Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Android Machine" (October 26, 1966)
In “The Android Machine,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), Will (Bill Mumy), Penny (Angela Cartwright) and the Robot (Dick Tufield) stumble across an alien vending machine in the desert. Smith activates it and orders an android, the beautiful Verda (Dee Hartford).
Verda, manufactured by Unit 12 at the Celestial Department Store, promptly materializes, and announces that she belongs to Smith, forever. However, he quickly tires of her presence when she spoils a foot massage. The Robot is also suspicious of her, because she knows more about galactic history than he does, and replaces him as the children’s teacher.
Meanwhile, the Robinsons worry that the owner of the vending machine will soon arrive with a bill for Verda, and they are right. She carries a value of 100 Kilastros, and her owner arrives via space elevator, concerned that Smith ordered her without “intending to pay.” That’s a crime worse than shoplifting, he suggests.
Meanwhile, Verda develops human emotions, and a deep friendship with the Robinsons. She sacrifices herself rather than allow Smith and the others to be punished for Smith’s bad behavior, and returns with the owner to the department store.
Despite the usual complaints about continuity, and the larger universe around the Robinsons, Lost in Space’s (1966 – 1968) “The Android Machine” is a strong episode, at least at this juncture.
Primarily this is so because of the emotional hook: a machine who develops humanity. In the great tradition and spirit of TV androids from Star Trek (“What Are Little Girls Made of”) to Space:1999 “One Moment of Humanity”) to The Fantastic Journey (“Beyond the Mountain”) to The Next Generation (“The Offspring,”) “The Android Machine’s” Verda is a synthetic being who begins to grapple with her nature, and with human emotions too. She learns the key aspect of “self-sacrifice,” protecting Will and Penny from a monster in a cave, and also cries green tears.
Verda is more than mere machine. She is a person. Dee Hartford delivers a strong, sympathetic performance in the role of the android, and I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a guest performer who has had more impact on the series, except perhaps for Michael Rennie in the first season. Verda asks why people laugh, learns about the difference between self-preservation and self-sacrifice, and even seems to appreciate Dr. Smith, despite his apparent flaws. She goes from being all “logical” machine to something much more emotional, and human.
Of course, I can still complain, as I often do here, about the universe of Lost in Space, and its radical fantasy nature. Here, we see an elevator from a Celestial Department Store land on the Robinsons’ planet, and an obnoxious floor manager with a French accent disembark. Why does he have a French accent? Does he actually come from France? Isn’t he supposed to be an alien? Are all obnoxious floor managers French in nationality?
I could buy all this a little better if, perhaps, the Robinsons had been hurled ten thousand years into the future, as well as into deep space. They could then come across all these human outposts that recreate life on Earth (department stores, zoos, circuses, boxing rings, etc.), and it would make a modicum of sense, at least on some level. But for an alien to possess a French accent and operate a vending machine from a department store? To coin a phrase, WTF?
It’s weird and nonsensical. It’s surreal. And I don’t think, actually, that the makers of Lost in Space were aiming for “surreal” as a destination. Contrarily, I believe the show looks like it does because it was easier to have French-accented aliens in a department store than to imagine something truly different, and alien, as we saw in an episode such as “The Derelict.” At some point, the makers of the show decided that children wouldn’t care of the series delved outright into silly fantasy instead of serious science fiction.
And, as usual, I must complain about the fact that the Robinsons don’t ask for help from the department store employees. They could claim to be customers, interested in seeing the store, and ask for transport to it, right? Why don’t they do that? John wants to get to Alpha Centauri quite badly, so why doesn’t he try to make that happen with some individual who happens by the planet?
But again, it’s really useless to complain about what Lost in Space “is” at this point.
The show has developed its out-there, surreal format, and this is it, like it or leave it. Within that context, I would be dishonest if I didn’t conclude that “The Android Machine” is a strong episode. Verda is a great character, and her time with the Robinsons is emotional and filled with heart. The core of the series, as I’ve written before, is the family learning about its own humanity on the frontier.
In some deep way -- by becoming human like they are -- Verda helps the Robinsons to do just that in this episode.
Next week: “The Deadly Games of Gamma 6.”