Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Re-Appraisal of 'Lost in Space'

Originally published in Honi Soit, 11 April 1984. To be consumed with a large amount of fibre.
(c) Timothy James Horton 1984

The TV programme, ‘Lost in Space’, has been an integral part of western culture for many years. Ever since its dramatic debut on our television screens, we have been caught in its grip and held by the spell of its deeper social implications and its universal appeal to all mankind. Unfortunately, the fact that it has been repeated several times already since its original lengthy season has led it to become held in disrepute by major critics and the public at large. In this essay, I intend to take a fresh look at this unique American series, particularly in reference to themes and character development, and hope to bring new awareness by the public to its true value.

‘Lost in Space’, in its original conception, was simply meant to be a vehicle for the major U.S. television networks to cash in on the massive public interest caused by the space programme. But before the producers actually put the concept into full fruition, they realised that their ideas held far greater prospects in the presentation of metaphysical and philosophical metaphor. In trepidation and anticipation at the aims to which their television drama could be directed, they rapidly put these ideas to a team of dedicated and intelligent script writers They too saw potential in a series which could show the gradual development of a nuclear family in a hostile and bewildering environment, revealing their tensions, and their reactions to the unknown. The series, originally to be called ‘The Robinsons Go To Alpha Centauri’, was re-named, with enormous literary insight, ‘Lost in Space’.

The title itself is a brilliant summary of the creation of those visionary producers. It captures the hopeless despair and fear of those intrepid space travellers, the family Robinson, around whom the series is based. ‘Space’ in the title represents the inner void and hopelessness of the family, trapped in the confines of their traditional American values, facing an environment where there are no constraints or boundaries. By upbringing and culture, they feel bound to the society in which they have grown up, but become swallowed by a larger society of the universe, representing all that is radical and new on the earth. The inner human is faced with an inherent dichotomy - to remain voluntarily restrained by a dominant culture, and to liberate oneself into the freedom of worlds and societies unmeasured and unknown. The Robinsons are indeed lost, and react variously to each situation, to each alien.

Naturally, the characters are vital to the whole scenario, and flesh out the themes and concerns of the writers, as I have already suggested. And it is not only the Robinson family which dominates the proceedings. Surprisingly the central character of the whole series is that irascible but lovable villain, Zachary Smith. Smith is a brilliant dramatic creation, and is the focus of the issues presented in ‘Lost in Space’, being a figure not only of power but also of weakness. He is a complex character, and deserves the full attention of our critical analysis.

From his first appearance, we know that the producers have in store for us a man grappling with the central concerns of all humanity and with his own identity. Smith appears in the first episode as a communist spy, an infiltrator into the traditional values of middle-class America. He is presented as a threat to the homely warmth of the Robinsons (which ‘warmth’ is first displayed by that perfect dramatic encapsulation in Will running to his parents, exclaiming that he had passed the medical test). Smith sneaks on board the Jupiter II, an unknown quantity whose addition to the crew (and consequently to the ship’s gross weight) results in a disastious redirection of the ship, and sends it off course, which is the direct cause of the crew becoming lost in space. Smith’s unforeseen addition is, of course, intended by the writers to be of much more significance than merely that of a physical redirection - he represents a total spiritual and mental redirection of the crew, and thus is the vital factor in leading them to the total revaluation of their lives, which is one of the aims of ‘Lost in Space’. Here is one of the fundamental conflicts in ‘Lost in Space’ - the person who must change the course of the Robinsons’ lives to a fuller understanding of the universe is himself the enemy of all that the Robinsons believe in. The concept of the wholeness of the family, one of the main tenets held by the Robinsons, is shattered by Smith’s intrusion into their lives. His relationship to Will and to Dr John Robinson, Will’s father, are vital in the consideration of this conflict. To Will, Smith is an almost alternative father figure, a man who shapes his (Will’s) life through his (Smith’s) influence, but does not control it by exertion of authority. He leads him into dangers and transgressions, but each time, though Will is tainted by the remorse of his act, he remains faithful - and not only this, but aware and willing to grow through his experience. In the understanding of metaphysical aims, Smith is a challenge to Will, because he is both evil and weak at the same time. Will wants to stay firm to the eternal American truths in opposition to Smith’s digressive and wily desires, hut he also feels drawn to the alternatives Smith offers through his weak self. Will sees in Smith’s weakness more than just a fragile human. being — he sees a man needing love and compassion; but his adherence to American values continually restrains him from fully reaching out to Smith. Thus Smith introduces a tension in Will’s heart and mind, on the one hand (through Smith’s wickedness) compelling him to stay true to his family’s principles, but on the other (through Smith’s weakness) forcing him to reach out beyond his conventional American beliefs and touch and help this pitiful man. The control that Smith wields over Will is subtle and very father-like, and is a brilliant tribute to the writers’ skills. It is father-like, because Will feels compelled to help Smith and to obey him through his compassion, rather than because he is physically stronger. On the other hand, Smith to John Robinson is a menace and a threat to his familial authority. He is willing to allow Smith his foibles, but he only barely tolerates the man’s persistent wickedness. He disdains the influence that Smith has with Will, but endures in his fatherly role, exerting his authority over all the crew, but without force. Whereas Will represents the inner desire of all men to reach out and change, Robinson is the hard conservative streak in all of us, changing slowly, not wanting to be hurt, sticking hard to family beliefs. Smith challenges both, and their reactions to him are carefully controlled and perfectly executed.

Witness the episode, “The Games of Gamma 6’, where Smith blurts out to Dr Robinson that Will holds his father in shame because he will not compete as a wrestler in the intergalactic games. This cuts deep into Robinson’s psyche (particularly because he was a college athletics champion, a notably American ideal), and casts the immediate question in the viewer’s mind: will Robinson discard his traditional family values, challenge his beliefs and establish his masculinity? Will he throw off the intellectualism and look at his family, not in a conventional American view (once married, a man no longer indulges in hedonistic, erotic pleasures of physical exercise), but in a primitivist, animalistic, physical way? It is even more damning, because Robinson is being reluctant to compete in an event which attracts the attention of thousands of other cultures, cultures alien and foreign to his own. Is he refusing to compete, not only because wrestling runs counter to his beliefs, but also because it means facing the entire cultural cross-currents of the universe? Smith challenges Robinson, with his conventional paternal role, to compete in games which by their nature and their cultural setting oppose this role. The sad thing is that Robinson refuses to compete. Yet in the end he has to rescue Smith from death, and challenges the director of the Games to a game of laser Russian roulette. We discover that Robinson would have been killed had the director not refused to proceed with the game. Thus, the traditional paternal role of Robinson is given a reprieve, a reprieve only through the benevolence of an alien, from a culture billions of light years removed from his own.

Smith, though, as a character, is not merely a living metaphor for the writers’ themes — he is also a complex psychological figure, and as such is even more the focus of the whole series. As I have said earlier, Smith is both powerful and weak - he exerts an authority over Will through the very fact of his weakness. He is a pathetic universal figure, a victim of his circumstances. Originally a spy, he is now condemned to drift through space, in the midst of an extremely conservative family who cannot understand his inner soul. His voyage on the Jupiter II* becomes an inner journey, a journey trying to find his true self. Misunderstood by all, he must resort to lies and deception to create meaning in his life. His constant attempts to make contact with alien life-forms are continually thwarted by the Robinsons. “‘Dad says we shouldn’t go near aliens’” is a constant response to Smith’s efforts. Life is a struggle, and he is relegated to menial tasks. His impatient, inquiring mind leads him to often do manual tasks in half-measure. He is a tragi-comic figure, a vehicle for sarcasm (“I’ve never been fond of sports before — they’re so — so healthy”) which often shows the empty gulf within his soul. The adults shun him, so he must resort to companionship with the two children, Will and Penny. The trauma of his alienation, within ostensibly a loving household, is externalised in the form of his back-pains. These pains are an extended metaphor, a running reminder of Smith’s lack of desire to be swallowed up by the family’s values. Smith only feels himself when his soul is extended to other, varied cultures: he is an alien in the family which should, because of the home planet which is their common bond, really accept him.

The children seem to share an insight into his soul. They alone seem to realise what his soul yearns for. I have already shown how Will reaches out to Smith, and Penny is very similar. Yet Penny is unique in her own quiet way. She outwardly appears to conform to the traditional female role in American society — submissive, gentle, understanding. But beneath her placid exterior, Penny is a seething mass of paranoia, of deep-seated anger and frustration. She is tired of the restrictions of her parents and her culture, and wants to break free whenever she can. When Verda the female android arrives at the Jupiter II camp (which android is, interestingly, brought to the camp by Dr Smith), Penny finds in her the companion she has never been able to have. Verda is liberated and free, a loving, learning creation who is adept at all sorts of abilities. Penny’s fears can be overcome through Verda, and she can face the world and all its problems. The same occurs with Bloop, the mutant monkey - Penny can lavish all her attention on an animal which will absorb it willingly. Her anger can be released and thus appropriately dealt with. Penny’s repressed sexual frustrations can be faced, too, with Verda - she can find her sexual identity and interact with Verda in a fulfilling way. This discovery of sexual identity is particularly explored in her relationship with Dr Smith. Smith, sexually ambiguous himself, with his mincing hips and conventionalised feminine helplessness , draws Penny to him. She sees in him the mixture of two sexual types, and through her relationship with him she can associate which of those types is most relevant for her, in an environment where there is very stifled sexuality. In Verda, Penny sees liberated femininity — in Smith, she sees repressed femininity and repressed masculinity: a kind of androgynous figure. Her struggle to find herself is very much internalised in the show, and for that very reason is perhaps the subtlest revelation of character trait in the series.
The remaining three characters which I have not discussed are very much sexual stereotypes, in opposition to the frustrated, convoluted characters of Smith and Penny. Mrs Maureen Robinson is perhaps the shallowest of the characters in the series in this respect because she
so stereotyped. But don’t be fooled. The writers here have drawn a very exact picture — so exact that it is inevitably a parody, a parody of all female stereotypes. June Lockhart plays the role admirably, right down to her perfect, not-a-hair-out-of-place hairdo. She never gets emotional, never gets ruffled, she never ‘blows her top’ - she is so perfect, in fact, that we cannot help laughing at her emptiness.

This is parody in the best tradition of the ’Brady Bunch’ and ‘Famous Five’. Her advice is always sensible, her judgment always just, her dinners always delicious. Maureen has her little garden, carries her washing in a plastic washing basket (even when a million light years from home!), operates her own computerised oven, and presumably even cleans the toilet bowl. What a perfect little lady she is! She never fears for herself, always for her family. Can her guard never drop? This is a brilliant parody of American values. She is the programmers’ running joke. As such, Maureen is the perfect comic foil to the series’ metaphysical concepts pursued in the rest of the characters. When John discusses the possibility of him competing in the intergalactic games, Maureen is sweetly taking the washing off the line and handing it to Judy, her daughter.

Judy herself is a sexual stereotype, but beneath her svelte exterior is a seething, passionate heart, filled with lust and desire for Don, whom I will discuss shortly. Her smouldering sexual desire lies covered by her smooth, conventionalised exterior. She is moulded in her external relations by her culture, but her heart passionately yearns for Don. Her hand is often in his, a tacit symbol of the sexual union for which she longs. There is no privacy for her, she lives in an environment where each person shares in the other’s experiences. Her cool appearance belies the fire that burns within her. Because, of all the characters, Judy has the least noticeable contact with Dr Smith, her desires are never externalised, her vision is never extended. The powerhouse that drives her is perennially kept in check by her stereotyped image. Love can never truly blossom between her and Don, and she can only relate properly to her mother, paradoxically an image of chastity.

The only human character I have neglected to discuss is Don, the co-pilot and technical wiz-kid. His role is vital to the whole structure of the show and can never be forgotten in terms of its spiritual contributions. Don, primarily, is the contrast to Dr Smith. He is cool, sophisticated, but also arrogant, self-conceited and self-confident. He is the aggressive male (whereas John Robinson, for instance, is the paternal, peaceful male), unable to tolerate weakness or frivolity. His aim is to get the Jupiter II to Alpha Centauri, and ostensibly it seems he has no time for inner searching. But his character is the most poignant, because, while all the time he feigns antagonism to Smith, he is always the first to help him when in trouble. Don has an undying affection for Smith, because Smith represents all the emotional and spiritual concerns that Don has never been able to master. He longs to be as sensitive as Smith, but his bluff exterior precludes any softening. He is a strangely tragic figure, for a man torn by inner affection for another is, by American terms, the epitome of failure. He represses an inner homosexual drive, a drive which is squashed by masculine insensitivity. Don is crushed time and again each time he is forced to deride Smith, and is never seen smiling because of his unseen sadness. How we can sympathise with a man whose very self is torn, who by cultural restraints must hide his true feelings, who hurts himself when he hurts the man he loves. His only consolation is in the fact that he has the skill to pilot and control the Jupiter II, a position of authority which acts as a comforter to him.
Naturally, I have left my favourite character to last. This character has the largest range of emotions and the greatest intellect of all the personalities. Of course I refer to the Robot. Here is a gem of characterisation, a crown jewel of acting. He completes the scene in this brilliant, on-going drama, I say ‘he’ because this robot has immense humanity. There is an overwhelming feeling of life and passion in this being, giving him a unique personality. The whole concept of the Robot is summarised in his appearance: he approaches human form, with his divided “leg” suspension, flexible arms, and large chest, but he remains inexorably artificial, lacking a true head, composed of plastic and metal, and rolling, instead of walking, He can be brave, compassionate, angry, afraid, sad, rueful, lonely, jealous, depressed, happy, and scornful, The Robot is always made to feel inferior by other galactic robots and androids, but he never loses his dignity and innate humanity. He resembles “Monkey”, that Japanese television creation, in that the more he exists with humans, the more he takes on their attributes. The Robot is an inspired creation, and, in a brilliant artistic masterstroke, begins to become part of the Robinson family, almost espousing their traditional values. But the real brilliance is, that, despite the temptation, he never loses his artificial, separated viewpoint. He is always a little saner than the rest, an element of absolute intelligence. Thus, he has a somewhat god-like character, but we are always reminded of his humanity. He, perhaps is. the only “ordinary” person in the programme, a levelling presence, a person who covers the range of human emotions. He feels naturally jealous: when another robot appears on the scene, he assumes naturally his responsibility when it is part of his work (for example, warning Smith when he senses a dangerous alien nearby), he feels run-down when his power-pack is not charged. The Robot is, in other words, a study, by the writers, in the variety of human nature, and its development in a totally non-human being. He is almost a second Adam, starting from innocence, when he is just a purely mechanical device (“a malfunctioning mass of micro-circuits”)”, to going through the trauma of discovering emotions and relationships with humans. He is like a baby growing up in a hostile world, but in a world where there is still love and feeling, despite the frustrations and repressions. The Robot represents the dawning of a new age, the rise of a new Man, and we follow his experiences through the universe. The writers see his life as almost a religious pilgrimage through the historic experiences of man. His voice is a light, a light that flashes out to indicate life and aliveness. He is not meant to be the ideal man, but he is man as we would see him fresh from the Garden of Eden. Yet the Robot has not fallen from grace - he is trying to discover it: this is the essence of his development in the series.

The relationship between the Robot and Smith is important, too. The two match each other, because they are both growing, so to speak. The Robot is growing in his understanding and development of human qualities, and Smith is growing in his understanding of other cultures, responding to them in his ever-searching desire. The two encourage each other’s growth and strengthen each other Smith constantly abuses the Robot, so as to present to him the full range of human response, which would be limited if he merely associated with the perfect ‘bliss” of the American Robinsons. Thus both characters complement each other.

I have studied mainly content of ‘Lost in Space’ in this re-appraisal - that is, studying themes and characters. But form is also interesting in this dynamic series. Two points are particularly worth mentioning briefly: the use of gestures (form in actions) and the episodic nature of the series (form in structure). Smith is especially powerful in his facial gestures: he can convey love, pity, piteousness, helplessness, cunning, anger, and many other qualities, merely by raising or arranging his eyebrows. He is a master at superciliology. At the very moment of climax, Smith will introduce a brilliant stroke of bathos by wrinkling his eyebrows and scoring stupidity and pity. Don is also brilliant at this art, and it is often his facial expressions which reveal his true underlying sadness. At the moment when he chastens Smith, he will raise his brows gently, pathetically, reaching out to Smith in actions, but remaining gruff in voice. It is the ultimate irony that Smith, who is otherwise responsive to many different aliens and cultures, cannot interpret the feelings in these brow movements of Don.

The episodic nature of the series is also a sharply effective method of conveying the messages in the series. Each episode will concentrate on a theme or a set of themes, but at the end, a short segment of the next episode is shown, to indicate that the whole process is an ongoing activity. The voyage of inner discovery never ends. It continues beyond the end of each crisis and transforms our lives at each turn. This is what ‘Lost in Space’ is all about — the gradual unfolding of our inner selves, as we respond to new experiences, new events beyond our everyday existence. ‘Lost in Space’ is not merely a space venture - it is a journey into the soul of man, and only those who look within can truly interpret its great ideas.
* The name of the Jupiter II is itself significant, The Roman god Jupiter was originally the supreme authority figure. Here, the name represents the solid authority and dominance of American culture, but the’II’ indicates the exploration of new, alternative authorities.

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