Home > Reviews > Catching up on Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE (spoilers)

Catching up on Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE (spoilers)

I’d heard mixed reviews of the new Lost in Space series on Netflix, but I was interested enough that it was one of the first things I watched after finally renewing my subscription to the service. And it didn’t take me long at all to decide that I really, really like it. The writing is solid, the characters and cast are good, the production values are terrific, and it’s just very entertaining all around.

I think what I like most about the new LIS, though, is that it succeeds in capturing what the 1965 Irwin Allen series was originally supposed to be before Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith took over the show: A drama about a family of very smart, resourceful people struggling to survive on a dangerous, hostile planet. A lot of LIS fans, myself included, have long lamented the wasted potential of the series, imagining the show it could’ve been if Harris’s popularity and ego hadn’t yanked it off course, marginalized most of the cast, and turned the show toward pure camp. There was a 1990s comic book sequel/revival from Innovation Comics, mostly written by original series star Bill Mumy, that was in that vein, getting back to the storytelling style of the early first season (updated for the era) and retconning the later, campier seasons as younger daughter Penny’s whimsical retellings of events in her diary. That comic ended up going a lot darker and somewhat more adult than the Netflix show, but I felt they were both trying for many of the same things.

There has been some reshuffling of character traits in the new show, though. The original John Robinson’s traits have been split between the new John (Toby Stephens) and his wife Maureen (Molly Parker), with John retaining the action-hero attributes and Maureen getting the scientific smarts and leadership skills, both of the mission and the family. I wasn’t crazy about this part, since the show starts off with John and Maureen estranged, much like in the disappointing 1998 feature film version. To me growing up, Guy Williams’s John Robinson was something of an ideal father figure, so I don’t like seeing him reimagined as a dysfunctional dad, although the new series doesn’t take it as far as the movie did and doesn’t take too long to heal the relationship. And it’s good that it makes Maureen a more dynamic and commanding figure. But I do wonder why modern mass-media fiction has so much trouble portraying good fathers.

Meanwhile, the original Maureen’s medical skills have been transferred to eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell), who’s only 18 here but had her medical training fast-tracked for the colony expedition. Penny (Mina Sundwall) is now an aspiring writer and is also the family’s resident wiseass — which seems inspired by Lacey Chabert’s snarky, scene-stealing Penny from the ’98 film, though Sundwall’s Penny is more laid-back, wry, and sardonic than Chabert’s chipmunk-voiced spitfire. Will (Maxwell Jenkins) is still a smart kid, but more timid and vulnerable than Mumy’s Will. They’re all very good in their roles, particularly Jenkins. Will Robinson is a critical role in Lost in Space, so it was important to find a child actor who could really step up and give a star-worthy performance, and Jenkins does really well.

The biggest changes are made to the Robot, Don West, and Dr. Smith, as well as to the nature of the Alpha Centauri expedition. Here, instead of the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 making the journey alone, they’re one of multiple families aboard a larger colony starship, the Resolute, with the Jupiters being lifeboats that they and the other families use when the ship comes under alien attack — an idea also used by the failed 2004 The Robinsons: Lost in Space pilot from Douglas Petrie and John Woo. After the Robinsons crash, Will is separated from the others and comes across a damaged alien robot and its ship in damaged condition. Will plays Androcles, overcoming his initial fear of the Robot and selflessly helping it get free when they’re both endangered by a forest fire, which leads the Robot to save him in turn and forges a bond between them. I loved it that the bond was forged by Will doing something so kind, which really solidified him as a character to root for. It’s soon revealed to the audience that it was the Robot that attacked the Resolute, but apparently it has amnesia, and Will is convinced it (or rather, “he”) is good now. It even morphs itself into a more human shape (played by suit actor Brian Steele in an elaborate costume, when it’s not a CGI construct) and starts to emulate Will’s behavior, though it never talks other than to say “Danger, Will Robinson” or variations thereon. That bit kind of annoys me, an overreliance on a familiar catchphrase, and it’s hard to understand why it doesn’t say anything else. But the Will-Robot relationship and the questions raised by the Robot are handled nicely, and the costume is so cleverly designed that I was unsure whether it was real or CGI.

Meanwhile, the new Don West is no longer a major and hotshot pilot (come to think of it, the new John has inherited Major West’s military background, as he did in the 2004 pilot) but a working-class Resolute mechanic, smuggler, and hustler. He’s initially paired with the new version of Dr. Smith, played by Parker Posey — actually an impostor who’s stolen the identity of the real Smith (Mumy in a cameo) and will go to any lengths to cover up the crimes she was about to get imprisoned or spaced for when the Resolute was attacked. Posey’s “Smith” is an interesting reinterpretation, keeping the basics of Smith as a pathological liar driven by self-interest and cowardice but putting them together in a more nuanced, less comical way that’s marvelously, subtly played by Posey. Her Smith is not outright malevolent, nor is she a paid saboteur like the original Smith was at the start; she’s just a scared and broken person who tells herself she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but who will do whatever she must to protect herself and her secrets, no matter who else has to suffer. It’s interesting the way the show manages to preserve the core relationships of the original in its own way. It gives Don West a reason to mistrust and dislike Smith (after they initially bond somewhat in episode 2, before her sudden and inevitable betrayal). It gives Smith an ongoing interest in the Robot (which she wants to turn to her side as her protector/enforcer) and in Will as the means of getting to the Robot, and essentially reinvents the first few 1965 episodes’ arc of Dr. Smith reprogramming and corrupting the Robot to serve his ends and Will trying to win it back. It’s a clever remix. One novelty is that Smith’s main relationship here is really with Maureen, who sees the other mature woman as a friend before eventually learning of her betrayal. But even that has a sort of a precedent in the original, since Smith and Maureen seemed to get along relatively well there (in part because he saved her life in the first episode).

The new show differs from the old in that it doesn’t deal with sapient aliens aside from the Robot and his mysterious builders. Here, the reason for settling Alpha Centauri is that Earth has been devastated by an impact event, and it eventually gets hinted — and it isn’t hard to guess — that the impactor was actually a crashed alien ship from which humanity stole an FTL technology allowing the Resolute to function, and that the Robot attacked it to recover the stolen property. (This is another idea the new series shares with the ’90s Innovation comic, which revealed that the Jupiter 2‘s FTL drive was salvaged from a crashed alien ship and that the “enemy agents” who hired Smith to sabotage the Jupiter 2 were actually aliens trying to keep humanity from reaching their homeworld. It’s interesting how this version seems to draw elements from every previous version, or at least coincidentally arrive at some of the same choices.) Otherwise, though, the Robinsons deal mostly with the dangers of the planet where they’re wrecked, both environmental hazards and dangerous animals, as well as with the other survivors who crashlanded in other Jupiters — an interesting innovation to the premise that allows a wider range of characters than just the Robinsons, Don, and Smith to be involved in the stories. It also allows for a more ethnically diverse cast; of the main leads, the only nonwhite character is Judy, who’s biracial, a product of Maureen’s first marriage before John. The supporting characters are far more diverse, such as the friendly Watanabe family (including Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Heroes Reborn‘s Kiki Sukezane); the prickly colony administrator Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey) and his son Vijay (Ajay Friese), who’s a love interest for Penny; and crash survivor Angela Goddard (played by Siren‘s Sibongile Mlambo and named for original LIS cast members Angela Cartwright and Mark Goddard), who was an eyewitness to the Robot’s attack and hates it for what it did. It’s unfortunate that the season ends with the Robinsons apparently isolated from the others once again, though perhaps there’s still room to bring them back as the series goes on.

But the focus on survival in a hostile environment, as well as the debates with the other colonists about how to deal with the problems and dangers they face, are a large part of what make the show so engaging. I like the kind of adventure stories driven by creative problem-solving more than the kind driven by fighting and violence, and this show is all about really smart people using their brains to figure out clever solutions to life-threatening problems, to rescue each other or themselves from impossible deathtraps, and so on. It’s just the thing I love to see, and it’s very satisfying. It also does a good job using the crises as an opportunity to advance character dynamics and drive emotional beats, and to generate conflicts over the best way to proceed in a situation with no good options. I mentioned not liking the ’98 movie’s dysfunctional version of the Robinsons, and that’s because I don’t care for the kind of conflict that would be easily avoidable if the characters weren’t emotionally immature jerks. That kind of conflict is a lazy cheat that writers too often fall back on. I prefer the kind of conflicts that arise between people who mean well and care for each other, the kind that come from impossible dilemmas where there is no simple answer and solutions are genuinely hard to find. One of my favorite episodes from the original LIS is episode 6, “Welcome Stranger,” where the idealized and loving parents John and Maureen nonetheless get into a serious debate about whether it’s better to split the family up to give Will and Penny a chance to get home or to keep the family together no matter what. It shows how you can generate meaningful conflict without requiring the characters to be screwed up or motivated by anything other than love and good intentions. That’s the kind of conflict that features heavily in the new show, although there are some tenser and more hostile moments in the early episodes before the planet’s challenges bring the family closer. While less idealized than the original show, it still strikes a pretty good balance that keeps the family more likeable than they were in the movie.

The show is also gorgeous to look at. The set, tech, and costume designs are bright and functional and plausible and excellent. The location work and visual effects for creating the nameless alien planet are terrific; the show is shot in British Columbia, but it mostly manages to avoid looking like just another show shot in the woods outside Vancouver. The tech and science are fairly well thought out and somewhat plausible, though there are a couple of scientific boners here and there (like Maureen talking about the difference between visual, eclipsing, and spectroscopic binaries as if that made a physical difference to the stars themselves rather than just how they were detected by Earth astronomers). The music is effective too, a rich orchestral score by Christopher Lennertz (Supernatural, Agent Carter) that incorporates John Williams’s third-season LIS main title theme as its principal motif (though I’m disappointed it doesn’t also reuse Williams’s leitmotif for the Chariot, the Robinsons’ ground vehicle). It’s a strong and entertaining show all around. It’s a family show, suitable for all ages, with very little profanity and only very chaste romance — but that’s also presumably why it’s focused so much on problem-solving and fighting natural dangers rather than interpersonal violence, and that’s a large part of what I like about it. And a family show that adults could watch with their kids was exactly what the original LIS was meant to be, just as it was meant to be a show about family survival in a dangerous alien realm.

All in all, it’s impressive that the Lost in Space remake has managed to fulfill the intended goals of the original show more successfully than the original did, as well as far surpassing both previous attempts at a revival. It took over half a century, but I’m happy to say that someone finally got Lost in Space right. And I look forward to seeing where they take it next.

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