Lost in Space: an enduring legacy of sci-fi brilliance

by John Tuttle

Lost in Space: an enduring legacy of sci-fi brilliance
June 7, 2020 John Tuttle

It’s one of science fiction’s oldest franchises and one that has been successfully revived several times. And yet, Lost in Space is rarely spoken of with the same reverence as Star Wars, Doctor Who or Star Trek. It is most definitely worth your attention.

Espionage. Sabotage. And bon voyage! A luminous saucer-shaped vessel ascends into space, an unwelcome and inadvertent stowaway trapped within. Amid the stars, this saboteur finds himself in a terribly awkward situation. A barrage of meteors strikes the hull of the Jupiter 2, resulting from a weight miscalculation. That weight was the saboteur’s. Unversed in the control consoles’ functions, he must rouse the pilot from cryogenics — which also means explaining his presence.

So goes a heated sequence from the pilot episode of Lost in Space, ‘The Reluctant Stowaway’, first aired in 1965. The story offered from the very beginning a mixture of mystery, mistrust, and mayhem. While engaging in notions of futurism, Lost in Space displayed many of the 60s vibes that its contemporary programs offered. But, in many ways, it stood out from the rest, too.

The show revolved around the concept of an atomic family thrust into space. While en route to Alpha Centauri, their vessel is run hopelessly off course — hence the show’s name. The series followed their survival tactics and alien encounters all while living in the pressured atmosphere of familial care and companionship. Entertaining in its own day, Lost in Space has influenced many other franchises. It has since had a vibrant afterlife with numerous reboots.

Breaking into the 1960s were some of the most significant sci-fi stories of popular culture which continue to entice modern audiences. These included Doctor Who and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and The Time Machine were produced. It was in this hotbed filled with hatching eggs of fantasy that Lost in Space was conceived. Like many of the aforementioned works, this series holds an important place in sci-fi history. It is a franchise beloved by moviemakers and viewers alike.

Irwin Allen, producer of the show, made a hefty contribution to the sci-fi entertainment of the decade — Lost in Space was one of four sci-fi series he produced in the 1960s. Perhaps Allen’s greatest contribution to the art of filmmaking was his taste for talent; his knack for seeing the genius and potential in actors, writers, musicians, and other artists.

Lost in Space accumulated a splendid cast to back its characters. Well-known for the vigilante hero of Disney’s Zorro, Guy Williams was cast as John Robinson, the head of the family in Lost in Space. At his side was co-star June Lockhart in the role of Prof. Maureen Robinson. Lockhart was known for her extensive career in television, especially a recurring role in Lassie.

Jonathan Harris, portraying the warped Dr. Zachary Smith, had a stereotype for gangster-esque roles with humorous slants. Such cases as these included guest roles on series like General Electric Theater (co-starring with Lou Costello) and Mel Brooks’ Get Smart. Young Bill Mumy, who had been in several episodes of The Twilight Zone, now played the bright, curious, ever-determined Will Robinson.

Many of the guest actors appearing on the show had previous backgrounds or future inclusions in some of the most memorable sci-fi entertainment of all time. Michael Rennie, who had starred as Klaatu in the cult classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, played another alien in Lost in Space. In this show, he played the Keeper, whose sole objective was to capture two human specimens, one of each sex, for his growing menagerie of exotic creatures.

In the episode ‘The Challenge’ was an extremely youthful Kurt Russell, portraying a prince who had to prove himself in a series of trials to test his vigour and courage. The opponent he chooses is Will Robinson. In the decades since then, Russell has found his way onto the silver screen in such memorable sci-fi roles as R.J. MacReady in John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ego in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Also appearing in ‘The Challenge’, Michael Ansara portrays the prince’s father, the supreme ruler over his planet. Ansara also became part of the Star Trek franchise, first appearing as Commander Kang in The Original Series episode ‘Day of the Dove’. Irwin Allen would also employ Ansara as a shiny alien in The Time Tunnel. The guy apparently couldn’t get away from being a stern yet admirable extraterrestrial.

Lost in Space was even a competitor with Star Trek: The Original Series, which struggled during its initial airing and was in a run for ratings with Lost in Space for two seasons. Both shows shared individual plots that involved alien mind control, deadly plants, and encounters with seemingly-abandoned spacecraft in the cold corners of the cosmos. Alexander Courage, composer of the long-lived Star Trek theme, also wrote music for individual episodes of Lost in Space.

A Saturday Night Live skit later poked fun at the rivalry and similarity between the two shows. The skit, titled ‘Star Trek: The Last Voyage’, depicted a member of NBC personnel boarding the Enterprise and informing the actors that Star Trek has been dropped. After delivering the distressing news, the NBC official asks his partner, “What do you think, Curtis? You think we can sell any of this junk to Lost in Space?”

There is one particular mark of excellence which Lost in Space can tout that Star Trek can’t. That is, legendary Star Wars composer John Williams wrote the themes for Lost in Space. Whilst still a young composer, Williams got the opportunity to score the themes for the first season along with a set of musical pieces that became common filler material. Allen brought Williams back to score a new opening theme for the third season. The dynamic, frenzied score from season three inspired the soundtrack of the modern Netflix reboot of the series.

Later, in 1977, audiences would be blown away by Williams’ thundering, trumpeting, triumphant theme accompanying Star Wars. Ever since, Williams has scored every trilogy comprising the Skywalker saga, ending with 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker. His masterful work on Lost in Space, with its eerie, foreboding vibes, prepared Williams for what he’d be doing years later on big motion pictures in the sci-fi genre.

While on the topic of Star Wars, it should be noted that the Lost in Space fandom has spawned some tantalising theories regarding the notion that Irwin Allen’s series might have had some influence on Lucas’s classic. After all, it was only a nine-year window between the cancellation of Lost in Space and the release of Star Wars — both productions from 20th Century Fox.

This writer would like to share a personal comparison of two sequences from the two separate franchises. It is the final episode of Season 1, ‘Follow the Leader’, and John Robinson has his free will constrained after being inhabited by the spirit of a deceased alien warrior. John turns against his family and dons the death mask of the alien. Near the end, John takes his son Will to the edge of a cliff over an immeasurable chasm, the bottom of which is the fiery core of Priplanus. Here two hearts stand in recognition of one another: John, prompted by the alien’s will, has been commanded to destroy his son. Will asks to see his father’s face one last time, and John removes the mask. Will begins telling his father he loves him and that he could fight this thing. John eventually overcomes the maleficent spirit, casting the mask (representing the living essence of the alien) into deep, flaming oblivion.

The scenario resembles the conflict between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker which reaches its climax in the presence of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. Similarly, it’s a battle between father and son. Luke believes there is still goodness in Vader; Will believed there was a remnant of love within his dad. Vader conquers the evil which was manipulating him and threatening his son, as does John Robinson. Like John, Vader takes his evil overlord and throws him down into oblivion. Finally, Vader’s mask is removed with the aid of his son, just as Will’s actions had resulted in the removal of his father’s mask.

As time has progressed, it’s become evident that the Lost in Space audience keenly enjoyed the troublesome trio: Dr. Smith, Will, and Robot B-9. The plot of most episodes may be summed up in this scenario: Smith goes galumphing around bewailing his back pain and monologuing on his virtues and achievements, which don’t exist. He comes upon something that might potentially benefit him. In attempting to acquire the perceived good, he endangers the wellbeing of all. Meanwhile, the Robot, who is a veritable nanny for Smith and any of the children who tag along, tries to caution them.

Everything that made its way into Smith’s personality came from the genius of Harris’s acting. His treatment of Zachary Smith was superb, keeping him a stark and quick-tempered assassin in the early episodes and transforming him into a caricature of absurdity as the tone of the series turned cornier. Smith constantly attempts to hold some office of tremendous power, wield a terrible force to lay siege upon the galaxy, or else get another ship to whisk him off back to Earth. But more often than not, he’s being used as a puppet in the midst of a much darker scheme.

Lost in Space remains a cult classic to this day. Whether you like it for its comedic parts or its sobering moments of distress, it continually offers something of value. Many screen producers have recognised the heart and drama that went into the story, and it has prompted a slew of re-runs and retellings. In each remake, actors from the original series have either reprised their roles or made cameos. 

The first retelling was a 1973 Hanna-Barbera cartoon. The Robinsons had different first names, and there were other characters who had not been in the former series. Dr. Smith was the singular character to have remained. He was the same, right down to his voice — for it was Jonathan Harris who provided the character’s vocals. This Smith was a comical, bumbling klutz identical to the one in the original.

The next adaptation came as a Hollywood feature in 1998, the same year Armageddon was released. Other than some of the graphics employed for this cinematic retelling, the Lost in Space movie struck this writer as lacking in quality. The film did, however, include cameos from a handful of original cast members.

Finally, the most recent reboot of the franchise is the Netflix original series, the second season of which was released last December. Like all the adaptations, this one has its own unique look. Some of the dynamics and character temperaments have been changed, but the premise of being lost is more or less familiar. The Netflix series is, in this writer’s opinion, the superior reboot of the lot. It is clean, crisp, daring, amusing, and intriguing.

One actor from the original series to bless this particular remake was none other than Bill Mumy, who had played Will Robinson in the 60s. Here, in an all-too-brief cameo, Mumy portrays a dying Dr. Smith found by the scoundrel June Harris, who steals Smith’s jacket along with his ID. As she puts on the jacket, she dons the persona of Dr. Smith and holds onto it for dear life. 

This little sequence inspires another personal speculation: a potential fulfillment of a revelation given in the original series. In the 1967 episode ‘The Space Creature’, Smith — acting in the person of an alien entity — exclaims to Will: “I am you… forty years from now! I am your id!” While the moral premise of the plot had Will face down an alternate ego of self, it is amusing to ponder whether Smith himself was a manifestation of what Will could have become if he wasn’t careful. It’s ironic that Bill Mumy, who had played Will, did become Dr. Smith decades later in the reboot.

The Netflix series has brought renewed vibrance to Lost in Space. It is a welcomed retelling of a classic and beloved sci-fi tale. At its roots, the story remains one of unity and love. Does a family always function in the most convenient way possible? We know that’s impossible, yet it’s a necessary struggle. One of the lasting reflections this writer took from popular shows like Lost in Space and The Mandalorian is that love costs us something; and that, through it all, family remains devoted to one another, despite their differences. To quote Professor John Robinson: “Love: in all the worlds and galaxies of this universe, there is nothing stronger.”