Review of the Week–Lost in Space (Netflix)

Yes, it’s another repeat review, and for that I apologize–well, sort of. I’m actually pretty stoked to talk about this one, as I just finished watching the Netflix reboot series of the classic 60s sci-fi adventure Lost in Space. While most of the concepts behind this latest version of the property are pretty cool, and the new interpretations of its characters refreshing and original, the series as a whole somewhat struggles to stick the landing. No pun intended.

Lost in Space follows the Robinson family–parents Maureen and John and children Will, Judy, and Penny–after their spaceship crash-lands on an alien planet en route from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Since a meteor collision is making the Earth uninhabitable, people selected as the best of the best in their specific fields, such as the Robinsons, are being allowed to take their families to start a new life on another world. As the Robinsons and the other colonists who crashed with them struggle to work together to survive the strange new planet they find themselves on, they’re also plagued by interpersonal strife as they each try to make amends and move past the various things that make them dysfunctional and broken. But that’s not the only thing they have to contend with, as there’s also three total wild cards in their midst: mechanic and smuggler Don West, who only looks out for himself; an imposter posing as the mission’s doctor who’s willing to use any means at her disposal to get what she wants; and an alien robot that befriends Will, but may be hiding a dark secret that could jeopardize everything.

Like much of science fiction, Lost in Space has gone through many evolutions over the decades, from its cheesy, campy beginnings in the 1960s to the edgy, grunge-inspired cyberpunk blockbuster from the 90s (for more on that movie and why it was so disappointing, see my previous review). In their remake, Netflix offered us a middle ground between those two extremes, painting a future that while challenging, is still full of light and hope and promise, and a cast of main characters who, despite their obvious flaws, are all (well, mostly all) good people who want to do the right thing. First of all, I loved the idea of the Jupiter 2 only being one of several Jupiter pods (they aren’t really ships so much) that’s involved in the story, and the Robinsons just one of many other families making the trip to Alpha Centauri. One of the things that made the earlier versions so corny was the idea that this one, single family represented the best of humanity. This interpretation does away with that and introduces several major characters outside the main group who are just as expert in their fields as the Robinsons are in theirs, most notably the Watanabe and Dhar families. While they didn’t get nearly as much screen time, even the side characters each got their moment in the spotlight, and it made the whole survival ordeal much more realistic because it was basically a team effort and not lumped on any one person’s shoulders or expertise. The design of the human-built ships also reflects some very optimistic projections of the future, a la Star Trek, but with realism injected as well: no artificial gravity or supercomputers or anything like that. In fact, there isn’t even any interstellar travel truly involved–from humans, at least. More on that later.

There were some other big changes as well in the Netflix series, most of which I can absolutely get behind. I at first chafed at the idea of taking Don West from being a hotshot pilot, as he’s traditionally portrayed, to a grease monkey who knows nothing about flying, but it works for the story. There wouldn’t really be much use for a pilot character the way this show is set up, so props to the producers for taking West in an interesting new direction, and one that might overall have been much more rewarding for his development. In addition, the Robinsons do not have a robot that does menial chores and lives on the Jupiter with them: in this incarnation, the Robot is the nickname given to an alien construct that Will encounters when he’s separated from the group. As it turns out, the reason the Robot enters into the story at all is because he was sent by whatever race created him to steal back something humans stole from them: an interstellar drive system from an alien ship that was shot down and ended up poisoning Earth. It’s this drive that makes travel to Alpha Centauri possible in the first place, and is the major plot twist that focuses the series. I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming. It’s definitely a cool way of retelling the story of the Robinsons and why they’re leaving Earth in the first place, and of bringing the Robot together with the family in a meaningful way, but one that’s still fraught with perils.

Aside from the drama of being dumped on an alien planet and having to survive, most of the show’s tension comes from within the characters themselves. Once again, we see the Robinsons being painted as far from the picture-perfect family they were in the 60s. It even goes a little deeper than the 90s film by highlighting the differences between John and Maureen, who are on the edge of divorce, and showing how a life with two completely different people prizing very different things can lead to a lot of friction. The children aren’t nearly as bad, but still have their differences: mostly between Penny and Judy, where a clear sibling rivalry and resentment is presented. Will, much in contrast to his former portrayals, is a sweet and obviously intelligent but innocent kid who’s prone to anxiousness and self-doubt. It’s a strong departure from previous Wills, who have normally been shown to be quite confident and forceful in their displays of intellect. But again, I think it works for this series, where you had to have at least one character look at everything set out before them not as a horrible struggle or inconvenience, but as a wonderful new universe to explore. The show absolutely wouldn’t be the same without the childlike joy that this Will brings to the Robinson clan.

I’d like to single out Maxwell Jenkins and Molly Parker especially for acting credit: as I said, Jenkins brings a naive but infectiously positive Will to the table in this version of Lost in Space, one who truly does need a strong and silent guardian like the Robot to protect him, and the connection between the two is often heart-wrenchingly real. In addition, Maureen Robinson is the standout character of the entire cast, and Parker really does well bringing a powerful, confident, independent woman forward as the lead in the series. Maureen in this show should be a role model for people looking to create those kinds of characters across all mediums. I enjoyed Don West as well, though I probably could have done with a bit less of Ignacio Serricchio’s snark and sarcasm, as it seems somewhat out of place in this more troubled interpretation of the Robinson extended family. Also, while not really human and with minimal lines, the Robot was done amazingly well in this series, his performance full of physical and facial (well, such as it was) cues that seemed to hint what the machine-man was feeling or thinking at any given time. You really leave this show wondering just how sentient the Robot is, and whether he does actually feel emotion as the story seems to hint: for example, how much of his temporary turn to the dark side is explained by the fact that Will, his closest friend, betrayed him by making him walk off a cliff to his “death”? It’s a testament to the way the Robot was done that we can even think about it, and that’s something to be proud of.

And now we come to my biggest beef with this Lost in Space incarnation: Dr. Smith. Look, I don’t have a problem with the casting choice or background the producers chose for this version of the perennial villain, but I do question the writing behind her. “Dr. Smith” is actually a criminal named June Harris who, in a series of escalating blunders and manipulations, makes her way onboard the Resolute with the Robinsons and company and passes herself off as a dead man, the real Smith, to hide her true identity. Her sole stated purpose is to do what it takes to make it to Alpha Centauri at any cost, as is fitting with the generally self-centered nature of the character. But this “Smith” is more complicated as well, much more in line with a sociopath than an egomaniac, a compulsive liar and expert con-artist who will say anything to get her way. She is shown to have a problem with the idea of taking a life, too–several times she’s given the opportunity to kill someone, only to back down from it, and the one time she did was kind of an accident. So she’s not a bad person–not really?

As interesting as this seems on paper, it didn’t really work out in practice. I’d be fine with the moral see-sawing Smith goes through if it made any sense in the context of the story, but it doesn’t. There’s no rhyme, reason, or pattern to the good and bad things she does, and therefore precious little to base an argument on that her character develops in any meaningful way. It’s like the writers came up with various life-threatening situations to put the Robinsons in, and the ones they couldn’t write their way out of, they were just like “Oh, let’s have Dr. Smith have a random change of heart and save them.” I was just left very confused about Smith’s motivations and purpose in the story, because being a wild card is all very well, but it has to make sense. No offense to Parker Posey: she did the best she could with what she was given, and made this Smith much more understated, insidious and menacing than her over-the-top predecessors at times. It was a welcome change of pace, but just didn’t come off as in any way logical or convincing.

With the Robinsons, Smith, and West finally all together on board the Jupiter 2 at the end of the season and being hurled into uncharted space, you could argue that this first Neflix season really was more of a prequel chapter and that the true Lost in Space adventure is set to begin. The whole alien wormhole engine bit was pretty sweet in that respect. But they’re down one Robot, of course–he’s going to come back, right? Danger, Will Robinson.

My Rating: 7/10

Netflix’s first season of Lost in Space is a strong debut for a reboot of the classic show, and while it’s not perfect and has its share of stumbles–mostly from Dr. Smith–it’s all in all a fun, exciting, and at times heartwarming sci-fi adventure about extraordinary events bringing a fractured family back together. A fresh look at old concepts, some outstanding acting from several key characters, and the near limitless scope of possibilities for what can happen next make me very hopeful that Netflix decides to keep this one around. If they can learn from the mistakes of season one and course-correct, I think the streaming service has another winning property on its hands.


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