September 15th is the fiftieth anniversary of the network premiere of the sci-fi classic television show, Lost in Space. In the days leading up to that anniversary, I'll be recycling a couple of old posts on the show and adding a couple of new ones.
Maybe it was the adult in me when I was a kid, and the kid in me now that I'm an adult, but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for sci-fi-flavored adventure tales — the cheesier, the better.
I like robots and androids and talking computers. I love time travel and warp drive and space ships that make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. And I happen to prefer my monsters thoughtful, my plant life savage, and my cookbooks written to serve man.
And yet, as a kid, it wasn't the five year mission of a starship crew that captured my imagination, it was the "other one," the adventures of a boy and his pet robot wandering lost through the galaxy that put the goofy grin on my face and sent me running around inside the limits of my own skull.
I'm referring, of course, to that science fiction, well, if not masterpiece then timeless kitsch classic, Lost in Space.
From week-to-week, the family struggled to survive on that most forbidding of final frontiers, grappling with the elements, drive-by aliens and, more often than not, the fallout from one of Dr. Smith's half-baked schemes to get home to Earth. The stories were a mixture of straight action-adventure, morality tale, pure fantasy and, increasingly as the series wore on, campy comedy.
The show lasted three seasons and while I can see with adult eyes that it doesn't quite compare to Star Trek, it did give us at least one enduring catchphrase:
It also served up one of the great comedic duos of television history, the lazy, manipulative, petty, scheming, dishonest and, above all, self-deluding Dr. Zachary Smith and the loyal, trustworthy, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent Robot.
If you don't remember anything else about the series, odds are you remember them. Fifty years later, shows such as The Simpsons and The Family Guy can still get a laugh or two from evoking that most unlikely of outer space antagonists.
But perhaps what you didn't know is that both Dr. Smith and the Robot were late additions to the show and weren't in the original pilot episode at all.
Lost in Space was the brainchild of veteran Hollywood producer Irwin Allen. An Oscar-winning documentary maker turned television producer, Allen was looking for a follow-up to his hit show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a cheesy submarine thriller, and decided upon a space age version of the adventure classic The Swiss Family Robinson.
"America had become very space-minded," he said later, "and CBS was interested in a family show. We took the space and family and combined them."
To make the connection to the source material clear, Allen planned to call his show Space Family Robinson, but it turned out there was already both a Gold Key comic book series and a (never-produced) Walt Disney film project of that name so he settled on Lost in Space instead. With the financial backing of CBS, 20th Century Fox and, of all people, Groucho Marx and Red Skelton, Allen began filming a pilot for his proposed series in late 1964.
Playing the part of the family's father, Professor John Robinson, was Guy Williams, a handsome, real-life swashbuckler who had made his name playing TV's Zorro. June Lockhart (Meet Me in St. Louis, Lassie) played his wife, Maureen.
Marta Kristen, Angela Cartwright and "Billy" Mumy played their three children, Judy, Penny and Will. Kristen made her television debut in 1960 on The Loretta Young Show and had a supporting role in Beach Blanket Bingo. Cartwright had appeared in over 200 episodes of the Danny Thomas sitcom, Make Room For Daddy, as well as 1965's Oscar-winning picture, The Sound of Music. And Mumy, though only ten, had already worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling and Jimmy Stewart, and had essayed one of the Twilight Zone's greatest villains, Anthony Fremont, the boy with magic powers who terrorizes a small town.
Ironically, Mumy had broken his leg at the age of four trying to duplicate a stunt he'd seen Guy Williams perform on Zorro.
"Will Robinson was everything I ever wanted to portray," said Mumy in an interview last year. "He had a laser gun — and he used it! How cool was that?"
The final member of the pilot's cast was Mark Goddard as Don West. Thirty years old, Goddard had been a regular on a couple of television shows, Johnny Ringo and The Detectives (the latter starring Robert Taylor).
Filmed in glorious black-and-white, the story, "No Place to Hide" by Shimon Wincelberg and Irwin Allen himself, is slam-bang action from beginning to end. Faced with a population explosion in the distant future of October 1997, the United States launches the Robinson family into space on a 98-year mission to colonize a planet circling our sun's nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri. Shortly after liftoff, the Gemini XII (as the ship was then known) runs into an uncharted asteroid field and, damaged, drifts off course for years until it crash lands on an unknown planet.
Lamar Lundy in a costume made of dried palm fronds), an earthquake, a cave-in and a sudden monsoon that nearly drowns them all as they sail their nuclear-powered sports utility vehicle, the "Chariot," across an inland sea. And even when they arrive at the apparent safety of the far shore, a pair of alien creatures spy on them from the shadows.
Further adventures in the same vein promised to follow.
It was all great fun, and there were plenty of B-picture science fiction staples including laser guns, rocket belts, silver space suits, suspended animation and a chimpanzee named "the Bloop" with over-sized fur ears.
You also got the barest hint of character development, with everyone playing stock television tropes. Guy Williams was a wise leader, Mark Goddard his brave if impulsive second-in-command, Bill Mumy was the pint-sized genius, Angela Cartwright, a friend to all living things. June Lockhart did laundry in a space age washing machine that folded the clothes and wrapped them in cellophane. Marta Kristen batted her eyes at the handsome Don West and was appropriately damsel-y.
Nor was the Lost in Space of the pilot, strictly speaking, science fiction; it was really just a Western with a veneer of science laid on top — ray guns instead of revolvers, a spaceship instead of a covered wagon, a giant instead of Apaches. If Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars" then the Lost in Space pilot was "Little House on the Prairie with monsters." There was even a scene with Will playing guitar around a campfire. Except for the clothes and the space age hardware, you could have been watching How the West Was Won.
Not that that was an inherently bad thing. Far from being nothing but cowboy-and-Indian shoot-em-ups, the Western in 1965 was a more liberating genre than science fiction, which was often exiled to the cheap B-picture productions of the local drive-in. At its best, the Western allowed writers to explore topics much too sensitive to hit head on — racism, war, sexism, intolerance. And even at its worst, it was a familiar genre that promised lots of excitement.
Firefly, which featured starships and six shooters as it followed the exploits of a crew of mercenaries shuttling cows and outlaws from planet to planet.
Although now mostly caricatured as a tightfisted producer of low-budget disaster flicks, Irwin Allen spent lavishly on Lost in Space, budgeting more money than ever before on a TV pilot. And then money in hand, he assembled a crack team of top-flight talent to spend it.
The resulting production was first rate.
Admittedly, the pilot was less of a story than a series of special effects set pieces, often coming no more than two or three minutes apart, but it was exciting and the effects were actually very good, especially for the era.
Georges Méliès hit the moon in the eye with a rocket he shot out of a cannon, and I boldly say the special effects in those early episodes of Lost in Space were top drawer.
"The props and the ship and the Chariot," Bill Mumy said last year, "it looks great, it holds up. I know it got really stupid, but the design of Lost in Space initially was really impressive. God, I loved it."
The special effects would go on to receive an Emmy nomination.
To Allen's chagrin, the executives at CBS giggled all the way through the screening of the pilot, but the important thing is they bought it. Lost in Space premiered on September 15, 1965.
You can watch it for yourself, free, right here at the Monkey, courtesy of Hulu:
Tomorrow: Part 2, From Pilot to Airwaves.