Monday, February 16, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Star Trek vs. Lost in Space?

A regular reader, Jason, asks a question for all long-time fans of sci-fi TV:

"Why do you think Lost in Space never became the pop culture icon that the original Star Trek did? Whenever people discuss TV science fiction series, Star Trek is hailed as one of the best ever, while Lost is Space is regarded by many as a childish embarrassment.  What's your take?"

Jason, I think that’s a great question, and one worthy of examination.

I am only about ten or so episodes into my fiftieth anniversary retrospective of Lost in Space (1966 – 1968), but I can see already that -- in its black-and-white first season -- the series’ production values far outstrip those of Star Trek (1966 – 1969). 

The black-and-white photography is more accomplished, the sets are more elaborate and visually appealing, the props are better too, and the special effects also tend to be vastly superior. 

Even the aliens (like those seen in “The Derelict” and “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension”) tend to be presented in a more imaginative way on Lost in Space, meaning that they are visually-dynamic and non-traditional.

And yet, clearly, those values are not enough to give Lost in Space the edge.

Star Trek stories tend to be about important, relevant, or creative ideas. Each new civilization the Enterprise encounters is about some issue roiling humanity (the computer age, war, the hunt for immortality, racial prejudice, and so forth). 

By contrast, Lost in Space episodes tend to be about one core concept: the pioneer spirit; a pioneer family sticking together through thick-and-thin, through hazards involving both the environment or landscape, or alien individuals (think: American Indians).  Both concepts are valid and interesting, but Star Trek emerges the champion here because its stories are so imaginative and worthwhile in terms of theme and ideas.

Also, Star Trek is generally far more consistent in terms of its characters and their development.  Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is not only consistent, he presents an alternative world view (logic as guiding force) that is not only “fascinating,” to coin a phrase, but attractive in some senses, as a real world solution to what ailed us in the late 1960s.

We see how Spock applies his belief system to every situation, and can register its value and it pitfalls.  Actually, one could say the same thing of Captain Kirk, and his emotional, “human” philosophy, too.

On Lost in Space, one might argue that Dr. Smith is consistent, but his persona is centered on cowardice, duplicity and manipulation. 

On its very face, that world view is more negative and ugly, and, to some degree, tiring. Whereas Spock and Kirk learn to love and appreciate one another and at least respect each other’s world views, Smith is simply a constant irritant, getting the Robinsons into not just trouble, but mortal danger on a weekly basis. 

But the overall impact of Smith’s behavior is that, as viewers, we begin to think one of two not very good things. 

Either the Robinsons are hopelessly dopey for keeping him around, and free to create trouble. 

Or the writers are so inconsistent in their storytelling that the Robinsons seem to forget each week what a treacherous bastard Smith really is. His behavior is never meaningfully addressed, so that he is free to repeat it again and again.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that Star Trek is better, a priori, because it concerns man choosing his destiny and going to the stars under his own auspices.  

That the Robinsons are lost and imperiled is not a problem or impediment for me as a viewer or a reviewer. Again, Lost in Space is a pretty direct metaphor for the frontier of the West, and the pioneer experience during that time.  Both programs can tell intriguing tales within their given paradigm. 

But Star Trek does boast a bit more versatility in how it can tell stories. Each week, the Enterprise can encounter anything, any world view that is exciting to the writers.  Whereas, in some sense, Lost in Space must always reiterate its central theme: a family sticking together in times of hardship.

I also believe Lost in Space has a couple of other problems, in terms of how it is viewed. One of the series’ main protagonists becomes, over time, Will Robinson (Bill Mumy). The series thus transforms into the Will/Robot/Smith show.

And if I have learned anything about fandom in the last thirty or so years, it is that there is a streak of self-hatred in some males there that lashes out any young performer who dares take center stage on a sci-fi show. 

We saw that scenario manifest with hatred towards Adric on Doctor Who.

We saw it manifest with Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It probably happened to a lesser degree with Will Robinson, yet your question aptly framed the debate with the term “childish embarrassment.” Emphasis on child.

Lost in Space could literally be interpreted as childish since a child takes center stage. I feel that some folks may disqualify the series exclusively on this basis. They see a kid and a robot strolling about on fake sets (in the later seasons) and think they are witnessing juvenilia.

We can also never forget that Gene Roddenberry and many, many of the folks who worked on Star Trek, also functioned as superb PR agents. 

They were extremely adept at drawing attention to Star Trek while simultaneously putting-down any series that might compete, from Lost in Space to Space: 1999 to Babylon 5.  

All have faced the wrath of Trekkies. 

If you ever have the opportunity, go back to Starlog #3 (I think...), and read the interviews with Star Trek's original cast, as -- one after the other -- they slag the then-on-air Space:1999 as inferior, 

Ungracious isn't quite the right word.

Indeed, a considerable amount of “history” and commentary on the genre was actually penned in the 1970s by folks with a direct connection to Star Trek (meaning they would benefit professionally if it returned).  

They would gain by dismantling and criticizing the competition, and highlighting Star Trek as the paragon of quality. 

Many of these folks didn’t shy from using the pulpit to make their cases for Star Trek, and against 1999, or Lost in Space. Or Battlestar Galactica, or Logan's Run, or anything else that made a run for sci-fi TV acceptance, for that matter.

Suddenly, everyone had to start rooting for their team, you know?  And Star Trek got most of the media attention and approbation.

The truth is much more nuanced, however.

Lost in Space started strong, in its first season, but as the episodes wore one, the series became inconsequential, and lost sight of what it was all about: a family drawing together in a dangerous, little-understood cosmos.

If Lost in Space had lasted just one season -- the black and white first season -- its reputation would likely be different today.  It would be remembered, probably, as a series with a lot of potential that was cut down before it could realize it. 

Contrarily, Star Trek realized a great deal of its potential right out the gate, in the first and second seasons, certainly. 

The standards of writing and level of intellectual debate are, indeed, significantly higher on Star Trek.  I love Star Trek and, truth be told, I prefer it to Lost in Space by a pretty wide margin, 

And yet on a re-watch I can see that Lost in Space -- at least in the beginning -- possesses its virtues too. My reviews seek to point those out, as well as the failings.

As noted above, Lost in Space's virtues tend to be technical.  The amazing full-sized chariot vehicle, the attention to detail paid to the props that make up the Robinsons’ settlement, or the orchestration of special effects sequences (the Jupiter 2 crash on the unknown planet) are just a few examples.

Lost in Space also features more dramatic, more spectacular action sequences than Star Trek ever did on TV, including the chariot’s crossing of a turbulent sea in one episode.

But Star Trek possesses a really great sense of humor, a kind of cheeky sexiness too, and, as I stated above, an authentic curiosity about the universe, and how it would reflect on our human values.  Not to mention: no kids so that the "grown ups" in the media could put us down for liking it.

There is nothing juvenile or incurious, or particularly inconsistent about it (especially after nomenclature like Starfleet Command is settled on.) The series appeals to the better angels of our nature too, because it reminds us that all of us -- no matter skin color, or sex -- has an important role to play in the future.

In this case, I do think the better quality show “won” this battle. 

But it is a shame it has to be considered a battle at all, and that so many view it that way, cutting down intriguing programs to support their favorite. Why not regard both series with interest, noting their pitfalls and successes?

Fifty years on, it is rewarding to view Lost in Space with a fresh set of eyes, and see it outside the “versus” debate that has framed it for much of its history.  

In 2016, when I celebrate Star Trek’s fiftieth, I’ll get to do the same for that series.


  1. Enjoyed your work here john. It is interesting, your point, how Irwin Allen and those around Star Trek made efforts to frame their respective shows with a degree of superiority. The PR battle was definitely stronger on the Star Trek front it would seem based on some evidence. But it's true that had an impact.

  2. John excellent analysis of two of my favorite series,i.e., both Lost In Space and the original Star Trek. For myself it has always been my top three favorite science-fiction series are:

    #1 SPACE:1999
    ...and tied for #2 LOST IN SPACE/STAR TREK:TOS


  3. Interesting how you keep seeing Lost in Space as the story of a pioneer family when the original pitch for Star Trek was "Wagon Train to the Stars." In other words, Star Trek was originally seen as sort of a sci-fi Western back in the day too -- and given that both shows were made in an era when Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza -- and yes, Wagon Train -- still dominated the TV landscape, it would be a bit surprising if neither one recognized such influences. (And yet years later, a sci-fi Western like Firefly would be considered a novelty...)

    In any event, I remember enjoying Lost in Space for many years before I was old enough to appreciate Star Trek but unfortunately, even the first season of Lost in Space seems more appealing to my inner ten-year-old than to my inner teenager. It doesn't help that the second season of Lost in Space had to compete with the TV show Batman for much of its audience, a development which did not exactly encourage an improvement in the show's scripts.

    Anyway, one could argue that both shows had their good points -- but Star Trek tends to hold up best rtoday because it was written for a more mature audience.

  4. Awesome analysis! You are so right about the production values. Whether it is the Chariot vs. the shuttle craft or phasers versus laser pistols, alien depictions, even costumes, "Lost in Space" wins every time.

    There was a genuine sense of wonder and mystery and even danger to those first season episodes, greatly enhanced by John Williams' incredible music. When "Lost in Space" was on ("My Friend Mr. Nobody", "The Keeper", "The Anti-matter Man") it was right up there with "Star Trek" and "Space 1999". Which makes it all the more frustrating the producers and writers never dealt with the Smith situation in a dramatically believable way and were content to let the show degenerate into silly camp and buffoonery.

    I think there may have been at least a half-hearted attempt to make the show better in the third season when we got "The Anti-Matter Man". I caught a third season episode a few weeks ago with a groovy-teen-60s theme a few weeks ago called "The Promised Planet". It was actually pretty good. I'd take over Trek's "The Way to Eden", for whatever that's worth.

  5. These comparisons bring a smile to my face.

    Whatever turns one on, I suppose.