“Lost in Space” had all the ingredients for a good show. It was set in outer space, and created and produced by special effects master Irwin Allen. John Williams even wrote its theme songs and much of the background music, along with Alexander Courage (who also wrote music for Star Trek).
And the first episode had a surprisingly dark tone. The “Jupiter II” and its crew prepares for lift-off, but a cold war spy sneaks on board to sabotage it. He’s trapped on board the ship and blasted into space, and the sabotaged robot damages the control panel, hurtling the ship irretrievably into the far reaches of outer space. The ship’s crew was chosen for its skill, resourcefulness, and emotional stability. Unfortunately, their stowaway had none of these.
But the show had one glaring flaw. The “good” characters were wooden and unexciting. For six years, June Lockhart had played the sweet mother on the TV series “Lassie,” and amazingly, her role in this “futuristic” series was a housewife in space. (In one episode, she’s actually shown doing the laundry.) Instead of exciting space adventures, the show veered into ordinary family dramas, as the parents offered sentimental encouragement and understanding to their three children, Judy, Will, and Penny.
The only interesting character was the preening and cowardly stowaway, Dr. Smith. He would betray the crew if he could (for gold, power or safe passage back to earth). But he’d insist with grand rhetoric (and dishonesty) that he had the crew’s best interests at heart.
The series also included a giant robot which became a major character with its own familiar catch phrase. (“Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”) The show’s writers quickly realized the humorous potential of having the robot challenge vain Dr. Smith, and this soon became a regular feature of every episode. As the youngest passenger, Will Robinson trusted Dr. Smith, and the unlikely pair, along with the robot, became the focus of many episodes.
“Lost in Space” premiered in 1965, just four years before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. This makes it one of the few shows which began with black and white episodes, but ended with color episodes (in its second and third season). This creates a handy trick for fans of the series. The first season’s episodes were the darkest, in which Dr. Smith was still seen as a treacherous saboteur. But if the episode’s in color, it’s probably one of the campier episodes. (In the most notorious episodes, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” the astronauts confront giant talking carrots.)
America had a high interest in outer space during the 60s, and this show is an interesting relic from that era. As a science fiction TV show, it isn’t very good. But as a pop culture artifact, it’s fascinating.