The History of Lost In SpaceEdit
USS ROBINSON ONE
The History of TV's Lost in Space
A favorite show of the 1960's was Lost in Space. This series was on from 1965 to 1968. The story revolved around the Robinson family, the first family in space. Dr. Smith, the project physician, tried to sabotage the expedition by programming the Robot to destroy the ship on its maiden voyage. Unfortunately, he was trapped aboard the ship and reluctantly became a passenger. The damage he did caused the ship to go off course and become hopelessly lost in space. The rest of the show would be spent trying to get back to Earth. The Robot was one of the favorite characters. ”Danger, Will Robinson, danger” is the famous warning given by the Robot on several occasions. Most of the episodes revolved around Dr. Smith making a mess of things and subjecting the crew to new dangers and problems. The Robinsons never made it back to Earth but did came close a few times.
The History of TV's Lost in Space (Part One)
by Mark Phillips
Movie producer Irwin Allen turned from motion pictures to television to do a space adventure show. The new TV series was called Lost in Space and it was pitched to CBS programmer James Aubrey. Aubrey, famous for having purchased such CBS shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island, immediately bought the space-age adventure. A few weeks later, when producer Gene Roddenberry pitched his science fiction extravaganza Star Trek to CBS, Aubrey said, "No thanks." He felt Lost in Space was much more commercial.
With financial backing from CBS, Red Skelton, and 20th Century Fox, Allen prepared a $600,000 budget for the 1964 pilot film, written by Shimon Wincelberg. Much of it would be filmed in the Mojave desert near a restricted military base where the craggy landscape served perfectly as an out-of-this world setting for the most expensive pilot ever filmed.
The story line concerned the $40 billion launch of the Gemini 12 on October 16, 1997. The world's first space family was selected to colonize a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. The family was headed by Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), his wife Maureen (June Lockhart) and their children, Judy, Penny and Will (played by Marta Kristen, Angela Cartwright and Billy Mumy, respectively). Major Don West (Mark Goddard) was the spaceship's pilot. They would all be frozen in suspended animation for a 98-year journey.
As filming geared up, Allen, an avid follower of the U.S. space program, was excited over the prospect of getting NASA involved with the show. In pure P. R. fashion, Allen invited Chris Craft and other space officials to the set to meet with the production crew. Conversely, NASA, looking for ways to promote the space program, felt TV’s first prime time space opera would be the ideal way to excite viewers over real-life space exploration.
It didn't take long for NASA officials to realize that Allen was merely paying lip service to scientific validity for his series. "Don't concern me with logic!" was Allen's favorite saying, which was totally contrary to the cool, rational men of NASA, whose work was based on science and logic.
At Allen's insistence, Chris Craft examined the blueprints for the TV spaceship. He immediately realized that Lost in Space had a crucial aerodynamic problem. "This ship would never fly," Craft told Allen. "Sir, it wouldn't even get off the launch pad!"
"One hundred years ago, they were saying the same things about your rockets," Allen snapped. As NASA quickly distanced themselves from the show, Allen began directing his pilot film. The action-packed story had the Robinsons crash-land on an alien planet, where they faced tidal waves, earthquakes and monsters.
Computer-generated special effects didn't exist in 1964. The screen magic was real: A four foot tidal wave slammed over the Robinson's land rover in the Fox watertank; the two-foot miniature spaceship was hoisted on invisible wires and soared over desert mountain peaks; and actor Dawson Palmer, dressed in a monster costume made out of palm tree bark, swiped angrily at a six-inch Professor Robinson doll which was suspended on wires to circle around Palmer's head.
When the pilot film was completed, Allen proclaimed it as his best work ever. He showed the film to CBS but when the high-brow executives began laughing at the film, Allen was horrified. Furious, he bolted from his chair to stop the screening. Story editor Anthony Wilson pulled Allen back down. "Irwin, they love it," Wilson whispered urgently to his irate friend. Laughter or not, the brass was enjoying the show. The show sold.
LOST IN SPACE TAKES OFF
The series was slated to play Wednesday nights at 7:30 p.m. for the 1965-1966 season. However, the CBS executives' reaction to the pilot film had shaken Anthony Wilson as well. After analyzing the film, CBS decided that it was too hardware-driven, with too many special effects. Wilson thought that what the series needed was a recurring villain to create story conflict. Irwin Allen loved the idea. "Ming the Merciless!" he shouted, excited over introducing a Flash Gordon-like villain. Wilson pressed for a Long John Silver character instead. They compromised on a character named Dr. Zachary Smith.
Smith was an agent for an unnamed foreign country who is busy sabotaging the Robinsons’ spaceship prior to launch when he gets trapped on board. His dastardly handiwork causes the ship to spiral off course and crash-land on a desert planet.
After considering such actors as Carroll O' Connor, Werner Klemperer, Jack Elam, Victor Buono and Roger C. Carmel, Wilson decided on New York actor Jonathan Harris. Also added to the series was an environmental robot, designed by Robert Kinoshita who had created Robby the Robot for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.
The Gemini 12 spaceship was renamed Jupiter 2. Because of these last minute changes, the 1964 pilot could never be aired in its original form. Instead, 80 per cent of the pilot's footage was integrated into the first five episodes. A weekly budget of $130,000 was drawn up for each episode, an extremely modest amount compared to most hour shows at the time.
It didn't matter, since the Jupiter 2 standing sets were the most expensive in TV history. Allen pointed to the $350,000 spaceship and quipped, "If Lost in Space doesn't run three years, we'll all go bankrupt." A CBS executive was more cynical: "We've already spent half a million dollars on a pilot we couldn't use--that's a hell of a lot to spend on a Saturday morning cartoon."
Twentieth Century Fox promised advertisers that Lost in Space was a family show with wide appeal. The series premiered on September 15, 1965 and many critics were impressed. "It's a sure-fire winner for young viewers," said the N. Y. Times, "and it will probably amuse senior devotees of science fiction." The L. A. Times praised Jonathan Harris as "a versatile actor..." and noted "the special effects are tremendously inventive."
On the other hand, Newsweek, which featured a photograph of the beleaguered monster swiping at the airborne Professor Robinson doll, harumphed "It's part of the same old prime-time firmament, with Guy Williams dressed up as a Brylcream Buck Rogers." UPI's Rick du Brow was more succinct. "It plays like a live action cartoon, with a robot that goes around yelling 'Destroy! Destroy!'"
All eyes turned to the early Nielsen ratings. In 1965, a 20 rating was a success. Lost in Space made a mediocre ascent: an 18 rating for its debut, slipping to a 17.6 the following week, then backsliding to a disappointing 16.9. But suddenly, by the sixth episode, the show was hitting a 23 rating, putting it squarely in the top ten. The show was a hit.
TV Guide magazine featured a cover story with Guy Williams and June Lockhart suspended on thin wires. During the photo shoot, Williams' wires broke and he plunged towards the floor. In true Professor Robinson style, he executed a perfect shoulder roll, suffering a bruised arm instead of a broken neck.
Letters streamed into TV Guide. "Is the Robot real or is there a man inside?" members of the U. S. Air Force wanted to know. "It's got everyone in an uproar." The editors spilled the carefully guarded secret by replying, "Humans, take hope. The robot depends on an inside man." Bob May was the man inside the robot suit. Veteran announcer Dick Tufeld was the robot's voice and he also provided the show's suspenseful narration ("Last week as you recall...")
The other letters concerned Dr. Smith. Most viewers loved him, although in the first few episodes he was a cunning, cruel, evil man with two objectives: kill the Robinsons and return to Earth. His deeds included sabotaging Professor Robinson’s parajets and ordering the Robot to "liquidate" the remaining members of the family one by one.
Anthony Wilson and Jonathan Harris realized that such pure evil was not going to carry well into the season. Harris began softening the character and Dr. Smith became cowardly and lazy. He berated the robot every week ("You Neanderthal Ninny!) and his later transgressions were more bumbling than evil. During a water crisis, he used the last of the Robinsons’ drinking water for a shower. In another episode, to save his own brain, he traded Will to brain-snatching aliens.
Although Smith was occasionally booted out of camp, he was always allowed to return so that he could frustrate the Robinsons for another week. Professor Robinson hoped that by giving Smith easy jobs like digging wells and standing guard would give Smith the opportunity to become a productive space pioneer. Instead, Smith shirked these jobs and palmed them off on a trusting Will or the compliant Robot. Smith continued his greedy, pompous, inept ways for the rest of the series. Smith's foil was Major West, who considered Smith a serious threat to their survival and always questioned the doctor's motives.
WHAT MADE LOST IN SPACE FLY?
When MAD magazine did a Lost in Space satire, it took aim at the "Boobinson" family's altruism. "Mind if I join you?" Smith asks John. The Professor replies, "Doctor, you've asked to join us on the last 38 missions. Every one of those times you've tried to kill us. Do you really expect me to trust you 39 times in a row?" "Aw, come on!" Smith says. "Can't you give a guy a second chance?" At another point, "Punny Boobinson" asked, "Mom, will we ever do anything intelligent for a change?" Mrs. Boobinson replies, "No, dear. This is prime time television." The Space cast loved the satire and sent MAD artist Mort Drucker a photograph of themselves mugging for the camera to match their MAD caricatures.
Meanwhile, up in the highest echelons of CBS, Chairman William S. Paley was fuming. A sophisticated, thoughtful man who regarded CBS as a leader in quality entertainment, Paley was ashamed and embarrassed by Lost in Space. He made it clear to his executives that if the show didn't deliver an audience, it was to be instantly destroyed.
When the show shot to the top of the ratings, a perplexed Paley couldn't understand its popularity. In an unprecedented move, CBS ordered a psychologist to observe the Lost in Space set and unravel the mystery of its appeal. As one CBS executive confided to a writer friend, "We need to find out what's gone wrong. Not with the show, but with the people watching."
The psychologist's report came back inconclusive, but the famed Professor George Horsly Smith, respected Chairman of Rutgers University, shocked the stuffy establishment in 1965 by stating, "It's appeal is obvious. Lost in Space is a classical, fictional rehearsal for reality. It's a good series that presents a family transported to a plausible future."
It also showed humans working in harmony with their technology. Irwin Allen showed that positive human values wouldn't be sacrificed to technical advancements. Jet packs, chariots, space pods and computers were at the beck and call of the Robinsons, familiar and reliable safeguards against the chaotic universe surrounding them.
Space age technology was considered so trustworthy in Lost in Space that the kids' best friend was a robot, and even young Will was allowed to carry a laser gun or to operate the space pod. This was at a time when the world had just stood at the brink of atomic annihilation during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and many people considered technology an unpredictable bogeyman.
To kids, the series held one important attraction: Children were presented as heroes. Previously, conservative situation comedies such as The Donna Reed Show or My Three Sons had children confined to a mundane adult world where they grappled with dating dilemmas, bedtime curfews and peer pressure. However, on Lost in Space Will had other things on his mind, like saving his trapped father by blasting a towering Cyclops with a laser. In other episodes, Penny not only prevented a devastating computer war by posing as royalty, but also served as a diplomat between warring alien factions.
There was also the exhilarating backdrop of the show's setting. Dinners outside the Robinsons’ campsite were often interrupted by invisible monsters, space wizards and cosmic storms. Adult viewers made it clear that they weren't about to go without Lost in Space either. When live coverage of the Gemini VIII splashdown pre-empted the episode "His Majesty Smith", 2,000 viewers assailed the hapless CBS switchboards, demanding the episode be shown as promised.
As the first season progressed, there were several notable scripts, including "Return from Outer Space," where Will is transported to a small Vermont town during Christmas. He's forcibly adopted by a foster family when no one believes his incredible story.
"The Sky is Falling" had the Robinsons encounter a gentle, telepathic family of aliens who arrive to colonize the planet, which leads to misunderstandings.
"My Friend, Mr. Nobody" spotlighted Penny's fragile relationship with a kind, echo-like voice, culminating with the alien's spectacular metamorphose into another life form.
The two-part "The Keeper" starred Michael Rennie as an alien who is relentless in trying to capture the young Robinson children for his intergalactic zoo.
"Follow the Leader" had Professor Robinson taken over by a cruel alien spirit. The script's final scenes, where the possessed father is about to throw his son over a cliff, unsettled CBS censors so much that they issued a personal memo to Guy Williams. "Please be aware that this scene could upset young viewers. Use appropriate judgment in how you express the alien's intentions."
Such mandates became more frequent as the series went on, making it clear that the series was being straight-jacketed by juvenile concerns. An early memo demanded that the kissing scenes between Professor Robinson and Maureen be eliminated because it would disturb young viewers and embarrass older ones. The Robinson couple was relegated to showing affection through hugs, pats on the arm and longing looks.
The most popular character of Lost in Space's first season was Dr. Smith. Jonathan Harris received the most fan mail, he drew the most critical acclaim, and he was now getting the best scenes. His Smithisms, such as "The pain, the pain" or "Never fear, Smith is here," became famous. The serious survival storylines evaporated as a procession of princesses, pirates and hillbillies (led by Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge) landed on the planet.
The show's emphasis on Smith was a disparaging turn of events for the other cast members. Guy Williams in particular had been used to being treated as a star during his Zorro TV days. His concerns over his diminishing role on Lost in Space were basically ignored by Irwin Allen. Frustrated, Williams told reporters that his role had deteriorated into "a series of trudge-throughs" across the alien landscape. Allen, however, wasn't going to mess with success. The more Dr. Smith hammed it up, the more Irwin Allen loved it. Yet when given the chance, Harris could also display the disarming sensitivity of Dr. Smith, such as in "All That Glitters" where a tearful Smith kisses a "frozen" Penny Robinson, after accidentally turning her into a platinum statue.
Meanwhile, despite outstanding photography during the series' first year and excellent background music (principally written and composed by John Williams, of Star Wars fame), Lost in Space was nominated for only two Emmys during its run, one for special effects, the other for make-up.
By January 1966, Lost in Space had crushed its competition on ABC, The Ozzie and Harriet Show and The Patty Duke Show, and had taken some starch out of its NBC competitor, The Virginian. ABC tried to get even by unleashing Batman, which debuted with a staggering 39 rating. Momentarily dazed by its bizarre foe, Lost in Space could only sputter with an 18 rating. However, by the next week, Lost in Space was holding its own and it eventually outlasted the caped crusader.
Some critics have speculated that the campy style of Batman influenced Lost in Space, encouraging Irwin Allen to camp up his space series as well. But it was a pop-art decade, where The Man from UNCLE, Avengers, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Wild, Wild West and the James Bond movie series had also departed from their serious origins.
The second season of Lost in Space was now in color, and this caused CBS more concern. "Please note that monsters in color are more frightening," a memo read, "discretion must be used." Another curious memo directed the show's scriptwriters to use the phrase "destroy" rather than "kill," feeling this would be more acceptable to concerned parents.
Merchandise for the show was at an all-time high as sketchbooks, viewmasters, coloring books, trading cards, robots, lunch boxes and board games flooded the market. Aurora plastics released a popular diorama of the Cyclops battling the Robinsons. Although many fans clambered for Aurora to release a Jupiter 2 model kit, the company declined, claiming that a flying saucer was too boring to sell well. Instead, Aurora released the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, and that became Aurora's best-selling model of all time.
LOST IN SPACE MEETS STAR TREK
Star Trek premiered in September 1966 and many fans in the science fiction community began to distinguish between Star Trek's adult, more literate treatment of the genre, and Space's light-hearted, commercial approach. Media comparisons of the two shows became common. Both series had producers with different standards and points of view. Despite the fact that Lost in Space garnered better ratings during its run, Star Trek's success would overshadow Lost in Space for the next three decades. One handicap for Lost in Space was that the first season was in black and white, thereby making it unappealing in the syndication marketplace.
However, many Lost in Space fans felt their show outdrew its rival on some story points. For example, while the women on the starship Enterprise wore inappropriate mini-skirts, the Robinson women often wore unisex pantsuits or silver space garb. And while Star Trek's Lt. Uhura rarely broke away from her communications console, Dr. Maureen Robinson, biochemist and mother, was occasionally left in charge of the Jupiter 2, taking over the flight controls, dispelling monsters with the force field and bravely lasering an attacking creature in "All That Glitters". Although Captain Kirk and his top officers often beamed down to dangerous planets together, leaving their starship vulnerable, the Robinsons, after landing on strange worlds in years 1 and 2, wisely sent out their robot first to probe for danger. The Enterprise gang also had a tendency to mold and change alien societies that didn't meet their standards. The Robinsons never interfered with or strong-armed, alien civilizations. Kirk's casual and numerous affairs with women are legendary, while the relationship between John and Maureen was loving and loyal, a heartening reinforcement of TV family values during the turbulent Sixties, when division over Vietnam and social rebellion was tearing America apart.
However, by the second year of Lost in Space, the series became more interested in scaling the heights of absurdity. Dr. Smith, more comical and bumbling than ever, cavorted with elves, Vikings, gunslingers, knights and magicians. With Smith, Will and the Robot leading the adventures, the rest of the Robinsons were left picking up after them. In some episodes, Professor Robinson and Maureen didn't appear at all. Guy Williams literally phoned in his performance from the golf course in "Astral Traveler" where his voice is briefly heard over a walkie talkie. Professionals all, the actors put on brave faces and their winning personalities helped to overcome script and direction limitations
However, by spring 1967, Dr. Smith's hijinks were wearing thin for many viewers. The Detroit TV News said, "Dr. Smith's antics have ruined the show." A 92-year-old viewer from Los Angeles told the Herald, "I no longer dial to Lost in Space because I can't stomach Dr. Smith. I resent this because I love June Lockhart and Angela Cartwright." A young boy wrote to The Seattle Times, "What became of the Robinsons? Did Dr. Smith get rid of them?'
Despite Jonathan Harris's talents, some critics felt that Smith's shrill, overbearing, hypochondriacal, insulting nature was growing tiresome. The demographics showed that the second season was skewing too young and the ratings were sliding. No longer a top 20 show, Lost in Space finished with an average ratings position of 44th place for the 1966-67 season. Anthony Wilson, who had suggested Dr. Smith in the first place, was an experienced and savvy professional who had just launched another science fiction series over at ABC, The Invaders. He realized Lost in Space was in trouble and suggested to Irwin Allen that they "drop the whimsey" for the upcoming third year and return to a action-adventure format. Taking a cue from Star Trek, the Jupiter 2 would visit new planets every week and the alien menaces would be more believable.
The third season would also feature exciting new shots of the Jupiter 2 swooping through space as it encountered strange phenomena. There was also a new piece of hardware, the Space Pod, a module that launched from the Jupiter's bay doors. A new credit sequences (devised by Phil Norman) and a new music theme (by John Williams) gave the show a sparkling new appearance. The stories also focused on different members of the cast each week. One highlight included "Visit to a Hostile Planet", where the Jupiter 2 lands in 1947 Michigan and is attacked by frightened townspeople. In another, "The Anti-Matter Man," the best of the color episodes, Guy Williams battled his cruel anti-matter double.
The ratings for the third year were adequate, but the story quality degenerated as the season progressed. CBS quietly canceled the show in 1968. This came as a shock to the cast, who were fully preparing for a fourth year. Irwin Allen was furious over the cancellation. Minutes before he called CBS to complain, he screamed to his assistant Paul Zastupnevich, "This show can't be canceled! It still has another 10 years left in it!"
The series retained its controversy. The American Council for Better Broadcasts issued a report on Lost in Space that said the series was, "Very imaginative, with good moral concepts," while on the other hand noted, "The show is marked by violence, greed, selfishness, trickery and a disregard for accepted values!"
Protests by viewers ranged from the plaintive, "How can they cancel the best show on TV?" to a cryptic, "We will close the famous CBS eye if Lost in Space is killed." Although CBS had never been a champion of the show, its decision was carefully based on several factors.
Even Irwin Allen admitted to columnist Cynthia Lowry that Lost in Space's demographics were made up of mostly children. Sponsors were complaining because kids didn't buy the dish detergent and shampoo products. The show's budget had also ballooned to $170,000 per episode and a fourth year promised to be higher. It was a cost factor CBS and 20th Century Fox didn't want to deal with.
There had also been a widespread effort by Congress to curb TV violence in 1968. Although Lost in Space was not a violent show per se, it had come under attack for its histrionics of explosions, fights and mayhem.
CBS executive Perry Lafferty gave Allen an eleventh-hour opportunity to present him with fourth season story ideas. Instead, the network received typical Irwin Allen hyperbole that the fourth year would be "the best ever."
Allen told the executives that they would love a new character he had created for the new year, a telepathic purple llama named Willoughby. The animal would dispense advice, humor and philosophy with a British accent as it trotted along with the Robinsons.
That, however, was the wrong thing to say, especially coming on the heels of the infamous episode "Great Vegetable Rebellion," where the Robinsons battled environmentally outraged carrots, peas and lettuce. Guy Williams and June Lockhart giggled so hard during filming that an exasperated Irwin Allen wrote them out of the next two episodes.
Executive Mike Dann stated that Lost in Space was being scuttled because "it has run out of ratings steam." The series first season had averaged a 20.5 rating. The second year was 19.1 and the third year had fallen to a 17.5. Rather than risk a ratings disaster, CBS hedged its bets and replaced Lost in Space with Daktari for the 1968-69 season. CBS was later dismayed when Daktari could only muster up a feeble 9.0 rating in that slot. Meanwhile, set loose in the lucrative world of reruns, Lost in Space soared as a smash hit in syndication.
Stay Tuned for Part Two: The Re-birth of Lost in Space!
The History of TVs Lost in Space (Part Two)
by Mark Phillips
As Lost in Space was launched into syndicated orbit in 1969, Irwin Allen, still stinging over its cancellation, created a sequel proposal called Rodney the Robot. The Robot, separated from the Robinson family, manages to return to Earth and is adopted by a typical American family. Rodney, the name Allen always had in mind for the Robot, becomes a mechanical butler. The proposed half-hour situation comedy was ultimately rejected by CBS.
With his other TV pilots shot down by the networks (among them Safari, Aladdin, How to Make a Man, City Beneath the Sea, and Man from the 25th Century) and with his ABC series, Land of the Giants scraping bottom in the 1970 ratings, Allen high-tailed it for the lucrative world of motion pictures, where he scored with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox found some success syndicating Lost in Space in the early 1970s. The series often ran five days a week on major independent stations. Sharp-eyed viewers occasionally spotted bloopers in the reruns, such as seeing Bob May's sneakers under his robot costume or a second season monster casting a shadow on "distant" mountains when he got too close to the set's cyclorama.
By 1973, however, Lost in Space's success in syndication was fading. A new generation was used to color programming--and black and white episodes were considered less desirable. Since its first year had been filmed in black and white, and more and more color programming was available, sales of the Lost in Space series were weakened. Also, many older General TV Managers of that era never understood the appeal of Lost in Space. If pressed to pick a science fiction series to fill the slot, they would pick the syndicated champion, Star Trek.
It was also in 1973 that Lost in Space first showed life outside of syndication. An Australian-made, Hanna-Barbera Lost in Space cartoon was aired on ABC's Saturday Morning Movie. Dr. Smith (voiced by Jonathan Harris) and the Robot were the only original characters to return. The Jupiter 2 was now an aerodynamically sound rocketship. While the story was fair, the animation was mediocre and it captured none of the magic of the TV series. Despite its high ratings, most fans despised the cartoon, which quickly sank into oblivion.
That same year, the first Lost in Space fan club appeared. Based in New York, the club produced a simple xerox fanzine and built up to a subscriber peak of 50 members. Fans were thrilled with "exclusives" like a Q and A interview with Jonathan Harris and behind the scenes photos. Club members also waged a successful letter-writing campaign to convince Pyramid books to re-release the 1967 Lost in Space novel. Unfortunately, Pyramid went out of business before it could make good on its promise.
Lost in Space also retained its knack for controversy. A major L.A. TV station yielded to pressure and permanently banned the episode "Castles in Space" because many in the Hispanic community had vigorously objected to the depiction of Chavo, a Spanish bandit who reinforced negative stereotypes.
1973 also marked the first real salvo fired between the worlds of Star Trek and Lost in Space. Star Trek writer David Gerrold, in his book "The Trouble With Tribbles," scolded Lost in Space as being, "A thoroughly offensive show. It has probably done more to damage the advance of science fiction as a serious literary movement than all of the big bug movies ever made." Gerrold's comments echoed the party line of many readers who took their science fiction seriously.
And as Star Trek's fame grew, Lost in Space drifted further into obscurity. It was a frustrating turn for its fans, who, by 1975, found that its reruns were getting harder to find. Although TV managers were deluged with letters from fans of the series, whenever Lost in Space was programmed into the schedule, frequently at unpopular hours, its ratings were often disappointing. It was an indication that Lost in Space was losing its mainstream appeal and shifting gears into cult status. As Fox film producer Kevin Burns states, "Lost in Space became as orphaned in syndication as Star Trek had been in prime time."
While Star Trek enjoyed a re-birth of merchandise in the 1970s, Lost in Space had only a meager embrace with licensed toys, including Ahi's walking robot, walkie talkie and laser gun. Released around 1973, these are now highly-prized collectibles. The general public was soon having trouble remembering the Robinsons. On a 1976 game show, a contestant was asked to name the family Lost in Space for three years. The contestant paused and then yelled triumphantly, "The Smiths!" When CBS did a 1978 TV retrospective, shows like Gilligan's Island, The Munsters and Daktari were featured, but Lost in Space was conspicuously absent.
THE REVIVAL OF Lost in Space
Then, the turnaround... Star Wars was released in 1977. Its universe featured lovable aliens, cute robots, intergalactic traders, knights, princesses and heroes. Star Wars' mega-success broke a stubborn barrier for science fiction, making the genre commercially acceptable. Its blend of action and humor gave Lost in Space something of a retro-respect in the science fiction community. In 1979, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror nominated Lost in Space as one of the best examples of TV science fiction. That same year, magazines such as Starlog and Fantastic Films featured articles on the series.
Also in 1979, a growing superstation in Atlanta, Ted Turner's WTBS, began airing Lost in Space reruns, and the response was fantastic. It became a TBS mainstay for five years and Turner pointed to Lost in Space as an example of good family entertainment. Shortly afterward, several other Lost in Space fan clubs flourished, including LISFAN, which attained subscription levels in the hundreds.
It was also an era when old TV series were returning as films. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) showed that a "classic" TV cast could be reunited for a successful feature film. The Mod Squad, Man from UNCLE and The Wild, Wild West all returned with their original casts. In 1980, Bill Mumy was determined to wrap up the saga of the Robinson family and he wrote a reunion script. Mumy, who had wonderful memories of working on the show, wanted to resolve the fates of the Robinsons. In his script, the Robinsons have been marooned for many years on a desolate planet. Will has become a recluse, Dr. Smith is an infirm old man and the others face issues of survival. CBS and the other cast members expressed interest in doing the film.
Mumy presumed that Allen would be impressed by his groundwork to get the project airborne, but Allen, who still owned the rights, made it clear he wasn't interested. "If I do Lost in Space again, it will be my script. If I want you in it, I'll call your agent," the producer sharply told Mumy. Allen refused to even look at Mumy's script, feeling that it could open himself up to legal problems.
Mumy later encouraged fans to write to Allen, who eventually received over 16,000 letters. But Mumy had succeeded in planting a seed of interest in Allen's mind. When Allen saw most of the cast (including Guy Williams) reunited on 1983's Family Feud game show, he gave serious consideration to a new Lost in Space film. Allen commissioned a market survey to be done during 1984-1985 to see if there was interest in such a film. However, the research was not encouraging. The identity factor of the title Lost in Space proved weak. Those surveyed who recognized the show's name expressed only a weak enthusiasm for seeing the series revived. In 1985, on The Merv Griffin Show, Allen reluctantly admitted, "I wish I had done a Lost in Space film 10 years ago," he said, "But now I think it may be too late."
Meanwhile, some of the cast continued to appear on other entertainment shows, including America (1985), Kelly and Company (1987) and Instant Recall (1991). June and Jonathan also matched wits with Paula Zahn on the CBS Morning News (1990). Well-known personalities also began to express their fondness for the original series, including Tim Allen, Steven Spielberg, Jenny Jones, Luke Perry, Jimmy Osmond and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Michael Jackson, who briefly considered buying one of the original Robots in 1988, decided against it when he saw that the Robot had been severely changed for the Saturday morning show Mystery Island.
It was around this time that the Robot experienced an interesting chapter in its re-birth. Kevin Burns, a long-time Lost in Space fan and 20th Century Fox producer, took up a friend's suggestion that he locate the original robot. A tip led Burns to Stage 2, where he found huge airline freight trunks labeled Friday's Robot (the Japanese, who had last used the Robot, had confused the Robinson family with Robinson Crusoe and simply called the Robot "Friday"). What Burns found inside the boxes was disheartening: "a big white refrigerator with claws" but at the core of this modified abomination was the beloved original. This was "The Hero" robot, used by Bobby May and seen in most of the original series.
After obtaining permission from Fox to remove it, Burns contacted Greg Jein, a master model-builder for film and television. Jein himself had rescued the original Jupiter 2 model, the chariot, launch-pad and laser guns from the trash bin. He also owned the second original robot, the stunt robot used in special effects scenes in the series. Jein examined "The Hero" robot and estimated a four to five thousand repair job. Jein had saved many extra parts for the robot, including a bubble-top and treads, and he completed a fabulous restoration. The Robot was now ready to join his human cast mates at Gary Sohmers' Northeast Collectibles Extravaganza in Boston. The robot was shipped wet, only hours after final restoration, to the December 1990 convention, where it appeared on stage with all of the Lost in Space cast members (sans the late Guy Williams). The convention drew 32,000 fans, with nearly 8,000 attendees there primarily to see the Lost in Space 25th Anniversary celebrations.
Irwin Allen took notice and he invited Jonathan Harris to lunch to discuss plans to do a Lost in Space reunion feature. Harris was skeptical that such a project could be pulled off. "You should have done it ten years ago," Harris lamented. "I think the ship has already sailed, Irwin." Nevertheless, Allen gave Harris permission to convey a directive to fandom. Harris was allowed to say, on Allen's behalf, that a Lost in Space film was "a possibility, nothing definitive." The cast was astonished by the Boston convention's success, and they realized how strong the interest was in the series. Still, June Lockhart summed up their frustrations about the stalled movie with, "We've all been watching our weights and keeping in shape for a film that never happens!"
Irwin Allen died in 1991. His widow, Sheila, felt it was important for Allen's dream of a Lost in Space film to be realized. After bidding wars among major studios, it was the new production company, Prelude Pictures, that finally bought the feature film rights and New Line Cinema eventually made a substantial offer to make the film. With Akiva Goldsman writing and Stephen Hopkins set to direct, the film was finally on its way. Mark Goddard, June Lockhart, Angela Cartwright and Marta Kristen agreed to make cameos.
During this time, Lost in Space continued to flourish: The USA Networks ran the series in 1989, to huge ratings. The Sci-Fi Channel picked up the show in 1992, and it became of one their most popular offerings. A Lost in Space comic book by Innovation debuted in 1991, with Bill Mumy as one of its writers. In addition, TV shows like the Simpsons spoofed Dr. Smith and the Robot, while magazines such as People, US and Entertainment Weekly featured profiles of the cast. Columbia House Video began to release all 83 episodes via mail order in 1996 while Australian fans convinced Fox Australia to release Lost in Space on video, which turned out to be its best video seller ever. GNP Crescendo's release of the original music in 1995 was a big success and the Robot was again reunited with his Lost in Space co-stars for The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, a Foxstar documentary for the Sci-Fi Channel that featured rare film clips from the series.
And while NASA had distanced itself from the series in 1965, today's space pilots grew up with the show. Shuttle Discovery pilot Ken Reightler invited June Lockhart to Cape Canaveral to watch the shuttle's launch. Lockhart also visited NASA's jet propulsion laboratory to watch the Pathfinder probe land on Mars. When she saw the pictures it had transmitted from the red planet, she remarked, "That looks just like our Lost in Space set." Star Trek writers have also made some amusing concessions. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Conundrum", watch carefully as Jonathan ("Commander Riker") Frakes plays chess--one of the chess pieces is clearly that of the Robinson's Robot!
William Shatner and the Robot also teamed up as hosts of the 1997 TV special, TV Guide Looks at Science Fiction. Recently, both Star Trek and Lost in Space fans groaned when TV Guide, in its 1997 summer issue, "The 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" voted Space's infamous "Great Vegetable Rebellion" as number 76, over Star Trek's classic "City on the Edge of Forever" (ranked 92).
The Space cast still make appearances on TV (including Jonathan and the Robot on Good Morning, America in 1997). The original cast and robots regrouped at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum for the Foxstar/Gary Sohmers convention, Lost in Space Found in Hollywood, in April 1998.
Looking at Lost in Space today, it's easy to pick at its flaws. The fact is, it thrilled, scared, excited and inspired a generation, many of whom became astronauts, writers, scientists and technicians. It succeeded far beyond its three network years. It veered off course conceptually, often choosing space camp over true adventure, a decision that remains controversial to many of its fans. But its flexible format and likable characters have been reborn. The Lost in Space motion picture is charting new territory by taking the Robinson family out of the past and into the far future.
Mark Phillips, a free-lance writer in Victoria, Canada, is co-author (with Frank Garcia) of the McFarland book, Science Fiction Television Series: 1959-1989.
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