May 28, 2020
Netflix’s Lost in Space vs. the original: The bold and the bland
The show’s called Lost in Space, but it could just as easily be called “Lost on Planet”, as due likely to budget constraints, the Robinson family spends much of the original 1965 television show on a few planets where guest characters, adversaries, and artifacts of various sorts come to them.
Although the premise is about a lost family in outer space, by season two much of the focus is on the stowaway antagonist Dr. Zachary Smith and the ship’s robot, and only Will Robinson of the original family gets much focus.
The show has been revived twice, as a movie in 1998, and as a show in 2018 on Netflix. Although the original show is now mostly regarded as campy, and somewhat similar in tone to the 1960s Batman series with Adam West, it didn’t exactly start out that way, and the first season of the show was more serious in tone.
Lost in Space, like the various Star Trek series or Doctor Who, has a fairly open premise and format that allows it to explore different genres and stay fresh, as they encounter wildly different scenarios from week to week. It also adds the atypical spin of a family—with some allies and additions along the way—having to work together through the conflicts they encounter. While “spaceship crew going from adventure to adventure” is a common science fiction premise, doing so as as a small family of parents with their children is not. Each of the later two versions are more serious and darker in tone than the original 1960s show, and they each also change the character of Dr. Smith, with the newer Netflix series changing him even more dramatically than the movie did.
Dr. Smith in the original series starts out as a fairly straightforward villain, and a stowaway and saboteur of the Jupiter 2’s original mission, whose main objective is to get back to Earth. By season two, his character takes on a more comic tone, as his qualities like laziness and cowardice are emphasized. He spends more time arguing and hurling alliterative insults at the robot and getting extricated from trouble by Will Robinson in a decidedly one-sided friendship with the boy. Smith is a rather unusual TV villain in that he’s a part of the regular crew and not someone who schemes against them from an outside base of operations, or as part of a criminal gang or something. It eventually becomes comical to have members of the Robinson family defend Dr. Smith staying onboard after he repeatedly sabotages, betrays, or puts one of the family members in danger yet again. Only Major West regularly and reasonably points out that the crew would better off without him.
In the 1998 movie, Gary Oldman’s version of Dr. Smith is a more serious version of the character, more competent, and a legitimate threat. Like the original version though, he’s still the funniest of the main characters and gets the best lines.
Parker Posey’s Dr. Smith on the Netflix show is a very different take on the character, with probably the most interesting backstory of the new characters. She’s not really “Dr. Smith” at all, but an identity thief who takes on personas as needed so she can survive. Her manipulation of the crew is the most cleverly done of the three versions, relying more on actual skill rather than the gullibility or naiveté of the Robinson family. As befitting the more serious tone of the Netflix series, the Robinson crew is shown to be more wary and mistrustful of her, and less often giving her unsupervised responsibilities and access to equipment. Also, she’s shown to use her resourcefulness and criminal past to contribute to the crew’s success at key moments.
The 1998 movie Lost in Space has a tone somewhere in the middle of the three incarnations; it’s not as over the top absurd as the 1960s show often gets in its last two seasons, but also doesn’t take itself as seriously as the newer show. The dialogue is corny enough to approach Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace levels at times, especially with some of Major West’s early lines. And whereas in the original show, the Robinson family itself is generally shown to be harmonious, except for the occasional minor bickering between Will and Penny, the movie has more of a focus on family dysfunction, where strained or neglected relationships between John and the younger children are a significant part of the plot. But the greater focus on that dynamic makes it ironic that some of the Robinson family members barely interact with one another. Both the 1998 movie and the 2018 Netflix show correct an unfortunate imbalance from the original series by giving the character of Judy Robinson more prominence and a greater role as part of the crew.
“Danger, Will Robinson” is probably the most famous line from Lost in Space, spoken by the Robot B-9, who protects the family, monitors their environment for threats, and eventually becomes a friend to them. The robot in the original ’60s show, once free of the control of Dr. Smith, is shown to be funny, loyal, and caring. It has a penchant for deflating Dr. Smith’s oversized ego and giving as good as it gets in insults from him. However, the robot is given short shrift in the 1998 film, with little screen time or focus, and it spends much of that screen time as either a puppet of Dr. Smith or being remote controlled by Will that one doesn’t get too much of a sense of its own personality.
While the robot’s friendship with Will makes it to the new Netflix series, little else of the original character does. The new robot rarely talks and the humor is gone. It is presented more as a mystery and potential threat, and remains more alien than familiar, even as its character begins to develop and become more complex as the show goes on.
The 2018 show is a good-looking show, with competent acting, and has kept me interested overall in where it’s going, and what will happen next. It’s intriguingly re-imagined some of the key characters from that show, like Dr. Smith, the robot, and Major West. On the other hand, devoid of the tone, colorful guest characters, and unusual style of the original show, it’s more forgettable and bland. It feels more like a lot of other generic spaceship-based sci-fi shows, and while I can recall a lot of stand out moments and particular episodes of the 1960s Lost in Space, that’s not as much the case for the newer series. Taken together, the arcs and storytelling are good, but in an underwhelming way.
There’s a lot to be said for the importance of a show finding its identity and knowing what it is. As a look at what Lost in Space would be like if it was played straighter and didn’t have the wilder fantasy elements of the original series, I think the Netflix series is a success, but a strangely disappointing one. It seems in search of being something more, something different than what came before. The original Lost in Space was a one of a kind show in a way that the new version, for all its strengths, is not.