Will Robinson. Dr. Smith. The Robot. Anyone who ever watched the 1960s Lost in Space TV series remembers those names and characters. Based loosely on the classic children’s book Swiss Family Robinson, the original storyline about a shipwrecked family — a survivalist story at its core — goes back to 1812. The Robinson family must work together to stay alive and get back on course. In its new series, Lost in Space, appropriately released in its entirety last week on Friday the 13th, Netflix took a calculated risk on a vibrant remake of the science fiction tale by bringing on veteran writing team Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with showrunner Zack Estrin leading the way. The new Lost in Space is more of a major upgrade than a reboot, delivering impressive effects, plot twists and — of course — danger.
Intended to emphasize moral dilemmas, the new 10-episode TV-PG drama provides a deep, nuanced view of what life would be like for a family of five embarking upon a pioneering journey to another solar system. It asks the question of how any family, struggling with individual and interpersonal issues, could remain intact when facing some of the most challenging situations imaginable. Stuck with strangers in a strange land, it also dissects how those relationships would affect the parents and their children.
According to Sharpless, keeping the new show close to the original vision was paramount. “We grew up loving Irwin Allen’s show. We watched it in syndication when we were kids — and were drawn to the wish fulfillment inherent in the premise: What would you do if you were thrust into this spectacular, thrilling alien world with no one but your family to rely on? There’s something so vivid, emotional and uplifting about that story. We knew we had to honor that.”
As one would expect with space explorers, everybody here is smart. Each character comes with a different set of aptitudes and interests, but they’re all problem solvers. For the most part, gender stereotypes are a relic of the past, leaving room for Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) to be an aerospace engineer and mother and John Robinson (Toby Stephens) to take on the role of an intuitive father who also happens to be a former military officer. Judy (Taylor Russell), the oldest child, at 18, displays remarkable poise and pragmatism for her age, contrasted by a welcome vulnerability. The younger kids act as teens and tweens should act — relatable, not stiff.
Sazama described the ensemble cast as a “great mix.” “[W]hat ended up happening from the very start is that they all started acting like a family, hanging out together even when they weren’t working, and just laughing and teasing each other, and having fun on set. So if they seem like a believable family, that’s because they really became a family during the shoot.”
In the 10 hours of rich storylines and content, the complex relationships shine through but the character development isn’t without its weaknesses. For example, the middle child, Penny (Mina Sundwall), is supposedly a bookworm who wants to become a novelist, but she’s not shown with a book until episode nine. And Don West’s (Ignacio Serricchio) character gets picked apart in such a detailed way in episode two that there isn’t much more to figure out about him. He’s no Han Solo but, as a smuggler with a soft spot, he’s endearing nevertheless. Luckily this presents an opening for the writers to explore further when planning the next season (as they reportedly are doing).
As is often the case with artificial intelligence based characters — from the infamous HAL 9000 to the beloved R2-D2 — the Robot (Brian Steele) provides nearly endless opportunities for its evolution throughout the show. Like a stray dog, he’s adopted by Will (Maxwell Jenkins) and won’t leave his side. He has a complicated backstory and the question remains: Will he truly become domesticated or is he doomed to feral violence? If the seemingly psychotic Dr. Smith (Parker Posey) gets her way, it might be the latter. Her instability allows for intriguing struggles as the narrative continues.
The heart of the show remains with Will, the youngest member of the Robinson family. “In a cultural landscape of superheroes, Will Robinson’s superpower is very simple. He’s kind. He’s empathetic. And that gives him a strength he didn’t know he had,” Sazama said. “We think that’s a great message for anyone, no matter their age.”
While the science in the fiction is mostly grounded, a serious suspension of disbelief still plays a role in the show. A ship like the Renegade would take more than several decades to design and build. The show is set 30 years from now, so it’s a bit of a stretch. And the Robinsons’ ship, Jupiter 2, seems way more spacious than would make any sense to use for its mission. Still, the juxtaposition of near-future interstellar technology with magnificent foreign planets creates an alluring picture.
Sometimes the illusion drops away and it becomes obvious again that this is a TV show. There’s a scene where Maureen hastily scribbles out equations on paper, tossing away the filled-up sheets as she attempts to work the problem. As handy as paper might be in that situation, it’s pretty unlikely that she’d have an unlimited amount of it in outer space or that an aerospace engineer would be so cavalier about using it. While the image works well in shows about writers, it makes little sense in a space saga.
The ongoing conflict, high production values and intricate character progression provide hours of digestible drama, but it’s the majestic moments that give the series its real staying power as a reminder of the beauty and fragility of life. Television has come a long way since 1965, and the new Lost in Space shows off the best of that progress.
Sarah Granger is a journalist, screenwriter, playwright and author of The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connnectivity Can Empower Your Life — Online and Off. Her work has appeared in Boing Boing, Huffington Post, Slate and SFGate.com.