This Lost in Space review contains spoilers.
Other sci-fi shows could take a lesson from the Lost in Space series premiere: take a light touch with exposition; concentrate on character; create heart-stopping drama; and let the audience figure out the rest over time. Because it’s on Netflix, viewers don’t have to wait a week for episode two, so why not create an introduction that practically compels the audience to move right onto the next installment? Such is the case with the premiere of Lost in Space, which manages to take our breath away while introducing some creative twists on familiar characters.
The “Go Fish” game in the opening was initially disorienting, giving rise to thoughts like, “Is this just going to be a family drama in space?” But the Robinsons have far from a typical family dynamic, hinted at in those first moments by the mention of Will, the youngest child, counting cards or the fact that Judy, the eldest daughter, won’t hold her father’s hand during the turbulent descent. Throughout the episode, the skill sets of the kids in particular, from Will’s geological knowledge to Judy’s medical training, cast the Robinsons as an interdependent crew where age doesn’t pigeonhole a character as a surly teen or a precocious child. That shift in expectations was much appreciated.
Not to mention Lost in Space could have begun on the Resolute, showing the mother ship full of crew members talking about the journey to Alpha Centauri like the introductory narration in a mass market sci-fi novel. Instead, the entry of the Robinson’s Jupiter shuttle into a mysterious planet’s atmosphere was disrupted — without explanation — by a chunk of flaming debris, which we only later learn was a result of a firefight on the Resolute. This mimics the state of ignorance of the Robinson family who, resourceful though they are, have no idea why they were placed in the position of having to survive in the snowy landscape of a strange planet.
Lost in Space immediately kicks into survival drama mode with all the adrenaline pumping action we’d expect from a disaster film. Maureen Robinson, the matriarch of the family, only has moments to marvel, even with her injured leg, at the fact that they “won the lottery” by landing on a Goldilocks planet against astronomical odds, before the Jupiter sinks beneath the ice taking most of their supplies and means of survival with it. The resulting story unfolds with just the right dangers to introduce each member of the family and what they bring to the table, for better or worse.
Will’s fear, for example, at the idea of retrieving a battery from the submerged shuttle shows a lack of bravery, which is nicely balanced out with his strategic thinking when he spots the white fire of magnesium in the distance. Penny’s an avid reader and has the most natural humor of the family, a necessary quality given the obvious tension between John and the rest of the family. Judy is impulsive but mature beyond her years and extremely gifted. And Maureen clearly has an axe to grind with John, but makes it clear she’s the leader here.
The flashbacks give us a good idea of why John is on the outside looking in, being married more to his military career than his family, but the most successful aspect of these glimpses of the past is the subtle way in which the disasters on Earth unfold that necessitate a mass migration. All we get is a news report of a celestial object headed our way followed by a shopping trip with breathing masks on. No fire and brimstone, just a slowly dying planet with people trying to go about their lives. Even the bombshell of Maureen having bribed someone to give Will a passing score on his tests is dropped in as a quiet counterpoint to John’s confidence in his son’s abilities in the present.
When Will is separated from John, despite the somewhat contrived circumstance of a tunnel depositing him safely at the bottom of the glacier, we’re introduced to the most intriguing twist in this reboot of the classic Lost in Space: the robot as alien interloper. Having Will save its life while repeating the word “danger” three times in one sentence in a message to his father made it clear where this was headed, but when the robot actually uttered the phrase, “Danger, Will Robinson,” the moment was earned. The added secret that the mechanical creature was also responsible for the destruction on the Resolute just added that much more irony.
Less surprising but still quite innovative was the introduction of Parker Posey as Dr. Smith, a name she stole from a fellow traveler onboard the Resolute. Along with the very clear self-serving personality befitting the character as we know him from the classic series, we get hints that she might not even be a legitimate colonist. The fact that she absconds on a Jupiter shuttle with two crew members — and the fact that there are other colonists besides the Robinsons in general — puts a nice twist on the survival tale with an initial separation between the Robinsons and the supposed “Dr. Smith” and others who may have survived.
Judy being trapped under the ice is the central drama around which these character introductions are made, so the audience never feels like they’re experiencing exposition. Even when Penny agrees to read her sister Moby Dick to pass the time, it feels natural. The discomfort, claustrophobia, and labored breathing Judy must be experiencing is palpable to the viewers, who no doubt felt a tightness in their own chests while watching the drama unfold. The robot’s rescue may at first have seemed too easy, but it successfully establishes a reason for the Robinsons to trust this addition to their family from the very start. Wonderfully executed!
Lost in Space made a strategic choice to introduce its conflict and characters in an oblique manner, but it was ultimately successful in keeping the premiere feeling like a story in progress, allowing for a sense of discovery. Because the world will unfold for the Robinsons in the same fashion, it makes sense for the audience to pick up details along the way. While this may lead some critics to conclude that the characters aren’t that strong, this method allows the Robinsons to develop their own identity separate from the family in the classic series without jarring initial comparisons. Kudos to anyone who was able to watch this single episode without moving directly onto the next.