Lost in “Lost In Space”

Can Netflix manage to do the whole nostalga-meets-new-technology thing?

[NB – This article was written after the first season had been released, but prior to the subsequent ones]

So here we go with another reboot. History (and by history I mean, “the last fifteen or so years” for the most part) is littered with the corpses of failed reboots. For every successful attempt to drag some forgotten franchise into the twenty-first century (Battlestar Galactica, say, or Doctor Who) there’s a dozen more that fell by the wayside, as forgotten as the shows they tried to resurrect. Hokey old 60’s and 70’s sci-fi shows come with a built-in fanbase – not always very large, but often very dedicated – so it’s not exactly difficult to work out why producers might think old franchises might be worth taking a gamble on. Why bet on something new and completely unknown when you can dredge something up from the past which, even if it won’t bring in huge numbers, will at least bring some?

Plus, there’s the cultural caché as well – even if you’re not a fan of the series being dragged kicking and screaming (kicking and streaming?) back to life, simply recognising the title might be enough to get you to idly click on something to check it out or, perhaps more pertinently, idly pay a subscription. Or not. The Bionic Woman sank without trace. The Tomorrow People got a very expensive glossy reboot that made it look exactly like every other expensive glossy reboot and achieved absolutely nothing. made it to twenty-two episodes, which isn’t bad for a failed reboot, but it’s still a failed reboot all the same. Anyone remember that there was a Minority Report TV show? Anyone? And, bringing us full circle, there’s Lost In Space, itself the subject of a 1998 movie that entirely failed to launch either a long-running franchise or Matt LeBlanc’s big screen career. Oh, and there was also an attempt to reboot the series in 2003 on TV as well, directed by John Woo of all people. So this is the third go-around for Lost In Space since it went off the air in 1968 – can Netflix do any better with the material?

Um. I mean, you certainly couldn’t call it a disaster, it’s absolutely not that. But this show also seems almost aggressively determined not to learn from the mistakes of the past. Part of the problem with the Netflix version is that it makes quite a few of the same decisions that the 1998 movie did, and to similar results. Casting Gary Oldman as Dr Smith was an inspired idea – indeed he’s the best thing about the movie – and the TV series gets Smith right again, nailing the casting with a genuinely outstanding Parker Posey. She, like Oldman, is a non-obvious-but-definitely-right choice and both are also effortlessly the best thing in their respective versions. Posey plays the duplicitous side of Smith perfectly, encapsulating the will to do anything to survive alongside the fact that, buried underneath all the layers of bitter cynicism, there really is a decent person struggling to get out, even if that person doesn’t get out very often. Posey’s version of Smith is constantly underplayed rather than – as with both Oldman and original-flavour Jonathan Harris – overplayed, which gives her a broader palette of emotions to work with and allows her to suggest a lot more going on under the surface than a screeching loon ever could. This is perhaps taken a little too far sometimes – a bit more screeching and screaming as Smith finds herself impotently locked inside the central hub of the Jupiter in the final episode might have helped connect the character a little more to the original, but still, Posey is more than capable of making up the difference and her casting is an absolute triumph.

Would that the same could be said for the rest of the cast, because one of the other things that this version shares with the 1998 movie is an incredibly bland John Robinson. In the movie this was William Hurt, a quality actor noticeably too good for the material he’s been given to work with, and completely swamped out by Oldman’s mugging and a glut of late-90’s CGI. In the TV version we have Toby Stevens, an actor who’s been in everything from James Bond to The Great Gatsby and Law And Order: UK. Yet despite a wide-ranging acting background, and as with Hurt, Stevens barely registers as a presence here. His story is the blandest absent-father-redemptive-arc imaginable, and he’s either not a good enough actor or not invested enough in the material to raise it above its completely rote nature. His home-from-the-war and disappointed-the-kids story could have been lifted from just about any Lifetime movie-of-the-week, and having it set on an alien planet instead of some picket-fenced strip of suburbia does not make it any more compelling. Surely it must have been possible for someone to watch the last failed attempt to get Lost In Space off the ground and think, “well, maybe we shouldn’t do that?” Yet apparently not.

Still one thing that’s definitely different in the Netflix version is the focus. The 1998 movie put the character of Don West front and centre and rested its success or lack thereof on the variable charms of LeBlanc so that everything, even Dr Smith’s bonkers plan, orbited around him. That didn’t work – not entirely LeBlanc’s fault – but here we have a much broader scope which means the show makes a genuine effort to give all the characters their own moments in the spotlight, and splits its time relatively evenly between the Robinson kids as well as the adults to try and give them some kind of scope and definition. The success of this is somewhat inconsistent.

Will Robinson – always one of the three key characters from the original series, alongside the robot and Dr Smith – is played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Maxwell Jenkins, a classic mop-top little moppet. He does generally very well with the role, but the part itself is a little… well, not under-developed exactly, but as with his on-screen father, the role itself is somewhat rote. He gets some general excitement about being in space, then the cool factor of having his own personal robot, before having his heart broken as he’s forced to get rid of said robot (and a last-episode redemption as the robot saves everyone. Hurrah!). Though all of this Jenkins does what’s asked of him, and he’s good at it, but the problem is that what’s asked of him is kind of predictable, even although it didn’t have to be.

Because this version of Lost In Space flirts with a genuinely compelling idea in Will – the idea that of all the Robinson’s Will was the one who was a failure and it’s his mother that had to bend/break the rules to get him to come on the mission in the first place. That’s a really interesting subversion of the standard sci-fi trope of the child genius and has some real potential to generate emotional friction and drama. Yet “flirts with” is all the series seems prepared to do with it – the whole concept is sold out by the end of the season, with Will spontaneously realising the fact that he failed the qualification tests for the mission for no apparent reason, having next to no reaction to this fact, then getting to save the day by taking a spacewalk to manually crank shut the Jupiter‘s outer hatch (and, as ever, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the spaceship designers to put a crank on the inside of the ship, presumably because they realise your ship might need a last-minute dangerous spacewalk, should your series be flagging somewhat). The fact that he failed the test contributes nothing to his character – oh sure, it gives Maureen Robinson the chance to look a bit angsty from time to time, but that’s not enough to make this strand work, because there’s next to no impact on Will, and that’s where the drama should rest. It’s a wasted opportunity.

For the rest of the kids… well, we have a good example of what a difference casting can make. Penny Robinson and Judy Robinson get about the same amount of screen-time, but somewhat different storylines – Penny (as the youngest sister) gets to flirt with a local boy and generally be a bit rebellious, and Judy (as the oldest sister) tries to live up to expectations of her as she takes on responsibility of being a doctor. Penny is terrific and simply great fun to be around, even though she’s stuck in basic-teen-romance mode for a good half of her screen-time. The success of Penny is almost entirely down to Mina Sundwall, who does what most of the rest of the cast conspicuously fail at – she’s able to raise the material substantially.  By turning in a charming, plucky performance that allows you to invest in the character she’s able to breathe life into the lines in a way the majority of the rest of the regulars struggle with. She’s just straightforwardly fun to watch, whether teasing her would-be paramour about his terrible poetry or engaging in very minor acts of teenage rebellion, but she’s also able to land the slightly more emotional side as well, as when comforting Will and helping him to build a little model of the robot. There’s a nuance to the performance she’s delivering, in other words, and that makes the character come to life.

Whereas Judy… Well. Taylor Russel just can’t manage the same feat. She’s not bad in the role, but again her character arc (if that’s the right term, and I’m not really sure that it is) feels completely standard and paint-by-numbers, so Judy really requires an actor who’s able to lift the material. Early on she gets to experience a trauma (being trapped under ice and certain she was going to die), recover from that, and then try to become the doctor she’s trained to be. There’s certainly the rudiments of a character arc there, but unfortunately rudiments is all Russel gets to work with. She even gets the old cliché of a doctor losing her very first patient, and though it’s one of her stronger moments (and to be clear, she is good in that moment) it’s still a boilerplate character beat from the Big Book Of TV Medical Procedurals. The best you could say about the scene is that at least the Ginger Boy she loses (I’m sure he had a name but the show is noticeably bad at landing character names for anyone whose surname isn’t “Robinson”) was introduced a few episodes earlier so he’s not a complete redshirt. It’s hard to blame her for not being able to lift such obvious material, but it becomes more of a problem when you see how apparently-effortlessly Sundwell is able to do just that with what she’s been given.

You know, this is starting to sound like the show has no virtues, and that’s not true. One thing that marks this version out as different, and in stark contrast to previous iterations, is that it doesn’t use “lost” as a synonym for “alone”, which means alongside the Robinsons, Don and Dr Smith we also have a handful of other survivors from the accident that flung the Resolute and all its attendant Jupiter‘s across space. That gives our core characters the chance to interact with other people, and broadly speaking this is a good thing. Victor Dahr gets to do the someone-in-authority role and gives John and Maureen Robinson something more concrete than a dangerous environment to kick back against. His son, Vijay, provides the romantic interest for Penny (played with gawky teenage over-sincerity really rather well by Ajay Friese in a relatively minor role), which helps to flesh out her character. None of the non-regular characters are really crucial as such, but they all help with the world-building, contributing little dribs and drabs of information or letting us see little extra corners of the world that would otherwise only be communicated via flashbacks or exposition.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa also adds some important additional scope, allowing us to see that the Resolute is a properly international affair, rather than just a collection of pretty people from North America/Europe. References to his Japanese background aren’t exactly subtle, but we should at least be grateful that the time and care has been taken to have him there at all – in this kind of genre fiction, that’s absolutely not a given. And at least he’s not just being delineated by a love of bonsai trees or sushi or something, so the most obvious Japanese signifiers are being avoided while still having the character come from a non-North American background. That’s something deserving of praise, as is a cast which isn’t uniformly white – the fact that Judy is played by someone of African-American descent when the rest of the Robinsons are all white is excellent, a plot point that could have done with expanding on (though there’s time for that in later seasons).

There’s some good design work on display here too – the Jupiter ships are close enough to the 60’s version to remain easily identifiable (and nicely retro-futurist) but updated enough that they don’t look completely ridiculous in a modern-day show. There’s obvious thought been put in to the nature of the ships and what they can and cannot do, so there’s a proper logic to the fuel problems they face when trying to escape the planet or the kind of abuse they can and cannot take during take-off. It’s attention to detail that goes well beyond what’s required – because “what’s required” is basically that the Jupiter gets the family from plot to plot – and indeed what the craft(s) are capable of becomes intrinsic to the story, adding a much-needed dash of believability.

And of course, if we’re speaking about design, then we simply have to mention the robot. Actually, it’s a bit odd to have gotten this far through covering Lost In Space and having not really mentioned the robot yet, but in truth the robot here is a relatively minor part of the proceedings and a long, long way from the central position the robot occupied in the original. Here, the robot is, first and foremost, a lurking presence around the edges of the story, but it’s also essentially a plot device – it provides a surrogate father for Will to bond with, gives Will that first loss of innocence, and provides a mystery for Dr Smith and Maureen to bond over. But beyond that, the robot doesn’t actually contribute a huge amount – again, that’s not necessarily a problem yet because future seasons (and given the amount of money Netflix seem to have spent on this, is seems all-but-certain there will be future seasons) will have time to explore the nature of the robot more thoroughly.

And we are given enough intriguing hints to keep the audience guessing – the fact that it’s responsible for the attack on the Resolute in response to humanity stealing the engine that allows them to travel the stars sets up a potentially interesting back-story and helps to give detail and shading to the robot that makes him more than just a comedy sidekick or get-out-of-jail-free card. And in purely design terms, he’s excellent – not remotely like the original, of course, but the scalloped armour looks like it means business, the extra height afforded it makes it look genuinely alien, and of course there’s the blank, inscrutable face full of stars. That’s the real triumph of the design, an empty face devoid of recognisable features yet still capable of projecting… something. Excellent work, design people! 

The biggest problem the reboot of Lost In Space has, though, is it’s drama, which is to say that there really isn’t very much of it. It’s a problem that a lot of Netflix shows have, in that they’re technically competent but never quite manage to engage on an emotional level – slick but rather soulless. Much of Lost In Space, especially in the early episodes, feels more like a tick-box list of what drama does rather than there actually being any drama, and it’s by far and away the biggest issue the first season suffers from. The first two episodes are outright dull, which is a bit of a problem if you expect your audience to stick around for the remaining eight in the hopes that things might get a bit more interesting.

In among all the crashing-on-a-new-planet material, the show uses flashbacks to flesh out some of the details of both the Robinson’s life and what’s going on back on Earth to fill in gaps that would otherwise require exposition or more linear scripting. Which, fine, works well in the short-term, though the technique gets over-used and actively starts to get in the way of what’s happening. It’s hard to build tension or momentum if you keep cutting away to back-story that could be dealt with at a better time. Things do pick up as the season progresses, and there’s a few moments in the final three episodes that even manage to nudge up to “compelling”, but it can be a bit of a slog to get there.

Part of the issue is the direction, which is incredibly flat and unengaging. Again, it’s technically sufficient – it’s not like cameras are smashing into things – but it does absolutely nothing to enhance what’s actually on the page. It’s just point and click. That leaves everything feeling very flat and same-y, and tends to mean that all the scenes get pitched at exactly the same emotional and narrative level, so a life-and-death hurtle across a plain of lethal geysers has the same cadence as a quiet emotional scene of sibling bonding between Will and Penny. That doesn’t give the audience a lot of space to react, and still less to care.

As mentioned, the show does eventually start to figure out how to do this, and it starts to show the roots of a much smarter show when, for example, episode eight ends with the apparent death of John and Don and episode nine doesn’t include them at all, before they’re reintroduced in episode ten. Of course, there’s zero chance that John and Don are actually going to die, so the question becomes not whether they survive but how they survive, but the show is intelligent enough to hold off on the details of that for it to actually become a compelling question, while at the same time giving the family the opportunity to react to what they think has happened. That’s smarter storytelling than we get in the first half of the season and suggests that the show is figuring out how things work and why (though this is pretty basic stuff it ought to be able to do out the gate) and augers well for the future.

Oh, and there is one more thing this version of Lost In Space is missing, and it’s perhaps the oddest omission of all – there’s almost no humour here. That’s… a strange choice, to say the least. One of the pleasures of the original show, and one of the basic things even the 1998 movie managed to get right, is that this is supposed to be a fun world of adventures, not a dour, self-serious trip where every turn might kill you. There’s precious little sense of wonder here – just a grim sense that survival is all that matters. And fine, obviously it does matter, but isn’t this meant to be an action-adventure show? Shouldn’t there be some action? And… adventure? The odd moments when there is a sense of wonder just highlight it all the more when it’s missing – the fifth episode ends with a real sense of awe, as the colonists watch bioluminescent insects fly up into a huge sky filled with aurora borealis. It’s a beautiful shot, full of exactly that sense of the amazing the show so badly needs – a reason to comprehend that, while scary, there’s beauty and discovery in exploring space.

Yet it’s weirdly absent, and that absence is matched by the relative lack of humour. It’s easy to understand that the new version of the show doesn’t want to fall back into the camp of old, but the humour’s been stripped out along with the camp, and the sidelining of Don – hardly more than a supporting character rather than a core cast member – means that one of the characters who might actually inject a lighter note is denied the chance to do just that. And Penny – who does get the bulk of what little humour there is – is great at it! When she gets to to be funny it all comes alive! That’s what the show needs more of, not by-the-numbers family drama you’ve seen a hundred times before. And to be clear, the fact that there are very real threats here is great – that the environment here is treated as hostile – is a good thing. But there’s no sense of proportion, and it all gets taken too far and eventually becomes preposterous. We’re crashed! We’re trapped under ice! Our fuel’s being eaten by unconvincing CGI eels! EarthPlanetquakes! Tar Pits! For fuck’s sake, now there’s a black hole! And, uh, bat things! On and on it goes, never particularly building any sense of danger but simply providing one more perfunctory obstacle to overcome before they can just get off the damned planet already. Lost in that swirl of stuff is any sense of joy or fun. That’s a fatal omission.

So look, the truth is that this version of Lost In Space isn’t difficult to watch, and it’s put together with (just) enough skill to make the episodes go down relatively easily, but it’s impossible not to feel that there’s a real sense of something being missed here. This is a frustrating show to watch because in many ways it falls just short of being really terrific, but it does, nevertheless, still fall short. There’s not quite enough of the original show’s DNA here to engage old school fans, there’s not quite enough flash-bang-whizz to engage people looking for a bit of exciting adventure to pass the time on a Friday evening, and there’s not quite enough drama to engage people looking for a more serious look at exploring the perils of colonisation. All the basic ingredients are here, but they never quite come together to produce something that’s more than the sum of its parts. There’s no real bad performances, but only a couple of stand-outs (Posey, Sundwall). More than anything else, Lost In Space needs actual ideas, not faux simulacrums of family drama that are exactly the same as any family drama anywhere. The back half of the season is substantially better than the first half, but it’s still only “fine”, even as it gives hope for the second season.

Still, here’s a final thought to linger on – at the end of the final episode, after a Big Robot Fight, and getting within almost touching distance of the Resolute, something happens. The Jupiter 2 hurtles out of control, and emerges in an unknown location, alone and lost. In space. At last. It has, in essence, taken this show ten episodes just to get to the point where the original premise of the show is actually going to get used. Ten. Episodes. Maybe it’s a brave move, maybe it’s a foolish one, but it’s a lot to ask of your audience to spend nearly half a day watching a series that only gets to its own start point right at the very, very final moment of the last episode of its first season.

If that’s not a metaphor for the show, I don’t know what is.

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