UK TV review: Lost in Space Season 1 (spoilers)
James R | On 15, May 2018
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Lost in Space Season 1? Read our spoiler-free review here.
“We’re Robinsons. We live together or die together,” declares Maureen (Molly Parker) in Lost in Space. It’s the fundamental mission statement of Netflix’s sci-fi reboot, and while that fierce, heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality might sound out of step with the modern world, that’s precisely what makes this series work so well: it’s a programme about family that isn’t afraid to celebrate it, in whatever form it comes, broken, healing, mourning or ass-kicking. It’s the ideal show parents can watch with their kids over tea – how many Netflix originals can you say that about?
That’s not to say that Lost in Space doesn’t match modern TV standards: directors Stephen Surjik (The Punisher), Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Hannibal), Alice Troughton (Doctor Who) and David Nutter (Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding) serve up spectacle after spectacle, with some stunning, accomplished vistas and seamlessly integrated CG effects. The eels that eat all of the fuel in the opening episodes are still lodged creepily in your mind six episodes later, while the way that the Robot interacts with Will is remarkably easy to believe (and, according to some quarters of the internet, also remarkably hot) – not to mention the way he switches into a four-legged killing machine.
It’s not just about dazzling visuals, though: so much of what’s impressive about Lost in Space is its sense of danger – the otherworldly surroundings and creatures they encounter at almost every step are inherently threatening. The turning point of the season hinges on one standout set piece, as the survivors on this planet all have to band together to face off some wildebeests-on-steroids that attack the camp – and, specifically, the light tower they build to try and signal the Resolute, the Colonial spacecraft in orbit of the planet.
That’s the brainchild of Victor (Raza Jaffrey), the self-imposed leader of the human survivors, whose arrogance (and son, Vijay – Ajay Friese – positioned as the romantic interest of Mina Sundwall’s Penny Robinson) would be cliched in another programme, but is reinforced by the consequence his actions have; Lost in Space’s strength stems from the way it ties a genuine sense of peril to each character, and every internal conflict.
Maureen’s discovery that the planet’s lifespan is decidedly finite, for example, gives us a jaw-dropping sight across the horizon, but also the threat of radiation exposure. Hiroki Watanabe, too, is aware of the black hole preparing to engulf them – and that shared secret, also passed on to Penny, brings the risk of fragmenting everyone’s relationships still further. John and Maureen, in a stroke of brilliance, aren’t a happily married couple but on the verge of separation – and vital knowledge not shared is precisely the kind of thing that could tear them apart permanently. Even Penny and Vijay’s fledgling attraction is put in jeopardy, when he spills the beans – culminating in Victor trying to take off in a ship with just his family, leaving the rest of the humans to perish. (Fortunately, the Robinsons prevail and inform everyone of what’s going on – a victory that’s played less for the achievement of saving a ship and lives, and more for the triumphant strength of the couple’s marriage when they work together.)
Even the more stereotypically heroic figures can’t escape the constant peril on offer. The roguishly charming Don West leads a team (including Viktor) to solve the fuel crisis, only for the line between their vehicle and the fuel tanker to break, and a geyser to flip the whole tanker over – leaving Evan crucially trapped underneath it. Time after time, every step they take to stay alive goes awry, and each mess raises moral dilemmas that have actual ramifications. (Don, commendably, sides with Taylor Russell’s Judy, and they shift the tanker, only for Evan to die anyway.)
That relentless brick wall of potentially lethal failure means we’re fully invested when we see John and Maureen stuck in a tar pit in a sinking vehicle – the kind of situation that really could bump one of them off. As they crawl out through an ingenious use of helium, the script brilliantly echoes their joint commitment to staying alive with a heart-to-heart about their relationship; by the time they make it out to the shore, we’ve entirely bought into their rekindled romance, and inevitably giggled at their high-pitched voices.
It’s not easy to balance such heartfelt drama with science fiction – just look at Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – but Lost in Space pulls it off with aplomb, not least thanks to its uniformly excellent cast. Stephens, in particular, is perfectly imperfect as the gruff, distant dad re-learning how to play happy families. His death, then, as he and Don launch in the stripped-down Jupiter 4 and explode mid-air, is a twist that hits hard. It also throws the rest of the cast into the spotlight, with Parker, Sundwall and Russell confidently leading what becomes a refreshingly female-heavy ensemble.
Of course, John turns out not to be dead after all, but the show really does commit to the idea, as we move on to see the family grieve, while also struggling to stay alive themselves in a cave full of flying critters. It’s here that Lost in Space really excels, as Will’s radio beeps with a signal – one that gives him renewed hope, just as puts everyone in grave danger, by awakening the monsters. Once again, character and spectacle go hand-in-hand, something beautifully summed up by a tear-jerking conversation between Will and Penny. When she challenges him for daring to believe in the impossible, he points out that they’re surrounded by impossible things, from the fast-freezing lakes to the sentient Robot – and, most impossible of all, their mum and dad getting back together.
All of this builds up to a gripping finale that sees John and Don floating in orbit, with Penny and Maureen trying to use a space harpoon to bring them back to the ship – a concept so ridiculous that it’s credit to the show you don’t even stop to laugh at it. It helps that the finale is one of the shortest episodes in the series, a sign of how deftly paced the whole thing is. (Not for the first time, the show feels like America’s answer to Doctor Who.)
Naturally, things don’t go right, and that’s primarily due to the show’s MVP: Dr. Smith. Parker Posey is having the time of her life in the role of the manipulative malcontent. Swapping the gender of the character not only gives some added female clout to the show, but also gives Posey the chance to act her socks off, almost hamming it up as she tries to nudge everyone around her to do the wrong thing. We learn that she’s really called June, the older sister of Jess, a businesswoman who was about to leave Earth with the Jupiter project – only for June to drug her sibling and steal her place. Once in space, she assumes the identity of Dr. Smith, and the Robot’s attack on their spaceship interrupts her arrest and lets her escape unscathed.
Don West, of course, helps to identify her as a villain, but not before she manages to retrieve the ship’s 3D-printed gun and get her claws into Angela – leading to the bereaved crew member to attack the Robot, forcing it into defence mode, injuring John in the process. Will, heartbroken, tells the Robot to walk off a cliff – opening up a window of opportunity for Smith to resuscitate it and programme it to be on her side.
It’s the combination of the Robot and Dr. Smith that helps the finale deliver a satisfying conclusion: for all the expansive, wide-reaching world-building that’s going on, Lost in Space is smart enough to keep things small and character-driven. Yes, there are man-eating plants and beasts, but the real villain of the piece is that human hiding in your room and whispering in your ear.
It’s not an idea that’s executed flawlessly: the determination to keep Smith ambiguous until the end means that she makes dumb as well as smart decisions when the plot needs to keep moving along. “Everyone is like me, I’m just not in denial,” she reasons, not entirely logically. “I’m looking out for myself.”
But the show makes sure we still get some eye-candy to enjoy, as the Robot ends up fighting another robot in the cargo bay of the ship – one of them reprogrammed to remember that Will is his friend (after coming scarily close to killing him); the other an alien invading force that’s genuinely intimidating. It’s a sight that feels more physical than mere CGI pixels bumping into each other, and it helps that we’re invested in the whole thing, thanks to Maxwell Jenkins’s moving performance as Will.
Indeed, he gets the best moment in the whole show, as he has to go outside of the air lock to save the day, despite the fact that his mother is injured, and despite the fact that she lied for him to get him on the mission in the first place because he wasn’t smart enough.
“What’s the point in taking care of me, if I can’t go grow up to take care of you?” he asks his mum, simply. It’s here that Lost in Space really sticks the landing, bringing the show back around to its central theme of family and loyalty, turning the whole season arc into one of the kids growing up to stand alongside their parents against the danger that’s out there. And they do it just in time, as Smith sneaks some alien tech aboard the ship, only for it take over the engine and transport the Robinsons away from the human colony and into a strange new universe – the home planet of the Robot. After spending 10 thrilling episodes exploring the show’s human characters, the promise of a second run doing the same for their scene-stealing mechanical friend is one that’s full of danger. And that couldn’t be more exciting.
Lost in Space: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.