As a kid, it takes so very little to make an ordinary day a GREAT DAY! For me, it was riding forever on my bicycle, corn dogs for supper, new comics on the rack at the pharmacy, and an afternoon episode of Lost in Space.
Lost in Space (LIS) was a TV series that aired for three seasons ... September 15, 1965, to March 6, 1968 ... on CBS. For 83 hour-long episodes, viewers shared the sci-fi adventures of the Robinson family, a hardy group of Earthers attempting to reach a habitable planet circling the nearby star Alpha Centauri. The back story was that in the launch year of 1997, the overpopulated Earth was in crisis and there was a new space race to colonize other worlds. After discovering habitable worlds nearby, the Robinson family was selected from more than 2 million volunteers to embark on the first U.S. deep space exploratory mission.
Leading the project is Professor John Robinson (played by Guy Williams), an astrophysicist and pilot with additional training in applied planetary geology. Accompanying this adventurer is his family: wife Maureen (brought to life by June Lockhart of Lassie fame), a degree-holding medical doctor and biochemist; daughter Judy (played by Marta Kristen), a 19-year-old beauty and budding musical theatre performer; daughter Penny (enacted by Angela Cartwright), an innocent 11-year-old who loves animals, enjoys classical music, and sees life as a fairy tale; and son Will (portrayed by Bill Mumy), a 9-year-old prodigy in electronics and robotics. Rounding out the crew is U.S. Space Corp Major Donald West (played by Mark Goddard), a no-nonsense pilot who brings a practical military presence to the exploration team.In the pilot episode, the Robinson family is safely launched into space in their silver, saucer-shaped spaceship called the Jupiter II. But as I mentioned, in the series there were many foreign powers that did not want the U.S. mission to succeed. Enter Dr. Zachary Smith (beautifully portrayed by veteran actor Jonathan Harris), a doctor of intergalactic environmental psychology, an expert in cybernetics, and secretly an enemy agent for a mysterious foreign government.
Smith sneaks aboard the Jupiter II prior to launch and sabotages a critical piece of equipment, the Class M-3 Model B9, General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot (performed by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld). He reprograms it to awaken after so many hours to destroy the ship’s navigation controls and to kill the Robinson family and Major West who are “asleep” in suspended animation capsules. The plan is perfect except that Smith becomes trapped aboard the Jupiter II. His extra weight throws the ship off course and into a meteor shower. Smith manages to revive the family but forgets about the Robot. The mechanical man awakens and in a heated battle, the ship is damaged and left “lost in space.”
LIS was created and produced by Irwin Allen, an Oscar winner known as the “Master of Disaster” for his producing and directing credits on The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and The Swarm. In 1961, Allen had critical success with the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In 1964, he turned the movie into a blockbuster TV series. LIS was intended as an outer space version of the classic Swiss Family Robinson, mixing the pioneering spirit with key fantasy elements and flashy special effects.
Allen followed LIS with equally-successful series like the more cerebral The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). In the ‘60s, Irwin Allen was known in the industry as the most successful science fiction producer of the decade.
As I mentioned previosuly, the show ran for three seasons but wasn't picked up by CBS for a fourth. In the ratings, LIS was fairly successful, with the show ending its third season in 33nd place. That SHOULD have made it a "keeper." Most television historians believe that LIS was cancelled because of budget considerations. The show was expensive to make with lots of special effects, visiting guest stars, and tricky lighting and camera set-ups. Episodes during Season Three of Lost In Space averaged $165,000 ... an incredible amount in the day. Additionally, the interior set of the Jupiter II was the most expensive set for its time ... around $350,000 ... and was costly to maintain.
Some insiders familiar with CBS programming at the time remember that 20th Century Fox Television (responsible for filming the series) was recovering from huge budget overruns from the mega-epic Cleopatra. Budgets on other TV and movie projects were being slashed right and left to balance the books. This only made the production of LIS more problematic.
And on a completely separate front, actors June Lockhart and Guy Williams had lost interest in the series, Williams in particular because of the increased campiness and focus on the “Dr. Smith” character.
But even though the LIS set went dark, the concept stayed alive and strong. A series of novelizations were printed and well-received. A cartoon version was attempted. An LIS comic series scripted by Bill Mumy was extremely successful. In 2003, the WB shot the pilot for a new LIS series, with some major changes like no Dr. Smith, an additional son named David, and a very high-strung, mysterious, and downright dangerous Major West character. The series was not picked up.
And in 1998, New Line Cinema produced a Lost in Space feature film. The plot was similar but more grim … Earth was decades away from being unable to support life so the mission of the Robinson family was of global importance. The special effects in this movie were truly awesome, the Jupiter II was redesigned and streamlined, and the primary roles were given to some amazing actors such as William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, and Gary Oldman. And in honor of the inspiring series, several original cast members made brief cameo appearances.
Oh, and by the way, at the time that CBS was deliberating over Allen’s spec show … originally titled “Space Family Robinson” … CBS execs were also looking at a second sci-fi possibility on which they passed … Star Trek!
Upmost for me was just the adventure. The Robinsons faced perils both planetside and flying through the cosmos. They encountered monsters, energy barriers, dangerous space stations, maniacal robots, and the very earthy dilemmas of just maintaining food, water, and shelter. Also, always underlying everything was the high drama of the “Dr. Smith” character. He was evil. He intended on killing the entire crew and almost succeeded. And throughout 83 episodes, his laziness and self-centered drive to return to Earth puts the Jupiter II and its crew in constant danger. So why, even as a little kid, did I like this guy? Why was I always hoping he’d do the right thing? And why was his silliness actually funny and charming?
And there were tons of other elements to add drama. During the first two seasons, each episode ended in a live-action freeze frame with the cliff-hanger announcement "To be continued Next Week! Same Time-Same Channel!" For me, in re-runs, “next week” was the next day. I can’t imagine how nuts a kid must have been watching the original airings. A week was like an eternity!! Seasons Two and Three sported high energy opening credits ... I can still close my eyes and picture the groove "countdown" sequence. And throughout the series, most of the music was composed and directed by famous composer John Williamsand other talented contemporaries.
A second and more subtle point of attraction to LIS for me was the campy undertones. Although the show utilized great effects and wonderful props, the writers and directors still employed these unbelievable themes that just made the show so enjoyable. One whole show revolved around a villainous talking carrot. Another told the story of Penny being sucked into the craziness of an intergalactic beauty pageant. There were pirates, space hippies, a humorous Scotish ghost with gout, cowboys, carnival workers, junk dealers, a race of tiny robots, and more. Maybe these “juvenile” elements are what made the show exciting for viewers 6 to 60.
Also, during its second season, LIS went timeslot neck-and-neck with “Batman,” one of the biggest TV phenomena of its time. Batman was well known for its level of camp, so perhaps LIS had to evolve to compete.
I also dug Lost in Space because of all the gadgets. There were laser guns and pistols, a cool force field generator for defense, an amphibious solar-powered vehicle codenamed the Chariot, a Space Pod (modeled after the Apollo Lunar Module) that flew between the orbiting ship and the surface of planets, and a jet pack for planetary exploration.
The Jupiter II itself was a mighty gadget. The ship was nuclear-powered, generated an artificial gravity field, and had two decks. The “upstairs” housed the flight deck with guidance controls, environmental controls, the central communications equipment, the primary hatch, the huge rotating “astrogator,” the small armory alcove, and the cryogenic tubes. The “downstairs” contained the hidden “atomic motors” (which we did get to see in one very eerie episode where people were disappearing called “The Space Creature”), living quarters, laboratory and research facilities, a galley, and a repair/maintenance berth for The Robot. The Jupiter II also had many Jetson-esque qualities. Meals were programmed into a computer and came rumbling out on a conveyor belt in seconds. The dishes were cleaned and sanitized just as quickly, while “auto-matic laundry” units cleaned, folded, and packed fresh clothing in plastic bags with equal speed. During emergencies, there was a dispensary unit that provided reflective mylar blankets, spare parts, emergency “protein pills,” and medical supplies.
But what enchanted "young me" the most about the ship was how the decks were connected by both an inset ladder and the coolest open-air elevator I had ever seen. My family had a two-story home, I thought. Where was our elevator? I want an elevator and I want it now!
The most incredible piece of equipment on LIS though, by far, was The Robot. This character probably developed the most during the series, transforming from a cold, heartless machine to a valued crew member with seemingly human emotions. He laughed and cried, displayed a sense of humor, sang and played the guitar, and generally cared for the Robinson family he was duty-bound to protect. On the more practical side, he was extremely strong, possessed an incredibly sophisticated system of scanners and sensors, could translate alien languages, was able to discharge powerful electrostatic blasts from his claws and emit defensive smoke screens, and could run a number of air, soil, and other analytical tests. And in the episode “Trip Through the Robot,” we actually got to travel through the Robot’s “guts” … it was AWESOME!!
There were a few minor points of interest also. During the first season, Penny adopts a chimpanzee-like alien as a pet. She names the creature “Debbie,” but it is often referred to as “Bloop” because of the only sound it can make. Secondly, the set designers and Irwin Allen himself were well known for being “frugal” with set dressings and costumes. Monstrous aliens from one episode would appear several episodes later but with a bright new paint job and the addition of horns or antennae. Or a one scene of the Jupiter II taking off from the surface of a planet was reused dozens of times. Heck, some of the effects from LIS were literally spliced into the film of Allen’s other series in later years. It was kind of a game to me to spot the “recycling” that went on.
But … as with most things in life … there was a major plot point that I just couldn’t grasp. Even today, when channels like BBC America or Syfy air LIS re-runs, I just can’t grasp the reasoning. Why … WHY … did handsome and learned Professor John Robinson take his family with him? What a drag! He and Don West could have been partying across the heavens. Maybe it's because I have a selfish nature and wouldn't want to share the adventure. Or maybe it's because I had an aloof older brother off in his own adult world, another older brother who thought science fiction was “stupid,” and an older sister who “accidentally” caused me grievous bodily harm from time to time. What good would they be against a talking carrot or a crafty merchant who sold chunks of time? What good, indeed!
POINT OF RANT: "Danger ... Danger, Will Robinson!" ... you should have fought harder to be in the movie version.