Friday, March 27, 2015

TV's Lost in Space, Part 1: Danger, Will Robinson! ("No Place To Hide," The Unaired Pilot)

This is my contribution to the "Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon" running from March 27-29 at A Shroud of Thoughts. On April 11, that site's host, Terence Towles Canote, will be a guest of Turner Classic Movies, introducing the Beatles' classic film, A Hard Day's Night as part of TCM's ongoing series, "Fan Favorites." Well done, sir.

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.

From Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World to Star Wars and Indiana Jones to Firefly, Orphan Black and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, I'm a sucker for stories about laconic space captains, gutsy green damsels and jack-of-all-trade scientists who prefer to think their way out of trouble, at least right up until they blast something with a laser or phaser or ray gun du jour.

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.

I guess if I had to hang my hat on one of them, I'd go with the Star Trek franchise — like its original stars, William Shatner and the late, great Leonard Nimoy, it's a combination of over-the-top ham-and-cheese and quiet, gentle dignity that hits me where I most often live.

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. And though I am and shall always be a devoted fan of the Star Trek universe, it was the other one I knew I would write about when Mr. Canote's TV blogathon came along.

I'm referring, of course, to that science fiction, well, if not masterpiece then timeless kitsch classic, Lost in Space.

If you've never seen Lost in Space — the television show, mind you, not the movie — the gist of the story is right there in the title. A family of would-be colonists, along with their pilot, a robot called "Robot" and a trouble-making stowaway named Dr. Smith, are shipwrecked on an uncharted planet somewhere in the outer reaches of deep 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.

There, the Robinsons struggle to survive in the face of overwhelming dangers, including, in quick succession, a giant cyclops (L.A. Rams defensive lineman 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.

"It was a very square family," co-writer Wincelberg later admitted, "where the father, mother and sister all behaved in a very nice and predictable way. [T]he actors were excellent, but it didn't have the kind of verve that you got from Dr. Smith and the robot." (Wincelberg would go on to write two episodes of Star Trek under his pen name S. Bar-David; after more than 40 years in Hollywood, he won an Emmy in 1997 for an episode of Law and Order.)

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.

Indeed, in 2002, Joss Whedon (The Avengers) made explicit the link between sci-fi-flavored adventure and the classic Western with his short-lived cult hit 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.

Robert Kinoshita, who created Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet, designed the ship. Three-time Oscar-winner Winton Hoch (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man) was the cinema-tographer. Emmy-winner (and future Oscar winner) L.B. Abbott provided the special effects.

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.

Generally, I hate that expression, "good for its era" — for example, I see writers apply it to silent movies all the time without, apparently, having ever seen more than ten of them — but I've seen practically every special effects television show and movie since 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:

Click here to continue to Lost in Space, Part 2: Never Fear, Smith Is Here