Right off the bat, and without googling anything, what are my memories of the original Lost in Space?
Weekday teatimes on ITV… running around to a friend’s to make sure I didn’t miss a nanosecond… the flying saucer, an imposing robot, the space buggy and giant monsters. All the ingredients for a big, wholesome blast of out-of-this-world adventure.
In common with Doctor Who, the programme had good, solid cliffhangers – and therefore great reasons to tune in “same time, same channel” the following week.
There was Dr Zachary Smith, as played by Jonathan Harris. Sharp as a razor yet hilariously cowardly, Smith was riveting as both a villain and a hero (“Never fear, Smith is here!”), often in the same episode.
Plus a theme tune that was composed by John Williams – now a titan of the soundtrack world – and later replaced by him. Both versions were terrific – and instant earworms.
So yes, my recollections of Lost in Space are intact and vivid and suffused with the glow of childhood.
The show was the brainchild of disaster-and-sci-fi supremo Irwin Allen (The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, The Poseidon Adventure) and ran for three series and 84 episodes from 1965–8, though it was repeated on ITV well into the 70s.
A futuristic take on The Swiss Family Robinson, it focused on a clan of all-American astronauts, selected for a mission to a habitable planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Saboteur and spy Dr Smith got trapped on their ship, the Jupiter 2, which went wildly off course into outer space.
The opening titles tracked across the animated Robinsons, linked by an oxygen line, their space-suited figures suggesting something of the hierarchy and their individual personalities. The slightly comic nature of the credits hinted at the direction that the show would soon take, after a comparatively straight-as-a-die beginning.
In later years, of course, I saw just how ridiculous it became, with interstellar cowboys, a Space Circus and the like. My six-year-old eyes even filtered the spectacle of a walking, talking carrot as something you might conceivably stumble upon in the outer reaches of the cosmos. That episode – The Great Vegetable Rebellion – is the stuff of TV legend now. And not in a good way.
So you can understand why, in bringing back this fondly remembered show, the re-imagination brigade have dispensed with the original series bible.
The premise is alive and well, but this time the family is one of a number of future colonists sent out from Earth, who become separated from their mothership and who must pool their resources and talents on the distant planet on which they crash-land.
And it’s clear from the off that the intent is deadly serious. The breathless opener is a toppling Jenga tower of jeopardies, with hazards that will have far-reaching consequences.
Lost in Space has impressive hardware and effects, boasting eye-watering investment in costumes and props (the new buggy and reinvented Robot are awesome!). But the good news is that it’s not a hardware show. Each episode contains an emotional beat or two that are commendably underplayed and all the more affecting for it.
Which brings me to the cast, who are all excellent. Toby Stephens sounds like he’s been gargling with aggregate for the role of John Robinson – the putative mission commander with an intriguing, in-the-doghouse back story. While Ignacio Serricchio plays outsider Don West, a rough-diamond, Han Solo-ish smuggler.
But there’s no room for macho posturing here. The best characters are female: Molly Parker is fantastic as aerospace engineer Maureen Robinson, fiercely protective of her children, and sporting a Ripley-esque resourcefulness; Parker Posey looks like she’s in clover playing the 21st-century “Dr Smith” – vacillating, venomous and maniacally self-serving.
The most resonant of the early episodes are directed by women, too – Alice Troughton (Doctor Who, Atlantis, Merlin) and Deborah Chow, who’s worked on Mr Robot and Jessica Jones.
And the kids are all superb: Taylor Russell as earnest, traumatised Judy, Mina Sundwall as wise-ass Penny and Maxwell Jenkins as friendless Will, the youngest.
The Robinsons are not so much the nuclear family as the unclear family, given the mysteries as to why they are quite so dysfunctional. The flashbacks are used sparingly but intelligently, shedding light on the familial tensions, the pre-launch political climate on Earth and the like. These reveal that not all of those sent out into space should actually be there…
Perhaps in an effort to please the crowds there are early nods to Star Wars (explosive action in space, a hair-raising flight through a collapsing glacier) and Alien (creepy monsters lurking in the bowels of the spaceship). Subsequent stories have elements of Jurassic Park and The Iron Giant, even a feel of the 1998 movie of Lost in Space, which was never as bad as it was painted – any film featuring Jared Harris can’t be all bad.
But the new Lost in Space is best when it’s being itself. The grace notes, the moments of bonding and the subtle, socially conscious subtext all create a strong identity, and a persuasive voice.
Pitched somewhere around the 12-certificate mark, it’s a drama about a family and aimed squarely at a family audience – and there aren’t so many of those around today.
Reboots don’t always work: for every Battlestar Galactica there’s a Bionic Woman. And while Lost in Space may not reach the giddy heights of the former, it at least shares that same desire to totally, exhilaratingly reinvent.
So apart from the title, what does a camp and glittery sci-fi with a hippy vibe have in common with an edgy and expensive millennial drama?
Well, it’s that same spirit of adventure. And, of course, the ever-lurking element of “Danger, Will Robinson!” That sense of “anything can happen” and the importance of family sticking together.
Though I do rather miss the old Dr Smith wilting at the first sign of discomfort. “Oh, the pain, the pain!”
But I definitely don’t miss the talking carrot.
Lost in Space season one is released on Netflix on Friday 13th April