Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lost In Space S1 Ep6: Welcome Stranger

"There was once a god who walked the Earth" [and the stars] and his name was Warren Oates. - [quote portion] Richard Linklater -

It's time to get Lost In Space. We enter the sixth consecutive episode that links the ongoing saga of our dear space family Robinson together with a kind of subtle continuity. I'm feeling right at home with my Robinson family. Irwin Allen was clearly shooting for a family-geared space series above all else. If logic or continuity suffered as a result- so be it. That was the price of doing business. In fact, it's amazing just how many logic, substantive or technical errors were made along the way in the series and yet it captured a special something that rose above those imperfections. Allen was aiming his show at families and didn't mind if there were gaping holes in logic, ironic given the science background of the space family Robinson. Still, the magic Allen did create endures and despite its flaws is still a pretty sensational journey of fun.

Laser guns were simple back in the day, but damn they just looked good [and effective].
If there is one thing I know how to do it's get lost in the world of Lost In Space. I asked myself what it is about this show I find so damn comforting. I think, looking back, that the show managed to create a foreign place, a new reality and to make it seem dangerous and feel real. The Jupiter II was a snug, cozy little home you could root for your heroes to fall back into for safety. It was the Robinsons home away from home and they made it feel as such. When danger threatened the Jupiter II was their safety net and however risky their adventures may have been they were always safe inside the Jupiter II as a family and they had each other for support. I connected with that as a kid. I enjoyed the challenges of great odds, adversity and tough times and having the security of those you love around you to prop you up. It was never overly sentimental by any means, but there was a sweet element to the series as a result of the family bonds.

We begin with Dr. John Robinson chastising young Will Robinson for leaving the radio power on during a planetary electrical storm in Lost In Space, Season One, Episode 6, Welcome Stranger. INCOMING! A missile is headed straight for the Robinson family. Could be "Space devils," incites Dr. Zachary Smith. Smith has such a flair for reckoning the dramatic. You can see where he was a favorite on the show the way he effortlessly spewed out dramatic descriptors on just about any given situation.

Smith: "Deadly intruder- swooping in on us at the speed of light, spitting flame and cosmic dust, burning up our precious oxygen, spreading its lethal virus!" The guy is a natural and off the charts funny. For more on the beloved and equally despised Dr. Smith played by one delightful Jonathan Harris feel free to click here.

The show was a joy to watch thanks to some sparkling dialogue laced with cracker jack smart humor in just the right doses during Season One. I wonder just how much of it was improvised on the fly and concocted by Jonathan Harris sometimes, but I suspect it was a good amount when he rolls with it. I would have to peg Smith at his most cowardly to date with this installment. There's no question, but then his character was indeed headed in this direction.

Actor Warren Oates frequented a hat in a number of classic film roles.
The family meets a cowboy stranger named Jimmy Hapgood played by none other than Warren Oates. He's not exactly the beastly creature Smith had imagined and that missile was Hapgood's ship. The family shakes hands and off they go to check out Hapgood's vessel [vintage 1982 design]. Them there is some pretty tight quarters for a space journey pahtna! Looking at his ship you might say, 'you my friend are no Jupiter II.' Perhaps it's an illusion and he has a Chariot he can fold out when needed.

Hapgood reckons they all as "lost as a wood tick." Professor Robinson heads back to the Jupiter II with everyone including the always suspect Dr. Smith. John leaves his son Will with Mr. Hapgood to show him back to the ship. Now, they just met, I'm not so sure I'd go along with that. Did ya ever hear of child abduction? Granted, it's not like there are a whole lot of other strangers around or places to hide, but Hapgood does have a ship to rocket away in. Anyway, John places alot of faith and trust in his first meeting with Hapgood.

It may not seem like much, but this singular image had me wetting my pants in fear as a child. What was to come was terrifying.

The Hapgood vessel, the Travellin' Man, is indubitably a spaceship for one. I can't imagine being in that thing for long distances. You must get some serious leg cramping. So Hapgood gets this piece of equipment and starts spraying the hull of his ship. He needs to ensure the craft is decontaminated to prevent alien spores mixing with other planetary spores. Who would have thought, but that a nice touch for science fiction. Will offers to spray the hull for him for the chance to hear more of his space adventures when they get back to camp. I love when the cowboy starts grabbing alien plants and stuffing his pipe to smoke it. Now that is living off the land. First he's willing to spray anything alien on the hull of his ship dead, but then stuff it into his pipe so he can breathe it into his lungs. The man is not averse to risk. Will runs off in a hurry and fails to finish the job and spores appear on the exhaust pipes of the Travellin' Man. It's a cool and simple effect too. It essentially looks like a projector visual against a pipe. A nice easy effects shot that worked great back in the day. To me, those little light splotches were alien spores on the tailpipe of a spaceship. I knew it could be nothing but trouble. I quickly ran into the kitchen for some ice cream to get back for the excitement. Actually, I did that as a kid and some things never change.
The old-fashioned on screen kiss.
Back at the Robinson camp we get a bit of Maureen Robinson's cross-planetary herb germination. She's making her own crops for cryin' out loud. John is thinking about Hapgood's ship. He believes he and Major Don West could get Hapgood back to Earth. I love the violin-laden score for the touching moment between John and Maureen as they give each other some smoochery. It's a classic. The camera is obscured behind them so those kiddies at home never see the whole French kiss in all its glory. John asks Maureen if she has regretted taking Penny and Will with them on their flight. She agrees she has. John believes the kids can both go back home with Hapgood. Holy mackerel! Travellin' Man will be packed like a sardine can. Dr. Smith's prying ears take note as he listens from the ship. He's a piece of work. John believes sending them home would be a good decision. Maureen is emotional over the possibility of losing them. I would say no way. The kids stay! I'd want them with me. The variables are far too great for something to go wrong and with things fairly stable all things considered I'd rather keep the kids close to me. What would you do? With Smith's newly acquired knowledge the gears are in motion for a conniving plan of Smith action of his own.

With Hapgood back at camp he peruses their fine ship. John tells Hapgood he's willing to give him the navigational guidance system [for a wee price in the form of two wee Robinsons]. Apparently the Robinsons can live without it. I suppose so if they plan on being stranded. Granted, I'm not quite sure how that thing would fit into the Travellin' Man. Thankfully and logically, Hapgood reckons the device is just too damn big and heavy. Smith butts in with his own idea. Smith suggests a more ideal fit would be the Robot. Come again? How is that smaller? Don asks what's in it for Smith? Smith is just too happy to help Mr. Hapgood. Right.

With the Robot on the operating table Dr. Smith begins to dismantle the necessary parts. Robot is alert and active throughout the proceedings. Poor fella doesn't even get anesthesia. Wouldn't Smith get electrocuted? Smith indicates he needs his "alert cooperation." Hapgood cringes as Smith snaps a ream of film from the Robot's innards. It's tantamount to his intestines and gives the allusion of real surgery. "Are you sure this is painless?" Hapgood inquires. "Completely," responds Dr. Smith. Yes, for him. The navigational device is extracted from Robot and is indeed a much smaller component.

The Robinsons explain their plan to the children and understandably Penny is weepy and less than interested in leaving her parents' side despite their hardships. Of course they haven't told Hapgood. I'm not sure he's the kid-loving kind. John pulls ol' Hapgood aside and asks him to take Will and Penny along with him back to Earth. To say his reaction is less than enthusiastic would be an understatement. "You gotta be joking." He goes so far as to get angry. "Forget it!" I'm not sure he wants to go back to Earth anyway.

Don gives a great hook until he starts swingin' like a girl. The tussle finishes when Judy bangs Hapgood in the noggin' with a frying pan. The acting is just wonderful and is precisely what makes each entry such a delicious escape.

The next day Smith approaches Hapgood with his own plan.

The earliest recorded document of space graffito.
Smith: "Imagine being couped up in that splendid little vehicle of yours with a pair of extremely undisciplined unprecocious brats." Nice. What a jerk. Hapgood defends the kids proving he's not so bad, just not big on kids. Smith explains his version of how he ended up on the ship as President of the Zachary Smith Engineering Corporation. He was inadvertently on board during the ship's departure. Hapgood calls him on his little story. "I thought you were a medical man." Smith explains he has degrees in both medicine and science. Hapgood is unimpressed by Smith's offer and tells him to take a leap. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist or even a rocket pilot to come to the conclusion Smith is freakin' good. It's easy to spot a snake.

All is fair in love and war, and space travel as it turns out, as John and Don express they are no longer angry with Hapgood. Don only wishes he could have hit him harder. Them were the days. You could have a fistfight and be over it the next day. School yard kids would tussle and the next day we'd be reading comics together. People hold grudges alot longer nowadays. As Don and John work on a piece of equipment a mishap occurs and it comes toppling down on Hapgood. They take him inside the Jupiter II for a check-up. Hapgood expresses his apologies to Mrs. Robinson for not taking the kids. I think she's just as pleased they aren't leaving to be quite honest. She also makes a fairly logical point. As the captain of Travellin' Man he is the sole decision maker on how the ship is handled. Nuff said! But seriously why would they send their kids away? I just couldn't do it.

This scene was so frightening it rivalled Creature Double Feature Saturdays. Great stuff!
Hapgood and the kids head back to Travellin' Man. Back at Travellin' Man the spore life is now full grown to monstrous proportions and all over the ship. I have such vivid memories of that scene. It was the scariest moment when Will and company had to fight back the spore plants. I thought it was just terrifying. The animated moving spores are essentially simple mechanical effects, but more brilliant than most CGI any day. It's the real thing folks and in my tiny, little mind those were real live maneating Venus Fly Traps. You could touch them. These effects fool the eye in a way CGI just can't suspend disbelief. Penny goes falling back right into one of the giant sunflower-like spores.

Hapgood and Will save her as Will sprays himself silly. "You go on and cry it's good for you," Hapgood tells Penny. "I guess I didn't decontaminate Travellin' Man as good as I should have." Ya think. I never saw the Jupiter II ever get sprayed. Hapgood has a change of heart and informs the Robinsons to get the kids ready. The Robinsons head back to the ship. Don shakes with Hapgood.

Back at the ship Smith attempts to place concern and doubt in the minds of Will and Penny. Smith affects their impressionable young minds making them feel guilty about leaving. Smith plants the idea of having them runaway and hide.

Later, Maureen tells John she can't find the children. Yes, that old Smith is a rascal. John is adamant they are going to go with Hapgood. Judy tries to hold up Hapgood. He's leaving in twenty minutes with or without them. Jimmy Hapgood may not be all there as he talks to himself to convince himself he will honor his promise to the Robinsons to turn the children over to Alpha Control. Meanwhile, the Robinsons find the kids and look to the sky to find Hapgood in flight. The whining Smith appears at the site of the launch where he pleads for Hapgood to return to save him.

John Robinson and Hapgood radio each other. Hapgood feels the kids weren't all that keen on leaving their folks side and returning to Earth. Hapgood had more on the ball than I imagined and seems more sensible than the parents. As it turns out, Hapgood is disinterested in going back to Earth as well. So Hapgood cowboys up and the explorer is off and adventuring once again. This is a sweet moment as the folks part company with Hapgood.

Life goes on back at camp. The Robinsons ready some explosives. Unfortunately Penny is out roaming around without their knowledge. Those crazy kids. By the way, where's Debbie and her other contagion-carrying, assorted planetary pet cohorts? Stories were simple and exciting back in the day. So ends another uncomplicated, fun, effective little Lost In Space tale to take us back to those loving arms of nostalgia.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK! Same Time, Same Blog! [okay, maybe not next week]

Welcome Stranger: A-
Director: Alvin Ganzer
Writer: Peter Packer

Please enjoy the fruits of Oates' labors. The wonderful perfomance art of Warren Oates combined with that of the equally classic Bill Murray from Stripes [1981].

Special Guest: Warren Oates [1928-1982]. Warren Oates passed away of a heart attack in 1982 at the young age of 53. That's a year younger than my father passed. That is just far too young. Oates film and TV credentials are impressive. For me one of his most notable supporting roles came the year before his passing opposite Bill Murray as Sgt. Hulka in the film classic Stripes [1981]. His performance is that memorable, because he was that good. Oates is that good in general in a whole lot of film and television. Apart from endless appearances in a variety of westerns, Oates appeared in The Twilight Zone's The Purple Testament [1960] and The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms [1963] and The Outer Limits' The Mutant [1964]. Later, he was in The Hired Hand [1971], Two-Lane Blacktop [1971], Race With The Devil [1975], Steven Spielberg's 1941 [1979], The Border [1982] with Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel and Blue Thunder [released in 1983 posthumously] with the late Roy Scheider. He may be best remembered for his work with Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch [1969] and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia [1974]. These are his most highly acclaimed films. Given all of this, it's clear the creators of Lost in Space landed some pretty sizable talent for their series. It doesn't end with Oates, but it did begin here. Oates is a big reason why you might enjoy this particular entry of the classic space series. Here are two more classic moments from Stripes.

And last but not least, the infamous scene featuring Private Francis "Psycho" Soyer. This is just too good not to include. This must watch BLOG TV.


John Kenneth Muir said...

Hi Sci-Fi Fanatic:

Great post, as usual: a visual and verbal feast. I've always been a Warren Oates fan too. I love that moment in Blue Thunder when he says "when you're walking on egg shells...don't hop." I've always remembered that.

You do a great job remembering and extolling the virtues of Lost in Space, Season One. I have the DVD set and enjoy watching these early episodes too. I like your commentary about how the show feels both foreign and comfortable at the same time. Very true. In my mind, I feel like I can remember every detail of the Robinson "homestead" on that planet of the early days. It feels like home away from home, a ranch or something...

Also, imagine being a parent on the (space) frontier, and having to make a choice about staying close to your child or sending them away to safety. That may sound like "basic" or even generic storytelling to some, but it's the core of frontier, space stories: the agonizing personal decisions that must be made. I still admire the look and "heart" of Lost in Space (first season, especially....

Anyway, a fantastic post, as is par for the course here!


SFF said...

Hey John,

You're tops. Always there to keep me plugging away.

Great point John. You've got me stepping back from the simplicity of this wonderful, classic of a show [especially season one I would agree].

You make a wonderful point about the space frontier. So true. And, although I wrote about, you're right, the parents making a very difficult decision about the safety and well-being of their children is a fairly challenging moral dilemma for 1960s television.

Yes, and Warren Oates was a sizable talent. Funny you mention Blue Thunder- I have Blue Thunder in the queue. Thanks again my friend.

Signing off,

le0pard13 said...

I remember seeing this first run as a child -- Lost in Space, the first season b&w episodes remain my favorite. Warren Oates was such a talented actor. It was a pity many only started noticing that fact till late in his career. I always thought it was great that he appeared in that cowboy hat in this Lost in Space installment since he had so many supporting/villain roles in westerns.

J.D. and I have a fond appreciation of the man in an especially iconic role - BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. J.D. wrote a splendid post for the Sam Peckinpah tribute last year, and Oates is a highlight in the post and film. I showed the film during my early stint as a projectionist (a series I wrote up last year), and it's never really left me.

Anyways, I love reading about these classic LiS episodes, SFF. Thanks so much for them.

p.s., I, too, love BLUE THUNDER. But, only the film--it was a travesty what they did to the idea when it became a TV series.

SFF said...

Thank you L13!
I appreciate the link. I've been trying to catch up on old posts at your site and J.D. when time permits.

I look forward to reading about that film. I really want to see it. Thanks so much for your input as always my friend.

crowmagnumman said...

This is one I never appreciated as much when I was a kid. I guess it felt like such a disappointment after the first 5 episodes. I was expecting something different. But more recently I checked it out again and it was a heck of a lot better than I remembered. Warren Oates great performance and his interactions with the family made it really memorable. It's too bad this was the only time we ever saw Hapgood.

SFF said...

Agreed. As children we were certainly looking for the alien of the week and the space cowboy motif certainly didn't connect with our child-like sensibilities.

Now older, we certainly appreciate the art form of the actor and the talent here is simply immense. It's easy to see where it could have been lost on us as young folk, but those mutant plants were frightening!

Thank you again for the commentary. It's wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Warren Oates was great in the "Welcome Stranger" episode. The original crazy Space Cowboy! One of my favorite TV episodes of all time.

SFF said...

Couldn't agree more. Wonderful ep.

Unknown said...

Loved him in 1941. Madman Maddox was the perfect role for him. "Let me hear your guns, boy!"

SFF said...

Joe. ha.
I really need to see 1941 again soon. Fond memories of seeing that one in cinemas. Loads of great actors.