Lost In Space: Season One Review
Before sitting down to watch this box set, I knew very little about Lost in Space. Aside from very dim memories of watching reruns when I was small, my only knowledge was that gleamed over the years from sources such as The Simpsons and various cult magazines, such as the fact it was very camp, had a robot that ran round yelling “Danger Will Robinson, Danger” and that there was a character called Dr Smith in it who was always trying to get young Will on his own. As such, getting ready to watch the twenty nine episodes that make up the first season, I didn’t really know what to expect and as such approached the show with an open mind.
The series follows the adventures of the family Robinson who, in 1997, set off in the Jupiter 2 as the first space colonists (you must remember, it was all over the papers). However, a foreign power employs one Dr Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) to sabotage the mission to prevent the US getting ahead in the space race. He manages to do so but can’t get off the ship before it launches so that, when everything goes haywire, he is caught up in it all. Eventually the ship manages to land on a seemingly deserted planet, where the family must attempt to survive against a whole range of threats as diverse as vegetable monsters and invisible cosmic forces. As well as making sure Dr Smith doesn’t cause any more trouble…
At the heart of Lost in Space’s raison d’etre is the desire to tell exciting, amusing stories, and it never allows anything to stand in its way. At a time when a lot of science fiction was used as metaphor for issues that the censors wouldn’t allow regular series to tackle (not just Star Trek but in shows like The Outer Limits) Lost in Space wears its pulp origins on its sleeves proudly. Telling an entertaining story is the number one priority and everything else be damned. In this way it is a descendant of the pulp scifi magazines that were everywhere at that time in America, and were just starting to arrive on TV.
A victim to this approach of telling a good story first and worrying about everything else later is scientific accuracy, of which there is none. Although it has a lot of the trappings of science fiction, including many of the classic clichés of the day – silver foil suits, food pills, giant robots and so on – it would be fair to say that Lost in Space is much closer to fantasy than straight sci fi. Regularly we are presented with concepts that no self-respecting serious show would touch – magic helmets that makes wishes come true, for example, cause everything the wearer touches turn to platinum. There’s a man who is found living behind every mirror in the world, and an episode in which someone turns into a genius after a ride in a rocket ship. At no time are any explanations even attempted as to how these things could possibly exist - it’s not that the writers struggle with defending these ideas, they just don’t care, and ask simply that you suspend your disbelief and go with it. This is quite easy to do, although occasionally the show does go too far, for example when we are asked to believe that a character can freefall from an orbit to just 100 feet above the ground before activating his braking jets, and as long as you can accept that this is not a serious show, there is a lot of fun to be had from it. Every so often there is a more standard genre episode – alien possession, an intergalactic zoo keeper, and a character becoming old in a blink of an eye all rear their heads – but overall there is a feeling of “To hell with the science, I want to tell a story about monster plants this week” about it all.
This lackadaisical approach to the way the stories are told extends to the actual writing of the scripts. You do have to give the show a lot of leeway – you’re not asked to suspend your disbelief so much as throw it right out of the window - and for the more critical the numerous nitpicks may be difficult to overcome - a typical example being when the Robinsons know the name of an alien race despite never having actually communicated with them (a name that is confirmed in a subsequent episode). With the obvious exception of Dr Smith, the characters never feel like anything more than stereotypes, going through the motions to get the plot delivered. Emotions, when displayed, are strictly two dimensional – everyone cares for everyone else, Judy flirts with Don, and everyone gets exasperated rather than furious with Smith’s antics. As well as this, their actions can be infuriatingly random. A character does something stupid roughly every ten minutes – witness the scene where Penny wanders by some explosives about to go off and her father, instead of yelling her to move, instead gets up and dives towards her, or the time when Dr Smith decides to sleep outside the forcefield, despite his fear of everything, telling Maureen, “What could possibly happen on a beautiful night like this?”, or the time the characters, desperate for water, find a spring but decide they can’t use it as it’s salt water. Other crimes the script commit include that oft-mocked scene where a character makes an incredibly weak joke and everyone else falls about laughing, and a complete lack of continuity. Water supplies disappear from episode to episode (in one show they are shown to be near a sea, which is instantly forgotten about), the Robot’s abilities change according to the needs of each script, and in one episode Penny gets a pet dog that is never seen again (perhaps Dr Smith ate him?) You could also argue that the number of different aliens who decide to visit this seemingly unremarkable planet is improbably large, but it can be dismissed as just another example of needing to tell a good story. The dialogue itself veers wildly, going from trite – there are endless scenes of people wondering whether people will be alright – through to surprisingly witty – the writers raise their game when writing for Smith (perhaps as he is the most interesting character) with his endless monologues of his own importance as well as several amusing exchanges between him and the Robot. The crowning glory comes, however, when in one episode the superbly named Officer Bollix turns up, in pursuit of a dangerous fugitive. That’s Bollix pronounced as you might expect.
What is interesting is that the show, perhaps inevitably, is illustrative of the time and society in which it was made. It is noticeable, for example, that there are no actors of ethnic origin to be found in on this particular alien planet. Also, we are evidently in a pre-feminist era: the women spend their days cooking and cleaning while the men go off having adventures. Aside from one moment when Mum Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart) gets to shoot an alien, the girls are portrayed as being rather helpless, illustrated especially in one episode in which the men have to come back at the last minute to save the day. In another, daughter Penny Robinson (Angela Cartwright) is teased by sister Judy (Marta Kristen) and treated as odd for not wanting to do girlish things like putting on makeup, the happy ending only coming when Penny does decide she might like to have a go with it after all. The world will be a better place when everyone conforms to what society expects of them, women most of it, it seems to say. As well as this, the only overriding message you can draw from the show is the truly American one that family life is good and you should always tell the truth, say your prayers and generally just look after one another. Which is nice.
Although there is ample evidence of laziness in the writing, this does not extend to the look of the show which is, considering the era it was made in, superb. From the very beginning, an opening shot of an impressive space centre control room, complete with flashing buttons and giant viewscreens, it is clear that high care has been taken to make the show look as good as possible. The black and white photography goes a long way to masking the fact that for the most part the actors are on a soundstage (the occasional shadow on the backdrop notwithstanding) and the direction ensures that the setting never gets stale, with new camera angles being found every episode. It is easy to suspend disbelief here, even when the set is redesigned as simply as moving a few rocks about, and there are enough different locations over the course of the episodes to keep the interest up – as well as the desert location the ship has landed on, we see rocky canyons, caves, forests and a sea. Enough is done to ensure these are all carried off convincingly, and are complemented with some excellent model work – the shots of the Chariot (their space van) and John on his rocket pack whizzing about make the whole area feel much bigger than it already is. The monsters are, perhaps, slightly less well done as it would appear that aliens fall into two camps here – monsters covered in hair who roar and normal looking humanoids. There’s no real variation on this theme, aside from one aquatic looking creature who, it struck me, would have been more at home in Irwin Allen’s sister series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Sometimes, too, effects are reused – we seem the same shot of a ship taking off at least twice, and it is clear (especially when watching the episodes back to back as I did for this review) that sometimes the alien spacecraft all come from the same design workshop. This is all very understandable given the time and money constraints these shows were made to, however, and as the episodes were only ever made to be watched one a week, they’re not big flaws and certainly do not take away from the fact that the design of the show is one of its big strengths.
As if spurred on by the excellent production values, the direction too is generally very good. As well as the care taken to keep the sets fresh, the directors are not afraid to experiment – witness the shot of Judy coming up in the ship’s elevator for instance. There is some surprisingly good split screen work – in one episode we have two Dr Smiths talking to each other, in another a giant Smith looms over the Robinsons – as well as the odd impressive explosion that actually feels like an explosion should. Sometimes the staging of the actors lets the side down a bit though, for example in the season finale where Will and the villain are facing off to each other on a perilous plateau. Will says to the villain, “You’re going to push me in, aren’t you?” the villain says, “Yes” but then, instead of following through with this seemingly simple plan, just stares at the boy who, in return, just stares back. This seems to go on for about a minute before they decide to have a bit more of a conversation first. (This isn’t the only time dialogue lets down a scene – there’s a nicely effective moment in the pilot when the Robinsons experience weightlessness, but it is nearly unwatchable for the embarrassing dialogue that goes with it).
As mentioned, the star of the show is unquestionably Jonathan Harris as Smith (ironic, considering throughout the season he is credited as a “Special Guest Star”.) Smith is a scheming, selfish, untrustworthy character whose only interests in life are his own comfort and getting back to Earth, and as such you would expect the character to be intolerable and tiresome. However, his very failings are what makes him so loveable, and his sheer incompetence and ability to get himself in trouble ensure that we never lose sympathy for him. His self pity and high opinion of himself (two of his catch phrases being “Oh the pain, the pain,” and “Never fear, Smith is here”) make him a character to laugh at rather than fear and, while the character does some pretty despicable things during the series (including attempting to sell off the Robot and abandoning the children several times when they’re in danger ) it is easy to forgive him as he always ends up worse off than when he started – no character as bumbling as he is can ever be seen as much of a threat. He is, if you like, the Dick Dastardly of the series. Harris evidently takes great delight in the character, enunciating every last syllable of his dialogue with relish in the style of a rather hammy Shakespearean actor, and it is easy to see why, as the season progresses, Smith gets more and more screen time. Simply put, compared to the rather anodyne people surrounding him, he is a breath of fresh air. Any final lingering doubts about him to do with his original ill intent are erased by the season’s end, as he’s shown to develop an affection for the family, even going so far as to cast himself out in one late episode when it becomes clear that he is a danger. The character he becomes closest to is Will, for whom he feels a fatherly bond – in one episode when he and Will are seemingly lost forever, he agrees to look after him, and in another he clearly enjoys being a surrogate father to him when his parents seem to be lost. This isn’t to say he’s a reformed character – I lost count of the number of episodes where he is shown to be skiving his chores – but you end up feeling about him the way you do about a wayward relative – he’s a pain, but life would be a lot duller without him around.
The only other character who comes close to Smith in the interests stake is the Robot, played by Bob May and wonderfully voiced by Dick Tufeld. From the start, even when he is just a plot device that goes round smashing up the Jupiter 2, he has an imposing presence with an impressive, interesting design, evidently the offspring of the great robots from schlock sci fi movies of the 1950s and early 60s (including Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, who, in a rare example of irony, turns up in an episode to try and oust the Robot from his position in the ship’s company). Soon he has established an engaging double act with Dr Smith, often impeding the latter’s schemes, coming across as the idiot savant Laurel to Smith’s frustrated Hardy, and prompting many exclamations from Smith along the lines of “You mechanical nincompoop”, to which the Robot would reply something like “Does not compute,” one of his catch phrases.. However, over the second part of the season he develops an almost human-like awareness, exhibiting different emotions, amongst which are jealously (when Robbie turns up), humour (he makes several jokes at Dr Smith’s expense, usually followed by a rather odd-sounding laugh) and emotional attachment, when he tells Smith that everyone needs someone, and he has him. Visually, he’s great fun, dashing about with his arms flailing wildly calling out “Danger, danger!” whenever peril is close at hand, and if at times his skills are a little inconsistent (in most episodes he is unable to translate alien languages but in one he can perfectly) that just goes along with the rest of the series’ narrative peculiarities.
The rest of the cast are, regrettably, more of a mixed bunch. Billy Mumy (who, as Bill Mumy, later shows up on Babylon 5) is charming as young Will Robinson, a character who, in lesser hands, could have been annoying, with his open-eyed “gee-whiz” character and overly trusting attitude. He provides a focus point for the doubtless numerous boys his age who watched the series, and is never irritating, even at his most precocious. This is just as well as, with Smith and the Robot, he is the character who features most heavily in the episodes. Marta Kristen and Angela Cartwright (who was one of the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music) as his two sisters Judy and Penny, make much less of an impact. In particular Kristen has a thankless role, never getting close to the heart of the action of an episode. Penny does a little better, getting a couple of decent episodes to herself as well as a pet monkey called Debby (the makers try to convince us Debby is an alien by sticking a beefeater’s hat on her head, but I’m onto them), but the rest of the time her role is to either smile at an inane joke or look worried when Will goes missing. Committing a worse crime is Mark Goddard as Major West who, far from being the romantic hero that he was evidently intended to be, comes across as smug and unlikeable, taking every opportunity to taunt Dr Smith and make him look foolish in front of the others. This is a mistake as Smith is the audience’s champion, and anyone treating him badly ends up the worse for it. Worse still, West’s romance with Judy goes nowhere – aside from an amusing scene late on in the season when they try and get some privacy and an episode subplot in which an attractive alien plays up to West, much to Judy’s ire, nothing is done with it, and as we hardly ever see Judy we don’t really care. Meanwhile, Guy Williams (who was at the time famous for having played Zorro) starts off the show’s run as the star but finds the limelight hijacked from under him by Harris and the Robot, and is relegated to the role of the concerned father, occasionally running to the rescue but with no more to do than that. At least he gets that though. Tying for most thankless role with Kristen, however, is June Lockhart as mother Maureen, who is literally given nothing to do other than look worried and say, “Oh Dr Smith,” in the same way a mother chides a favourite child for putting muddy footprints on a carpet. Which I suppose is appropriate considering she was in Lassie before this. Amongst the largely unimpressive collection of guest stars is a young Kurt Russell, portraying a boy who must complete a challenge to become a man.
Overall Lost in Space is a very curious beast. On one level it is simply awful, with stories full of plotholes and dreary dialogue. But to counter that it has excellent production values, and in Dr Smith a great central character (and he is the central character, despite what the cast listings might think). In a way, it defies criticism, wearing its heart on its sleeve - this is what I am, it seems to say unashamedly, take me or leave me. At most times it is extremely entertaining and, if watched in the right spirit, can be a lot of fun. The thing it is most well known for, its camp value, is in evidence here but is mostly restrained, aside from the occasional outburst from Smith – I understand it descends much more to Batman levels in later years – and out of my three favourite episodes - Wish Upon a Star (the wish granting episode), War of the Robots (the Robot vs Robbie the Robot) and Return from Outer Space (Will gets back to Earth), I would say only the first really approaches anything slightly limp-wristed. Very much harkening back to the days of the Flash Gordon serials, (even down the end of each episode which exclaims “To be Continued next week!”) Lost in Space is nothing more than a bit of mindless nonsense with no higher aspirations than to amuse, something which it never fails to do. It’s rubbish, but very entertaining rubbish, and at the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with that.
The print is in excellent condition considering how old the source is. Some episodes are better than others and, particularly near the end of the run, there is a tendency for the image to become slightly too soft in murky interiors. However, for the ninety percent of the time when the action takes place in one of the well lit soundstages the image is solid and well defined, and the only real let down is the large amount of grain that appears in sky shots, probably to do with the fact they are shot on film rather than tape. (Watch out for a shock at the end of the last episode though as the series suddenly switches to colour – after watching the black and white for so long, it feels quite odd).
The sound has that slightly recorded feeling to it that all TV shows from this time suffer from. There is minimum hiss, however, but there did appear to lip synching problems in episode nine, The Oasis. Overall good, and it’s nice to hear John Williams’ (yes, that one) original version of the theme tune.
A static extrapolation of the opening sequence – nothing very impressive but does its job.
A bit of a disappointment. The two pieces included are nice, but there was so much more that surely could have been included. Surely Bill Mumy and the other surviving members of the cast could have been pulled in for at least one commentary? Or how about a general retrospective of Irwin Allen's work? Or even some convention footage of Jonathan Harris? Hopefully Season Two's will improve.
CBS Network presentation
Five minute short selling the show to potential buyers, with promises that advertisers will snap up the chance to promote their product during this show. Interesting to see, but has no behind the scenes footage.
Pilot Episode - "No Place to Hide"
Interesting to see, particularly as the two elements that arguably make the series what it is - Smith and the Robot - were added after this pilot was made. The story itself is an amalgamation of the first five episodes of the series, with much footage from here reappearing in those.
A highly entertaining series of episodes, this package is a little let down by lack of extras. For fans of classic 60s cult shows, however, this is probably an essential purchase, especially as these black and white episodes are not repeated nearly as often as the later colour episodes.