How do you make one of TV’s all-time cheesiest science-fiction shows look cool?
That’s what Netflix and writer-producers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless had to be asking themselves when they decided to revive Lost in Space – producer Irwin Allen’s beloved-but-clunky 1960s space opera about a clan of bold braniacs marooned on a new planet while restarting human civilization. Because let’s be frank: The original was no Star Trek. It was aimed mainly at kids. When the Robinsons – no Swiss family, they – found themselves, well, lost, they had to rely on their smarts and courage. A plucky pilot, an inscrutable robot and a devious stowaway were also part of the mix. The stories were strung together with green-screen and papier-mâché. Other than the phrase “Danger, Will Robinson!”, the show’s three seasons left virtually no cultural footprint deeper than your run-of-the-mill TV-Land boomer nostalgia.
So if nothing else, Netflix’s much-hyped new version, which debuts on the streaming service this Friday, puts every single dollar of its much bigger budget up on the screen. There are astonishing CGI-enhanced images of intergalactic transports and cosmic worlds galore. There are epic set pieces involving songs of both fire and ice, along with mecha-aliens and a vastly updated version of Robot. If anyone asks what millions of extra dollars can buy for a television production, here’s your answer: “Awe.”
This Lost in Space, however has also been significantly “Netflix-ified.” It’s kid-friendly, provided that your family doesn’t mind the occasional use of the word “shit.” And unlike the LBJ-era Robinsons, this bunch has been rendered realistically dysfunctional. When the saga begins, the esteemed scientist Maureen (Molly Parker) is separated from her gruff military husband John (Toby Stephens). She’s trying to maintain order in a house full of bickering kids, including the nerdy, biracial Judy (Taylor Russell), from her first marriage; the impulsive, status-conscious Penny (Mina Sundwall); and the imaginative but frail Will (Maxwell Jenkins).
But overall, the song remains the same: An accomplished family, the Robinsons, gets picked to help restart civilization on a new planet. Their ship gets knocked off course. They have to rely on their smarts and courage, along with an at-times inscrutable android and a devious stowaway. The main difference is that, rather than having an inexplicable parade of guest stars drop by this distant planet for an episode or two, the remake’s populated with other families.They’ve all made this journey across the galaxies together. And they’re all having to decide how much they owe to each other now that the mission’s gone sour.
Ignacio Serricchio plays a more roguish version of the core Lost in Space character Don West. The cocky man of action is now an unapologetic smuggler, who argues that since he’s not one of Earth’s elite, he’s justified in using his hard-won skills and guile to stay alive. Just like in the Sixties show, he’s the young hothead bouncing snarky comments off stiff-necked heroes. And, of course, there’s Robot – the original breakout character, occasional villain-accomplice and Will’s best friend and the devilish doc’s occasional accomplice. He has a more complex origin and purpose in this update, but still serves a lot of the same narrative function. It gives the boy emotional support whenever his family’s too busy sniping at each other.
But the original’s best-remembered character (among the humans, at least) was that most sniveling of schemers, Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris. In the revival, indie film queen Parker Posey puts a different spin on the “good” doctor, replacing Harris’s mostly benign boobery with something more sinister … yet still with a sly comic edge. She’s introduced at the end of the first episode, already looking for ways to manipulate and betray the residents of a wayward mothership, filled with scores of intergalactic colonists fleeing a dying Earth.
She’s one of the main reasons to watch the show; the other is Deadwood and House of Cards star Parker. As the quick-witted matriarch of a blended family, she’s chosen to be among the first to explore the uncharted planet her way-off-course traveling party stumbles upon. Her Maureen is earnest and compassionate, almost to a fault; she makes a perfect foil for Posey’s anatognist. And it’s only, in fact, when the creative team realizes that the real tension at the heart of their show is in the contrasting philosophies of one persnickety mom and a self-centered con-woman that the 10-episode first season really comes into focus.
In fact, though the show’s never a chore to watch, it’s not until around chapter six that it starts to become a genuine pleasure. To preserve a little mystery, the story of why and how the Robinsons and the other families took to the stars gets parceled out too gradually, in scenes that pop up so abruptly that it sometimes it takes a second or two to register that they’re set in the past. The motivation behind the lurching backstory makes sense though, even when it doesn’t exactly work.
And you wish that the series wasn’t so overly concerned with deepening its predecessor’s characters and relationships – which means the writers spend more time than necessary showing how Maureen became so headstrong, Will so childish, etc. Thankfully, rather than front-loading the first few episodes with this tedious set-up, the new Lost in Space limits the exposition to scattered scenes, and spends the rest of its time smartly jumping right into the action: exciting mini-missions, harrowing narrow escapes, intriguing plot-twists.
Still, tune in to spend as much time as possible with Parker and Posey, who toward the end of this season end up in a lot of scenes together. Parker’s unstoppable Maureen gets knocked around early on, but becomes stronger from hour to hour; by the finale, she’s wearing her scars like a champ. Posey, meanwhile, makes the most of her ability to smile and lie simultaneously. She’s so convincing that it’s easy to buy what she’s selling, even when we know we’re being swindled. Who needs gajillion-dollar CGI effects when you have her patented open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare? These two are so good that they’d be credible even if you stuck them in front of plywood and styrofoam. When you drop this duo into the dazzling backdrops of a high-end prestige streaming service show, you end up with the brightest stars in orbiting the TV galaxy.