The initial five episode story arc of Lost in Space has been described as dark and menacing. This is due not only to the original characterisation of Dr. Smith as an arch-villain, but also to the situations faced by the crew of the Jupiter 2, both incidental to the plot and as the main plot itself. Furthermore, the fact that the series was shot in black and white for its first season contributes to the atmosphere.
It goes without saying that Dr. Smith in his first appearance in “The Reluctant Stowaway” was established as a villain pure and simple. He incapacitated (or killed) a guard on duty in the Jupiter 2, then proceeded to reprogramme the Robot to sabotage the mission by destroying various automated functions of the spaceship, including life-support. His aim was obviously not merely to ensure the failure of the mission, but the death of the crew also.
In “Island in the Sky,” Dr. Smith orders the robot to eliminate all non-essential personnel when it finds them alone, although this order is rescinded in “The Hungry Sea.” In the intervening “There Were Giants in the Earth” we see the Robot attempt to carry out this order when it finds Will Robinson alone at the chariot. Despite his ultimate reformation, it takes several more episodes before the crew as a whole begin to trust the Robot. Indeed, the first third of season one presents the Robot as not only unreliable, but a positive menace (at least in the eyes of some).
The confrontation between Will and the Robot mentioned above is one of many menacing moments seen in the initial part of the first season. Others include Don threatening to kill Smith (he has him in a strangle hold at the time) unless Smith orders the Robot to leave the command deck. This is perhaps the most graphic example of personal violence seen in the entire series. Confrontations with cyclopses, the episode where the party become trapped in the underground city, and the dangers faced by the Robinsons in their passage across the water in “The Hungry Sea” are all items of menace.
That the episodes in the first season were shot in black and white is also an important element in creating an atmosphere of menace. Many people do not realise that shooting in black and white requires a very different approach to lighting a scene, for example, than when shooting in colour: black and white productions rely on lighting to show contrast where colour shooting relies on lighting to brighten colours. Black and white filming also allows for the creation of much darker shadows and “trick” shots where a character is lit from above but shot from below to created a sinister effect (this is more difficult in colour because the sharp contrasts are lost). Perhaps most importantly, real life is not black and white; when confronted with a black and white programme on television (or a movie in the theatre) we are subliminally cued to think that it is not reality. Rather than lessen atmospheric effects, this in fact prepares us to expect and look for elements such as atmosphere and visual cues relying on lighting.
The later episodes of Lost in Space also contained elements of menace, particularly those in the remainder of the first season. I would argue, though, that there were few episodes after the change to colour where there was an atmosphere of sustained menace throughout an episode. With the move to campier elements during the second season, it was difficult to generate any menace; even when dramatic moments implied a feeling of menace, we were almost unimpressed—we knew it would be over and all would be well; the dramatic tension present in the same situations in season one was no longer present. Despite the change to more dramatic story lines in the third season, the element of menace became less of a defining quality to the show, replaced by moments of tension. Finally, where in earlier episodes music underscored the menace in a scene created by drama and lighting, after season one the cue that a scene was a menacing moment was often the music alone.
Why did the element of menace disappear in the series? I think that it is because it is difficult to sustain in a series with continuing characters, especially considering other changes in the show’s format. Compare the original run of The Twilight Zone with its later incarnations, or look at The Outer Limits (neither of which had continuing characters). Suspense was a hallmark of the early 1960’s in television; the latter half of the decade saw a move to much lighter (figuratively and literally) shows taking over much of the network’s schedules in prime time. The times had changed; to give a pat explanation, it is fun to be scared when you think the world is still a safe place (more or less), but when you see bloody rioting in the streets, anti-war demonstrations, assassinations and political corruption around you, you want to escape the menace, not enjoy it.