Sunday, January 04, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Reluctant Stowaway" (September 15, 1965)

"This is the beginning. This is the day. You are watching the unfolding of one of history's great adventures. Man's colonization of space. Beyond the stars..."

With these portentous words, so begins Irwin Allen's 1965-1968 science fiction TV series, Lost in Space, fifty years old in 2015.

Visually, the episode "The Reluctant Stowaway" commences with a majestic camera sweep of an impressive LBJ-era mission control center populated by numerous technicians. 

Well, it's not LBJ era, technically, but rather an LBJ era imagining of how the future would likely look. Thus computers are gigantic, wall-sized machines with beeping gauges, reel-to-reel tapes, and blinking lights…lots of blinking lights.

The day is October 16, 1997, the viewer is informed, as Alpha Control is dominated by the hustle and bustle of expectant activity. A narrator with booming voice next informs us that the space program is in preparations to send a family into space, to a habitable planet in orbit of Alpha Centauri. 

The Robinsons have been selected for this particular mission out of 2.2 million prospective families. And their vessel, the "super spaceship" Jupiter 2 is seventy-five minutes from launch.

The Robinsons, the audience also learns, best fulfill three necessary criteria for explorers in the space age: scientific achievement, pioneer resourcefulness and emotional balance.

These qualities will hold the family in good stead for their 5.5 year journey (though most of the trip will be spent in suspended animation). 

Still, the future of the human race rests on this mission. With the "explosive increase of population" on Earth, the colonization of the stars is nothing less than an imperative. The President of the United States appears in the episode, shortly before launch, and delivers an address. He wonders about the future of Earth and humanity.  

Is this the beginning of a "dawn of plenty" or a planetary "disaster?"

The debut episode of Lost in Space also provides a splendid, highly-detailed tour of the unique craft carrying the Robinson family to the furthest reaches of space. 

The Jupiter 2 is not only a home away from home, we are told, but "the culmination of 40 years of intensive research" (at a cost of 30 billion dollars...); one which makes possible "man's thrust into deep space." 

This two-story craft accommodates state rooms for the crew, a galley, a control deck (with freezing tubes), a med bay and the powerful atomic motors.

One noteworthy piece of equipment on board the craft (to help the Robinsons conduct their mission) is an environmental control robot. The machine is designed for physical examinations of an alien world.

But unfortunately for the Robinsons, as "The Reluctant Stowaway" continues, we learn that someone else is (illicitly...) aboard the Jupiter 2, a foreign saboteur with the rank of colonel, a fella by the name of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris).

He has programmed the robot to -- at precisely "launch plus eight hours" -- destroy the vessel's inertial guidance system, radio transmitter and cabin pressure control system. 

What Smith doesn't realize is that he's the stowaway of the episode's title. He is trapped on board the ship during launch, and thus he will share in the Robinson family's fate.

Written by S. Bar David and directed by Tony Leader, "The Reluctant Stowaway" introduces television audiences to the main characters and central concepts of this space drama. As one might guess from the title of the series, the Jupiter 2's maiden flight will experience all sorts of difficulties and disasters, with the Robinsons and Smith hopelessly...
lost in the space.

The dramatis personae on Lost in Space also include Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams), the patriarch of the clan. He's a rock solid man's man, a geologist and space scientist perfectly suited to the colonization of space. 

His wife is Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart), a loving matriarchal-type who admits to some fear and misgivings about the mission. "I should say something light and clever," she notes as the journey begins, "I just can't."

Then there's Judy (Marta Kristen), the eldest Robinson daughter and a brilliant scientist in her own right. 

Adolescent and mischievous Penny (Angela Cartwright) and the little genius, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) round out the family. They are average American kids (of the space age...) and one charming scene in the episode reveals them playing in a weightless environment, care-free and innocent.

Piloting the ship is Mark Goddard's stolid Major Don West, who -- quite rightly, given his options -- sets his eyes on Judy. He notes in the episode that if the Robinsons wake up and find him driving the boat, they'll know they are in trouble.  That's actually precisely what occurs.

Shot in crisp shades of beautiful black-and-white, "The Reluctant Stowaway" chronicles the launch of Jupiter 2 and its subsequent "stranding" in deep space. 

With Smith aboard, there are 200 extra lbs. to account for, and the ship strays from its trajectory even before the robot breaks bad and fulfill its sabotaged programming.

In the course of the hour, a number of space hazards emerge, including an asteroid belt which pelts the Jupiter 2's hull. The robot goes on his destructive jag too, thus causing the ship to go further off course ("As of this moment, the spacecraft has left the limits of the galaxy," one character breathlessly intones). 

The episode ends on a cliffhanger note as John heads outside the ship for EVA repairs. His tether breaks...and he spins into the void, out-of-control. Maureen dons a space suit to rescue him, but time is running out.  

This is the only scene in the episode that seems to have aged in fifty years. It takes too long, moves too slowly, and the effects don't hold up. The remainder of the pilot episode is superlative, both well-written and exciting.

The sci-fi TV works of Irwin Allen concern an interesting conflict or tension. In series such as Lost in Space, Time Tunnel (1966), and Land of the Giants (1968 -1970), man is on the cusp of possessing great technology, but it fails him, or strands him in environments that are hostile.  

It is then up to resourceful man (and woman!) to eke out survival, rescue or escape. 

So it would be fair to state that Allen's works of art depict technological advances as tricky things. They make great journeys through time and space possible, but in the end, man must still make his own way.

Accordingly, Lost in Space -- at least in the first season -- is a sincere, straight-faced action-adventure, a transposition of the American Western genre; about the newest frontier and the pioneers required to tame deep space. It is, literally (as its source material suggests...), Space Family Robinson.

What I found most fascinating while watching "The Reluctant Stowaway" was the impressive (and apparently obsessive) attention to detail. The production values are superb.

Everything -- from the sets to the costumes and props to the miniatures -- appears absolutely beautiful and carefully devised and constructed.  The Jupiter 2 is a gorgeous set, for instance. And ultimately, the show is quite convincing from a mid-1960s perspective.

Have we outgrown it? Perhaps the melodramatic, humorless tone more than the technology, I'd say.  I still love the "retro" futuristic look of the Jupiter 2. I could easily imagine spending a long space voyage aboard that gorgeous ship.

The episode ends with that cliffhanger and the legend "To be continued next week. Same time, same channel." I found myself immediately wanting to find out what happened next. Truly, the only thing that marks this first incarnation of Lost in Space as silly or outdated is the opening credits sequence, which depicts a cartoon spaceship tugging in its wake a line of tethered, space suited astronauts. It seems frivolous for a series about a mankind's "greatest" adventure.

Another fact: Dr. Zachary Smith is one sinister cat at this juncture. He's not the buffoon he would become in later seasons. Instead, he is ultra-menacing and dark. He wants to kill the Robinsons. And he doesn't take that job lightly. He's not a bumbler...he's a killer. Not exactly a playful sort.  He uses every trick in the book in this episode to get Robinson to turn the boat around, back towards Earth. At one point, he even attempts to quarantine Will, claiming that the boy has a virus that will kill him if he returns to suspended animation.

Also, there's a legend that Smith was a minor character at first, and only later took center stage.  It's pretty clear in "Reluctant Stowaway" that Smith is the main character. He is the first primary character introduced, and we spend more time with him individually than with any other character. He is the prime motivator here, for certain.

As noted above, Lost in Space is a sci-fi series about a pioneer family pulling together in hard times, and it's good, adventurous fun. It may not be deep or kinky or adult or modern, but it is beautifully-shot and it conveys well the dangers and thrills of space travel in a way I haven't seen on any show in some time. There's a fairy tale aspect to many entries of the series, especially in the well-done first season. 

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the series, I'll be blogging Lost in Space all year, and I'm glad to start with the high-quality black-and-white episodes. The later seasons are pretty iffy in my book, but we'll see how I feel about them when I revisit them...

Next episode, Lost in Space episode 2: "The Derelict."


  1. John I absolutely agree with your thoughts here "...I could easily imagine spending a long space voyage aboard that gorgeous ship." I have been a fan of Lost In Space ever since I saw it in reruns on a local UHF station as a very young boy in the early '70s. I love the production design and sets of the Jupiter 2. Irwin Allen achieved greatness with these sets.


  2. John, I'm on board with you and your travels on the Jupiter 2! Lost In Space was my favorite show as a kid (I also discovered it in syndication on WGN in Chicago when I was growing up). One thing that strikes me even today is the imagination that went into the stories and the designs, particularly (as you mention) in the first season. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on each episode!


  3. I enjoy your look-backs, as usual, John. I loved Lost in Space as a kid. Local tv station CKVR ran these on Saturday mornings starting in September of 1970. The problem for me was that exactly seven years later the station ran them again... and I was by then a teenager; I was disappointed. It looked so cheap and 'old'. (The producers used surplus airforce equipment.) As a friend said to me a few years ago, after re-exploring the series again, it looked as though it were produced in the 1950s. But... I like the look of LIS very much -- there's a nice, tangible "Mercury Program" look. It suits the material, and while the Jupiter 2 is awfully claustrophobic it suits the theme of a flying family home.

    However, whatever: Those horrible scripts!

    A few years ago I revisited Lost in Space here and filed a report...

    I look forward to your future LIS reports, John. By the way, I think that "The Derelict" is very good. It's up there with Year 3's "The Antimatter Man".


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