DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!: SPOILERS herein.
At first glance, a reboot of Lost in Space in the 21st century seems… unnecessary. A goofy, campy relic of the pre-Trek era of science fiction when the flying saucer was the preeminent spaceship shape, and most alien planets looked like cheap studio sets with cardboard rocks and men flailing about in rubber suits, Irwin Allen's seminal sci-fi show hardly feels like the kind of thing you can organically update for a more modern, sophisticated audience. (Also, it's not like there weren't attempts before, like the hopelessly messy 1998 movie or John Woo's abortive TV pilot.)
But Netflix's 2018 revamp of Lost in Space feels different, somehow — developed by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (normally known for weird shlock like The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt, of all things), this iteration of the Space Family Robinson takes their interstellar plight seriously, with all the Prestige Drama trappings that entails. Instead of a planet-of-the-week adventure, the first season sees the Space Family Robinson (along with other colonists from their mothership, the Resolute) crash-land on a mysterious planet, scrambling for resources and a way to get back up into space and resume their journey.
There are interpersonal conflicts that run from episode to episode, and secrets about characters and plot events are strategically kept from the audience to be revealed dramatically later. The entire season follows that classic Netflix TV-show structure of feeling like a ten-hour movie, rather than ten individual episodes.
And yet, there's an incredible amount of charm in this very Lost-like version of Lost in Space. Much of that is down to its incredible production design and slick cinematography, with the Jupiter 2, and all its accompanying gear, clearly taking inspiration from the grounded, modular style of the near-future designs in The Martian. Everything looks and feels practical, from the space-shuttle nature of the Jupiter's stark white corridors to the ATV-like Chariot. This focus on pragmatism is especially fitting, considering that Lost in Space derives much of its drama from the practical challenges of surviving on a hostile planet: freeing someone trapped in a glacier, creating a comm tower to contact the Resolute, escaping from a Chariot slowly sinking into a tar pit. The show's about a group of scientists trying to science the sh** out of their problems, which is a refreshing change of pace from pew-pew action.
Of course, Lost in Space has to juggle big-budget sci-fi action with its premise as a family drama, and their take on the Robinsons shows tremendous potential. Most admirably, it's the Robinson women who take focus: Maureen (Molly Walker) is the clear family leader, a determined scientist who often has a keener eye on their predicament than even the colony's leader, while med student Judy (Taylor Russell) provides a cool head in the face of impossible odds. The younger Penny (Mina Sundwall) is comparatively more flighty and irreverent, but she endearingly bounces off the other super-geniuses in the family and solves more than a few problems herself.
Comparatively, the boys are embroiled in more workmanlike, subordinate roles: father John (Toby Stephens), a soldier, is very much the blunt instrument of the family, while outsider Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) has been reinvented into a rogueish comic relief character (complete with pet chicken sidekick).
What about "Danger, Will Robinson," you might ask? Well, those elements work just as well, even if they hew more traditionally to the boy-and-his-robot tale familiar to anyone who watched the original series. Here, the dynamic between Will (played with a wide-eyed vulnerability by Maxwell Jenkins) and the Robot is more Iron Giant than A Boy and His Dog. We quickly learn that the Robot is one of the alien machines responsible for attacking the Resolute and getting everyone stranded in the first place. But now his memory is blanked, and he's imprinted on Will to the point where he'll do anything to protect him.
What's more, he proves incredibly useful to the colonists — provided he doesn't snap and start murdering people again. The conversation around the Robot remains one of the show's most interesting moral wrinkles: what values do we give up in the name of safety? Is it wrong to trust someone who's done wrong?
But perhaps Lost in Space's most delicious reinvention is Parker Posey's Dr. Smith, turned from a sniveling camp antagonist into the Benjamin Linus of the entire piece. As Smith (or, as we later learn, June Harris, an unstable woman who sneaks on board the colony ship and steals the real Dr. Smith's identity), Posey plays her like a cornered animal, her sly grimace and calculating eyes constantly working out ways to survive. Where the Robinsons are turbo-competent STEM folks, she's in the soft sciences; she's a psychiatrist (or, well, pretends to be), which gives her a novel angle by which to pinpoint other characters' hopes and fears — ones she can exploit to her benefit if need be. Even if the rest of the show were far shoddier, Posey's Smith (and her many wonderful space rompers) would be reason enough to tune in.
It's not all perfect, to be sure, and the first season has more than its share of flaws. For one thing, the other colonists who end up populating Lost in Space's supporting cast aren't nearly as interesting as the leads, and the various power grabs and community politics among characters we don't care about eats up a disappointing amount of screen time. What's more, it takes the entire season to actually escape this first planet; it's in the closing minute of the first season that we actually get to where we wanna be with this series — the Robinsons, Dr. Smith, and Don West, in the Jupiter 2, all alone in the universe. That being said, this leaves room for the show's second season (whose release date is still TBD) to give us the Lost in Space show we crave. They've got the cast and the look down pat: all that's left is the adventure.