Lost in Space Season Three Review
"Whatever it is that carrot may have in store for us, we're getting out of here now. Get your machete Don."
- Professor John Robinson, The Great Vegetable Rebellion
Sometimes in life you want only the finest food man can offer. A sumptuous, three course banquet, possibly around a long dining table in candlelight, with the finest cuisine and wines there are. Smoked Scottish salmon to begin, the finest Belgian truffles for afters, champagne, caviar, the lot. A feast for the senses that will linger in the memory for long after, that will give you sustenance and satisfaction for time to come. But sometimes, sometimes, you just want to pig out and go for a burger at your local fast food outlet, despite the fact you know the polystyrene it comes in has only slightly less nutritional value than the food within. It’s junk, it’s mass-produced and one burger is very like another and you don’t care because sometimes it just hits the right spot.
And so it is with Lost in Space. If, to justify the metaphor, television science fiction from the 1960s was a menu, Irvin Allen’s shows would be the equivalent of the fast food section. Out of the four shows he produced during that period - Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants - Lost in Space is the premium burger, the Double Cheese Brand Name, the one above all the others that has instant recognition in the high street and can be recognised the world over. And, just like its meal equivalent, it is almost completely rubbish. Illogical, laughable, utterly irredeemable rubbish – and I adore it. Just as tucking into a big greasy blob of processed food can cause the momentarily pang of guilt, so too can watching it – at times you can’t help but find yourself thinking “Why am I watching this rubbish?” (or even worse, “Why am I enjoying this rubbish?”) but it is so pleasantly stupid that one can’t help but be won over by the sheer ineptness of it all. The scripting's bad, the acting second rate, the monsters ridiculous, and yet it morphs into a cosy whole that has won fans since its debut in 1965.
The series saw a couple of changes in this third season. The previous season had been an orgy of camp excess centred around Jonathan Harris’ Doctor Smith and, while he was still far and away the most popular character (the actor received more fan mail than all the other cast members put together) people were beginning to grow weary of the sameness of the episodes. Irwin Allen was advised by his former story editor Anthony Wilson, who had moved on in between seasons to head new series The Invaders, to tone down Smith’s whimsy and bring back the more straight-laced action-adventure tone of the first year, a suggestion Allen heartily agreed with. Cosmetically, viewers would have noticed some basic changes if nothing else. We got to see more effects – the Jupiter 2 acquired a Space Pod which was used extensively throughout the season, and the main ship herself was refilmed (like all Allen's shows, many episodes had re-used the same effects footage again and again). The opening narration and end cliffhangers both went, as did Penny’s monkey thing the Bloop who, after appearing once in an early episode in some stock footage, seems to be completely forgotten about (probably best not to think too much about what happened to him poor fella).
The attempted changes to the scripting, meanwhile, were only partially successful, resulting in a set of episodes that are a mixture between Season One’s attempt to tell a vaguely sensible story and Season Two’s who-cares-about-sense-let’s-throw-in-another-hippy style. Despite efforts to give the other characters something to do (John Robinson gets to duel for his life in “Hunter’s Moon”, Angela Cartwright’s Penny gets to become a “Princess of Space”) it’s still the Smith-Robot-Will triangle that forms the core of the show, so much so that in later episodes some cast members, notably Guy Williams as John and June Lockhart as Maureen, don’t appear at all (while Marta Kristen as eldest daughter Judy does but might as well not bother). Sometimes the errant doctor is paired with someone other than Will, such as in “Space Primevals” when Smith and Don (Mark Goddard) are locked up together and rather improbably swear an eternal bond of friendship, and sometimes it’s the Robot who takes centre stage (including the episode “Deadliest of the Species in which he falls in love), but the action always centres around these three. It’s understandable given Smith and the Robot are the only people on board with a spark of life, the other characters all straight-laced cardboard with square jaws and impeccable morals.
Of the three leads, it is the Robot who comes off best this year. While Harris gives his usual shtick customary relish it’s old hat which we’ve seen before. It’s as fun as ever (if you enjoy his character – someone I watched some episodes with found him as irritating as hell and refused to watch any more) but nothing new, while Bill Mumy’s Will is his usual “Gosh Dr Smith, I think that’s a bit mean of you,” self – a stereotypical kid on American television full of wholesome innocence and good intentions. The Robot, on the other hand, played by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld, has a ball. All traditional conventions of a robot as an emotionless automaton who calculates numbers but does little else is cheerfully ignored, giving the Robot free rein to do whatever he pleases, which he generally does. He makes bitchy comments, laugh heartily at some joke he’s made (usually at Smith’s expense), shows tenderness and concern and generally sets out to entertain himself as much as possible, at the same time showing a prescience about impending danger that would put Peter Parker’s spidey-senses to shame. He is, ironically, much more of a three-dimensional character than some of the Robinsons he cohabits with, and, because his robotic persona is one that is hard to shake off even after seeing multiple episodes, is the source of more unexpected laughs than Smith ever is. You know you’re onto a winner with him when in one episode, to distract some planetary natives, he begins dancing around a camp fire chanting “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom!” Indeed, in the end he becomes a walking metaphor for the entire series, a fusion of old sci-fi staples with a sixties camp sensibilities which ignores anything like real science nicely summing up the show.
The costume of the Robot, too, is a summary of the curious production values of the series, values that manage to make the sets and props look both very expensive and very cheap at the same time. The basic planetary set, which appears in nearly all the episodes, is instantly recognisable – it would seem the Robinsons land on planets with exactly the same distant range of mountains every week – as is the similarly regularly used cave set. There’s an enjoyable game to be played of Spot-the-Alien, as alien costumes are often used again and again (as well as across Allen’s other series: a monster that appeared one week on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea could be expected to make an appearance on Lost in Space the next, and vice versa), a recycling that extends to props and other space craft. (To disguise the fact the ships have appeared before, the makers did clever things like flip them upside down). And yet, despite the fact we see the Robinsons encountering the same things again and again, there is an air of money about it all. The basic set does look pretty good (and clever direction ensures that during chase scenes it appears much longer than it is) and there are often decent effects shots, bar the odd wobbling Jupiter 2 sequence. The design of the aliens is always attractive, and is certainly ahead of those appearing on Star Trek at the same point, even if they do tend to the absurd. At no point during proceedings can one ever forget these are studio sets we’re seeing (the occasional use of location filming in some early episodes shows up how artificial the worlds we normally see the Robinsons in are) but given the amount of times things reappear the series never looks cheap or dull.
Not so the writing. It is a well known fact that Allen hated anything approaching depth in characterisation or subtly of theme, preferring to keep things moving at a breakneck pace. This is reflected in this season’s worth of episodes, all of which have moments which beggar belief about how anyone could have thought them remotely credible. It’s not really worth deconstructing any of the multiple plot flaws that regularly pop up – it would be rather missing the point of the show, and something Allen himself hated – but it is so easy when watching to hear one of Allen’s favourite sayings: “Don’t get logical with me!” Instead, we get a series of episodes in which the characters are fitted around the premise, and not the other way round. Typical instalments include Dr Smith running a circus, using the Jupiter 2 as a hotel and organising a beauty pageant (the camp tone wasn’t toned down that much). Although it’s not as bad as Season Two, we still get a parade of flamboyant aliens, and a few groups of hippies, and overall it’s very easy to see that this is a world in which regular Joes like Professor Robinson and Major West have problems fitting in. Occasionally a writer has a fit and tries to put in something with a bit more substance, which usually results in a better episode - stories like “Visit to a Hostile Planet” and “The Anti-Matter Man” (by far the best directed of the season) attempt to vary the formula and give the characters more oomph, making those stories the more memorable of the run. But it’s a rare thing indeed, and mostly the episodes conform to the template of Eccentric Alien Comes Along, Dr Smith interacts with them, Tries to Get Rich, Things are All Resolved. Although it’s superfluous in discussing such casually written pieces of these to mention structure, there is an odd pacing problem a lot of the episodes have too, in that some end very suddenly, literally in the very final minute of the episode, which makes for less than satisfactory conclusions.
Ultimately, though, all these flaws become part of its appeal, an appeal that gave this season much improved ratings. But it wasn't to last - just like some of those episodes, the series itself ended very suddenly: all the cast and crew were expecting to be picked up for a fourth season when suddenly the plug was pulled. Irwin Allen was furious and tried to rally round fans to stage protests but with little success and so the last episode, Junkyard in Space, was broadcast on March 6th 1968. It wasn’t the end for Allen – as well as his success in the Seventies pioneering the disaster genre with The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure he continued to make pilots for television right up until his death a few days after Gene Roddenberry’s in 1991 – but his cast followed mixed fortunes. Lockhart, Goddard and Kristen all drifted through the 1970s appearing in a variety of television shows, none of them remarkable but popular enough (Lockhart and Goddard appeared at the same time, although not as interacting characters, on the long-running daytime soap General Hospital) although the list of credits for all the leads has grown sparser as time has worn on. Angela Cartwright, who before Lost in Space had had a lengthy career as a child star and model (she was one of the Von Trapp children in The Sound of Music) ended up retiring from the business and running a gift shop in California (although she did, along with Goddard, Kristen and Lockhart, make a cameo in the 1998 film version of the show) while Jonathan Harris kept up a goodly stream of work, including appearing as the old guy who fixes Woody in Toy Story 2, before his death in 2002 at the age of eighty-seven. Bill Mumy ended up on the last, best hope for peace while the saddest post-series career was Guy Williams, who was never hired as an actor again once he’d finished playing John Robinson. He retired to Argentina (Eva Peron was a big fan of Zorro) where he died alone in his flat just sixty-five years old.
Despite Williams’ sad end and ire at how the series had developed, ultimately he got a good deal. Zorro nowadays is a little-seen museum piece whereas Lost in Space is still beloved by millions of fans around the world. More than with most series, how you react to it will be depend on how receptive you are to its style and characters. It is unarguably utter tripe, indulgent in the leeway it gives to Harris and the Robot, sloppy in its writing and execution and with all the intelligence of a particularly thick space amoeba. But it is also hugely entertaining, both from its flaws and also from the fact it seems totally aware of them. The writers knew this wasn’t great art they were producing, and so just threw anything that amused them at it, a technique that can be disastrous but in this case works well. Any series which can produce an episode called “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” is more knowing than it might initially appear and, while it’s never witty in the same way Batman was, it is consistently amusing, sometimes intentionally so. This third season is much better than the second in that its more balanced – it’s impossible to feel any real drama for these characters even in more serious episodes, but the level of pure pantomime is reduced so that the whole thing is less garish and therefore more palatable. It might not be haute cuisine in the science-fiction world, but it is worth the occasional indulgence, if nothing else to make one appreciate how much better other superior fare is, making this truly the fast food of the science-fiction world - after all, this is the show that made a talking carrot a vicious enemy…
As with season two the twenty-four episodes of this final season are split across two separately available "Volumes." Volume One, which has episodes one-fifteen (The Condemned of Space through to and including The Antimatter Man) has four disks and Volume Two, with the remaining nine episodes (starting with Target Earth), three disks. Both sets have identical looks, with only a changed colour scheme on the front cover to distinguish them. The disks are housed in slim-line jewel cases which are held in a containing box. Each individual jewel case has a photo on the front of a character, and the back contains synopses and original airdates for each episode on that particular disk. The design of the boxes is functional but uninspired and can't have taken more than an hour to throw together. The menus are similarly dull, consistently of a silent static picture of the planet set. Every episode is subtitled but none of the extras are.
Mediocre. It isn't a crystal sharp image, and has the occasional compression problem, while there is a slight flicker at times and a couple of episodes have picture-length scars which affect a number of scenes. Watchable and about the same quality as previous sets, but don't watch these disks on a giant screen.
Fine. The dialogue is clear and the music not overbearing. Nothing fancy has been done to the soundtrack but it sounds good for its age.
The majority of the extras on both Volumes are taken from a single source, a 1995 documentary called The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen and consist almost entirely of short extracts from interviews taken for that program. On the plus side this means we get to see a lot of the cast members talking about the series from a distance, but the flip side is it's a very easy, almost cheap way to represent the surviving actors without needing to get any involvement from them for this release. Ultimately, fans have been short-changed on extras on these disks, as they have been with the two previous Seasons - only the Pilot from Season One being a substantial extra.
All episodes include an option to watch a Next on Lost in Space, the trails run for next week's episode. These are a nice inclusion and I wish more television shows included these.
Volume One Extras
There are two sections to the extras on Volume One, both found on the final disk. First up are the 3rd Season Network Bumper and Tags which are four extremely short bits that topped and tailed the show. There are two "Lost in Space is brought to you by..." with no sponsors actually named, one with just music and one which says "Lost in Space will continue after station identification." Each can be viewed separately or there is a Play All function (all four total less than minute's total running time) and make a nostalgic addition for people who watched these episodes originally.
The second section is entitled Program Interstitials and make up this volume's contribution from The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, repackaged into tiny vignettes called Lost in Space Memories. There are twenty of these, all lasting less than a minute, each of which feature a former cast member reminiscing about an aspect of the production. Example titles for the shorts include "Special Effects" and "Recycled Monsters", and all the surviving cast members (including Harris who was still very much with us in 1995) recounting their favourite episode. While it's nice to see the cast members in more modern times (none of whom showing much signs of the ravaging of age either) with interesting things to say, it's still a cheap way of including them.
Volume Two Extras
Four short extras. The first, Target Earth Ad Break is similar to the Tags included on Volume One, showing clips from the end of one act and the beginning of the next from the episode “Target Earth” illustrating how Lost in Space broke to commercials. The second is called Interstitial Blooper which is a blooper from an extra on the first Volume, which is a bit of cheek.
Much better are the two interviews. Taken from the same source again, first up is Bill Mumy, who recalls the show with obvious affection which is nice to see. The second is with Jonathan Harris, who explains the original version of Dr Smith "bored the BLEEP out of me." If only the disks had had more anecdotes like the one he tells here about his first meeting with Allen, the extras would have been much more substantial, instead of feeling just like the tip of an iceberg.
The third and final season of the Sixties' other iconic American sci-fi show, this isn't as good as the first but better than the second. The fare on the DVD is okay as far as it goes, but isn't nearly enough, resulting in a thin package - particularly frustrating given so many of the participants are still with us and willing to chat about the series. More effort for the next Allen series please.