The story of the space-faring Robinsons was always one about pioneers out to conquer a new world. It just so happens that the new world is a planet and the frontier they need to cross is the expanse of the Milky Way.
Irwin Allen, creator of the original 1960s TV show, was directly inspired by Johann David Wyss' 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. In 1998, director Stephen Hopkins also made an updated movie with Matt LeBlanc, then basking in Friends glory.
The Netflix reboot pays homage to the same elements in broad strokes. It’s around 30 years from now and humanity has, very plausibly, made the Earth so polluted and inhospitable that the first real colonial project out of our solar system has gained traction. People are leaving to head to a new one in Alpha Centauri, and the plucky family of The Robinsons decides to join the exodus as part of the first wave of colonists.
We’re introduced to the Robinsons and their inter-familial woes soon enough, as The Resolute mothership is damaged for unknown reasons and the smaller familial pods, called Jupiters, are forced to make a hasty exit sequence to land on the nearest planetary body. The problem: they’re sucked into a wormhole and thrown way off course.
They crash land and quickly ascertain that they are, in the manner of many pioneers, stranded. Without comms or help, they soon discover that they need to rely on each other to survive the unknown, the dangerous flora and fauna, and most of all the other people—but more on that, later.
The family members follow the template characters of the original, except with slight modern twists. Toby Stephens plays the stoic and emotionally unavailable military man John Robinson, Molly Parker (from House of Cards) fits her role as the mother Maureen Robinson, astrophysicist and doting matriarch. It’s the three Robinson kids who actually give the story flavor and Max Jenkins, who plays Will, the precocious and plucky youngest kid is the best scene stealer that you can root for beside his pain-in-the-ass older sisters: irritating know-it-all eldest sister Judy (played Taylor Russell), and Penny (played by Mina Sundwall), the slightly less irritating but still stupidly courageous younger sister.
Aside from classic sibling rivalry between the sisters and issues with Will being too incompetent to be on the mission, not all is well between Maureen and John. Real, relatable marital woes afflict the two and the grudges have been building for years.
Soon the atmosphere of the stranded fam quickly becomes a space trip from hell, where mom and dad are constantly arguing, the vibe spilling over to the kids, alienating some while urging others to become more combative. If you’re familiar with the running theme of Lost in Space, the Robinsons are likely the unluckiest family ever and it bears out in the first episode, where crash landing and losing each other to the terrain is at the forefront of their early battle.
Let’s not forget about The Robot in the series. Will’s finding of the machine is the high point early on in the five episodes we were given to screen overall. Its nature, origin, and mystery offer many possibilities for future twists.
The CGI on The Robot, like the rest of the scenery (the ships, vehicles, equipment, and costumes look like they’re well thought out and amazingly executed for spectacle and function), is superb and it has a cool, very streamlined look as opposed to the previous clunkers. Best of all? It also chirps “Danger, Will Robinson!” when it wants to.
While the beauty of the SFX and the production levels are first class, there is a sense that many opportunities to raise the stakes are lost in the arc of five episodes. Aside from flashbacks suggesting the origin of The Robot, and also consequently how The Resolute was damaged enough to send it way off course, nothing adversely affects the outcome of the story or changes the characters too significantly. Despite the many dangers, all of them are more or less solved by episode’s end. The writing feels dated when it’s like this. Are the screenwriters still finding their footing? Maybe.
What saves the show from total boredom and predictability is the villains. The most interesting character is Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Parker Posey.
Dr. Smith, with calumny in her heart, deception in her back pocket, and good old straight-faced subterfuge as her mask, manages to show us not only the kind of caveats that a new society brings with it from the old world, or old planet in this case, but also how, in a certain light, survivalism can indeed justify most anything when it’s a crisis situation.
Can she live with herself? Yes. Can others live with her sociopathy? Not likely. Never mind that those criminal values come at the expense of other people, and never mind the possible recriminations if said people you rip off survive and you meet them in the new colony—these reckless actions and piling on off lies to cover lies makes Posey’s character both the most complex one in the series and most symbolic of the inherent problem with frontiers people (supposedly the “best and brightest”) who try to leave all the bad things behind only to find that they’ve followed them through the light years.
“Good news is that we haven’t instituted a justice system since we’re off Earth,” says the ship’s marshal when Dr. Smith’s crimes are found out while still on board The Resolute. “The bad news is we don’t have a system yet, so I can do anything I want with you.”
Posey’s face is almost custom made for gradations of mischief and she plays these emotions well, contrasting them with the outright falsehoods she fibs on the fly and you want to bash her “kunwari innocent” face in.
Smith’s dynamic with The Robinsons is a great goldmine of metaphor and commentary, because Earth is now facing climate change, wars, famine, and other Armageddon-level problems. Will a restart for society on a fresh, virgin world even be truly feasible with people like Dr. Smith onboard? The presence of smuggler Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), more of an ordinary decent criminal, also makes a fine juxtaposition to Dr. Smith’s almost maniacal need to constantly one up others. Do we bring our self-destruction wherever we go? It’s a great issue to explore in coming episodes given how such a ruthless, flawed character will interact with the essentially good-natured Robinsons and the other colonists.
Despite the too nifty episodic problem-solving and the weird Bro Science kind of physics the writers have surely made up to suit their scripts, none of it is your father’s space series of yore.
It’s not too neat or too packaged, and many of the issues it tackles, like the morality of survival and the value of remaining a nuclear family in times of emergency, are on the dark side of the drama spectrum. And it’s gritty enough sci-fi that geek fans used to the ambitions to grandeur of any of the Star Treks and the cerebral pomp of a newer series like The Expanse can find themselves in.
I would definitely like to see more about space frontier life and adventure through the lens of The Robinsons.
“Lost in Space” starts streaming on Netflix on April 13