Lost in Space: Classic Family Science Fiction

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Welcome to day twelve of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! I hope you’re having fun! Today we’ll take a look at one of my favorite childhood television shows, which also happens to fit perfectly in the supernatural classic television serial category: Lost in Space! Lost in Space first aired on CBS on September 15, 1965. The last show was on September 11, 1968. The show never ranked in the Top 25. (I’m beginning to see a trend here. All of my favorite childhood shows, shows with fan clubs and followings, and pictures on lunch boxes never hit the Top 25! I think this may be because adults voted on the Top 25, or (gasp) the sponsors!)

Lost in Space, like so many of the early supernatural shows, was far from high-tech when it came to the show’s sets. In fact, they were often rather silly looking, but that’s okay because we didn’t watch the show for the set, we watched it for the plot, and this show had a great plot! Imagine your family traveling in a spaceship and becoming lost in space! Cool!

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This photo is from the pilot show for Lost in Space. The photo shows the Robinson family and the geologist who traveled with them being placed in suspended animation before beginning their space flight. Shown from left to right are: Angela Cartwright, Billy Mumy, Marta Kristen, June Lockhart, Guy Williams, and Mark Goddard.

The great Irwin Allen was the creator and Producer of Lost in Space. Allen is most famous for The Towering Inferno (1974) and the original The Poseidon Adventure, which was made in 1972 and earned him the title Master of Disaster. Allen won an Oscar for his equally famous documentary The Sea Around Us. In the early days of his career, though, Allen created numerous science fiction shows, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space. Lost in Space is considered by many to be his best science fiction work, mainly because they thought it was so funny! I just thought it was fun.

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 The robot and the villain, Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris. Dr. Smith was written into the show at the last minute and not expected to stay on the show more than a few weeks, but the overwhelming amount of fan mail in his defense kept him on the show. This is a publicity photo used by Jonathan Harris to promote his role. 

However, here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Irwin Allen, the creator, believed he was making a serious show, but everyone else was under the impression it was supposed to be funny! According to John Javna’s Cult TV, the original plot consisted of the family and the geologist, but the story editor, Tony Wilson, suggested adding a robot and a villain, which created a comedic element. Allen Irwin and the show’s director, Don Richardson, met with the network executives to watch the pilot. While they were watching the film, the network executives suddenly started laughing hysterically. Irwin, who lacked a sense of humor, was furious and ready to stomp out of the room. Richardson claims he kicked Irwin under the table and whispered, “They’re buying it!” And he was correct, CBS bought the show.

The First Family to Journey Into Space

Well, first you need a spaceship. The original spaceship was called Gemini 12 in the pilot, but the pilot episode never aired because it was missing the villain and the robot. The spaceship was renamed for the first episode.

lost in spaceshipThe Jupiter 2 saucer-shaped space ship, which of course was created to resemble a classic UFO!

It is October 16, 1997 (this was approximately 30 years from the start of the show). The United States is about to make history as they prepare to launch the Jupiter 2, a saucer-shaped ship, into space with a carefully-chosen family on board who will begin a five 1/2 year journey to Alpha Centauri, a nearby star possessing the perfect conditions to sustain human life. There were two million volunteers for this mission, but the Robinson family was selected for the project, so you can assume they all have superior intelligence.

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Guy Williams and June Lockhart play Professor John Robinson and his wife, Maureen, in Lost in Space.

The Robinson family is headed by Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), an astrophysicist and the father of the Robinson clan. Williams was a male model before the show, but his career took off when he was cast as Zorro in the 1957 Disney television series. His wife, Maureen, a biochemist, is played by June Lockhart, who starred in Lassie, Petticoat Junction, and many other popular television shows and films.

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Billy Mumy and Angela Cartwright who play Will and Penny Robinson in Lost in Space.  

The couple has three children: Judy (Mart Kristen); Penny (who, along with her sister, is one of my favorite childhood actresses, Angela Cartwright); and Will, an electronics whiz kid who is played by Billy Mumy, the young actor who appeared in one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life,” a truly freaky show about a boy who terrifies everyone around him because he has the ability to make them disappear. By the time he was 11, Billy Mumy appeared in over 100 TV shows. He was definitely an asset to the show.

Marta_Kristen_Jonathan_Harris_Lost_in_Space_1966Marta Kristen plays the oldest Robinson child, Judy. She is shown here with Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris, in a trailer screenshot taken in 1966. 

The military pilot of the Jupiter 2 is U.S. Space Corps Major Donald West (Mark Goddard). Although the ship is designed to fly itself, West is trained to take over in case any of the systems fail.  He is Dr. Smith’s foil, dedicated to protecting the family and eventually bringing them safely home. He has no patience for the evil Dr. Smith.

A bit more trivia: Actor Mark Goddard originally agreed to play Major Donald West in the pilot for Lost in Space, but he did not agree to do the show. He was uncomfortable acting in science fiction, but when the show sold, he was stuck. He later became a regular on the soap opera General Hospital.

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 Actor Wally Cox and Robot. Cox plays an alien who believes his planet is being invaded in an episode of Lost in Space. 

Contrary to popular belief, the robot is not named Robby. Robby was the robot in Forbidden Planet, and the two resemble each other, but the robot on Lost in Space has no name. He is a Class M-3 Model B9 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot with superhuman strength and built-in weaponry. He has human emotions–he laughs, becomes sad, is occasionally sarcastic, and can sing and play the guitar. He is played by Bob May in a costumed designed and created by Bob Stewart.

So, how Does a Family Become Lost in Space?

So, did the system fail? How did the family become lost in space? That’s where the villain comes into the story! There are (of course) other countries trying desperately to sabotage the project. Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), who is a medical doctor and environmental control expert, is also a spy! That’s right folks, he is a secret agent! (I loved secret agent movies as much as I loved science fiction as a kid. Remember I Spy? Mission Impossible? The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? I thought the addition of a spy to the cast was perfect! But I digress–back to the story).

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 Jonathan Harris as Dr. Zachary Smith, the villain on Lost in Space.

The ship goes off course for two reasons. First, Dr. Smith reprograms the Jupiter 2 so it’s critical systems will be destroyed eight hours after the ship is launched. Second, Dr. Smith is accidentally trapped on board (No one said he was a good spy!) and his additional weight, in addition to the weight of his robot, an extra 200 pounds, throws the sensitive timing of the ship off course just enough to send it into a meteor storm. Finally, the robot goes on a rampage and the Robinson family is now hopelessly lost in space.

“Danger, Danger Will Robinson!”

I had to find a way to fit that quote into the post. It’s one of my favorites. I still use it. In fact, I used it often when teaching my five children how to drive, and when I used that line my children would look at me as if to say, “What on earth is she talking about?” but adults my age know (especially if they are teaching their children how to drive!) This is the phrase the robot uses when talking to young Will, warning him that Dr. Smith is creating even more chaos to place Will and his family in danger. He would also say “That does not compute,” a phrase my siblings and I often used on my poor mother.

robot and Will

 Robot and Will. The Robot often warns Will that he is in danger from Dr. Smith by shouting “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” One of my all-time favorite lines from a television show.

Dr. Smith’s role in this show is to place the Robinsons in danger. In fact, that’s pretty much all he does, which would seem to be rather boring for a man of his superior intelligence, but remember, he is a villain, and he enjoys what he does! In the later shows Dr. Smith’s villainous is less, um, villainy, but in the beginning he is one of the most dangerous men the Robinson family has ever encountered.

An Uncharacteristic act of Compassion

There is one moment in the show’s run where Dr. Smith displays a surprising amount of compassion. In the episode “The Time Merchant,” which aired on January 17, 1968, the last year of the show’s run, Dr. Smith finds a way to travel back in time to the day the ship is first launched, hoping to change his personal history by escaping from the ship before blast off.

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The evil Dr. Zachary Smith played by Jonathan Harris, spends pretty much all of his time devising ways to place the Robinson family in peril, but his devious plans are always thwarted. In one episode, however, “The Time Merchant,” Smith actually stops himself from harming the Robinson family. 

When Smith calculates the results of what will happen without his weight on board, he discovers that without him, the family will die when the ship collides with an uncharted asteroid and explodes. By this time in the show, Smith has become somewhat emotionally attached to the family, particularly young Will. Smith decides to reboard the ship and relive the experience exactly as he did the first time in order to save the lives of the Robinson family. It is a brilliant episode, in my opinion. It shows tremendous strength of character for Dr. Smith to make this decision as he is generally revealed to be a coward.

All Good Things Must Come to an end…

Lost in Space was nominated for an Emmy in 1966 for Cinematography and Special Photographic Effects. It was nominated again in 1968 for Achievement in Visual Arts & Makeup. Perhaps even more importantly, John F. Kennedy, Jr., declared it was his favorite childhood show!

lost in spaceThe cast of Lost in Space were preparing to shoot the fourth season when they were told the show was cancelled with explanation. 

 The cast was preparing to shoot the episodes for the 1968/1969 season when they were told the show was cancelled, and they were never told why it was cancelled. Wikipedia has an article online that speculates on some possible reasons, such as a high budget–the salaries of some of the actors were nearly doubled as the show increased in popularity. The show was also owned by 20th Century Fox, a company that suffered tremendous financial losses from the production cost ($44 million) of Cleopatra and the record-breaking salary ($1 million) of its star, Elizabeth Taylor. The show was also beginning to decline in ratings, which is surprising considering the extreme disappointment of its fans when it was cancelled.

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Trailer screenshot from the 1998 film Lost in Space

In 1998, Lost in Space was revived as a blockbuster film with a remarkable cast including Gary Oldman; William Hurt, Mimi Rogers; and Heather Graham. Some of the original cast members were also in the film, such as June Lockhart; Mark Goddard; Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristen. Although the Internet Movie Database rated the film with a 4.9, I thought it was fantastic and was thrilled to see the show revived, even if it was for a one-time film.

Sources: 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Lost in Space. Creator Irwin Allen. Perf. Mark Goddard, Guy Williams, June Lockhart, Jonathan Harris, Marta Kristen, Billy Mumy, Angela Cartwright. 20th Century Television. Running Time: 60 min.