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Wayback Machine: Lost in Space

Monday, January 10, 2011 - 15:31

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“Oh, the pain … the pain!”

That familiar expletive of Jupiter II stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) upon being asked by the Space Family Robinsons or Major Don West (Mark Goddard) to do anything was exactly my reaction when Lost in Space, one of my favorite boyhood sci-fi series, was cancelled in 1968.

How could they take the Robot away from me each and every week?!!

For those who do not know the series, let me admit that, like other Irwin Allen TV productions of the time, the program started off in a rather series vein and later became, well , cornball. But like the 1960s version of Batman, it was quite entertaining … especially for kids. 

To give an example of Season One vs. Seasons 2 and 3, Dr. Smith was originally an utterly evil would-be killer who by Season 2 had progressed into a sympathetic anti-hero, providing comic relief to the TV show (and causing most of the episodic problems). The trio of Smith, the Robot (performed by Bob May, dubbed voice of Dick Tufeld) and young brainiac Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) provided most of the show’s memorable moments.

The TV series is, of course, an adaptation of the novel The Swiss Family Robinsons. The astronaut family of Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams of Zorro fame), accompanied by an air force pilot and also a robot, set out from an overpopulated Earth in the spaceship Jupiter II to visit a planet circling the star Alpha Centauri with hopes of colonizing it. Their mission in 1997 (the official launch date of the Jupiter II was October 16, 1997) is immediately sabotaged by Smith, who slips aboard their spaceship and reprograms the robot to destroy the ship and crew. Smith is trapped aboard, saving himself by prematurely reviving the crew from suspended animation. They save the ship, but consequent damage leaves them … lost in space!

Eventually they crash on an alien world, later identified as Priplanis, where they must survive a host of adventures. Smith (whom, interestingly enough, Allen originally intended to kill off) remains through the series as a source of comedic cowardice and villainy, exploiting the forgiving (or forgetful) nature of the Robinsons.

At the start of the second season, the repaired Jupiter II launches again, but after two episodes the Robinsons crash on another planet and spend the season there. This replicated the feel of the first season, although by this time the focus of the series was more on humor than straight action/adventure. A second stowaway – although probably not voluntary – was a pet of Penny’s (Angela Cartwright) from Priplanis, Debbie the Bloop! (If you were not going around the playground the next day after Lost in Space going “Bloop! Bloop!” you were not in the cool crowd.)

In the third season, the Robinson Family wasn't restricted to one world. The now-mobile (thank God!) Jupiter II would travel to other worlds in an attempt to return to Earth or to settle on Alpha Centauri. The Space Pod (very cool, came out the underbelly of the ship) was added as a means of transportation between the ship and planets. This season had a dramatically different opening credits sequence, as I recall, with much better music.

If anything can be fondly remembered from this series besides its first great season, the Smith-Will-Robot trio and those magnificent trips John Robinson made around each new world (at least in Seasons 1 and 2) by use of jetpack (very cool), it would be its monsters. Although as time went on, they began to look kinda spongy, in black and white Lost in Space had the best monsters on ‘60s TV, bar none!

Of course, for this TV kid, the centerpiece (had to have the toy; no, two of them!) of this series was the Robot. This fantastic automaton was designed by Robert Kinoshita,  whose other cybernetic claim to fame is as the designer of Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot. Robby actually appears in Episode #20 of the series ("War of the Robots") as the Robotoid, and (unrelated to #20) in the first episode of season three ("Condemned of Space”).

Stylistically, the series was always of high quality, featuring what was expected for space travel at the time; eye-catching silver, tapered space-suits, laser guns and spectacular props and sets.

Although it retains a following, the science-fiction community often points to Lost in Space as an example of early television's perceived poor record at producing the genre. The series' deliberate fantasy elements, a trademark of Irwin Allen productions (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants), were perhaps overlooked as it drew comparisons to its supposed rival, Star Trek.However, Lost In Space was a mild ratings success, unlike Star Trek, which received very poor ratings during its original network TV run. The more "cerebral" Star Trek never averaged higher than 52nd in the ratings during its three seasons while Lost in Space finished Season One with a rating of 32nd, season two in 35th place, and the third and final season in 33rd place.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbery once insisted that the two shows could not be compared. He was more of a philosopher, while understanding that Irwin Allen was a storyteller. When asked about Lost in Space, Roddenberry acknowledged: "That show accomplishes what it sets out to do. Star Trek is not the same thing."

While Lost in Space was still reasonably successful, the show was unexpectedly canceled in 1968 after 83 episodes – and to the vehement protests of Second Street School’s entire fifth grade class! The final primetime episode to be broadcast was a cast and crew favorite, a repeat from Season Two’s "A Visit to Hades," on September 11, 1968.

While I am not saying Lost in Space laid groundwork for any sci-fi to come, ala Star Trek, it did inspire many young people of the time to look up, see the stars and wonder what might be out there, a goal of another great 1960s product, JFK.

Bloop!

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