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Netflix’s Lost in Space undermines a strong premise with dumb characters

Ever since the Sci-Fi channel scored a hit with its re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica back in 2003, reboots of classic science fiction stories have been everywhere. Paramount and CBS breathed new life into the Star Trek franchise with a trio of new movies and a streaming show. MGM is seeing if there’s life left in Stargate, via a dedicated streaming platform and original series. ABC is bringing back The Jetsons, Warner Bros. finally made its Blade Runner sequel, and Netflix has even rebooted ReBoot. The streaming service has been particularly active in the revival field, with new versions of everything from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to the Benji movies.

Netflix’s latest re-envisioning of a classic is a reboot of the 1960s family science fiction show Lost in Space. With a fresh coat of paint, great production values, and an approach updated for the streaming age, the show has a promising premise. But it’s undermined by dumb character decisions and a haphazardly realized world.

Like some of the other reboots, Netflix’s Lost in Space picks up the beats of the original story in the broadest strokes. The Robinson family (John, Maureen, Judy, Penny, and Will) is bound for Alpha Centauri, where humanity has discovered a paradise-like planet. Because Earth is facing climate change, wars, famine, and other society-ending problems, explorers are headed out to restart society with a fresh start on a virgin world.

But as the show opens, an accident with the Robinson’s colony ship sucks them into a wormhole, and they crash-land on another habitable planet. At first, the family is forced to focus on simple survival: they have to pull their ship out of a glacier, get their bearings, and find fellow survivors, all before their mothership leaves without them.

There’s a lot of potential in this show, and Netflix has done an admirable job of updating a campy series for a modern audience. The Robinsons are no longer a typical 1950s family: Judy is a mixed-race teenager from her mother’s first marriage, and there’s considerably more tension between family members. Judy and Penny are competitive step-siblings, Will is on the verge of an anxiety attack throughout the series, and John and Maureen are separated — they’re only together on this mission for the kids. They’re also no longer alone on their new world. Other families aboard other Jupiter spaceships crashed to the surface, and as they come together, the survivors have to figure out how to survive and try to escape. Oh, and the show’s classic robot has been updated with a more modern look.

When it works, the show is fun to watch, and there’s enough material to keep it moving forward, from the Robinsons’ interpersonal problems to the challenges that arise in each episode, from saving their spaceship to trying to signal the mothership after they’re cut off. The show also benefits from fantastic production design: the ships, vehicles, equipment, and costumes look fairly realistic and functional.


Image: Netflix

But while the show has some promising elements, Lost in Space runs into the Prometheus problem: the show often doesn’t seem to know how to make its characters’ actions and predicaments drive the plot forward, and they make a lot of dumb decisions along the way. In the pilot episode, the Robinsons’ ship crash-lands into a frozen lake and sinks, but after some struggle over who will dive after it, the family quickly retrieves it. Later, Maureen sneaks off with a spacesuit and a high-altitude balloon to try to signal the Resolute. Her balloon is caught by the wind, which almost drags her off of a cliff, but she successfully launches it in the next scene. Both sequences stick out, because both are rapidly resolved with no meaningful effect on the overall storyline. There may be long-term consequences — Judy has flashbacks about her efforts to retrieve the ship, while Maureen is exposed to radiation — but the rapid resolutions make both sequences feel like wheel-spinning filler. They lack meaningful impact, and they don’t help develop the characters.

There’s also plenty of dumb science, including instantaneously freezing lakes and fuel-eating eels. For a show that seems to want to focus on realism, these issues are incredibly distracting. The writers seem to be inventing new physics solely to foil the characters, which hardly seems necessary — on an alien planet, with a group of strangers dealing with stressful, dangerous conditions together, there are plenty of more believable challenges to face.


Image: Netflix

But there are other systemic issues within the story. The Robinsons and other colonists like them are fleeing a devastated Earth. At one point, Maureen explains to her children that going to Alpha Centauri will be like going to a new world, where they’ll be free to live new lives without the war and climate change that ruined their home. Only the best and brightest will be permitted to travel, she tells them, as colonists will be screened by a battery of tests.

This is a troubling plot point: only the the richest, most advantaged segments of society have the freedom to leave behind a broken world and start anew. The show’s writers — Dracula Untold and Gods of Egypt’s Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless are behind this reboot — do seem somewhat aware of the insidious nature of this line of thinking. Dr. Smith (Parker Posey), the show’s classic villain, has a secret backstory that gets her around the screening, and explains how such a ruthless, flawed person infiltrated the group. And the presence of a smuggler named Don West (Bones’ Ignacio Serricchio) signals that the screening process is far from perfect, and that humanity’s self-destructive nature isn’t limited to the poor and uneducated.

But the show doesn’t address its inherent class issues head on, which is a shame, because the question of who’s responsible for climate change — and how the people profiting from massive industrial pollution are also the people least likely to feel the consequences — is a meaty topic in 2018. A key reason for the excellence of The Expanse is the creators’ willingness to explore the divisions created by inequality, and in that show, the ramifications have been built into the world, and are an underlying driver for much of the action. In Lost In Space, the same issues feel like light set dressing. If the writers commit to the idea on a more devoted level, they could give the show some much-needed depth.

Ultimately, Lost in Space feels like it’s stuck between the poles of two recent Ridley Scott films. The Martian similarly focuses on survival, ingenuity, and a series of escalating challenges. But it’s hobbled by the inexplicable worldbuilding, character decisions, and casual handwaving away of science that defined Prometheus, and it’s at times frustrating as it misses low-hanging opportunities that could have placed it alongside better shows like Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse. But it’s a fun show to watch, and a promising start for potential future seasons of adventure.

The 10-episode initial season of Lost in Space begins streaming on Netflix on April 13th.


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