“Lost in Space” is a science-fiction reimagining of the classic 1812 novel “Swiss Family Robinson” by David Wyss. It tells of a family in the near future that leaves Earth for a new colony in the Alpha Centauri system. Their ship encounters an anomaly that pulls them well off course, and they find themselves stranded on an uncharted planet, surrounded by danger (Will Robinson) and nefarious characters. The first season of the show is available on Netflix.
Two literary devices are typically used when plotting out a suspense or mystery narrative. The first, speaking analogously, is a table full of people in a restaurant where something is wrong. Through the course of the meal, they figure out there is a bomb under the table, and the rest of the time is spent trying to eliminate that particular threat. The second literary device takes that same scenario, but shows you the bomb early in the story, while keeping the restaurant patrons in the dark, giving the audience a sense of dread that the diners might not discover the danger until it is too late.
Both of these tropes are used in “Lost in Space,” simultaneously at times, in a figurative restaurant full of patrons, some of whom are aware of the threat, others who are not, and leaving open the possibility that still other tables may have their own bomb to deal with. As the series progresses, the focus narrows to one table, occupied by the Robinson family, plus one or two uninvited guests. We are aware of some things they are not, while they have knowledge we don’t. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: there are known knowns, known unknowns, and the rest is filled with maybe.
Family-Friendly Adventure for Its Own Sake
That sense of mystery, known and unknown, permeates the overall narrative arc of a fresh yet familiar reboot of the campy original 1966 series, with sprinklings of flavor from the mediocre 1998 film, both of the same name. It is, first and foremost, a family endeavor that aims to entertain everyone in the household.
While it plays gleefully with the gimmick of cliffhanger—at times literally—the series feels no need to resort to sordid gawk factor or tawdry sexual violence. In fact, there is very little violence, and perhaps refreshingly, no sex. If you’re the sort who thinks of that as a spoiler, you’ll have to be content with a second binge of the utterly horrible (with one or two exceptions) “Altered Carbon.”
“Lost in Space” does away with the campiness of the original series in favor of a sense of adventure for its own sake. While there are one or two almost wink-at-the-camera moments, none of the levity feels forced. There’s even a “let’s have some fun” sequence telegraphed by an appropriate accompaniment from Van Halen that manages to skirt lightly around the cringe factor; no easy feat.
Humor does not feel out of place here as it does with more dystopian science fiction shows, and at times several characters use it as a defense mechanism in attempting to cope with the seemingly impossible tasks before them.
At its adventurous core is a solidly pro-family heart, a message that never feels heavy-handed. Relationships are strained, but eventually mended, and with sincerity rather than obligation. The opening credits are a love letter to the American space program, and throughout every episode is a sense of wonder in the activities of exploration and discovery.
How the Actors Do With Their Characters
Molly Parker is the anchor of the cast. As Maureen, matriarch of the Robinson family, she moves through her role grounded in genuine emotion, and what initially feels like an attempt to emasculate her husband later becomes a source of self-realization. Relationships are often called bonds for a reason. In the hands of a lesser actor, her character arc would lack a certain authenticity, but here she is allowed to feel regret without loss of inner strength.
Toby Stephens plays father character John Robinson with simple earnestness. He’s a dad who just wants to be a dad, which bears extra weight since oldest daughter Judy (played competently by Taylor Russell) does not share his DNA. Maxwell Jenkins’ portrayal of Will Robinson is solid, punctuated with moments of near greatness. You get the sense this young man feels his character’s flaws as part of himself.
The breakout character amidst these fine performances is Mina Sundwall, who plays Penny Robinson with extraordinary range. Her serious moments do not lack impact, but she truly shines in her pitch-perfect comic timing. One senses the writers may have added material for her as the season progressed precisely because she is so adept at delivering it.
Major West has been updated to mechanic, and part-time scoundrel Don West played with the appropriate lack of gravitas by Ignacio Serricchio. We’ve seen this character before in other franchises, but West does not feel like a rerun. Indeed, the man has scenes where he plays opposite an actual chicken, and never once feels like he’s about to break.
Finally, it is the always excellent Parker Posey in the reimagined role of Doctor Smith, who plays a villain on two levels. First, she is an utterly self-absorbed con artist willing to step on anyone while complaining that others are trying to step over her. Secondly, she is the thief of every scene that isn’t nailed down.
As with all of her roles, Posey buries herself in the part to the extent that an early flashback scene opposite Selma Blair (playing her sister) feels woefully short. While it is fashionable these days to hijack and reimagine characters for the sake of parity, the beauty and subtext of this particular role is that she may or may not actually be Dr. Smith.
Imperfect But Enjoyable
The new “Lost in Space” as a whole is not a masterpiece. It will not be talked about when awards season rolls around, nor will it be hotly debated for months on fan message boards. The science of its fiction is questionable at times, and suspension of disbelief occasionally requires extra effort. But it’s hard not to enjoy.
Whatever else, “Lost in Space” is a great deal of fun, and it provides the kind of escapist entertainment grandparents can comfortably enjoy with their progeny. Until recently, Netflix seemed to have taken an approach with its original series and movies that its audience is either adult or child. But with the success of the far-too-clever-for-its-own-good “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the streaming service may have realized it is possible—and profitable—to hit both targets simultaneously.
Here’s hoping, because as I watched the Robinson family gaze out the window of their ship Jupiter 2 at the setting for a well-deserved second season, all I could think was, More like this please.