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Early in the new season of Lost in Space, Maureen Robison (Molly Parker) and John Robinson (Toby Stephens) have an argument about the safety of their children; he's in favor of extra caution, she's ready to risk it all.
It's not a spoiler to say that this argument happens, because if you're a fan of the slick Netflix reboot of the once-kitschy sci-fi classic, then you know half of the drama of Lost in Space is centered on the Robinson family working through their complicated emotional issues, while constantly being threatened by killer robots, dangerous planets, and, of course, a scurrilous and (sometimes) murderous Parker Posey as "Dr. Smith."
But the compelling thing about John Robinson is that even though he's beefy and dad-ish, everything about the character rejects a lot of male stereotypes. John Robinson is not trying to save the day or push his kids too far. In fact, he spends both seasons of Lost in Space doing a lot of listening and compromising.
"It was never going to be the original version of the character," Stephens told SYFY WIRE ahead of the hotly anticipated Season 2 debut of Lost in Space. "What I like about the way John Robinson is developing is that although he's kind of a masculine stereotype — he's a former soldier, he's a guy who has lived in a guy's world — but then he's having to adapt to living with his family again. So, at first, it seems like he's a male stereotype, but as the series goes on, in terms of who is leading, and who is the boss, it's a mixture of him and Maureen."
For those who are new to Lost In Space in Season 2, Stephens doesn't think you'll necessarily need to have seen Season 1, but in terms of the nitty-gritty plot stuff, and the dynamic between John and Maureen Robinson, it certainly helps.
Even if you don't have kids, or aren't married, plenty of couples will be able to recognize themselves in the arguments John and Maureen have throughout the series. But what's progressive and compelling about their relationship is that John comes across as more of the support mechanism for Maureen, the true leader of the family and the Jupiter 2.
"She's very linear and scientific. She understands what's going on because she has the experience," Stephens says. "So sometimes my character becomes more of an emotional person. And I like the way that dynamic is being played with."
In real life, Stephens had a singular role model for strong women. He is the son of Dame Maggie Smith, famous for her numerous brilliant film roles (such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) but likely known to fans of fantasy and science fiction as Professor Minerva McGonagall in all eight of the Harry Potter feature films. Stephens clearly gets his acting chops from his mom, but did she give him any advice about the perils and pleasure of joining a big nerdy franchise?
"Well, when she joined Harry Potter, it was around the same time I did a James Bond movie. So we both experienced it at the same time," he says. "And these big franchises can redirect your career in ways that it wouldn't have happened otherwise."
In 2002, Stephens had a dastardly turn as 007 supervillain Gustav Graves in the James Bond flick Die Another Day. In fact, if you watch that film and you watch Lost in Space now, you might find him totally unrecognizable. And part of that is the accent. Stephens is British but plays John Robinson with an American accent. This puts him in a small but specific club of British actors who do American accents for the sake of science fiction. Other members of this club include Jamie Bamber on Battlestar Galactica and both James Frain and Jason Isaacs on Star Trek: Discovery. Patrick Stewart got to keep his British accent on Star Trek: The Next Generation, even though his character is French.
So was there ever a moment when John Robinson could have had an English accent? Stephens says no, and that he's actually happy about that.
"Well, the thing is for me is that it's incredibly freeing," he explains. "With an American accent, I can kind of do anything, as an actor. And I know a lot of British actors who have said the same thing. Prior to this [Lost in Space], I feel like sometimes I'd been cast in the same kind of things. You can get perceived in a certain kind of way."
In fact, Stephens says that as much as he loved being a baddie in a Bond film, the perception of what he could do as an actor was certainly altered by that film.
"I had a wonderful time doing [Die Another Day], and I certainly don't regret it," he says. "But it was something that took me a long time to get away from. It's one thing if you're Javier Bardem coming in and doing a Bond movie and you've got a whole body of work behind you. Whereas for me, they wanted somebody that nobody really knew. So I hadn't really done much, and doing that straight off the bat was very hard. That's all anyone saw me as. And it took me a long time to get perceived another way."
So, in a sense, with the heroic and progressive space dad John Robinson, Stephens has managed to kick two types of toxic masculinity: evil James Bond supervillain and antiquated outer-space patriarch. Instead, as John Robinson in Lost in Space Season 2, Stephens gets to explore a more enlightened future while remaining firmly relatable and down to Earth.
Or, in this case, down to Alpha Centauri. Assuming, of course, the Robinson family ever gets there!
All 10 episodes of Lost in Space Season 2 begin streaming on December 24.