Dammit, we were really looking forward to this one. Here follows a spoilery rant.
But in the interests of being happy fun balls and not negative nancy boys, we will begin with the parts of the Lost in Space reboot that we liked, if not loved. First, the ending. Seriously, the final two episodes of the season were not only the best two, but the only two that actually felt like the show was living up to its title. Second, the cast. Despite our many, many issues with the way this show was conceptualized and written, every one of the mains did perfectly fine by their characters and several of them had significant chemistry that could lead to interesting story directions. Third, the art direction and overall aesthetic – of the first few episodes. Things didn’t quite remain at the high level of the ship design, robot design, arctic scenes, and spacesuits, but those gorgeously rendered elements dominated the first few episodes, setting high expectations for the rest of the series, if not a glimpse at its unrealized potential. And finally, there were some truly exciting and interesting action set pieces in almost every episode, even if they tended to be the result of the characters doing incredibly dumb things.
Since it’s clear our complimentary section is starting to get riddled with criticisms, we may as well just dive right in on the subject. Lost in Space was a huge disappointment overall, mainly because everything but the character names was stripped from the concept. What was once a rollicking family-based sci-fi adventure story is now a dreary family drama with sci-fi trappings about people who really don’t seem to like each other very much – until the script remembers that they’re supposed to and makes them literally hug it out.
The ultimate in high concept television – they’re lost, in space – not only wound up far more complicated than it needed to be, but actually lied to the audience about what they were watching. Literally 98 percent of the action of the first season takes place firmly on land, either on the vaguely yellow-skied earth, which we are told is about to become a hellscape (but all we ever see of it looks pretty much exactly like 2018) or on Planet Canadia, that verdant, leafy world found in so many sci-fi productions that we’re not supposed to notice looks exactly like British Columbia.
And as we noted earlier, said action was almost always the result of some member of the Robinson family doing something unbelievably stupid. We’re not quite sure when we stopped rooting for them and started rooting for the other survivors to leave them behind. It was either when Maureen left her family to go fly a balloon into the stratosphere without telling anyone where she was going and then almost plummeting to her death or it was when Judy ignored everyone else’s reasonable concerns and destroyed their only chance of getting off the planet in order to save a clearly dying man who was far beyond her teenage capabilities to treat. No wait, maybe it was when the survivors were in a den of sleeping dragons, under orders to do their business in utter silence, when Will and Penny decided to talk about their feelings and ultimately doom at least a few people to their deaths.
Oh, yes. There’s a lot of talking amongst the Robinson clan. Everyone wants to talk, even when they’re stuck submerged in a frozen lake, or stuck submerged in a pool of tar, or stuck on a cliff, or stuck rotating on a piece of wreckage in space, or … well, you just name it. If there’s a life-or-death situation going on (and there’s at least four or five per episode), then you can bet a Robinson will suddenly be in the mood for some family therapy time. There’s just something so ludicrous about people in high-intensity, dangerous situations in which they are literally hanging by a thread, turning to each other at that moment to argue about their feelings.
And if you’re rebooting Lost in Space and decide that your Will Robinson should have a crying scene every single episode, may we suggest that you have missed the point, both of Will and of Lost in Space generally. By the last three episodes of the season, he was tearing up in pretty much every one of his scenes. Obviously, we’re the last two queens to complain about a Sensitive Boy character, but think of how well rendered that archetype was with Elliott in E.T., which is clearly being referenced here. There are ways to portray that character without having him cry all the time. Ultimately, it came off a little lazy.
They tried to do something much more modern with the character of Maureen, which was a good idea for a starting point, since the mid-Century housewife role of the original version would not update well at all. There’s a lot of interesting drama to be mined from a female character who’s smart, a little bad-ass and a natural leader, but turns into a beleaguered “Nevermind, I’ll do it myself” wife and mother whenever she has to face her family. We think there’s so much material there that would resonate with certain women in the audience and we feel like that was the main intention of writing Maureen the way they did, but she came off incredibly unlikable at times; dismissive of other people’s feelings, withholding, and with a tendency to play clear favorites among her kids.
On the flipside, John was reduced to nothing more than a “I just want to get my kids back” beleaguered father character. We kept getting told about how awful he was, but barely saw any evidence of it, as he struggled over and over again to connect with literally every member of his family, only to be rebuffed over and over again.
Casting Parker Posey as the updated Dr. Smith character came off like a stroke of genius, except it felt like her Parker Poseyness, for lack of a better term, was greatly restrained or restricted somehow. A very gifted comic actress in an iconically comic role was instead turned into a somewhat generic Ben Linus-type villain, constantly scrutinizing and out-smarting everyone around her. It was such an odd choice, both in the acting and the writing. And it was indicative of this update’s seeming insistence on stripping any of the inherent camp from the original concept to replace it with po-faced emoting and dialogue.
And while each of the cast was fine in their roles, there’s an automatic problem casting a man who looks every minute of his 35 years to play Don West and flirt with the 18 year-old character played by an actress who could pass for at least three years younger. Why do that? Every scene of Don and Judy together dripped with creepy undertones. How was that not obvious in the production?
As for the robot, as we said, they tried to do a riff on Elliott and E.T., except in this version of the story, the lovable creature keeps morphing into a terrifying killing machine right in front of everyone and the Robinsons all keep acting like it’s no big deal.
Did we mention we were rooting for all the other survivors?
Granted, we hated the idea of other survivors from the get-go. Coupled with the insistence on keeping the majority of the action firmly on the ground, not to mention the extensive use of flashbacks, the result was a rather obvious attempt to recast the classic show as “LOST (in space).” That tends to miss the point of it rather badly, we’d say. The original show was very much about a family alone in a hostile universe; not about an encampment of survivors in the woods. It’s great that the series seems to be set up to go in just that direction for season two, but it left the impression that we just got finished watching the ultimate in Netflix Bloat: a ten-hour prologue.
Despite this rant, the series still has great potential, especially since it shed so many of the problematic parts in the last few hours, leaving us wanting to watch the series they spent all this time setting up, more than a little annoyed that it took us so long to get here. Still, there are some great set pieces, cool visuals and just enough narrative tension and cast chemistry to have made parts of season one work. Since we were so magnanimous about Star Trek: Discovery‘s flaws (which were not dissimilar in some ways) because of its freshman season status, we can focus on what we liked and look forward to a second season. Here’s hoping the creators loosen up and try to have a little fun with it by remembering the series that inspired it.
And is a costume design rethink completely out of the question going forward? We’re just saying. The blandly futuristic outfits were instantly forgettable. Let’s get them in some purple and green velour loungewear for season two.
[Photo Credit: Netflix]