Sunday, 25 April 2010

Lost in Space: on the Robinson homestead


series 1, episodes 4-8
4: There Were Giants in the Earth
5: The Hungry Sea
6: Welcome Stranger
7: My Friend, Mr. Nobody
8: Invaders from the Fifth Dimension

"nefarious plot... dupliciuous plan..."
4: "There Were Giants In The Earth" - Things have settled now. We know that each episode, Maureen Robinson (space-eyed June Lockhart) will be concerned and anxious; Dr. Smith will be duplicitous and scheming; Will Robinson will disobey his father’s orders and get a talking to later on after calamity has been diverted; Judy and Penny won’t do much and Don West will be stolid. To be fair, Penny almost endangers herself by, apparently, wandering off with her monkey alien just as the family are trying to relocate; ordinarily, endangering oneself is Will’s job, but Penny’s dilemma is short lived and this incident seems to serve only to kill time and to show off John Robinson in a jet-pack (jet-pack!). Early on, John makes a voice-over report and states that they know "nothing" about the animal life on the planet… except, of course, for the bizarrely trouble-free and domesticated monkey-alien and the turtle things briefly glimpsed when Penny rides one.

Giantism is the theme for this episode, as the somewhat odd title implies: giants in the earth?? We get giant vegetables this time to liven up a period of quiet given to seeing how the Robinsons try to set up their own little farmstead. But this proves only to be an indication of things to come as we next get full-on giant fanged cyclops alien action. Again, "Lost in Space" is like a whole sequence of Golden Age science-fiction magazine covers come to life, and the giant alien is a prize moment, simultaneously hilarious and gripping. The special effects are ambitious, fun and despite the low budget, engaging and credible enough; and you can’t go far wrong with a man in a furry suit and absurd headpiece.

But an even greater threat appears to be the impending freezing weather, and so the family sets out South to avoid being turned into Popsicles. The early stages of the journey includes a camp-side moment with Will Robinson playing "Greensleeves" on guitar! (For a moment, I wondered why Will was playing Leonard Cohen before I realised I was recalling Cohen’s cover version initially rather than the traditional original. But for a moment, Will Robinson playing Cohen was a surreal possibility. Bill Mumy will go on to have a long musical career, of course.) This is all without Dr. Smith, who has decided to stay back in the space-saucer to mince around and take his chances, not wanting to give up home comforts and test the nastiness of the outside world and, well, he is just damned contrary because he is the villain.

As the journey progresses, there is trouble in camp as Don West begins to show defiant strains of dissent against the imperious goodness of John Robinson. Don’s distrust of Dr. Smith makes him trigger-happy when Smith becomes less nefarious, has some kind of change-of-heart and tries to warn the Robinsons of the crazy orbit and weather changes of the planet which are likely to spell their doom. This all ends up with the Robinsons not having to go South after all and returning back to the Jupiter 2. But not before they run from electrical storms and take refuge in a cave of tombs - which ends up being a disappointingly brief exploration and peril. Sheesh, aren’t these guys curious about ancient alien civilisations at all? And -

5: "The Hungry Sea": - on the way home there is a fun battle with whirlpools as the frozen landscape they initially crossed has now melted into a violent sea. There is definitely delight in seeing the fragile-looking but apparently super-durable "chariot" making its way across frozen seas and rocky terrain, and then swimming to land - again, the miniatures work is pretty impressive and engaging. Much of the imagery of these early episodes is highly memorable and the sea storm is another that seems to exceed expectations. This particular odyssey ends with everyone back at Jupiter 2 and - evidently not wanting to be outdone by Will’s performance the previous episode - the Robot takes up the guitar and strums "There’s No Place Like Home". Will seems jealous of this, decrying the Robot’s choice as a din, apparently forgetting that his own earlier choice of "Greensleeves" was not exactly rock’n’roll. And then comes the sensation that a shark is being jumped.

The long-term storyline of the early episodes, outlining the Robinson’s take-off into space and their eventual shipwreck on an unnamed planet starts to break up now. The overarching continuity will fall into more independent instalments which resets the storyline every credit sequence. There has been evidence of this already, what with the giant (what, just one giant?), gigantic vegetables of episode four being totally forgotten subsequently, along with the potentially creepy and fascinating implications of a tombs they stumbled into. This pilgrimage into the cosmos is likely to offer up a lot of come-and-go perils to keep things going over the seasons. The next episode seems to hint at instant desperation after the Robinson’s brief excursion South to avoid the crazed weather patterns, and also to the way "Lost in Space" will progress.

"Yessirree, ain' we just jumping the shark early?"
6: "Howdy Stranger" immediately resorts to the guest star mode of keeping things going. And it’s a galaxy-travelin’ lone cowboy called James Hapgood that drops by the Robinson homestead (he‘s good and haphazard, I guess!), the kind that likes to spin yarns, whoop and fight and not stay any place long. We’ve already determined that the Robinsons are derived equally from pulp sci-fi and western pilgrimage adventures equally: the wholesomeness of the family, the campfire acoustic sessions, battles with the elements, the old-fashioned gender roles, the way they stop at the "roadside" to "give thanks" that they have survived perilous moments… it is all there. What we now have, which was not so obvious before, is a galaxy potentially full of solo-adventurers too, which makes the Robinsons far more straight-up pilgrims than pioneers and also means that a guest star might drop by at any moment. There is some slight endangerment from a weed-like contamination on the cowboy’s spaceship, but the real conflict here is the Robinson parents tension around the opportunity to send the children back to Earth, and then with Hapgood to convince him to take them. This does seem a little late in coming since the programme to send a family into space was at least a decade in the making (according to episode one); you would think the Robinsons were pretty certain of what exactly they were letting themselves in for, even if they concluded that it was the unknown. For a moment, Will has another alternative father figure (he doesn’t seem interested in looking up to Don West much and he tolerates Dr Smith like a difficult grandpa) and COWBOY as Hapgood puts in a good enough performance, not too broad. But, again, the haste with which the show had a guest astronaut stop by for a moment already nods to a show quickly run out of steam and unable to perpetuate an ongoing rather than episodic venture.

Evidently it is time for each Robinson to get their moment, and episode 7, which has the crummy title of "My Friend, Mr. Nobody", is all Penny Robinson’s. Feeling a little ignored and not taken seriously by the rest of the family, Penny wanders off alone in the alien landscape and hears voices and promptly gets herself an ’imaginary’ friend of sorts. It is, of course, an alien force, a disembodied voice in a cave mimicking and learning from her words. There is some initial creepiness, but this falls away to Penny’s sentimental and borderline hysterical attachment to this disembodied voice (girls, huh?). Finally, Penny’s loneliness takes flight into the stars. I’m sure she’ll be fine from now on. More curious, although in no way self-aware, is the subplot of the Robinsons blowing up the scenery looking for natural resources to use and exploit. The Robinsons just need to wipe out an indigenous tribe now to fit right in. Anyhow, this leads to Dr Smith conniving to have Don West exploding Mr Nobody’s cave in order to get at the diamonds there. That Mr Nobody turns out to be a brand new galaxy is kinda neat. That this galaxy calls back to say goodbye to "Pen-nnee" is daft.

The daftness of 8: "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension" is more pleasing. Somewhat inevitably, since most of the titles suffer from delusions of grandeur, it’s also more of an intrusion than an invasion. The invaders are apparently, and eerily enough, disembodied skullish and mouthless white heads that spout exactly the kind of preposterous platitudinous threats you would expect. They disdain the puny human mind and the primitive human sensation of "love" (which of course, will turn out to be the exact quality that defeats the interlopers). They want part of Dr. Smith’s brain and he, naturally, offers up one of the Robinson kids’ brains instead. Dr. Smith nefariously convincing Will Robinson to do something dangerous or counter-productive is one of the "Lost in Space" key highlights and special effects, as it were. Smith plays on Will’s good nature and fools him before the kid’s natural and equal intelligence, honesty and feistiness gets him out of trouble. This means he’s always a match for the Doc, even if unconsciously and even if constantly duped, and all without forfeiting that good faith he always has. It’s a stalemate of sorts, leaving their relationship always open for another round of manipulation and rebuff. And I’m not exactly looking for character development at this point.

Anyway, once the aliens are gone and Will is okay, everyone treats it like a bit of a romp and a joke. Nope, a little "invasion" ain’t going to phase the Robinsons.

Looks like "Lost in Space" will use visitors of one type or another to keep the storylines coming, rather than focusing on what it takes for the Robinsons and pals to survive. It’s easy and enjoyable, but the best has already been and gone, it’d predict. They aren’t doing much exploring now, really, but it looks like it’s going to get pretty busy whilst they’re stranded anyhow. Hey, and what about those giant Cyclops??

Same Time. Same channel.

You can't go wrong with spooky mouthless disembodied heads.

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