“Danger, Will Robinson!” That’s the friendly cry of a robot from living rooms past that Netflix is banking on to make its ambitious new series a success. Lost in Space, a reboot of Irwin Allen’s 1960s sci-fi classic, is the streaming giant’s latest trade on audience nostalgia, but from the opening frame, it’s clear that this is a thoroughly modern update.
The original was not without a slice of cheese, as it took the classic Swiss Family Robinson into space – a traditional, all-American household trying to stay together after their journey went drastically off course. Netflix’s Lost in Space, though, doesn’t have a shred of cheddar on it: this is a stripped-down, beefed-up, blockbuster of a programme, one that means business, and has the budget to cash that cheque.
The production is decidedly cinematic, from the shiny, sleek interiors of the practical sets to the CGI effects that send them racing past alien planets – and, in the thrilling opening sequence, hurtling into them. The disaster plunges us straight into danger, with explosions, crashes and losses quickly racking up – all intercut with our family playing cards at the dining room table. Within minutes, we’re watching them emerge, stranded on an icy foreign landscape. Odds on staying alive? Go fish.
A large part of the show’s success stems from that very real sense of risk, casting the series as a sci-fi tale of survival in the vein of The Martian, rather than a old-school sitcom, a la Fuller House. The threats aren’t spreadsheet-ticking exercises in tension: here, the peril is perilous.
The Robot, once a friendly figure, is now a hulking beast of black metal, capable of transforming from smooth, humanoid curves into a jagged, four-legged killing machine – a shifting identity that’s part-Iron Giant and part-something Kylo Ren built in his bedroom. His “Danger, Will Robinson” has gone from a helpful catchphrase to a foreign growl reeking of digital menace that’s more promise than warning. The fact the he spends much of the time being genuinely helpful only makes him more unnerving; impossible to read with his glowing white and red face, we only have young Will’s insistence that he can be trusted to go on.
Sense8’s Maxwell Jenkins is excellent as our young hero, his encounter with The Robot managing to be scary and sweet in equal measure. It’s the perfect contrast to his bond with his dad, John (Toby Stephens); The Robot says nothing, but Will clicks easily with it (a testament to Jenkins’ charismatic performance), while John tries repeatedly to talk with his son, but they never manage to make a connection. After his superb turn on Black Sails, Stephens brings a welcome dose of gruff to this softer setting, his time away in the military turning him from a caring family man into an outsider; he’s a do first, talk later kinda guy, who struggles to communicate feelings to his shipmates, who just happen to be his family.
Molly Parker is equally tough as matriarch Maureen, but her strong marriage with John comes with a commendable number of flaws – the dangers facing the Robinsons are as much to do with their estranged relationships as the strange new world around them.
That world, though, isn’t short of scares, and tough daughter Judy (Taylor Russell) finds that out first-hand, as within the opening hour, she winds up caught in an impossible sheet of ice – much to the distress of her technical wizard sister, Penny (Mina Sundwall), who is the closest thing the series has to comic relief.
What makes Lost in Space work isn’t the fact that it keeps finding fresh terror in the landscape being explored – from freaky monsters and fast-freezing water to computer failures – but the fact that each new nightmare matters: the events of each episode have consequences, continuing to resonate across the rest of the season. To say that Judy survives her introductory ordeal isn’t a spoiler, but while a lesser show would brush that off as a standalone incident, showrunner Zack Estrin (Prison Break) and writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold, Last Witch Hunter) explore the trauma it leaves behind. Russell shoulders the burden wonderfully, managing to bring a vulnerable side to her physically strong athlete, and even finding common ground with her similarly resilient father.
If all this sounds dark, though, that’s what elevates Netflix’s series to one of the year’s best new shows. Directors Alice Troughton (Doctor Who) and Deborah Chow (Jessica Jones) fuel the whole production with a burning sense of adventure, capturing the beauty of the Robinsons’ home as well as its spookier side; we don’t just see near-misses with cliffs or tussles with eels, but the stunning skylines and exhilirating launch sequences that these obstacles lead to.
Sundwall’s Penny, meanwhile, even brings a dash of endearing romance to the table, as our group begin to connect with other survivors – central to the series’ family-friendly tone is the fact that our clan aren’t the only ones stranded.
Of course, the other humans only spell more potential trouble, from the rough-and-ready worker Don West (the roguish Ignacio Serricchio) to the manipulative Dr. Smith. Played with relish by Parker Posey, the latter joins the series’ refreshingly rounded female ensemble, stealing scenes with her calculated stares, weighted words and attempts to drive our family apart.
Throw in the kind of political tensions that you’d expect to brew among a colony of off-world humans and you have a promising blend of action and social commentary (those chosen for the Jupiter colonising plan were Earth’s richest and most successful – an unfair selection of society that is already showing signs of being tainted), all wrapped up in the thrill of new horizons.
Add in a dash of potential environmental awareness (Earth has been left behind because of climate change and pollution) and a fondness for scientific solutions to larger-than-life problems, and you have a series that stands alongside Doctor Who in offering something rarely old-fashioned: a genuine family show that delivers excitement, tension and smart drama in equal measure.
Suitable for tweens more than very young children, this sits alongside Star Trek: Discovery as an epic new addition to Netflix’s line-up, but one that you can watch with the kids. Yes, there’s danger, Will Robinson, but navigating it is enormously fun.
Lost in Space: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.