When I was a kid, we’d often run home to catch reruns of Lost in Space, the cheesy Irwin Allen scifi show from the 1960s. Once Star Wars appeared, it began to look incredibly bad, not helped by the higher quality of writing on Star Trek. But who could forget the incredibly smart Will Robinson, cocky Major Don West (whom I’m convinced was based on the Mercury 7 and Gemini New Nine astronaut classes), or the disturbingly quirky Dr. Zachary Smith. Then there’s the Robot, played by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld, the man responsible for one of the most iconic catchphrases in science fiction history.
“Danger, Will Robinson.”
A remake came out in 1998, with Tufeld again voicing a modern version of the Robot and Gary Oldman as a more sinister version of Dr. Smith. It sounded all the right notes, but was a script shy of a decent movie. Too bad. I really liked Matt LeBlanc as a reluctant Don West and Mimi Rogers as Maureen.
Netflix has rebooted the series with an updated premise. The Jupiter 2 is one of several Jupiters stored on a ship called the Resolute, which is taking a remnant of humanity to Alpha Centauri after the “Christmas Star” crashes to Earth and sends the planet into a slow death spiral. The new show draws from both the original series and the 1998 movie, but it most definitely is its own animal.
John Robinson (Toby Stephens) is a Navy SEAL who joins his family aboard the Resolute at the last minute hoping to save his marriage on a new world. Maureen (Molly Parker) is Maureen, here a brilliant aerospace engineer who sees the colonization program as a way for her children to restart their lives. In the beginning, she’s really not interested in saving the marriage. The kids are played by Taylor Russell (Judy), Mina Sundwall (Penny), and Maxwell Jenkins (Will). As in the 1998 movie, Judy is the mission doctor, but Russell’s Judy is John’s stepdaughter, a product of Maureen’s first marriage. She’s also not happy to be there despite getting a free (and accelerated) medical degree. Will is as precocious now as he is in all versions, sometimes annoyingly so. That’s on purpose. It’s Sundwall’s Penny who stands out. She may be the middle child, but she’s clearly the smartest and the bravest. She basically becomes the voice of the audience in this show. And Don West and Dr. Smith?
Well, there is a Dr. Zachary Smith in this show, played briefly by original Will Robinson actor Bill Mumy. But he dies early on, his identity stolen by a woman name June Harris (Parker Posey). Why go this route? Because, Oldman’s attempt aside, it’s next to impossible to replace Jonathan Harris’s over-the-top, self-obsessed character. Instead, we get a sociopathic manipulator passing herself off as a therapist. She’s a survivor, and she’s not shy about letting someone else die to make sure that survival happens. West is a smuggler, played by Ignacio Serrichio, hustling, brash, more Han Solo than Wally Schirra. Serrichio provides some of the most human moments in the series, including cranking up Van Halen’s “Panama” while careening about the series’s unnamed remote planet in a chariot, getting Judy car surf as he does so.
And then there’s the Robot. He is not a sabotaged piece of equipment but rather an alien AI that bonds with Will early on. He has his own dangers that frighten many besides the Robinsons who are stranded on this distant world.
So do they pull it off?
It’s slow getting started, and it’s clear the writers watched too much Battlestar Galactica and Westworld. The flashbacks with an unfamiliar cast written in new ways did little to encourage viewers to stick with the show beyond Episode 3. Which is too bad because it’s around Episode 3 that the show hits its groove. It seems to be more human – the “Panama” scene, Will’s interaction with the Robot, Smith’s bullshitting anyone and everyone, and Penny finding love in her mid-teens but handling it like a twenty-something. Some of the science is cringeworthy, and the producers take too long to tease out the dynamic between John and Maureen. In the beginning, he seems oddly inept while Maureen just seems like a know-it-all. Near the end, they have a harrowing escape from a rather mundane hazard that rekindles their romance. And it makes the audience appreciate them more.
Lost in Space has a rough reboot through no fault of the cast. Everyone plays their parts beautifully. It’s the writing that takes a while to find its legs, not a good thing with so many binge-worthy shows out there. (Expanse, anyone?) But it eventually finds its way, and the writers manage to find the heart of the show.