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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Lost in Space: The Reluctant Astronaut (1965) – Pilot Review

With the release of the new Lost in Space on Netflix I thought it would be nice to take a journey back in time to the original launching of the Jupiter 2 and the Space Family Robinson. When people think of Irwin Allen it is mostly of his persona as “The Master of Disaster” for his work directing or producing such noteworthy disaster epics as The Poseidon, The Towering Inferno and The Swarm, but in the 1960s when it came to television he was the undisputed king of science fiction with such shows under his belt as The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants and of course Lost in Space. One could posit the idea that the successes of Lost in Space on CBS directly lead to NBC greenlighting Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek, which often used the same sci-fi tropes that Irwin Allen pioneered, and strangely enough both of those shows only managed three seasons each.  Only time will tell if the 2018 launch of the new Netflix series will managed to catch on with fans, the1998 big budget movie and 2004 failed relaunch of the series certainly didn't, but today we will take a look back at the original show’s pilot to see where it all began.


While shows like Star Trek took place hundreds into the future not so with Irwin Allen's shows, though a futurist he set his stories in the "not too distant future" and thus the pilot episode of Lost in Space “The Reluctant Astronaut” took place in the year 1997, a mere thirty years into the future. The basic premise of Lost in Space dealt with the United States launching the first of many planned colony missions to a planet orbiting the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, this being due to the Earth’s severe over population reaching the point where finding life off world was humanity’s last hope. The crew consisted of Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), his wife Maureen (June Lockhart), their children Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Bill Mumy), and joining the family was their pilot, U.S. Space Corps Major Donald West (Mark Goddard), who was there basically in case anything went wrong with the ship's navigation or guidance system.


What could go wrong with Zorro on board?

Of course something does go drastically wrong, though not because of any technical malfunctions, but instead at the hands of the traitorous Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), who was the Alpha Control's doctor but also working as a saboteur for a competing foreign nation. Those familiar with the show will most likely remember Dr. Smith as the cowardly buffoon who spouted such alliterative insults as “You bubble headed booby” or “Cantankerous Cold-hearted Clump” but in season one of the show he wasn't there simply to fill out the comic relief quotient, he was damn dangerous.  Season One episodes though family friendly were more science fiction based than what was to follow, and it was only later that the tone of the series went from Star Trek level of science fiction to basically Gilligan’s Island in Space. In the pilot episode Dr. Smith not only sabotages the Jupiter 2, programing the mission’s robot to destroy the spacecraft eight hours after launch, but when he is discovered aboard the ship prior to launch he judo chops the poor security guard and tosses him down a waste disposal chute.

Note: In the original script to this episode Dr. Smith had a hidden needle in his ring that poisoned the guard but the Network thought that was too nasty for a show aimed more or less at children so it was changed.

One of the more interesting things about the character of Dr. Zachary Smith is that he wasn’t originally part of the show at all. In the original unaired pilot “No Place to Hide” not only did the character of Dr. Smith not exist but neither did the ever popular robot, instead of sabotage the Gemini 12 (later changed to Jupiter 2 for some reason) goes off course when it was unable to avoid a meteor shower. The Robinsons spend three years in suspended animation while their ship flies off course before crash landing on some strange uncharted planet, leaving them lost in space. This never aired pilot was full of wild adventures with the Robinson family fighting a couple of giant cyclops, discovering ancient alien ruins, and crossing an inland sea that almost destroyed them by sucking their amphibious chariot into a giant whirlpool, but the Network didn’t think the show could work with each and every week the family basically running from one random threat or another, they believed it needed an ongoing adversary.


Exit giant cyclops, enter Doctor Smith.

The meteor shower that disables the Jupiter 2 still occurs but no longer is it because of crappy navigational software but because of Dr. Smith being accidentally being trapped onboard the ship, having to do some last minute tinkering to insure the robot has its power pack so that it could “Destroy Jupiter 2” after the launch, his additional two hundred and fifty pounds of body weight causes the ship to veer off course into a swarm of meteoroids. I must say that both versions of the pilot do not paint a good picture of this mission for if the ship’s onboard systems can’t compensate for additional weight, and adjust the ship’s flight path to avoid destruction, it's not a very good computer. So Doctor Smith or no Doctor Smith this mission was pretty much doomed from the outset.


Large balls of tinfoil are one of the more dangerous hazards in space.

With the crew of the Jupiter 2 in suspended animation it’s up to Dr. Smith to save the ship from being bashed to pieces by the meteoroid swarm. (Science Note: At the speed the Jupiter 2 is traveling an impact with meteors the size we see here would have pretty much vaporized the ship.) Smith is able to wake up Major West, who is then able to steer the spacecraft out of harm’s way, and then the Robinson family are revived to discover that they are far from their intended destination.

What about the robot, you ask? Well Smith’s programming of the robot to destroy the Jupiter 2, and his attempts to stop it once he finds himself trapped aboard, is about the worst case of contrived padding I’ve ever seen. When Smith realizes he is an unfortunate passenger on a doomed craft he turns off the power to the robot but he only manages to move the on/off switch to the halfway position, and this simply causes the robot to lumber over to the control panel and move the switch back into the on position. Then later he tries to remove the robot’s power pack but is hampered when John Robinson is forced to turn off the artificial gravity so that they can do repairs on the ship.  After some goofy floating around he eventually does get the power pack off of the robot but then Will Robinson, not knowing that this mechanical marvel is their death sentence, places it back and then the robot finally gets to go on its rampage.


“Resistance is futile.”

With the jettisoning of the Jupiter 2 crash landing on an alien world, and fighting hostile aliens and environments that were in the original pilot, the writers decided to fill much of that missing time with Dr. Smith running around the ship like a total idiot, that Jonathan Harris is able to make this kind of work is a testament to his skill as an actor, but I think a little of it could have been trimmed and that time given to the rest of the crew. The remainder of the pilot episode deals with Major West being suspicious of Dr. Smith, a distrust that runs throughout most of the first season and has us wondering why the good Major didn’t just quietly murder the conniving bastard.  The episode then ends on a cliffhanger with John Robinson floating helpless in space after his tether snapped while trying to fix their navigational array during a space walk.  A gimmick that would later be popularized by the Adam West Batman series.


“Tune in next week. Same space-time, same space-channel.”

That this show is rife with wonky science is no surprise, for example the robots rampage somehow knocks the ship into hyperdrive by simply hitting a lever labeled HYPERDRIVE and it is never explained as to why the ship wasn't already in hyperdrive or that the ship had this capability at all, but as a family adventure show it was immensely fun and as a kid I ate the whole thing up with a spoon.  Add in the fact that The Robot (B-9 Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot) is up there with Robby the Robot as one of the most beloved mechanical heroes in science fiction and you have a show that deserves to be remembered. Will the Netflix reboot capture a new generation of fans? Only time will tell, but at least the original series is still available and though the Robinson Family may still be lost in space they can always be found in our hearts.

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