Oh the pain…the pain!
Man, the future really sucks. This is not the brave new world we were sold, like so much soft soap, by untold motion picture, pulp novel, and television traveling salesmen. We were supposed to be living in an automated time of robotic servants, anti-gravity devices, and instantly downloadable media gratification…oh wait. Anyway, the high tech heaven that was hypothetically going to greet us at the opening of 2001 has instead turned into an AOL Hell, promise and prosperity falling as flat and felonious as Hal 9000's cadence. There are no shuttles out into the far reaches of space. We do not have UN-style dialogues with aliens from other worlds. Heck, we can't even find cures for male-pattern baldness, the common cold, and hyper-obesity. We seem stuck in a nirvana neverworld, where all advances are called quackery and the betterment of mankind is viewed as a suspicious political policy. Where did it go so wrong? When did we stop having faith in the pragmatic and the experimental and crawl back toward the cave to have another cup of Neanderthal cappuccino? Some could argue that, instead of a space race or an arms race, we should have been engaged in an education race, a chance for the population and the science to find a mutual meeting of the minds. Others could insist that we've become easily distracted, using our advances to further engage inconsequential human foibles instead of creating real life-altering inventions.
Or maybe…maybe its just cosmic karmic payback for all the horrendous sci-fi fartypants we've plastered all over the airwaves for the last 30 years. As an entertainment Nostrodamus, we've been about as accurate as Criswell and twice as effeminate. Between such shoddy shapes of things to come as Far Out Space Nuts, The Invaders, My Favorite Martian, Land of the Giants, Salvage One, It's About Time, and Alf, it's impossible to see how the Universe will ever forgive us. But perhaps none would have displeased the Gods of Progress more than Lost in Space. Melded from the misled mind of Irwin "Master of Disaster" Allen, it is nothing more than Swiss Family Robinson melded with Captain Video to render future shock stupid instead. Now being unleashed on a post-millennial public in full season sets by Fox, it's time for you to get to know this interstellar whipping boy.
Facts of the Case
Billed as "the first family in space," the Robinsons are handpicked by Alpha Control to pilot the Jupiter II, an experimental spacecraft. Their mission is to settle on the nearest planet that can sustain human life. Apparently, the Earth is dangerously overpopulated and if the voyage is a success, the Robinsons will be the first of over 10 million families a year relocating to far off places in space. The crew consists of Professor John Robinson, father and leader of the expedition, along with his wife, Maureen Robinson, and their three children, eldest child Judy Robinson, middle daughter Penny Robinson, and the junior whiz kid himself, Will Robinson. Traveling along with the Robinson family is the ship's true navigator and pilot, Major Don West. He and Judy have a semi-secret thing for each other. The Jupiter II is also equipped with a Robot that will be used to explore and examine extraterrestrial and alien territory.
But the Robinson mission is not without controversy. Apparently there are "enemies" of the United States who would like to see the expedition fail. These bad guys find a willing saboteur in the sneaky, underhanded Alpha Control flight surgeon, Dr. Zachary Smith. Before launch, Smith hides on board and re-programs the Robot to ditch the ship and kill the Robinsons. But a series of mishaps force Dr. Smith to seek shelter onboard and before he knows it, he is blasted into space with the family. When he panics during a meteor shower, throwing the craft wildly off course, the Robinsons and Major West are awakened from their suspended animation sleep. They are forced to deal with a simpering stowaway, a deranged, deadly Robot, and the inability to calculate where they are. They are traveling blindly throughout the universe. They want to return to Earth (none more so than the sniveling Smith), but they cannot. There is danger at every turn. They are literally Lost in Space.
The following is a brief synopsis of each show followed by a numerical grade based on the Verdict scoring scale (0-100) Starting with:
Incidentally, once on the planet, the Robinsons (Penny, mostly) adopt a strange monkey-like creature that speaks in a strange series of "bloops." Referred to as the Bloop—naturally—Penny decides to name it…Debby?
There is no such thing as a casual Lost in Space fan. You cannot be on the fence when it comes to this show. You are either a true devotee, waiting long and laborious decades for your favorite series of all time to finally gain the respect and the appreciation you feel it so richly deserves. Or maybe you're part of the other group, known as the sane. If the mere mention of Dr. Zachary Smith and Will Robinson doesn't automatically send you into a shame cycle regarding hidden NAMBLA agendas and adult/child bad touching, if Robot's lapses into human emotion, including laughter and lying, don't cross your genre circuits, and if you can think of alien creatures called Bloops without resorting to excrement-oriented putdowns, then you must worship this winsome wasteland as the campy space spectacle it is. For the rest of the population, Lost in Space is proof that, when it comes to speculative fiction and the realm of "what if," all Hollywood half-wits can come up with is a giant Cyclops, killer plants, and a 60-year-old girly man constantly relying on a nine-year-old boy for companionship, understanding, and caring. As a show and a series, Lost in Space has it charms. There are times when the fun and fantasy elements mix with the brain busting and broadsiding to create something cracked, but cheerful. It also has more meandering, mindless interplanetary poopie, and NASA-negating nonsense per 50-minute episode than the government technically allows a human to consume without a permit.
Indeed, one has to tread carefully through the Lost in Space universe, for it is a tricky place of unsure footing and precarious narrative hairpins, all utilized in hopes that something special will stick with the audience. Beginning as if it had some real thriller intrigue up its sleeve, the debut episode entitled "The Reluctant Stowaway" tried to mix espionage with action adventure chills to render Space similar to producer Irwin Allen's other television fare (mainly, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). But soon seriousness was cast aside for the swish and the psychotic (more on this to come). Space also had to deal with a CBS Network mandate for linear story lines, complete plot arcs that the audience could follow, allowing them to feel like they were traveling right along with the Robinsons (instead of merely watching selected vignettes from their lives). But when it turned out that all this requirement created was one continuous cockee doodee Saturday afternoon serial where every week a new villain showed up and every episode needed a carefully crafted cliffhanger (and an acceptable cheat out for the following week's installment), the un-syndicatable narratives were ditched for more "self-contained" episodes. But this wasn't the only tinkering done to Lost in Space over its first season. You can literally watch Guy Williams and Mark Goddard fade into the background as their obvious all-powerful action man motifs were scrapped for something a little more—how should one say it?—metro-sexually masculine. Where once Dr./Professor Robinson (never did get that one straight) battled Don West for alpha male superiority of the Jupiter II, there was a potential ratings savior superstar running around like a she-male with his huckleberries cut off.
There he stood, wide child-bearing hips in full flounce, painfully tight eunuch trousers cutting off the circulation to his gender, hands in a constant state of prissy panic, and voice a literal thesaurus of Rogetarian putdowns. From the instant he opened his mouth, to the moment about halfway through the first four shows when he finally came into his over-eloquent own, Bronx-born faux fop Jonathan Harris stole Lost in Space away from its solemn sci-fi basis and turned the entire series into an unspoken gay drag pageant. If there is a single reason to watch this occasionally retarded retro-60s electronic farce, it's to glory in the flamboyant hissy fits and own-private-Idaho antics of Dr. Zachary Smith, perhaps the single luckiest S.O.B. in the galaxy. Here is a man who, for all intents and purposes, should be dead. Week in and week out, he causes the Robinson family nothing but grave danger, untold hardship, and unexpected grief (he does start off trying to kill them, after all), and yet they never get fed up. He steals the last of their drinking water and, post-exile to the sandy soil of the planet, they worry about his well being. Here is a man who constantly sells out his shipmates to alien traders, bloodthirsty monsters, and unseen psychotropic forces and yet these people still love him with a blind unconditional spirit.
Logic says that they should just kill him. They have every opportunity to dissect his liver, eviscerate his bowel, and generally beat the living snot out of this bumbling, effete foul-up. They are millions of miles from Earth. There is no concept of Grand Juries, police lineups, or private investigation deep in space. A quick little homicide, and the Robinsons would be Scott (or in this case, Daddy Zach) free! But they never leap to the chance, the poor dopes. The Robinsons even have those numerous oddball alien races and crater critters to blame the gauche doctor's death on, yet never once do they give in to the urge to wipe the waste of outer space off their saucer view screen and get on with an unburdened life. Only Don West ever seems close to cutting out the faux fiend's heart. Nope, Dr. Smith is along for the goldbricking free ride. And Lost in Space is a far more tolerable series for it.
You see, it's almost as if both Harris the actor and Smith the character understood this lack of legal consequence, this "we'll love him whatever" spirit and decided to completely emerge from the load pan bay and prance the pony out and about the planet surface. As a character, Dr. Smith is Inspector Clouseau, Paul Lynde, and your doddering maiden aunt all rolled into one. He is a craven coward who is more than happy to allow small children and women to take his place in the forced labor food chain so that he can rest his "delicate" back and violate as many of the deadly sins as possible. As an actor, Harris is really off in his own clandestine thespian cosmos here, doing things with line readings and reaction shots that the rest of the cast wouldn't be caught straight attempting. You get the feeling watching Harris that he is in constantly bunched knickers over the routine ramblings he is given to speak as dialogue. His holy heinous will improve on their poetic poverty and turn Zachary Smith into the most verbose villain in the history of TV. He literally takes lines like "I resent that remark" and turns them into tongue twisting tantrums like "How dare you belittle my birthright, you unbridled bilge rat?" Whenever he is onscreen, Dr. Smith enlivens and rejuvenates Lost in Space. He turns trash into a treat and the rote into the ridiculous. Of course, this can sometimes overshadow the attempts at serious sci-fi that occasionally creep into an episode. When Professor Robinson and Don are hacking away at killer plants, diverting the oncoming alien threat, Dr. Smith's squeals and sycophantic shrieks make the horrifying hilarious. And of course, there is the whole Will/Dr. Smith dichotomy that is, perhaps, better left to psychologists and FBI profilers to figure out. In 1965, such man/boy closeness was considered acceptable. In today's environment, it sends out warning signals like a civil defense siren.
When Dr. Smith is large and in charge, or anytime Will, Robot, and he interact, Lost in Space actually creaks out of the cellar of crap it is constantly wallowing in and rises up, turning into a ribald, randy hoot. Sure, he undermines all attempts at action and/or adventure and turns his featured segments into otherworldly exercises in raging queeniness, but at least it's better than what LOS is usually. Indeed, whenever the mechanics of mainstream sci-fi are poured all over the show, the cogs get cramped and sticky and the show freezes in its own goofy gearbox. But overall, most of the installments of the first season of Lost in Space are merely acceptable and adequate. Usually the dialogue is not too drippy, the effects are four decades old in believability, and the resolutions avoid being overly pat or syrupy pap. And yet there are a few standouts, both pro and con, which could sway/dissuade you from visiting/revisiting this series.
Top 10 Episodes
"The Space Croppers"—Two words, ladies and gentlemen, two words is all you need to understand why this episode is one of the best: Interstellar Hillbillies. That's right…INTERSTELLAR HILLBILLLIES! Along with Mercedes McCambridge's Oscar-tarnishing turn as a cosmic Mammy Yoakum (at least she doesn't smoke a corncob pipe), the notion of sons of the space soil is fully explored in this daffy dramatization.
"The Keeper"—Michael Rennie is perfect in the title role, giving heft and weight to what is a two-parter made up mostly of imagination. The way each part is handled, independent but linked to the other, is excellent. When the big spider-like monster bug comes rolling out in the final act to settle some scores, it's pretty believable and adds the proper epic scope to what is actually a really well done story.
"A Change of Space"—Will Robinson as a super intelligent, egomaniacal brat? Dr. Zachary Smith as an even more crotchety, teetering old coot? Absolutely, and this is why "Change of Space" is so guilty-pleasure enjoyable. Mumy's wounded whimpering about everyone's mental inferiority is equally matched by Harris' old man shtick.
"The Challenge"—What a cast! Kurt Russell is the alien warrior child Quano. Michael Ansara (Quarlo from The Outer Limits episode "Soldier") is Ruler. Together they take on Guy "Zorro" Williams and Bill Mumy in an overheated macho battle of the same sexes. The whole chest-pounding mug's game plays out brilliantly, ending with the necessary moral so that everyone goes home happy.
"His Majesty Smith"—Zachary Smith is a man who naturally acts like his scat don't smell, so to turn him into a king, with loyal subjects and accompanying froufrou, is hilarious. And then to turn the tables and make Smith's majesty the main course at a proposed alien supper turns the whole matter on its pointed head. Self superiority and sniveling get a great workout here.
"Wish upon a Star"—The wishing helmet, which allows the Robinson family to indulge their hidden covetous nature, is only part of the fun here. When the apparatus is abused (Dr. Smith wishes for a human servant), a creepy alien comes crawling out of the shipwreck and spends many an eerie night calling out for his hat. The shift from silly to scary is handled well and makes for a good episode.
"Invaders from the Fifth Dimension"—This is a good example of the Dr. Smith/Will Robinson relationship in high gear. When the aliens reject Smith's brain, he immediately offers Will's and finds ways to trick him into accepting the position. Will, on the other hand, understands Dr. Smith's callous motives, and, even after escaping the ship, forgives him for what he does.
"The Oasis"—A 40-foot high blubbering Dr. Smith? If the idea of such a sight stirs your space pellets, then settle in for this ridiculous, if not outright surreal, installment of the show. Dr. Smith has a nighttime monologue full of Shakespearian bluster bumble, and the Bloop turns into a guy in a monkey suit. About the only realistic moment in the whole mess is June Lockhart's speech to Dr. Smith about friendship. Truly classic.
"Ghost in Space"—A Dr. Smith tour-de-force. From his initial spastic bomb handling to the Ouija/séance stupidity, Harris gives the entire spiritual nature of the show a prissy pettiness that makes his protestations and polter-gibberish a hoot. Just hearing him discuss the mystical wonders of the universe or bumble through a "ghost" hunt makes for many minutes of mirth.
Top 10 Runner Up: "The Magic Mirror"—Almost a dud, save for two things. First, guest star Michael J. Pollard gives the galaxy a lesson in whacked out Method thespian showboating as he essays the role of a completely crazed hippie dip who lives inside of a magical mirror by mindlessly mugging for the camera. Not to be out-facial-tic-ed, Jonathan Harris goes into greed overdrive when he discovers the mirror is made of "puuuuure plaaaatinuuum."
Bottom 10 Episodes
"The Space Pirate"—Nothing is worse than a dull pirate. And it's exacerbated when the buccaneer in question needs lessons in salty-dog-ness. But this is what we are given in this land-lubbering episode. The talking mechanical parrot is a stroke of genius, but it is easily tossed aside to play up the "living a boy's adventure tale" nature of the storyline. As a result, the "touching" resolution is just revolting.
"The Lost Civilization"—Sleeping Beauty mixed with The Mole People and The Sound of Music (the little princess is none other than Gretl) is not a good combination. Add in endless shots of jungle/cave exploration and sudden shifts in mood for everyone involved, and this episode sinks like a non-skipped stone.
"My Friend, Mr. Nobody"—If there was one completely useless character on Lost in Space, more so than the monkey in the gorilla suit and Spock ears known as the Bloop, it's Penny. Even when a showcase is created for her (which this episode obviously was), she cannot shine. It's not that Angela Cartwright is a bad actress. The writers didn't know what to do with her. This episode is a good case in point.
"Welcome Stranger"—Warren Oates was a fine actor and his presence here makes the "will he or won't he" predicament somewhat involving. But there are so many unanswered questions, more than usual for an awkward installment of Lost in Space, that the story seems incredibly forced. Hapgood's history is also a little shaky. We never quite get the hang of who he is and why he is a space vagabond.
"The Sky is Falling"—How horribly good natured and pretentious this episode is. The mute aliens who decide to fight misunderstanding with fire; the Robinsons with their near-biased protectionism of the planet they are trapped on. Then there's the wholesome coming-together-through-the-children sentiment. It's enough to make you space sick, and the overblown message moral ending just adds ipecac to the entire mess.
"The Hungry Sea"—Robinsons get lost. Robinsons find cave. Cave is filled with traps. Traps trap the Robinsons. Robinsons escape from traps. Robinsons cross a violent ocean. Ocean traps Robinsons. Robinsons escape oceanic trap. All is right with the universe. Yes, it is as pedestrian and pathetic as that sounds. No attempt is made to enliven the formula facets of this ham fisted adventure.
"One of Our Dogs is Missing"—Is there really a reason for this show other than to showcase yet another puny pet for Penny? It's bad enough she has an extraterrestrial chimp in a pair of moose antlers with a very specific speech impediment, but she now needs a yipping brat beagle? His goat bleat barking and disappearing act halfway through the episode make him unnecessary and unwelcome. Just like this episode
"The Derelict"—Dr. Smith has tried to kill the crew. They are livid and want to find a way to return to Earth. What better way than to stop off at an "empty" spacecraft and while away the minutes wandering through sets draped with crepe paper. These exploratory scenes go on far too long, and when we do finally confront some space baddies, they are rather non-descript. Overall, just plain boring.
"No Place to Hide" (Unaired Pilot)—How can something this jam packed with action set pieces be so deadly dull? Easy, when there is no Dr. Smith or Robot to be found. This by-the-book routine adventure tale, filled with monsters and storms and aliens, is just monotonous and derivative. Without Harris' spark and his deliciously devious evil personified threat, the whole series would have meandered into the unsalvageable.
Bottom 10 Honorable Mention: "All That Glitters"—This should have been better. Dr. Smith is given a chance to indulge his avarice ways, but for some reason, his greed is cut short. We have to maneuver through the entire escaped con/police story. And then Penny becomes the main focal point when Smith turns her into platinum. We want more coveting and less convolution.
Presented in an eight-disc set by 20th Century Fox, Lost in Space: The Complete First Season has some visual and contextual issues. There are rampant fan arguments all over the Internet that the episodes presented here are edited, missing small sequences and linking footage that explain a few of the sharp scene shifts within the installments. Many call it minor. Others clamor that it is an abomination to the show's memory. All that this critic can say is that, save for one small sequence (Will suddenly ends up doing something that his mother knows about, but her discovery seems gone), none of the argued-over nuances are obvious. The quality of the transfers has also been a source of fan frenzy. Many who remember the show from its first run (or repeats) claim the source print used here is less than stellar. Again, this critic can't champion past versions of the show. Nor can he question how Fox went about remastering or digitizing the show for DVD. But he can attest to the fact that the 1.33:1 full screen monochrome image is sharp with nice contrast and is almost always clear. There is some fuzziness in a couple of scenes, and grain appears off and on. But overall, without a complete working knowledge of what this show used to look like and how it was presented, the DVD of Lost in Space is perfectly acceptable.
Sonically, we are dealing with 1960s mono, and that more or less guarantees zero atmosphere. It's interesting to note that the Oscar-winning composer John (Jaws, Star Wars, A.I.) Williams—here credited as "Johnny" Williams—wrote all the music for the show, and his moody, sinister underscoring (along with one of two very memorable themes for the series) is great. Space has a big production sound, with just a hint of techno-blipping that is perfect for the show. So just because we don't have a 5.1 channel-chaffing mega-remaster going on here, Lost in Space is still aurally intact and captivating. The dialogue is clean and the effect noises as corny as they come. When everything comes together, though, there is a distinct shrillness to the cacophony. But perhaps the most irritating aspect of this set is the lack of extras. Aside from the Unaired Pilot and a five-minute sales pitch to affiliates by CBS (which is interesting but complete soft soap), there are no real valuable bonus features on this DVD. Wisely, the product was divided up over eight discs to give the sound and vision as much room as necessary. But without even a basic introduction to the show, some cast or crew comments, or biographies, newcomers are stuck relying on outside material to put the series in context. A fan favorite like Lost in Space deserves better than a bare bones show release (one only need look at something like Red Dwarf to see how to properly treat a cult sci-fi series) but that is all Fox is giving. Beggars can't be choosers, apparently.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lost in Space is not a bad show. Indeed, it is a standard 60s action show with some wonderful imagination and captivating acting. Everyone from Guy Williams down to Bill Mumy does a remarkable job with limited material. Even the women, from June Lockhart's space domestic to Marta Kristen's kitten with a laser, are good. Certainly Jonathan Harris, Mumy, and Bob May/Dick Tufeld (as Robot) steal most of the shows, but this doesn't mean the hamminess of Mark Goddard or the guarded calm of Angela Cartwright is overlooked. This is an expert cast with good chemistry and the ability to overcome even the silliest space opera offal. And the special effects are really not that bad. Sure, during the pilot when the Brillo pad "asteroids" pummel the ship, the homemade nature of the enterprise comes to the forefront. But the Jupiter II model is very well done, and the alien ships all have a nice, unnatural design quality to them. The instances of rear projection are handled well and almost all the miniatures are believable (the chariot sequences really benefit from their realism). This doesn't look like a cheaply made series and it's not, for the most part. Lost in Space may not be big on progressive ideas. But it sure looks futuristic.
Yep, the future is getting back at us for all the stupid science-fiction fricatives we've laid in the course of our coming to grips with technology. There is no other explanation. We build the A-bomb and synthesize killer germs in a bio-chemical warfare lab, and karma rewards us with Penny Robinson crying for Mr. Nobody. Cell phones shoot tumor-friendly frequencies directly into our head holes, and the benevolent spirit of the force grants us the El Santo of adventure series television, Guy Williams. But when it comes to Dr. Smith and Lost in Space overall, it's hard to understand what all the reciprocity and retribution is for. The microwave oven, cumbersome but convenient for making some tasty kettle corn? High Definition television, which allows youngsters to witness the visual atrocities of MTV and Fear Factor in disturbing detail? Maybe it's all just payback for CGI, that computer cartoon carnival of freaks that promised photo-realism and ended up giving us Jar-Jar Binks and a somersaulting Spiderman? Whatever the techno-crime we've committed in the name of progress, Lost in Space is around to remind us to watch our evolutionary Ps and Qs a little more closely. As a campy memento of a bygone era when space was indeed an infinite frontier (not a financially unfeasible foible) and boob tube entertainment had time to master its episodic shows, it's the bee's knees. But it is also a sign, like a rain of frogs or the breaking of the seventh seal. We have screwed up the cosmos with our cruel, careless scientific breakthroughs. And now, it's time to pay the prissy piper. Oh, the pain, the pain of it all.
Lost in Space is found guilty of being corny, contrived, callous, insane, insular, idiotic, delirious, dangerousn and damaging to those with sensitive constitutions. It is sentenced to 20 years, suspended, in the Science Fiction Facility at Reality Based Prison on the planet Alpha Centauri. Fox is found guilty of offering bare bones box sets and is sentenced to another 30-year term in the Content Creation Ward of the DVD Home for the Digitally Inane.
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Scales of Justice
• Unaired Pilot
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