Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lost in Space Day: "Return from Outer Space"

In “Return from Outer Space,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), the Robot, Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Bill Mumy) stumble across one of the Tauron teleportation devices (from the episode “The Sky is Falling”) the aliens left behind. 

Penny is accidentally transported to an unknown location, but the Robot is able to bring her back safely.

Though forbidden to go near the device by his parents, Will knows that the settlement has run short of a preservative necessary for its food supply, Carbon Tetrachloride, and therefore asks the Robot to send him to Earth to retrieve more. The Robot complies, and Will is transported to Earth, to Vermont and a town called Hatfield Four Corners.

There, in a wintry holiday landscape, Will meets a young boy and his mother, but they refuse to believe Will is who he claims to be.  

Once the Sheriff is involved, Will is scheduled to go to a home for Boys, but he only has a short time left to retrieve the Carbon Tetrachloride and get back to his matter-transmission point…

“Return from Outer Space” has tremendous potential to be a great episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1969), but ultimately doesn’t live up to that possibility.  The story sends Will home to Earth -- where he meets a boy his age -- and the youngest Robinson tries to convince the inhabitants of a quaint Earth town that he is Will Robinson, and that his family must be rescued.

Apparently because Will is just a child, he is ignored, and no rescue mission is launched. The adults of Hatfield Four Corners refuse to believe the story of the Robinsons because it is told by a child.  

Yet this doesn’t entirely make sense. We saw in “The Reluctant Stowaway” that the whole world was watching the broadcast of the Jupiter 2’s launch. 

The family was seen on TV…every personality involved (except for Smith). It is therefore a little difficult to believe that no one in the town would recognize Will on sight.  

It’s even more difficult to believe that no one would find a magazine photo or newspaper illustration that could prove Will is exactly whom he claims to be. His story is easily verifiable, even in a world without the Internet, given the global fame of his family

But fine, for the purpose of the story, let’s accept that no one will believe a child.  The subtext is that Will is not recognized as an intelligent, resourceful, indeed brilliant individual, because of his status as young.  That’s sort of the moral point.  

Will can’t accomplish his mission not because of any failings on his part, but because of a stereotype or bias of society-at-large.

Yet, on the planet, Will’s parents treat him exactly the same way. 

They refuse to understand his nature as a genius, and as someone who cares deeply for his family. He is forbidden to use the Tauron machine or even go near it. Basically, he’s as disbelieved, as written off, by the Robinsons as he is by the denizens of Vermont.

So the story really has no point.  Will can’t win. 

The tale would have been better and far more successful if it had contrasted the way the Robinsons treat Will with the way the Earth town does. The audience would then be afforded a comparison between frontier living – where all individuals are important – and Earth civilization, where resources are available, children are coddled (but dismissed), and there is no sense of danger.

That’s the story “Return from Outer Space” should have been. Instead, it becomes about action, not character. Will must escape from Vermont and get back to the alien planet with the Carbon Tetrachloride.  It becomes a matter of running around and “action” over any larger thematic point about Will specially, or the way society treats children, in general. So an opportunity is lost.  

This episode should be Will’s “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” in other words, but instead it just becomes another disposable story wherein a problem must be solved.

This is especially true, because Will doesn’t waver or show any sentimentality about Earth. He doesn’t demonstrate any deep desire to be a “regular” kid and play in the snow, or decorate a Christmas tree, or sleep in a house, in a real bed.  He is single-minded in pursuit of his mission, and so there isn’t even a kind of wistful “Will can’t be a regular boy” aspect to the episode, either.  He should be tempted, at some point, for the life he left behind. But his soul is not divided in this story.  He never expresses a desire for home, and for the life of an Earth kid.

“Return from Outer Space” also raises some key questions. 

How do the Robinsons know that the aliens who left behind the maser matter-transporter are known as Taurons?  

And how come Penny, when she uses it, returns with no memories, but Will returns with his memories intact?  

Perhaps more troubling than any of these ideas is the possibility not raised by the episode.

If the Robot can send Will to Earth, why can’t he send all the Robinsons to Earth, thus ending the series and bringing the mission to fruition?  

Okay, assume there isn’t enough power to send all the Robinsons back. Then why can’t the Robot report that he has enough power to send Penny and Will back to Earth?  

We have seen in episodes such as “Welcome Stranger” that John and Maureen are looking for any way for their children to be returned to Earth and safety, even if it means separating the family.  

Shouldn’t the Robot and Will report that the device is operational?

If you’re going to waste energy sending Will to Earth to retrieve Carbon Tetrachloride, why not use the same energy just to send him there permanently?  Or, send Judy, and – as an adult – have her instigate a rescue mission?

In short “Return from Outer Space” doesn’t hold up at all.  

There is no consistency or logic to the story. The only possible reason for such a story, in my opinion, would be to explore Will’s character.  How does he feel, always dismissed, despite his intellect…just because of his age?  

What would it be like to return to the creature comforts of Earth after so many months on Priplanus (the name of the Robinsons’ planet, as revealed in this episode)?

It would be easier to overlook the problems in logic, if “Return from Outer Space” focused on Will and his sort of crisis as a genius in the body of a little boy. Instead, this is just a puzzle box story, and that's disappointing.  It's a beloved episode, but a huge missed opportunity.

Next Week: “The Keeper, Part I.”

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