May 4, 2022

Lost In Space is lost on him



Mitchell here, with the first of what I hope will be several guest articles from faithful reader Stephen Taylor, who has some ideas about his favorite TV shows—and, in this case, one that isn't. Thanks for a great piece, Stephen—looking forward to more!

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Well, I had to quit watching Lost In Space

It’s unclear to me why I bought LIS in the first place. I have only vague memories of it from childhood; we just didn’t watch it at our house. I was familiar with the basic concept. The Robinson family, on board an interstellar spacecraft fleeing an overcrowded Earth circa 1997, is thrown off course by the added weight of a saboteur from a competing power; it’s never made clear just which power that might be. And it was never important. What was important was that the competing power didn’t perform psychological assessments on their deep-cover operatives, and they ended up with Dr. Zachary Smith, a craven coward and all-around incompetent. His extra weight and the sabotage of The Robot meant that the spaceship, the Jupiter II, was sent light-years off course; they crash landed on a miserable little armpit of a planet called Priplanus. The series details their efforts to survive on Priplanus and then to leave and find a way back to Earth. 

Irwin Allen had good intentions, I think. He invested a fair amount of money into sets and things like The Robot, whose original duties included sampling the air on new planets, and the Chariot, a tracked vehicle that allowed exploration of the surrounding area on Priplanus. There was some actual science at the beginning, and Allen tried to keep the scripts focused on the Robinson family and their efforts to survive. 

That didn’t work out. He hadn’t counted on an absolute ham of an actor named Jonathan Harris, who played Dr. Smith. He was only supposed to be on for a few episodes, but Harris was having too much fun with the part, and audiences responded well. Dr. Smith was cowardly, lazy and unctuous by turns, and sometimes all three at the same time. He wanted to get back to Earth, and was perfectly willing to leave the Robinsons behind if that’s what it took to make that happen. He was, in short, a very widely drawn villain. The audience responded positively to Dr. Smith, so Irwin Allen began to allow him to modify his lines for greater effect. Harris ran with this, and his portrayal of Dr. Smith, along with the other breakout character, The Robot, soon led the series to become "The Dr. Smith and Robot Show."

Irwin Allen allowed the series to become centered around Dr. Smith and The Robot because it drove ratings, and the show soon began to become more cartoonish. In the beginning The Robot was driven solely by his programming, but he slowly became able to initiate conversation, take action without adhering to programming and to act on his own initiative. The Robot was an early example of what we might call artificial intelligence. I found Dr. Smith to be perpetually annoying; his mannerisms grated on me, but having The Robot engage in dialogue with Dr. Smith was a great idea and a huge success. The Robot began to make fun of Smith, and in one episode the dialogue between the two made me laugh out loud. The two were excellent together. That they were so good together, however, meant that there was no room for the rest of the Robinson Family. Not that the audience was missing much; the rest of the family were simply cardboard cutouts designed to act as a background for Dr. Smith and his attempts to get back to Earth. It’s a shame, really, because there were many other things that could have been done to keep the series serious, more or less. It was never going to be Star Trek, but it could’ve been far better. 

"Danger, Will Robinson!"
I only watched the first season in its entirety, but there was never any mention of the relationship between Major West (Mark Godard) and Judy Robinson (Marta Kristen). There should have been, because it might have set up some tension between stalwart John Robinson and the notoriously quick-tempered Major West. (There is no other word in the English language that better describes Guy Williams than stalwart). Was there marital tension between John and Maureen Robinson? There should have been; their living situation was precarious, and John tended to leave Maureen out of the decision making. There never was. In fact, none of the children added much to the show, with the one exception being Will Robinson (Billy Mumy). He was extremely precocious, yet still a child in every other way. He was willful and made a bad habit of disobeying his father, he was extremely impetuous,, and had an absolute weakness for allowing Dr. Smith to talk him into his schemes. Yet when the chips were down, he showed great courage and a knack for improvisation. A example of this was in one of the better episodes of the first season titled "There Were Giants In The Earth"; Will saved John Robinson and Major West from being consumed by a 60-foot Cyclops by climbing up a rocky outcrop and zapping the Cyclops with a laser rifle. Quite a kid. Will was a driver in many of the first season plots, and could have been used a little more effectively. He wasn’t. 

And what about Dr. Smith? Instead of allowing his character to overwhelm the show, his character could have been written as a genuine villain, but one who grudgingly develops some respect and even affection for the Robinson family. I could envision an episode where he conspires with the Alien of the Week to harm the Robinson family in some way, but then joins forces with the Robinsons to defeat the alien, thus revealing that he had a heart after all, and could possibly be redeemed at some point down the road. There would have been tension between John Robinson and this Dr. Smith, and it would’ve helped the show. 

The scripts as written never gave the characters a chance to act, although acting at a professional level was always going to be beyond Marta Kristen’s abilities, and Mark Goddard wasn’t any more talented than she was. And if the word “stalwart” described Guy Williams, then the word for June Lockhart was "maternal." She made a career out of playing someone else’s mother. She was good at it, but LIS could have allowed her to stretch her wings a bit. It never did. 

The show began the slide into camp before the first season even ended, and never made any attempt to recover. At which point I gave up. I thought I might be able to stick it out until the infamous episode where Stanley Adams turns everyone into a vegetable, but I couldn’t finish my journey through some of the most relentlessly bad science fiction I’ve ever seen. 

Maybe I was expecting too much.  TV  

3 comments:

  1. Actually, Stephen Taylor answered his own question:
    Maybe I was expecting too much.
    Here's a quote from Irwin Allen himself:
    ... Me, if I can't blow up the world in the first ten seconds, then the show's a flop.
    That quote comes from a book: Irwin Allen Television Productions,1964-1970, by Jon Abbott (copyright 2006).
    Here's Abbott's own quote:
    Irwin Allen had no messages to impart and no philosophies to expound ...
    ... Allen was a showman, pure and simple.


    When Lost In Space arrived on TV in 1965, my brother and I were both in high school, he two years ahead of me (though he was only a year older).
    Sean was a devotee of Serious Science Fiction; in this same season, he came to regard the Original Star Trek as the third source of Revelation.
    I was more or less indifferent to the genre, preferring mystery and detective stories.
    We both used to make fun of Irwin Allen's stuff: Voyage To The Bottom Of The Barrel was a favorite target from the previous year, and Lousy In Space followed along - Dumb Kid Stuff.
    I don't claim that Sean and I were smarter than everybody else - but we did read TV Guide, after all, which made us Hip (kind of, anyway).

    Well, a lifetime has passed; Sean passed on some time back, his devotion to Hard SF slightly diminished over the years, while my indifference to it all maintained.
    My point here (?) may be that at no time did either of us mistake Irwin Allen's Sci-FI (a term he hated, by the way) for Serious Science Fiction.
    Not all that long ago, we happened to see a documentary/tribute to Irwin Allen on the Sci-Fi Channel.
    On the special, the emerging portrait of Allen was that of a good-natured nut who did things because he enjoyed doing them - and those who worked for and with him got as much of a kick out of it all as he did.
    And maybe - just maybe - that was sufficient ...

    If the above seems like Old Man Talk, so be it.
    I'll be 72 in September, so I qualify.
    But somewhere down the road (if you're lucky), that'll happen to you guys too.
    Think about it ...

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  2. The one thing I love about Lost in Space is the theme music. It is so catchy and there are different versions by season. I especially love the openers where the numbers count down onscreen from 10 to 1 and then that great theme blasts out. Too bad the episodes aren't as good!

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    Replies
    1. Lost In Space was Johnny Williams's entree into the Irwin Allen universe; he did most if not all of Allen's music from then on, on large and small screens.
      Fun Fact:
      In the first LIS pilot (pre-Dr. Smith), Allen was unsure of a sale to CBS.
      The show was called Space Family Robinson at that point; to save time and money, the show was tracked with Bernard Herrmann's music from The Day The Earth Stood Still.
      That pilot is still around, on YouTube and other places (it's even been shown on MeTV); check it out if you dare.

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