It’s hard to say exactly when Lost in Space jumped the shark, but nine out of 10 marine biologists hold that it had happened by the second half of its third season. At its start, LIS was a relatively solid, if aggressively corny, space adventure. In its junior year, it devolved into sci-fi clichés, realized by characters so familiar that their mannerisms had soaked through into caricature. Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) sniveled his way from one genuflecting capitulation to the next. The petlike robot (Bob May), once so blank an automaton the Robinsons never bothered to name him, now wisecracked and swiveled mirthfully.
Because of its descent into slapstick, Lost in Space will be remembered, if at all, as Star Trek‘s minor sibling, far less remarkable in its achievements and far less worthy of praise. But even as it went to silt, LIS spoke to the very process of expiring. This is what I mean. In its first season, the series threaded its episodes together with cliffhangers, but in the third season, the episodes stood on their own. What’s lost in this is that sense of a grand and interminable story unfolding that gave the first season the feel of a soap opera. In its place emerged a mad eclecticism. Unchained from linearity, the writers were free to interject the Robinson clan into a hodgepodge of situations from the past, present, and future — from intergalactic piracy (in “Princess of Space”) to mod psychedelia (“The Promised Planet” and “Collision of Planets”), to body-snatching aliens (“Target Earth”).
These episodes have in common not story (they’re radically different from each other), but a habit of asking, one way or another, what it means to be a human being. They put the Robinsons less at risk of losing their lives than of being transformed into something other than what they were, so that in navigating a universe typically populated with hostile or conniving life forms, the space-farers are regularly regressed through time until they become children again, or duplicated by aliens who want to hijack their identities, or confront evil alternate selves made out of anti-matter. It’s most often left to Will (Bill Mumy) or Penny (Veronica Cartwright) to reaffirm humanity’s sanctity against all these threats. In a characteristic moment, in “A Day at the Zoo,” Penny tells the zookeeper, “But I’m a person,” to protest being turned into an anthropological exhibit and so, presumably, something other than human.
This is well in keeping with the 1960s’ self-help bestsellers like David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, which also wrestled with elusive questions about identity. It is also in keeping with science fiction as a genre, uniquely suited to address what it means to be human. (Witness Lost in Space prototype Forbidden Planet (1956) and its famous preoccupation with the Freudian Id.) Lost in Space‘s crystallizing eclecticism came to aid in this, as the series’ focus shifted from a particular marooned family to something more like a ’60s everyfamily, struggling with assaults on its identity from a bewildering array of unfriendly actors.
Forty years on, many of these unfriendlies are likely to look pretty familiar. In “Target Earth,” the first episode in the new DVD release which completes Lost in Space‘s third season, it’s body snatchers. After they take over the Robinsons’ bodies, Will and Dr. Smith manage some Shatner moves on the two who had assumed their identities, and so are able to assume theirs in turn. Thus can they follow the aliens undetected, mimicking their crisp march as the aliens take over the Robinsons’ flying saucer. The lead invader eventually confronts Will for acting too Will-like. Is he really the alien standing in as Will, or is something amiss? “We are conditioned to become what we are,” Will blurts out, thinking fast, “not what we were.”
Will’s effort to deflect the alien’s suspicions fails; the alien quickly recognizes this as the real Will, masquerading as his impostor. But his weird parsing of the tenses of personhood is also a reflexive conundrum that recalls the sort of head-scratching coaxed by “Ce n’est-ce pas une pipe” or “The sentence on the other side of this paper is a lie.” And not least, by resolving into no clear declaration, his odd self-portrait excellently expresses what must be Will’s curious displacement as he masquerades as his own substitute, a feeling of not quite standing in one’s own skin.
In “Princess of Space,” mini-mainframes-run-amuck transform the Robinsons into strips of computer tape, and it’s up to Will to explain that there’s more to people than can be digitized. (Although the tapes do at least resemble their namesakes as much as it’s possible for magnetic tape to do: the Major’s tape is longer than the less-virile Dr. Smith’s, and Judy’s tape is curly, like her hair.) In the notoriously abysmal “Great Vegetable Rebellion,” sentient legumes — picture the grade-school play cliché of the full-body carrot suit with a face-hole cut out, because it really is that bad — transmogrify the Robinsons into vegetables, serenely arguing this to be in their best interests. Once again, Will must make the case for letting humans be humans. In “Promised Planet,” space hippies indoctrinate Will and Penny into a brainwashing program designed to change them into super-intelligent alien hipsters. Will stands up for homo sapiens, defiantly telling the jump-suited hippies, “I just can’t be any different from who I am.”
The possibility that one can be different from who one is is left for Dr. Smith to explore. Time and again, he capitulates in inverse proportion to the Robinsons’ steadfastness, bargaining with extraterrestrials — though they are typically cheats and liars — and, operating on the presumption that the humans will ultimately be subjugated, promptly maneuvering for the best position from which to serve his new masters. In surrendering, Smith makes himself perfectly abject, bereft of any connection with his own origin.
One sees an indebtedness to the Smith character in Cypher from the Matrix cycle, the Judas who sells out his race for an eternity of sublime, but solitary, consciousness. The untroubled, isolated eternity promised Cypher for his betrayal of the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew resembles a dreamlike afterlife, unperturbed by waking, living reality. For the scientifically curious if not particularly competent Smith, though, the prospect of enlightenment, not blissful ignorance, is a favored enticement of the eternal realm. He’s “on the long, long journey to that undiscovered country,” he declares at the beginning of “Promised Planet” — in one of his many bouts of malingering, inconsolable in the cold arms of Pluto — “from whose bourne no traveler returns.”
The space hippies are also busy longing for death. Through the caprices of outer-space radiation, they’ve been made forever young and so abduct Will and Penny in order to extract from them their ability to age and die. When John and the Major retrieve the kids from the hippies’ clutches, the kidnappers are left writhing in the throes of eternal youth. At rock bottom, the lead hippy turns a little, well, Gatsby: “As time takes the Earthlings forward,” he declares as they receive their collective come-uppance, “it takes us back, back to the end.”
There’s that curious conundrum again, like Will’s spoken-word pretzel in “Target Earth.” On the most literal level, these self-contradicting propositions feel like low-budget tricks meant to make the series feel more science-fiction fantastic, like the pointed ears on Penny’s monkey or the jarring match cuts whenever the script calls for someone to disappear. But, as with Will’s tweaky expression of selfhood in “Target Earth,” the space hippies’ conundrum also pops up when its speaker is himself most lost in literal or metaphorical space. So these momentary failures of grammar betray both a befuddlement at the mysteries of identity, and at birth and death, that story of origin and destination without which humanness has little meaning.