Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "West of Mars" (November 30, 1966)

In “West of Mars,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) is mistaken for the “super swift” interstellar gunslinger Zeno (also Jonathan Harris) by a space enforcement officer, Claudio (Allan Melvin).

While Zeno masquerades as Smith on the Robinsons’ planet, Smith and Will are transported by jail-spaceship to the criminal’s home world. There, Smith -- as Zeno -- must overcome a challenge by another swift.

Meanwhile, the Robinsons begin to suspect that the man in their midst isn’t Dr. Smith at all, but an impostor.

Although reputedly one of Jonathan Harris’s favorite episodes, “West of Mars” is merely more evidence of Lost in Space’s (1965-1968) atrocious transition from attempt at real space adventure/sci-fi to campy, Batman-like fantasy comedy.

First, the production values stink.  We get a studio-bound planet set in which only parts of the store fronts have been built (think Star Trek’s: “Spectre of the Gun,” though at least in that story there was dramatic motivation for the threadbare sets.)

Here, we get a spaceship that is a traveling jail cell. 

Here, we see Smith and Will (Bill Mumy) ride around on stuffed animal transportation systems (a giraffe and a tiger, respectively).

The episode also relentlessly re-cycles story ideas. Another episode “His Majesty Smith,” similarly contends with a Smith double (the kindly “Daddy Zack,”) and a case of mistaken identity.

Continuity is again a stumbling block too.  For example, the Robot notes in this episode that he has “been programmed with the galactic legal code.”  Really?  By whom?  When? 

It is actually logical that this might have occurred in the episode “The Prisoners of Space,” but no such background or context is provided. 

In fact, the Robot’s behavior is entirely baffling in this episode, since he doesn’t protect the Robinsons from the criminal (Zeno) in the family’s camp.  Would he really be bullied by a western-style fire-arm?

Also, the Robot states that Dr. Smith never carries a weapon, apparently having forgotten the events of stories such as “The Sky is Falling,” wherein Smith is clearly depicted as carrying a gun.

I guess the big question about a story like “West of Mars” is, simply: does it entertain?  Does it work as what it is (a silly fantasy romp), not as what it isn’t (a decent hour of science fiction TV).

Well, in a sense, yes, the episode entertains.  Harris delivers a strong performance as Zeno, a character quite unlike Smith. The role is devoid of Smith’s affectations, and is quite different from what we usually see from Harris. At some points, we see only his eyes (under his cowboy hat), and Harris actually looks malevolent.

Beyond that, however, “West of Mars” doesn’t hold up.

Why can’t the space enforcer (who wears a space suit from Destination Moon [1950]), determine which being is Zeno, and which is Smith?

They may look identical, but they don’t have identical DNA, one must assume.  If the enforcer comes from an advanced culture, technologically-speaking, why can’t he run a blood test, a DNA pattern check, a brain-wave scan, or even run fingerprints to get at the truth?

On a pure logical basis, then, the story fails.

Secondly, Smith and Will return to the Robinsons’ planet in the stolen jail spaceship. 

What becomes of that ship after their return? 

How can Will fly it, almost instantly? 

Why doesn’t Smith ask Will to drop him off on Earth on the return trip to the Robinsons? 

For that matter, why doesn’t Will gather his family, and bring it back to Earth, or take them to Alpha Centauri?

Watching an episode like this, I’m just left thinking “the pain…the pain.”

Next episode: “A Visit to Hades”


  1. You know sadly there are more klunkers than not past Season One.
    Nostalgia and charm can only take you so far.

    You're write up, yet again, is precisely the reason why I am finding it difficult to upgrade my DVD set to Blu-Ray as good as it might look.

    I am waiting for a major price drop... if ever, but based on the VHS and DVD purchases, I'm really on standby. In fact, seeing those prices I keep hearing Robot... danger, danger!

  2. Good review of this frustrating episode. At least on Gilligan's Island the castaways priority is always rescue, albeit, like Dr. Smith, Gilligan always hampers it.


  3. Anonymous7:02 PM

    This episode is memorable, but not in the intended way. In high school, this ep became sort of infamous to my friends as a "so bad, it' s good". Particularly ridiculous is the 'suspenseful' scene where Smith and Will have difficulty starting up their stuffed-animals while being pursued. A few years back, one of my friends suggested that those stuffed animals must have been the inspiration for the "Zoo Animals on Wheels" episode on FOX's GET A LIFE! In that, Chris Elliot's character complains to his dad that he's not enjoying a play with stuffed-animals on wheels.The dad responds "You're not supposed to enjoy it: it's art!" Maybe the FOX comedy found those animals on wheels left over in a prop room.

    Maybe, it's best to consider this episode as "ART"...we're not supposed to enjoy it.

  4. Next weeks episode is actually worse ....