John and Maureen Robinson have a complex relationship that can be difficult to analyse 50 years after they took off from Earth in season one of Lost in Space. This is partly due to the passage of time and the very different rôles women and men have in a marriage today that might have been rare or unthinkable at the time the series was written. Gender rôles have changed so dramatically over the past two generations that there is a danger of evaluating their relationship based on current values.
To complicate matters further, John and Maureen have three distinct but overlapping relationships. They are married; they are parents together of three children; and they are, respectively, commander and crewmember on a mission of exploration and settlement. Over the course of the series, they can be seen in each of these relationships.
The typical viewer, thinking of Maureen in isolation, calls to mind images of her washing dishes, doing the laundry, cooking, or spending girl-time with Judy and Penny. There is a lot of that characterisation in the series, but one must not forget that when Maureen is seen engaged in any of these activities, they are background activities to what is more important to the storyline. They cannot be taken so much as defining her rôle as simply forming part of it.
Similarly, John is often seen “in charge,” leading search parties, or drilling for deutronium. These activities might serve to advance a plot somewhat, and are clearly necessary activities for the survival of the Robinson party, but they do not define John anymore than cooking or washing up define Maureen.
By the time the series begins, Judy is 19 years old. Assuming they were married when she was born (a safe assumption given that the series was written in the mid-1960’s!) the Robinsons have been married for at least that long. That is long enough for them to have established a mutual understanding of their own rôles and responsibilities in their marriage as partners. For all the apparent “father-knows-best” portrayal of John as the head of the family, and for all the times Maureen is seen deferring to her husband’s judgement, I think it is a mistake to assume that she is simply being submissive to him.
Maureen knows that John is not only her husband, but also commander of the mission. He has had different training, and therefore different areas of responsibility and expertise than she. If you look carefully at the occasions when she is apparently submissive, it turns out that they are often situations where she finds she must submit to John the commander’s reasoning, not concur with John the husband’s arbitrary decision.
On the one occasion we see John acting in an surprisingly arbitrary fashion, and in his capacity as commander at that, Maureen does intervene and attempts openly to oppose his decision. This occurs in “Follow the Leader” when John is under the influence of Canto. John / Canto’s reaction to her opposition is so startling to her that she is momentarily shocked into silence. She does, however, succeed in reawakening John’s humanity, if only for a while. It is interesting that there is enough of John’s consciousness left that he does in fact back down, acceding to Maureen’s opinion in the matter.
This is the key to the relationship of John and Maureen; they know each other and respect each other’s ability, and even more importantly, they love and trust each other. John is confident enough in Maureen’s capability that he has no second thoughts in leaving her in command when he is absent. For her part, Maureen is in no doubt about her own strength to command either, and willingly or not, is prepared to undertake that rôle when John is absent.