Lost in Space: Why the Third Time’s the Charm

Lost in Space made its big Netflix comeback count by going back to basics.

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.

Before the Netflix reimagining premiered in April 2018, the idea that any new version of Lost in Space would be decent—much less excellent—seemed unlikely, if not outright impossible. Prior to the Netflix version, there were two reboots: one you’ve forgotten and another you’ve likely never seen—the underwhelming 1998 Lost in Space film from New Line Cinema and an unaired 2004 series directed by John Woo called The Robinsons. Like some of the Alpha Centauri colonists who failed to dodge the death-ray from a robot, both failed spectacularly. So, the challenge facing a new version of the Robinsons’ epic adventure was clear: How could the public at large take this wayward outer space family seriously?

“The perception of Lost in Space was a bit schizophrenic before we did this series,” says executive producer Kevin Burns. “It’s not an easy nut to crack.”

To make a realistic version of Lost in Space that also somehow honors the source material would be a little like someone trying to make a gritty Batman movie in 2019, in an alternate universe where the only Batman performances in history were Adam West and George Clooney. In other words, before the new series, the true potential of Lost in Space had yet to be realized.

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As it turns out, Lost in Space didn’t come back from the dead by reinventing itself exactly. Instead, it’s stealing its best stuff from a surprising source: the original intention of Irwin Allen’s classic show.

Before achieving escape velocity with the contemporary Netflix Lost in Space, producers Kevin Burns and Jon Jashni — who hold the copyrights to several Irwin Allen properties — dreamt of doing a Lost in Space remake that wasn’t a remake at all, but instead, a sequel. After the 1998 film was critically savaged, Irwin Allen’s widow gave the pair the keys to the Jupiter 2.

“We were able to secure the rights after that experience because Irwin Allen’s widow, Sheila Allen, was not happy with the movie, was not happy with how dark and morbid and dysfunctional the family appeared to be,” Burns says. And so, they decided to do something radical. In the early 2000s, they pitched NBC an ambitious project. The unused concept would have followed “a new group of people with a new robot” who, after fleeing from aliens, bump into the Lost in Space characters played by the original cast members—Bill Mumy, June Lockhart, and Jonathan Harris—all of whom have been frozen in Alien-style suspended animation.

Lost in Space Original Series

“We developed this for NBC. They were excited about it and wanted it for Saturday night as a backdoor pilot,” Burns explains. “But, then Jonathan Harris passed away about four months before we were going to begin production.”

While the studio suggested replacements for Harris like Christopher Lloyd and John Lithgow, without Harris in the role of the original Dr. Smith, the hybrid reboot/sequel concept floundered, and by 2004 eventually morphed into another remake, The Robinsons: Lost in Space, which was set to eventually debut on the now-defunct WB network. If fans track down the bootlegs on YouTube, they’ll immediately see why The Robinsons was never aired. Though some of the casting is great (Star Trek: Discovery’s Jayne Brook as Maureen Robinson is fantastic) the series feels generic and uninspired, mirroring the same problems evident in the 1998 film. Burns and Jashni felt like there were “some good ideas” in this pilot, but even the addition of John Woo as a director was too little, too late.

“We never had the control over it that we wanted. We were so unhappy with the result that we were kind of happy to just kind of let it go,” Burns explains. “Little did we know that the WB wouldn’t be around much longer. So it turned out for the best, but we learned a lot from that experience. We learned what not to do.”

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When it was time to try again, Burns and Jashni didn’t do anything radical to the concept. Instead, they went back to basics. While this is a little hard to believe for the casual viewer, the new series honors the original series, not for the campy show it became, but instead, the dangerous and realistic series Irwin Allen originally tried to create.

read more: Lost in Space is Lifting Off With A Bigger Sci-Fi Quest In Season 2

For Burns and Jashni, the gospel of the ‘60s’ Robinsons doesn’t extend much past the all black-and-white first season. When Burns and Jashni started collaborating with screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, they recommended nearly exclusively episodes from the first season of the classic series.

“There are basically two different Lost in Spaces,” Burns says. “There’s the first season and then there’s the second and third season. Some people prefer the campy, funny, over the-top, series. But I’m in the camp that prefers what Irwin Allen intended it to be, which was a more straight action-adventure series.”

In the new Lost in Space, the Robinsons and their fellow stranded colonists aren’t really doing a lot of traveling in space: for nearly 10 full episodes they’re stuck on the same planet. And while this seems like a grounding and realistic choice for the more naturalistic Netflix series, it’s actually exactly what happened in the classic series, too. The 1965 first season of the original Lost in Space finds the Robinsons stuck on the same planet for an extended period of time.

“Keep in mind that they [the original Robinsons] spent 29 hours on that planet and we only had 10!” Burns says. Jashni points out that the planetary location of the series isn’t just a slick dramatic choice, but instead, has a much deeper significance.

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“To us, this is not a space show, this is a family show. And the environment and the unknown of that environment that draws our family together in a Mosquito Coast like way,” Jashni explains. “That’s much more important to us than focusing on the transportational aspects or the tech aspect.”

Despite the focus of the series being on family and their struggle to survive, the new Lost in Space feels closer to harder science fiction than some of its contemporaries. In the new series, the famous robot is no longer constructed by humans, but is instead part of a complicated race of alien robots. Still, the robot in the new series serves a similar function as it did in the pilot for the original show. “Dr. Smith orders the original robot to kill everyone in the family but Don West,” Burns says. “It’s really twisted.”

With the new series, Lost in Space gets to have its mayhem cake and eat it, too. The robot still gets to be heroic and the protector of young Will Robinson, but like in the classic series, its origins are connected to destruction and sabotage. When the “good” robot fights another of its kind in the season one finale, fans of the old show could of course squint and see the season one episode of the 1965 series, “War of the Robots.” In that episode, Lost in Space borrowed Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet to do battle with the resident B-9 unit. Even when the classic Lost in Space was doing something innovative and new, it was always looking over its shoulder and borrowing from other science fiction nearby.

In all its forms, Lost in Space has always been a confluence of the past, present, and future of popular sci-fi. The 1965 original series ransacked the basic concepts of both Swiss Family Robinson and an unrelated comic book series called Space Family Robinson. And though the first season of the show borrowed music composed for The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original music for the series showcased the talents of a young composer named “Johnny” Williams, who of course, went on to control all of our imaginations with his scores for Star Wars over a decade later.

read more: Lost in Space: Inside the Creation of the Robot

Depending on how you look at it, the original Lost in Space was either an innovative masterpiece representative of its time or a kind of harbinger for things to come. But in hindsight, the classic Lost in Space and the two projects that preceded the Netflix series seemed to be the result of various sci-fi influences coalescing, trying to make something artistic and intelligent. In the classic season one episode, “Wish Upon a Star,” Dr. Smith discovers a helmet that can grant him anything he wants out of thin air. With the advent of the new Lost in Space, it’s as though that magical sci-fi device has finally been used correctly, and the result is the compelling and sly Netflix series.

Could some kind of strange real-life sci-fi alchemy have been at work to make this all come together? If such dark magic is afoot, look no further than the brilliant Dr. Smith actress Parker Posey. According to Burns and Jashni, at some point, Parker Posey was gifted a bust of Jonathan Harris as the original Dr. Smith. Later, they learned that Posey took a drill to the bust and turned it into a bespoke lamp. Parker Posey literally drilled into Jonathan Harris’ head to make room for a light. The creation of the new series could have many metaphors, but it’s hard to think of one better or more apropos.

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Original Lost in Space Image courtesy of PhotoFest