Like many of young boys in my generation, I grew up watching the original Lost in Space TV series and identified with Billy Mumy who played Will Robinson. I also wished I had a friend like the bubbleheaded Robot and could get to bounce around with him in outer space. Admittedly, I had a crush on Penny (Angela Cartwright) and found Dr. Zachary Smith (the late great Jonathan Harris) to be the comic relief the show needed.
I looked forward to the Netflix series reboot gleefully, with all my warm memories still vivid about the old show. I watched the reboot with my son who is a bit older than I was when the original series had its initial run, and I did describe what happened on the old series in order for him to have some background, but as he noted after seeing the first episode, “This is really different than your show, Dad.”
The good news is that the new Lost in Space is indeed quite different than the old series. There is a darker tone throughout the ten episodes now streaming on Netflix, yet there are also dashes of humor here and there, mostly provided by Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West and Mina Sunwall’s Penny. West is no longer the straight arrow played Mark Goddard in the old series, and Penny gets the funniest lines and Sunwall is a bright young star on the rise if this series is any indication of things to come for her.
The rest of the Robinsons are back too. Toby Stephens is the dad John, who has been deployed in the Special Forces too long overseas and is back to try to make things right with his family. Molly Parker plays wife and mom Maureen as a tough, brilliant scientist who became head of the household when John left and remains in charge. Judy Robinson (Taylor Russel) is now the biracial daughter from Maureen’s first marriage who has a deep bond with her adoptive father John and a possible romantic interest in Don, and Maxwell Jenkins plays youngest sibling Will Robinson in a strong, emotional portrayal that evokes Billy Mumy’s importance in the original series but imbues the character with a new, dramatic depth that is most welcome.
After having watched the ten episodes of season one, I found one constant throughout – one member of the Robinson family is always in danger. This is reminiscent of the old series in some ways, but the feeling here is much more palpable. Credit this to circumstances that seem increasingly dire for this Robinson clan, but also to Parker Posey for her creepy portrayal of Dr. Smith. Unlike Harris who initially played the role as diabolical but quickly became a humorous character, Posey’s Smith becomes increasingly pernicious and duplicitous. It takes a few episodes to see where her character arc is going, but once we do she undermines our protagonists every step of the way.
Of course, the Robot (Brian Steele) was an essential part of the original series, and the same holds true now. This new version is not human made as was the original; rather, it is from some alien species and its initial mission is destroy the larger mothership The Resolute and all humans aboard. The Robinson’s Jupiter 2 and other Jupiter ships detach from the mothership after the Robot attacks it. All the ships crash or land on a nearby world as does the Robot’s ship. Through strange circumstances Will saves the Robot, and due to the crash, it gets reprogrammed and the boy and machine become friends.
As a futuristic take on a boy and his dog, the relationship between Will and the Robot quickly becomes much more complicated. Since he has been disconnected from his Dad for so long, Will wants and needs a friend as well as a father, and the Robot becomes both in some sense for a time. A scene of Will playing catch with the Robot is emotional and heartbreaking.
They form a bond and a sort of intuitive connection, thus the Robot shows Will the terrible things it did on The Resolute, but the boy is so convinced that the Robot is now benevolent – it saves his sister Judy’s life – that he keeps this information to himself because he knows that his father will want to destroy the Robot if he finds out.
While Stephens and Parker do good work here, it is the young actors who particularly shine brightest. The series creators Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless have taken legendary original series creator Irwin Allen’s characters in new directions. Now, Judy is a medical doctor in training and quickly must put her skills to the test when Maureen gets injured. Penny is a wisecracking teenager who, while seeing the humor in things, also has a sensitive side and wants to be a girlfriend to Vijay Dhar (Ajay Friese), another crash survivor who has a secret of his own. As in the original series, Will goes off with the Robot and has various adventures, and sometimes gets into trouble thanks to Dr. Smith – but here it feels as if Will’s life is really on the line.
The series is a visual delight thanks to cinematographers Sam McCurdy and Joel Ransom. One truly stunning landscape after another is successfully realized, and they manage to capture the mercurial climate of this strange new world in vivid detail. Sazama and Sharpless share writing credits with seven other writers, but there is cohesion in the story line throughout the ten episodes and notable character development and change. Christopher Lennertz’s musical score more than meets the challenge of the material and captures the essence of scenes and adds to the wonder and awe of the visuals, including the awesome CGI that makes me wince when I think about the poor quality of the original series’ effects, especially the space scenes.
Netflix’s Lost in Space has flashbacks that provide key background information worthy of Lost, plenty of weird creatures reminiscent of Star Wars, and a family unit that is nothing like the old series – another good thing. It also contains Easter eggs such as a Bill Mumy cameo and elements like the chariot vehicle (but not my beloved space pod) and the Jupiter 2 itself – a revved up version of the old series’ flying saucer ship. There are so many good things here that they help you overlook some little inconsistencies in the script and the seemingly forced cliffhangers at the end of each episode.
While the old humor is not here – oh to hear the Harris’s Dr. Smith say, “the pain-the pain” or “bobble-headed booby” to the Robot one more time – there is much to admire about this series and an ending to episode 10 that almost demands that Netflix provide a season 2. There is plenty of danger ahead for Will Robinson and the rest, and I can’t wait.