The Lost Room: Revisiting an Overlooked Sci-fi Gem
As we approach the 10th anniversary of The Lost Room, we reminisce about the series with co-creator Christopher Leone...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Many people pine for the one that got away. For a swathe of science fiction fans, their great lost love is Joss Whedon’s space western show Firefly, but for a few of us there was also another sci-fi show cruelly cut off in its prime after just a few great episodes in the 00s – and that show is The Lost Room.
I didn’t have access to SyFy (which was still going by Sci-Fi Channel back then) when The Lost Room aired, so I missed it. Turns out I wasn’t the only one – when the show aired in December of 2006, it scraped by with some of the channel’s lowest ratings for a miniseries ever. It was also dismissed as “an especially silly descent into incoherence” by the likes of TV Guide. If anything, that would have been in its favor during the ensuing years, as any Lost or Mr. Robot fan will attest.
But it’s likely that anyone who has actually seen The Lost Room must be utterly confused by those ratings and reviews. In its three 2-hour episodes (cut up into 6 hour-long ones for the DVD release), the show sets about building a world and a mythology with a deftness the likes of which we just don’t see anymore.
Subsequently, the plot is complicated and not easy to pitch in a few lines. Detective Joe Miller (Peter Krause – Six Feet Under) tracks down a young guy that he’s had previous dealings with, after finding evidence that he was present at a fresh and particularly grim crime scene. This kid is in serious trouble, though, and Miller soon finds out why: he has lifted a much-coveted supernatural hotel room key that unlocks any door in the world. Joe soon has the key, and he discovers that when he uses it, he can travel back to a 1960s motel room where the sun is always shining. The empty room seems fairly innocuous, but when Joe exits back into the world he doesn’t come out the way he went in, and he soon learns how to pick and choose his desired destinations.
This is certainly helpful when his beloved young daughter disappears into the room and doesn’t come back out. Desperate to find her, Miller starts to investigate the significance of the hotel key – and those who would wish to steal it from him. It turns out that the key is not the only object somehow tied to the room. There are at least a hundred objects which originated in that frozen-in-time place, and each has their own specific power. There’s a comb that allows the user to freeze time for just a few moments, a bus ticket that instantly transports anyone who touches it to a specific far-off location, a glass eye that annihilates everyone in its gaze, and even a simple jacket that’s also somehow bulletproof.
There’s much, much more to the rules-based fantasy miniseries than that, but to get into it would require us to go down a very deep rabbit hole full of sinister cabals, object collectors, and betrayals. The Lost Room is intricate and requires viewers to pay attention to a fair amount of exposition in its first few episodes, which is a hard sell when a fair chunk of viewers are looking for fast-paced action.
There’s also a real 90s feel to The Lost Room. The atmosphere of the show really takes you back to those Saturday afternoons sat on the sofa as a kid, watching intriguing new installments of The Outer Limits – but its tone is similarly close to something like Stephen King’s Golden Years or The Stand. It takes the time to set a firm foundation for its ideas, but none of the episodes are short on adventure or intrigue, and overall it’s a quality piece of sci-fi – which is why it feels so unfair that so few people have seen it.
By the time I had accompanied Joe Miller to the natural conclusion of his journey, which ends with a very Flash Gordon-like ‘The End?’ shot of the mysterious hotel room’s door slowly opening to reveal a single object lying tantalizingly within reach, I was frantically googling for information on the next series, only to find nothing but bad news – there was no next series.
Clearly, I had no other option at this point than to spread my misery around. Thus began a period I like to refer to as “The Lost Roomening,” in which I gently forced one friend after another to make time for the show.
“No, this is really good. I promise,” I would insist, thrusting yet another shrink-wrapped copy of the silver DVD box into yet another pair of baffled hands around the Christmas tree. Only then would the kind of internally wrought questions typically reserved for a new love interest begin to surface: “How long should I wait until I message them to see if they’ve watched it yet? Is a week enough? I don’t want to scare them off.”
But when the poor person who finally had the good faith to chuck on the first DVD in the set had made their way to the last, it was my turn to be the one who faced a barrage of increasingly irritated questions.
“When does series 2 start?” That would be the first one. “What do you mean, ‘there’s no series 2?’” would inevitably follow. We’d slowly make our way to the upset and accusatory break-up questions, like “Why would you make me love this knowing there’s no series 2?!” I’m sorry. No one is sorrier than I am that there is no series 2, but if I am to spend the rest of my life suffering, then I refuse to do it alone – deal with it.
Recently, I decided to go straight to the source and have a chat with Christopher Leone, the co-creator of The Lost Room, to finally get some closure on that open wound…
So firstly, would you be able to tell me about the initial creation of the series? Where did the idea come from?
The Lost Room started as two separate ideas that got mashed together. The first idea was from my friend Paul Workman. He and I used to work together in the library at Carnegie Mellon University and we would spend most of the time joking around and making up stuff. One day Paul came into work and told me this idea he had for a superpower. It was a thought experiment: what superpower could you have that would be the smallest power with the biggest effect? And Paul’s idea was that if he had the power to teleport into a hotel room, that would be life-changing. You could live there, you could order room service, so you wouldn’t have to pay rent, buy food, etc. Basically it’s a perfect way to not need a job. Paul also had an idea for a second superpower, which was the ability to teleport someone to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and when they arrived they’d have a bus ticket back to wherever they came from. So it would be inconvenient and annoying to the person, but not devastating. Anyway, these weren’t story ideas yet. These were just these things we would sit around and talk and laugh about for hours.
The second idea came from a movie project I was brewing maybe 4-5 years later. It was about a kid who got a glass eye that was magical somehow and incredibly powerful, although I wasn’t sure what it did yet. But I knew there was a secret war going, just below the surface of everyday life: people meeting in diners and bowling alleys, killing each other trying to get this glass eye. I had a few scenes sketched out, but mostly I had a world and a tone in mind — kind of a dark Americana — but the story hadn’t gelled.
Then maybe around 2000 or 2001, Laura Harkcom and I were writing together at the time, and someone reached out to us — I think it was a show for the then-Sci-Fi Channel, coincidentally — about developing short film ideas that could turn into TV series. We started kicking around ideas but ultimately didn’t end up pursuing it — maybe we didn’t like the deal. But during that process, at some point Laura suggested fusing the two ideas together, Paul’s and mine. Which was really interesting, but the rules didn’t quite match up. I didn’t think a secret war would work with Paul’s ideas unless those oddball powers were somehow connected to objects, like the glass eye. So a key would open a door to the hotel room, a bus ticket would teleport you to Fort Wayne, and so on. That meant your “superpower” could be stolen. People would try to kill you for it. And the whole idea exploded from there. None of us knew anything about TV — and it was a different era of television at the time — but we knew the world was too huge and sprawling to be a movie.
What were your influences when creating the show?
Our influences are a weird grab-bag. Paul and I developed this shared sensibility over the years, this big brew of movies and comics and in-jokes and half-remembered late-night TV, so in my mind it mostly comes out of that soup. But I can pick out a few specific influences. Looking back, I think my original glass-eye movie idea was massively inspired by The Talisman by Stephen King & Peter Straub. Paul was a big fan of Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics, so I suspect that influenced his ideas for the powers. Black Friday by David Goodis was also a big influence on tone — it’s an amazing paranoid, claustrophobic crime novel.
Video games were also an influence. I was a huge fan of Infocom text adventures as a kid, so that’s in the mix heavily. The entire sequence under the prison looking for the Collector’s vault could be straight out of a text adventure. I’m also big on the Elder Scrolls series, and Morrowmind at the time was a big influence on the cabals, thinking about the different Guilds and Houses in that game.
Strangely, I can’t point to any movies or TV shows that influenced it directly, which is maybe why the tone is so odd.
Moving forward in time to when the show aired, had you planned for a second series?
Yeah, Sci-Fi’s hope was that the miniseries would be successful enough to launch an ongoing series, the same way they launched Battlestar Galactica. But as much as Sci-Fi truly loved the show, the ratings for an event miniseries — which was a higher bar — were a disappointment. Remember, at the time it was an unknown, original property not based on a novel or something with a pre-existing fanbase.
Originally, the plan was to produce an eight-hour limited series that would air each week after Battlestar, which I think would have been better for us, but the financing didn’t come together in time. A limited series would have given folks eight weeks to find the show, instead of just three nights, and perhaps the ratings bar would have been lower. But we were stoked we got to make 6 hours of The Lost Room in the first place, and it seemed like the people who did see it really loved it.
At what point did you make peace with the idea that it wasn’t going to happen? I know that at one point you were looking to do a Lost Room run with Red 5 Comics, so I’d imagine you felt there was more of the story still to be told?
I still haven’t made peace with the idea that more Lost Room won’t happen. I think it will. There’s a hell of a lot more to it. There are more Objects and characters and cabals that I find really interesting, but there are some huge, deeply weird ideas that we couldn’t even get to in the miniseries.
I can tell you that the idea of the show was not to follow a particular protagonist, but to follow the Key. So in each new iteration of The Lost Room, you’d follow a new protagonist who would end up with the Key, who’d have their own problems and agenda, and would use it differently. So in the first story, it’s Joe Miller who’s trying to save his daughter, but in the next story a new protagonist gets the Key and runs a whole different way with it.
So what’s next for Christopher Leone?
I’ve got a bunch of projects in the works right now. First, I can’t tell you the details yet, but some exciting stuff is happening with my TV project based off Parallels, which is a digital project I wrote and directed for Fox Digital. It’s about a small band of people traveling across parallel Earths through a gateway known as the Building. It’s a different universe but has a similar tone to The Lost Room. You can still watch the original Parallels on Amazon and iTunes, I believe. I have a second sci-fi pilot set up at a cable network that has more of an Amblin-esque feel. I also have an indie feature film I’m going to direct for Circle of Confusion. Finally, I’m finishing up a novel called Champions of the Third Planet, which is about five kids who find a spaceship in the woods that steals them off to a distant planet, where they get injected with a super serum and have to fight aliens in a giant arena. It’s basically my love letter to the Star Wars of my childhood.
Christopher Leone, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
The Lost Room is available on DVD and you can stream the whole series for just over a fiver on Amazon right now, too.