Monday, July 22, 2024

Lost in Space is Dark, Gritty, and Optimistic

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I’m a month late to the party (like usual), but I finally got around to watching Netflix’s latest SF show, Lost in Space, a remake of a rather cheesy 60s family sitcom. (In spaaace.) That show was fairly generic and unremarkable, memorable only because it featured an unconvincing robot costume that occasionally flailed it arms about and shouted “Danger, Will Robinson!”

Yes, the family is the Robinsons, an homage to another staple of vanilla flavoured family entertainment, Swiss Family Robinson. Together, they make a genre that tries to convince you that being stranded with your children years away from help is wholesome and fun, and will probably make you a better family. Assuming no one dies from an infected paper cut.

That being said, there is something something about the concept that screams potential, exploring the dangerous side of the promise of interstellar exploration and colonization. The 60s, when the space program seemed to have unlimited potential, naturally lead to ruminations about what it would mean once civilians were picking up stakes and moving to Alpha Centauri the way they used to move to Oregon. The problem with the show is that it rarely explored its concept, mostly focusing on thwarting the zany schemes of Doctor Smith, an obviously evil man who the Robinson parents let remain among their children and consume their limited resources for… reasons. Like justifying the existence of the show, I guess.

There was also a movie in 1998, made in a strange moment in popular culture when everyone was making movie versions of old tv shows. (It gave us The Brady Bunch Movie, so I won’t complain too much.) This tried to turn the story into an action movie and just ended up being bizarre. There was time travel and evil spiders and a paper thin justification for dragging a young child into danger. (He’s a prodigy, see.)

It was probably the film most of all that made me a little skeptical of this show. Even more disconcerting was the trailer, which gave off a vibe more like Fandomentals darling The 100. They’re both clearly filmed in Planet Canada in southern British Columbia, after all. And the last thing anyone needs in their life is more of the crushing acedia that we’re subjected to there. And acedia that’s surely begging to get at this concept of a group of people in an extreme survival situation. (In spaaace.)

And yes, but also very much no. Lost and Space has a lot of the grit and hard edges of that kind of YA acedia, but it also manages to be as wholesome as the original show. Somehow.

Like I say, there is darkness here. First off, there is the villain. Instead of the flamboyant and properly cut Doctor Smith of the original, this Doctor Smith is a con-artist who steals a man’s identity (and his chance to escape a space ship under attack by a murderous robot) then just spends the whole season being terrifyingly sociopathic as she manipulates everyone to ensure her own survival. She’s a frighteningly realistic villain, an ultimately small time player who still manages to ruin everything just because she doesn’t have the good faith of everyone around her. Her callous disregard for everyone else’s life makes a mockery of it.

The peril really should be a person like that entering the paradise of the colony of Alpha Centauri, but we get more than a few hints that it’s the utopia of the Robinson’s dreams anyway. I doubt they’re turning people into food or anything, just that all of the problems of humanity are magically solved there, what with the whiskey smuggling and the technology stealing and classism.

The face of evil.

There’s also this slightly troubling undercurrent that runs through the story that I wish would be examined more often where there is a Boy Genius™ in your Sci-Fi story, as there so often is. Traditionally, they’ve been Wesley Crusher types, always showing up the expert adults and saving the ship, all while being charmingly child-like and presumably relatable. The Will Robinson of the original series was arguably one of these. And the incarnation of Will in the 1998 film did a time travel experiment for a school science fair, so…

In this version, there are two Robinson children who might be considered prodigies. First there’s Judy, who’s eighteen but had her medical education “accelerated” due to her status as a colonist. It’s clear that she has all the book learning a doctor might require, but she’s had very little experience with actual patients. In fact, she seems to have little experience with other people in general, having spent all of the adolescence cramming knowledge about the renal system or whatever into her head.

Then there’s poor little Will. I like this version of the character, and of the archetype. He’s clearly a very smart kid, very insightful especially. But he’s not a tiny little Mary Sue, better at engineering than his engineer mother, for example, or outdoing his doctor sister. He doesn’t run around saving everyone, and the fact that he can even contribute and keep up in the group of hyper-competent adults is treated as the achievement that it is.

But that’s also the problem. Will is just a little kid, dammit. But the situation he’s in forces adult expectations and responsibilities on him. There’s a lot of talk about how highly trained all the colonists are, and the rigorous battery of tests they all past, so people behave as though Will could be treated as though he’s one of those hyper-competent adults. It’s almost child-soldier like.

That’s not entirely fair, of course. No one is expecting him to perform violence, and his family clearly love him and have his best interest at heart, but man is this too much pressure to put on the shoulders of a little kid. And this is the basis of a major thread that runs for the entire series. Will tries to be brave for his family, he tries to do the right thing, even when it’s hard, and for the most part he succeeds. (I will not veer into spoiler territory, but as someone who has never been moved by “a boy and his x” stories in her life, man did this boy and his robot story destroy me.)

The family and their relationships are the strongest part of this series. I love them all. There’s Maureen, the mom and aerospace engineer, played by Canadian national treasure Molly Parker, who is just so badass with her leadership. Once she built a balloon and rode it into space. With a broken leg. Her mostly estranged husband is John. And it only took me about half the season to not be distracted by the fact that he’s played by Toby Stephens. (Yes, that one.) He really shines in the relationships with his children.

I adore his relationship with Judy. She’s mad at him for the same reason that his marriage with Maureen is on the rocks. He was some kind of fancy soldier, and after a disaster involving an asteroid hitting the earth makes things unstable, he spends more and more time away from his family. Judy resents this too, so much so that they’re barely on speaking terms. This is normal with workaholic parents and young adults, which is why I like it. Because they chose to make that very reasonable and relatable grievance their point of conflict rather than the fact that he’s not her biological father. That would be eye-rollingly predictable, so I’m glad it didn’t happen. Their love for each other is never questioned, because there’s never any grounds to.

Penny is most what you would call a “normal teenager.” She has a crush on a boy and likes to read Moby Dick on her phone in a moody fashion. She pulls her weight, but she’s not as outstanding as the rest of her family. That’s her burden, of course.

Family time!

These dynamics are all suggestive of a family sit-com from the sixties, but the series itself is wrapped in a grim-dark tone that first caused me concern. There is a grittiness to this. People do die in this series. Named people. Quite a few of them in the first episode. The villain is more than capable of murder.

But the show also pulls the oddest punches. There’s one major character survival towards the end that was so improbable, that I would have laughed if I hadn’t been crying so hard. This, no doubt, is for the benefit of the presumably quite young target audience. And I can’t say I quibble with that, not after the painful experience that’s been the last few seasons of The 100. The thing that I suspect is quite genius, though, is that even though my brain clued in quite quickly to the fact that no one named Robinson was likely to die, I never felt as though there was no peril. Maybe it was because there was still that bit of doubt that I was wrong, or maybe I just cared enough about these people that watching them being in pain was bad enough.

Either way, you land in this middle ground where the universe is a dangerous place; there are sociopathic conmen posing as psychologists, there are mysterious aliens with killer robots, climate change sucks; but it’s okay because there are people who love you that you can depend on. It won’t be easy, but you’ll get through it together.

I guess that is wholesome, even if it’s not too fun. And it does make you a better family too. Maybe those vanilla wafers from the 60s were on to something there. At least they didn’t traumatize the youth. So, yes, Lost in Space, may you be the wholesome family entertainment for our cynical age. I’ll certainly be back for your next adventure.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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