Tuesday, November 14, 2006

CULT TV BLOGGING: Lost in Space: "The Reluctant Stowaway"

"This is the beginning. This is the day. You are watching the unfolding of one of history's great adventures. Man's colonization of space. Beyond the stars..."

With these portentous words, so begins Irwin Allen's 1965-1968 science fiction TV series, Lost in Space. Visually, the episode "The Reluctant Stowaway" commences with a camera sweep of an impressive LBJ-era mission control center populated by numerous technicians. Well, it's not LBJ era, technically, but rather an LBJ era imagining of how the future would likely look. Thus computers are gigantic, wall-sized machines with beeping gauges and lights. As though the PC revolution and concurrent miniaturization of computer technology had never occurred.

The day is October 16, 1997, the viewer is informed, as Alpha Control is dominated by the hustle and bustle of expectant activity. A narrator with booming voice next informs us that the space program is in preparations to send a family into space, to a habitable planet in orbit of Alpha Centauri. The Robinsons have been selected for this particular mission out of 2.2 million families.

Why? Well, the Robinsons best fulfill three necessary criteria: scientific achievement, pioneer resourcefulness and emotional balance. These qualities will hold the family in good stead for their 5.5 year journey (though most of the trip will be spent in suspended animation). Still, nothing less than the future of the human race rests on this mission. With the "explosive increase of population" on Earth, the colonization of the stars is nothing less than an imperative.

Next, this debut episode of Lost in Space provides a splendid, highly-detailed tour of the unique craft carrying the Robinson family to the furthest reaches of space. The Jupiter 2 is not only a home away from home, we are told, but "the culmination of 40 years of intensive research" (at a cost of 30 billion dollars...); one which makes possible "man's thrust into deep space." This two-story craft accommodates state rooms for the crew, a galley, a control deck (with freezing tubes), a med bay and the powerful atomic motors. One noteworthy piece of equipment on board the craft (to help the Robinsons conduct their mission) is an environmental control robot.

But unfortunately for the Robinsons, as "The Reluctant Stowaway" continues, we learn that someone else is (illicitly...) aboard the Jupiter 2, a foreign saboteur with the rank of colonel, a fella by the name of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). He has programmed the robot to - at precisely "launch plus eight hours" - destroy the vessel's inertial guidance system, radio transmitter and cabin pressure control system. What Smith doesn't realize is that he's the stowaway of the episode's title! Oh, the pain!

Written by S. Bar David and directed by Tony Leader, "The Reluctant Stowaway" introduces television audiences to the main characters and central concepts of this space drama. As one might guess from the title of the series, the Jupiter 2's maiden flight will experience all sorts of difficulties and disasters, with the Robinsons and Smith hopelessly...lost in the space.

The dramatis personae on Lost in Space also include Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams), the patriarch of the clan. He's a rock solid man's man, a geologist and space scientist perfectly suited to the colonization of space. His wife is Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart), a loving matriarchal-type who admits to some fear and misgivings about the mission. "I should say something light and clever," she notes as the journey begins, "I just can't." Then there's Judy (Marta Kristen), the eldest Robinson daughter and a brilliant scientist in her own right. Adolescent and mischievous Penny (Angela Cartwright) and the little genius, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) round out the family. Piloting the ship is Mark Goddard's stolid Major Don West, who - quite rightly, given his options - sets his eyes on Judy.

Shot in crisp shades of beautiful black-and-white, "The Reluctant Stowaway" chronicles the launch of Jupiter 2 and its subsequent "stranding" in deep space. With Smith aboard, there are 200 extra lbs. to account for, and the ship strays from its trajectory even before the robot breaks bad and fulfill its sabotaged programming. In the course of the hour, a number of space hazards emerge, including an asteroid belt which pelts the Jupiter 2's hull. The robot goes on his destructive jag at last, thus causing the ship to go further off course ("As of this moment, the spacecraft has left the limits of the galaxy," one character breathlessly intones). The episode ends on a cliffhanger note as John heads outside the ship for EVA repairs. His tether breaks...and he spins into the void, out-of-control.

Let me offer a mea culpa about Lost in Space. I watched it a great deal when I was very, very young and pretty much wrote it off by the time I was ten. When I was a kid, my show of choice was either Star Trek or Space: 1999. My memories of the Allen drama were primarily of the color episodes from later seasons, and the ridiculous storylines. In unequivocal terms, that IS NOT the Lost in Space of the first season.

This is not a campy Batman-style series, but rather a sincere, straight-faced action-adventure, a transposition of the American Western genre; about the newest frontier and the pioneer required to tame deep space. It is, literally (as its source material suggests...), Space Family Robinson.

What I found most fascinating while watching "The Reluctant Stowaway" was the impressive (and apparently obsessive) attention to detail. Everything - from the sets to the costumes and props to the miniatures - appears absolutely beautiful and carefully thought-out. The Jupiter 2 is a gorgeous set, for instance. And ultimately, the show is convincing from a mid-1960s perspective. Have we outgrown it? Perhaps the melodramatic, humorless tone more than the technology, I'd say. Yet In black-and-white, this is still a more impressive production in terms of design than, say, the new Battlestar Galactica (which is, as I see it, Pier 1 meets Crate and Barrel). There's not one legitimate attempt to create either an "alien" or "future" world in that show. It's just "us" (meaning man in 2006) on a space battleship from an alien race. Lost in Space gets an "A" for effort, even if some of its extrapolations didn't prove correct.

The most impressive moment in "The Reluctant Stowaway" occurs when the Jupiter 2 loses artificial gravity and the Robinsons float weightless for a time. In fairness, this is something that other science fiction shows of the age (including Star Trek...) never really showed or attempted to show -- wire work! It looks as though it was time-consuming to shoot, and yet the results are not unimpressive. In 1965, this scene must have been positively stunning.

The episode ends with that cliffhanger and the legend "To be continued next week. Same time, same channel." I found myself immediately wanting to find out what happened next. Truly, the only thing that marks this first incarnation of Lost in Space as silly is the opening credits sequence, which depicts a cartoon spaceship tugging in its wake a line of tethered, space suited astronauts.

Another fact: Dr. Zachary Smith is one sinister cat. He's not the buffoon he would become in later seasons. Instead, he is ultra-menacing and dark. He wants to kill the Robinsons. And he doesn't take that job lightly. He's not a bumbler...he's a killer. Not exactly a playful sort.

Why am I watching Lost in Space? Well, someone recently told me that it's great for fathers and sons to watch together. That comment had some resonance with me, and I figured that when Joel is old enough, he might like watching the show with me. So, because I'm cautious with my money, I decided to rent the first few discs on Netflix and see if I agreed with the assessment.

After watching the first episode, I kind of do. And add, mothers and sons (and fathers and daughters...) to that list as well. This is a show about a pioneer family pulling together in hard times, and it's good, adventurous fun. It may not be deep or kinky or adult or modern, but it is beautifully-shot and it captures the dangers and thrills of space travel in a way I haven't seen on any show in some time.

4 comments:

  1. Of course what we saw (I saw the first two seasons as they were broadcast) wasn't the original concept for the series. The Canadian science fiction channel Space: The Imagination Station (and that is an inspired name) aired the original version of the pilot, a program without the Robot or Doctor Smith. It wasn't that good. The truth is that it doesn't work well without those two elements, even though they changed the nature of the show from a straight drama of pioneers to the stars.

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  2. Lost In Space was my favorite show when I was eight (watching reruns in the late 70's). Boy, did I get some flak from the kids who prefered Star Trek. I quickly outgrew the show. By age 12, I couldn't stand the campy second and third season. The show was an object of ridicule by the other kids. They thought it was idiotic, and I had to agree (talking carrots etc.). I still loved the first eps of the first season (the ones where footage from the pilot was used). The miniature effects were superb, particularly the scenes of the Chariot crossing the frozen sea. The first ep scenes of the Jupitor II flying through the meteor swarm were highly memorable too.

    I bought the DVD of the first season and was a bit disappointed. The show is much slower than I remembered. The scenes of John stuck outside the Jupitor II in his spacesuit seem like filler (slow and drawn out with very visible wires supporting him). The science is appalling. Comets are frozen not superhot (Mr. Robinson wouldn't be in danger from a comet's extreme 'heat'). This same lack of attention to science and continuity occurs over and over. For one ep only, the (first season) planet has an orbit which causes severe freezing and then heat. How could those giants survive in such conditions? Dr. Smith quickly becomes a tiresome character when viewing the show as an adult.

    I agree that the production design in the early eps is terrific. The sets for the Jupitor II, the Chariot, and the Robot are 60's design at their best.

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  3. Anonymous2:05 AM

    Although Dr. Maureen Robinson has a tendency to fall into the "housewifey" cliches so popular at the time, there are a number of episodes where her talent as a competent biochemist is alluded to, which was more than happened to most women in the adventure stories of that decade -- or the one following it!

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  4. Give me a break on that last comment. Maureen Robinson (the version from the 1998 movie) had more to do than the version in the 1960's show did-she didn't just cook and clean like the original version did. She even showed some degree of gumption when she broke apart Major West and Dr. Robinson during their fight.

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