“Mr. President? Status control on Jupiter II: As of this moment, the spacecraft has passed the limits of our galaxy–it’s presumed to be hopelessly lost in space.”
And so it was that on the evening of Wednesday, September 15th, 1965, that the world’s first interstellar exploration ship, carrying with it Professor John Robinson and his family along with pilot Major Don West, began an epic journey into the depths of the universe and our imagination. All of that sounded great in theory, until that pesky Doctor Smith found a way to screw up everything.
Yep. Lost in Space is 50 years old today.
Premiering on the CBS network one year ahead of that other big science fiction TV series from the late 1960s, Lost in Space was, essentially, a space-based re-imagining of the Swiss Family Robinson. In fact, Gold Key Comics had even beaten the show to this particular punch, as they had already been publishing a comic, Space Family Robinson, for three years by the time the series was first broadcast. The two entities were apparently able to work things out to everyone’s satisfaction, as the show used “Robinson” for the family’s last name and the comic continued to be published after the series premiered, and even carried a little “Lost in Space” banner beneath its cover title, though the characters and stories continued to differ in many respects from the TV series.
Lost in Space‘s road to television began with a pilot episode, “No Place to Hide,” which CBS network executives liked enough to give creator Irwin Allen a series order. In those days, pilot films were rarely if ever shown on TV, as their primary purpose was as a sales tool. Because of this, “No Place to Hide” lacks several components that would come to define the series by the time of the show’s first episode, “The Reluctant Stowaway.” For example Dr. Zachary Smith and the B-9 Robot, both of whom would become iconic characters, are notably absent. The pilot also wastes no time getting the Jupiter II sent off course (after encountering a meteor shower) and on to its first crash-landing on an unknown alien planet, after which the Robinsons proceed to get into all sorts of trouble.
With the series proper (broadcast in glorious black and white, by golly), the Jupiter II launches from Earth, but this time Dr. Smith is on hand to gum up the works, setting into motion a series of events and adventures that culminate in the ship’s crashing on…wait for it…an unknown alien planet, but not until the third episode.
From there, the Robinsons, Major West, and Dr. Smith (along with the Robot, of course), quickly fall into a pattern whereby strange beings and other creatures and characters show up to give them varying levels of grief for the remainder of the first season. The ensuing two years would see variations on this formula, with the castaways and the Jupiter II escaping this or that planet, having adventures in space for a bit before crashing or being forced to land on some other desolate alien world…which happens to look a lot like the one they left behind however many episodes prior.
Lost in Space was one of several science fiction television shows that occupies a cherished place in my childhood. I spent many an afternoon watching reruns of the series in the 1970s, along with such stalwarts as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Space: 1999, and, of course, Star Trek. I even read the odd issue of the Space Family Robinson comic, and I remember wondering why it was so different from the show.
Though it takes its share of jokes and pokes due to some of its more outlandish storylines, Lost in Space still holds quite a bit of charm for me. I’m the first to admit that I don’t watch it the way I do the original Star Trek, but there are still many episodes–particularly from the first season–that I have no trouble revisiting. Still, it’s obvious to see the line of demarcation with respect to the stories when it became apparent that Irwin Allen and the show’s creative staff were responding to the fact that Dr. Smith, young Will Robinson, and the Robot were the show’s most popular characters. This naturally came at the expense of actors Guy Williams and Mark Goddard, the show’s alleged leads and action heroes. Indeed, we never really got even a single episode that focused heavily on Major West, who often was relegated to being second fiddle to John Robinson (when either or both characters weren’t playing second fiddle to Smith. Oh, the pain…the pain.).
The show attempted to re-invent itself to varying degrees with each successive season, especially once the 1966 Batman series premiered and everyone saw how well unabashed camp was being received by audiences. The show’s third year tried to return to the sorts of stories that characterized the first season, but a lot of the campiness was ingrained at that point. It also was obvious that the idea was running out of steam. That said, there are still some fun episodes even in that third season. While Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was always the stronger Irwin Allen show for me, there’s no denying the nostalgia value Lost in Space commands. I mean, come on….
Lost in Space was cancelled after its third season, leaving unknown the ultimate fate of the Robinsons. Bill Mumy, Will Robinson himself, had some thoughts on that, and in 1991 began writing a comic series for a now long-defunct company, Innovation. The company went belly up before Mumy could complete his story, which would remain unfinished until 2005 when he published the entire saga as a graphic novel. Good luck getting a copy, and if you do, can I read it?
Today, September 15th, the entire Lost in Space series is being released in a pretty jam-packed Blu-ray set, in celebration of the series’ 50th anniversary. I hear the set’s pretty juicy, and I’m looking forward to checking it out.
The series is a natural candidate for a reboot, which has happened twice so far, first with a Lost in Space feature film in 1998 that was a completely new take on the basic storyline, borrowing various elements from the series to construct its plot of the Jupiter II‘s sabotage and ultimate marooning in the far reaches of space. A radical new interpretation of the basic premise was attempted in 2003 for The Robinsons: Lost in Space, but the pilot was not picked up for a series and many of the set pieces created for the film actually found their way to the soundstages of the new Battlestar Galactica series. There are, of course, persistent rumors of yet another attempt to restart the franchise, which makes a sort of sense. Surely there’s a way for the basic notion to work, right? It has at least once, already, after all.
I guess we’ll see, won’t we?
Meanwhile? Danger, Will Robinson! Lost in Space is 50!