Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Space Circus" (October 12, 1966)

In “Space Circus,” the Robinsons encounter Dr. Marvello (James Westerfield) “a bringer of joy” and showman/ringmaster of a traveling space circus.  

Among Marvello’s attractions are “mistress of the occult” Madame Fenestra (Melinda Fee), strong-man Nubu (Michael Greene), “juggler of cosmic forces” Vicho (Harry Varteresian) and a monster from Supernova 12.

Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) wishes for Marvello to take him back to Earth, and auditions for a role in the circus, singing Tiptoe through The Tulips.  The Robot attempts to accompany him, but his singing is awful.

Marvello isn’t impressed by Smith's audition, but realizes that when aided by a psychic “conductress” like Fenestra, Will (Bill Mumy) can materialize objects out of thin air.

Smith, hoping to be Will’s manager, attempts to convince the boy that he should sign up with the circus.  

Will believes this is a noble sacrifice, since food is running short at the Robinson encampment, and the food purifier can’t work without a new supply of cobalt magnesium.

Will agrees to join Marvello’s show, but his parents rush to stop him from leaving the planet.

Although it would absolutely be rated a sub-par episode in Lost in Space’s (1965-1968) first season, “Space Circus” is actually not the worst episode so far of the immensely disappointing second season.  Make no mistake, the story is a straight-up re-telling of “The Keeper,” but at least it gets the “heart” aspect of the story right.

In the two-part “The Keeper,” as you may recall, an alien zoo-keeper came to Priplanus and wanted to collect every animal there, including humans.  His goal was to take the Robinson children, in fact.  

Ultimately, after being rescued from danger by Maureen, The Keeper opted to leave the planet and the Robinsons in peace.

In “Space Circus,” a ringmaster, Marvello, comes to the Robinsons’ planet too, and realizes that one of the Robinson children, Will, would make a great attraction. 

But in the end, he sees that Will’s heart would not be in showmanship, and allows him to stay with his family, before blasting off to space with the rest of his circus.

In both stories, Smith attempts to book a ride to Earth, but ends up causing strife. In “The Keeper,” he tricks Penny (Angela Cartwright) and Will (Bill Mumy) into going aboard the alien spaceship. In “Space Circus,” he tricks Will into a self-sacrifice, joining the circus. 

“Space Circus” also pipes in the ending from “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension.” 

As you may recall, that story ends with aliens realizing they cannot abduct Will Robinson because his love of his family makes him too emotional, and therefore too dangerous to operate their spaceship’s navigational computer.  

In “Space Circus,” Marvello realizes that Will’s heart is with his family, and therefore he would not make a good attraction.

So at this point, Lost in Space is basically just reshuffling the same, old, hand-ful of story ingredients.  

One of the “key” narrative templates of the series, indeed, involves the alien individual -- who boasts a notable Earth occupation -- encountering the Robinsons and trying to “own” one of the humans.  

This kind of visit happens not just in “The Keeper” and “Space Circus” but in “The Space Trader” and other episodes too.  

The big drawback of this type of episode, in my opinion, is that the visitor -- save for the original, Michael Rennie’s Keeper -- is not generally depicted in particularly alien or otherworldly terms.  

Here, Marvello wears the familiar top hat and outfit we associate with terrestrial ringmasters, and his circus stage is decorated with images that look straight from 1930s carnivals: human magicians in tuxedos, and so on.

A “space circus” is not a terrible idea (see: Doctor Who: "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy"), but it could be handled in a way that suggests it is part of an alien tradition too, not just an Earth tradition. 

Why are space-going human beings of other worlds constantly acting like Earth people of the 20th century, even though they possess the ability to travel the galaxy?  Even though they have advanced technology?

That aspect of the series is never explained and never makes sense.

There’s nothing new or fresh about “Space Circus” and yet it holds together marginally better than any of the first four episodes of the second season.  Why shouldn't it? It is pure recycling.

Also, there’s a  good scene late in the drama wherein Will -- having made the decision to join the circus -- says farewell to his family.  The Robinsons are all working outside the Jupiter 2, and Will talks to each one of them in turn.  He doesn’t actually say goodbye, but we understand that doing so is his (secret) purpose.  It’s a lovely scene, well-performed and well-written, and it remembers the best angel of Lost in Space’s nature.

The show is about -- or supposed to be about -- family, and what members of a family will do for one another on the frontier, when life is hard, and survival is not guaranteed.  

Too often this season, Lost in Space has been about Smith, Will and the Robot getting into some sort of silly trouble (like Smith’s bout with explosive beer in “Forbidden World.”)  “Space Circus” is completely familiar and derivative of earlier, better episodes, but it also re-grounds the series in the basics. It's not new, in other words, but it's on point.

That doesn’t mean it is perfect.  

For instance, Marvello undergoes a last-minute change of heart so fast that you may get whiplash. One minute he's scheming and evil, the next his heart is touched by the love of a child for his family.

And Madame Fenestra’s part seems weirdly abbreviated and half-explored.  She seems to have a story to tell about being in the circus, but the episode never gets to it  Instead she kind of skulks around for much of the story and we never learn for what purpose, or what secret she is hiding.

We also learn in this episode that Will is a special boy indeed. With the right psychic medium helping him, he can manifest objects out of thin air!

I’ll be curious to see if the series ever develops this character quality, or it is just a gimmick to endanger him for the duration “Space Circus.”

Next week, I remember one of the best episodes of the second season: “The Prisoners of Space.”


  1. John,
    Reading this was almost like remembering long-forgotten memories. I haven't seen this episode in ages, but it doesn't exactly give me fond feelings. Yet your take on the events may give me something to look forward to and appreciate when I re-visit "Space Circus" on blu ray. When Lost In Space is clicking on all cylinders, its heart is its most admirable quality.
    It's also what makes Lost In Space my favorite series to this day.
    Thanks for your pointed observations on this one!

  2. Anonymous1:33 PM

    John, I stumbled across your impressive reviews recently, but I have not read any in full completion yet. Soon I will begin reading them and adding my own thoughts and feelings. This is and has always been my all-time favorite series. I love all the picture stills you have here as well.. :-]

  3. Jim Cholley1:34 PM

    This is my name, John. I just wrote the previous comment.. :-]

  4. Actually, Vicho was the strongman (who wrestled the Monster from Supernova 12, night after night) and Nubu was the "juggler of cosmic forces."

  5. As to your question concerning a needless imitation of Earth culture? As Capt. Kirk, himself, observed in the now-classic "Shore Leave" episode of STAR TREK: TOS... "The more complex the mind, the greater the need for amusement."

    A sentiment that Hans Conreid echoed, later on in the second season of LIS, as Sir Sagramonte (perpetual hunter of the Questing Beast...voiced by the late, great June Foray).