Why the creators of Netflix's Lost in Space changed the iconic robot so drastically

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Apr 17, 2018

Everything old is new again, and doubly so for our geekiest pop culture classics.

Last Friday, Netflix blasted off to the world of reboots with its adventurous revival of the campy '60s sci-fi show Lost In Space, giving it modern technology and sheen while keeping the family-friendly tone of Irwin Allen's original series.

The milestone show, debuting a year before Star Trek, was itself a kind of update, as it was a modern retelling of Johann David Wyss' 19th-century novel The Swiss Family Robinson. This fresh adaptation of Lost in Space chronicles the cosmic survival story of the titular Robinson clan after their Jupiter 2 landing shuttle detaches from its mothership during an unexplained emergency en route to a Goldilocks planet near Alpha Centauri.

Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, the screenwriting team who brought us Dracula Untold, Gods of Egypt, The Last Witch Hunter, and Power Rangers, Lost in Space captures the spirit and wonder of the original series while gently extracting the campier qualities.

It also showcases a brilliant new humanoid robot that repeatedly warns Will Robinson of imminent danger, and a duplicitous, gender-swapped Dr. Smith as she joins the survivors on an uncharted world following the destabilizing crisis. The show stars Black Sails' Toby Stephens, Molly Parker, Ignacio Serricchio, Taylor Russell, Maxwell Jenkins, and Parker Posey.

The two-hour pilot was directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday) and delivers all the Spielbergian-style emotions and sparkling special effects to hook you into joining the Robinsons in their quest to discover a habitable new home.

"The genesis of the project actually came from one of those great meetings that you have, that you always dream about," said Sharpless. "Four years ago Matt and I walked into a meeting with Legendary Studios and a producer there, they had the rights to it. It was like the third thing they brought up, and they asked us what we thought of Lost in Space, and we were practically jumping out of our chairs. It was more than just being fans of the show when we were growing up and watching reruns of it, but we also sensed right away that it was a template, one of those really great emotional buy-ins, that allows you to build a whole new universe."

Irwin Allen’s original Lost in Space took its concept from the old Gold Key comic The Space Family Robinson, which was in the back of the creators' minds when they began to assemble material to inspire their adaptation. Sharpless remembered the comic when he was a kid and finding it in the library. He was a fan back then, and all these years later, it helped him formulate the backbone new series.

"Like Irwin Allen did with Space Family Robinson, we also went all the way back to the original novel from the 1800s," Sharpless said. "We didn't want to give them futuristic tools to get them out of predicaments. So the idea of being in a survival situation and only having a Swiss army knife and some rope and trying to get yourself out of trouble was something we wanted to try and achieve."

Sazama wanted to present the science fiction aspects 20 years in the future and found Ridley Scott's 2015 movie The Martian to be very inspirational.

"It's where there’s a kind of visual adventure and do problem-solving and being intrepid in science and doing research," Sazama explained. "Having the science be speculative but real became very important. We’re big science fiction readers and knowledgeable about the classics, everything from 2001, H.G. Wells, Frederick Pohl, Larry Niven, Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, all key books that really influenced us about building a particular kind of science fiction universe."

With Lost in Space being such a pop culture touchstone for a certain generation, Sazama and Sharpless were careful to balance that family-friendly tone with a more grounded sense of modern reality.

"People really remember some of the later color episodes of the show’s second season that got really zany, with talking carrots and space circuses and all this other stuff," said Sharpless. "When we launched ourselves back into the original show we became inspired by the black-and-white first season, especially the first six episodes, which were much more serious than the show got. And we felt like that was part of Irwin Allen’s original DNA of the show, a little more serious and scary."

One of the main goals for the writing duo was to create a summer tentpole a la Jurassic Park, but in the television space.

"We felt that hadn’t been explored in Netflix or in any of the high-end cable space, and that was another one of our visions, to get that Spielberg feeling, both in term of the effects you see on screen and creating that world believably on screen, but instead of just doing it for two hours, we’re able to do it for ten," Sazama says.

Lost in Space's robot is one of the most iconic mechanical men in all of sci-fi, so that design was an important aspect to nail down early.

"We wanted the robot to be a character in the show as complicated as all the other characters," explained Sharpless. "So if you watch Season 1, we set up the robot story in the pilot, and is it friend or foe? It’s very mysterious. Obviously you see it become bonded and adapt to Will. But you also see it’s responsible for the attack in the beginning, and it’s why they crashed in the first place. So whether the robot is going to save us or kill us by the end is the question of the show. We wanted Will, and the actor Max Jenkins, to be able to play some emotional scenes off of this character.

That’s one of the reasons they decided to put the robot in humanoid form, a radical departure from the original.

"We were very interested in the robot being adaptable and actually transforming as a character to reflect Will," Sharpless added.

Fortifying the tonal middle ground was of primary concern in this project, and it was one of the first things they talked about when they heard "Lost in Space."

"We could almost see that blue texture and the sense of realism filtered through a James Cameron world that was relatable and gritty and grounded, but also beautiful and idealistic," remembered Sharpless. "The tone of the show does have that by way of Cameron and Spielberg, and that four-quadrant tone was something in our hearts that we missed. We both have kids and wanted to make something we could watch with our kids, that we could watch with our parents, and we could all sit around together and have this experience where everybody enjoys the same thing."

Sazama echoes those sentiments and recalls growing up steeped in those great Spielberg movies of the ’80s that seemed like they appealed to everyone.

"I could see myself in E.T., and I can also see myself in Roy Neary in Close Encounters, even though he was older, because he acted like a kid," he said. "So when you look at a show like Lost in Space, if you’re the age of Will Robinson or feel that age, it should be something you can enjoy and appreciate, all those feelings of what you thought was cool and exciting when you were 12 or 13."

Jonathan Harris’ Dr. Zachary Smith is arguably one of the most memorable comedic villains ever on TV. Netfix's resurrection includes a gender-bent vision of Dr. Smith, played by Parker Posey. Sazama and Sharpless were huge fans of Posey before they started working with her, and they’re even bigger fans now.

"She had a difficult role," insisted Sharpless. "I mean, how do you play Dr. Smith? Jonathan Harris’ performance is so iconic, so inimitable, that it would be easy for any actor following that to just fall into doing a caricature or an imitation of what he did before. One of the reasons that the role was gender-swapped is that a female actor was going to have a lot less baggage trying to reinvent the role, which in our opinion Parker Posey was able to do. She loves Lost in Space and grew up watching it. She would wake up early in the morning to watch and loved Jonathan Harris.

"She had such a deep love and appreciation for what Jonathan did, and she was able to use the essence of his performance and filter it through her own incredible sensibility, and in our minds both create something new that feels relevant to 2018 and yet certainly also has a foot back in the 1960s, where you have this character that is mercurial and funny and quirky, and also has this scary edge all at the same time."

With dozens of pulse-pounding action sequences in this debut season, we wondered what were some of the writers' favorite scenes and plot developments. Sazama chose Molly Parker's Maureen Robinson as something he's excited for viewers to tune in for.

"Especially as she faces off against Parker Posey," he said. "It really becomes a battle of Maureen and Parker’s Dr. Smith for the soul of Will Robinson and the robot. They form this triumvirate that reaches its fever pitch both visually and character-wise in the last three or four episodes. We were truly building toward that climax."

For Sazama, working with his partner for the first time in TV after exclusively writing for the movie space was an especially rewarding creative venture.

"Being able to work in a writers' room with a bunch of other really brilliant and talented writers to create this thing together, with showrunner Zack Estrin, has been such a great experience that we haven’t had before," Sazama said. "On a purely process level, it’s been a great collaboration to make this show."

As far as fun surprises go, Bill Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the '60s series, has a small cameo in the pilot. Sharpless admitted it was a real treat having him on set.

"We’re so thankful and honored that he’s supporting our new version of the show," Sharpless says. "We felt that Jonathan Harris would have maybe agreed that perhaps Bill Mumy could also play the real Dr. Smith. Getting him to appear in the pilot we were so thrilled by."