Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lost In Space S1 Ep1: The Reluctant Stowaway [Pilot]

"What makes some series, like Lost In Space, memorable and popular some 30 years later is some mysterious chemistry between the characters and the actors who played them, as well as the vision of the producers and writers who developed the pilot. It's that elusive quality...." -Writer Shimon Wincelberg [Starlog Magazine #220] on the magic of those series that become unforgettable like Lost In Space-

"DANGER WILL ROBINSON! DANGER!" I shall go to the grave with the immortal words of Robot as spoken commandingly by Dick Tufeld.

My first impressions watching the Pilot episode, The Reluctant Stowaway, of Irwin Allen's classic Lost in Space [1965-1968] is that it feels old. Of course, that's because it is old, but in a good way. It has that nostalgic quality that harkens back to early era science fiction like the classic Twilight Zone [1959-1965]. The visual effects and film stock are similar. It is both warm and eerily inviting and reminds us of a simpler time. Lost In Space, Season One is filmed entirely in black and white and therefore immediately propels itself into the realm of old school, vintage sci-fi television. Later, Season Two and Season Three would be filmed in color to keep up with newcomers like Batman [1966-1968] and would opt for camp over more serious family-centered science-fiction. It's hard to believe I wasn't born when this series was in full production. I wasn't even a twinkle in someone's eye. Nevertheless, like Battlestar Galactica [1978], in its day, Lost In Space launched the most expensive pilot to date at roughly $600,000 and it was filled to the rim with ambition in every ounce of its production.

Is the score to Lost In Space not one of the sweetest orchestrations you've ever heard in your lifetime? The theme would be on my top ten deserted island theme songs CD along with Thunderbirds and Space:1999. The opening credits are beautiful complete with its simple 2D animation. It's utterly fantastic! I would go so far as to say this is one of the best openings in science fiction history. The scoring of the show by Johnny Williams [yes, the Composer John Williams] was simply perfection. The music injected into the series was filled menace, tension and unexpected thrills. Scoring is such a tricky line to walk. You want the music to enhance the scene, but not distract or draw away from it. Somehow Williams managed to enhance and create a score that is a robust, monstrous creature all its own. Set apart from the series, it lends itself to hours of endless listening enjoyment. Still, it set the tone for a big, grand space adventure and sounded every bit as big as the series wuld one day become and remain.

In the fictional world of Lost In Space, it is October 1997. We are introduced to the Robinson family, chosen from over two million potential candidates, who have been selected to rocket to Alpha Centauri via the beloved Earthcraft known as Jupiter II [formerly the Gemini 12 for the originally planned pilot No Place To Hide]. The Jupiter II, like the central vessel in so many classic series [Star Trek, Firefly], is a featured character in the series and anchors the family. It is home away from home as the U.S.S. Enterprise was home to the crew of Star Trek or Serenity was home to Mal and company in Firefly. It is believed Alpha Centauri offers the ideal conditions and resources needed for re-population. Earth is overcrowded and the Robinson family is tasked with finding us a new home. The Robinsons will travel in suspended animation to their destination. They are the prime candidates for a number of scientific reasons, least of which is their outstanding qualities as a family unit, including scientific achievement, resourcefulness and emotional stability [attributable to the nuclear family]. The Jupiter II comes complete with an environmental control robot called simply Robot. We love Robot! America is in a race against other nations to find another home before it is too late. The concern for sabotage is real.

Enter our 'reluctant stowaway' Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith is deliciously evil and played with seditious brilliance by the late Jonathan Harris. He is reluctant, because he is merely on site to place destruct sequences and programming codes into the Robot so that it will activate and destroy the Jupiter II and all aboard. His intentions are to exit the craft before launch. But for who does Smith operate? Operative Smith is discovered by a soldier. Smith knocks him unconscious and places him into the waste disposal tube. Plans go awry for Dr. Smith's who gets stuck on board the Jupiter II. Eight hours following launch Robot is set to destroy the Jupiter II and space family Robinson.

Perhaps one of the single hottest females in science fiction history: Marta Kristen as Judy Robinson. The magic of Lost In Space like so many other classic series was largely due, in part, to perfect casting. A remarkably wonderful cast of actors was assembled to play the parts of space family Robinson. Their chemistry was irresistible. The idea of a Swiss Family Robinson in space led to exciting, simple adventures both entertaining and conceptually interesting for its time. It was undeniably family-driven, child-friendly, but that wasn't to say there wasn't enough science fiction intrigue to keep adults glued to the old tube.

To be clear, it's marked ROBOT POWER. Like many of the shows that stand the test of time after just two or three seasons [Star Trek, Space:1999], Lost In Space has its loyal following and supporters, like me. This is why, once again, The Sci-Fi Fanatic will spend countless hours absorbing even the smallest details found in one of science fiction's greatest works.

Ironically, the classic alien saucer design would be, not from outer space, but rather Earth. Now, Dr. Smith is trapped aboard the Jupiter II. After launch Smith attempts to contact his employer [Aolis 14 Umbra]. Mission accomplished and now ongoing. "How much more money are you going to pay me for this excursion?" He is slimy brilliance overacting the part with panache. He is interestingly sinister as the saboteur here, but eventually becomes the butt of much of the show's comedy especially in Season Two and Three. Robot awakens and flips the switch on the console to give itself more power. Smith attempts to contact Alpha Control. The coordinates set for Jupiter II's destination to Alpha Centauri have been altered. It turns out the entire mission has been correlated to weight sensitive to the pound. There is an additional two hundred pounds of weight aboard thanks to our stowaway Smith. The Jupiter II flies straight into a meteor storm and electrical fires breakout across the ship first opening Major Don West's sleep tube. Major West is the first to receive resuscitation from Smith out of suspended animation.

This is as bad to the bone as Dr. Smith would ever be, but he remains forever the schemer. West is our action hero in the show often saving the day and willing to thrust his entire body into harm's way. He is played with vigorous, tough guy, man's man enthusiasm by Mark Goddard. Goddard reluctantly took the role but expected the series would not last. West initiates the re-animating sequence to bring the Robinsons out of their deep sleep. The late Guy Williams is note perfect as the patriarch, Dr. John Robinson, to our Lost In Space family. He was always the man [or guy if you will]. All of the behind-the-scenes history aside about Guy Williams he was an essential component of the series. Each brilliant actor or actress had their part to play.

The Sound Of Music. Angela Cartwright [third from left], as Penny Robinson, played opposite Spider Man's Nicholas Hammond [far left] as youngsters in The Sound Of Music [1965]. Billy Mumy, as boy wunderkind Will Robinson, would later receive a major second wind of sorts as Lennier on Babylon 5 [1993-1998]. The lovely June Lockhart would lead the family as matriarch Maureen Robinson and Norwegian beauty Marta Kristen, as Judy Robinson, rounded out the babe quotient for Lost In Space's special ensemble with her frequent teasing of Don West and her male fanbase.

Artificial gravity is turned off and we get a hysterical sequence of Will and Penny floating around in space on black strings. It is so funny. What do the best shows in science fiction have in common [Star Trek, Space:1999, Thunderbirds, Lost In Space]? Strings and models [female and miniature]. It hits the 8 hour mark and Robot is unleashed in preparation to destroy the Jupiter II. Smith deactivates Robot.

This is a terrific exchange and the kind that establishes the style or type of discourse we would grow to love and come to expect between Dr. Smith and young Will Robinson.

Will reactivates Robot, which commences its mission to "DESTROY!" The family makes every effort to stop Robot and Don is finally to pull the power pack. It's comical to see West and company try and get that power pack on Robot complete with the shaky camera. They have every opportunity to snatch it and yet they move and stagger about, duck and weave giving the impression they are unable to stop Robot. It's like, 'grab the damn thing already will ya!' They are now "hopelessly lost in space."

John must go outside the Jupiter II to make repairs because he refers to himself as "expendable." He was always the courageous family leader putting his neck on the line more than we'd care to count. Don is the Jupiter II's pilot and must stay on the ship. Outside the ship we get more black strings and more great music from Johnny Williams as Guy Williams floats around.

Suddenly, John becomes detached from the cable and is floating around helplessly. Don prepares a rocket gun. Rocket gun! Fantastic! I would love a rocket gun! Smith refuses to go out to save him citing his heart. And so the Smith trait of cowardice begins. Maureen heads out to save her husband. Smith is such a gentleman as he opens the airlock door for her. What a guy. He can't get her out the airlock fast enough if it means he doesn't have to go. The rocket gun is fired and John tries to reach it. It could possibly be one of the silliest looking visual effects on record, but boy do we love it. John will have to hang loose until next time.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK! SAME TIME SAME CHANNEL. SAME BLOG! Ah, the riveting cliffhangers and those catchy 60s screen shots for Lost In Space and Batman ["Same bat-time, same bat-channel"]. This is delicious, retro science fiction at its best. Fifty minutes of pure, classic, Irwin Allen science fiction drama.

This is clearly the establishing Pilot that got the ball rolling and set the tone for all the characters involved. The chemistry between cast members is almost immediate. In this, it is a success despite being a fairly slow entry in comparison to the groove the show develops. Lost In Space also develops its own formula once the Jupiter II makes landfall. The Pilot is also more serious in tenor with the material presented here. The darker aspect gives way to a lighter side as episodes progress to the point of silly at times. Some would even argue it devolves into a far more childish exercise with the monster-of-the-week plot lines coupled with Dr. Smith's antics along with Will and Robot. Still, there is a colorful allure to those episodes with plenty to enjoy, but the show definitely strays off course, much like the Jupiter II, from this original installment's tone. Lost In Space may have been a touch campy and far out at times, but it's infinitely watchable and beloved by fans interested in character and story over slick packaging and gimmicks. Lost In Space, like many of Irwin Allen's classics, is loaded with heart and charm. Let's see it again.

The Reluctant Stowaway: B/ Writer: S. Bar David [pseudonym of Shimon Wincelberg]/ Director: Tony Leader.

Lost In Space: The Ultimate Unauthorized Trivia Challenge Interesting Fact: The matriarch, Dr. Maureen Robinson, is introduced in the Pilot with her science title, but it is never referenced again. Can you believe it? Women still had a long way to go in the 1960s. "She spends the next three years acting as the expedition's Chief Cook and Bottle Washer while her husband performs all the science experiments." Nice, funny, but fair point.

Lost In Space: The Ultimate Unauthorized Trivia Challenge [1998] was written by James Hatfield and George "Doc" Burt and is loaded with impressive facts and insights to each of the Lost In Space episodes from all three seasons as well as other random assorted information. Fans from all over added to this labor of love as noted in the acknowledgments. Each episodic chapter is comprised of a number of segments. My favorites are That Does Not Compute and Space Age Fast Fact. Thanks to Dwight Kemper for recommending it. It is long out of print and difficult to find especially mint. With the limited number of publications that ever circulated about this phemomenal series, this is probably the quintessential one to own. Author Jon Abbott's Irwin Allen Television Productions, 1964-1970: A Critical History looks like a potential keeper as well. The Irwin Allen book offers a critical guide to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. I would really like to see a proper episode guide authored and until such time I will bring each of them to you right here with clips and photos. I will be your virtual resource.

The Cast: Dr. John Robinson [Guy Williams]/ Maureen Robinson [June Lockhart]/ Major Don West [Mark Goddard]/ Judy Robinson [Marta Kristen]/ Will Robinson [Billy Mumy]/ Penny Robinson [Angela Cartwright]/ Dr. Zachary Smith [Jonathan Harris]/ Robot [Bob May-suit & Dick Tufeld -voice].

More on this amazing cast next BLOG episode!


Anonymous said...

O.M.G.!!!,I Love Lost in Space,never missed a episode :),had a crush on Penny :)

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

I know it. Who didn't love Penny? She was gorgeous too. I completely understand.

crowmagnumman said...

Man, this is a great write-up. I am a huge Lost in Space fan. I can't get enough of the old show. They tried to remake it twice and screwed it up both times. I love the campier stuff later on in the show, but nothing beats those early black-and-white episodes for me.

I'm gonna check out your other Lost in Space blog posts now.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

What a pleasure to have you stop by on these Lost In Space entries Crowmagnumman.

I have been revisiting the series and it has been met with a fairly mute response. I was beginning to think there was little interest in the series out there, so it's really a shot in the arm to have you come by and share your thoughts.

Thanks so much for stopping. Please do stick around. Sounds like we have much in common.

Regards, SFF

crowmagnumman said...

I'm actually surprised I haven't run into these blog posts before now. I think there are quite a few Lost in Space fans out there. And I think there's a relatively small, but dedicated fanbase online. It seems like Lost in Space never gets the attention it deserves. Star Trek seems to get all the love (and I'm as big a Trekkie as they come). So I really appreciate seeing your highly amusing and lengthy blog posts about the show. I really like that you can recognize the faults of the show and yet love it at the same time. That's the mark of a true fan.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Amen. Exactly, I'm certainly okay with a show having its flaws, but it certainly doesn't detract from its value and Lost In Space has value in spades. It's a classic, beautiful series.

Thank you for your kind words! Hopefully other fans will catch on to these posts. I have more to come.