Cousin of 1960s science fiction mainstays like Star Trek and Doctor Who, Lost in Space was lighter fare for fans of space travel, and never managed the same longevity that its counterparts did. But with new generations come new reboots, and Netflix has revived the series for the first time since the ill-fated 1998 film.
And things are a little different this time.
[Lots of spoilers for season one of Lost in Space (2018)]
This update to the premise of Lost in Space sees the Robinson family as part of a colonist group heading for Alpha Centauri, rather than striking out alone. When their group gets waylaid by an attack that leads to a crash, the family (and a few dozen survivors they eventually meet up with) is forced to contend with a new environment… and they make first contact when eleven-year-old Will (Maxwell Jenkins) befriends an alien artificial intelligence. With the main carrier ship, the Resolute, orbiting the alien planet in search of survivors, the Robinsons and other colonists have limited time to get back into space before they’re left on this strange world permanently.
There is a blanket of grimness tossed over the proceedings, and while that makes some sense given the situation at hand, there’s very little of the humor that Lost in Space was once known for. This is partly down to Parker Posey’s gender-swapped Dr. Smith. Her real name June Harris—she steals the identity of the real Dr. Smith at the start of the show (aptly played by the original Will Robinson, Bill Mumy), after having stolen her sister’s identity to get on board the Resolute in the first place. Rather than an agent of insidious camp and poor choices, Dr. Smith has been rendered as a genuine sociopath in this iteration. While Posey is performing the hell out of the role, it doesn’t change the fact that Dr. Smith’s original purpose as a series regular was to entertain and keep things moving. Here, Smith’s sociopathy is just an excuse to keep her behaving odiously without any true interest for what makes her tick. She claims she wants to start a new life, but beyond that, we get no indication of what she wanted to do on a new world with far fewer people where her chances of being caught were always going to be high. Initially, I was excited to see a woman play a role as fun as Dr. Smith… but Posey isn’t given the chance to have any fun.
The Robinsons have their fair share of internal family drama (an aspect perhaps slightly borrowed from that maligned 1998 movie), but each of them carry their roles with aplomb and far more personality than they’ve ever been previously allotted. Rather than dad being de facto in charge, we get clear matriarchal leadership in Molly Parker’s Maureen Robinson, an engineer and taskmaster who treats her family like her own personal (but dearly-loved) army. John Robinson is played with begrudging warmth by Toby Stephens, a father and husband who had been re-upping his time in the U.S. Marines, apparently under the belief that his genius family didn’t need him. This choice almost broke apart his marriage with Maureen, but the trip to Alpha Centauri offers a new chance to build. It’s refreshing to watch a married couple on the verge of divorce rediscover each other in a manner as grounded as this show depicts—where two people who are still admiring of one another’s strengths and abilities have to learn how to be a team again. In addition, John Robinson’s primary struggle in the show is wrapped up in relearning masculinity outside of traditional norms; because his family doesn’t need him to provide for them or even to protect them (the Robot starts protecting Will as soon as they meet, leading to a great deal of discomfort on Papa Robinson’s part), he has to tune into his family and make an effort to give them what they truly need, be it comfort, or understanding, or even just practical know-how.
Taylor Russell has an incredible arc as Judy Robinson, an eighteen-year-old not only expected to grow up instantly in the midst of chaos, but also needed as a doctor due to her education and position within the mission. Judy struggles with PTSD after a traumatizing incident at the start of the season, but more importantly, she has to contend with the sharp learning curve of going from newly minted medical professional to on-the-fly doctor instantly. Her courage under pressure is stunning, even in the moments when it’s a bit reckless. There’s a bit of a flirtation happening between her and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), which the show it clearly trying to pass off as a Han/Leia brand of antagonism; it’s still squiffy, given that there’s a twelve year gap between the actors and it’s obvious. West himself starts the show fairly insufferable, but once the scripts start leaning into the character’s innate oddness, all his bravado finally becomes funny and he lights up.
Penny Robinson is played by Mina Sundwall, and it’s deeply satisfying to get such a realistic glimpse into teenage girlhood on a show that has historically favored Will Robinson’s perspective over every member of his family. Penny seems to be the secret make-or-break point of the Lost in Space narrative, in fact—even the movie did a great job with the character, giving her video diaries and a healthy heaping of homesick angst to power her through. This version of Penny is less dramatic, but deeply sarcastic and a little goofy in all the ways the teenagers are and desperately pretend not to be. All of the Robinson kids have well-wrought relationships as siblings, which could have easily been forgone in favor of petty squabbling to create more drama. Instead, we love Judy, Penny, and Will because they love each other.
There are other places where the show clicks together beautifully, and those are all the places where the new environment presents challenges to the colonists that they have to overcome creatively. As a survivalist nightmare, Lost in Space is a treat, and not over-dour in its execution. Watching incredibly smart people come up with answers to sudden problems is always enjoyable, it builds tension throughout the series without dragging it down. Every new creature, every environmental oddity, every change in the landscape raises the stakes and keeps the plot from fizzling out.
For a show with such a large assortment of bright spots, its dimmer parts become all the more irritating. There are just too many holes in the worldbuilding to make the conceit pan out in moments when it needs to dearly; the idea that the Robinsons are part of the 24th group sent to colonize Alpha Centauri, but somehow have no handbook or training for dealing with hostile incursions or making contact with other species is baffling. (Even given what we learn about humans gathering alien tech to make these trips possible, these are basic necessities in the face of frequent space travel.) There’s also the fact that no one besides Penny Robinson seems to have read a book or have a concept of narrative—we learn that the Robot attacked the Resolute and caused their crash, but no one thinks to ask why while they’re busy reprimanding it for murder, which is plain asinine no matter how traumatized and angry the survivors may be.
And that’s without getting into base morality in terms of how the Robot’s existence is handled. It’s all well and good to be happy that an alien AI rescues your kid and wants to be friends with him, but it’s never made clear if people are considering the Robot’s potential sentience as part of how they make decisions regarding its fate. Will tells his family and anyone who will listen that the Robot is safe because he can control him, and not a single person ever says “hey, controlling him shouldn’t be the goal here unless you’re planning on keeping him as a slave. We need to find out if you friend values life and understands it, and can be trusted on his own.” These mistakes are perhaps realistic in a certain light, but they’re never addressed in a manner that suggests that the people writing the show know that these are mistakes. Will’s biggest error on the show—having the Robot walk off a cliff and destroy itself, leaving the door wide open for Dr. Smith to repair and reclaim it—is made out of fear for the lives of his family and the other colonists, certainly. It is also murder, even if said murder ends up being temporary, and no one ever acts as though this is a problem.
This could be partly due to the fact that the show is also so far determined to keep any concept of politics away from the story—for starters, we have no idea who is sending these groups into space, which governments are involved, how they have been working together, and who is being left behind. It is never addressed that sending the “best and brightest” into space might be an unfair practice to everyone else back on Earth (save for a throwaway line from Major West, who is fully aware of the injustice within the system). It also seems that the extinction event that occurs on Earth and precipitates these colonizing missions might be the result of certain Earth governments working in collusion to gain new technology. This extinction event nearly wipes out the Middle East, which would mean that part of the planet was okay with letting that happen. If the show is making commentary on the state of humanity going forward, that’s a viable storytelling choice, but leaving big suggestions like this out there in midair is deeply unsatisfying. These are all issues that could be alleviated in a second season of the show, but the title of the series is Lost in Space, not Lost in Space Before We Head Back to Earth and Fix This Mess.
Perhaps the show will find its feet as it goes? As it stands, Lost in Space has heaps of promise, but hasn’t found its voice just yet.