LOST IN SPACE [Series Review]: Not Lost; Just Meandering…
There is a moment in the second or third episode of Netflix’s remake of the 1965 series Lost In Space where mother Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) and father John Robinson (Toby Stephens) take control of the Jupiter 2, and maneuver it through a collapsing ice cave, using the last of their fuel reserves to escape being trapped on an alien world, miles underground. It reminded me of the climax of the 1998 film in which the characters do something similar in order to escape a collapsing planet, and in this brief sequence — which climaxes with the ship flying through the sky, the classic theme playing, rousing — the show was vibrantly alive.
And then the show, like the ship itself just moments later, came to a slow lull, crash landing; not quite crashed to the ground in a wreck, but unable to lift off again until the very end.
When the show works, it works wonderfully: our own Moody reviewed the pilot, which…damn, was busy as hell. So much happens in the first two or three episodes, and that’s before the Robinson family even meets other survivors of the colony ship Resolute. By updating the series, showrunners Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and HOLY SHIT NEIL MARSHALL(?!) managed to resolve some of the more curious choices both the original series and the film failed to address, and managed to make the Robinsons a more skilled, less bland family.
There’s plenty happening in the series– but not all of it is particularly interesting. This is a GORGEOUS show, don’t get me wrong (I don’t know what the budget is, but it looks stupidly expensive. There’s no way a second season can sustain itself looking the way it does), and the production design is fantastic, and the music, and this is probably the first show in a long time in which I can say this, is fantastic and rousing; composer Christopher Lennertz does a fantastic job weaving the original show’s third season theme into a motif throughout the entire season.
The show is well-cast. Holy crap I didn’t recognize Toby Stephens (Die Another Day was a damn long time ago…), and hopefully Parker Posey — the most interesting character on the show — along with Taylor Russell‘s Judy, who at first seems too much like a wunderkind before being reminded of her age and inexperience by another character, gets a lot more to do, and gets to ham it up and add some levity to the show. Keep your eyes peeled for brief cameos by Selma Blair, and Billy Mumy, too.
There are moments where this update seems to have something to say, to justify its existence; but for every step forward, it stalls for the better part of an entire episode. While the dysfunction of the Robinson family is one of the few dynamics borrowed from the 1998 movie, the excitement and joy of exploration of the original series is gone. Yes, yes, this franchise is about a family trying to survive the most dangerous of scenarios. Yet, even then they had moments where they’d explore whatever strange planet on which they’d found themselves, which presented plenty of drama and danger itself. Here, the series trades the weirdness of space for gritty realism, and the wonder of exploration for dubious science and character decisions and relationships that go nowhere.
Sadly, the current Netflix model of “ten hour-long episode seasons” means there’s still lots of padding and stretching out of this show. It occurred with nearly every Marvel show, it happened with The OA, and it happened here: every episode could lose about 20-minutes each, and maybe half the characters could be removed without losing much. Hell, it’d be a leaner show. Instead, to make up the runtime, the show borrows from Wages Of Fear, The Abyss, and even Neil Marshall’s own The Descent (or A Quiet Place, for a more recent reference), and the aforementioned 1998 movie.
Whenever the story slows a bit–which, again, isn’t a bad thing–there’s some out-of-nowhere situation that crops up just to create drama. Space eels that eat fuel! Getting frozen in a lake TWICE! Tar pits! Uh…my spacesuit’s humidifier froze and some ice flew into my eye and now I’m temporarily blinded? (…None of those I made up) And there’s the bigger storytelling trend of a first season or movie of an established franchise spending too much time setting up familiar dynamics in the hopes of a second season or film: stop padding the story and just get to where we need when we need to do so. A second series or film is never guaranteed (***coughcoughSupermanReturnscoughcough***). Just tell a good story and the audience will follow wherever you want to take us.
And finally, there’s just something weird about the robot. From its appearance in the first episode, where it solves nearly every single problem facing the Robinsons throughout, it was a freaky, weird deus ex machina. *MILD SPOILERS* By making the robot some alien device, the series opens up a question that perhaps we didn’t even need to know; long-form storytelling works when there’s a clear mystery to be solved, the origin of the Robot just isn’t interesting enough to justify exploring for what will most likely be the second season. The robot’s redemptive arc at the end of the season also doesn’t make much narrative sense either.
“But J.L., you sexy son of a bitch! Will’s relationship to the robot is important!” Is it, though? Throughout the original series and even the movie, the robot is just a tool on the Jupiter 2, another piece of equipment. The Robinsons constantly use him to do dangerous work because that’s literally his function. Too much import is put on him, and it’s still a mystery as to why (and why is there a need for some weird psychic link between it and Will, and then Dr. Smith?). And while having it be wisecracking and smarmy wouldn’t quite work with the tone here, having it only say, “Danger [INSERT CHARACTER NAME]” got old a bit quick. Hearing the phrase the first time was fun…but when that’s all it says, there’s a lack of personality that is hard to overcome.
And there’s something charming about the robot’s design in the original series, and the movie as well; its bulkiness made it seem more durable, more like a piece of equipment, and more interesting, as well as adding potential drama since there were limits to what it could do and where it could go. The new design is too human-looking for me to not think it is simply an alien, and not an automaton. I’m sure I’ll get used to the new design, but it was jarring.
I enjoy this show for all the things it does right (and, again, don’t get me wrong…there are MANY things this series does right), but it stumbled at the landing…and didn’t perform a perfect routine. Despite its flaws, I do genuinely like and enjoy this show! It has SO MUCH potential! The shows looks gorgeous, the first three or so episodes, and the last episode, are great, the cast has good dynamics (although they need consistency, and a bit more to do), and now that the main characters are together, hopefully the second season will be a lot smoother. Lost In Space isn’t a lost cause…but it needs to be a lot smoother sailing. 3/5 Space Chickens.
Lost In Space is currently streaming on Netflix.