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Netflix's 'Lost in Space' reboot has Hollywood explosions, grittier plotlines — and no fun

Netflix has traded the joy of the unknown for an insistence on “realism” — there is no longer anything fun about getting lost in space.
Image: Lost in Space
Netflix's new version of "Lost in Space" is not silly. It's expensive and it looks it.Netflix
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The last decade of television has seen an explosion in reboots, revivals and “reimaginings” of famous titles. In an ever-expanding landscape, broadcast television executives seem willing to take fewer and fewer risks, preferring to count on audiences retuning into shows where name recognition is an overriding factor. Netflix has been just as much a proponent as broadcast in this endeavor, bringing back the 1990s hit “Full House” (now “Fuller House”), the 1980s series “One Day At A Time” and now the 1960s camp classic “Lost In Space.”

Possibly the most candy-colored version of a “gritty reboot” to date, Netflix’s "Lost in Space" is an attempt to resurrect camp — without the camp. The resulting show has lost all of its fun quirkiness but doesn't offer viewers a new reason to watch instead. In other words, it's the perfect example of a reboot that doesn’t have a good reason to exist.

"Lost in Space" is an attempt to resurrect camp — without the camp. The resulting show has lost all of its fun quirkiness but doesn't offer viewers a new reason to watch instead.

The original “Lost In Space” show was silly, but it had heart. The entire premise was weird and subversive — instead of sending highly trained astronauts into space, Earth shot off a totally ill-prepared family, plus a hilarious evil villain who had stowed away somehow without anyone noticing. The family robot looked like a cross between a vacuum cleaner, a kitchen appliance and a length of dryer hose. Dawson Palmer’s monster characters ranged from being covered in fur to bark. But beneath all of the schtick, there was also a message about the importance of family. Out of their depths and stuck in space with no way home, this was a family unit that stayed together, helped each other and made the best of it.

This new version of the show is not silly. It's expensive and it looks it. At a panel at AwesomeCon in Washington, D.C. in March, the executive producer compared the show to a "10-hour summer blockbuster." But in aiming for a blockbuster, Netflix has traded the joy of the unknown for an insistence on “realism” — there is no longer anything fun about getting lost in space.

Image: Lost in Space
Angela Cartwright, Billy Mumy, Marta Kristen, Guy Williams, June Lockhart, Jonathan Harris from the cast of CBS's original "Lost in Space."20th Century Fox / Courtesy Everett Collection

In the early episodes, it seems like everything that can go wrong does, until the tension has been ratcheted to extreme heights. That may be the reality of going out into space, but it lends the constant crises a hysteria-like quality, especially when each time the issue is suddenly solved, because the show isn’t actually going to kill off their core cast.

The original show was set in 1997. The Robinsons (father John, wife Maureen and kids Judy, Penny and Will) were wrecked when their ship, the Jupiter II, crashed on its way to the Alpha Centauri star system due to sabotage. In Netflix's version, it's the year 2048. The Robinsons are still here, aboard the Jupiter II. But their ship is now part of a mass colonization effort of Alpha Centauri. Sadly, the show skips over how the Earth became so uninhabitable, one of many missed opportunities from a show supposedly “couched in reality.”

The original “Lost In Space” show was silly, but it had heart. The entire premise was weird and subversive — instead of sending highly trained astronauts into space, Earth shot off a totally ill-prepared family, plus a hilarious evil villain.

This is not the first time “Lost In Space” has been remade — Hollywood attempted a movie version back in 1998, starring Matt LeBlanc of “Friends” fame. That film also aimed for a more serious tone, with a “realistically dysfunctional family.” It was a critical failure, but some of the film’s tweaks have been included in the Netflix series, including the family's less than perfect relationships.

John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen (Molly Parker) are a couple on the edge of divorce, and one of the kids (Judy) is from Maureen’s first marriage. The blended family aspect is nice, especially the scenes between Judy and her devoted adopted father. But while a divorce plotline might have felt radical the first time, here it’s a cliché. Moreover, while Stephens and Parker are great together, their chemistry undermines their supposed acrimony.

But the biggest alteration, and perhaps the one the show is most proud of, is gender-flipping the series’ famous antagonist, Dr. Zachary Smith. During the AwesomeCon panel, the executive producers insisted this was because the role’s original actor, Jonathan Harris, was too iconic a character to try and recreate. What they meant is that Harris was the campiest part of the series, a man who chewed the scenery with hilarious gusto and made the show comedic in a way the new series doesn’t seem to want to do. So instead, they cast Parker Posey as the new Dr. Smith. Despite her comic roots, Posey’ ultra-serious read of the character encapsulates the series’ issues.

Posey is great when she finally lets loose near the end of the series, even if her evolution doesn’t totally make sense as a narrative arc. But the role (and the entire show) needs more madcap. While gender-role reversals often improve reboots — think “Ghostbusters” — in this case it actually may have hurt the project. Posey acts as if she has to play the role straight in order to be taken seriously, and it limits her.

Ultimately, and frustratingly, there just doesn’t seem to be a good reason for this new “Lost In Space.” The show doesn’t seem concerned with trying to say anything interesting or new (or much of anything at all.) Good revivals take a dated series and use it to explore new themes, like 2004’s “Battlestar Galactica,” which used a 1970s Mormon parable to discuss the line between artificial intelligence and conscious beings as well as the role of religion. For all of the criticism of “Roseanne,” her original show in the 1980s and 1990s had a lot to say about the working class condition. Audiences — knowing she would have something to say about how things have and haven’t changed in 25 years — rewarded her return with the biggest ratings for a broadcast comedy in four years.

And beneath its silliness, the original “Lost In Space” did have something to say. This was a show that ran from 1965 to 1968, in the midst of massive political and social turmoil. The plot highlighted and embraced the idea that society was changing — and fast. In 30 years, our world could be totally unrecognizable to our own. But as long as the family sticks together in times of crisis, the showrunners implied, viewers would be ok.

Our society is in massive upheaval again this decade, featuring a similar push-pull of progressive impulses and conservative angst. A story in which family triumphs in the face of intergalactic drama might have been a comforting concept. But while the series pays lip service to this idea, there’s not much “there” there. Instead, the showrunners seem far more interested in pulling together a lot of fancy CGI animation and noise, like every other summer blockbuster. At least it could have made us laugh.

Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.

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