The Netflix version of Lost in Space resembles Irwin Allen’s original, 1960s-era Lost in Space in the most basic ways. It centers around the five members of the Robinson family, space colonists who wind up on a far-flung planet after their ship is knocked off course. It features a robot who repeatedly says, “Danger, Will Robinson,” a warning to the youngest member of the Robinson clan. And it introduces us to Dr. Smith, a nefarious individual prone to telling lies and engaging in manipulation for reasons that take their sweet time to become clear.
Even within that basic structure, things have changed. Matriarch Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker of House of Cards) is a rocket scientist and the undeniable leader of the Robinson family. The oldest child, Judy (Taylor Russell) is African-American, and says that John Robinson (Toby Stephens), Maureen’s husband, “came into the picture” after she was born. Dr. Smith, famously played by Jonathan Harris with campiness levels cranked up to 11, is a woman this time, and portrayed with far more understated, sly comedic touches by the great Parker Posey. And the main reason that the Robinsons decide to leave Earth is because, thanks to a meteor collision, it has become a less viable place to live long-term. Despite all these updates, Lost in Space, streaming as of Friday, isn’t striving to resonate on any social, cultural, or political level. It’s mainly an old-fashioned sci-fi adventure story that’s been dressed up for modern times.
As such, this new version, created by Gods of Egypt writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, is good enough to merit a look, especially for those seeking shows to stream with their kids, but not so great that it demands an immediate binge-watch. Actually Lost in Space is probably better when viewed over an extended period of time. Barreling through its ten episodes in a weekend is bound to expose the show’s redundancies, most notably its tendency to fling calamity after calamity at the Robinsons. “I swear to God, every time I come up here, there’s something worse,” says Penny (Mina Sundwall), the middle Robinson child, after stepping outside the family ship, the Jupiter 2, and spotting a vicious storm forming in the distance. Penny, it’s 2018 and a lot of us are tracking presidential developments on Twitter. We feel you.
The first couple of episodes of Lost in Space zero in primarily on the Robinsons, Dr. Smith, and fellow alien-planet crash-lander Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), and are stronger for being more singularly focused. When the series opens, we’re aboard the Jupiter 2, one of multiple Jupiter ships aiming for Alpha Centauri, as the Robinson family passes the time with a game of gravity-free Go Fish. There is an eerie calm in the moment as the family members, including young Will (Sense8’s Max Jenkins), speak to each other in semi-muted tones from beneath their space helmets while the song “Drift Away” is faintly heard in the background; it’s vaguely reminiscent of the down time from one of the Alien movies.
That sense of intergalactic peace is quickly interrupted by space debris that knocks the Robinsons wildly off course and places them on a planet with a variety of climates and terrains. That’s where Will encounters the Robot, who’s got a sinewy mechanical body akin to the creature’s from The Shape of Water and a head with a screen that projects imagery that, depending on your perspective, looks like stars in an infinite galaxy or the opening titles of The Twilight Zone on a black-and-white TV. Quickly, the two develop a symbiotic relationship not unlike the one between Elliot and E.T.
That’s not the only Steven Spielberg allusion in this series. More than one moment involving an approaching monster calls to mind Jurassic Park, and shafts of light intrude into places of darkness in ways that immediately announce themselves as Spielbergian. But there are hints of Star Wars in this Lost in Space as well, particularly in Don, an overconfident, sarcastic smuggler who could only be a more blatant stand-in for Han Solo if he had the words “Laugh it up, fuzzball” tattooed across his forehead.
Lost in Space uses flashbacks to provide context and illuminate characters — we learn from forays into the past that the marriage between Maureen and John is rocky, and, piece by piece, that Dr. Smith is not who she says she is on multiple levels, an approach that echoes Lost. As a reboot, Lost in Space was not likely to win points for narrative originality. Even so, it’s still doing a lot of borrowing here.
It still manages to engage some of the time because of its ability to continually build and rebuild suspense, and its core cast. Russell, Jenkins, and Sundwall, who could easily pass for a younger Parker, are all naturals at conveying genuine feelings of panic and fear. Even though Parker gets saddled with a lot of science-speak explanatory dialogue, she handles it smoothly and with the sort of authority that makes it clear why she wears the engineering pants in the family. Then there’s Posey, who’s always been at her juiciest when she’s acting duplicitous, and gets to go to town in that department in Lost in Space.
While she doesn’t do any “Oh, the pain — the pain” riffs like Harris used to, she is a drama queen in certain ways, changing her story when it’s convenient, in order to elicit as much useful sympathy as possible. It’s almost like Smith is starring in her own season of Big Brother, constantly eavesdropping and getting into people’s heads so she can become the next HOH. At the same time, you’re never quite sure you can write her off as a bad-to-the-bone scoundrel. “I’m not the villain in this story,” she says to Maureen after doing a number of pretty awful things to the Robinsons. “I’m the hero.” Posey is so good, and her character remains shrouded in just enough mystery, that even late into the season, you can almost believe her.
As more space explorers show up from the Jupiter mothership called the Resolute, Lost in Space sags a bit under the weight of trying to do too much. There’s a romantic subplot involving Penny and the teenage son of a key Resolute leader that easily could have been scratched, for example. While there are touches of comedy here and there, aside from some smirking brought on by Posey, I don’t think I laughed out loud once. There’s a sense of adventure in Lost in Space, but what could have been more giddy fun has been ejected from the series, and is presumably spinning in orbit somewhere, getting burnt up by the sun.
Lost in Space functions mainly as an escapist, more or less conventionally designed diversion. When Maureen remembers that after Will first met the Robot, he immediately taught the machine to toss a baseball back and forth, Dr. Smith says: “That sounds like Will. All that power under his control and he uses it to play catch.” That’s a legitimate way to describe what the makers of this iteration of Lost in Space have done: summoned all the storytelling, budgetary, and special-effects powers of contemporary Netflix, and used it to play an old-fashioned, semi-appealing, but also repetitive and familiar game.