TV discussion

Looking back at… Lost in Space

“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

Lost in Space is one of those TV shows that you probably know by reputation, and make assumptions about, even if you’ve never seen an episode. The catchphrase ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ (accompanied by robotic-arm movements) to convey a potentially foolish or dangerous decision or action, has made its way into the common parlance in the same way as Star Trek’s never-actually-spoken ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’.

You might think of Lost in Space as ‘cheesy’, ‘camp’ or ‘corny’, and although these are valid descriptions of some parts of it, to dismiss it as being only these things is to do it something of a disservice. It might be a little slow for modern audiences, but actually it’s rather charming. Fun and deliberately comedic, with (some!) surprisingly believable special effects, it’s an utter delight of vintage science-fiction and fantasy adventure.

Lost in Space first aired on American television 53 years ago, right in the midst of the space race, and before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The series, which ran for three seasons, follows the misadventures of the Robinson family, John and Maureen (Guy Williams and June Lockhart), and their children Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Babylon 5’s Bill Mumy), along with Major Don West (Mark Goddard) and Dr Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), as they become – you guessed it! – lost in space.

In 1997 an explosive increase in population has left a critically crowded planet Earth in peril, and only an ‘audacious adventure to the very stars’ has the potential to save humanity, by reaching an Earth-like planet that has recently been discovered.

A decade of research has gone into preparing this expedition aboard the Jupiter 2 spacecraft, so it’s probably best if you don’t ask why on earth anyone would choose to send a family into space on this vital mission, rather than – for example – a trained team of adult astronauts, scientists, and engineers. One can only assume that it is because Lost in Space is based – loosely – on the novel ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ by Johann Wyss, (itself based upon ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe), and because the family dynamic allows for a vast amount of potential conflict and peril, and contains characters that might appeal to a wide range of viewers.

And they are appealing. They’re a close-knit and relatively happy nuclear family. Despite their trials and tribulations they just keep smiling and get on with things. They embody very 1960s TV family values, despite the show being set in the future. Professor Robinson and Major West are ‘real’ men, looked to for advice and leadership, whilst the women stick together, giving one another knowing glances over chores and up-dos. Meanwhile young Will is left to navigate the situation, alternately falling for and calling out Dr Smith’s schemes and lies.

Jonathan Harris’s Dr Smith: seen through modern eyes it’s something of a problematic portrayal. 1950s and ‘60s sci-fi was awash with campness: it revelled in it. And that’s fine. But Smith was a screaming queen whose nefarious activities threatened the lives of the Robinsons on multiple occasions. He was lazy, deceitful, self-serving. Originally a saboteur – an incompetent one – for a foreign power, and the reason that the Jupiter 2 went astray, he embodied everything that – at the time – was seen as dislikeable, villainous, or merely laughable, and it’s possible, even likely, that this included an unspoken homosexuality. For today’s viewers it’s not just his hamminess that is painful to watch.

Although Lost in Space began as a family show, a science-fiction adventure in the classic style, by the time it had moved from black and white to colour it had descended into antics and escapades aimed largely at a younger viewership, focused around Will Robinson, Dr Smith, and the Environmental Control Robot. Performed by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld, the robot doesn’t actually have a name, it’s just called the Robot. But as robots go, it’s a real classic beauty. Created by Robert Kinoshita, who also designed Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot – who actually stars in a first season episode of Lost in Space as a hostile Robotoid – the Robot is a joy to behold, and its interactions with Will and Dr Smith are reason enough to watch the show.

Lost in Space seems to have come full circle, as does many a sci-fi show nowadays, from being well-received fun in its heyday to being mocked and scorned in later years, and then eventually re-valued and rebooted 50 years after cancellation. Its catchy third season theme music, by John Williams, is something that has very much stood the test of time, being remixed for the 1998 movie soundtrack, as well as making it into the title sequence of the 2018 reboot.

Created and produced by Irwin Allen – who’d previously had a hit with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and went on to make The Time Tunnel and Land of the GiantsLost in Space is iconic television science-fiction that is still much-loved and watched today. It really does have something for everyone, whether you want serious sci-fi disaster, creepy fantasy weirdness, or giant angry vegetable men. So pull on your silver spandex and your space boots, slip the DVD into its slot, and let the adventure begin…

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