Classic Science Fiction? - Lost in Space's The Great Vegetable Rebellion

There are two ways to look at Irwin Allen’s quartet of sci-fi shows from the 1960s. If we’re being honest they are, bar some glossy production values, almost entirely without merit, populated by cardboard characters played by third rate actors performing idiotic scripts bashed out by talentless hacks, all overseen by a producer who ultimately treated his audience with contempt. Watching them at the time, any real sci-fi fan must have despaired in seeing good money being thrown at such drivel while more serious fare largely couldn’t get a look in – indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Allen set the cause of TV sci-fi back twenty years. Following trailblazers like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits suddenly the ubiquity of his four shows juvenilised the entire genre, defining sci-fi for a generation of studio big wigs as a campy, braindead pantomime world which wasn’t worth serious investment or time. Can you think of any great TV sci-fi shows of the Seventies? I can’t.

There’s no denying he made dumb TV. But now, with the passage of time, we can afford to look back at his work with a great deal more indulgence, no longer worried that the shows represent the future of small screen sci-fi . While it would be wrong to call them the television equivalent of Plan 9 - Ed Wood, for all his faults, threw his heart and soul into that and other films, something you could never accuse Allen of doing – but they both have a similar head-smacking, good-God-they-really-did-that, how-can-they-keep-a-straight-face-about-this? appeal. It’s fun to watch poor Richard Basehart in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as he struggles manfully to bring an air of gravitas to scenes in which he has to talk to a giant octopus, or play a drinking game with Land of the Giants (one shot for every time Kurt Kasznar’s character tries and fails to be charmingly rogueish, one for every time a giant leans down to look at the little people, and a double for the obligatory appearance each episode from the Giant Hand), or even spot which film Allen has plundered for footage in that week’s instalment of The Time Tunnel. Watch more than a couple of episodes at a time and your brain begins to dribble out of your ears, but as an occasional indulgence, for reasons entirely unrelated to those intended, they’re good fun.

The one show that is still genuinely entertaining in sort of the way it was intended to be is Lost in Space. It’s little surprise that today it’s the one out of the four shows which is still remembered with anything like real affection, and typically that happy status is down almost entirely to happenstance rather than its producer. Originally, Allen envisaged the show as a relatively straightforward space adventure, and you can see in the first dozen or so episodes that that is the case (and in fairness to him, it’s actually a pretty good one.) But the possibilities afforded by the rather bland Space Family Robinson – a Stepford family so anodyne you’d end up setting an axe to them just to see if it changed their perpetually cheerful, happy demeanours – soon began to pall, and more and more screen time was afforded two characters who weren’t in the original pilot at all. Both the Robot and Dr Smith were added at the studio’s request after the series was greenlighted, to add an extra something to proceedings, and for once the executives' advice proved very wise. Without the double act of Jonathan Harris and Bob May/Dick Tufeld, who together played the Robot, Lost in Space would be regarded with the same casual indifference by TV historians today as Allen’s other shows; with them, it was turned into another Batman, a campy, OTT riot which didn’t care what stupidity it served up as long as it made you laugh. Harris began playing his part of the villainous Dr Smith – who, lest we forget, originally intended to kill the Robinsons by sabotaging their mission – perfectly straight, but as the first season wore on, and the brain stealing aliens started turning up, his character began to evolve, spending less time plotting and more time moaning and complaining, and bumping heads with the constantly unsympathetic Robot. You can almost see Harris realising what a silly show he was in, and watching his fellow actors almost blending into the background, so bland they are, and thinking, “Right, there’s a chance here.” And the writers, because they didn’t have anything more interesting to be doing, played up to that. The more he camped it up, the more they gave him, and so on and so forth, so that by the end of the first season the show’s transformation from serious-ish space show to pantomime was complete. It was an outrageous bit of stealing – poor Guy Williams, who thought he’d been cast as the lead, was so down about what had happened that he never seriously worked again – and it made for a far more memorable, enjoyable series.

The episode which best sums up its appeal is The Great Vegetable Rebellion. These days it is generally cited as one of the most infamously poor episodes of TV there’s ever been (not least by its surviving cast members) but those that do call it that kind of miss the point. Any episode in which the principal villain is a walking, talking carrot – that’s right, a carrot - is not meant to be taken seriously, certainly not seriously enough to merit inclusion in a “Worst ever...” poll. Worst ever suggests something that does not reach any of the basic, Reithian requirements of a TV episode – to inform, educate and entertain – and why you couldn’t say TGVR did either of the first two it’d be a person with a stony heart indeed not to find the sight of a large, perspiring actor pratting around in a rubber carrot suit not the least bit entertaining. How can you not love this:

The unfortunate thespian in question is Stanley Adams, perhaps best known to genre fans as the guy who sells tribbles in Star Trek. He actually gives a perfectly judged performance, given the circumstances – he doesn’t, of course, treat the thing with any seriousness, but neither does he ham it up to the nth degree, perhaps realising that his costume didn’t need any help in making the thing ridiculous. Tybo (for that is his character’s name - you didn’t think he’d be called Mr Carrot did you? That would just be silly) is, at the start of the episode, not a happy carrot. He deplores the wilful way other creatures just dig up his fellow vegetables and devours (or, as he sees it, murders) them, with nary a thought of the pain and suffering they are going through, and has decided enough is enough. Fortunately, he’s surprisingly smart for a root vegetable, and has developed a technique whereby he can turn anyone he judges guilty of eating their five-a-day into the very thing they eat, namely other vegetables, thereby proving he has at least a well-developed sense of irony. As living proof his operations work, there's Willoughby (James Milhollin), the Igor to his Doctor Frankenstein, who crashlanded on his planet several years before, and would have died had Tybo not come along and transplanted his damaged heart for one of a lettuce, thus turning him in one stroke into a being half-human, half-lettuce (oddly, Marvel have never thought of recruiting this Lettuce Man into their pages.) Now he plans to do the same to the Robinsons, after they land on his planet in search of Doctor Smith, who as usual has wandered off in his own tricks. Over the course of the fifty minute episode, while he attempts to put his dastardly plan into operation, amongst other thrills Will and Penny are menaced by an unusually aggressive cabbage, the Robot becomes ensnared in vegetation determined to have its way with him, and Dr Smith gets turned into a stalk of celery. But of course he does.

It would be lovely to say that in some way TFVR is the archetypal Lost in Space episode, but sadly it wouldn’t be quite correct. The banter between Smith and the Robot doesn’t sparkle as much as in many other episodes (a sign that the show, only weeks away from its final cancellation, was running out of steam) – Smith refers to his perpetual foe as a booby and tinplated traitor but rather in an automatic way, and the fact the whole story kicks off because Smith wants to gather some flowers for the Robot’s birthday (!) is enough to show the episode isn’t about their sparring as much as many others. It’s also noticeably one of the very few episodes in which all of the characters get a sizeable role to play – even Judy, who is normally relegated to setting the table for dinner while the men go off on adventures, gets to play parts in rescues and fend off monsters. It’s also an untypically poorly put together show. Usually LiS, as with Allen’s shows in general, at least look good, but here the regular planet set is badly disguised by just throwing all sorts of foliage up in front of it, while the conservatory in which the Robinsons are held looks like nothing more than a particularly cheap DIY job you’d buy at the local garden centre. These deficiencies aren’t helped by some poor direction on the part of Dan Richardson, who utterly fails to compensate for these problems – there’s more than one scene in which poor Harris has to convince us he’s been pursued by running round and round the same small bit of space. Bless him, he does his best, shrieking and wailing, but we can see what’s going on.

But such technical problems are but insignificant specks compared to the central point: this is an episode about a giant carrot, with a half-human half-lettuce as a sidekick. In the Seventies and Eighties the Killer Tomato franchise would return to the same subject matter, but in an intentionally schlocky way. Tybo the Carrot, on the other hand, was not born with a knowing wink but rather utter despair on the part of Peter Packer, the writer responsible for all this. At one point during its production, Harris cornered Packer and demanded to know what he was playing at. The beleaguered Packer, who it’s fair to say was not one of the most gifted writers Hollywood ever produced and who had by that time written some twenty-episodes of LiS, snapped back “I couldn’t think of another goddamn thing!” and, while it's not recorded, almost certainly then broke down in tears. Often such moments of creative entropy can lead to unexpectedly brilliant pieces of TV. This time, it led to Tybo and Willoughby. Nothing about the script works – even the one subtext, that eating greens is bad, sends out entirely the wrong message to the youthful audience that made up the majority of LiS’s viewership – while the dialogue has to be heard to be believed. Here are just some of the more glorious bon mots from the pen of Packer:

Willoughby Tybo and his vegetable kingdom are up to their old tricks again!

Will: Do you think you can help us with these vines?
Willoughby: Yes, but don’t tell Tybo, if he knew he’d probably turn me into something awful like a red banana.

Maureen: Oh it’s hot in here.
John: With good reason, it’s some kind of hothouse!

John: Well whatever it is that carrot has in store for us, we’re getting out of here now. Get your machete Don.

John: His feet are his Achilles heels!

Don: I’m not sure which I prefer, coming to a slow boil or solidifying into an icecube.
John: I’m hoping for neither!

Judy: I don’t see anything to be happy about in being an oversized celery stalk.

It’s little wonder that the regular cast could hardly keep a straight face. Both Williams and June Lockhart, who plays wife Maureen, were so badly behaved during filming that they were banned from the set for the next two episodes – and as those shows were the last ever to be recorded before the series was cancelled, it effectively meant that this was their farewell performance. However, watching it now it’s Mark Goddard, who plays Don, you want to watch out for. There are moments where, faced with Tybo’s prancing around, he cannot keep a straight face and has to turn away from the camera to stop himself laughing. It’s little wonder.

Because, ultimately, it is very funny, and that’s where the biggest misconception about the episode comes. In terms of entertainment, it is very far from the worst episode of Lost in Space. It might be the silliest – although even that’s up to debate – but crucially it is never dull. There are other episodes in the series which are almost as stupid but far more dreary, while here you know you’re never far away from another God-awful line of dialogue or bizarre plot twist. In that respect it’s very similar to Star Trek’s Spock’s Brain, another episode generally held in low regard that is, if you watch in the right way, riotously amusing. And that’s the thing. You have to want to like it. Viewed objectively, TGVR is, like most of Allen’s stuff, very very poor. But it’s saving grace is that it’s also a lot of fun, and worth checking out at least once. If, for nothing else, to see the suspiciously familiar object Tybo uses to keep himself moist...

If you look at that and ask "Why doesn't he just use a watering can?" this might not be for you. For everyone else, it's worth checking out at least once, if for no other reason than to realise that it's very true: they don't make 'em like they used to...

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