Irwin Allen may not have been a visionary like his contemporary, Gene Roddenberry, but he knew what would sell. He was sort of a latter day P.T. Barnum. Or, perhaps more accurately, a forerunner for guys like Aaron Spelling -- coming up with concepts people wanted and changing them as the public dictated. Allen produced some big-budget, star-studded disaster films like "The Poseidon Adventure," and "The Towering Inferno." But he's best known for his cheap and fantastically kitschy television sci-fi series, like "Land of the Giants," and "The Time Tunnel." Allen's crown jewel was "Lost In Space."
The surface concept of the television show was Space Family Robinson -- a patriarch and his brood, struggling through the wilderness (universe), trying to survive against all odds.
Even in space, nothing is created in a vacuum. And this family, rooted in 1964, but living in the futuristic year of 1999, served as a metaphor for the feelings the typical American family was going through. There was a feeling of being out of control and feeling unable to fully deal with the problems there day after day. Technological advances were pushing us farther away from each other. Could we remain intact? The sexual revolution was quietly beginning. Would mom and dad stay together?
Ralph Kramden wanted to put his wife Alice on the moon in the 1950s, but it was John F. Kennedy who said we should, "Land a man on the moon, and return him safely to the Earth" for real -- all before 1970. This monumental task inspired many, boosted the NASA budget through the roof, and turned us all into astro-nuts.
But, looking more closely at the cast of "Lost In Space," aren't they all just the Kennedy clan in pastel velour?
John Robinson, a doppelganger for JFK; Maureen, an intelligent and gracious Jackie; Will, the perfect Junior; Sister Penny, Caroline; Don West, a belligerent Bobby. The mysterious Dr. Zachary Smith seemed, at least in the first few episodes, to represent the badniks of the Cold War. Older Judy was less real and more a type or person, but that's completely a propos to who she was: the chaste, pure baby boomer child everyone wanted, but nobody had. And finally, the robot represented the nation at large. We fell in line and followed orders. We were Mr. Allen's audience.
Face it. America wanted to hold on to Camelot. Heck, we still do! There was more than a hint of it here: A strong and handsome leader with a lovely family taking on all comers -- tough, but tender; willing to fight, but would rather talk. Here was a man who would explain to his son, as if he were an equal, what was going on and what they were doing to fix a problem -- it's the 1960s, sorry Penny.
But besides the story lines, ranging from standard sci-fi to acid flashback, the real draw was the music. Without the score, "Lost In Space" gets cancelled after the 13th episode and is forgotten.
That music, which was composed and conducted by the likes of Alexander Courage and John Williams still sticks in your head like the Jupiter 2 sticking out of the sand. I'm sure if you were a fan of the show, you remember the themes played when an alien attack was imminent, when Maureen and Will were having a heart to heart about getting home, when John took the jet pack out for a flight around the planet, when Smith and the Robot were up to some silly shenanigans.
They worked these pieces to death. But they did the job. They evoked the emotions desired.
As Bill Mumy stated in the liner notes from the show's soundtrack, "'Batman' was filmed at the same studio lot as 'Lost In Space.' And, for a while, the entire world went 'Batman' crazy. 'Lost In Space' jumped on the old if you can't beat 'em, join 'em wagon, and we started to get as campy and outrageous, if not more so, than 'Batman.'"
Bad science fiction, but brilliant programming. This is television, where it's all about pleasing the sponsors and getting people to watch. So, the show became less and less about its original premise, and more and more about what people wanted to see.
For example, in the show's first season, the focus was on the realistic struggle to just survive in the hostile atmosphere of a dismal planet, not your own. And it featured thoughtful antagonists, like The Keeper, a man who collected unique species for display in a traveling zoo.
But, thanks to the popularity of those campy shows, later "Lost in Space" episodes featured such literally far out concepts as space hippies out for a joyride on their motorcycle rockets, A group of young aliens taking the Robinson children to a school to be trained to hate their parents or, the most infamous of all, a giant talking carrot bent on punishing the family for eating vegetables.
You have to hand it to Irwin Allen for catering to the viewing public at large. And you have to blame him as well. Instead of following the lead of the composers and creating interesting moments and stories that lived up to the score, they simply caved and followed the anything-for-a-viewer trend, letting the score prop up the weaker moments in the drama, doing anything to keep people watching, even if it compromised the long forgotten seed idea of the program.
Roddenberry's "Star Trek" also changed and evolved, but only because it got a second life. After syndicated reruns proved there was an avid audience for it, the series of movies was produced and a Next Generation of Trekkers was born!
"Trek" always intended to be a serious program, much like Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone," making social commentary from the safety of a fictional setting. The writing there made the show what it was.
Meanwhile, the uneven writing styles of the "Lost in Space" staff made the program seem especially bizarre. One group of writers gave Smith SAT phrases to hurl at the robot -- bellicose bumpkin, for example -- while the others did not. One group had Major West exploding at the least likely thing while others did not. One group had Smith grabbing Will at every opportunity
Well, I guess they could all agree on that one.
It's no wonder the "Lost In Space" movie tanked at the box office. It just couldn't be as campy as the first. It was too self-important to do that. This was going to be a serious treatment of a serious story, a la "Batman." Unfortunately, no one gave a serious thought to what the story was about!
The film couldn't make the same commentary on families as the TV show. The world had become more jaded, less concerned with what "the family" really meant. But, you didn't have to look far to see why. Just take a glance at who was in The White House! Talk about packing your family values up on a rocket and sending them into another galaxy! The Clintons took the Cold War and applied it to marriage.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film had a Dr. Smith that didn't act like Dr. Smith!
Even today, there is a special fondness by some for "Lost In Space," the television series. Despite tacky costuming like the one eyed monsters that appeared in every other episode, the ridiculous plot devices practically lifted from "Gilligan's Island," -- i.e. aliens that could have helped to get our crew back home, but didn't, and unbelievable gadgets (just how did that spaceship hold a chariot, a landing pod, have all that living space and the hydroponic garden that provided food for seven -- we loved it.
"Lost in Space" did manage to capture a small piece of Americana in its gravity belt. It was a family. They were a dysfunctional family, but so what? We all were! The Robinsons were together and they all participated in making their lives what they were, even if it was an unbelievable space-age mess! We could only hope to do the same.
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