Monday, May 9, 2022

Lost In Space S1 E13: One Of Our Dogs Is Missing

"Didn't they originally send animals up in space capsules?"

-Judy Robinson-



We reach a title for the latest installment of Lost In Space that may very well have been a headline proclaimed by the Soviet Union in 1957. And if one wondered what happened to Russian cosmonaut dog Laika aboard Sputnik-2 maybe Lost In Space answered that question with a little hope with its arrival in One Of Our Dogs Is Missing. And along with dogs Belka and Strelka who were also sent into space in 1960 (but unlike Laika returned home alive), these events were inspiration for writer William Welch who penned the outing among four episodes of Lost In Space (including E5 The Hungry Sea). It was indeed the more interesting element of the serial versus the natural inclination by Allen to continue toward his enthusiasm for more simplified monster of the week stories also included here.


Even better Lost In Space, Season One, Episode 13, One Of Our Dogs Is Missing might have been best applied to episode 14 as the dog that appears throughout this entry is entirely missing or absent with no explanation by the next episode. Strange times in the land of Irwin Allen. Author Marc Cushman noted the episode doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and that it was “missing much” including an ending. We could even call the entry One Of Our Endings Is Missing. I like that that. Nevertheless it’s a beautifully shot episode and once again is a delight to see and experience on Blu-Ray despite shortcomings. Lost In Space certainly applied selective continuity and memory throughout Season One. This writer must admit, it would have been great to see a little dog acquired as the family pet for the series to join Debbie the bloop. Who wouldn't have enjoyed this little dog in the background throughout the series? In truth the dog was intended to remain, but cost overruns ensured that Allen nixed that idea and the dog quickly went missing with no explanation. For those preferring a more palatable idea this writer offers this. It’s noted that the dog is missing by episodes end and instead of explaining where the dog went apparently the writers just gave the episode the rather appropriate title as there is no real explanation for it. Perhaps those animal enthusiasts out there with an eye toward history even in 1957 could rest assured in the subtext of it all that Laika was maybe somewhere out there in space safe and sound and quite possibly with the fictional Robinson family lost but not alone. If you were to look for a more sensible explanation then Cushman notes “just don’t expect it to make any sense.”


It might seem awfully random to see a dog just show up on The Robinsons' Jupiter 2 doorstep, but in 1965, the year this episode launched, there was indeed a sensitivity to dogs in space. With reason, the dog in the episode bears a striking likeness to the Russian space dog, Laika, the first animal to orbit the planet and, sadly, the first to die there. The pioneering mongrel/terrier that was canine Russian cosmonaut Laika (1954-1957) travelled aboard Sputnik 2, the first animal and female to orbit the Earth.


My first recollection of Laika was taking in director Lasse Hallstrom's wonderful, award-winning Swedish film My Life As A Dog (1985). The film remained one of my favorite foreign films for years about a boy named Inegmar who often contrasted his own wayward life to that of the missing Laika aboard that fateful trip into outer space. Ingemar would consider thoughtfully, "I should have told her everything. Mom loved stories like that. It’s not so bad if you think about it. It could have been worse. Just think how that poor guy ended up who got a new kidney in Boston. He got his name in all the papers, but he died just the same. And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt too good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to."


Laika was a female stray selected as an experiment for the hastily assembled Sputnik 2 in 1957 under the pressure of then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Unfortunately it was a one-way ticket as de-orbiting technology had not been completed and it was revealed Laika would not be coming home. It is believed Laika probably died hours following lift off. How and why exactly remains a mystery much like the mystery of the missing dog from One Of Our Dogs Is Missing. Obviously the Russians were brutally using Laika to pave the way for human occupants. The Russians used mongrel strays under the belief that they had already been subjected to and endured harsh external extremes on the streets of Moscow. Laika was trained for days in preparation for the launch with Mushka and Albina, but Laika was the one selected for the flight.


In an article posted for MSNBC in 2008, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky called Laika, "quiet and charming." The scientist brought Laika home to play with his children just hours before the flight.  Yazdovsky said, "I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live." So it was on October 31,1957 that the roughly three-year old terrier mongrel was sent into space widely reported then to have lived for days, but believed to have died from overheating (due to an insulation failure) and psychological trauma hours after launch as reported in 2002 by scientist Dr. Dimitry Malashenkov who worked on Sputnik 2. Additionally, Laika had to wait in its extremely small cabin for three days prior to launch due to technical problems (after weeks of training in confinement). But life signs ceased hours after lift off despite reports to the contrary years earlier the she lived any longer than that. Anyone who loves dogs can feel for Laika's sacrifice.


Years later, Sputnik 3 disintegrated with two more dogs in December 1960. Of thirteen canines, five gave their lives in the service of their country.  In 1960, Strelka, who orbited the Earth 18 times, was one of the first canines to survive. She had a litter of six puppies and one, Pushinka, was given to President John F. Kennedy as a gift. It is said Strelka's bloodline lives and remains through other litters within the Kennedy family. In part, thanks to the sacrifice of these dogs, the Russians had their first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961.


Dr. Oleg Gazenko (1918-2007), a scientist who trained Laika and handled the Soviet animals in space program, expressed real humanity and some regret in 1998 when he told moscowanimals.org, "Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog." A statue of a dog on top of a rocket was built to honor Laika in 2008 near the dog's Russian Cosmonaut training facility in Star City, Russia. This writer wanted to share some of that story as it is the most interesting component in the inspiration for this episode.


Given current events thanks to Russia, the aforementioned spirit of cooperation and a return to civility with cooler heads prevailing everywhere would be most welcomed.

However unintended, in some small way, Irwin Allen memorialized the spirit of those years in space travel with his episode, One Of Our Dogs Is Missing, given the swirl of questions and unknowns that existed in those years. As I say, maybe the dog in Lost In Space represented a spirit of freedom and potential survival for Laika in the minds of many. At least I like to think of it that way even if we do know what became of the dog. In the 1950s and the 1960s answers weren't always made clear either. Whilst not of Laika's making or design, how ironic that a sweet little, stray from the streets of Moscow, Russia would achieve heights of immortality as a symbol of pioneering space exploration. Looking at Laika you can't help but imagine she deserved a better fate but she will be forever immortalized and certainly not missing from the hearts of dog lovers.


One Of Our Dogs Is Missing is a solid bit of Lost In Space despite its absence of logic or a real point. It still looks amazing and is infinitely more entertaining visually than most television. That cinematography in this first season is first rate.


In fact, there was a darkness and an exploratory element to Lost In Space that seemed more dramatically sincere then it did as it progressed. One can place those changes squarely on Allen’s involvement for good or bad, and the censors of the day which were obsessed and concerned with “unduly frightening the small children.” Some of the content and ideas found in Lost In Space Season One seemed to be generating inspiration toward more serious science fiction to come. The more serious, spiritual and philosophical lost in space approach in exploration would manifest more credibly or ambitiously years later in Space:1999 (1975-1977).


But there are some interesting moments here. In fact, regarding the dog there is mention of dogs in space even within the entry.

There are also plenty of amusing moments. Penny requests keeping the dog but Maureen isn't so sure about it. "Oh I don't know." Well Maureen where exactly do you expect this little fellow to go? The dog could certainly use a friend. I mean is it really a question on whether to keep man's best friend out in deep space.


The less absorbing monster of the week elements, even if the series doesn't go there consistently in this first season, are once again less compelling. Professor Robinson's journal entry, as read by Judy and Maureen, talks of absorption by mutants and his fear of human absorption foreshadowing, perhaps unintentionally, the upcoming events of Attack Of The Monster Plants (S1 E14).


Both Maureen Robinson and Judy Robinson packing lasers and fending for themselves without the men is indeed an early message for female strength and independence the series was expressing. Maureen proclaims they will not be "helpless females."


Dr. Smith, complete in A Christmas Carol-like cap and sleeping gown, continues his descent away from the steely-eyed villain of The Reluctant Stowaway (E1). It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where it begins because it is such a gradual transformation. There are signs of the change in The Oasis (E9), The Raft (E12) and elsewhere. Add One Of Our Dogs Is Missing to the list. But if one contrasts Smith's performance in The Reluctant Stowaway to something like the one found here, the villainous Smith has truly gone missing too. Those aspects leave us considering the beauty of what might have been on Lost In Space as a real science fiction saga.


The story is most intriguing to me for its historical context, and of course the dog, but it's still an enjoyable enough entry by writer William Welch. Welch contributed 34 scripts to Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, 10 to Land Of The Giants, 8 to The Time Tunnel and just 4 to Lost In Space. His stories are considered average at best save for The Hungry Sea, which implemented half of its footage from the pilot No Place To Hide. But Welch was unfortunately pushed on quantity as much as quality. The episode benefits from the directorial touch of Sutton Roley in his third assignment here following The Oasis (E9) and Wish Upon A Star (E11). This would be the third of four with Roley's final contribution not arriving until Season Three with the popular The Anti-Matter Man (S3 E15).

Missing endings and missing dogs or not, fans of Lost In Space simply would be remiss to miss another fine black and white entry in the classic series. As a lover of dogs, this one is dedicated to man's best friend everywhere.

Writer: William Welch. Director: Sutton Roley.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Bill Mumy: On Jonathan Harris In Lost In Space

"He truly, truly single handedly created the character of Dr. Zachary Smith that we know---this man we loved to hate; a coward who would cower behind the little boy---'Oh the pain; save me, William!' That's all him."

-Bill Mumy on A&E Biography's Jonathan Harris: Never Fear Smith Is Here-

Friday, April 22, 2022

Lost In Space S1 E12: The Raft

"How would you like a punch in the nose?"

-Major Don West to Dr. Zachary Smith-


This writer nearly noted it for Wish Upon A Star (S1, E11), but as much praise as Dr. Zachary Smith gets for his wordplay or, even wordsmithery, and as thoroughly engaging as the dynamic between that aforementioned character and Will Robinson is quickly becoming, the equally fiery protest and antidote to Smith's deception is often overlooked but is recalled with great fondness.

That elixir and Smith remedy is none other than one Major Don West. Mark Goddard's West is actually graced with some fairly impressive, rapid fire retorts to the silver-tongued Smith. The t-shirt bound, testosterone-driven hot head that is West continues to be as enjoyable on screen as the rest of the ensemble. Credit is simply due. It's easy to focus on Smith because Harris is so damn good, but the ensemble cast have plenty of moments to shine across the bulk of Season One. Lost In Space, Season One, Episode 12, The Raft is no exception.



The Raft is essentially composed of two halves. A good portion is given to West and the senior Robinson before relegating much of the second half to Will and Smith. The first half highlights the actions of Professor John Robinson and Major Don West as they assemble a propulsion system and lifeboat. There are also a good number of ensemble moments. The second half concentrates on Dr. Zachary Smith and Will Robinson. Once again that second half highlights the growing dynamic and connection between Smith and Will. Though notably Robot has been omitted considerably in this episode as it was in Wish Upon A Star (S1, E11) and The Sky Is Falling (S1, E10).


The Raft itself is composed of the Jupiter 2's reactor core and other parts. In reality, as Allen was known to do, it was a diving bell and borrowed from sister series Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. It's a beautifully shot and established set design with terrific matte shots once again emphasizing the series strengths despite some storytelling weaknesses. Still author Marc Cushman dubs the entry "above average" when compared to the direction of the show in Season Two and Three.


We are also treated to a plant monster (oversized "skunk cabbage") in the episode that further accentuates another precedent that would grow in popularity---the monster of the week. To date, the bubble creatures were a unique design and would hardly qualify as the monster of the week. Additionally, the mutated enlarged Debbie the Bloop fit the story as written in The Oasis also not qualifying. The Cyclops too was massive and more in keeping with The Land Of Giants. The creature in Wish Upon A Star was also integral to the tale. Alas, in this entry Smith and Will are inevitably pursued by the creature, but illogically it never attacks them when they stand right in front of it.


One interesting point regarding the Smith character. In the early going for the series much was made of the character being either a Russian agent or potentially someone of another country working for the Russians when he was the reluctant stowaway aboard the Jupiter 2, but here, in The Raft, his knowledge of the United States seems to suggest he is very much an American. Either that or he is simply waxing poetic and is merely well-versed and/or a well-studied mole within the country a la something akin to The Americans (2013-2018). Of course this potentially interesting layer of the character is sadly truly never explored. Certainly he has little common sense regarding his surroundings in this story and demonstrates very little in the way of intellect when preparing for a mission.


One of the lovelier scenes in The Raft is between Smith and Will as they discuss being stranded and Will asks Smith to be his father. It's all rather poignant particularly for Smith. But Smith continues to soften and grow a soft spot for the charming Will Robinson. It's a real emotional highlight in the entry.


In the end, the Robinsons cast a typically wide net of forgiveness to Dr. Smith combined with Smith's excuse-ridden slipperiness. Despite his self-centered ways Smith is manages to project a likability thanks to Jonathan Harris. And that's the trick really that kept the series afloat for an extended run. As we witness in The Raft, he is less the harmful agent and simply a more selfish entity with a gift for wordplay and Harris makes the Smith character far more likeable to the viewer and more tolerable to the Robinsons than he originally had any right to be. The family is more willing to turn the other cheek as it were as he becomes more a thorn in their side than a malevolent figure. The Smith adaptation was so poorly handled for the Netflix series.


As writer Marc Cushman noted in his book, Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography Of A Classic Sci-Fi Series Volume One, Smith was using Will as a human shield and yelping female-like screams. "The character is not yet camp, but the effort to soften his edges was accelerating." But Harris played the character of Smith with such a richness and depth of speech he was riveting to watch on screen. The Raft is an example of Harris re-writing his own dialogue for the series and affecting the reactions of other characters to him in the series. Remarkably Allen allowed it as he was astute enough to realize viewers' eyes were glued to screens. Allen always wanted to go big or go home.


The Raft may be thought of as one of the weaker entries of Lost In Space Season One, but still has its resident charms thanks to this amazing cast assembly spearheaded by some wonderful Jonathan Harris dialogue. It also continues to look amazing to boot.

Writer: Peter Packer. Director: Sobey Martin.