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Lost in Space - Season 1

Fox // Unrated // June 4, 2019
List Price: $49.95

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 29, 2019 | E-mail the Author
The original Lost in Space series (1965-68) was a maddening show, even for many kids watching it when it was new or during the glory days of rerun syndication. Producer-creator Irwin Allen was a master pitchman: the first few episodes of all his TV shows of the period are action-packed spectacles overflowing with incredible eye-candy. Lost in Space's original pilot (minus Dr. Smith and the Robot) had the look of an expensive feature film, with as much breathless action packed into 50 minutes as four or five episodes of any ordinary series. Utilizing top talent culled from 20th Century-Fox and elsewhere, the set design (e.g., the Jupiter 2), props (e.g., the Robot), the music (mostly by John Williams) and especially the special visual effects were all first-rate.

But Allen couldn't tell a good script from a bad one. Unlike the producers of the nearly concurrent Star Trek, who tinkered obsessively trying to make their plots and characters logical, believable, scientifically plausible, and as dramatically sound as they could be, Lost in Space plays like its scripts were filmed from crude first drafts with no revisions. Surprisingly, no, they too were extensively rewritten and revised, just never, it seemed, in the right direction.

Allen also had the habit of shooting his wad on pilots and maybe each season-opener, resulting in threadbare episodes produced later in the season when money was scarce. Episodes got cruder and shoddier.

Of course, "Special Guest Star" Jonathan Harris, a fixture of every Lost in Space episode as Dr. Zachery Smith, finagled his character from generically sinister Iron Curtain spy to the cowardly, lazy, greedy yet lovable louse that became the program's breakout character. Harris's triumph, though, was Lost in Space's tragedy. Perhaps even without his hammy theatrics Lost and Space might still have devolved into the ridiculous, even embarrassing program it became by its second year.

But Lost in Space remains cultishly popular, its grown-up fans not only watch it still, but many have collected full-size (and new car-priced) Robots for their living rooms; a few have even meticulously recreated the interior and exterior sets of the Jupiter 2 in their garages and basements.

A rebooting was inevitable. Few were pleased by New Line Cinema's $80 million film version, and a 2004 TV pilot directed by John Woo (!) went nowhere. That same year, however, another dusted-off sci-fi dinosaur, Battlestar Galactica (1978-79), shocked sci-fi fans everywhere. Producer Ronald D. Moore and others took what was, frankly, a really terrible show and, while retaining most of its key components, created a new version that was as thoughtful and intelligent as it was immensely suspenseful and compulsively watchable.

The new Lost in Space (2018-present) very obviously, if understandably, emulates Moore's Galactica template, if not nearly as well. That series incorporated innumerable flashbacks that allowed entire backstories that helped shape and explain the show's various characters and motives. Lost in Space unwisely takes this formatting to extreme lengths. The first episode opens as if it were the third, with the Jupiter 2 and the Robinson family - mother Maureen (Molly Parker), father John (Toby Stephens), 18-year-old Judy (Taylor Russell), 15-year-old Penny (Mina Sundwall), and 11-year-old Will (Maxwell Jenkins) - already in dire peril, crashing their ship into a glacier, abandoning it before it sinks into freezing water. Judy, trying to retrieve vital equipment, in her spacesuit becomes encased in ice as the glacial lake freezes, facing asphyxiation while everyone else seems doomed to hyperthermia. Will finds a crashed, alien vessel some distance away along with its damaged robot, and soon Will, cut off from the rest, is threatened by a huge forest fire closing in around him.

At this point the audience knows nothing at all about these characters, their areas of expertise, why they crashed, where they've landed, the layout of the ship, or anything else. What the audience does experience is alarming visceral agony, everyone on the verge of total panic and despair as the Robinsons prepare themselves to watch each other die. Admittedly the episode generates suspense, but is really much too intense and disturbing for elementary school-age children, and even some adults.

The Robinsons, however, do survive the night, only to face new life-threatening emergencies in each episode. Gradually, flashbacks introduce the character of Dr. Smith (Parker Posey), who murders her sister and steals her identity to gain access to the fleet of Jupiter ships attempting to populate other worlds before mankind's self-inflicted extinction on earth. Later we're introduced to Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), pilot of another crashed Jupiter, a smuggler himself and who, inexplicably, keeps a pet chicken.

The "A" stories driving each episode's main plot thread are, frankly, much less interesting than the back-story material. The producers seemed to think viewers might not tune in if Lost in Space didn't open with that slam-bang first episode, but given the much greater complexities of everything that came before in this new Lost in Space, as opposed to the simplistic premise of the original series, a build-up to the launch and disasters that lead up to the Robinsons' crash landing would have been a more coherent way to go.

The main stories, set in the present, are much more conventional sci-fi action stuff, a lot of it derivative. Most obvious among these is the relationship between Will and the Robot, which is painfully imitative of The Iron Giant (1999). In both that and Lost in Space the robot, designed as a destructive weapon that, after being seriously damaged befriends a small boy who's unaware that the mechanical man has been programed to kill human beings. The robot here looks nothing like the "bubble-headed booby" of the original series, but instead looks like a cross between the Iron Giant and the Cylons of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

Galactica cleverly switched around elements from the original, ‘70s show to good effect. Lost in Space adopts many of the same twists, changing Dr. Smith from a man to a woman, with Parker Posey very good in the reimagined, more realistically portrayed part. But most of these changes feel arbitrary, serving little or no purpose: Judy is now black, an adopted daughter, and Maureen rather than John is the mission commander, her estranged, former U.S. Navy SEAL husband more along the ride. I'm all for stories with strong women in leadership roles, but their marital problems and bickering over tough decisions doesn't enhance the drama. The original Robinsons were sickly-sweet wholesome and so somebody thought it was a good idea to make Penny a sarcastic teenager who constantly, pithily complains, far more than Jonathan Harris ever did on the original series. The Robinsons as dysfunctional family is certainly different, but it's not an improvement, at least so far.

One can only guess at the series' budget, but it certainly has the look of an expensive feature film. The CGI effects are, by this late date, standard stuff, with desired more practical effects probably too expensive and time-consuming to be commercially viable on a show like this anymore. As noted above, the design of the robot is a real disappointment: in all of the reincarnations of the series the robot has never really retained any of the design components of Robert Kinoshita's original, and that's a shame. The Jupiter 2 is notably better, incorporating some elements from the original show, but it's a more believable spacecraft here and looks both practical and aesthetically pleasing. However, the writers should have written some kind of "tour" into the first scripts, so that viewers could understand the ship's layout, functions, and spatial relationships from one part of the ship to another. Even halfway through the season it's not clear where one section of the ship is in relation to another.

Video & Audio

Shot digitally, apparently in 8K format, Lost in Space is presented in 2.00:1 widescreen, an unusual aspect ratio but one which enhances its feature film-level production values, making it feel more like an event rather than an ordinary TV show. Likewise, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is a state-of-the-art mix, which for a series like this, gets quite the workout. Optional English subtitles are included on this Region "A" set.

Extra Features

Supplements mostly consist of the kind of material one associates with a wide release of this kind. They include deleted scenes, a featurette about designing the robot, two shorts with original Will Robinson, actor Bill Mumy visiting the set, and a "sizzle" reel.

More interesting is "No Place to Hide," the original series' pilot, remastered for high-def and colorized. Viewers already familiar with this episode might not want to revisit it in its entirety, but it's worth a brief look.

Parting Thoughts

Trying to build a dramatically complex and consistently intriguing drama out of the raw original materials that make up Lost in Space is, perhaps, impossible. Season 1 is neither bad nor good. It's a decent effort with some good components but, dramatically, it doesn't quite gel, at least not yet. Very mildly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.







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