Pod Bay One

Lost in Space

Of all the television shows that I saw in 2018, the new Lost in Space, distributed by Netflix, has stuck with me the most.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 5 January 2019

Last year, I saw a lot of science-fiction TV shows, and many (most?) of them were really good. I saw Altered Carbon, which is based on books that I haven’t read. It hews close to the style introduced by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (1982) and therefore feels sort of derivative, despite the fact that it introduces plenty of interesting ideas: possessive AIs that run now mostly abandoned hotels and rich people who can essentially live forever by transferring their consciousness between “sleeves” (cloned bodies). It’s good and you should see it.

Like Matt, I also watched Jessica Jones and liked it very much. The Defenders I didn’t care for, but that’s mostly because Luke Cage is so boring (sorry) and Iron First is simply insufferable (not sorry). I also watched the latest season of Daredevil and, like Jessica Jones, it’s quality TV, even if it’s faux single-take fight scenes are becoming more and more gimmicky, and a little derivative; for example, the famous first-season hallway scene was “inspired” by the Korean movie Oldboy (2003). Still, the writing is good, and I like Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) in this especially.

Naturally, I also watched Star Trek: Discovery and, like many Trekkies, was left sorely disappointed. At some point, I’ll write a long article about it (unless we do a podcast episode about it first), and exactly why it’s such a frustrating piece of rubbish. The good people of RedLetterMedia recently did a video about the recent “Short Treks” (groan) that have been broadcast to get people excited – I suppose? – about the upcoming second season, and they pretty much capture the mood that I find myself in with regards to this terrible show.

Like many Trekkies, I watched The Orville as a palate cleanser. While some of the comedy falls flat – it is a Seth MacFarlane show, after all – it does a pretty good job of capturing that apparently elusive Star Trek: The Next Generation magic. The cast is likable, their performances are good, and quite a few of the episodes featured quality story-lines. I’m actually looking forward to season 2 of The Orville, and we’ll have to write (and talk) more about this show in the future.

Wait, where are we now?

I could go and on about all the different shows I’ve seen, but the point that I want to make is that of all the science-fiction shows that were released in 2018, there’s one series that I’ve been thinking about more than the others, and it’s not The Expanse (good as it is!), but rather the new Lost in Space.

Lost in Space has quite a pedigree. Most people have probably heard of the 1960s TV show, which ran for three seasons, partially concurrent with the original Star Trek. The show was based on a Gold Key Comics book called The Space Family Robinson, which was itself a take on the German novel The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) by Johann David Wyss. The latter novel, about a family that gets shipwrecked on their way to Australia, is in turn inspired – as the title suggests – by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). You can trace stories like this further back in time to Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek epic poem (ca. 700 BC) that deals with the wanderings of Odysseus, who eventually ends up shipwrecked on the island of the Phaeacians.

John Robinson (Toby Stephens), Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker), Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins), and the robot (Brian Steele) out in the woods. The robot’s vessel also crashed on the planet, but early on we learn that all is not as it seems.

The new show is a reboot in the mould of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009): it takes the original show’s premise and its main characters, then shakes all that stuff up, remixes elements, and reconfigures the whole as a serious, serialized drama series. And as with Battlestar Galactica, it works: it’s got the same foundation as the original show, but does something completely different, something fresh and interesting. While the mention of a “gritty” reboot is nowadays likely to make most people’s eyes roll (thanks, DC and Warner Brothers!), it works well here.

Lost in Space’s first season consists of just ten episodes: I think most shows suffer when they have to stretch out over too many episodes, so between eight and thirteen episodes seems perfect to me for a show like this. And Lost in Space definitely has a laser-tight focus on its story: not a single minute feels like padding; every second is used to either further the plot or develop the characters.

The show opens with the protagonists, the five members of the Robinson family, sitting around the table, wearing space suits and strapped into their seats, playing a card game. It’s a tense situation, and when they put their helmets on, it’s clear that things are not as they should be. It doesn’t take long before an alarm sounds. The camera zooms out, and we’re shown the Robinson’s smallish vessel, the Jupiter 2, hurtling towards a planet amid the burning debris of the huge colony ship they were originally on (the Resolute), with the computer warning that their entry angle is off.

The planet itself offers some marvellous views. Some of them are computer-generated, like the above, but others are due to the show being filmed in British Columbia.

It’s an effective way to start a new series: we meet (most of) the show’s main characters in a tense sequence that immediately sets the tone of the show. There are problems, but the characters know how to handle them thanks to their training. Right from the outset, it’s clear that this is a series in which the characters have to handle whatever problems come their way, solving them using common sense, their training, and whatever specialized knowledge and skills they possess.

And the unknown planet that the Robinsons find themselves on poses quite a few hazards. The Lost in Space recalls movies like Gravity and the book/film The Martian – they are stranded and have to solve their problems the best way they can in order to survive. And the show delights in throwing problems at the cast. Immediately after landing, the ship sinks through the ice, leaving the Robinsons out in the cold on an unknown planet with nothing but the suits they’re wearing.

Aside from dealing with the plot, the characters also have to deal with each other. It’s soon clear that the parents, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) and John Robinson (Toby Stephens) were on the point of breaking up when Maureen decided to leave Earth (which is apparently ruined beyond repair) in order to settle elsewhere. The two characters are very different from each other, with Maureen being a scientist and John a gruff soldier, to the point where you wonder what they ever saw in each other. But their reconciliation is handled extremely well over the course of the series, so that when they finally get back together properly it warms the heart.

Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell) is asked by Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) to look after Debbie, his lucky chicken. While the many dangers on the planet often take centre stage, there are plenty of effective character moments like this.

I tend to dislike kids in TV shows or films, but lately performances of child actors has been nothing but stellar, as demonstrated by stuff like Stranger Things and, of course, Lost in Space. The youngest is the wide-eyed Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins), who is an innocent filled with self-doubt. Penny Robinson (Mina Sundwall) is the middle child of three: she jokes around and is impulsive. Finally, there’s the eldest of the three siblings, Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell). Whereas Will and Penny are both biological children of John Robinson, Judy isn’t, adding an interesting dynamic to the family. She’s the most level-headed of the three younger Robinsons, and has been trained as a medic.

In the original show, the Robinsons had the use of a robot. In this reimagined show, the robot returns, but he’s of alien origins and quite a bit more sinister than the one from the 1960s show. Will encounters him in the forest when he’s badly damaged. After he’s helped the robot, the aggressive red colouring of the robot turns blue, indicating a shift in its disposition towards the boy. Will brings the robot back to the Jupiter 2, where especially John is apprehensive about it – and for good reason, as we discover over the course of the series. The robot doesn’t speak except when he utters the iconic words, “Danger, Will Robinson” – the line is modified later on in the show with great effect, which I won’t spoil here. Its origins and intent are mysterious, and at the end of the season it’s clear that we’ll learn more about the robot, where it came from and what it wants, in season 2.

The robot is sometimes a computer-generated effect, but most of the time it’s Brian Steele – of Harry and the Hendersons fame – in a suit. And it’s great. There’s a certain physicality about using practical effects that’s often sorely missed in, for example, the Marvel movies, and it’s certainly a boon for the actors involved. One of my favourite bits of the new show happens in the final episode (“Danger, Will Robinson”), around the 12-minute mark, when another character accidentally bumps into the robot. It makes it feel more real.

Actress Parker Posey does an excellent job portraying the opportunistic “Dr Smith”, one of the more enjoyable and memorable antagonists to have graced our screens in recent memories.

This brings us to the main antagonist in the show: Dr Smith. In the original show, Dr Smith was male, but in this show she’s female, and played with aplomb by Parker Posey. She was another passenger about the Resolute (having taken the place of her sister). When the colony ship suffered serious damage and the people aboard had to be evacuated, she took the name tag of the real Dr Smith (Bill Mumy), leaving him to apparently die on the exploding vessel.

Dr Smith is great. She’s an opportunist who does whatever she needs to in order to survive and get ahead. She’s a wonderful character to root against. She doesn’t seem to have a conscience, leaving people to die whenever that seems the best thing to do in that particular moment. She’s also manipulative, able to read people well and then play on their fears, their hopes, and their desires. At the same, we learn enough about the character to see that she’s perhaps not entirely irredeemable.

Other characters are often no less interesting. Dr Smith is initially paired up with happy-go-luck engineer Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), who has come to believe that he owes his recent good fortune to a chicken that he names Debbie. Lost in Space also opens up when the Robinsons meet the other survivors of the Resolute, and a lot of interesting character-driven conflict erupts as different people have different ideas as to their best course of action with regard to getting off the dangerous planet that they find themselves on.

The first season ends with the Robinsons being taken to another unknown star system. The stars recall a drawing that the robot once made in the sand, a place referred to simply as “Danger”.

The planet that most of the action takes place on is itself also noteworthy. The show is shot on location in British Columbia, and the landscape looks absolute fantastically. Judicious use of digital effects manage to turn the familiar mountains and forests and lakes of British Columbia into an effective alien setting. Initially described by Maureen Robinson as a “goldilocks” planet, it soon turns out to be not as idyllic as it first seems. Among the many dangers are some large lifeforms that pose a threat to the humans at some point, when Will Robinson reluctantly has to allow the robot to kill in order to protect his family and the other survivors from the creatures’ onslaught.

In short, good, taut writing, excellent performances, great special effects and art design, set against the beautiful landscape of British Columbia, all combine to create what is my favourite science-fiction TV show of 2018. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

Lost in Space is available for streaming on Netflix.