TV Review – Lost in Space
Creator and Showrunner – Zack Estrin
Starring Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Parker Posey, and Maxwell Jenkins
When last we saw our intrepid family Robinson, the virile, largely absent, father John; wizened matriarch and former collie owner, Maureen; self-absorbed know-it-all d-bag Don; annoyingly helpless damsel-in-distress Judy; boy-smitten younger daughter Penny; and precociously disobedient child-brainiac, Will, were stranded in a colorfully loopy psychedelic universe with bad writing, cheeseball aliens, a mushroom-headed robot and a flamboyantly duplicitous closet-queen named Dr. Zachary Smith. Now, half a century later, they find themselves lost again, reborn into contemporary action heroes on Netflix’s new reboot of the 60s TV classic Lost in Space. Will they find their way home? Will they survive the ratings? Will their series delight the masses with the same giddy silliness that still warms the hearts of baby boomers nostalgic for a more innocent time? Find out on tonight’s binge episodes of Lost in Space!
Irwin Allen’s original 1965 Lost in Space television series was a product of its kitschy times. In the first half of its first season, it delivered a straightforward, serialized adventure series set in outer space, an interesting if not overly exciting story of the Alpha Centauri bound family’s struggles to survive on an uncharted ice planet far from Earth. (It was inspired by the novel and Disney film Swiss Family Robinson.) By the second half of season one, the series began to move away from the sterile adventure toward the broadly goofy comedy for which it’s known today. Competition from the popular Batman TV series, as well as the campy nature of 60s television in general, forced the show’s creators to lighten things up. And they did so with a vengeance, employing celebrities to play hammy weekly villains just as Batman had done. (First season guest stars included Michael Rennie, and Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge.) Corny moments between parent and child and child and robot, became de rigueur and the sinister Dr. Smith (Jonathon Harris) transformed from cold-hearted saboteur to the indolent, over-the-top whiner that audiences still love. The show increased its ratings, switched to color its second season, and continued to ramp up the camp with ridiculous anachronisms, unhip and often disapproving references to 60s counter-culture, and those laughable painted papier-mâché aliens with googly eyes and glitter that have only gotten funnier with age.
Today the show is considered by many a camp classic, beloved for its nostalgic reminders of a gentler time, its low production values, its resolute willingness to ignore the most basic rules of science on a weekly basis, and its unabashed delight in the idiotic. Zack Estrin, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series, clearly knows and loves the original. His first season updates those early episodes, following the basic plotlines of that first season relatively closely but now with state-of-the-art production values, solid character writing, and more sophisticated storytelling, all the while maintaining the jovial funhouse spirit of the first series. There’s still a sly hint of camp here, but it’s much more sophisticated and subtle.
Estrin has made some major changes to be sure and all of them are improvements. The marriage of June and John (Molly Parker and Toby Stephens), is strained, perhaps irreparably. Don (Ignacio Serricchio) is a self-serving rascal with a good, if reluctant heart; Judy (Taylor Russell), now the child of a previous relationship, is black, self-sufficient, highly intelligent and compassionate. Penny (Mina Sundwall) is now a shrewd and confident manipulator of fawning boys. Debbie the pet Bloop is no longer a Spock-eared chimp, but a clucky pet chicken; and best of all, Dr. Smith is… wait for it… a woman. Now played by popular indie actress, Parker Posey, she’s the same conniving, manipulating psychopath she was when she was a he. And Posey has that same mischievous smirking glow in her eyes that Harris had. Her performance tips a subtle hat to the former Smith, but without Harris’s extravagant overreach. How an actress like Posey ended up on a family oriented sci-fi adventure series is hard to fathom, but it’s equally hard to imagine a more perfect choice for the role. She’s deliciously scary, irredeemably bad, and a joy to watch, an 80s soap opera bitch for the 21st century interstellar set.
These modernized and renovated characters offer more than a PC makeover. They’re uniformly more interesting and complicated. The once ineffectual females are now empowered but in a way that’s intrinsic to the story and not just a half-baked attempt at adapting to the female action hero era. Maureen is now the leader, ruling over even discredited dad John. And all of the family members are competent and well-trained, as one would expect in a real family space mission. They’re also compelling and beautifully acted. Parker and Stephens, as the oft-estranged parents are afforded some of the series most emotionally wrenching moments. In the season’s most intensely suspenseful scene, wherein their desperate struggle to save Judy from a frigid death seems hopeless, the two lay on the ice, sobbing in despair. We already know Judy will be spared (She’s a regular cast member, duh), but the parental grief here is authentically poignant. A later scene, in which the two attempt to reconcile their differences as they face “certain” death in a quicksand-swallowed chariot, is believable and touching. While the old series would have hyped the contrived danger of these scenes, rendering them ineffective and hokey, here they burn with real dramatic fire. This is not run-of-the-mill cartoon melodrama. The new series multitude of cliffhangers, despite their predictably happy outcomes, more often than not generate real suspense, a rare quality the original, with its purely comic aspirations, was incapable of even approaching.
Not that the melodrama isn’t there. True to the original, the new Lost in Space is centered around the simple premise of boy meets robot, boy loves robot, robot loves boy, jealous imposter steals Robot’s heart, boy wins back robot, etc. These moments often drift toward the mawkish, but they work, for one, because the new robot is so damn cool you can’t wait to buy the action figure. In his normal mode, his face resembles an old video arcade game, his face-screen alive with starburst-like visuals. In attack mode, he sprouts extra arms and prowls menacingly like some upright spider from cyber hell, his face now glowing with the orange laser light of death. He’s a robot classic, immediately joining the Hall of Fame of great TV and movie robots, a list that includes Metropolis’s Maria, Forbidden Planet’s Robbie, Star Wars’s R2D2 and C3PO, and the original Lost In Space’s smart alecky “bubble-headed booby.” Part CGI wonder, part big man in a suit, he’s high tech and scary, but clearly redeemable through the love of a little boy. Thirteen-year-old Maxwell Jenkins, as Will, is perhaps the weak link in the cast, lacking the earnest likability of the original Will, Billy Mumy, but he has an innocence that’s compelling if one willingly suspends one’s aversion to the maudlin. That’s easily done in a series as entertaining as this one.
If there is something in low supply in the reboot, it’s humor. There are light moments, and the show is great fun, but the overall tone is serious. It’s good serious. But as the series moves into it’s second season, it would nice to see the humor notched up a bit as in the original, preferably in a more sophisticated vein (no carrot people, please). With Posey’s Dr. Smith on board, that seems likely. Efrin’s Lost in Space is first-rate family entertainment and one of the year’s happiest TV surprises. Will it continue appeal to younger generations and not just baby boomers during the long journey ahead? Will the Robinson’s and their crew make it to Alpha Centauri? Will the new Dr. Smith come out as gay? Tune in next season to find the answer to these and other questions on the new LOST IN SPACE!
Love your spot-on description of the original series. I’m old enough to have watched it as a young child, and loved it the first couple of years, but it got increasingly outlandish and stale toward the end. I wasn’t even aware there was a Netflix reboot, so I’ll have to watch a few based on your review.
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We never watched the first version during the original run. I think it was on against Batman and we always watched that. Saw it on after-school reruns when I was about 13 and thought it was stupid but I liked it anyway. In my early 20’s I watched it again and started to appreciate it as camp. I think Jonathan Harris and the robot were the whole show really. Hope you like the new series. I really enjoyed it.
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I never saw the original but I have caught the new one of Netflix. I’m not totally convinced by it, and I think you’re right that I might enjoy it more if it could figure out how to be more of a comedy. It’s a little uneven as is.
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I guess part of it is nostalgia – I enjoyed seeing all these familiar elements from childhood take on an updated form. It kind of functions like an inside joke for those that know the original. The original was so campy and stupid that it’s kind of cool seeing the same story told with some credibility. And keep in mind I’m old. 😁