Let’s deal with the elephant in the room, before you read further: The upcoming 2018 Lost in Space Netflix reboot does not need to exist. We’ve previously explored some of the reasons why here at Inverse. The only conceivable reason to mount the incredibly low-stakes project would be to give the half-a-century-old franchise some credibility, assuming that every brand deserves a fair shot and, perhaps, that the TV industry is obliged to milk anything with any name recognition for every dollar it’s worth. Lost in Space never really seemed to be trying very hard to be good. What if it actually did its damnedest, for once?
One might (definitely) prefer a fresh-off-the-presses original story for a new sci-fi TV show. But perhaps a more fleshed out, less cartoony project, appropriating the basic premise of the mid-1960s TV show or the 1998 near-flop film, could on some level redeem — or rather just -deem — the franchise. The robotic warning call “Danger, Will Robinson!” is, at least, a good catchphrase. And in these cluttered, senseless times, greenlighted shows are built on much less.
There are relatively few interesting elements of the Lost in Space conceit, and they were more compelling on paper than in execution in both the TV show and the movie. The story is, in essence, a family drama operating within an adventure-comedy context: a years-long journey through space to the distant but possibly-inhabitable planet Alpha Prime, orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. The patriarch and leader of the Robinson family crew is, in theory, geologist and ship commander Dr. John Robinson, but it is really his precocious young son, Will — a veritable computer and electronics genius — who inevitably does the long division and saves the day. To provide some additional interest, there’s rebellious, capricious middle child Penny, responsible, hard-working older daughter, and voice of reason and conscientious mother Maureen (she’s also a biochemist, but sadly, that’s only barely relevant in both the TV show and the film).
It sounds like a recipe for a potential Trek-ified version of Parenthood. In the 60s, it was more Leave It to Beaver meets Forbidden Planet, with more-than-a-dollop of timely misogyny. Unfortunately, the latter wasn’t sufficiently excised from the young-adult-catered late-90s film. See, for one thing, Matt LeBlanc’s Major West, a misogynistic bro’s-bro with a heart of gold who can win over Heather Graham’s Dr. Judy Robinson (in the film, a crucial crew member and able mechanic) with his piloting skills. Sure, she staves him off with a little mockery and a few emasculating dick jokes (“Why don’t you just … hang onto your joystick?”) but it doesn’t last long. The chemistry certainly wasn’t enough to launch LeBlanc’s acting career beyond the orbit of Central Perk.
The other major element of the Lost in Space conceit that seems promising — if not original — when it comes to a successful sci-fi series is the concept of intergalactic colonization. Any series predicated on Earth on the verge of apocalypse — or at least, livability — could be made apropos for the current moment. The 1998 Lost in Space (set around the time the original 1960s show was supposed to be set) used climate change and human abuse of natural resources as a springboard for the Robinson family and Major West to get on the Jupiter II and set out for Alpha Prime, in the hopes of building a “hypergate” that could provide easy transport from Earth to the distant planet.
In a Farscape-like turn (see: John Crichton’s wormhole), of course, they get set off-course in the midst of their journey, while cryofrozen à la Alien, or you know, The Spy Who Shagged Me. As in the TV show, a foreign spy (a “terrorist” in the 1998 version) in the Robinsons’s organization (the United Global Space Force in the film) attempts to find ways to sabotage the Jupiter, though the Robinsons hold him prisoner on the ship.
The character in a 2010s version could be a springboard for political overtones; perhaps he or she would be some anti-government ideologue or deft, pseudo-philosophical hacker. In the 1998 version, Gary Oldman — in arguably his most cartoonish role outside of his unintentionally comic, post-Elephant Man rendering of the mutant psychopath Mason Verger in the 2001 Hannibal film — is an ineffectual weasel-man with minimal agency within the plot. A convincing reboot would need a far more charismatic and clearly motivated antagonist.
But the most important take-away from previous versions of the franchise is that action scenes should be minimized. Conserve your energy and focus on one or two modest haunted-spaceship-walkthroughs or beautiful-but-dangerous planet explorations. A good recent example of how to do this would be the sinister exploratory moments in last year’s The Expanse, which did the best it could with a Syfy Channel budget. It got most of its mileage out of talking, and smart dynamics between characters. These were never strong suits for either the Lost in Space show or movie, either — the Robinson family members all essentially just fulfilled archetypes — but it was still better than the space battles.
The 1998 film was especially bad. It came at an awkward time for CGI, and even at the time, critics remarked that it was hard to look at (Roger Ebert disparaged its cheesy special effects, [and] muddy visual look”). The film has a creamy center of tedious, robot-heavy, hard-to-parse action scenes, citing The Empire Strikes Back and any number of Star Trek films makes for what feels like, at 2 hours and 11 minutes, one of the longest movies I’ve ever seen.
No, theres no reason for a showrunner — in this case, Prison Break and Charmed (!) producer Zack Estrin — to mount a new Lost in Space. But then again, is there any reason for most all of “event” TV, when nearly every essential formula has been tried already? Perhaps name recognition will prompt a small, odd cross-section of viewers, with some warped nostalgia, to sample an episode. Maybe, despite their better judgment, they’ll binge the whole 10-episode series. #DangerWillRobinson it is, then, come 2018.
In these binge-crazy times, a clear fan culture isn’t needed to justify throwing money at 10 episodes of something, and while we wait patiently for the bubble to burst, we might as well watch a new Lost in Space too.