Netflix has done sci-fi loving families everywhere a huge favor in rebooting the Lost in Space franchise. The new series starts off slow, but as it goes along, it quickly gets its feet and eventually won me over completely.
The show showcases real family dynamics in a positive way
In fact, it’s rare to find science fiction shows that showcase real families at all, much less that make family itself a central theme in the story. Even family friendly science fiction of decades past — such as Star Trek — gives us precious little in the way of “family” at all. So few characters are happily married we might wonder if the humanistic future of Star Trek is, in fact, a post-marriage world, and whether people like Chief O’Brien are anomalistic holdovers of the past.
There are reasons, of course — a happy marriage doesn’t produce the kind of drama that writers are used to writing. Some might suggest it’s also not the sort of drama that viewers expect and want to see, but I think that the success of shows like This Is Us demonstrates otherwise. I think there is a craving for shows that place happy families at the center — and especially for shows that do this, but which aren’t explicitly about family, like This Is Us. In other words, shows such as Lost in Space.
The Robinson family begins at odds with each other. The father, John, has only recently rejoined the family from a mult-year absence that has estranged him from his wife and kids. Their children, Judy, Penny, and Will each have various gripes and insecurities with respect to their role in the family. When John and Maureen argue, they are having believable marital disputes; I can picture myself facing similar disagreements in similar circumstances.
However, the show masterfully shows the family coming together, so that by the end of the first season, John and Maureen are finally working as a team, and each of the children have had a chance to overcome their various insecurities and found their place in the family. This character development is a centerpiece in the show, and as such, I think the show celebrates family in a way that few science fiction shows do. Lost in Space a real treat, a little oasis in a Hollywood desert mostly devoid of family except for stories explicitly about family.
Lost in Space gives us a story about human cooperation
Throughout the show, the characters are imperiled by their environment (rock storm, tar pit, alien wildlife, freezing temperatures, geysers) and each and every time, they put their human ingenuity to work to solve the problem in ways that would make Mark Watney proud. They use magnesium to try and burn away ice, they use a helium balloon to escape a tar pit, they build a lighthouse using scrap materials, etc.
What I love about Star Trek (the original series, Next Generation, Voyager, etc.) was not its unrealistic post-scarcity, post-religion, anti-capitalist humanistic vision of the future, but rather the idea of human beings banding together and figuring out how to solve problems in innovative ways. Star Trek rarely pitted its characters against each other. The most familiar scene of Star Trek is that of the senior officers sitting around a table and brainstorming how to fix whatever problem they were facing — listening to and collaborating with each other, with ego barely (if ever) getting in the way.
For this reason, I loved The Martian and the type of story it told. It was a story without a villain, a story about people working together to solve problems through brilliant thinking. I want more stories like this, where villains are (at most) side characters serving subplots, while the centerpiece is a story of how people worked together to solve problems. And Lost in Space does precisely this (with one notable character exception). Even when there are plausible disputes between the would-be colonists, those disputes eventually resolve into mutual respect and cooperation.
Lost in Space deals with heavy emotional themes.
The show deals with some heavy emotional themes. For example, when John Robinson must embark on an incredibly risky expedition that might save the colonists, he insists on consulting the family first. The following conversation occurs:
Will: “Are you sure you’ll make it back?”
Maureen: “If anyone can, it’s your dad.”
Will: “Can you promise he’ll make it back?”
Maureen: “If I could, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
That is the sort of brutal honesty that I find refreshing about LOST IN SPACE, and which could prompt valuable discussions amongst parents and children about the realities of risk and the possibilities of loss and failure — while still watching the heroes triumph in the end.
At one point, Judy is trapped in ice and nearly suffocates to death. She spends 2-3 episodes overcoming panic attacks that stem from the memory of that trauma. Will internalizes guilt over the incident. Penny finds herself coping with the possibility of dying. Judy later faces the additional trauma of losing a patient — one that she had put herself on the line, and the entire colony at risk, to save. One colonist must come to terms with being protected by the very robot that killed her husband. Will makes a terrible mistake that — for a while — he thought cost his father his life. He laters faces his own anxieties and fears at a crucial moment, where failure would mean their death. It’s a show about kids dealing with grown-up situations.
Lost in Space teaches us about the reality of failure
In real life, not all heroes win the day. Not all plans succeed. Not everyone survives. Lost in Space showcases this reality with surprising fidelity — most of the plans enacted by the characters fail. Sure, some plot armor protects the main characters — but the show did a very good job of making that plot armor invisible enough I genuinely wasn’t sure who would survive and who wouldn’t. (Although if I’d watched the original series more recently, it would be obvious.)
They attempt to signal the Reliant using a lighthouse of sorts, which is destroyed in an untimely way by the native wildlife. They attempt to use magnesium to melt away life-threatening ice, only to be thwarted by a storm. They attempt to retrieve fuel from a lander, only to lose most of it in an accident. They sacrifice the fuel to save a life — only to fail once again as the character they tried to save dies anyways. They try to launch into space in a stripped down spaceship, only to have the spaceship explode before reaching orbit. They attempt to save the survivors who are adrift in space with a grappling hook, only to miss.
While our heroes ultimately survive and save the day, it is only because of sheer persistence. Eventually they stumble on plans that succeed. But just like real life, it’s only because they faced risks and failure along the way. In the church, we often (rightly) promise divine assistance in our efforts to serve God — but we fail to teach the reality of failure. Most doors missionaries knock on won’t even open. Most of those that do will turn the missionaries away. Most who let the missionaries in won’t get baptized. And many of those who do get baptized do not remain active. This is the nature of the work of gathering Israel.
The same is true for members generally: most people they invite will say no. Those who find success in missionary work do so by sheer numbers. They try, and then try again. And again. And again. And eventually, their efforts bear fruit. And that’s perhaps by divine design. It is good to work, and it is good to scrape our knees by making mistakes, by stumbling, by trying but often not succeeding. This is how we grow. And Lost in Space invited me to reflect on this principle multiple times over as the characters continually created plans that should have succeeded but didn’t.
The villain of Lost in Space, Dr. Smith, is incredibly frustrating
Some stories have villains we love (such Loki from The Avengers or Darth Vader from Star Wars). Despite their objective villainy, we would be sad if they died, and enjoy having a meal with them. Then there are villains we love to hate (perhaps Joffrey from Game of Thrones); a quick death would be too merciful, we want to bask in their suffering. Others have speculated that there are villains we hate to love (the Joker from The Dark Knight?). But Dr. Smith from Lost in Space is none of these things — she is simply a villain we hate. If a random meteoroid were to unceremoniously end her life at the beginning of the next season, we would be immensely relieved. And then we would entirely forget her.
(I’m not saying we should feel that way — I’m just describing the emotions evoked in myself and others by the story as given.)
As a character, Dr. Smith seems incapable of seeing or speaking truthfully. Every time she talks, she mixes truth with lies and crafts narratives that always paint her as a victim of others. Even in her most (seemingly) honest moments of self-inventory, it’s apparent she is still weaving narratives that advance her own selfish ambition. She’s mercurial even when she doesn’t need to be — it’s purely habitual for her. Her dialogue is smartly written and smartly acted: Her lies are always clever enough to sound plausible. She must be truly brilliant to craft such compelling narratives in the spur of the moment — I would need a team of writers and a teleprompter to be that slick, much less all the time.
Dr. Smith may be the biggest problem of the series. Many villains serve as a literary foil to the heroes of the story: the hero is in part defined in contrast the villain, and develops through confrontation with the villain. If the villains were to just “go away,” the heroes couldn’t be developed properly, and the story would fall apart. There is no Batman without the Joker. They complete each other as characters; the Joker brings to the center of the story Batman’s values and principles, and tests them in a way that no other character can. Good villains may eventually be killed or captured, but they are never forgotten, because they leave an indelible mark on the development of the protagonists.
But not so with Dr. Smith. There is nothing about the character development of the Robinson family that needs Dr. Smith to be foiling all their efforts. Perhaps the most she does is provide an occasion for Will to make a near-fatal mistake and a crisis of confidence. But no other character’s moral or personal development is in any way advanced by her villainy. In that way, Dr. Smith is simply an annoying wrench in the gears. She’s the fingernail on chalkboard. I have no idea if this is on purpose, or if it’s good writing or bad writing. I hope she develops a conscience and is redeemed by the end of the series, simply because that would actually give her character a purpose for being in the story beyond grinding up the plans of our heroes.
Lost in Space gives us grounded(ish) science fiction
The “science fiction” of the show is uneven — at times, it tries to be as grounded as The Martian, and other times its as soft as Star Trek. But there is some consistency: the characters certainly act like they live in the scientific universe of THE MARTIAN rather than the fanciful universe of Star Trek. The softer elements of the science often catches the characters by surprise. The opening scenes of Lost in Space — which includes a zero-gravity game of cards — added a grounded flavor to the series.
But such scenes are undoubtedly expensive, and as soon as the characters were going to spend large amounts of time in space, the writers contrived a way to make artificial gravity a thing. This follows classic Star Trek tradition: Star Trek’s teleportation system was invented by the show’s writers because it was a much cheaper effect than filming a shuttle landing. While understandable, it’s a shame: sci-fi me would have been thrilled if the interior action sequences of the final episode included zero-gravity.
If you are a fan of science fiction and want to support family-centered TV, this Netflix’s Lost in Space is a worthy show to watch. It is clean; I would hve no hesitations letting a seven year old watch it. There are moments of sci-fi violence (a scene where a robot is blasting people on a spaceship). There’s a muted cuss word that anyone might recognize as the f-word (although in the moment, I hardly blame the character). Overall, it is a show that the whole family could enjoy.