Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lost in Space Day: "The Space Trader"

In “The Space Trader,” a merchant and “citizen of the galaxy” (Torin Thatcher) uses a weather-control device to totally destroy the Robinsons’ garden and food supply. Since they are now desperate for food, the space trader hopes they will trade with him...at a disadvantage.

And what does this space trader want, in the final analysis?  A human being to trade at the Trade Fair on planet Thorin.

The Robinsons are stoic in the face of their loss, and resort to emergency rations.  But Dr. Smith refuses to settle for protein pills.  He trades the family robot for food, but Will threatens to never again be his friend.

To get the robot back and save his friendship with Will, Smith must offer himself to the Space Trader.  The space trader claims he will not collect on his debt for 200 years, but promptly changes his mind, and holds Smith to a contract.

When the Robinsons learn that the Space Trader was behind the storm that destroyed their food supply, they declare the contract null and avoid.   But the alien merchant and his vicious guard dogs still plan to collect…

The previous two episodes of Lost in Space -- “The Magic Mirror” and “The Challenge” -- have been pretty good. Perhaps even great, in terms of the series' totality.  

But “The Space Trader” is an over-familiar story: the tale of a charming but malevolent alien coming to the planet and trying to leave with one of the pioneers (for example, “The Keeper.”) 

Yet "The Space Trader" is not entirely unlikable. Torin Thatcher makes for a particularly slick and avaricious opponent for the Robinsons, and Dr. Smith -- for the first time ever -- seems to actually regret his anti-social behavior.

Still, this kind of story is not only familiar at this point (at almost the end of the first season), but one that will be repeated again and again as the show continues.  Like Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space is sort of stuck with the idea that the only to create drama is for a visitor to come to the island/planet and threaten the residents.  Threatening the residents means -- in the case of Lost in Space -- splitting up the settlement.  Will and Penny were on the chopping block in "The Keeper."  It's Smith's turn here, in "The Space Trader."

Although “The Space Trader” moves at a good clip, and is not painful to watch (like some later episodes...), one can nonetheless begin to see format fatigue setting in.  Attention to detail is starting to slide.  

For example, in this episode, we see Dr. Smith dressed in the costume of a painter, and later, protected in a World War II helmet, and by a sand-bag structure.  Space on the Jupiter 2 has to be limited, so why was it carrying unnecessary gear, including (the heavy) sand-bags and an eighty year old helmet?  

Such items are present, I should note, for a dramatic purpose: to highlight and augment the buffoonery of Dr. Smith.  He goes all out, costumes and all, in his shenanigans.  On one hand, his penchant for costume changing might be considered funny, but on the other hand, it punctures a hole right through the series’ fragile sense of believability.

Another problem with Lost in Space, beginning here in some sense, is that the universe at large seems very recognizable, instead of legitimately alien.  The trader is going to a fair.  He makes Smith sign a contract. He keeps guard dogs.  He complains about income tax, even.  These are all things instantly recognizable to us, today, as being facets of Earth life and human civilization.   

Weird, isn't it, that alien society should reflect ours...exactly? 

At least in other installments ("My Friend, Mr. Nobody," "The Sky is Falling," "Wish Upon a Star," and "The Challenge,") the aliens don't seem precisely like us. There are important differences, and some sense of mystery about them.

In crafting such a basic, non-imaginative world around the Trader, Lost in Space reveals that it is not interested in being serious science fiction -- or even internally consistent. 

Now, back to Dr. Smith. 

Over the first season of Lost in Space, Smith changes quite a bit.  He begins as a ruthless villain, and on several occasions actually endeavors to get the Robinsons -- even the children -- killed. 

“The Space Trader” is the first episode in which he genuinely and meaningfully apologizes for bad behavior, and attempts to rectify the situation. Smith trades the family Robot for food to the Space Trader.  But then, Will tells him he will never be his friend again.  In the past, Smith would not care about such a thing.  Instead, he would do whatever he needs to do to get what he wants.  Here, however, he shows signs of humanity and real friendship towards Will.  Again, this is a huge shift in terms of the show.

Next:"His Majesty Smith."

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