for a London post-production house at that time (“Oh the pain!” indeed).
An attempt to make a new TV series, The Robinsons: Lost in Space, floundered in 2004, despite John Woo directing the pilot. Apart from this YouTube video, the show’s only lasting mark were its sets, which were repurposed for the Battlestar Pegasus in Battlestar Galactica.
You’d have thought that given such a low bar to get over, any adaptation of the original could only succeed, but apparently not.
Third time lucky?
Nevertheless, here we are again, as Netflix has just given us a full 10-episode season of a show called Lost in Space that is ostensibly a reboot of the original show. It sees Toby Stephens (Black Sails, Die Another Day) playing dad John Robinson, Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood) playing mum Maureen Robinson and ‘queen of the indies’ Parker Posey playing Dr Smith, who once again are ‘lost in space’.
You would, of course, be quite entitled to wonder what sort of show this new Lost in Space would be like. If it’s an adaptation of the original, is it a remake of that original darkish spy show or the camp show it ultimately became? Is it more like the movie, perhaps? And is it a show for the kids or a grimdark piece for adults?
Last of all, is it actually any good and worth watching? Unlike the original.
While you’ll have to wait until after the jump before I tell you whether it’s any good, I can at least give you one of TMINE’s trademark ‘meets’ to give you an idea of the tone of the show.
Not only is it suitable for both adults and children, Netflix’s Lost in Space is indeed Lost in Space, but it’s Lost in Space meets Interstellar meets The Martian. Have a think about that while you watch this here trailer.
A season-long pilot
Largely, the first season of Lost in Space is a hugely extended version of the original series’ first episode, The Reluctant Stowaway, that’s both faithful and considerably different – a nifty trick if you can do it. Starting in medias res, then told in both flashback and in straight linear fashion, it shows the Robinsons’ unexpected crash-landing on a completely different planet from the one they were expecting and how they ended up in that situation in the first place. Each episode is then something like The Martian – more so the original The Martian book, in fact – with each episode giving the family some peril to face that they then have to ‘science the shit out of’ in order to overcome it.
Someone’s trapped in a rapidly freezing glacier! How do we save them? Well, that thing we passed that burnt with a bright white light was probably magnesium, so if we can dig up some more of that then light it, we can melt the ice and rescue them.
And that’s just the first episode. There’s plenty more of that, with the ending a virtual lift from The Martian, too, but unlike the original with its sketchy grasp of science, here the show is pleasingly educational. Even more pleasingly, given my criticisms of Netflix’s own Altered Carbon, Lost in Space has very much a #MeToo view of the future. Shuffling the roles around from the original show, now it’s mum Maureen who’s the brilliant professor of engineering, father John is a former marine (or SEAL, depending on whom you ask) and Penny is a doctor. The show is very clear that mum’s in charge but that everyone has useful skills that make them a great team and of different uses in different situations. Engineering knowledge is the only thing that can get them off the planet, but is of no use in saving everyone from space eels or fixing a broken leg.
Later episodes then expand things out considerably. Dr Smith turns up, as does Ignacio Serricchio (Bones)’s mechanic Mark West, which gives the show interesting dialogues about the difference between Maureen Robinson’s theoretical engineering knowledge and West’s more hands-on knowledge – she may know what spaceships are supposed to do and how the systems are supposed to work, but he knows what’s really there and whether a system has been over-specced or short-changed. It’s a genuinely rare moment in TV fiction where you get the sense that you’re watching proper engineers at work and in a way that might inspire kids to become engineers themselves.
More importantly, the Space Family Robinson aren’t alone – they were just one of a whole group of people selected to travel to Alpha Centauri and who have crash-landed on the planet. These include community leader Raza Jaffrey (Homeland) and scientist Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (The Man in the High Castle), which opens up the plots considerably.
Of course, there’s also the robot. However, in a big change from the original, the robot isn’t supposed to be there at all – it’s an alien robot and a big thread that runs throughout the season is the question of what it’s doing there and whether it can be trusted. Sure, it saves the Robinsons and other survivors on several occasions, and has a habit of warning “Danger, Will Robinson!” whenever there’s danger, once it’s acquired a basic command of English. It also proves a great friend to Will as it slowly learns how to do things like play catch.
But right from the outset, it’s clear it’s also a potentially dangerous presence.
A family show
Despite all the massive spectacle and genuinely stupendous effects, Lost in Space is nevertheless very much a family show, albeit one for older children (Netflix has given it a 12 certificate). While there are ‘scenes of peril’, it’s not terrifying peril and is more like a never-ending sequence of bits from Jurassic Park. There’s also a warmth that runs throughout the show that wards off the grimdark like a pair of pink boxers on Batman.
Survival isn’t just the show’s only concern, either – family happiness is also key. John having been absent on deployment for long stretches at a time, he and Maureen were on the verge of divorce at the time they left Earth and the show dwells for a long time on the question of whether their marriage can survive their current situation or even be repaired now they’re back in each other’s company again. Similarly, the kids may have been pining for the return of their dad, but now he’s back are they really happy?
The kids, it has to be said, are surprisingly pleasing and are as important to the story as the parents. Will (Maxwell Jenkins) and his relationship with the robot are the show’s principal concern, but Mina Sundwall’s Penny Robinson is a nicely snarky and amusing teenager. When other kids start to show up and she develops a crush on Jaffrey’s son, her general strength of character in handling the peaks and troughs of the relationships are as good a role model as you could hope a daughter could have.
She’s actually by far the most animated character in the story. Which is surprising…
Oddly, given how central the character was to the original show, Parker Posey’s Dr Smith takes a weirdly long time to become central to the story – and indeed to become interesting. Once again a stowaway, June Harris to give her her real name (a nod to Jonathan Harris) steals the identity of first her sister (a cameo by Selma Blair) and then the real Dr Z Smith (played by Bill Mumy no less) and hops her way from party of survivors to party of survivors in an effort to survive.
At first seemingly just a coward who doesn’t want to get found out, by season’s end, she’s revealed herself to be truly malicious and a borderline sociopath, using everyone to her own ends far more subtly than the Dr Smith of old. On the plus side, it’s a really interesting depiction of emotional and social manipulation, and Posey does get to have moments of comedy, too. But on the negative side, the character’s nowhere near as memorable as Jonathan Harris’s version, making this Lost in Space more plausible but less memorable.
In contrast, Serricchio’s Mark West is a far more interesting creation than the original’s West. A smuggler, as well as a mechanic, his motivations are less pure than everyone except Dr Smith’s, but they’re grey, rather than black, and he has an evolving platonic relationship with Judy Robinson as she tries to convince him to listen to his angels rather than his demons.
I did say this was The Martian meets Interstellar, so you’re probably wondering where the second movie fits in. Well, the Robinsons and everyone else are from not much further forward in time than we are. However, the Earth is dying, probably from something environmental, so no one wants to stay – everyone wants to leave and there are very stringent tests that need to get passed if you want to get to Alpha Centauri. Space flight will save the human race, not just allow us to take over other planets.
Yet as any nerdy kid knows, Alpha Centauri’s 4.3 light years away, so how are we going to get there? Only 25 years or so until we get interstellar space flight – how does that happen? There is an answer to that and it’s a long time coming, but the fact it comes at all is one of the surprising reveals of the final few episodes, although there are hints dropped around in the earlier episodes if you’re paying attention.
On top of all those references and the love of science and the necessity for space exploration that Christopher Nolan’s film argued for, later on, we do get a supposedly dead father sending messages back home to his progeny in order to save the day. Thankfully, it’s not the key to the whole plot, though, which is the one and only way in which Lost in Space tops Interstellar.
Lost in translation
Lost in Space‘s biggest problem, despite some excellent foundations, is it’s not quite interesting enough. It’s perilously close most of the time to being excellent, but everything’s just a little bit more subdued or repetitive than it needs to be maintain the viewer’s interest. I found myself drifting quite a lot, as while the Martian-like survival challenges are thrilling at first, the solutions are never quite interesting enough and there are just too many of them. Parker and Stephens’ marital issues are believable but are almost scientifically examined, never really flushing out raw emotion. Dr Smith lacks flamboyance and the Robot is a Swiss Army knife that makes certain things a bit too easy, while never having any lines of dialogue that might make it a real character.
Nevertheless, it’s light years better than any version of Lost in Space that’s gone before it. As a piece of family science fiction, it’s also hard to knock, managing to juggle the storylines aimed at the older viewer and those aimed at the younger ones with remarkable alacrity. The show’s genuinely gender-blind belief that Parker’s character should be the central figure in the story who must make all the ultimate decisions is thrilling. The cast are all very believable (even posh-boy Stephens who’s a very credible gruff military man), and there are moments that are genuinely funny and even silly without being stupid (one scene in particular that involves helium is properly entertaining). There are character developments among the supporting cast that show the writers are really trying to think hard and not just recycle the standard clichés, too.
Yet while most of the first season has touches of brilliance but nonetheless left me a little cold, the final couple of episodes really heated things up, making it clear that not only is the season really just that expanded first episode of the original series, it’s also best thought of as a pilot episode. Everything comes together at the end to set up a far more exciting second season. Importantly, Dr Smith becomes not only integral to the story, she’s just the way a Dr Smith should be.
Go into Lost in Space expecting to find a show that you can watch with your kids and that’s very watchable and stunning to look at, and you’ll have a great time. But keep your eye on what the future holds, since I suspect there’s something even better just round the corner.