Why remake Lost in Space? The family-oriented SF show was already venerable when it was first remade into a movie twenty years ago, surviving in public memory mostly through memes and jokes. “Danger, Will Robinson!” and the snickering perfidy of Dr. Smith were what most people my age knew about the show, and even that we got mostly from parodies and clips. The 1998 movie's approach was typical of its era, trying to make something decidedly uncool into the epitome of coolness through the piling on of inexpertly done CGI, buff actors, and characters behaving nastily to one another. No one ever asked why something like Lost in Space, a gentle family-oriented adventure that must have seemed odd even at the time of its first airing, needed to be cool in the first place.
In that sense, at least, Netflix's latest reboot of the Lost in Space concept demonstrates some good instincts. The new show isn't as campy or as contrived as the original. It actually takes some time to ground its premise—a nuclear family bent on the colonization of extra-solar planets, who find themselves thrown off-course, with a conniving drama queen of a scientist along for the ride—in something like story sense and coherent SF worldbuilding. But it does call back to the original show's earnestness and wholesomeness, updating both for the twenty-first century. The '60s Lost in Space would not have had John Robinson muse that although his oldest child is not his biological daughter, he feels that she is the most like him of his children. But the sentiment is very much in keeping with the family-first mentality of the original show. I have no idea whether modern children will respond to the new Lost in Space, but the show neither talks down to them nor desperately begs for their approval, which must be a good starting point.
As adults and fans of science fiction, however, we must come to the new Lost in Space with a different set of questions. Chief among them is, does this show justify its existence as more than a marketing gimmick, a way for Netflix to hang a complicated concept on a preexisting IP? Does this version of Lost in Space—a story that blatantly calls back to Robinson Crusoe and even more The Swiss Family Robinson—find something new to say about the original concept, which is after all so fraught with thoughtless assumptions about Manifest Destiny and the frontier?
For the most part, the answer appears to be no. What we get instead is a genuinely excellent execution, and a genuinely thoughtful attempt to retell what was originally such a silly story. To begin with, the show looks like a million bucks (and probably cost a great deal more). Most of the action takes place on a nameless alien planet, where the Robinson family—father John (Toby Stephens), mother Maureen (Molly Parker), trainee doctor Judy (Taylor Russell), sharp-tongued teenager Penny (Mina Sundwall), and anxiety-ridden eleven-year-old Will (Maxwell Jenkins)—crash-land along with other members of “the twenty-fourth colony group” when the colony ship carrying them to the new human settlement in Alpha Centauri, the Resolute, suffers a catastrophic failure. Utilizing both natural splendor and canny effects, the production stresses the breadth, wonder, and dangers of this new setting. The show is riddled with enjoyable set-pieces that take full advantage of the strange properties of the planet, such as a dune-buggy race across a plain full of exploding geysers, or a scramble against time when a local species of eel turns out to have a taste for the colonists' rocket fuel.
Perhaps because of the younger target audience, Lost in Space avoids the common pitfalls of a lot of modern, adult-oriented genre shows. Episodes exist as single storytelling units, introducing a challenge—the Robinsons' ship is trapped in rapidly-freezing water and with it all the gear they need to survive—and piling complications on top of it—Judy dives into the wreck to retrieve a desperately needed heating element, but the water flash-freezes around her, trapping her with only a few hours of air in her suit; John and Will set out to a nearby source of magnesium, hoping to use it to melt the ice, but Will falls into a crevice, forcing John to decide which of his children needs him more urgently—before reaching a resolution at the episode's end.
This seems like the very basics of storytelling, but enough genre shows have forgotten them, relying instead on the slow build of seasonal arcs, soapy character drama, and the allure of the “continue to next episode” button to obscure basic plotting deficiencies. It's an almost visceral relief that Lost in Space doesn't do this, while still managing to build its characters and develop season-long themes, such as the colonists' efforts to get off the planet before the Resolute leaves them behind, or the mysterious ecological calamity that spurred the Robinsons to leave Earth.
At the same time, Lost in Space demonstrates a sophistication in its writing that far outstrips a lot of other genre shows, including many that are ostensibly aimed at adults. When the Robinsons make contact with other surviving colonists, there are inevitable disagreements and personal tensions, but all are mitigated by the fact that everyone in the expedition is a trained, experienced professional with a sympathetic point of view. The expedition leader, Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey), is an unpleasant personality, supercilious and quick to cast blame. But he also knows his job, and even when his decisions run counter to the Robinsons' wishes, they have a firm foundation in practicality and the greater good.
A different form of complexity can be found in the relationship between John and Maureen, who as we quickly learn were separated for several years, with John taking a military post far from his family, before Maureen won a chance to take the children to Alpha Centauri. Their co-parenting arrangement is stretched to its limits by the far-from-ideal circumstances on the planet, but nevertheless one can see them both straining to not only remain cordial, but keep their family functioning and alive.
But the greatest weapons that Lost in Space has in the struggle to justify its existence are the two women who are its hero and villain. The original Lost in Space was sufficiently retrograde in its gender politics that it's not surprising that the new show would seek to play up the professionalism of its female characters, making Maureen an engineer and Judy a doctor. But it goes much further than that—and much further than I had allowed myself to expect—when it reveals that Maureen is the head of the Robinson family, the one who makes the decisions, sets the tone, and determines on a direction for the others to follow.
The show has a tremendous asset in Parker, an actress of great subtlety who can imbue her lines with both humor and bite. When she tells John that “I think the children should hear us speaking with one voice ... and I think that voice should be mine,” it's said with enough softness to sound reasonable. But nevertheless it is clear that Maureen is telling, not asking.
Maureen is depicted as a visionary and an idealist—it was her idea to leave Earth, because, as she explains to her daughter, “we wanted a world that was worthy of you”. But that has negative implications as well as positive ones, and the show doesn't shy away from this. Maureen is the sort of person who will, moments after crash-landing on an alien planet, decisively correct her eleven-year-old son when he speaks of home—”Call it Earth. It's not your home anymore.” And she's the sort of person who will bribe someone to get Will's test scores changed when he fails to earn a spot in the colony group, because nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of her vision or her family.
It's clear that Maureen looms so large for all of her family that, even as she encourages them to achieve their fullest potential with endless love and support, she sets a path before them that it is difficult, nearly impossible, for any of them to rebel against. It's so rare for female characters—and especially mothers—to get to express this kind of ambiguity, neither nurturing angels nor stifling monsters but something in between, that it's almost worth watching Lost in Space just for the opportunity to see one.
In the opposite corner to Maureen is the show's villain, Dr. Smith (Parker Posey), whom the Robinsons pick up after crash-landing on the planet. This isn't strictly a gender-swap, since as we learn early on, Smith's actual name is June Harris, and she cheated her way onto the Resolute and then stole the identity of the real, male Zachary Smith (a brief cameo by the original Will Robinson, Bill Mumy). Smith's villainy is thus a matter of expediency rather than an evil scheme. There's a laundry list of crimes waiting to be answered for if she goes back to the Resolute, but the planet the Robinsons and the other colonists have crashed on is unstable. She therefore spends the season manipulating people, stirring up shit, painting other colony members as villains to distract from herself, and having occasional moments of genuine compassion and human connection, all in a desperate scramble to position herself optimally for survival.
I found myself thinking about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rebecca Bunch while watching Smith. They have the same combination of intelligence, emotional instability, and profound hurt (though Smith is older, and unfortunately doesn't seem to have benefitted from the loving community of friends that Rebecca falls into at the beginning of her show). And, like Rebecca, Smith convinces herself that a new start in a new place will make a different person of her, even as she repeatedly proves through her actions that she's brought her old character flaws along for the ride. One often finds oneself feeling sorry for Smith—it must be terrible to be as lonely, distrustful, and unhappy as she clearly is—right up until the moment when she does something terrible to people who have been nothing but kind and welcoming to her.
The show wisely pairs Smith with Maureen, first as friends and later as enemies, until the season's final climactic fight becomes a battle of wits and wills between them. It's a smart choice, in part, because the two women aren't as different as Maureen would probably like to believe. They've both, after all, told lies in order to get onto the colony ship. They're both willing to go to extremes to protect their vision of the future. The crucial difference between them is that Maureen fights for her family, while Smith fights only for herself, but I'm not convinced this is as meaningful a difference as the show seems to think.
But, you know, this is Lost in Space. What about the kids? What about the robot? As is typical with the show, a lot of thought has clearly been put into making these elements of the story feel fresh and rewarding. It's delightful, for example, to observe the difference that a few years in age makes in the behavior of the bright, independent-minded Robinson daughters. Judy is determined to be treated as an adult and an equal by her parents, while Penny still has a certain coltish quality and a fondness for bucking authority, which feels perfect for both their ages. It's also interesting to see a story about children in which those children work, and are expected to carry a meaningful share of the labor required to keep their family alive.
I'm probably the wrong age (and maybe also the wrong gender) to fully appreciate the boy-and-his-monster story that develops around Will and the most famous element of the original series, the robot. Here, the robot is an alien creature, and is the one who attacked the Resolute and caused the crash. On the planet, it is saved by Will and reprograms itself to be loyal to him, but the other colonists are naturally suspicious of a creature who slaughtered many of their number. This is probably the season's least interesting storyline—it's obvious that the robot will eventually go bad again, only to remember its old friend at the last minute. The parts that are interesting have more to do with Will, and with how his friendship with the robot allows him to work through his anxiety, his lingering anger at John for leaving, and his feelings that he hasn't earned his spot on the mission.
In fact, the closer Lost in Space gets to the end of the season, the more it flattens out the things that were interesting and unexpected about its handling of this ancient premise, in an obvious attempt to get us to the series's canonical form—the Robinsons, plus hangers-on, lost in space. (Among other reasons to regret this is the fact that it results in a majority-white cast, as opposed to the more multicultural colonist group.) Towards the middle of the season, there's a sense that the show might be converging on a genuinely subversive examination of its central premise—who is it, after all, that gets to colonize a new world? When Maureen says that “only the best” will be able to earn spots in the colony groups, what does that mean? We might argue that there's no place in the colonies for people like Dr. Smith, but what about Will? Is it really fair to exclude him just because he isn't as cool under pressure as the rest of his family? Especially when his anxiety is clearly rooted in his mother's high expectations and his father's absence, and they both still get to go?
It's this throughline that feels like the sole justification for the character of Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), who is otherwise the show's biggest misstep. A mechanic aboard the Resolute who ends up on the planet with the other survivors, he's a rough-and-tumble cliché who is repeatedly depicted as money-grubbing and out only for himself. There's a heart of gold underneath it all, of course (the show gets some interesting mileage out of an early episode in which Smith outwits West by pretending to be scrupulous and soft-hearted, when actually she's far more selfish than he is), but nevertheless the contrast between West and the clean-cut, serious-minded colonists feels like it should be interrogated more than it ultimately is.
There's a moment about halfway through the season when it seems like the show recognizes this. “You get on a shuttle to the new world, what do I get? A hearty handshake and a ticket back to a dying planet with no future,” West says to Judy when she chastises him for demanding a payout for helping the colonists. It raises the possibility of class playing a role in the selection of people who get to live in the new world, to combine with the earlier implication that people with mental health problems, like Will and Smith, would also be excluded from it. But it's a thread that is quickly dropped, in favor of West being inspired by the Robinsons' devotion to one another to discover his inner hero.
Ultimately, that's what happens to a lot of the interesting ideas that come up over the course of the first season. All are dropped or warped into a new shape in service of the lesson that “the Robinsons stick together.” John and Maureen rekindle their marriage. Judy, who had previously been cool towards him, forgives her father. Will finds his courage (along the way telling Maureen “what good is protecting me my whole life if I can't grow up to protect you?”, which is not the sort of thing an eleven-year-old should ever be allowed to say to his total badass of a mother).
To be fair, that's probably no more than I should have expected. The new Lost in Space, it turns out, is an intelligent, thoughtful handling of its concept, but it doesn't seek to dismantle or interrogate that concept, and maybe it was unreasonable to think that it would. But the pieces of this show are smart enough, and sufficiently unusual, that I find myself regretting that the show they were a part of didn't have the courage to follow them where they should have gone. At the end of the season, the Robinsons (plus Smith and West) are truly lost in space, but a more interesting show has been lost in the process.