SEASON REVIEW: ‘Lost in Space’ launches a progressive, but uneven reboot

Maxwell Jenkins as Will Robinson and Brian Steele as the Robot in Netflix's  Lost in Space .

Maxwell Jenkins as Will Robinson and Brian Steele as the Robot in Netflix's Lost in Space.

If Netflix has taught us anything, it’s that the fates of TV shows are no longer set in stone. If an old show is sitting around long enough, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the streaming giant (or one of its competitors) will eventually snap up the rights and re-stage it for a new generation.

Just as venerable franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars adapt to the changing times, Lost in Space has launched on Netflix in a shiny new production, looking to mirror the progressive ideals of the current cultural landscape. And even though some may argue that sci-fi is a saturated genre, Lost in Space – whose original version actually predates the original Trek by a year, hitting CBS in 1965 – does try to set itself apart. It keeps the focus not on an intrepid crew of Starfleet-esque officers, or on a rag-tag group of rebels taking down an evil empire, but on a family unit.

To be fair, this isn’t the first time Lost in Space has been rebooted. Again, in the tradition of its brethren – Trek with The Next Generation and Star Wars with the special editions – Lost in Space was turned into a very late-90s, gritty movie version starring William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, and Gary Oldman. But no matter how many permutations the material has undergone, the story has remained relatively intact; even in the Netflix reboot, we follow the Robinson family as they become stranded on a distant planet following an accident en route to a human colony from a polluted Earth.

Toby Stephens and Molly Parker as John and Maureen Robinson.

Toby Stephens and Molly Parker as John and Maureen Robinson.

This time, the Robinsons and the supporting characters have done some role adjustment. John Robinson (Toby Stephens) is no longer a brilliant scientist but a gruff former Navy S.E.A.L. Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is now a genius aerospace engineer. Their eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell) is a headstrong medical trainee (and Maureen’s child from a previous relationship), Penny (Mina Sundwall) is an aspiring writer, and Will (Maxwell Jenkins) is a nervous kid who shares his mother’s love of science.

The Robinsons also acquire a very 21st century helping of dysfunction. The pilot episode, which shows the family crashing to the surface of an unknown planet and facing an almost comical number of deadly mishaps, also heaps on a complicated web of tensions between the Robinsons. John is held at arm’s length by the family, following many years of absence due to his military career. Maureen’s intense expectations of her children, aimed at ensuring they can handle interstellar disasters and planetary survival situations, often rub the kids the wrong way. And of course, the siblings feud constantly, though the show should be commended for how it also lets its young actors explore their characters’ efforts to support each other.

As John and Maureen, Stephens and Parker anchor the proceedings well – both actors are convincingly cast, and the show certainly doesn’t skip over the rocky road to their reconciliation as husband and wife. It’s good to see Parker land a strong role following her run on House of Cards, and in some ways, Lost in Space centres itself around her. Maureen is depicted as the person keeping the family together, setting ambitious goals both for her children and herself, and brooking no argument.

Taylor Russell and Mina Sundwall as Judy and Penny.

Taylor Russell and Mina Sundwall as Judy and Penny.

Her woman-of-action approach is possibly the show’s best innovation from the 60s show, which framed the character as a “biochemist” but largely depicted her as a traditional housewife. The new Maureen is the kind of woman who switches between hosting clear-eyed family discussions and flying a solo mission to the stratosphere, all while healing up from a brutal spiral fracture in her leg. For her, life in space is not impossible.

Of course, no version of Lost in Space is complete without two key supporting roles: the villainous Dr. Smith (gender-swapped here and played by Parker Posey) and the caretaker robot who befriends Will Robinson. The robot’s catchphrase of “Danger, Will Robinson!”, originally a line pronounced by a delightfully cheesy 60s special effects creation (even the 1998 film keeps this aesthetic) is now croaked by a towering, iridescent alien entity. Along with Maureen, this is perhaps one of the new show’s more significant changes. The robot is now a source of mystery, with a violent past that the show slowly explores over the course of its 10-episode run.

Unfortunately, it’s Dr. Smith whose characterization suffers the most in the transition to the streaming generation. Posey’s version of the character lacks the Shakespearean poise and comedic timing of Jonathan Harris’ 60s villain or the sliminess of Gary Oldman’s version in the film. In the new show, Smith is reimagined as a skilled con artist who takes on the doctor’s identity during the crash in the first episode. While Posey does a spirited job with her thin material, we’re not given enough information about how Smith has the skills she does, or how she’s able to orchestrate her manipulations without coming under suspicion sooner by the very intelligent Robinson clan. Ultimately, her face-off in the season finale with the family feels contrived – the screenwriters forcing a confrontation because the episode needs an interpersonal conflict.

Parker Posey as Dr. Smith.

Parker Posey as Dr. Smith.

In fact, there are other cases throughout the season where the show seems to skip over important details in the interest of plot progression. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, the characters take some big survival risks in the early episodes, despite dialogue that suggests they should know better. And the sudden arrival of survivors from other colony ships midway through the season also feels rushed, even though it does open up a lot of new avenues for conflicts and story threads.

On the technical side, it’s nice to see the show ground itself with physical locations and practical effects. The characters spend a lot of time tooling around in rugged “Chariot” vehicles, purpose-built by the production, crisscrossing their inhospitable surroundings and helping give the world a decent sense of scale. And the robot is a largely performance-based creation, with the 6’7” actor Brian Steele stalking around in a massive costume. Even the saucer-shaped colony ships feel smartly designed, with a logical two-storey layout.

While I can’t yet call myself a fan of the show – some of the pieces still feel too pat and recycled – the new Lost in Space does appear to have some life in it. And while Netflix’s resuscitations of older properties have been hit or miss in the past (the lukewarm reception of Fuller House and season four of Arrested Development come to mind), I’m cautiously expecting that Lost in Space will prove it’s running on more than just nostalgia.