Monday, July 8, 2013

Lost In Space S1 Ep14: Attack Of The Monster Plants

Interpersonal relations between cast members on Lost In Space have been, of course, legendary in fandom. Knowing what to believe to be true can be daunting, but like any unique individual perspectives the truth likely lands somewhere in the middle of it all.  We weren't there and we will likely never know the full truth beyond the pleasant spin put on it by any number of the cast members like the always polite June Lockhart.

A look at The Lost In Space Encyclopedia II by Flint Mitchell and William E. Anchors, Jr. and an interview of Mark Goddard by David Krinsky and editor Bruce Fedow of Lost In Space Forever Issue #13 reveals Goddard's reflections which offer, yet again, another insight into the cast dynamic.

Goddard recalled a great relationship with Guy Williams but they had their moments too. Goddard offered a pretty candid, humorous and fair assessment of how these things can go. "It varied when it started out. I got along with Guy and June. June and Guy got along, then Guy and June didn't get along with Jonathan. Then, Marta and I got along then Marta and I didn't get along and I didn't get along with Guy when he took my lines. Then I got along with Jonathan. I always sided up with someone. The two kid's mothers, they never got along. They were always fighting for better scripts and Marta was always fighting for better scripts. She and I didn't get along. I treated her like a kind of a sister. Every day it was something else."

As Jonathan Harris' star power rose throughout Season One, Harris had his own recollections of the journey with his cast mates that he shared with William E. Anchors, Jr. in a 1986 interview in the aforementioned book (p.350). "You want the truth? [laughter] They hated it.  And me.  And did I care?  No.  I will tell you.  I am straight forward about it.  I didn't care who keeps it on the air as long as it stays on the air and they send money every week.  If it happens to be me, great.  If it happens to be June Lockhart, great.  Who cares, as long as we stay on the air?"  He added, "So, as it turned out, it was me that was doing it and it was me, no matter what else you have heard.  I was delighted that it was me because I got all the money.  When June Lockhart did a TV Guide profile she said, 'Actually, if it hadn't been for Jonathan Harris we would have been off the air in thirteen weeks.'  She was absolutely right." If he does say so himself.  Harris certainly never mixed words or couched his feelings.

Well, the hatred for Dr. Zachary Smith persists in spades with the latest installment of Lost In Space, Season One, Episode 14, Attack Of The Monster Plants, which is fittingly covered when the weeds of summer are in full bloom. Events surrounding the latest family adventure continue to fuel hatred for the cowardly Smith.  Disdain for the man is palpable and it should be. And Marta Kristen finally gets one of those better scripts (as far as screen time anyway).

The episode opens with a plant attacking Professor John Robinson and shortly thereafter Major Don West.  Both capable men are pulled deep into a quicksand-like pit. Smith cowers in fear and makes no effort to aid his suffering fellow man.  Smith is a truly despicable character in this one.  He honestly shows absolutely no sign of humanity or likability.  He plays a complex villain but with little humanity for others.

It's terribly difficult watching Lost In Space through the eyes of a contemporary television viewer that has experienced the plot complexities of modern programming. Lost, Fringe, Breaking Bad and other programs that have positively pushed the boundaries have essentially spoiled me.  It's absolutely not fair to Lost In Space.  Pulling back the reins of harsh criticism is entirely in order. It's both a product of its era, but more importantly the family-driven vision of creator Irwin Allen never allowed for tremendous plot complexity.  So it shouldn't be judged too harsh within this context.

Having said that, the characters are given very little to work with in in Attack of The Monster Plants save for Jonathan Harris and, for a change, Marta Kristen (which may explain why she always considered this one of her favorite episodes).  Bill Mumy, as Will Robinson, often a highlight, is marginalized in the episode.  Smith is nearly intolerable.  With all of the idle threats put to Smith over the course of the first season by now, coupled with his actions in this episode, it's a wonder Major Don West hasn't snapped his bloody neck by now.  They do threaten to leave him behind should the Jupiter II get off the ground.  First, Smith is banished from the Jupiter II.  He is banished often. But the Robinson family hardly needs to be kind to this sod. My God Smith essentially holds the Robinson daughter Judy hostage here.  I would have had a gun to his head until he brought me to her.  We are way beyond idle threats here, but again this is a family show with a family-friendly villain.  But friendly or not, Smith, more often than not, places others in harm's way and in a great deal of jeopardy.  The focus on Jonathan Harris and Marta Kristen is fine, but the material simply isn't enough to elevate the often highly illogical material here.  We want to suspend our disbelief, but look, you have to help us do that.

And certain, contemporary television aside, by contrast, one doesn't have to look far to find more intriguing science fiction ideas and complexity within the likes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  Lost In Space (1965-1968) aired years later but is much softer in its approach to real science fiction.  So of course the option was there, which is why family is often attached to this fine science fiction adventure.  Even sister series Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) was light years ahead in its philosophical complexity when it came to approaching strong science fiction ideas and tackling societal puzzles many of which remain relevant today, which is why Star Trek: The Original Series endures with such power.  Logic, to use a term from Spock, simply goes out the window with Attack Of The Monster Plants.  The episode concocts some of the silliest and most implausible of ideas.

While mining deutronium, a canister of the material manages its way into Smith's hands.  Inadvertently it is spilled on the alien plants which Smith has discovered are capable of (surprise) making exact duplicates of anything living or inanimate.  What!? You need an extra can of baked beans.  No problem.  Now there are two.  That's one hell of a plant.  Now, mind you, the contents of the second can are entirely of a vegetative content so at least there's that.  If these things were churning out a second batch of pork and beans they might want to take some of these plants home.

Judy meanwhile wanders in a kind of sleep-like state to the plants where she lays down inside of a giant flower and becomes cloned.  Does the pollen do this? And why just Judy?  Not only is she cloned, she becomes an evil clone.  Wait! What? Why? Well, the plants are hungry for more deutronium and thus evil Judy is essentially their human mouthpiece to retrieve more of it from the Robinson castaways. The positively inane plot, the work of two scriptwriters, reminisces of the plants gone wild element already written and filmed for the far superior Welcome Stranger (Lost In Space, S1, Ep6) guest starring Warren Oates. Mind you, those plants were much more like the attacking variety.  These plants are smart with a thirst for deutronium.  They have a plan but the episode might better have been titled Hunger Of The Monster Plants or Plan Of The Monster Duplicating Plants.  Attacking is really kept to a minimum.

More interestingly though, the most frightening portion of the entry isn't the plants or the poorly developed concept of an evil Judy, but the sound effects employed for the plants.  The sounds are truly unnerving.  If only some real thought and care had gone into the concept of an evil Judy rather than a kind of, sort of evil Judy cloned from a plant.  But then how evil could Judy really be in the 1960s on a family-based Lost In Space?  Even the evil Smith became something of a terrific coward and Attack Of The Monster Plants signals to us that direction more than any to date in Season One.

As I mentioned, the sound effects are excellent.  But what is notable is the fact they sound as though they were lifted from Toho Studios' own Matango (or Attack Of The Mushroom People) (1963) which predates Lost In Space by two years. Could someone have been watching that film?  These plants sound awfully similar to the creepy sounds employed for those attacking mushroom people.  Now those things were some scary fungi.  A tale of two Judys.

Additionally, one of the most exciting moments comes in the Epilogue whereby Debbie the Bloop and Penny are messing about with an alien artifact or space craft.  A laser beam captures the two of them and in a swath of light they disappear.  Where exactly have they gone?  We don't know, but it is indeed one of the most exciting moments in the episode with a real sense of that fear of the unknown we love love infused within our science fiction.  When Lost In Space offered those elements they really got it right.  I remember scenes like this final sequence were truly terrifying as a kid even for a family program.

It's also good to see the return of little Spock-eared monkey Debbie who adds one of the most fun visual elements to an episode that plays a bit like weed visually speaking when compared to former successes.  Debbie was first acquired during Lost In Space, S1, Ep3, Island In The Sky.  When Debbie isn't with the family where does she go?  She's a bit of a free spirit that Debbie.  Maybe she goes where the dog went missing following the last entry.

And to really prolong the agony, Lost In Space delivers its first SORRY banner informing us the show will be back, not NEXT WEEK, but in TWO weeks.  Now that's a cliffhanger.

I've no doubt been jaded by today's television offerings that have approached science fiction on much harsher and more realistic terms, but this much kinder, softer, gentler fantasy approach to family sci-fi is normally a pleasure with sufficiently eerie moments.  But nostalgia or not, Attack Of The Monster Plants simply withers on the vine of Season One compared to some of the season's best.  Even two scriptwriters couldn't water this plant.  Okay already.


Attack Of The Monster Plants: C-.
Writer: William Read Woodfield, Allan Balter.
Director: Justuss Addiss.


SpaceLove65 said...

I agree with a lot of what you said about this episode. It's not one of my favorites. I crack up every time I see the Judy plant-clone at dinner time and ranting, "I DON"T WANT ANY SALAD!!"

There is something I wanted to ask you about. You had quoted Mark Goddard about his feelings about his costars in the series. I've seen hundred of videos of the LIS csst...and none of them really remark much about Guy Williams. I truly liked Guy, and adored his portrayal of John Robinson. He was like the perfect dad. Do you know why nobody ever mentions him? I know Guy passed in 1989...and was granted a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But do you know what his cast-members truly thought about him. I have often wondered about this. Guy seemed so perfect as John Robinson...but was he kinda horsey on the set? Goddard didn't get along with Guy. And Jonathan Harris didn't care for Guy either. I know that Bill Mumy nicknamed Guy, "The Comb" since he was always combing his hair on the set. But do you have any idea what Guy's costars REALLY thought about him. Especially Bill Mumy. Thanks! :)

SFF said...

Hi SpaceLove65,
In all honesty, I have no idea. I only know what I have read from Starlog Magazine and Mark Goddard's autobio.

I can only surmise that Guy was something of the star, was generally a good cast mate, but sometimes something of a movie star in attitude. This is my guess and perhaps since he passed away so early, it may be out of respect for his passing they don't say too much.

But I'm sure they had many good days as well.


SpaceLove65 said...

What I had read about Guy Williams was off of his site. He died befoe there was an internet, so his site was make by his son, Guy Jr. and a few loyal friends/fans. It said that Guy was extremely unhappy during the making of the show. Especially when is became based on the silly antics of Dr. Smith. Guy wanted to steer the show back on course. He wanted to lose the camp and make it more scientific and believable. Of course things got worse instead of better. Guy finally gave up and relegated himself as a background actor. And he did have to fight to get a line in there every now and then. All this did create friction between the cast mates. There were two sides, Guys side, and Jonathan Harris side. We all know who won. It's pretty obvious. Guy was promised many things with LIS, and had high hopes for the series. I believe that's why he was so estranged from the rest of the cast. Guy wanted to make something to be proud of....but instead he felt he was part of a laughing stock. I think that's why he moved to South America, where he was revered as Zorro. The people there loved and adore him. I was shocked when I saw a video of him speaking Spanish. He spoke it fluently although he hasn't a drop of Spanish or Mexican blood in him.

SFF said...

I definitely am familiar with much of what you report there. I knew it was a struggle and I'm sure there was indeed tension. I just didn't have much more to add on that subject simply because I don't know exactly how the other cast members saw one another.

It seemed like, as you said, there were two camps of a sort. Perhaps many of the cast members attempted to be neutral in the spirit of good will, but I do know of the frustrations on Guy's part from what you have written. And, of course, know of Jonathan Harris' opinions on the matter too. He was never bashful about expressing his feelings on becoming the center of the show.


Star Bird said...

Monster Plants this episode is sure to scare the hell out of some liberal vegan pushing their ideas on you

SFF said...

LOL! No question. I'm sure the episode might even be deemed offensive by today's lunatic standards of reason. said...

I think Marta Kristen did a fine performance in the episode,her beautiful hair is soft and shiny and I liked her hairstyle in the episodes.

SFF said...

At the very least it was a time when performance and character drama far outweighed distracting, mind-numbingly bad visual effects. This was absorbing on a dramatic level as far as human beings were concerned. I agree with you on Marta. Nice work.