“Lost In Space” Redeems The American Television Family

Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space is more than just entertaining nostalgia – it singlehandedly resurrects a positive portrayal of the American nuclear family on TV. 

By David Nova

When I was a little kid, when there were few science fiction programs to watch, one of my favorites television shows was the original Lost in Space. It may be difficult to explain just how beloved this show was for an older generation, a series that hasn’t exactly enjoyed the lasting impact of its then rival, Star Trek. However, at the core of this show was a very special family we all secretly wanted to belong to. Little boys wanted to be Will Robinson, just as little boys a decade or so later wanted to be Luke Skywalker.

I was too young to watch the show in its original run. Like many kids in the early 1970s, I grew up on syndicated rebroadcasts of 1960’s television fantasies such as I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, Bewitched, Star Trek,and Lost in Space.

Lost In Space, the original cast, 1965-1968.

With the exception of the more sophisticated Star Trek, these shows were campy, colorful, family friendly programing that launched the dawn of Technicolor television – fluffy fantasies that distracted America from the harsh realities of the late 1960s, the assignation of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King – the age of the Vietnam War and the counter-culture.

When the Jupiter 2 first launched the Robinson family to the stars, the series premiered in black & white.

The early B&W episodes were actually pretty gritty and serious  – more like an old western set in outer space, where a pioneer family learned to survive in a hostile new frontier. Netflix’s reboot takes its cue from these early, more serious episodes, rather than the campy color-fest the show eventually evolved into.

Revisiting these nearly forgotten childhood memories via Netflix, I realized that Lost in Space was perhaps for me what Star Wars was for  younger generations of fans. I was 13 years old when I fell in love with Star Wars (1977), and already in college by the time Return of the Jedi (1983) came out. By then I had already outgrown Star Wars (Ewoks?!) and moved on to classic sci-fi novels like Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune. I wasn’t invested in future Star Wars films, so the bitter dissapointment/betrayal of Disney’s “The Last Jedi”didn’t hit me as hard as it hit younger fans who grew up with Star Wars on VHS or DVDs.

The difference here is that unlike Disney, Netflix did not betray any of my childhood memories. The streaming network’s reimagining of Lost is Space is just a few flaws shy of wonderful. I was unaware Netflix was even producing this remake, so the premiere caught me by surprise. And what an unexpected surprise it was, revisiting the new Robinson family, the reimagined Jupiter 2, the Chariot, the robot, and Doctor Smith. I literally had goosebumps hearing the familiar Lost in Space theme for the first time, originally scored by John Williams, worked into the show’s soundtrack – such is the tremendous power of happy childhood memories.

Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot, 2018

From Identity Politics To Redeemed Nuclear TV Family

Netflix’s reboot comes with some of the modern political baggage that has notably altered so many other recent science fiction reboots, such as Star Wars and Star Trek. The shadow of Identity Politics has been cast over this production as well.  Eldest daughter Judy Robinson is now a young African-American doctor. (It’s not made initially clear if she was adopted or born from a previous marriage). Major Don West is now a Latino contraband smuggler. Maureen Robinson is now an astrophysicist. John Robinson has been recast as an absentee military father. And most surprisingly, Doctor Smith has been recast as a woman, played by the very talented Parker Posey.

However, none of these politically motivated alterations have negatively impacted the story telling or the characters in any significant way, unlike Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  In fact, the alterations add quite a bit more character depth in comparison to the original 60’s idealized Robinson family. It makes sense that all the female characters are brilliant – after all they’ve been selected to start a new human colony on Alpha Centauri.

The original space family Robinson (1965 to 1968) was the ultimate “nuclear-age” nuclear family, a picture-perfect pioneer family, typical of the idealized television families that were presented to American audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. In many respects, this picture-perfect family was a television fantasy – It didn’t represent the reality of the American family, yet held up a mirror to our aspirations, our projected self-image, much as Facebook does today.

In the 1970s, the seeds of family dysfunction graced the small screen with acclaimed shows like “All in the Family”or “The Jeffersons.”However the idealized family was still very much the norm with shows like the “The Waltons”and “Little House on the Prairie.”

By the 1980s and 1990s we began to see a shift to more family dysfunction, with a plethora of useless, idiotic, or emasculated television dads, from Al Bundy to Homer Simpson. The age of the heroic television father, represented by John Robinson, was long gone. No doubt, this was a significant sociological shift – as more wives and mothers entered the workforce, fathers were beginning to be portrayed on television as incompetent or useless comedy figures.

“Gender roles for women and men have undergone significant changes since the introduction of TV. In the early days, the TV dad seemed flawless. He was intelligent, dependable and generally well respected in both the family and community. Times have changed on TV, and the “all-star fathers”–as represented by the dads on Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver has been replaced with goofy, irresponsible and immature fathers of The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond and According to Jim.”  (Media Smarts)

“But by the late 1980s, more shows wanted to distance themselves from the ‘corny, syrupy stuff’ — and in stepped shows such as ‘Married With Children’ and ‘The Simpsons.'”

Commercials have also created their own standard for men. “Ad after ad makes doltish Dad the butt of all jokes,” wrote Seth Stevenson with Slate Magazine.“He’s outwitted by his children. He’s the target of condescending eye rolls from his wife. He’s a dumb, incompetent, sometimes even selfish oaf — but his family loves him anyway.” (Dumbing Down Dad: How Media Present Husbands, Fathers as Useless,  Deseret News)

How is a child’s perception of their father and family altered when they are inundated with media images of useless, idiot dads? We’re also presented with countless media images of young children who think they are wiser than their parents. How does this dynamic effect the modern nuclear family? Is it reversing roles, making children recklessly precocious and parents psychologically submissive?

In 1998, Hollywood released a horrible big screen adaption of Lost in Space,staring William Hurt and Matt LeBlanc. It was poorly received. The space family Robinson was unrecognizable under all of the unhappy family dysfunction that was added to the characters and the script. The Robinson children were brats, the Robinson parents were emotionally unavailable, and the film suffered negative reviews.

So it was with some trepidation that I watched the Netflix reboot. Netflix isn’t exactly known for its positive, uplifting programing these days. Much of their original programing is very dark, dealing with some very dark themes.

“Netflix is an amazing repository of insanity, weirdness, and human suffering. … let’s just say that the dark corners of Netflix are truly dark indeed.” – The Darkest Shows You’ll FInd on Netflix. 

And based upon the trailer, Netflix’s new show may be the darkest one yet –  “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Will Be Extremely Satanic.

It’s important to note that every network, even Netflix, makes use of different production companies to produce different shows, so these shows are not necessarily coming from the same source or the same creative minds.

In contrast to this darkness, the new Lost is Spaceis almost a wholesome anachronism, conspicuously old-fashioned with some modern twists, like a ray of sunlight in a dark and gloomy room. That’s not to say the series is light or fluffy. The first episode is relentlessly heart-poundingly as the Robinson’s attempt to survive their crash landing on a hostile world.

Here is a snippet from a father’s review after watching the show with his seven-year old son, and he compares it to the new CBS All-Access show, Star TrekDiscovery.

“Here’s my BIG problem: Discovery has never made me stand up and cheer.  Discovery hasn’t put me on the edge of my seat.  The new Lost in Space has done just that…several times, in fact!”

“This is a show about human beings surviving everything a hostile planet can throw at them—through strength, through intelligence, through bravery, through perseverance and faith, both individually and together…overcoming not just challenging circumstances but also self-doubt and weakness.  This is a show about what it means to be human (and it doesn’t need any long-winded speeches to do that).” – Jonathan Lane, FanFilmFactor.com

What surprised and pleased me the most was the character and relationship development throughout the first season. We watch a fractured and divided family (via the divisions of Identity Politics) transform into strong bonds of love, courage, and mutual respect. We watch John and Maureen Robinson reconcile their estranged marriage to rediscover how much they truly love and need one another. We watch John transition from an absentee military dad to reconnect with his children, learning from a robot how to be a hero in his son’s eyes.  We watch the Robinson children (Judy, Penny and Will) grow from sullen, dismissive adolescents to become courageous and responsible young adults. Through adversity, we watch the Robinsons grow closer into a tight-nit family – something I don’t think I’ve seen on television for a very long time, and it is a joy to watch.

Lost in Space brings us full circle, from the sappy family television shows of the 50s and 60s, through the intentional family dysfunction of the last few decades, evolving into a fully actualized family ideal.

The magic of Lost in Space was never space or spaceships, alien worlds or robots. The secret of Lost in Space was always the Robinsons – an intelligent, compassionate, adventurous family embarking on the most amazing road trip imaginable – and the creators of this reboot seem to understand this.

Deviations From the Original Series

Netflix has been spending a vast amount of money on new programing. This was not a cheaply made remake – one estimate puts Lost in Spaceat $8 million per episode, and it shows. The special effects are phenomenal; the set pieces are remarkable. I absolutely love the redesign of the Jupiter 2 and the Chariot. The reimagined robot is amazing. There are just enough details that are faithful to the original to justify what has been updated.

First, the Robinsons are not alone. There are other Jupiters with other families, all on route to colonize Alpha Centauri when they are thrown off course. This is a brilliant revision, and it makes perfect sense.

Second, Major Don West is considerably more charming and roguish, basically Han Solo lite. The original Don West was a hot head, always angry, usually at Dr. Smith.

Third, Will Robinson seems too young, the show’s biggest inconsistency. Will comes off as a baby brother that constantly needs protection, instead of the highly intelligent boy originally played by Billy Mumy. It feels like the producers gave some of Will’s spirited independence to his sister Penny, who now has some of the best lines in the show.

Fourth, the robot didn’t come with the Robinsons; the robot is an alien plot twist that adds a whole new creative layer to the story.  There’s nothing particularly subversive about the robot/artificial intelligence storyline other than (spoiler) a hinted conspiracy that has humanity stealing technology from this cybernetic race, thus causing the conflict that ultimately throws the Resolute mothership and the Robinsons off course.

The robot’s loyal relationship with Will Robinson has evolved as well, drawn from the fable of the man who pulls a thorn from a lion’s paw. The original Lost in Space eventually shifted its focus away from the Robinson family to the unlikely power triangle between Will Robinson, the Robot, and Doctor Smith.  The new series does a great job of showcasing both with equal measure.

The Problem of Doctor Smith

How do you reimagine/recast Doctor Smith, brilliantly played by the late Jonathan Harris?

Doctor Zachary Smith was always a peculiar element in the original show, not even present in the original unaired pilot. He was originally cast as a foreign agent, reluctant stowaway, and saboteur who was responsible for the Jupiter 2 going off course. The black&white Doctor Smith was a scheming, backstabbing villain. Then he was transformed into the color Doctor Smith – a lazy, greedy, self-centered curmudgeon played for laughs (Was he supposed to be gay? The Robinson’s Mom on the show, June Lockhart recalls that Harris didn’t try to “tone it down”. She tells Cary Harrisonhe was a total hoot on set and she once laughed so much she was written out of 2 episodes as punishment.)

There is something symbolic and perhaps even esoteric concerning the contrast between black&white Dr. Smith and living-color Dr. Smith, much like the structure of The Wizard of Oz. However, I think the synchronicity was largely unintentional as all television shows were switching over to Technicolor by the mid-sixties.

All three broadcast networks were airing full color prime time schedules by the 1966–67 broadcast season, and ABC aired its last new black-and-white daytime programming in December 1967.[76

Doctor Smith was the thorn in the Robinson’s side, always causing trouble, usually generating the conflict that drove the plot of each show. And the Robinsons, being the compassionate family that they were, always forgave him (well except for the Robot and Major Don West.)

Doctor Smith is now a scheming, backstabbing woman, June Harris (nod to Jonathan Harris) who steals a real Doctor’s identity. Parker Posey plays her as a garden-variety sociopath, which is a little disappointing. Had they kept the original foreign agent/saboteur back story it might have provided future seasons with some intriguing plotlines.

The contrast is even stronger in the Netflix show. Whereas the Robinsons are infinitely likeable, Doctor Smith is anything but. You cringe every time she appears on-screen. She is quite literally the snake in the Robinson’s compassionate Garden of Eden. And I can’t help but speculate that the contrast between the Robinsons and Doctor Smith is mirroring the contrast within our own society as certain elite sociopaths become more and more exposed, however I don’t necessarily believe this is intentional, yet an interesting commentary on polite society nevertheless as the Robinsons figure out what to do about their Doctor Smith.

About the Author

David Nova is the author of the metaphysical fiction series “Season of the Serpent.”  He is a truth-seeker, a Wanderer, a blogger, and the moderator of Deus Nexus: Messages For An Entangled Universe.  For additional information about the author or his novels, visit his website, or his Facebook page.

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.


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