Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TV's Lost in Space, Part 4: The 50th Anniversary — What To Watch

It was fifty years ago today that Lost in Space made its television premiere on CBS, and in a year chock-full of momentous events — the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the march on Selma, the assassination of Malcolm X, the establishment of Medicare, and lots of great new Beatles music — the premiere of Lost in Space was probably the most memorable.

Or at least it's the one I'm writing about.

I didn't see the premiere — my devotion to the show began during its first years of syndication, about five years later — but still, pretty exciting.

And at last, all 84 episodes of Lost in Space are available on Blu-Ray, fully-restored and remastered with documentaries, interviews, a cast read-through of Bill Mumy's reunion script, and much, much more. Heee wackity do!

I assume most of you pre-ordered your set and are ripping the cellophane off the packaging even as you're reading this, planning to watch the entire series in single three-day marathon sitting. And who can blame you? But for the rest of you, maybe you don't know the series that well or — is it possible? — have never seen it at all, and would prefer to dip your toe into the shallow end of the pool, watching a few select episodes for free (with limited commercial interruption) on Hulu.

Whatever your plans, here's a list that might help you decide where to start (click on the title to watch the episode):

Not really a miniseries, of course, but interconnected chapters of one storyline, these five episodes take us from the initial liftoff through the family's first few months on an uncharted planet. Along the way, you'll discover how the Robinsons got lost in the first place, how they reacted to their first close encounter with an alien species, and how the show's best known characters, the villainous Dr. Smith and his odd-couple sidekick, the Robot, came to be on board. Featuring all the best set pieces from the unaired pilot, if you're new to the series or just looking to skim the cream off the top, this is a good place to start.
The Reluctant Stowaway
The Derelict
Island in the Sky
There Were Giants in the Earth
The Hungry Sea

My Friend, Mr. Nobody — A rare episode that centers on Penny (Angela Cartwright), this is a poignant fairy tale about a lonely little girl and her not-so-imaginary imaginary friend. The sort of thing Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone excelled at.

Wish Upon a Star — Filled with the first season's signature elements, this is a top-notch morality tale about the dangers of getting everything you want, featuring wonderfully weird expressionistic cinematography, unexplained alien artifacts, the harsh reality of frontier living and Dr. Smith's self-absorbed jack-ass-ery.

The Space Croppers — A family of shiftless space hillbillies (led by Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge) cultivate a carnivorous crop that threatens to devour the Robinsons. This was the series' first full-blown foray into WTF. It wouldn't be the last.

The Prisoners of Space — In this, the best episode of the worst season, a menagerie of alien creatures put the Robinsons on trial for violating the laws of outer space. Kafka with monsters.

Revolt of the Androids — A couple of androids drop in on the Robinsons, Dr. Smith hatches a get-rich-quick scheme, and human sentimentality wins the day. This one did at least spawn the catchphrase "Crush! Kill! Destroy!"

The Questing Beast — So many to choose from, among them "The Space Vikings", "Mutiny in Space", "Curse of Cousin Smith", etc. Here, Penny befriends a papier-mâché dragon that is being hunted by a bumbling knight in King Arthur's armor. How can something so campy be so boring?

The Anti-Matter Man — An experiment gone wrong transports Professor Robinson into a parallel dimension where he meets his own evil self. The scenery is summer stock by way of Dr. Caligari, and Guy Williams, having the most fun as an actor since Zorro, gets to chew on all of it. Great stuff, and for those philistines among you who won't touch black-and-white, the best of the color episodes.

Visit to a Hostile Planet — Season three was wildly uneven, but at least it was trying, leavening genuine science fiction with campy comedy. Here, the Robinsons finally make it back to Earth only to discover it's 1947 and everyone thinks they're hostile, alien invaders. A cross between Star Trek and Dad's Army. Good stuff.

The Great Vegetable Rebellion — Featuring a giant talking carrot played by Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones of Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles"), this is, in the words of Bill Mumy, "probably the worst television show in primetime ever made." So bad, it's good, this is gloriously awful must-see tv.

Follow the Leader — The spirit of a dead alien warrior possesses Professor Robinson and turns this warm, rational man into a vicious, unpredictable bastard. Dark, moody, occasionally terrifying, pop-culture critic John Kenneth Muir called this episode a parable of "alcoholism in the nuclear family." One of the series' very best.

One of Our Dogs Is Missing — Although set in 1997, the show usually ignored the fact that Betty Friedan was already a household name by 1965, but here June Lockhart gets to show her chops when Maureen is left in charge of the ship while the men are away. Threats abound and she handles them all with brains, bravery and quiet resolve.

Condemned of Space — I've already mentioned "The Hungry Sea" and "The Anti-Matter Man", so I'll go with this one where the Robinsons are captured by a prison spaceship and Major West winds up hanging by his thumbs on an electronic rack. Admittedly, he had more lines in "The Space Primevals" and "Fugitives in Space", but both of those episodes suck. With Marcel Hillaire as a charming murderer who strangles his victims with a string of pearls.

Attack of the Monster Plants — As daughter Judy, Marta Kristen rarely got a chance to shine but here she showed off a saucy bite as her own evil doppelgänger. Like much of season one, there's a dream-like quality to the mood and cinematography that papers over some of the episode's nuttier flights of fancy.

A Change of Space — As the series' true hero, there are a lot of Will-centered episodes to choose from — "Return from Outer Space", "The Challenge", "Space Creature", among others — but I'll go with this one in which Will takes a ride in an alien space ship and winds up with the most brilliant mind in the galaxy. And still his father doesn't take him seriously! This is one of those episodes that underscores my contention that not all of the trouble Will found himself in was of Dr. Smith's making.

The Magic Mirror — Well, the second best, and like the previously-mentioned "My Friend, Mr. Nobody", this is a poignant fairy tale about coming of age on the final frontier. Here, Penny falls through a magic mirror into a dimension with a population of one — a boy (Michael J. Pollard) who promises she'll never have to grow up. Beautiful and bittersweet.

Time Merchant — Let's be honest, from best to worst, they were all Dr. Smith episodes. Originally, I planned to pick the episode where Smith isn't a colossal dick, but it turns out there isn't one, so instead I went with this one, an inventive and visually-Daliesque time travel story that poses the question, "What if Smith hadn't been on the show in the first place?"

War of the Robots — The first episode where the Robot crosses over from a mere machine, no matter how clever, into a fully-conscious Turing-Test artificial intelligence. Featuring Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot. If Will was the show's hero, and Smith its plot-driving irritant, the Robot was its soul. See also "The Ghost Planet", "The Wreck of the Robot", "Trip Through the Robot", "The Mechanical Men", "Flight into the Future", "Deadliest of the Species", "Junkyard in Space".

The Challenge — A lot to choose from — among those I haven't mentioned, Warren Oates, Werner Klemperer, Kym Karath, Strother Martin, Wally Cox, Francine York, John Carradine, Daniel J. Travanty, Lyle Waggoner, Edy Williams, Arte Johnson — but I'm going with Kurt Russell who plays a young prince from a warrior planet trying to prove to his father (Michael Ansara) that he's worthy of his trust, respect and love. A good story about father-son relationships, plus Guy Williams gets to show off the fencing skills that earned him the title role as Disney's Zorro.

Invaders from the Fifth Dimension — The cyclops ("There Were Giants in the Earth") is the most iconic, the "bubble creatures" ("The Derelict") the most outré, but I'm going with the mouthless, disembodied heads from this one. Stranded while visiting from another dimension, they need a brain to replace a burned-out computer component and notice Will has a pretty good head on his shoulders. So they task Dr. Smith with bringing it to them on a metaphorical plate. The show would recycle this plotline over and over but the first time out of the box, it feels fresh. Plus their spaceship is cooler than anything Star Trek ever served up.

The Keeper, Parts One and Two — The only two-parter during the show's run, this one stars Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as an intergalactic zookeeper looking for two new specimens for his exhibit — Will and Penny! Coming at the midpoint of season one, this was the high watermark of the show's original (serious) concept of a family struggling to survive in a hostile environment. After this, the camp crept in with mixed results.

Hope you watch at least one episode of Lost in Space. If you do, leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Brilliant. You, that is, & not in the Australian sense of "pretty neat, what?"

But invitation accepted -- I'll be back with stupid comments after I've re-watched these classics that you've selected for my classics watching pleasure. Thanks Myth

Mythical Monkey said...

I knew I could count on you, Who!

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

The Monkey will finish, publish, and win the National Book Award for his newest novel before I finish this commentary, but even a journey of 1K miles begins with a single step, to wit ...

Lost in Space HD Restoration Test
Re: “Full forward thrust!”
Comment 1: That’s what SHE said.
Comment 2: Why not? Worth a shot.
Re: “This is alpha control.”
Comment 1: Why is everything a power-up game with you NASA guys?

Next: The Reluctant Stowaway!

Anonymous said...

Ha! Your series of articles on Lost in Space are so fun I've decided I must give the series another try.

I watched it once or twice briefly when I was little (it was on opposite our local affiliate's showing for Speed Racer, so I only saw the show when the weather was funky). Our household was orthodox Star Trek, however, and I wasn't impressed...I must have been a snooty 3 year-old at the time, lol.

At any rate, I became a Bill Mumy fan after seeing his nuanced performance in Babylon 5 and hearing a certain fish head song on Dr. Demento, so I'm certain I'll enjoy it. Besides, the robot is completely cool, and Dr. Smith sounds like terrific fun.

Adding DVD set to my Amazon list now...thanks again for a terrific review.


// Oh, incidentally, I stumbled across this looking for information on a 1974 movie called Once that featured Marta Kristen (Judy). Sounds...erm...interesting!

Mythical Monkey said...

Glad you stumbled across the blog! We do our best ...

I would try the black-and-white episodes first (season one), then unless you insist on watching the series in order, skip to season three.

Bird of Paradise said...

Scarists episode GHOST IN SPACE the sound effects would make great for a halloween huanted house

Swifty the Spacebird said...

Spookisists episode GHOST IN SPACE a invisible monster its created when Dr Smith thtows exposives into a gasious swamp creating creature thats fist is invisible and lather visible and the creepy sound effects makes ita exelent Halloween episodes