The best piece of writing advice I’d ever gotten came from an MFA adviser who tossed my packet of moody, atmospheric prose onto the table and said, “You know, things can happen in a story.” I think about that every time I watch a television series that dawdles and plot-blocks, stretching what should have been a ninety-minute movie into a ten-hour exercise in patience — something can and should happen.
Netflix, which has pioneered bingeable TV and too often expands a show’s premise beyond its ability to provide entertainment, seems to have finally found some creators who also believe that things should happen. In Lost in Space, a reimagining of disaster king Irwin Allen’s kitschy Sixties series, things happen at a pace that can truly be described as breathless; the second one problem is seemingly solved, another immediately presents itself, again and again until I wondered if this family adrift in the cosmos and stranded on an alien planet would ever have time to sleep — or if I would let the series autoplay me into insomnia myself.
Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, the duo behind the recent Power Rangers reboot, are the driving force behind this high-octane new Lost in Space. That means it’s not another reboot in the “this, but dark” category. Instead, Lost in Space is nearly Steven Spielberg airy, telling the story of a super-smart family selected to populate a Utopian space colony but who get lost somewhere along the way. It’s the kind of adventure where people may die but rarely sulk. That’s even though the mother and father of this seemingly doomed family — Maureen (Molly Parker) and John Robinson (Toby Stephens) — are essentially estranged and only uprooting their kids from Earth to live on the Alpha Centauri colony together because John would never have seen them again otherwise. Because the focus of this series falls so squarely on characters working together to complete tasks — and show off fun science know-how — there’s precious little time to dig too far into their psychology. And thank God for that: Not every story must be an agonizing emotional autopsy of a relationship.
What’s most enjoyable about this show, however, can be summed up by looking at its characters’ approaches to life, specifically how they cope with sorrow or anger. Maureen and John’s three children — Penny (Mina Sundwall), Judy (Taylor Russell), and Will (Maxwell Jenkins) — possess distinct personalities, but they are, foremost, jocular and loving. When Maureen, John, Will, and the family’s new robot (more on him later) are about to get caught in a new planet’s dangerous glass storm, Penny is the only one who can save them. She’ll have to hop into their never-used all-terrain Chariot vehicle to fetch them. But when she pulls off the Chariot’s cover, she finds a sticker on the window, reading: “Some assembly required.” Yes, Penny sweats a little, but she also cracks a joke. Again, the creators echo Spielberg: Adventure characters who cope with stress through humor is particularly Spielbergian. And fun!
Those who remember the original 1960s series — or were raised by parents who did — probably hold in their hearts a vision of its comical atomic-age robot, often just called “Robot,” flailing those noodle arms to gurgle “Danger, Will Robinson” in mechanical tones every time the child hero ran afoul of trouble. The reboot’s version is light years beyond the original in terms of technology and design, meant to be potentially threatening like a weapon of war, and realized onscreen through a mix of CGI and practical effects that make it easy to accept it as a character. (An all-CGI robot would likely feel too detached.) It starts out hostile — the very reason everyone’s lost in space. This robot attacks the Robinson family’s colony as it’s in transit to Alpha Centauri and then crash-lands with them — and a few other families — on a harsh but habitable planet, where little Will saves its life and reprograms it from foe to friend. Think The Iron Giant meets Harry and the Hendersons.
I saved the best for last; let me entice you with these five little words: Parker Posey plays the villain. Yes, in this iteration, Posey is Dr. Smith, or, rather, a woman who impersonates a Dr. Smith. She’s conniving and bitter and self-serving, and yet her character opens up issues the Irwin Allen series never would have touched, those of class, power, and privilege in the future. You see, Dr. Smith is poor on Earth, and her only ticket onto the spaceship to the new colony is by scamming her rich, pretty sister (played by Selma Blair!).
If we only saw the story through the eyes of the Robinsons and the other colonists, we’d see how these ultra-smart people were each chosen for the new world because of their individual strengths, a Utopian ideal that doesn’t account for what would happen with the mediocre or the troubled, i.e., most of us. Posey’s Smith takes no great pleasure in her own deceit. She ambles round the family’s ship in a jumpsuit, comfy sneakers, and a space fanny pack, grimacing at impossibly complex machinery she has no idea how to fix. She’s the kind of villain I love — someone who commits evil acts out of survival and the need to save face, not simply out of revenge.
Lost in Space premieres April 13 on Netflix.
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