I have to start by saying that I never liked Dr. Smith. As a child watching Lost in Space in the 1960’s I found him by turns frightening or ridiculous. With the simple black-or-white (and somewhat bloody-minded) logic of an eight-year-old, I asked why the Robinsons didn’t just kill him. As simple as that. Now, after fifty or so years to reflect (although I admit I never gave the matter a second thought for most of that time) I have come to have a completely different view of Dr. Smith’s character. It certainly was not black-or-white. It wasn’t even shades of grey. In some ways, Dr. Smith was one of the most realistic characters developed over the course of the series. The only other characters who really showed any character development at all were Penny, who matured somewhat, and Will, who became rather less naif and more assertive. Because of this, I find that I have actually begun to feel some affection for the character, and I think I finally understand why Will (and the others) always stuck by him regardless of his antics.
First of all, we need to jettison some baggage, not unlike the Robinsons in “His Majesty Smith,” if we are to take off and explore the real Smith. Most importantly, we have to abandon any belief that he was a one-dimensional character. This includes both characterising him as the snarling villain (as he appears dressed appropriately in the teaser to “The Galaxy Gift”) or as the cowardly buffoon (aptly portrayed in costume in “The Toymaker). Smith had elements of both, but that is the main point. More importantly, there was a lot in between those two extremes, and we saw far more facets of Smith’s character than of anyone else's over the 83 episodes of Lost in Space.
John Robinson was the Buzz Lightyear of his day. Don was his spunky sidekick (Holy Batman, Batman!). Will, as mentioned above, became a bit less naif (and more sarcastic and caustic). Penny just grew up (ho-hum). Judy and Maureen didn’t do much of anything. But Dr. Smith was noble. Yes, that’s right. He was. He was as goody-two-shoes as Professor Robinson at his father-knows-best. Smith just wasn’t noble all the time. Look at him at the end of “All that Glitters.” After Penny turns herself into a platinum statue (watch the scene again; Smith warned her to keep away and even fled from her before she caught him and touched him, despite his warnings), Dr. Smith is on the verge of tears and pleads with the universe at large to restore the impetuous girl. He admits his own faults and offers his own life for hers… that is, he accepts a slow and painful death through starvation if only she be restored to life. What I find most interesting is that Smith actually seems to learn from his mistake here. John never does when he makes a mistake—and he does—he just goes on being noble all the time. It’s all well and good to have principles, but when you realise (and you really should) that those principles are not workable in some situations, you need to adapt. But then, if that were the case, most of the action in “The Deadly Games of Gamma 6” could have been reduced to about six minutes if John had learned anything in “The Challenge.” Apparently, he didn’t.
Dr. Smith was not uniformly self-centred and blithely and wilfully unaware or uncaring of others either. Not all the time, at least. In “The Questing Beast,” he feels genuine pity for Will when the boy becomes callous and cynical after reaching the false conclusion that there are no heroes in real life, and he goes out of his way to restore the boy’s faith. In “The Toymaker” he is sufficiently motivated to find Penny a special birthday present that he (rather stupidly, I admit) monkeys about with a Celestial Department Store ordering machine despite his earlier experiences in “The Android Machine.” In “The Raft,” when Will somewhat plaintively asks if Smith will be like his own father to him when they seem to be marooned alone on a strange world, Smith is visibly moved and makes a somewhat inept attempt at being fatherly when he offers to give Will a piggy-back.
In a similar vein, think of the notorious Smithisms—but not just those aimed at the Robot. I mean, what about all those mean, nasty things he said to Professor Robinson over the years, or, more often, to Major West? Actually, Smith’s comments were often spot on. They weren’t mean or nasty. They were usually very accurate observations of the character or judgement of their targets. Smith is almost the voice of reason; when Don reacts from animal instinct (after the manner of a schoolyard bully), Smith is able to maintain emotional distance and actually evaluate the situation before reacting to it. That is not to say Smith didn’t enjoy pricking Don and John’s egos; but he only gave as good as he got. Smith also displayed (as did John) the emotional maturity that you would naturally expect in adults. Speaking as a non-American, I believe I understand the American fascination for the vigilante, take-justice-into-your-own-hands, violence-embracing hero; but in the real world, that is all illegal, even in the United States. Worse, it is childish. Don cannot control his emotions; that is his fatal flaw. Smith and John can; they demonstrate an adult level of maturity where Don does not.
So what about Smith’s bad side? Of course it was there. He was greedy, selfish, manipulative… the list goes on. Does it all balance out in the end? No. He always comes across as the villain. Spoiler alert: he was supposed to be the villain. He was introduced as a villain. He was immensely popular as a villain—so much so that Irwin Allen encouraged Jonathan Harris to rewrite his lines to develop the character of Dr. Smith so it wouldn’t have to be killed off as all one-dimensional villains must be. But he was still the villain. And the newer, wackier Dr. Smith continued to be popular. Lost in Space never left the top 30 ranked television programmes in its entire run. Jonathan Harris got more fan mail than the rest of the cast put together. From the second season onward he was the highest paid cast member (he was the second highest paid in the first season). You don’t like the change in the series after the first five episodes? Well, most people did, obviously. It may also be worth noting that when the third season aired with a further change in direction (more action, more planets, less Smith) Lost in Space began falling from around the magic 20 in the ratings (a hit show) which it had orbited for two years.
Lost in Space was a business venture with the goal of making money for investors, but think about drama for a moment. The snarling, evil Dr. Smith of the first five episodes could not be sustained. He had to die or change. For purely financial motives (people watched the show because of him) the decision was made to keep him. Ergo, they had to change him in order to keep him around. But they also needed a reason to have a new show each week for six months a year: they needed someone to do something to make something else happen. Try to imagine any episode of the series after “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” without Smith. Most couldn’t possibly have been rewritten. Does that mean that instead of just the “First Five” (the episodes everyone seems to think the best) there would have been three or more years of the same? I doubt it. Irwin Allen obviously doubted it—if he thought it would have paid, he would have done it. Five episodes don’t define a series; but 78 do.
What it comes down to is that the character of Dr. Smith made Lost in Space, a work of fiction (it’s not real, folks!), the success it was. There is a reason it has been in syndication for most of the past half-century and a reason that its video and DVD releases still routinely sell out. Smith was the villain throughout. But, unlike the other characters, he was developed and became well-rounded as a character… for all his character flaws, he was the most clearly human. I don’t know what you would do, but if I happened upon an alien spaceship, I would run screaming too. Of course, when I was ten I would have taken a pot shot at it (like Don) or investigated (like Will), but then, I’ve grown up since.
Dr. Smith had good points and bad points; no one could deny that. So please, do you need to ask endlessly why John or Don or anyone else put up with Dr. Smith? The answer is simple; if they hadn’t done, there would have been no show. Try it yourself. "The Keeper: Part 1" is available online as a PDF file; use it as a model. Rewrite it without Dr. Smith. Then write 77 more scripts without Dr. Smith. Be careful you don't end up anticipating (or copying, depending on your standpoint in time) Star Trek: TNG, with Captain Robinson, Commander Don, Wesley Robinson and the Data as your central characters... that was done to death.
Taken as a whole, Lost in Space was about inclusion, caring, loyalty and redemption, and to have that, you need both the good and the bad. Just like in the real world, and fiction is the real world writ large.