Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lost in Space Day: "Wish Upon a Star"

In “Wish Upon a Star,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) causes an explosion out of neglect, and nearly injures Major West (Mark Goddard).

In response, Dr. Smith is exiled from the Robinson camp.

Will (Bill Mumy) feels sorry for Smith, and helps him set up camp far away from the Jupiter 2 settlement. 

The duo finds an alien derelict spaceship in the desert. Inside it is a strange device, one that can transform thoughts into concrete reality.

Smith uses the alien device to create physical comforts for himself, but realizes he can ingratiate himself with the Robinsons if he shares the device with the family.  

He is welcomed back home, but Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) worries about a machine that can provide “something for nothing.” 

Robinson is even more concerned about the fact that the machine is causing his children not to do their work, but rather “wish” for things that they don’t need, and which don’t help the family survive.

When Smith asks one more thing of the alien device -- a slave -- it is the final straw. The owner of the machine -- a face-less, lumbering being -- comes back to claim it.

The old story of Aladdin’s Lamp gets a new sheen in another space age “fairy tale” installment of Lost in Space’s (1965 – 1968) black-and-white first season. 

Like “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” this episode, “Wish Upon a Star," superbly functions as morality play.  

But this episode also features an unexpectedly powerful nightmarish quality as well as a didactic mode of expression.  In particular, the scenes of the alien machine “owner,” stalking by night Smith and the Robinsons, are terrifying in the vein of The Outer Limits (1962 – 1963).  Some of these scenes reminded me the horror films of the early German Expressionists.

The stark black-and-white photography makes the sequence terrifying, but the compositions do as well. Many Lost in Space monsters may look lame or silly to modern eyes, but this creature remains the stuff of nightmares, and well-filmed. The camera-person uses a distortion lens at one point, so the alien’s outstretched arms and face look unnaturally intimidating, or surreal.  

One moment that is still intensely creepy finds the creature emerging from a locked door, behind Dr. Smith.  It approaches him, and he has no idea he is being watched, or in danger at all.

Again, the idea here is of a fantasy or fairy tale that promptly turns to nightmare. That is appropriate, given John Robinson’s stated concerns about a device being found on a “planet where anything is possible” and giving an owner something for nothing.  As Smith learns, in terror, there is a cost for using the alien machine.  

Similarly, the alien’s motives are as opaque as his featureless visage. We aren’t certain what the alien is going to do, or how far he will go to gain control of the strange thought device, a precursor of sorts to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987 – 1994) replicator.  He is a silent, stalking avenger who never speaks a word, and that kind of approach maintains his mystery, and fear factor.

At the end of the episode, Robinson speculates that the alien took back the machine because Smith got too greedy, and asked for too much. He went beyond asking for the necessities, even for the comforts of life, and asked for a slave instead, a physical being to serve his every whim.  

He asked “too much.”

As was in the case in “The Sky is Falling,” there’s the notion in “Wish Upon a Star” of the yin/yang of human nature.  Robinson, who sees his family grow lazy and bored with material wealth, argues cogently against using the device.  Why work at all when a machine can do it for you?  Yet instead of sowing happiness, the thought machine has only created discontent, and Robinson realizes this.  

Watching the series in sequence this time, and starting at the beginning, I am surprised and impressed by William's performances.  He plays the moral anchor and authority on the series, and is a fatherly figure of security and safety.  We get a sense of his belief system and ethos, and he is, at least in these early days, a strong counter-weight to Smith.

On the other hand, Smith is a coward and a loaf.  In "Wish Upon a Star," he can’t get enough material things or food to make him happy. He makes for himself a bed, a candelabra, and several feasts.  He claims he is just making a “few simple conveniences” but the truth is that he can’t be trusted to use the device responsibly.  

Penny and Will argue over the thought machine too, but they are children, and not able to control their impulses in the same way that Smith, as an adult, should be capable of. But clearly, Smith represents the kind of man who lives out of balance with nature and his fellow man, and would use every resource available to him, to the damnation of his fellow man and even his planet, if necessary.

He’s a grown man, and he has to learn responsibility,” Robinson tells Will about Smith, and indeed, that’s the point of the episode. Smith is unable to use the thought device responsibly and another overseer -- one significantly more frightening than Dad -- comes back to correct, and re-balance things.  

Like all great fairy tales, “Wish upon a Star” is a little bit magical, a little bit wish-fulfillment (literally) and a little bit terrifying.  Like King Midas, for example, Smith wishes for  a kind of gold, but learns that his wishes carry a huge cost.

I suppose the story sounds extremely simple here: A pioneer family gets a device that can make life easy for it, but fights and conflicts erupt over use of it.  And yet, the scary nature of the alien, and the unexplained aspects of the replicator-like device make the episode a very intriguing and worthwhile entry in the canon.  In fact, I would rate “Wish Upon a Star” right up there with “The Sky is Falling” and “My Friend, Mr. Nobody.” All three episodes demonstrates how the series could achieve its dramatic potential.

In terms of character development, “Wish Upon a Star” is the first episode in which Smith is not murderous and nasty, just pitiful and lazy.  He’s like a misbehaving child more than a malevolent saboteur now, and indeed, this was explicitly by Harris’s design.  He apparently recognized that an evildoer would wear out his welcome on the series in short order, whereas a troublemaker and coward could instigate all kinds of storytelling. In a sense his instincts were dead right. If the Robinsons’ have to be good,  and obey moral standards. Smith is the one who introduces negative human qualities like avarice or desire into the group, or the small community.

“Wish upon a Star” features many resonant visuals. The alien is psychologically scary, as I’ve described above, but the moment in which Judy’s (Marta Kristen) new dress turns to scraps is very memorable too, a visual reminder not to place too much value on things, especially things that we haven’t really earned.  That which is beautiful, if gained illicitly, can become real ugly, real fast.

Next: “The Raft.”

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