One of the common criticisms made of Lost in Space is that from the middle of the first season onwards, individual episodes focused increasingly on the character of Dr. Smith, with Will Robinson and the Robot often figuring prominently. Whether or not this movement to more episodes featuring Smith “ruined” the series is open to debate; it is, after all, a matter of personal opinion. Lost in Space enjoyed quite respectable ratings for its entire run; the third season ratings did drop, but not dramatically—the show was still a hit. Since television programming is a business run to make money, artistic value or dramatic quality are strictly ancillary—if gritty, dark drama is popular, that is what is on the air; if broad comedy is what pays, then do that.
Dr. Zachary Smith was consistently among the most popular characters in the series throughout its run. Batman is regarded as a key factor in determining Lost in Space’s move to a campier style in season two; network pressure stemming from the popularity of Star Trek led to another basic format change with season three (and, incidentally, rendering it a continuity nightmare) and the focus was then on travel to many new worlds. These two influences may account for some of the more ludicrous Smith-centric episodes in season two, and their relative paucity in season three.
So how many episodes centred around the character of Dr. Smith? About 30 of the series’ 83 episodes were clearly ‘buddy’ stories. featuring Dr. Smith, Will, and the Robot having an adventure. Most of these (about 18) occurred in the second season—over half of season two episodes, in fact. Only about five episodes in the first season were of this type, and the number in the third season fell dramatically. Add to this about a dozen more where Smith is one of the central characters to the plot, and he is one of, if not the only, featured cast member in over half of Lost in Space episodes.
Although Will often functioned as Smith’s foil in many of the stories, several, particularly earlier in the series, also featured Penny quite prominently. Don and Smith were paired up in “Fugitives in Space” and “The Space Primevals.” The Robot, however, is the Doctor’s most consistent companion throughout the series, from the very earliest episodes, in fact.
As noted above, Dr. Smith was a popular character. To a large extent, this was probably due to Irwin Allen sanctioning and even encouraging Jonathan Harris’s rewriting his lines in an attempt to develop the character. Bill Mumy later observed in an interview that he and Harris developed a very good chemistry together that allowed them to do scenes in one take. Taking the bottom line into consideration, this led Allen to use scripts with more and more screen time for the pair because not only did the audience like it, it saved money.
What is my personal opinion about Lost in Space becoming a vehicle for Jonathan Harris? Well, as a child watching the series, I didn’t particularly like him, but as an adult, I can appreciate the work he put into his craft in creating the character. Perhaps more importantly, as an adult, I realise that the show was a property produced to make money. It did that for Irwin Allen. Although artistic values were present, the show was not being produced for public television—it wasn’t aiming to be Masterpiece Theatre.