Monday, July 25, 2016

Lost in Space: The First Episode

The series ran on CBS from 1965-68.
When a friend recently updated his Lost in Space collection to Blu ray, he kindly gave me his DVD set. Although I've watched several Lost in Space reruns on the telly over the years, it had been a long time since I watched the first episode. I was astonished at the difference between the series' debut and the TV series that evolved from it.

But before reviewing it, I want to discuss producer Irwin Allen's original concept. He envisioned a space-age version of Johann Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson about a family of explorers who survive a crash landing on a desert planet. This was not a new idea; indeed, Gold Key Comics published a comic book series called Space Family Robinson beginning in 1962.

In Allen's original Lost in Space pilot, an episode called "No Place to Hide," the Robinsons' spacecraft Gemini XII is thrown off course when meteors crash into it. After landing on an uncharted planet, the Robinsons make a new home--and encounter a giant cyclops.Will Robinson even sings "Greensleeves," accompanying himself on guitar. Speaking of music, the theme for the pilot episode was borrowed from Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

CBS liked the $600,000 pilot and ordered a series--but also wanted changes that resulted in the addition of a villain and a robot. According to Lost in Space historian Mark Phillips, Irwin Allen wanted a villain like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon and story editor Anthony Wilson wanted a Long John Silver-type. Their compromise was Dr. Zachary Smith.

Guy Williams and June Lockhart were
"The Reluctant Stowaway," the first official Lost in Space episode, takes place on October 16, 1997. It initially unfolds in semi-documentary fashion, describing how the Robinsons were chosen from more than two million volunteers to navigate the Jupiter 2 to the planet Alpha Centauri. The five-year journey will require the family and pilot Major Don West to remain in suspended animation. Amid all the preparations for the spaceship's launch, Dr. Smith sneaks aboard the Jupiter 2. A spy for an unnamed nation, Smith reprograms the robot to destroy the spaceship eight hours into its maiden voyage. Unfortunately, Smith gets trapped aboard, hence becoming the "reluctant stowaway."

Dr. Smith threatening Major West.
As in the pilot episode, a meteor storm throws the spacecraft off course and its passengers are rudely awakened from their suspended animation. Needless to say, they're surprised to find Dr. Smith aboard. He's absorbed with trying to stop the robot from destroying the cabin pressure system and radio--thus killing all the passengers.

This Dr. Smith is slightly different from the one who would become--with Will and the robot--the eventual stars of Lost in Space. Smith is a villain, though a none-too-bright one, although we're led to believe that he was the grand master of the Oxford chess club. One enduring trait is clearly established: Dr. Smith is a big liar!

John and Maureen Robinson (Guy Williams and June Lockhart) play a much larger role. They have the episode's juiciest scene when they engage in a heated disagreement over whether to continue with the mission or try to return to Earth. The episode ends with John floating helplessly into space after his safety cord breaks while repairing the Jupiter 2's exterior systems. It's quite a cliffhanger, leading to the now familiar:

Billy Mumy as Will.
The first half-dozen episodes provide ample screen time for all the characters (and includes Angela Cartwright's favorite episode "My Friend, Mr. Nobody"). However, starting with "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," Smith, Will, and the robot began to player larger roles--at the insistence of CBS executives. By midway through the first season, it's clear that the aforementioned trio have become the show's focal point. The other characters would occasionally get meaningful screen time, but Lost in Space had become the show we know today.

Incidentally, most of the footage from the original pilot was included in the series' first five episodes. That pilot eventually aired on the SyFy network and was included in a video release of Lost in Space from Columbia House. By the way, the now-familiar Lost in Space theme was written by a young composer named Johnny Williams--yes, that's John Williams, the man that went on to become the most nominated composer in the history of the Academy Awards.


  1. John Williams is updating his Lost in Space music for the new Netflix series that will produce a 10 episode season.

  2. Something I've always wondered about (and I'm old enough to remember when this was in first run ...):
    I can see where CBS would want a recurrent villain, to provide a ready source of conflict.
    What didn't make sense to me in '65 (and I was in high school at the time, but I still noticed) - why hire a comic actor for the role, and then go out of the way to make him not comic, at least in the early episodes?
    I recall reading somewhere that an early candidate for the Dr. John Robinson role was Dan O'Herlihy, who did icy disdain better than anyone before or since; if he'd played Smith, he'd have been a genuine threat to the Robinsons.
    Of course, that would have been a different series: O'Herlihy would have either been chased after six shows, or would have to be "reformed" in the traditional TV manner - we'll never know, will we?
    But instead, we got Jonathan Harris's homage to Clifton Webb, which was chancy enough, before ultimately giving way to Hugh Herbert (woo-woo-woo!).
    So the adventure turned to broad comedy - but somehow, it worked!
    There's no rule book - every hit is always a fluke.

    1. Every hit is a fluke--I like that. And sometimes, the stars come out of nowhere--like Henry Winkler on HAPPY DAYS.

  3. Harris was not a comic actor at the time, with a sinister turn on Twilight Zone. He came closest in Bill Dana's sitcom, but he was still "straight" man. Remember, Clifton Webb started in movies as an icy killer, and also transitioned to silly comedies. Harris simply followed that career arc.

  4. I remember him too as Michael Rennie's assistant in the TV version of "The Third Man," in which he wasn't exactly a comic actor, but the very uptightness of his character was something that Harry Lime (as well as the viewer) found affectionately humorous, even though Harris played it straight rather than camp.

  5. I first encountered this show as a kid in the 1970s when my sister watched it. I never could stand it. Then I developed an appreciation for it as camp, but to this day it's hard to sit through an entire episode. Like so many shows of that era, the B & W seasons are more enjoyable than the color ones. The theme songs are permanently stuck in my head and sometimes just start playing on their own.

  6. It was a blast from the past to see this post! I did not remember the opening show. But the later shows definitely did focus on Will, Dr. Smith, and the robot. I still love to say "Danger, Will Robinson!"

  7. I didn't know Lost In Space was being re-made. I hope they do it right this time. With John Williams aboard, it sounds like Netflix is really trying and is going all-out on it. Let's see, CBS is re-launching Star Trek primarily for streaming, I believe, Amazon is re-launching The Tick (live-action) and has already made at least one season of a new Thunderbirds series. Netfilx is also continuing Mystery Science Theater 3000 with season 11. Are there any other SF/Superhero shows getting re-tooled that I've missed?

  8. Conventional thinking has always been that LIS went camp in the wake of the Wed night fight after BATMAN started mid season....I certainly remember esp the first episode being a lot darker than later on....however if it changed after a half dozen airings, that makes it weeks before BATMAN!!Anyone have any definitive info on this?....