What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.



18 thoughts on “What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)”

  1. I stopped believing in the space program when we decided to race for a Moon landing rather than build infrastructure like a Conquest of Space/2001 style space station to serve as our foothold into space. The various SeaLab projects mostly petered out too, squashing my other “new worlds to conquer” SF dreams.

    In my opinion, Pohl & Kornbluth’s “The Space Merchants” turned out to be one of the most prophetic SF novels ever written. A corporate society ruled by marketing and propaganda and plagued with population explosion, resource depletion, and endless repressive “wars” both military and metaphorical. I can’t count the number of cautionary social satires from my childhood that have already or soon will become our commonplace reality. Those were the SF visions that actually came true.

      1. Actually, it’s been a while for me too – I could be recalling some bits from say “Gladiator At Law” or “The Cool War”. Some early scene setting struck me from the very first time I read “The Space Merchants” though. In the future, most everyone is apparently still running on the same consumerist hampster wheel as us, but now they are tooling around in little pedal vehicles rather than internal combustion autos and they drink some artificial (and highly addictive) concoction called “Coffiest” rather than real coffee. In other words, even as conditions deteriorate people continue to engage in the same everyday thoughtlessness. It’s a frog-boil-frog world.

        Here’s part of the summary from Wikipedia: “In a vastly overpopulated world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge trans-national corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and by far the best-paid profession. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that the quality of life is improved by all the products placed on the market. […] However, the most basic elements of life are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel.”

        1. There’s a story I’ve been meaning to track down that I believe was written by Pohl and Kornbluth that dealt with a future where poor people had to consume like mad, and the rich were allowed to consume less. The example I remember was poor people had to change their clothes often while rich people didn’t.

          I’ve also been meaning to reread some of the Pohl and Williamson books.

      2. James, I believe you’re thinking of “The Midas Plague”, a Pohl novelette first published in the April 1954 issue of Galaxy. One of my favorites, and a commentary on capitalist perversity and planned obsolescence.

        Even more than sens’a’wunda adventure, this sort of SF with a sly humor about social themes is what I grew up on and loved.

        1. Yes, it is “The Midas Plague.” And what a coincidence. I’m listening to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B” and “The Midas Plague” just came on!!! I was listening to “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster when you first left this comment, but “The Midas Plague” was the next story.

  2. James, have you tried the TV series The Expanse? It is based on a book series by James SA Corey, and set in a future where we have outposts of human civilization on various moons around the solar system. I’d say it is more realistic technology-wise.

    1. Ditto the Expanse. Harder SF than the usual TV or book fare. Hard SF is till out there, but the audience just isn’t there (or is dying off?) to support the investment by the book/media industries. My kids are both artist (my son at least is a software engineer for his ‘real’ job) even though I tried to promote STEM. From what I can tell of other adults there age and the ones even younger, the hardest thing they cope with is not finding a decent latte in the morning. 😛

      1. I sometimes wonder if most people prefer fantasy escapism to serious thinking about the future is because the present is all they can deal with realistically, and even for many, the present is much too real.

    2. I read the first book years ago and bought the first season of The Expanse to watch with friends. But I never could get them rounded up to watch it. I’ve been meaning to start watching it on my own because it gets such great reviews. For some reason, I prefer watching TV with friends, especially good shows that are worth talking about. I had to watch Lost in Space by myself because no one I knew wanted to watch it.

  3. My reaction to the 2018 “reboot” of LOST IN SPACE was similar to yours. I liked the new robot, too. Very cool. There was a lot of “family” stuff I could have done without. I’m guessing Netflix will renew LOST IN SPACE for another season.

    1. I thought the family stuff improved the story. I’m curious just how popular this show is now. Many reviewers have been luke-warm to it. I’ve been telling my friends to give it a try, but most are not inclined to watch.

  4. Maybe the engineering school of John W. Campbell’s sf was an aberration, birthed in the late 1930s, and whimpering to a slow death since the late 1970s.

    Jules Verne introduced the strain of predicative and inspirational sf, but it existed beside the less scientific and more philosophical Wells. From the beginning, how much sf really tried to inspire a better future based on plausible technology?

    The Space Race was born of the Cold War, not sf. Lots of technology may have been inspired by sf, but the public who got the second order products of sf weren’t on board on board with broad, engineering schemes. They heard these things were going to be done. They weren’t going to exert any effort in democratic countries to do them. Those things were just going to somehow happen, magic spun from labs and bureaucracies.

    In the meantime, the public expressed its immediate demands for a whole lot of other things.

    And, of course, some of the problems in realizing sf visions turned out to be much harder to solve, some much easier. We may not ever get interstellar travel. We probably will get massive unemployment from robots.

    1. That’s a great observation, Marzaat. Sometimes I feel deluded because I feel science fiction should be like it was when I grew up. Before Star Trek loving science fiction seemed to equal being a NASA supporter. I’m not sure that was true then, but it felt that way. After Star Trek there was a great influx of fans who loved science fiction solely for entertainment. There was another explosion of fans after Star Wars. And it seemed like these fans loved the characters more than the stories. I think this is reflected today in that many readers love long novel series driven by characters. It’s also why they keep making remakes.

      I always loved science fiction for the ideas.

  5. I’m about half way through the Neflix “Lost in Space”. Since I only ever watched the original show to occasionally feed my youthful crush on Angela Cartwright, my feelings about the newest version aren’t much colored by nostalgia. The production values are high, as one expects nowadays. Unfortunately, the writing is also pretty much what one expects nowadays. Our little family of “super-smart” protagonists seem to be taking heavy daily rations of stupid pills, constantly wandering off by themselves on secretive and dangerous little excursions . Perhaps the pills are included in their MREs like GI cigarettes, or maybe the stupid just runs in the Robinson genes. Or in the writers’ genes, anyway.

    By the way, it’s really worth taking a couple of minutes to watch the fabulous b&w credit sequence from the original 1965 season, with its John Williams score and Saul Bass styled graphics (I don’t know who actually did the design).

    1. It’s too bad most of the plots centered around escaping death. It helped that the new actors had much deeper characterizations to work with than the old actors. What was missing from the new stories were all the far-out aliens showing up each week. The old show was full of wild science fictional ideas that came across as silly because of low-budget special effects. Of course, Lost in Space 2018 ends with the promise of alien encounters.

      So, you had a thing for Angela too, PJ?

      1. “So, you had a thing for Angela too, PJ? ”

        Didn’t we all? In fact, I remember watching her on the old Danny Thomas/Make Room for Daddy show. I never went through that proverbial stage where you are supposed to not like girls.

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