Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Attack of the Monster Plants" (December 15, 1965)

In “Attack of the Monster Plants,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) deliberately withholds help from Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) when he is attacked by carnivorous plants and dragged into quick sand.

Robinson survives the experience and angrily banishes Smith from the settlement camp…again.  But Smith tries to work his way back into the good graces of the family by offering to duplicate the very fuel the Jupiter 2 needs, called Deutronium.  

To do so, Smith uses a plant that he has discovered that can duplicate matter.  These plants, however, thrive on Deutronium, and want the fuel for themselves.

Before long, Judy (Marta Kristen) is replicated by the plants, and seeks to get her hands on the Robinsons’ remaining supply of the fuel…

“Attack of the Monster Plants” is a strange and sometimes entrancing episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968). The episode actually works best on a kind of surreal, dream level. The visuals are sometimes remarkable.  At the very least, they are memorable and strange. 

For example, Judy Robinson takes a night-time stroll through a grove of giant flowers, goes to sleep inside one, and then a plant duplicate -- mimicking her appearance in every way -- sleepwalks through the remainder of the episode.  

For some reason, the night-time stroll, the amorphous menace, and the sense of strangeness all reminded me of I Walked with a Zombie (1943).  

Also, there's a weird subtext here worth mentioning. Judy goes to sleep one night normal, but wakes up strange and "alien."  Don West tries to approach her, but she is unapproachable in the extreme, remote and monstrous.

There’s some weird Gothic undertone here, a kind of strange Rappaccini’ Daughter angle to the whole thing. Judy, like that literary character is a beautiful being, physically, but a monster in another sense, someone dangerous and not what she seems.  

Watching "Attack of the Monster Plants," I felt that the agreeable, happy Judy had been put to sleep, and that a subconscious Judy, one who questions everything (her feelings for Don; her acceptance, even, of the group's dinner ritual...) replaces her. That isn't exactly the substance of the story, but it is one possible interpretation or reading of it.

On a literal level, alas, the episode is no great shakes.  For instance, “Attack of the Monster Plants” never explains, at all, why Judy goes to the grove and falls asleep in the giant plant to begin with.  

She seems to be hypnotized or under the spell of some force.  But we never learn what that force is, or how it is influencing her. Do the cyclamen plants have telepathy?  Why is Judy drawn to the plant grove?

And then, adding insult to injury, in the last act, we never learn what becomes of the duplicate Judy.  

Do the Robinsons kill her, an intruder in their midst? 

Does she shrivel up and die, like the rest of the plants?  

This is a huge plot thread to leave hanging, but “Attack of the Monster Plants” provides no resolution.  How would Maureen react, seeing her daughter dry up and wither before her eyes?  Or, contrarily, how would John feel, having to take a laser to the interloper?

A chance to really explore the characters and their relationships is lost.

And yet, I can't lie, this lack of answers also adds, in some weird way, to the commendable dream-quality of the episode. Everything here is surreal and unexplained, like a nightmare half-remembered.

Even the cyclamen plants -- these giant, weird plants -- are dream-like. They make disturbing, inhuman sounds, and the thought of being surrounded by them (or enveloped by them, as Judy is…) is unnerving in the extreme.

Once more, Smith is handled poorly by series writers. Here, he has the opportunity to save John Robinson, but instead leaves him to die.  He then returns to camp, and instead of telling the others that John is danger, pretends that everything is okay.  This is evil, and unforgivable.  Smith actually goes and makes small-talk with Will (Bill Mumy) while Will’s father is dying!

Then, once Smith has discovered that the plants can duplicate matter, he blackmails the family.  He decides that only he and West (Mark Goddard) will return home to Earth, and that the Robinsons will be stranded.  Again, his actions are not shaded by nuance. There aren’t two ways to interpret his behavior.  He is selfish to the point that he would put his life above the lives of the Robinsons.

After the events of this episode, how can the Robinsons continue to trust him?

That’s a sentence I seem to keep rewriting, in these reviews, and it’s a legitimate concern. For example, this is the third episode out of fourteen in which Smith has been banished (“The Oasis” and “Wish Upon a Star” are the earlier instances) from the camp, but then ends up back in the group.

Clearly, banishment is not a suitable or lasting answer to the problem of Dr. Smith.  

I have my solution: stick Smith in the cryo-tube on the Jupiter 2and keep him frozen until the crew gets back to Earth safely. Even  if that takes fifty years.

Next week: “Return from Outer Space.”

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