Danger! Contains spoilers! Danger!
The biggest criticism that I see being levelled at Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space is the same one that was thrown at Star Trek: Discovery when it aired last year: that it’s too different from the thing it is based on, and it isn’t what fans were expecting. And in the ongoing world of Star Trek, where every storytelling decision affects the canon as a whole, perhaps some of these concerns are valid.
But Lost in Space is a different animal entirely. This is a reboot of the universe, not a continuation. The original show and its current incarnation are discrete entities and have no lasting effect on one another. Lost in Space is suffering because of its title, rather than its content, and this really isn’t fair. Because, actually, this is a well-written series with a gripping story, likeable characters, glorious design, and effects that are now so much taken for granted that we no longer even call them special.
Unlike the original series, and as with so many shows nowadays, these ten episodes – which run at between 47 and 63 minutes each – follow one major story arc, although of course throwing in many sub-plots along the way. It’s a compelling world that Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have created, and if the first episode doesn’t hook you completely then you should know that subsequent episodes see discoveries made, secrets revealed, and questions answered. The pace picks up and the tension rises. It’s worth sticking with.
If the original series conceit – that a family of five on a multi-million dollar space launch are the sole hope of humankind – seemed somewhat nonsensical to you, then the reboot has got it covered. A meteor, the ‘Christmas Star’ has fallen to earth, causing side-effects that threaten the future of the human race. Families are applying to undertake the journey to Alpha Centauri, where they can start a new life, as pioneers on a paradise planet. Thousands of people are going.
The Jupiter vessels act as family living quarters and emergency pods aboard a larger spacecraft – The Resolute – which is the ship carrying them all to their new home planet in Alpha Centauri. When The Resolute is attacked, the Jupiter vessels flee, but some of them crash-land on an unknown alien planet. And this is where Lost in Space begins its clever series of reverses. Because at the start we assume that the Robinson family are all alone on this planet: lost in space, job done.
And then we find out that there are increasing numbers of survivors, and that The Resolute is still up there waiting for them, and we wonder if they’re all going to be lost in space together, Star Trek: Voyager style. This are-they aren’t-they scenario plays out, back and forth, right until the end of the series, creating ongoing tension and snatched-away relief. It might be a cheap trick but it works!
The Robinsons themselves, unlike their 1960s counterparts, start out as something of a fragmented family unit. Maureen (Molly Parker) and John (Toby Stephens) are estranged, and there is tension between John and his children, Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Maxwell Jenkins). But there is a lot of love in this family, and as the story moves forward they come together and work out their issues.
In 2018, strong women in TV shows shouldn’t still be noteworthy, but they are. So kudos to the writers for making Maureen, Judy, and Penny, people first and women second, and to the actors for bringing these characters to life so appropriately. They are all smart (Maureen is an aeronautical engineer, Judy is a medical doctor), physically and mentally strong, brave, and heroic. Which is not to say that they are superheroes: they have weaknesses, but human weaknesses, rather than stereotypical ‘female’ weaknesses. And it’s not just the portrayal of the female characters themselves that Lost in Space excels at, but in the depictions of how these women are treated in their fictional world. Which is to say, as equals. The only person to be vaguely sexist is roguish Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), and when he does he is made a subject of ridicule.
The Robot – more Gort than B9 – is a beautifully modern design. Originally somewhat insectoid, he reconfigures to approximate human shape when Will befriends him. Without a face to convey feelings he manages to elicit emotions with his subtle body language: sometimes a childlike reflection of Will, sometimes terrifying metal monster. And I have to be honest: I got rather emotional when he said ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ for the first time.
In the 1960s series the character of Dr Smith is the treasonous saboteur who almost kills the Robinsons in the first episode. The reboot takes the saboteur/traitor angle and plays with it in an interesting way. Most obviously there is Dr Smith (Parker Posey), who lies, backstabs, and commits identity theft in order to first get aboard The Resolute, and then escape in a Jupiter craft. She is unstable, possibly psychopathic.
But there is also the Robot, who we first meet as the victim of a crash, and then discover was responsible for the attack on The Resolute and the slaughter of 27 of its personnel. Is he trustworthy now? Whose side is he on? And then, more controversially, there is Maureen Robinson, who made a deal with an unknown person or agency in order to get Will’s test results changed from a fail to a pass, so that he would be eligible for migration to Alpha Centauri along with the rest of the family. What information did she hand over in this deal? And to whom?
There are some delightful nods to the original series that should please old-school fans. Bill Mumy, Lost in Space’s original Will Robinson, guest stars as the real Dr Zachary Smith, whose identity – and Jupiter craft – is stolen by Parker Posey’s character in the first episode. In the 1960s series, Penny acquires an alien pet that she names Debbie, but that is also referred to as ‘the Bloop’. In reality it’s a chimpanzee wearing fake ears, and something of a ridiculous character. In the reboot, ‘Debbie’ is a hen, rescued and kept as a pet by Don West. And then there’s the real name of ‘Dr Smith’ – June Harris – a lovely tribute to original series’ actors June Lockhart and Jonathan Harris.
If you’re looking for science-fiction credentials, Lost in Space has many. Spaceships, inter-galactic travel, robots, futuristic tech, bizarre alien creatures – it’s all here. And although the pace might be a little slow sometimes – especially in crisis situations – this is a small quibble. The story, and the look of the show, are engaging, and it is constant in its drip-feed reveal of information and secrets. It has retained the right ingredients from the original show, and stirred in enough new ones, to make it interesting and exciting. I was rooting for the Robinsons all the way through, and I can’t wait to see where Season 2 takes them.
Lost in Space: Season 1 is now available on Netflix.