What Didn’t Work:
Problem Hopping Can Be A Storytelling Crutch
Roughly 10 hours is a lot of time to fill with any television series, let alone a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza. And to their credit, the writers of Lost In Space aimed to fill every moment with some sense of external conflict for their characters to (sometimes literally) wrestle with. The first episode laid the groundwork for the series by putting characters into some form of danger seemingly every minute. Judy was trapped in a frozen lake. Penny had to perform a hasty operation on her mother’s injured leg. John risked getting smacked by Maureen for some questionable parenting decisions, and Will tried to wait out a raging inferno in a tree with an angry, bifurcated killer robot.
For the most part, the series delivered a new take on a familiar situation in nearly every episode. The second episode saw Maureen, John, and Will in the path of a deadly storm, while episode 3, ‘Infestation,’ brought some uninvited guests to the ship, in the form of fuel-eating eels that kept John busy while the rest of the family went about doing maintenance on the vessel.
While keeping the characters busy, jumping from one problem to the next also worked to prevent the season from drifting into an unintended lull, but it also at times felt like a storytelling crutch, inasmuch as the onslaught of problems also kept certain ideas, themes, and even characters from being more meaningfully explored over the course of the season. Though it seems connected to the idea of the series' episodic format, this has more do with content than structure. It’s kind of a toss up as to whether this approach worked or not, as it certainly kept Lost In Space from ever becoming boring, but it also left plenty of potentially fascinating examinations on the table.
Drawing Out the Dramatic Tension
This feels like a byproduct of the show’s reliance on problem hopping, as it wasn’t enough for Lost In Space to wrangle a new complication for the characters to face every few minutes, but it did so by drawing out the tension to an almost absurd degree. Again, the groundwork was laid in the first episode when Will and the robot watched as a fire quickly spread through the forest around them. Will’s decision to save the robot winds up saving his life and it’s treated like an appropriately triumphant moment, but the scene — and many others throughout the season — plays out longer than it needs to, reducing the sense of triumph as the scene nearly becomes exasperating.
That scenario plays out again and again over the course of the first season. One example that’s memorable for all the wrong reasons happens around the middle part of the season when a pair of giant lizards start tearing Will’s robot apart because he’s set to Good Mode. Will has to run out of the ship, down a hill, and hide among a pile of boxes, before he can deliver an Alexa voice command to make the robot “bad” again, thereby reducing the local wildlife population by two. The scene runs for what feels like an eternity, playing on the audience’s emotions — or presumed emotions — over the robot, which the show treats like a magical beast in peril. It’s a manipulative move on the show’s part as Lost In Space also seems to be operating under the assumption the audience has never seen similar situations play out before, and therefore it exploits the dramatic tension for all it’s worth. The thing is, screaming at your television (or computer screen) does not make for an ideal viewing experience.
Thankfully, this is the sort of thing that can be fixed in the editing room, which is probably something Lost In Space should look into anyway, as too often the episodes come up short in terms of justifying their runtimes.
Season 1 As Prologue
Season 1 essentially winds up acting as a prologue to a more expansive story that’s set to unfold in season 2 and beyond. In the case of Lost In Space, it’s a prelude to the Robinsons actually becoming, well, lost in space. There something to this method as it allows the audience to become invested in the characters and their circumstances before things really start to get dicey, and it’s not too far off from how the original series (and movie) played out as well. Nevertheless, season 1 sometimes felt more like a proof of concept than anything else.
By focusing on keeping characters busy solving problems, Lost In Space avoided (inadvertently, perhaps) digging into a much more substantial storyline, one that would have likely explored the alien ship that crash landed on Earth and was passed off as the “Christmas Star.” It may also have further investigated the colonization’s efforts to steal proprietary alien tech to facilitate their exodus to Alpha Centauri — which essentially makes the attack on the Resolute tantamount to an extra-terrestrial cease and desist order. Sure, all of this can be explored in season 2 or later, but it asks the question: If that’s the story, why wait?
It raises another question, too: Is Lost In Space about anything? The answer seems obvious, in that it’s right there in the title. But the question is searching for something more than just an idea of what the plot is. Season 1 put an emphasis on the idea of second chances. It was applicable on an individual basis with each of the Robinsons, Don, Dr. Smith, and even humanity itself, but is Lost In Space aiming to be about something more than that? Perhaps we’ll find out as the series moves on and evolves, but establishing a more concrete identity in season 1 would have gone a long way in making this otherwise fun and family friendly reboot feel much more essential.
Lost In Space season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.