I know I’m not the first Amazing columnist to review this, but let’s go anyway. You might recognize the face at left; it’s actor/musician Bill Mumy, who was one of the stars of the original 1965 TV series Lost In Space. The series—which started out as “serious” TV SF, was loosely based on the Gold Key comic Space Family Robinson (1962), which was itself loosely (extremely) based on the book Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Wyss (1812). Mumy, who was born in Feb. 1954, was already a known actor by the time LiS aired.
Mumy made his first TV appearance at age 6 in the TV series National Velvet (not to be confused with the Liz Taylor movie); he went on to appear in numerous TV shows, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Going My Way, The Fugitive, and one of his most notorious roles in one of his three appearances in Rod Serling‘s The Twilight Zone: that of Anthony Fremont, the monstrous little boy in Serling’s adaptation of Jerome Bixby‘s “It’s a Good Life.” Born with extreme telekinetic, telepathic, and other mental abilities, seven-year-old Anthony terrorized a small town thrown into another, bleak dimension with his dictatorial, God-like ways.
Mumy went on to many more television appearances until he was tapped to play Will Robinson in the ensemble TV “sci-fi” drama (in those days, despite Rod Serling and other notable writers/producers, science fiction was not taken seriously; the term “sci-fi” was invented by Forrest J (“Forry”) Ackerman in an attempt to popularize the genre by hijacking “hi-fi” (enormously popular in the 1950s). The term is now used to cover real SF, fantasy, and anything non-mainstream.)
Lost In Space also had Guy Williams (known for playing Zorro) as John Robinson; June Lockhart (from Lassie) as Maureen Robinson; Angela Cartwright (The Danny Thomas Show) as Penny; Marta Kristen (who once co-starred with Mumy in an Alfred Hitchcock episode) as Judy; Mark Goddard (The Detective) as Major Don West; Jonathan Harris (The Third Man) as Dr. Zachary Smith; and Bob May (body) and Dick Tufeld (voice) as B-9, the Environmental control robot.
The robot in the above picture with Bill Mumy/Will Robinson, is called B-9. Many people who aren’t SF fans confuse it with Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet. Although Robby made an appearance on Lost in Space, he wasn’t the series regular. Both robots were designed by Robert Kinoshita, a screenwriter, designer and art director—and who also designed the robot Tobor for the film Tobor The Great!
Although the series started out as straight SF drama, it quickly devolved into what Irwin Allen-produced series (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, etc.) always did: a “monster-of-the-week” show. Although Dr. Smith, Harris’s character, had started out as a pure villain and enemy agent (he was responsible for the Jupiter II getting lost in space), he quickly became a campy foil for Will Robinson and his “best friend” the robot B-9 (key phrase, “Danger, Will Robinson!”), and that saved the show for a more humourous second season. The mainstays of the show at this point were Will, B-9, Dr. Smith and, off and on, Penny and her alien chimpanzee companion “Bloop.” Smith’s role as an enemy agent was quickly dropped. The third season tried, unsuccesfully, to reboot LiS as a dramatic series, but alas, its time was over and it was cancelled. It has remained a favourite memory for Baby Boomers, however.
Thirty years elapse and, in 1998, Hollywood—which is always more comfortable with something that has already made money—decides to revive the series as a film. Good news, you say? My honest reaction to it was “meh.” Figure 3 shows the new robot (center) with (left to right) Matt LeBlanc (Major Don West); Heather Graham (Judy) in back; can’t tell who in back, but could be Jared Harris as older Will Robinson or could be Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith; and William Hurt as John Robinson. The robot—which is destroyed at one point and later rebuilt and never, as far as I can remember, given a name—has the same actor, Dick Tufeld, as its voice. It also had Mimi Rogers as Maureen; Lacy Chabert as Penny; Jack Johnson as Will; and Jared Harris as older Will.
Although a number of the original series’ actors were given cameos, the script was a muddled mess involving time travel (lots of it), alien “spiders,” a CGI “cute” alien to replace the chimp (this one called “Blarp”), and a different dissident group that Dr. Smith is working for. The movie Will, while attempting to be a very intelligent kid as in the series, didn’t have Mumy’s screen presence or the kind of interaction with Dr. Smith and the robot as the series was famous for. The other actors, with the exception of Gary Oldman, were competent, but were not given great roles, in my opinion. Oldman, I believe, can simply not turn in a bad performance, even in a bad movie.
And that brings us to Netflix and 2018’s new TV series of the same name. I will try to review this without major spoilers, but it will be hard; please forgive me if I give away some plot points.
The time something like thirty years in the future (the original’s “future” was 1997!); I don’t remember if they gave a year or not for this one, but somewhere I read 2046. The Earth is polluted—in one flashback, the characters had to wear gas masks when going shopping. This apparently happened during the “Christmas Star” comet/asteroid crash which occurred a couple of years before the story begins. Earth is becoming uninhabitable as a consequence, so a fleet of Jupiter spacecraft, carrying Earth’s best and brightest, is attached to a mothership, the Resolute, and launched towards Alpha Centauri which, we find out, has at least one habitable planet. (They don’t say which Alpha Centauri star; according to Wikipedia, it’s a trinary system.) This mission will be the Resolute’s 24th mission.
Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is a “scientist” (as they point out numerous times); she has a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, and has helped design the Resolute and the Jupiters. She is separated from John Robinson (Toby Stephens), a Marine who has been absent from the family for several years doing “crucial missions.” They have three children: Judy (Taylor Russell), from Maureen’s previous marriage, who is an 18-year-old medical doctor; Will (Maxwell Jenkins), a somewhat precocious 11-year-old; and Penny (Mina Sundwall), a pretty smart and self-possessed 16-year-old redhead.
All colonists must pass a set of extreme physical and mental tests; of all the Robinsons, only Will fails to pass when he freezes up during a high-altitude stress test. Maureen secretly and illegally arranges for his fail marks to be turned to pass marks. Also on the Resolute are Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), an engineer who is also a smuggler; and June Harris (Parker Posey—name composed from June Lockhart’s and Jonathan Harris’s) who we will talk about in a bit. Harris has been discovered to be passing as her sister and is being interrogated when—the Resolute uses some kind of warp drive; shortly after the ship uses it—there is an attack on the Resolute and she escapes, stealing Dr. Z. Smith’s jacket and I.D.; the Robinsons are in the Jupiter 2; “Smith” and West are in the Jupiter 18; we know a number of Jupiters escape, but we don’t know exactly how many—nor do we know what happens to the Resolute while they’re gone. The Jupiters crash-land on a planet that just happens to be below them and habitable.
There are the bare bones of the plot; over ten episodes we will find out more about the colonists’ attempts to escape the planet and return to the Resolute; we will meet the alien robot that becomes Will’s companion, and a lot more I won’t go into except in a small way. (The robot does get to say “Danger, Will Robinson” once or twice.)
I suspect that whether you like this series is dependent upon whether you saw and/or liked the original series; some of it is age-dependent. I make no secret that I’m a Baby Boomer and saw the original when it was new, but I have 30-ish friends who did not. Many of them, it appears, like this series—but for different reasons than I liked the original. Like me in the ‘60s, there doesn’t seem to be any attempt on their part to apply critical thinking to this series, or the scientific (even the pseudo-scientific for, let’s face it, most TV and movie SF uses technobabble or bolognium or even unobtainium for its science) basics espoused in it.
I won’t attempt to go into a whole lot of the scientific bushwah coming out of the TV for this series; we could start with the “Christmas star” being an extinction-level event that will make the Earth uninhabitable. I’m assuming they’re basing that on the Chicxulub asteroid that was a primary factor in the dinosaur extinction. As far as I know, that wasn’t a slow event—whether it was fire or ice (scientists argue for both) that hit the Earth that day, extinction was swift. And I don’t think the dinos would had a chance to build spaceships even if they could have.
Let’s move on to Will Robinson’s mom getting him on the ship by faking his test results. If it were that easy, the Jupiters would be full of billionaires; I can pretty much guarantee it. Let’s talk about “scientist” Maureen taking off her space helmet because John has a rip in his suit: “if the atmosphere was dangerous, you’d be dead already.” Uh, no… I can offhand think of any number of things that will kill you so slowly you don’t know you’re dying until it’s too late, not the least of which are germs and bacteria!
The whole show, in my opinion, is full of those sorts of things. If you are going to watch it, you need to turn off your brain and just watch in dull-eyed wonder at all the non-science fiction and enjoy the pretty lights in this “sci-fi” epic. The writing, by the way, is what my father used to call “slow as a wet weekend.” It drags, most of the time.
I have to mention Posey’s “Dr. Smith”—she tells everyone that her doctorate is in psychology; she uses that to get information on, and subtly influence, everyone in the show. She’s not a whiny, campy Smith like Jonathan Harris, she’s a person who will do or say anything that she thinks will guarantee her survival. She’s also one of the best actors on the show.
This Will Robinson is kind of wimpy compared to Mumy’s Will. He’s not brash or self-confident; he’s not as brainy, either, it appears. However, I have to say that the new Judy and Penny are a joy to watch. Judy’s not terribly self-confident as someone who was rushed through medical training, but Penny is confident as some teen girls are; both are strong young women who might actually carry this series farther than their namesakes did in the original.
So enjoy the show; it’s got enough sci-fi glitter to attract those who like “sci-fi” that’s not rigourous. I may even dip into the second season myself just to see what the Robinson girls and Dr. Smith are up to; but I’m afraid I can only give this series two out of five flibbets.
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