How do you like your future? A world where technology has trapped us or a bright, boundless space-scape filled with universal goodwill? Though it appears that we are in fact destined for something in between, science fiction creators have long taken up one side or another.
Throughout the 1960s, producer Irwin Allen (king of disaster movies, including The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) took a happy tack for science fiction on tv. His family-friendly adventure series stood up against darker fare (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), with varying degrees of success. But if Land of the Giants was an obvious clunker – easily dismissed and quickly forgotten — his best-remembered, and most ridiculed, offering was the story of a family adrift in the cosmos, the direct result of an interstellar flight gone amiss.
Lost in Space blasted off from CBS in 1965 and immediately made an impression with fans both young and old. Many bought into the continuing adventures of this “first family of the galaxy.” Others balked at the buffoonery of Allen’s vision, but stuck around for the hilarious camp value. More or less a recasting of Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson in space, the series has the Robinsons handpicked by Alpha Control to pilot the Jupiter II, and settle the nearest planet that can sustain human life. As the Earth is dangerously overpopulated, the Robinsons are supposed to be the first of over 10 million families to be moved annually. The crew consists of Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), father and leader of the expedition, along with wife, Maureen (June Lockhart), their three children — Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Veronica Cartwright), and whiz-kid Will (Bill Mumy) — an official navigator, Major Don West (Mark Goddard), and a Robot (acted by Bob May and voiced Dick Tufeld).
During the first season, the Robinsons also combat a sinister saboteur, Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). A stowaway on the Jupiter II’s maiden voyage, the good Doctor is desperate to get back to Earth. Unfortunately, he fouls things up so royally that all the ship can do is wander in space, eventually crash-landing on a distant world. Both on the ship and on the planet, all manner of aliens are introduced, explained away, and conquered before a cliffhanger ending hints at next week’s escapades.
Though Season Two (the first half new to DVD from 20th Century Fox) mostly follows this format, it also evinces the series’ retooling in response to fan feedback. Gone are the serious sci-fi elements, the attempts to tie the fate of the Jupiter II to any sense of reality. The second season is characterized by surrealism and slapstick. Dialogue is no longer inventive and intense, but oddly comic, suggesting that everyone involved in the shoddy space stories, even the badly costumed creatures, are in on the gag. Over the course of the episodes gathered here, we witness a once adequate adventure tale turn tacky and twisted.
The show still needed a focus, one that had nothing to do with the ongoing attempts to reach Alpha Centauri. As in Season One, sniveling stooge Smith comes to the rescue. Indeed, this onetime guest star becomes the centerpiece of Lost in Space. All 16 episodes here, in one way or another, focus on the pathetic medico and his love of alliteration. Whether he’s fending off the advances of green-skinned extraterrestrial maidens (in “Wild Adventure”) or greeting a fortune-seeking relative dressed like a Mississippi riverboat gambler (“Curse of Cousin Smith”), Smith is the focus. Much like Fonzie or Urkel, he overwhelms everything else in his show.
Harris’ cheesy brilliance makes Smith is the perfect foil for the Robinsons’ white-bread earnestness. Quaintly, they still see women as the weaker sex and men as the hunky doers of daring, with the closeted Smith between. Intensely spineless, he’s always grabbing for one of the children to act as a human shield when trouble comes calling. Harris makes each line reading resplendent: who else would refer to the Robot as a “ninny,” “booby,” “bosom pal” or a “pusillanimous pauper”?
Also changed from Season One is the series’ increased attention to Will Robinson and the Robot. In response to children’s interest in Lost in Space, Mumy is often asked to carry the show, with Smith as scene-stealing sidekick. Will is repeatedly stepping in to defend his family or save Smith (his “friend”), and typically serves as the crew’s voice of reason. In “West of Mars” (Dr. Smith and an outlaw named Zeno are cosmic twins), “The Thief of Outer Space” (as silly as the title sounds), and “The Girl from the Green Dimension” (Will becomes emerald-skinned), the series relies heavily on good boy Will. Repeatedly, he salvages the show’s weaker points, including Smith’s tiresome cowardice and the family’s startling lack of technical prowess.
All this space sputum raises common sense questions. First, why is Smith still alive? He has pushed the Robinsons so close to death, on so many occasions, that you have to wonder why they continue to coddle him. Why don’t they jettison him out a space hatch or let some angry ET have at his corrupt corpus? Second, why are the women along for this trip? Judy is always stumbling into strange situations (the interplanetary hell of “A Visit to Hades”), while Mom sits back and smiles. And third, the writers seem to be running out of plots. Visiting “The Ghost Planet,” the Robinsons find a large, gelatinous brain attempting to control them, while “Space Circus” features an intergalactic ringmaster who wants Will as his opening act.
Still, the series occasionally falls just short of the strangely sublime. “The Android Machine” centers on a female robot with the capacity for human emotion, but stops there. Fan favorite “The Golden Man” preaches awkwardly against racism. And in “The Prisoners of Space,” when the Robinsons are accused of being interstellar criminals, the trial by a jury of preposterous creatures is just an excuse for a clip show. As it veers between “West of Mars” (not even Harris’ hambone performances as both Smith and the “pussycat” gunslinger Zeno can save it), “A Visit to Hades,” and “The Thief from Outer Space,” no one can accuse Lost in Space of being consistent.
This DVD set shows a slow slide into Smith’s universe. Harris is increasingly an actor out of control, and by Episode 16, so is the series. In episodes to come (the second half of this season, as well as the third/final season), Lost In Space would devolve further, into plots concerning rebellious vegetables, shabby cavemen, and space hippies. What creator Irwin Allen proposed as family-friendly fantasy would become full-on camp. And who wants to think that kitsch is the shape of things to come? We do need some shred of hope for tomorrow.