Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lost In Space (1965) - Brilliant Non-Linear Science Fiction

Lost in Space DVD cover

I am a fan of "Lost in Space" (1965), so I might as well get that out front. Where others see cheesy sets and hammy acting, I see brilliance and originality. Well, OK, so I never understood how they thought they could get away with putting guys in off-the-rack Halloween costumes and calling them "aliens," but so be it. The show had serious budget limitations (which is why it got cancelled, in fact), but I still love it.

Dr. Smith holding Will tight while Maureen Robinson looks on in
This is how Dr. Smith started out, menacing anti-hero....

The first seven episodes of "Lost in Space" are brilliant sustained science fiction. The opening episode is breathtaking in its scope, showing the lift-off of a refugee ship from Earth, which is getting too overcrowded. The lift-off, though is just the prelude to some serious drama. Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) is a cold, hard saboteur whose motives are always in question. Some gadgets, such as Professor Robinson's (Guy Madison's jet pack and the chariot, are introduced (and unfortunately rarely seen again). John Williams' score is awesome, especially the background music as the chariot rumbles across forbidding deserts. Light and shadow are used to great effect in these black-and-white episodes.
Dr. Smith with his characteristic sneer in Lost In Space 1965
This is what Dr. Smith became. Both nuances are good, personally I prefer the latter though many viewers like the early episodes.

Mid-way through the first season, though, things start changing, and the series never looked back. Dr. Smith evolves. It is heresy for characters in science fiction to evolve. Think about it. Kirk is always Kirk, manly and triumphant. Spock remains Spock, emotionless (for the most part) and calculating. Adama is heroic, Dr. Who indefatigable, etc. However, name one other major character in science fiction who changes the way that Dr. Smith does - and include the Robot and Will Robinson in there, too. All go through a metamorphosis during the first two seasons. That is actual character development, folks, the kind you don't see often on television.

In the early episodes, Dr. Smith is a typical manly character.

Another extremely tricky thing to accomplish is to combine science fiction and comedy. "Star Trek" did it occasionally, as in "A Piece of the Action," but not consistently. "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" tried and, for the most part, failed. "Lost in Space" achieved that goal, even if sometimes the laughs were unintentional (see "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" and some campy monsters/villains in other episodes).

Dr. Smith with two guns at his head in Lost In Space 1965
By the end of the series, he has become.... something else. "Oh, the pain, the pain...."

It's difficult for me to pick out favorite episodes. One of the uncanny features of "Lost in Space" is that the episodes can be so different. There were many that featured the bumbling Dr. Smith getting the Robinsons into - and sometimes out of - trouble, but there also were episodes in which John Robinson acted as courageously as any other science fiction hero ever did to save his people. Penny Robinson (Angela Cartwright) carried an inventive episode featuring her "invisible friend." Every so often, a guest star performance from the likes of Michael Rennie, Warren Oates, Albert Salmi, Kurt Russell or Slim Pickens would pop up and change the whole tone of the series for a spell.

The Jupiter 2 landed in a parking lot in Lost In Space 1965
Rare shot of the Jupiter 2 in a parking lot. Yes, they actually did build a lifesize replica of the spaceship.

Somewhat ironically, this series set in the "far future" is one of the few that really captures the essence of swinging 1960s culture. This is one of the best series to make full use of the medium through its use of color, costumes and creative props. The final episode, one of my favorites, does that as bluntly as any other TV show outside of, say, the final episode of "The Prisoner." In it, the Robinsons have found Alpha Centauri and believe that their journey finally is ended, though the inhabitants show strong tendencies of being, well, hippies. Watching Dr. Smith "get down" with them - oh wait, I already mentioned the comedy aspect, didn't I.

A corny villain menaces Penny in Lost In Space 1965
Trick or Treat! Ah, trick, eh?

If some people want to read sinister things into some of the relationships on this show, well, I have no time for that. One of show's outstanding features is its ability to show a relationship between an adult - Dr. Smith - and a child - Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) - in which the child is successfully portrayed as being often more mature and courageous than his elder. Dr. Smith is child-like in many of his passions and traits, while Will at least at first is too mature for his years. Watching Will gradually lose his supercilious edge as he learns a bit about human nature from Dr. Smith is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the show. The Robot becomes humanized along the way, too. In addition to everything else, this is a "coming of age" story.

Dr. Smith and Will looking fearful in Lost In Space 1965
Look! He's touching the boy! Molester! Pervert! Gay! Sound the alert!

Strangely enough, they did work in sex appeal here and there. It was tough, given the family orientation of the show, but they did manage it. Rather than have any bedroom scenes - I don't think there was a single one in the entire series, except when Dr. Smith was locked away his cabin for being bad - they masked it by having the pretty girl spacewalk, or being an alien, or both.

A seductive green alien in Lost In Space 1965
Do ya think I'm sexy?

I don't know how you can say you like science fiction and not like at least major aspects of "Lost in Space." It was far, far ahead of its time. This is Irwin Allen's finest work, with "The Poseidon Adventure" a close second. I give it my highest rating for a television production.


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