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In “The Magic Mirror,” a violent storm reveals a weird mystery: a solid platinum alien mirror. Highly ornamental, the mirror has glowing eyes on its decorative top, and Penny (Angela Cartwright) is intrigued by it. Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) by contrast, wants to possess its wealth.
While Penny examines the mirror ore closely, Debbie the monkey actually travels inside it, revealing that the decoration is a portal to another world, a surreal one decorated in quasi-Egyptian fashion. Penny also goes inside the mirror and finds there a young man (Michael J. Pollard) living alone.
This boy is a Peter Pan-type figure, one who never ages and never grows up. He wants Penny to be his companion in this everlasting limbo, but she sees the world for what it is: a trap.
Frighteningly, there is also a cyclops/monster living in this world…
If “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” and “The Magic Mirror” are examples, then the Penny-centric episodes of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) tend to be the best installments of the series. Perhaps that’s being too broad.
“The Magic Mirror” isn’t quite as terrific as “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” but -- more than many other installments of this fifty year old series -- it does tread into deeper themes and ideas. The last Will-centric episode, “Return to Earth” was a puzzle box story about the boy returning to Earth and having to get back to his family in time, but it didn’t really examine Will as a character. By contrast, both Penny stories so far dig deeply into her psychology and feelings.
In “The Magic Mirror,” Penny -- on the verge of adolescence -- doesn’t want to grow up. She wants to continue being a child, like Will is. She doesn’t care much about grown-up things, and we see this in light of her relationship with Judy. Judy wants Penny to change her hair and care more for her physical appearance. It’s a shame that these qualities are stereotypically and sexist female things (especially since Judy is a scientist…), but the series aired fifty years ago, when our culture had very different perceptions of what it means to be male and female. Despite the kind of hackneyed or out-of-date example -- Penny should dress and wear her hair like a grown-up -- we still get the point.
And that point is that you can’t resist change, or growing up. It’s inevitable.
Soon after Judy and Penny talk, Penny is thrown into the mirror’s odd universe, a place where there is never any change at all. This idea of being frozen in time is captured visually by the fact that stopped clocks seem to litter this world, weird tokens without purpose or function.
In this world, a Peter Pan-like character, The Boy lives in eternal youth, never growing, never maturing. He forever dwells in the land of games and play.
Penny is drawn to this youthful, exuberant character, but before long realizes how this stasis has trapped him, and diminished him. The surreal world of the mirror is one of eternal life, but also eternal stagnation.
What is the purpose of life if you never change, never grow? The Boy notes “it’s just the way we always are,” and Penny, despite her affection for him, realizes that she doesn’t desire stagnation to be her destiny.
She opts out. She tries to bring the boy with him, but he won’t come.
In the episode’ last scene, Penny no longer resists coming adolescence. She changes her hair-style, and thus symbolically she lets go of being a kid, and takes the first steps towards adult-hood. She has learned, through the narrative’s events, that change is the essential process of all life, and it is better to embrace it than to resist it. Stagnation is death, in a very real sense.
Again, it is easy to quibble with how the episode parses being a “grown up” -- focused on external, physical qualities like hair-style and wardrobe – and yet “The Magic Mirror” is still sweet and, indeed, bittersweet.
Although Penny faces growing up with composure, she is still bracing for an ending; for a loss. Childhood does end, and that’s sad. But adulthood will possess wonders for her as well. This story could be re-done today in a less simplistic (and yes, sexist…) way, and still be amazingly powerful and relevant. All of us go through this transition, the letting go of childish things…but not always entirely willingly.
In terms of series continuity, “The Magic Mirror” continues the tradition of featuring Dr. Smith as an avaricious fool. He really serves no purpose in this story except to take attention away from Penny, and the magical world she encounters in the mirror. We already know that Smith is greedy, so his attempts to acquire the mirror don’t add to our understanding of the character.
More intriguing, perhaps, is the casting of Michael J. Pollard as “the Boy,” a Peter Pan figure, as I noted above, who lingers in eternal childhood. He plays a variation of this role -- a man-child refusing to brace change or adulthood – in the classic Star Trek episode “Miri.”