Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Challenge" (March 2, 1966)

In “The Challenge,” a young prince from a distant world named Quano (Kurt Russell) watches the Robinsons closely.  

He informs them that he has been sent to their world by his father, The Ruler (Michael Ansara), and that he will soon have to undergo a physical and mental challenge to become heir.

That challenge involves fighting Will (Bill Mumy). 

But Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) soon overhears a worrisome detail.  If Bill wins the contest, the Ruler will be forced to kill all the Robinsons to spare himself and his son the embarrassment of defeat.

The challenge is undertaken (over Maureen’s [June Lockhart]) objections, and going into the last round, it looks like a tie.  

Fearful that his son will lose, the Ruler challenges Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) to a duel with volt swords…

The great Kurt Russell -- of Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), NS Big Trouble in Little China (1986) to name just a few cult movie performances -- guest stars on this week’s episode of Lost in Space.  He plays twelve-year old Guano, an alien prince and warrior with a bias against women, and an over-confidence in his own abilities.

But what “The Challenge” really concerns is fathers and sons.  And indeed, that’s part of the series’ overall tapestry. At its best, Lost in Space is about family relationships on the frontier. That frontier, in this case, just happens to be outer space.

In “The Challenge,” Will is enticed to fight the larger, much more experienced Quano. Maureen wants to forbid the contest, right out, but John Robinson offers another perspective.  If he doesn’t let Will participate, Robinson notes, the boy will feel that his father doesn’t respect him; or doesn’t believe he can win.  It is better for Will to fight and lose, he decides, than to not fight at all.

Only reluctantly does Maureen accept this plan, but I believe John is right, and the remainder of the episode bears him out.  The Ruler (Michael Ansara) steps in and replaces Quano in the last contest (the volt blades) and Quano is left feeling inadequate. 

As a result, he runs off into real danger, and unsupervised danger at that.  He goes off to a cave to kill an insectoid monster there, instead…to prove to his father that he is worthy, that he can still be a champion and heir.

The two sides of the equation here are interesting to consider.  Physical conflict is barbaric, and there is a chance that Will could be hurt in the contest, despite supervision. 

But by the same token, by competing, Will demonstrates his father that he is strong and capable.  And all of us -- no matter our age or sex-- wants to be strong and capable, and demonstrate it to those we love.  So in my book, John Robinson does the right thing in this case, and shows why, as a TV father, he remains so beloved.

“The Challenge” compares, essentially, the fathering styles of kindly but impressive Robinson and the regal but inexpressive Ruler. Quano accuses John of being a bad father, but we can see, especially by episode’s end, that it is the Ruler who has much learning to do about his son.

In charting the Robinson-Will relationship so well, and with such sympathy, “The Challenge” is actually a far better Will-centric episode than one like “Return from Earth.”  We learn a lot about Will here.  He is fiercely defensive and prideful regarding his father, and he is no coward.  Also, Will longs to prove that, even as a child, he can pull his own weight; he can stand up and defend the family. 

I also like that “The Challenge” brings up gender equality, at least a little bit. Quano hurls chauvinist remarks at the women of the Jupiter 2 settlement, and notes that his planet is a patriarchy.  

Maureen replies that on Earth (of the year 1997, anyway…) men and women are considered equals.  

That’s good to hear, because the evidence from the early shows is that the women are still stuck doing housework (like laundry and meal preparation) while the men go out and explore, or perfrom the bulk of the pioneer work. 

In terms of historical importance, the better-than-average “The Challenge” not only features young Kurt Russell in a prominent role, it features the first example, I believe, of Smith calling the Robot a “bubble-headed booby.”

On that topic -- if you’re watching the episodes with me, in order -- you may notice that in both “The Challenge” and the upcoming “The Space Trader,” the Robot has undergone a personality change. He is no longer deferential to Smith at all, and gives back, verbally, as good as he gets.  

This may be because of his experience in the recent “War of the Robots,” and his desire to protect “his” family from harm.

A nice in-joke is also featured in this episode. Professor Robinson is challenged to the sword duel with the volt blades, and shows fine fencing form, defeating the Rule.

This is entirely appropriate since Guy Williams' achieved his fame, prior to Lost in Space, as the star of Disney's Zorro (1957-1959)

Next week: “The Space Trader.”

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