How Netflix Turned a Campy Cult Classic into a Sleeker, Smarter Sci-FI
Half a century after first finding itself on TV screens, 'Lost in Space' has just been resurrected by Netflix as a different show.
“DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!” Are words that have lived in US TV infamy since a conspicuously campy robot uttered them in Lost in Space, way back in the late 1960s. Having entered American living rooms as a sci-fi adventure following the trials and tribulations of a stranded-in-space Robinson family, the show ended its three season run as a kitschy, borderline absurd space romp on the level of the dancing, onomatopoeic 60s Batman.
Some fifty years, and one disastrous 1998 film adaptation, later, Lost in Space has found itself back on screens thanks to Netflix. Though the show, which was released on April 13th, is a very different beast this time round.
As one of the latest sci-fi shows produced by the on-demand streaming platform, gone is the slapstick-heavy, flimsily-built show of the sixties – and so has that camp robot. In its place has come a sleek, chic and modern iteration that not only shifts the show’s concept much more towards action and adventure, but more significantly, one which heart is grounded in a complex family dynamic.
“It was one of the reasons that I found the pilot episode interesting,” British actor, Toby Stephens – who plays the father John Robinson – explained at an exclusive round-table arranged by Netflix in Dubai this month as part of the Middle East Comic Con. “When I was reading it I was like, oh this is not what I was expecting. I wasn't expecting the relationships to be quite so nuanced.”
It’s an element that, beyond the show’s impressive visuals, shone through from the very first episode and one that Stephens’ co-star and on-screen wife, Molly Parker, agrees is the real wind beneath the series’ wings.
“Toby and I spent a lot of time with the writers to try and make the family relationships meaningful,” adds Parker. “We're tying to give it a kind-of actual depth.”
It’s an impressive feat for a sci-fi whose central premise revolves around mankind’s emigration off of an uninhabitable Earth in search of a new home and one that is certainly made possible by the fact that the writers have time to develop these more complex, subtle relationships over the series’ ten episodes. It might be argued that, beyond the names of the characters and the shell of the premise, the two versions couldn’t be further apart. Stephens, however, puts this down simply to this being a different time.
“It's a version of the same story, but one that’s totally different, because we are looking at it from a different perspective,” he asserts – a sentiment that has also translated into some other significant changes, not least the show’s representation of women.
“I am aware all the time that I am participating and creating cultural representations of women,” Parker is quick to note. But, to the surprise of some, she’s also quick to partially dismiss what she considers to be a slightly misguided zeitgeist surrounding representation of women in media.
“I was relieved,” she says of how the script handles her character. “It's always this balance of, yes I want to play strong women, but I also want to play ‘human’ women. Women who are complicated and have flaws and so I think that's what we're trying to do.”
This type of gender-empowerment, for a lack of a better term, in the show’s female characters also extends to the two female Robinson children, who Stephens describes as strong intelligent, capable girls, while Dr. Smith has gone from villain to villainess, with Parker Posey taking on the role. How deliberate is this is up for debate, but for Parker, herself a mother, it’s a welcome reflection of gender roles.
“I've gone back and watched a few movies from the 80s with my son who's 11, and I can't believe how sexist so much of it is,” she says with brows firmly risen in shock. “Back to the Future has a scene where they essentially fake a date rape in order to facilitate getting the characters together. It’s really crazy.”
All these elements aren’t the easiest to organically embed into a sci-fi – a genre that, in 2018, is at its most fantastical and even scientifically-geared. But both actors point to an interesting policy Netflix has as the reason the producers and writers have been able to reboot the show so freely – to never release viewing figures.
“Part of the reason I think a lot of American TV in this digital era has become so creative is that producers aren’t slaves to old criteria,” Stephens says of what now seems to be an antiquated chase for ratings. “When you are clinging to audience figures then you are so less willing to take risks. But with Netflix, you can go can be more experimental and go out on a limb and I think that the industry is better for it.”
This quickly brought up questions at the roundtable of how the show has and will continue to be perceived by both those familiar to the original series and those who are buying into it for the first time.
“You can’t be everything to everyone,” Parker says almost transcendently. “The show occupies a certain space. There’s not much on TV these days that I can watch with my 11 year-old and actually find value in it myself. I honestly think that the show lives in that world.”