Lost in Space - Season 1
Although it wasn't the longest running of Irwin Allen's 1960s television shows (that honor belongs to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), Lost in Space is the series with which the producer is most identified. Perhaps it's just that it was watched by a lot more kids and developed more catch-phrases that stuck over time -- mostly courtesy of the robot ("Danger, Will Robinson!," "Warning, warning!," etc.) -- but it became a central part of popular culture, especially for younger viewers. Lost in Space was the first of Allen's series to get remade as a feature film (and not a bad one, either), and it now arrives first on DVD. FoxVideo's Lost in Space: Season 1 actually included slightly more than just that season, though not nearly the number of extras that, say, the various complete seasons of Friends or The Simpsons offer in the area of commentary tracks and such. You'd think the producers could have gotten surviving cast members Billy Mumy, Angela Cartwright, Mark Goddard, or June Lockhart to discuss the series and offer reminiscences, and there are likely some serious television historians who would have a lot worth saying, as well. On the positive side, the set is compactly designed, eight discs in narrow boxes in a slipcase, with four episodes per disc, except for the eighth platter, which contains the final show (number 29) of the season, plus the unaired pilot episode, "No Place to Hide." The latter has been making the rounds of underground video outlets for years, owing to its shaky copyright status, and is accompanied on the same disc by the CBS "pitch featurette" prepared by the network to convince sponsors to advertise on the series. The two bonus features make a good pairing. For those unfamiliar with it, "No Place to Hide" contains most of the essentials of the first episode that aired and the subsequent series, with two important differences: no robot, and no Dr. Smith. It was a very straight, almost reverent version of the story of the Robinson family in outer space, essentially The Swiss Family Robinson retold (as "Space Family Robinson" until Disney threatened legal action). The effects were impressive, and with Bernard Herrmann's music (drawn from various Fox film titles, including Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Journey to the Center of the Earth) as a score, it looked and played like a million dollars worth of entertainment. The problem was that it was too reverent and squeaky clean, without any conflict among the characters. It promised a lot, but lacked dramatic excitement and agitation, and the network felt it had to deliver more of a human-oriented story -- in a hurry. In the end, more front-end plot was added, along with the villainous figure of Jonathan Harris' Dr. Smith, a saboteur and would-be murderer accidentally trapped aboard. The voyagers' space flight story was altered and augmented, and the adventures on the planet where they crash-land in the pilot don't start until episode four, a month into the run of the show. Comparing the unaired pilot with the first episode that actually aired is fascinating. There's a lighter tone at certain moments, mostly involving younger players Mumy and Cartwright, such as when the ship (rather ridiculously) temporarily goes to a zero-gravity state. At the same time, the presence of Harris adds an immense amount of energy to the show. A highly underrated actor, mostly because he was allowed to engage in so much schtick later in the series' run, here he is a fierce, savage figure, calculating and cunning, playing it the way one might play Richard III, and he steals every scene in which he appears. The score of the first episode, composed by John Williams (then billed as Johnny Williams) is similarly well-devised to maximize the effect of the visuals (especially where the robot and the rest of the ship's hardware are concerned), and is a more-than-adequate substitute for Herrmann's music. By the standards of 1965, the first episode now seems like two-million dollars' worth of entertainment -- though it cost a 20th of that -- and the producers were able to generate three more weeks of adventure and character development before reaching the planet where they eventually landed. The direction by Tony Leader didn't hurt, either. Also known as Anton Leader when he worked theatrically, he had a much better sense of what worked as suspense than did Irwin Allen (who directed the pilot). In any case, the show works well. The first season was done in black-and-white and was played more seriously, but that didn't prevent the writers, directors, and cast from creating some poignant, lyrical moments, such as the episodes "My Friend, Mr. Nobody, "The Lost Civilization" (a very sweet and ominous retelling of Sleeping Beauty), and "The Magic Mirror." Watching them side-by-side, one sees how the makers retooled the show in progress. The first five episodes are played straight, with a generally dour, almost always serious tone in which Dr. Smith is a cunning wolf-in-the-fold, reminiscent of Thayer David's villain in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The second episode, "The Derelict, offers a rendezvous with a huge space craft that sort of anticipates elements of Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires andRidley Scott's Alien, in addition to recalling sides of The Man From Planet X. The spaceship landing sequence in episode three, "Island in the Sky, should have won L.B. Abbott and Howard Lydecker at least an Emmy nomination (if not the award itself), and remains exciting decades later. By the fifth episode, the makers had begun changing the Smith character, making him slightly more comical and less bloodthirsty. By the middle of the season, however, the producers were falling into the trap of offering increasingly silly characters -- the worst example being "The Space Croppers" (in which the Robinsons meet the deep-space equivalent of poor, Southern white trash) -- and retelling too many classic tales, such as in "The Sky Pirate" (a retelling of Treasure Island, in which Mumy's Will Robinson fills in for Jim Hawkins in a delightful performance that saves the piece, by the late Albert Salmi). After the season represented here, the show went to color and silliness reigned -- and little of it inspired. But this first year was an array of enjoyable and still-exciting yarns about deep-space flight, with some good actors and intriguing characters (at least at first). The show was never released on laserdisc, so these are the first high-end videos of any of the Lost in Space series. The image details (full-frame with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1) are generally razor sharp, and a lot of care has been taken to balance the contrast and density of the shots. Lest one think that sounds a little pretentious, the unaired pilot was photographed by no less a figure than Winton Hoch, and Gene Polito did a good job on the other early shows. The sound is mastered at a healthy volume and has excellent fidelity, so much so that it's now possible to pick up some excellent lines of dialogue that were previously buried under the effects. (When asked about where his scientific curiosity is, one character, under his breath, replies, "All in one basket -- Alpha Centauri.") There is also still a haunting quality to the shots of John Robinson flying the jet pack over the wilderness in search of his daughter while Herrmann's music from 12-Mile Reef plays in the background. Each episode in this set gets a dozen chapters, which can be accessed with ease. What's not so easy is moving between shows; one must go back to the episode menu and down three spots to get back to the main menu, which does advance automatically to the next show as one returns to it. There's a selection of English and Spanish audio, in addition to subtitle options in both languages. There is, alas, no real annotation, outside or inside the packaging, so one has to search out such notable guest stars as Warren Oates ("Welcome Stranger"), Michael J. Pollard ("The Magic Mirror"), Michael Rennie ("The Keeper"), Torin Thatcher ("The Space Trader"), or a young Kurt Russell ("The Challenge"). Perhaps the makers will do more to sell the later seasons, but they missed their chance to turn this volume into a better, deeper, and thoroughly alluring experience.