Wednesday, April 1, 2015

TV's Lost in Space, Part 2: Never Fear, Smith Is Here (From Pilot to Airwaves)

To read part 1 of this essay, click here.

Although CBS executives liked Lost in Space enough to put it on 1965's Fall schedule, producer Irwin Allen made two major additions to the show that would radically change the trajectory of the series.

The first was a piece of hardware, a "model B-9 environmental control robot" to survey the new world. The Robot, as it came to be known, was a request of the network which rightly thought, What's science fiction without a robot? Robert Kinoshita, who had created Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet, designed it, Bob May climbed inside the costume every week and Dick Tufeld added the voice. (More about the Robot in Part 3 of this never-ending essay.)

The second addition was that of Dr. Zachary Smith, a saboteur, unintentional stowaway and the Robinsons' chief nemesis.

Smith came at the suggestion of the newly-hired story editor, Tony Leader, who noted that the pilot lacked any discernible conflict. Without a villain, the series risked falling into what Leader dubbed a "monster of the week" format.

"[W]e realized we really needed that irritant within the family," said the pilot's co-author, Shimon Wincelberg. "Someone who would get others into trouble, and that's where Dr. Smith came in."

Cast to play Smith was character actor Jonathan Harris, a 15-year veteran of stage and television. Born in the Bronx to Jewish-Russian immigrants, Harris earned a pharmacy degree at Fordham University but chose to pursue acting instead.

Irwin Allen offered Harris the part, sight unseen, on the strength of his work on the television series The Third Man which starred Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still).

"I was ushered into 'the presence,'" Harris said later, describing his first meeting with Irwin Allen, "and there he was behind a huge desk surrounded by a group of his 'retainers' — also known as 'yes men' in the industry — and it was very strange, it was the wildest way to get a job that I'd ever experienced. He said, 'Do you want to be in the series?' And I said, 'Well, I don't know — I haven't read a script.' And Irwin said, 'Somebody give him a script!' Somebody did ... Then he said, 'You know we did a pilot and you weren't in it.' I said, 'And?' He said, 'Now you're in it!'"

Since the rest of the cast had already been signed, Harris was relegated to last place in the credits, a situation that didn't sit well with the experienced actor until he came up with the idea of a weekly "Special Guest Star" billing, an industry first. Harris received this unique billing for every one of the 83 episodes of the show's three-year run.

Allen and his team also made several other changes as the process went on — commissioning "Johnny" Williams (who would later win five Oscars for scoring such movies as Jaws and Star Wars) to write a proper theme and score; tweaking the ship's design and redubbing it the Jupiter 2; changing Don West from a scientist to a pilot; shortening the flight time to Alpha Centauri from 98 to five-and-a-half years; adding a voice-over narration and a weekly cliffhanger ending, etc.

Inserting the new cast members and the other changes into the Robinson's origin story rendered the pilot as written unuseable. But having already spent $600,000, an astronomical sum at that time, Allen was determined to reuse as much of the original footage as possible.

The solution was to build a separate episode around each of the special effects set pieces — the liftoff, the meteor storm, the crash landing, the cyclops, the monsoon — and then fit Smith and the Robot into the narrative, explaining away their absence at key moments. The original pilot's co-author, Shimon Wincelberg, wrote the teleplay for the new opener and outlined what would become the first five episodes.

The series' new five-part backstory opens on October 16, 1997, with the Robinson family and their pilot Don West preparing to blastoff on a five-and-a-half year voyage to colonize the Alpha Centauri star system. A saboteur, Dr. Smith, is trapped on board during liftoff, and when the mission's environmental control robot goes berserk, the ship becomes hopelessly lost in space.

After an encounter with what appears to be a derelict space ship, the Jupiter 2 crash lands on an uncharted world. There, the family struggles to survive in the new world's hostile environment, battling giants, earthquakes, raging seas — all the special effects menaces the original pilot threw at them and few more to boot.

Throughout, Smith butts heads with the Robinson, attempting on more than one occasion to kill the family and hijack the ship, only to grudgingly realize that his survival is inextricably linked to theirs.

(In order the five episodes are: The Reluctant Stowaway; The Derelict; Island in the Sky; There Were Giants in the Earth; and The Hungry Sea. Click the title to see them free on Hulu.)

If the original pilot lacked a conflict — other than what pop culture critic John Kenneth Muir recently summed up as the series' "one core concept: the pioneer spirit" — the writers who refashioned the origin story went about creating conflicts galore.

What's more, the conflicts arise not just from external sources — the Robinsons against Dr. Smith or the Robinsons against the elements — but from within the group itself. Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) and Major West (Mark Goddard), as the scientist and military man, respectively, each bring skills to the table that make them uniquely qualified to lead the group, but also leave them with blind spots that could get everyone killed.

"You're in no position to give orders," Robinson tells West.

"Oh, but you are?" West says. "It's too bad there isn't judgment to go along with that self-confidence."

When the tension between the two finally comes to a full boil, each proves to be both right and wrong, a refreshing ambiguity the series could have further exploited but didn't.

Particularly gratifying is the effort the writers made to bring June Lockhart's Maureen Robinson to the fore and give her something to do other than — as was literally shown in the original pilot — just washing clothes.

"Don't you have an opinion?" she snaps at her husband when the group is debating whether to return to earth or press on.

"No, I don't," he says. "Not until we've checked every component inside out and know exactly how we stand."

"And then?"

"And then I'll let the computer make the final decision."

"And will the computer also take into consideration a man's love and concern for his family? Or has all that been put into cold storage for the duration?"

Later when the Professor's line breaks during a space walk, it's Maureen who suits up and rescues him.

"Lost in Space tends not to be remembered by fans for such triumphs," (Muir again) "perhaps because much of the time Maureen is also depicted engaging in stereotypically 'female' duties: doing the laundry and making dinner. That’s a shame, because there are incidents, peppered throughout the series, when the Robinson matriarch steps out of the 'subservient' wife figure and acts courageously, responsibly and with more than a little bit of ingenuity."

The retrofit was seamless and nearly every minute of the pilot wound up in the series. The characters are interesting, the story exciting and the special effects — those from the original pilot plus a terrific new sequence involving the derelict alien ship — are excellent.

The result plays as a stand-alone mini-series, the only time other than the two-part "Keeper" episode where the events of one episode affected the episode after it.

Pretty much the only person unhappy with the tone of the opening episodes was the actor playing the single-most interesting character in them.

"[Smith] was written as a deep-dyed snarling villain," Harris said, "and he bored the sh*t out of me — because there is no longevity in deep-dyed snarling villainy."

Deep-dyed snarling villainy is right! Wincelberg had envisioned Smith as a literal heavy (to be played by Carroll O'Connor, later of All in the Family) and before the opening credits of the very first episode have begun, Smith kills an armed guard and programs the Robot to destroy the spaceship with all hands aboard.

Hey, it could have been worse — Wincelberg originally had him killing a little girl!

"He knew from the very beginning," Bill Mumy said last year in an interview for the Archive of American Television, "that this snarling, nefarious spy/saboteur would be old quick, that the audience would just want to see him killed off. So he very quickly started turning the character into a comedic kind of Dr. Smith that we all love to hate."

"A series means you get paid every week," Harris explained. "That's very, very important."

Harris had made a career specializing in comedic villains, and he immediately set about transforming the character into something more to his liking.

"I would be called into Jonathan's trailer," Mumy said. "Jonathan would say, 'Let's go over the scene, I've changed all the dialogue!' And he did! He single-handedly created the character of Dr. Smith."

The changes came quickly. In the second episode, Smith first displays his cowardly horror of all things alien. In the third episode, we first see Smith's childish temper. By the fourth episode, Harris was playing him as lazy, effete and not above using children as human shields. In the fifth episode, he began bantering with the Robot, a byplay that would provide the foundation of the show's most enduring relationship.

"He became a funny character, the kind of guy who would say, 'let's you and he fight — I'll hold your coat,'" said Carey Wilber who wrote seven episodes of Lost in Space but who might be better remembered for scripting the character of Khan for an episode of Star Trek.

Irwin Allen soon confronted Harris about the changes he was making to his character. "I know what you're doing," he said, wagging a finger in the actor's face. "Do more!"

"And I did!" Harris said.

"He's the only actor I ever worked with on any show," Mumy said, "who had carte blanche — producer's approval — to write all his dialogue."

With that kind of license, coupled with an ability valued on a weekly television show to turn out scene after scene in a single take, Harris took over the show.

I can't blame either Harris or Allen. Television characters, like water, find their own level. Smith was what the fans wanted to see and Allen, in the business to turn a profit, was happy to oblige them. Like baseball in Bull Durham, acting may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job.

"I loved that character," Harris said. "Of all the many, myriad characters I have played in my life, he surely is my favorite."

Many take as an article of faith that Harris ruined the show with his campy clowning, but that's a lazy kind of faith and, like Lost in Space itself, long overdue for a reevaluation.

The fact is, as much as I loved (and still love) the straight sci-fi adventure aspects of the series, fifty years later it's the comedic villainy of Dr. Smith and his long-running verbal jousts with that mechanical Jiminy Cricket, the Robot, that the culture has chosen to remember.

That's not nothing, that's a classic.

Up Next: Lost in Space, Part 3: Warning! Warning!

1 comment:

Uncle Tom said...

A classic show that until only recently seemed to have been forgotten in the nightly deluge of reruns from the 50's, 60's and 70's - and of course I mean "deluge" in a good way. After all, we could be getting bludgeoned with bad 80's reruns like "Punky Brewster" or "Facts of Life" (the one exception being "BJ and the Bear" of course - a man, his monkey and 18-wheels worth of hijinks - pure TV gold....well...).

Anyway my take is the same as yours (it doesn't hurt we're related and you made me watch "Lost in Space" as a kid) - it was great sci-fi that upon first take was ruined by the over-the-top antics of Dr. Smith but upon 40 years of reflection, it was the banter between Smith and the Robot (let the good times!) that made it fun. Well up until a giant carrot entered the fray.

By the way - they killed Lamar Lundy - those bastards!