Nostalgia is a pretty unreliable lens to look at anything through, prone to rose-coloured distortions, warm-and-fuzzy childhood memories, and a willingness to forgive all kinds of deficiencies in the service of venerating something you love.
All of which complicates reviewing a series that came out in the year I was born (1965) but which, happily, doesn’t make such a task impossible.
On the surface at least, reverence for Lost in Space, Irwin Allen’s take on Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, one of multiple attempts to send a lost family into the far reaches of the galaxy in comic or TV form in the 1960s, would seem to be a prime candidate for nostalgia-distortion.
A staple of my childhood in the 1970s when the colour episodes were everywhere but rarely the black-and-white ones – explained no doubt by the local TV station’s willingness (yes just the one commercial channel, kids; you may “Gasp! Horror! now if you like) to demonstrate their bright and shiny new-fangled non-black and white broadcasting – Lost in Space is one of those shows I remember fondly.
It tapped into many things that have become enduring loves of my life – science fiction, outlandish storytelling, imaginative melodrama, quirkiness and the sense that life can be much bigger than humdrum reality might give the impression it’s capable of.
And it unashamedly ran with those elements, serving up adventure after adventure that relied not so much on logic and good sense as an entrenched willingness to suspend belief, even before you’d have a chance to bring it into existence at all, and a desire to take the trippiness of the ’60s and the fast-and-loose sensibilities of the ’70s and marry them together into one mesmerisingly over the top futuristic whole.
Looking back, many years later, on the first three episodes that ushered in the mayhem and often downright silliness of the later seasons, which ended rather unceremoniously and on a cliffhanger to boot, in March 1968 after 68 episodes, it’s tempting to dismiss it all as overwrought, pot-boiled television, storytelling on acid that has more logic holes than Swiss Cheese, frippery that doesn’t deserve all that nostalgia piled upon it with boyhood reverence.
And honestly when I was re-watching the three episodes one Saturday morning, my analytical adulthood brain, which still marches in service to my rampant imagination and willingness to put aside the more barbed of critical observations if I am truly moved by something, or at the very least, swept up into it in a way that makes me forget I’m all grown-up, if just for a little while, went to freaking town pointing all kinds of weird inconsistencies:
- Why was it that only Major Don West (Mark Goddard) seemed to have any real skills at all? Things gowrong, as they are wont to do but mostly at the hand of camp saboteur/villain/cybernetics expert Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) whose extra weight on the ship sends them off course in the first place, but only West seems able to fix them at all.
It’s he who figures out how to get the ship out of the meteor storm that sends the saucer-shaped Jupiter 2 (known as Gemini 12 in an un-aired pilot that included neither Smith nor the “Danger, Will Robinson!” robot, voiced by Dick Tufeld, the show’s narrator) way off course, he who manages to rescue a clueless John Robinson (Guy Williams) from not one but two spacewalks, he who comforts June Robinson (June Lockhart), who shows a propensity for collapsing that surely should have disqualified her from space travel, and the one who gets them to the surface of their first alien planet and into the Chariot to rescue John Robinson whose tangled in some energy-laced branches under a cliff.
Yes, John and Maureen Robinson are eminently qualified in their respective fields – he an astrophysicist, she a biochemist, and nine-year-old son Will (Billy Mumy) is an aspiring specialist in electronics and computers, but beyond they appeared to have received no training at all in anything to do with space travel. It’s no wonder they ended up lost and stayed lost really with that level of non-expertise between them.
- There is misogyny aplenty. True, this was made in the 1960s and is a product of its age, and yes it’s a family show where mum Maureen and daughters 19-year-old Judy (Marta Kristen), a one time musical theater talent, and 11-year-old Penny, who adopts an alien creature called Debbie with nary an afterthought, are looked after by the men of the family as they keep the Jupiter 2 homestead fires burning, but it’s weird how Will goes everywhere while Judy (who flirts endlessly with Don West) and Penny are stuck with B-storylines pretty much all the time.
- The launch sequence where everyone, and I mean everyone is standing around the Jupiter 2 three minutes before launch. How the entire support team at mission control doesn’t end crammed into the ship I have no idea with people tinkering with things, LIFE-SAVING THINGS thank you, mere minutes before liftoff where one family, one terribly ill-trained family, is about to jet off into the stars to save humanity by settling a planet near Alpha Centauri.
So yes, my nitpicking adult brain, the one that serves me so well when it comes to writing reviews of books, TV shows, comic books and movies on this blog, had a field day picking apart the glorious inanity of parts of Lost in Space.
Yet for all that, and ever-mindful of the corrosive effects of nostalgia on reviewing anything from your youth, there was enough gee-whiz, isn’t-this-fun adventuring to keep me engaged.
Much of that comes down to the very impossible situations that make my adult brain cringe more often than that – every moment of the show is a cliffhanger, all the characters make questionable decisions, no one seems to be in control of a situation that demands control in spaces, and yet for all that, my inner 10-year-old is cheering the whole thing on, gleeful about the idea of heading to space, wondering what it would be like to face strange planets, imperilled spacewalks and odd aliens which send EMP surges through the Chariot, leaving everyone stranded (well, until they decide to walk home, anyway).
Lost in Space sits then in that much-hallowed space where adventure takes precedence over logicality, where getting into peril, and escaping it naturally, forces all kinds of reasonable assumptions to play second fiddle, and where the way we feel is in the driver’s seat, forcing pretty much everything else to sit in the back, uttering not a word of reproach.
In that sense, it’s an air to the cinema shorts of the golden age of Hollywood, rampantly and breathlessly over-the-top storytelling that concentrated on creating tension, hackneyed though it might be, in the service of keeping patrons on the edge of their seats and certainly in these first three episodes, there are cliffhanger moments galore where a giant spaceship swallows the Jupiter 2 whole, where John Robinson is floating off into space with no one to help him and where Will awakens an alien being who gives chase.
All nervewracking, heart in your mouth stuff that, if examined too closely is inherently silly and overdone, but which in the service of escapist television, and that is what Irwin Allen was the schlocky king of for many triumphal years, works perfectly.
Is it perfect television? Not really does it divert, entrance, entertain and delight, taking us away from the everyday each episode with gloriously absurdist intent?
That it does, and that it does very well indeed, and so even with the myriad reasons to poke hole in these three introductory episodes (more than the meteor storm had done anyway), I am happy to let, if not nostalgia then a sense of childlike fun and adventure, carry the day, confident that there are plenty of very adult things to consume once the escapism of life lost in outer space has run its course once more.
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