Friday, June 05, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 75: Lost in Space: "The War of the Robots"

In one corner, we have Robby the Robot, famous cinematic automaton of the classic film, Forbidden Planet (1956).

And in the other corner, we have lovable B-9, mechanical guardian of our space family Robinson and popular hero of Lost in Space.

May the best robot win...

In very silly terms, that's the set-up for this classic first season Lost in Space (1965-1968) episode, "The War of the Robots," which aired originally on CBS on February 9, 1966.

Here, the stranded Robinsons (trapped on a desolate alien planet...), unexpectedly discover a quiescent "robotoid" in an overgrown grove near their homestead.

The Robinsons' protective robot insists the alien machine (Robby...) is an "extreme danger" to the humans, in part because of Robby's very nature: he's a "robotoid" (unlike the Robot), and robotoids are advanced machines which can go beyond the bounds of their programming.

Robotoids have a "choice" -- according to the Robot -- in the way they follow (or don't follow...) orders and instructions. The Robinsons and especially Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) believe their Robot is just jealous of the new machine, which -- when activated by Will (Bill Mumy) -- shows an affinity for repairing watches, the damaged chariot, and other devices.


Dr. Smith derides the family robot as a "clumsy has-been" and "obsolete" as Robby the Robotoid in short order becomes practically invaluable to the marooned Robinsons (save for Penny, who has mysteriously vanished from the entire episode...without it being noticed by her Mom or Dad). Soon, Robby confronts the B-9 and tells him that the Robinsons no longer need their original robot and that "in comparison" to himself, the B-9 is "very ignorant."

Alone and abandoned, B-9 skulks away into the rocks -- having lost his family -- and soon Robby's true motives emerge. He is actually the dedicated servant to an alien scientist (a kind of dog-alien that very much resembles the Anticans from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Lonely Among Us" that was produced and broadcast twenty-one years later...). The Robotoid's mission is not to serve the Robinsons, but rather to disarm them, render them "harmless" and deliver them as experimental subjects to the aliens. "You are weak and vulnerable creatures," Robby tells the Robinsons, "but there are others who have need of you..."

In the end, it's a battle-to-the-death between a nearly-invincible Robby (the most famous mechanical man of the movies, pre-Star Wars...) and a vastly-under-powered Bubble-Headed Booby, the most famous mechanical man of television...

Honestly I have a weird sort of love/hate fascination with Lost in Space. I absolutely adore the optimistic 1960s futurism on display in the series, not to mention the wonderful conceit that space program technology has become the purview of the American nuclear family in the near future.

Also, I almost universally find the set designs, gadgets, and general production values of the first season highly commendable....they outstrip the original Star Trek by a rather wide margin. Thus, I'm a huge admirer of the first season's approach: lensed in moody black-and-white (like the Twilight Zone) and dominated by this clunky (but gorgeous) "retro-tech." Every time I see the Robinsons' full-sized, working chariot or the incredibly-detailed interior of the Jupiter 2, I'm virtually spellbound. Those sets and vehicles appear fantastic and realistic at the same time, and seem completely functional.

I love the way the first season is shot too. In "The War of the Robots," for instance, a fluid camera glides in menacingly towards Robby the Robot at least twice -- pushing portentously towards the inscrutable juggernaut. A less efficient production might have used a zoom instead of taking the time and energy to move the camera, but you can tell that there was no expense spared in early Lost in Space, and generally, the series was well-filmed. There's even a sense of visual ingenuity (and wit...) in the episode's final battle between clunky metal men

All that established, I really can't stomach the second and third seasons of Lost in Space, the color years which give "campy" entertainment (not to mention sci-fi TV...) a bad name for years and years. I've tried (with considerable dedication) to watch many of those later episodes, but overall they lack internal consistency, paint a silly picture of the universe, and feature no real character growth or humanity. In the second and third years of Lost in Space, "science" may as well be "magic" for all the logic or intelligence applied by the writers.

But -- again -- I must stress that Lost in Space's first season, with its gorgeous photography and solid balance of characters, features some truly intriguing and (even creepy...) stories. Of course, you can't judge those forty-year old stories by the standards of today's science fiction. I mean, the audience that loves and admires the new Battlestar Galactica or Firefly isn't going to find a whole lot of meat here; or a whole lot of complexity either.

That established, there's something undeniably sweet and sort of pure about these black-and-white shows. They endure as science fiction parables about the nature of families. "The War of the Robots" is no exception to that rule. Here, the Robot feels squeezed out by his new "sibling," Robby, and becomes jealous that, well, there's somebody newer and more exciting in the room. The Robot begins striking out at those who love him (refusing to help Will...), becomes petulant and even self loathing (describing the fact that he has been denied or "cheated" out of human characteristics evidenced by the Robotoid.)

Let's face it: haven't we all felt displaced like that from time to time? By a brother or a sister? By your best friend's 'new' buddy? It's strange that a story so plainly concerning sibling rivalry involves an ostensibly "emotion-less" robot, but again, that's the great thing about science fiction on television: it can dramatize stories in a way a regular drama can't.

Even in this episode, however, there are matters of concern in terms of logic and consistency. Early on, Robby's alien master reveals that he left the Robotoid on the planet many years before. Later in the story, the same alien master explains that if Robby can't send a homing signal nsoon, they won't be able to find him, or the planet. Plainly, something doesn't connect between those two conversations. If the aliens left the robot on the planet, why can't they find it again? Similarly, I enjoyed the Robot's explanation of the subtle distinctions between robot and robotoid, but how, exactly, does a Robot from Earth (from 20th century Earth) come by this information about advanced alien robotoids?

In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter. "The War of the Robots" is a fable or lesson about jealousy, and every other consideration is secondary. And besides, if you grew up in the 1970s with an affection for Forbidden Planet's Robby and the Lost in Space Robot, there's no probably way on Earth (or in space...) you can resist an episode involving their robot-on-robot smack down...

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Even the first season eps have silly things which are easy to make fun of (in this, the goofy aliens seen on a communicator). This ep is one of the better black and white ones. Some of the first season eps (space hillbillies!) are just as excruciatingly bad as those in the second season. Robbie is certainly given a better part than in his third season appearance. You couldn't be more on target about the sets. The Jupitor II set was feature-film quality! Not only the full size Chariot prop too. The miniature work involving the Chariot traveling over desert, frozen and stormy seas is still spectacularyly effective.

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  2. Anonymous,

    I haven't watched the Space Hillbillies episode yet (d'oh!), but it sure sounds awful.

    I watched the first several first season episodes (through the "Welcome Stranger" segment) and the show actually seems fairly solid, save for a few cringe-worthy moments here and there. I did settle on "War of the Robots" as one of the better (and more interesting...) shows.

    I love the sets and vehicles. Love them. I seriously want to squeeze into the TV and walk around the Jupiter 2...

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Anonymous12:32 AM

    They actually explain the B9 Robot's knowledge in one of the episodes. In one episode, a "friendly alien" repaired the Robot and upgraded its information -- as their excuse to turn the Robot into a legitimate exposition source. This was later retconned as an explanation for the Robot's "human" emotions and wit.

    However "convenient" that explanation may be, it was more than most popular Sci Fi programs ever gave during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and I was grateful for it.

    Late on, during a time travel sequence in one of the color episodes, Will Robinson encounters the Robot and laments that it can't help him because the upgrade in information is still in its future.

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  4. Anonymous5:20 PM

    Geez, Jonathan Harris claimed he 'saved' the series by introducingthe campiness.

    I, like you, prefer the dramtatic B&W episodes. Not to mention that the first year theme beats the latter one senseless.

    Your generation has Star Wars, mine had Lost In Space. We both get Star Trek, though mine saw it as a first run.

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