Well, it’s here. The reboot of Lost in Space we didn’t ask for, but got anyway. Why? Who knows? But I checked out the full first season on Netflix anyway. Because if I can save one person ten hours they will never get back by helping them avoid a bad reboot, then my work here is done.
But, surprise surprise, the show isn’t bad. In fact, it’s really pretty good. It has issues, but it’s actually entertaining. But before I get to the specifics, let’s have a quick history lesson.
If you’re not familiar with the original Lost in Space (and seriously, how could you NOT be), it aired in 1965 for three seasons and followed the adventures of the Robinsons, an Earth family who were a part of a plan to colonize a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. But Dr. Zachary Smith attempts to sabotage the mission for a foreign government (the space race was still a thing in the 60s) and gets trapped on board during take-off. The unexpected extra weight causes the ship to go off course, yadda yadda yadda, the ship, the pilot, the family, Dr. Smith, and The Robot become LOST IN SPAAAAAACE.
Though the original show was, at times, pretty campy, it had a kind of innocence and hopefulness about space and space travel that was still possible in the early 60s, when humanity was just touching the edge of space. It was light on science and action, and heavy on family dynamics and comedy. Think Father Knows Best, but on a flying saucer.
The plot of Netflix’s Lost in Space is roughly the same but, in this version, the colonization plan has been in place for a while, and the Jupiter 2 (the Robinsons’ ship) is one of multiple ships on their way to an already established colony. Picture a “wagon train to the stars” which, funny enough, was Roddenberry’s original concept of “Star Trek.” But the journey is interrupted when a catastrophe happens onboard the mission’s “mothership,” The Resolute, where all the ships are docked, and many of them crash-land on a nearby planet.
The family themselves are a little different from the original. It is still made up of two parents, John and Maureen Robinson, and their three kids, Judy, Penny, and Will, the youngest. But this family is not the nuclear family of the original. This Robinson family is made up of separated parents, an adopted child of a different race, another child with emotional issues, and a career-oriented mom. The pilot, Don, the mysterious Dr. Smith, who is now a woman, and The Robot, who is now an alien, show up later.
The diverse cast, the technical design of the ship, the impressive special effects, and the freedom to swear (duh, Netflix) all combine to make the show more in tune with today’s audiences. But these are just cosmetic upgrades. The show’s real strength is that, even when the plotlines are nonsensical (which happens too often, I’m afraid), the writers make sure the characters behave consistently. That’s worth four stars alone. But the other strength is the cast. This very talented group of actors works well as both ensemble and individuals, and they manage to infuse their characters with a great deal of humanity.
So here are my impressions of the reboot itself.
1) And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
Finding a good portrayal of a smart, tough woman in an action-adventure story is difficult. It’s getting easier, though, and while we still have only a few really good examples, I’m going to add Molly Parker’s Maureen Robinson to my list. Her whole attitude is, “I got this.” Parker pulls it off, eyes shining with intelligence and humor, and a way of moving that matches the confidence you’d expect from a woman who’d have the balls to gather her kids and lead them on a journey to space. I initially thought of her character as reckless, until I realized that it was because I usually only see men portrayed this way. I adjusted my view and everything she did worked.
Also, in film and TV, a tough, career-minded woman who’s also a mother is typically shown in a negative light, being clueless about her children and often neglectful as well. The writers, bless them, make Maureen a woman who, realistically, lets some things slip at home when working hard on her job, but is there when it most counts, and always puts her family first.
2) A Doctor in the House
Honestly, I thought I’d be more annoyed at the character of Judy. In the original she was pretty much…well…pretty. I don’t remember much about her except really blonde hair. But this Judy (Taylor Russell) is an 18-year old doctor, which seems a weird choice. What is this, Doogie Howser, M.D.? But the actress lends a real maturity to her role, so it works. There are a couple of scenes where her age creates doubt in others, but her skill makes them change that “Miss” to “Doctor” pretty quickly. She’s smart and assertive, but vulnerable, with some trust issues. Add to that a trauma early on in the season and you have a role that might be difficult for even the most experienced actor. Russell pulls it off, though. Kudos.
As an aside, I’m glad that they pretty much ignored the “One of these things is not like the others” shtick with regards to Judy’s race. Of course, we get that Judy is adopted, but the show doesn’t linger on long expository passages where each character tells their tale. Rather, it metes out the backstory in occasional flashbacks and the occasional comment.
3) A Penny for Luck
Middle child Penny Robinson is played by Mina Sundwall. The original Penny was, at the time, a typical prepubescent girl-child: sweet, helpful, loved animals. This Penny is a little older and a little less of a girl scout. While she has a little sibling rivalry going on with the brilliant Judy, it isn’t the “Jan Brady” whiny kind. She pulls off a couple of “hail mary” plays of her own during the season. She’s also a smartass who isn’t shy about bragging, teasing, or going after what she wants including, at one point, a cute guy from another ship who catches her eye. Her sense of humor is biting and she tends to joke her way through difficult moments. Sundwell makes Penny a fun character to watch.
4) Liar, Liar, Parker’s on Fire
I’m a Parker Posey fan, so I was excited to see her cast as Dr. Smith. The late Jonathan Harris, the original Dr. Zachary Smith, played the always-scheming and selfish genius broadly, to put it mildly. His Smith is iconic and mimicking him would be a mistake. Posey, instead, distills the essence of Dr. Smith into a more subtle, even somewhat comical, affect. Posey’s Smith holds no academic degrees like the original but, if she did, she’d be a Doctor of the Con. She’s not a genius, but she knows a lot about human psychology and uses that knowledge to get what she wants. And yes, Posey is funny. There is a scene in one episode between Posey and guest star Selma Blair that is comedic genius. Just don’t expect slapstick.
Interesting to note, both Smiths are selfish with a shocking lack of self-awareness, but neither are drawn as completely irredeemable.
5) Father Knows Best…Sometimes
Dr. John Robinson was an astrophysicist and the ship’s commander in the old series. This time Robinson (Toby Stephens) is a retired Marine and a formerly absentee father rejoining his family on the journey. He’s the commander, but the crew (i.e., the ex-wife and kids) have a hard time taking orders from him. On earth, he was always away fighting some war, so they learned to do without him. Now, he’s not sure how he fits in. But he loses them, so he learns to adjust to this new family dynamic. He doesn’t get to save the day often for this self-sufficient group, but he knows a few things his brainy brood doesn’t, and his skills definitely come into play.
Stephens isn’t just a pretty face. His acting chops are well-established and on full display. You can tell he respects the character he is playing and that keeps him three dimensional.
6) Yeah, But How Fast Can He Do The Kessel Run?
Don West was the dashing pilot of the Jupiter 2 in the original series. He was brash, but a good soldier and a man of honor. But this West, played with great humor by the handsome Ignacio Serricchio, is like a Han Solo or Peter Quill knock-off. It’s a little shocking to see just how much like these characters the show’s creator made West: a rakishly handsome loner and ace pilot, a lady’s man with a shady, possibly criminal, past but, beneath it all, a heart of gold.
Serricchio pulls it off really well. He’s funny and cute and his heart of gold moments don’t suck.
7) Where There’s A Will…
Will Robinson is the youngest Robinson child, and the character is beloved in fandom. Billy Mumy is one of the few sci-fi kid stars who made it into adulthood un-scathed. He didn’t undergo the fan abuse levereged on, say, Wil Wheaton (and don’t get me started on Jake Lloyd). The original kid in space, he predates Wesley Crusher by a few decades, and his relationship with The Robot had every kid in the 60s wanting one of his own. Teaching The Robot to be more human started with him, not with young John Connor. And “Danger, Will Robinson!” is still a favorite geeky utterance 50 years after The Robot first uttered those words. So, reimagining this icon had to be challenging. He can’t be too snarky but definitely not too precious. You have to strike the right note between Wes and John, and steer WAY clear of Ani Skywalker (sorry, but it’s true).
So really, all they had to do was leave the character alone, which they did, AND cast the right kid in the role. Maxwell Jenkins is that kid. Already a TV veteran, his version of Will is smart, kind, and empathetic, exactly like Mumy’s. Will, as always, tries to see the good in people, which is why he ends up befriending The Robot and being susceptible to the manipulations of Dr. Smith. He’s no angel and he makes mistakes, some that are near fatal, but he’s a good kid and that’s why we like him.
8) There’s A Robot in This!
When asked his reason for auditioning for the role of Will, Jenkins offered that his parents nearly passed on it. After reading the script, he said to them, “Um…there’s a ROBOT in this!”
The original robot was impressive for the time, but the designers of the new one created a doozy of an upgrade. This robot’s look is thoroughly futuristic, with what looks like a small star field in place of a face, both enticing and dangerous at the same time. The close relationship between The Robot and Will is still present, but this Robot, unlike the original, is not of Earth origin. I’m just going to leave it at that.
The show treats us to lovingly crafted exteriors, in beautiful widescreen splendor, but the editors seem to get lost looking at them and forget to move on to the next shot in a timely fashion. The pacing of the show starts out a bit too slow for my taste, but as it moves through the season it accelerates nicely.
10) 1965 Tech Meets 2018 Visuals
While the production design is gorgeous (and that’s not hyperbole), there are these odd moments where the story’s tech level drops back to 1965. One example – the spring-hoisted CB radio mic in the Rambler. Huh? No com badges? Wireless mics? Car audio mic in the visor? iPhone, even? I suspect the producers or writers wanted to have some nods to the old show’s tech, but the juxtaposition of ~50 years of technical advancement in a very futuristic setting is just jarring.
Bonus: There are a couple of fun tributes to the old show: ~ Bill Mumy has a cameo. ~ Jonathan Harris gets a tribute, but you have to be a real fan to get it. ~ Debbie. That’s all I’ll say.
This is a different sci-fi show than we are used to these days. It’s not dark, or gritty. It has a little bit of everything: humor, action, aliens, danger, mystery, and plot-holes you can drive a flying saucer through. But you can actually watch it with your kids and parents and have a good time. And I’m here for that.
Written by DaVette See
Originally from the Midwest, DaVette lives in Inglewood, CA and can’t name a single sports team. She’s a sci-fi fan, a movie geek, a drama freak, a Trekkie, and a Browncoat. She has a BA in English and Theater, as well as a Law degree, but don’t hold that against her. She acted and directed for the stage for many years, but really loves filmmaking and writing. She owns Running Lady Studios and she is the producer/star of the web-based talk show, Afro Bites! She is wife to Rob, daughter to Martha, and mom to seven (yes seven) cats. When not covered in fur, she’s a West Coast correspondent and occasional movie reviewer for BGN. Follow DaVette on Twitter and IG @mariavah.