Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "His Majesty Smith" (March 16, 1966)

Will (Bill Mumy), Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) and the Robot (Dick Tufeld) unexpectedly happen upon a crown sitting on a rock in the wilderness.  When Smith puts it atop his head, he is briefly electrocuted.  Then Will tries it on.

Almost immediately, they are approached by Nexus (Liam Sullivan) of Andronica, a human-looking alien who claims that his people require a new King.  Smith very much wants this honor, and soon Nexus is agreeable to his terms.

The Robinsons are instructed to attend Smith’s coronation as King of Andronica, and do so.  But afterwards Smith learns that the Andronicans are not human beings at all.  Nexus and his retainers are androids made to please him. The real Andronicans are brutish, hairy people who -- in observance of their “Festival of Sacrifice” -- skin their king alive and stuff him. 

Smith attempts to escape this fate by seeking help from the Robinsons, but the Andronicans make an android duplicate of Smith to take his place…one who possesses all of Smith’s good qualities but none of his bad.  “Daddy Zac,” as he is known, promptly proves his worth to the Robinsons.

Now Dr. Smith must figure out a way to escape his grim fate…

There’s no other way to write it: the first season of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) undergoes a dire set of episodes here in its final stretch. 

The previous installment, “The Space Trader” was entertaining, but raised a lot of questions in terms of the larger series universe. (So…humanoids from other worlds have an intergalactic society with trade shows, contracts, and income taxes?)

Beyond that weirdness, that episode’s plot might be described in this fashion: Doctor Smith, attempting to gain riches and/or a trip home to Earth, gets into mortal danger and the Robinsons must save him before he is taken away to meet his maker.

“His Majesty Smith” is the same story.

Smith hopes to become a rich and powerful king, only to learn that all Andronican kings get skinned and stuffed. Now he must be extricated from his own mess.

It’s unfortunate that two Smith-centric episodes should come back-to-back, as “His Majesty Smith” might play better in a different slot, where the story-line isn’t so repetitive. 

Unfortunately, the plot-line gets re-used again in upcoming stories such as “The Space Croppers” and “All that Glitters.” 

Accordingly, there can be little doubt that Jonathan Harris and Dr. Smith are now the central personalities of Lost in Space. 

They have taken over the series, for better or worse.  

It’s true that Smith has long been a driver of the narratives, with his cowardice and buffoonery proving the catalysts for writers.  But now the Robinsons -- who represent the positive characteristics of humanity -- are sidelined quite a bit.  Smith eats up almost every minute of adventure from “The Space Trader” through “All that Glitters,” a run of four consecutive episodes.

One wonders if the strain of production got to the creative team.  At this point, the series is twenty-four episodes into a very long season, and it must have been easy to rehash stories rather than invent new ones.  At this point, Lost in Space feels creatively exhausted.  It’s easy to write a Smith story, as opposed to a Judy story, for instance, because Smith is such a big character, and can behave badly. It’s easy to see why exhausted writers go to him for starters.

The problem that the writers did not anticipate, perhaps, is that the depiction of Smith as “the most useless creature” in the universe (to quote the Andronicans), actually makes the Robinsons look weaker. 

They continue to suffer a fool in their midst, and after a while, one loses patience with them.  It’s not only that Smith doesn’t learn his lesson from his mis-adventures.  It’s that the Robinsons don’t learn their lesson from his mis-adventures, either.  Here, John leaps to Smith’s defense. “Dr. Zachary Smith is our friend,” he tells the aliens.  “We don’t want to lose him.”

Really? The guy who used up your water supply?  The guy who tried to trade your son to extra-dimensional aliens? The guy who sabotaged your rockets while you were on a space-walk?

You don’t want to lose that guy?

With a slightly different focus, “His Majesty Smith” might have actually been a more intriguing and human story. For a while, for example, the Robinsons suffer a true nightmare “two” Doctor Smiths.  

A better story might have seen the family grappling with Daddy Zac and the original Zachary for a longer period of time, and coming to a reckoning about who is better for the family, or who is “the original.”

That idea gets a little play here, but not enough. The story about an alien race finding a sacrificial king takes center stage, and it’s not handled in any kind of substantive fashion.  One can see the same story on Gilligan’s Island, in a sense (“Gilligan, the Goddess.”)

Lost in Space starts out its run with survival on the space frontier and a lot of hard action, with many heart-warming instances of a family pulling together to weather oncoming storms. By “His Majesty Smith,” however, the series has lunged away from those values to pure fantasy silliness.  

For instance, look at Smith's dress as King of Andronica.  Does an alien king have to wear a crown that looks just like a crown from human history?  There's just no imagination here in the conveying of the narrative. There's no notion in Lost in Space that aliens may have different traditions, or differences in terms, even, of wardrobe.

Next week, an even worse episode: “The Space Croppers.”

1 comment:

  1. I read an interview with Billy Mumy in which he said that all of the Irwin Allen shows started out strong, but lost steam as they went along because the production crews "got lazy." This is clearly in evidence here, but once we get past "The Space Croppers," there's some pretty good episodes remaining in the first season. I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on those, John, but I don't envy you having to get through next week's entry.