Editor’s note: This story appears in our latest Den of Geek special edition magazine presented in parternship with Netflix. You can find more infomation on the issue here. Story by Chris Longo.
Entering Jupiter 2 never gets old for Lost in Space executive producer and showrunner Zack Estrin.
As if he hasn’t already shot two seasons worth of footage inside the massive soundstage outside Vancouver, Estrin is bouncing around the ship’s interior as he shows off some “science fiction touchpoints” of the design, from the circular shape that pays homage to the original show’s Jupiter 2 to the lived-in ambiance that echoes the rusty Millennium Falcon. It’s not just a blast from the past—he’s perhaps most proud of the sterling upgrade the ship received when Netflix dusted off andreimagined the iconic sci-fi franchise for a new generation in 2018.
Estrin points to a ladder set against the wall of the Jupiter 2 that leads to nowhere but a ceiling. It’s not TV magic; it’s a calculated prop.
“The roof was going to actually raise like a Winnebago, and expand to an upper level that would be used because the Jupiters themselves are actually not meant to be spaceships, per se,” he says. “It’s designed to be more of a home that flies rather than a ship that could also be a home.”
These are finer details that may not necessarily be apparent onscreen. But the future home comforts have Estrin grinning ear to ear. He’s pacing, almost nervously, during the tour. Before we can even ask him a question about the long-awaited second season, he erupts with excitement in his voice.
“We are still on the move and we are still on our quest, but we’re not staying in place,” Estrin says. “There are always new challenges. There are always new things to discover, not just about the universe, but about each other.”
When Lost in Space season 2 premieres on December 24th, it will finally live up to the show’s title. “Stranded in Space” might have been more apt during the first season, which saw the Robinsons thrown off course and stuck on a remote world. They had a long checklist of obstacles to overcome in season one: family strife, a volatile planet, power struggles, a hot and cold relationship with the mysterious Robot, and a barrage of deception from Dr. Smith. They persevered, however, barely escaping with the family unit intact, only to get lost in space for real this time.
The first season ultimately amounted to a survival story. In season two, the Robinsons will use their expertise to go on what executive producer and series co-creator Burk Sharpless calls a “science fiction quest.” Calling back to the roots of the original series, the family will be exposed to new planets and the creatures who inhabit them. However, the new season has even loftier ambitions, leaning heavily into the mythology established by the Robot’s extraterrestrial origins.
Season two opens after a seven-month time jump. The Robinsons are trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe while settled on an oceanic planet. Their isolation initially forces the family to repair their broken bond. But how long will that last amidst depleting resources and frightening circumstances? Reality will inevitably set in: they may never again define “home” as four walls and a roof. Deep in outer space, the real quest will be finding relative normalcy, together, amongst the stars.
“We’re exploring the family dynamics among the Robinsons,” Estrin says of season two’s journey. “That’s the heart of the show. Yes, there’s adventure. Yes, there are great visual effects. But the whole thing hangs from this family.”
“As of this moment, the spacecraft has passed the limits of our galaxy. It’s presumed to be… hopelessly lost in space.”
Those words from Alpha Control, along with John Williams’ heart-thumping score, punctuate a pivotal scene in “The Reluctant Stowaway,” the Lost in Space pilot that aired on Sept. 15, 1965. The Robinson family, Don West, and saboteur extraordinaire Dr. Smith were unaware that their contemporaries back on Earth had already deemed their mission a failure. With their odds of returning home dwindling by the minute, the cooler heads of John and Maureen Robinson (played by Guy Williams and June Lockhart, respectively); their kids Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Bill Mumy); and their pilot, Don West (Mark Goddard) prevailed. Dr. Zachary Smith, played with brilliantly devious zeal by Jonathan Harris, mostly stood on the sideline in comedic hysterics in the episode.
The bravery and teamwork of the first family of outer space instantly endeared Lost in Space to audiences around the country. Week after week, the Robinson family escaped whatever series creator Irwin Allen, known as “The Master of Disaster,” would throw their way. Allen would repurpose props and sets from his various film and television projects. To simulate bumpy space terrain, Allen and his producers would tilt the camera and clank a tin can to signal to the cast to shift their bodies to the left or right. Crafty indeed, but Allen’s special effects and sets were also imaginative and ahead of their time for television.
A year before Star Trek debuted and over a decade before George Lucas changed cinema forever with Star Wars, Allen was a pioneer of sci-fi television at a time when the genre was primarily considered for children. Says reboot executive producer Kevin Burns: “You can look back at it now in the age of CGI and say, ‘Oh my God, this stuff is quaint.’ But in those days it was extraordinarily bold.”
CBS eventually pushed back on the scarier adventure elements of season one since it aired in the family-friendly 7:30 p.m. timeslot, and it became a more sanitized show to court a younger audience.
“When you think of the original Lost in Space, you think of that saturated, colorful world the show ended up becoming versus the original pilot, which was black and white,” Estrin says. “It was a little bit edgier and the characters were a little bit more complicated.”
Though Estrin loved some of the “awesome qualities” of the show’s later seasons, he says the original pilot was a path into the new show because it “actually translates more to the tone of television today.”
The technology Estrin and company used to bring the first season on Netflix to life would have been considered purely science fiction in 1965. Now it’s ubiquitous and the Robinsons can go wherever Estrin, Sharpless, and executive producer and co-creator Matt Sazama dare to dream up.
“We like to think that if Irwin Allen were making this show in 2019, this is the show that he would’ve made,” Sazama says.
Today, the team behind the Netflix series is honoring his legacy by developing new worlds and environments in their show that are based on research into what other planets are like and how people may interact with them.
“Our universe and galaxy is such an interesting place that you don’t have to make stuff up to make it seem mind-blowing on screen,” Sharpless says.
The stuff they did make up has put the Robinsons in another hopeless predicament. The first season concludes with the Jupiter 2 being steered away from the safe haven of the Resolute by alien technology. A flash of light transports the family into a colorful new solar system, one that Will recognizes from a drawing the Robot made in the sand back on the Goldilocks planet.
While the show’s space fantasy is at least partially rooted in real science, the subtext is grounded in historical allegory. Despite 54 years of sci-fi storytelling to pull inspiration from, the producers found themselves drawn to stories of the westward expansion of the United States. Take the Robinsons out of space and they could be a family on wagons barreling across the heartland—gambling their safety on the promise of a better life.
“Home is not necessarily a place,” Sazama states. “It’s the people around you. It’s your family. It’s what you make of it. But in season two that becomes a little bit more complicated because what’s a good enough home for you? Is it worth the risk for a better home or is it better to maybe endure things that are worse to stay together? That’s one of the key questions that the Robinsons are going to be dealing with when the season starts because there is no good answer.”
In reimagining a “darker” Lost in Space, the Robinson family had to change with the times. English actor Toby Stephens, who plays John Robinson, calls the Robinsons of the original series an “apple pie American family.” Stephens’ John Robinson is far from a perfect dad; he’s a former Navy SEAL who has to combat problems in space that are only compounded by his behavior back on earth.
John’s struggle in season one was to readjust to being a father after years of missed birthdays while simultaneously repairing his fractured marriage. Though heavy themes for a family show, Stephens says the material established a relatable family dynamic.
“The parents who are watching it with their children identify with [John and Maureen],” Stephens says. “They’re not perfect, but they’re trying to do the best they can.”
Every decision is highly scrutinized when danger lurks around unexplored corners of the universe, hence why even though John and Maureen are once again a unit, they may have fundamental disagreements on which path forward is best for the family. At times John has to swallow his pride and defer to Maureen, the undeniable leader of the Jupiter.
“She’s not particularly emotionally intelligent, and that, in a way, is her struggle,” says actor Molly Parker, who plays Maureen. “It’s what I find the most enjoyable to play about her. Once she thinks she has the solution, she’s directly in action. There’s not a lot of space made for feeling, which is not typical of female roles.”
Her unwavering confidence, intellect, and preparedness is reflected in her kids, who see their mom as a pillar of strength above all else, despite her shortcomings.
“She is the one who has put them in this situation, and she’s the one who needs to get them out of these situations,” Parker says. “But she’s also flawed, full of secrets, and not the most self-aware woman in the world. And demanding of her children.”
The Robinsons’ eldest daughter, Judy, now 19, has some demands of her own: she wants to be respected and treated as an adult.
“As an adult, if you have a good head on your shoulders, you realize that you don’t know everything,” says actor Taylor Russell, who plays Judy. “There’s a huge growth period from [Judy] asking for so much responsibility, and asking for the parents to give me a bigger role in the family. I end up getting that. But be careful what you wish for.”
The most notable physical change on the show won’t be new terrain on unfamiliar planets. Actor Maxwell Jenkins’ growth spurt means Will Robinson will go from space child to space teen. Penny, the bright and witty middle Robinson child played by Mina Sundwall, is also in a crucial stage of development in her young life. She’s perhaps hit the hardest by being so far removed from home, and isn’t entirely comfortable living in space, but finds a fulfilling new role in the crew.
“Penny takes this entire mission on a very different note,” Sundwall says. “She is the one non-science person in a science family. She’s interested in literature and philosophy, and she takes on more of this rediscovering and perseverance of humanity. And when you are into language and when you are into speaking and reading and writing on a colonize mission, what do you become? You become the head of communications, and that’s what she is.”
The maturity of both Jenkins and Sundwall played a factor in the writing of season two’s storylines.
“We want to take those kids who may have been 11 or 12 when they watched the first season, and follow their growth,” Estrin says. “I want to write what a 13 or 14 year old might want to see so that they feel like they’re growing up with Will or they’re growing up with Penny. The storytelling is not quite as innocent.”
Life is a little more complex for Will as he deals with the fallout of learning his mom broke the law to get him on the Resolute. Will’s loyalty will be tested as the family searches for his beloved Robot.
“When I first discovered Will Robinson, his relationship with the Robot really hit home because I have two rescued pit bulls at home and pit bulls have a bad reputation,” Jenkins says. “They are known to be aggressive, but at the end of the day, they’re fierce, they’re loyal, and they’re protectors. And that is what the Robot is to Will, and that’s what my dogs are to me.”
Will feels like he has to prove his worth in season two, but Jenkins says that won’t come at the cost of compromising the character’s moral compass.
“Will has something that I think a lot of people in our world should have, which is compassion,” he says. “That’s his superpower. That is what makes Will Robinson who he is. I think more people need to have that quality. Will ultimately has to prove to everybody that he belongs here, and you get to see him grow up at a normal rate, but under insane circumstances.”
The kids’ support system grows in season two as Don West is pulled in closer to the Robinsons.
“[Don] takes on the role of uncle, but he wants nothing to do with them,” says actor Ignacio Serricchio. “He’ll be the fun uncle, he gets to know them after seven months, but it’s almost like a forced relationship. There’s this natural heroic side of him that, despite his best efforts, he can’t help but let a little bit of that emerge.”
The family’s circle of trust excludes Dr. Smith, however. She remains on the outside looking in, contained inside a cage with a thick piece of glass separating her from the Robinsons.
“I’ve been playing around with petulance and a sense of injustice,” Parker Posey says of her portrayal of Dr. Smith. “They’re stuck with me. So, it’s really fun to play.”
In both Jonathan Harris’ and Posey’s interpretation of the character, Dr. Smith has a steadfast survival-at-all-costs attitude. Posey wants to analyze the character’s psyche in a deeper and more meaningful way in season two. To Posey, Smith’s story is about someone from a broken home who “wants to be a part of the family, yet is not part of the family.”
Estrin recalls a dinner conversation with his family as a major factor in taking the showrunner job. He told his young kids, who had never heard of the original show or the 1998 feature film, the basic premise. Their eyes lit up. Soon they started asking “what if” questions. How would their family survive in space?
“We’re very fortunate to have a comfortable life where we don’t have creatures attacking us or a spaceship that’s running out of air,” Estrin says. “But they were so excited by how we might solve those problems together and who would do what on a spaceship.”
During the writing of the first two seasons, news stories of families fleeing their homelands in pursuit of better opportunities informed discussions in the writer’s room. The Robinsons’ journey to Alpha Centauri is primarily motivated by the decaying Earth they’ve left behind—hardly a subtle nod to our real-world climate crisis. Where fantasy uncomfortably encounters reality, the Robinson children are a glimmer of hope in a dark universe.
“You forget what kids are capable of,” Sharpless says. “Seeing the Parkland kids or even Greta [Thunberg] who’s doing incredible work with climate change. It’s an incredible reminder of how resilient and how brave kids are and people don’t usually give them credit for it. So I think it’s nice to have the characters on our show be good examples of what you can accomplish no matter what your age.”
To the producers, using real world and historical parallels felt essential to restarting a franchise rooted in a timeless parable. The hardest part was choosing to jettison some of the furniture to put their own touch on a sci-fi classic.
The Jupiter 2 itself is a bridge from the past to present. It’ll be the vehicle to space adventure and a place for the Robinsons to rest their heads in future incarnations of Lost in Space for generations to come. But audiences will only come along for the ride if they feel invested in John, Maureen, Judy, Penny, Will, Don, and even Dr. Smith.
“We approached this with a great deal of love for the original,” Sazama says. “We’ve made a lot of changes, but Irwin Allen created something that was really durable. People who loved the old show wanted to be part of the Robinson family. You wanted to be a part of it because you loved the people there.”
Right now, the ties that bind this family are a spaceship spiraling into the abyss, strange environments, and hostile space creatures for new neighbors—certainly not the kind you want knocking on your door asking for a cup of sugar.
But as long as they’re together, the Robinsons will find a way to make it feel like home.