Of all the regular cast members of Lost in Space, none shows more development of character (in a literary, if not a psychological, sense) over the show’s three year run than Dr. Zachary Smith. What is interesting about Dr. Smith’s development, though, is not that he moved from A to B, but rather, in the course of his adventures with the Robinson family, Major West, and the Robot, we are treated to glimpses of a Dr. Smith who is neither the menacing, evil presence of the first several episodes bent on the murder of the crew of the Jupiter 2, nor the arrogant, greedy, manipulative, and cowardly buffoon most people call to mind when they hear his name.
I think of the episodes which afford us insights into the different aspects of Smith’s character as “milestone episodes.” Each one shows us character traits that go together to make up a very complex person with often violently conflicting motivations. In most instances, it is Smith's ability to make a difficult choice of doing what is right that shows us that he does have some commendable traits.
Naturally, since the character of Smith was originally to be eliminated after the first several episodes, the original Dr. Smith was shown as an unalloyed villain fairly consistently over the first four or five episodes. Although there are mellower moments in these episodes (for example, when he rescinds his orders to the Robot to eliminate the rest of the crew as opportunity arises) it is in “The Hungry Sea” that we first see Dr. Smith show concern for the welfare of the Robinsons. In that episode, for no apparent ulterior motive, he tries to warn them that they are about to encounter a terrible heat wave. One might argue that he was not behaving completely altruistically since he had recently discovered that the Robot could not pilot the ship, but there does not seem to be any hint of this in Smith’s words or expression when he is actually trying to help the others.
Another first season episode, “All that Glitters,” shows the Doctor abjectly remorseful over the accidental transformation of Penny into platinum. In one of the most truly tender moments of the entire series, he gives poor Penny a gentle kiss on her cheek. When the voice of the ring addresses him, he strongly admits the baseness of his motives and actions, and states clearly that he will accept his fate (starvation) if only Penny be restored to her normal self.
Season Two’s “Cave of the Space Wizards” presents a similar situation to Smith, insofar as he must make another type of difficult choice. He has had his fondest wishes fulfilled, but in the process, he has lost his humanity quite literally. It is only Will’s appeal to whatever of his old personality remained (“But he cried… He almost made me cry”) that moves him to break free of the alien computers’ control over him and re-embrace his humanity.
Near the beginning of season three, we see an at least temporary reconciliation between Smith and West during their shared experience trapped in the cave in “The Space Primevals.” Viewers should recall that Don, for all his verbal and occasional physical aggression toward Dr. Smith, at least on a few occasions voluntarily goes to his rescue, even if with a back-handed comment like, “Well, somebody has to do it.” I think that the reconciliation in “Primevals” was not a one-off born of extremity, but rather the articulation of a modus vivendi between the two men—not necessarily cordial by any means, but at least showing that they acknowledged the value of the other as a person.
Finally, in “The Time Merchant,” Smith reaches the Earth at such a time and in such a way that he may very likely get off scot-free (although the general’s words suggest that something ominous about Smith's then-prior conduct has been uncovered); and yet, after some less than gentle prodding from the Robot, he finally endeavours to save the Robinsons from the certain death that would be caused by his absence on board at take-off.
None of Dr. Smith’s moments of illumination, none of his protestations to turn over a new leaf, ever seems to be carried over into subsequent episodes. A lot of good dramatic tension would have been lost if they had done! But we nonetheless see facets of his character that at the same time give us hope for the redemption of the Smith of the first four or five episodes, and offer us something truly likeable in his otherwise truly exasperating character. This is why I like him; he wasn’t brave or kind; you can’t even say that his heart was in the right place, but we know that in the most difficult situations, Dr. Smith could and would make the right decision not for himself, but for others.