Lost in Space… Again

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Netflix’ new version of Lost in Space is not, of course, the first time that Irwin Allen’s classic sci-fi series of the 60s has been rebooted; there was a big budget movie version in 1998 starring William Hurt and Gary Oldman. It wasn’t terrible, but it made a lot of mistakes and, looking back on it now, it can be viewed as a sort of mid-way point between the original series and the Netflix one. That movie was 20 years ago now, which seems extraordinary to me now, as only 30 years had passed between it and the end of the original series. Lost in Space has always been in the shadow of Star Trek; it being a lot camper and more family oriented than its sophisticated contemporary. But at the time, Irwin Allen’s series was more successful, consistently outstripping Star Trek in the ratings. It hasn’t aged well though, which is all the more reason for a modern reboot like this.

I greet the revival of any classic series on a streaming service with a mixture of anticipation and dread. I have mixed feelings about CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery; although I enjoy the show, I think a lot of its more adult content is included simply because they can, rather than because they should. If you look at the use of profanity in the first season, there are relatively few in the entire 10 episodes and they add absolutely nothing to the drama. You could easily excise them and lose nothing at all from the stories. That’s the problem with streamed television – it positively encourages excess. With this in mind, I was worried that Lost in Space would forget that it is essentially a family show and go all ‘blue set’. Mercifully, it does not; although some episodes have the odd minor swear and one particular implication of a more serious naughty word, the series tends to remember that it is still aimed at a modern family audience.

In this version of Lost in Space, the intrepid Robinson family quit the planet Earth because meteor strikes have made the planet increasingly unliveable. They’re not alone either – the Jupiter 2 is only one of a number vehicles linked to the colony ship Resolute bound for Alpha Centauri. An incident on board the Resolute means that the Jupiter craft have to jump ship and mostly crash land on a remote unnamed planet. The Robinson family crash land in an icy wilderness and, for the first couple of episodes, have to survive there. Youngster Will Robinson is separated from the family and finds a crashed alien spacecraft, from nearby to which he finds, saves and befriends a sophisticated robot being. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger indeed, for nearby the only survivors of another Jupiter craft are the shifty engineer Don West and the even shiftier Dr Smith.

Casting Parker Posey as Dr. Smith is a masterstroke. Many fans of the original series will complain about what they view as an unnecessary gender-swap, but Posey is arguably more masculine than Jonathan Harris, whose portrayal of Dr. Zachary Smith was camper than a boyscout jamboree. She plays the character as someone with deep emotional damage, prepared to lie and cheat in order to simply survive. This makes her frequent changes of allegiance more believable than the original, who would switch from moustache-twirling mwhuaha villain to Will Robinson’s saviour at the drop of a hat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising the original series or Jonathan Harris’ portrayal of Dr. Smith, but it was very much of its time and simply wouldn’t fly with a modern audience.

The casting generally is very strong; Molly Parker and Toby Stephens are excellent as the Robinson parents, here shown as having split up, but gradually finding their love for each other through adversity. Mina Sundwall brings life to Penny Robinson, a problematic character in previous versions, who is here given plenty to do and a jokey, cynical attitude to do it with. Her half-sister Judy is played by Taylor Russell and her character is also expanded, no longer just the screaming love interest to Don West. Speaking of whom, Don West is no longer the square-jawed hero with matinee idol good looks; Ignatio Serricchio plays him as a shifty wheeler-dealer, which sounds awful but it actually works.

The star of Lost in Space, of course, has always been Will Robinson. Bill Mumy (who makes a cheeky guest appearance here) stole the show as the boy genius in the original series. The 1998 movie, as with most of its casting, got it all wrong; but Maxwell Jenkins in this series is just perfect. He hits the right level of precociously intelligent and cute-as-a-button without ever coming across as an annoying brat. He’s also an astoundingly good actor for his age; the best since… well, Bill Mumy. Central to the story, as always, is the relationship between Will and the Robot. We’ve obviously moved on from the ‘bubble-headed booby’ of the original and here the Robot is an alien creation, eight feet tall who Will rescues from a crashed alien spacecraft. It’s an amazing creation and until I watched the making-of extras on the Blu-Ray, I can honestly say that I had no idea whether it was a CG effect or a man in a suit. Truth is, it’s both – but for the most part, it’s the latter.

After the first couple of episodes, Lost in Space moves away from the Robinson’s struggle for survival and introduces characters from the other crashed Jupiter craft. To be perfectly honest, I found it less interesting the more characters they brought in; I like the story to be about the Robinsons, their family dynamic and their struggles. The more they are surrounded by others, the less ‘Lost’ they seem to me, but that’s a personal opinion and one that might be solved in the second series, as the Jupiter 2… well, maybe I shouldn’t spoil that for you.

Lost in Space got a mixed reaction from viewers, but I’m convinced that the reason some people didn’t like it is precisely the reason I do like it: because it maintains that family appeal. There’s only so much angst and dread that you can take from a TV show and I could happily live the rest of my life without seeing yet another in the endless line of T&D (Tits and Dragons) shows that the streaming services seem so fond of churning out. We need to provide quality TV that our kids can enjoy with the family, otherwise they’ll just be stuck watching so many animated toy adverts while their parents are in the other room dispassionately streaming swearing, shagging and beheading on a laptop. And that’s a future I can’t buy into.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!!

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