EPISODE REVIEW: The Robinsons: Lost In Space: “Pilot” (2003)

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Every year there are dozens of pilot episodes made. These are essentially a working model or proof of concept episode for a potential new TV series. Some of these are fully-fledged episodes, and some are only partial-length. Others are feature length. Based on the strengths or weaknesses of these ‘proposals’, networks decide which new shows they’re going to pick up and which ones they’re not.

This is a high-expense an high-risk business. Even a pilot for a sitcom involves optioning actors, writing scripts, hiring a director and crew, building sets, postproduction work, and so on. For an hour-long drama, obviously, there’s vastly more effort and time and money involved, and if you’re making a science fiction series you may as well just double all of those variables because it’s just much, much harder. And if it’s a pilot for a space-based SF show, maybe quadruple ‘em. And of course there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be a payoff for you for all your hard labor. No matter how great you think your concept for “Outer Space Planet of Clowns: The Musical” is, the suits may not share your vision, and take a pass on the whole thing. And then were are you? You’ve invested millions of dollars in what amounts to half a feature film that no one is ever gonna’ see.

It’s a rough business, and the Networks say ‘no’ more than they say yes. Every year a dozen or two pilots are made for shows that don’t get picked up, and that’s the end of the story. This article is about one of those stories, obviously.

In 2003 The WB network (Remember them?) was interested in yet another reboot of the “Lost in Space” franchise. They commissioned a pilot without much fanfare and then passed on it without much fanfare. Though I’ve never been much of a fan of the original series, I did always feel like the first handful of episodes - though amazingly stupid - had an odd, dream-like kind of goofy charm that was mildly engaging. The less said about that murderously bad movie the better. So I was mildly curious about the ‘03 reboot, just to see what their take on the almost unworkably-difficult concept was.

Well, I finally watched it.

PLAY BY PLAY:

It’s the year 2097, and Colonel John Robinson is retiring from the “Space Corps.” This is a big deal because he’s a big bohonkin’ war hero who literally saved the world during the alien invasion in 2082 when, we’re told, Robinson literally saved the world. After a long and fruitful career that’s required him to be away from his family for six to ten months at a time, he’s decided to permanently relocate with his wife and kids to “Planet Nova,” a farming colony. At the party, eldest daughter Judy catches the eye of Captain Don West, “The youngest man ever to command his own squad” and they end up knocking boots.

The next day, back at home, the Robinsons are packing up to board the colony ship when they discover that Will Robinson has built a Robot to act as a bodyguard to protect himself from bullies at school. John makes him take it apart.

The colony ship is fairly extensive and impressive, and actually kind of interesting. Named “Jupiter,“ It’s a long body with clusters of “Pods” strapped to it, and the émigrés live in the pods for the duration of the trip. When they get where they’re going, the pods detach and land on the surface of the colony world, forming an instant UFO trailer home. There appear to be 30 to 50 of these pods, numbered. The Robinsons have pod # “Jupiter 2” of course. Judy complains that “Jupiter 5 is much bigger.”

Coincidentally, Judy bumps in to Don on board the ship. His squadron is flying support for the Jupiter. They’re looking forward to more boot-knocking when he realizes that she’s the (presumably underage) daughter of Colonel John Robinson, and he instantly cools his jets. Judy chases him, but he says that all he ever wanted to do is fly, and he’s not going to do anything to endanger that, particularly with the daughter of someone he really respects and idolizes.

There’s some problems on the bridge, and John is asked by the captain to take a look. He quickly realizes it’s a precursor to an alien attack and, sure enough, the fireworks start flying. The Jupiter is undefended, and the family is strewn about the ship. Don ends up reluctantly saving Judy and helping her back to the family pod while the aliens board. Will and David - the Robinson’s older, sullen son - nearly get sucked out in to space through a hull breach, but David manages to save his little brother, and they make their way back to the Pod, too. John fights his way back to the pod, but Will is snatched, so he heads back out to rescue him and we get a chase/fight scene. Successful, they head back to the pod yet again, only to find that David went out to help. Before they can do anything about it, the Jupiter 2 automatically detaches from the Jupiter Colony Ship, and David is apparently captured by the aliens.

Don and John attempt to fly the Jupiter 2 back to the mothership, but it explodes before they can get there. Being chased by alien fighters, they duck in to a black hole, and are able to escape out the other side (in a white hole? Does anyone even still believe in white holes?) only because Will hooked up the disassembled Robot’s power supply to the engines at the last minute.

Lost in space on the far side of a black hole with very limited supplies and fuel, on a space ship that was really only designed to land. Once. John Robinson swears that he’ll get his family to safety and find and rescue David, even if it takes him until his dying breath.

THE END.

Because, y’see, the WB passed on the pilot.

OBSERVATIONS

You know what? It didn’t suck. Well, ok, it’s Lost in Space, so it kind of sucked, but it sucked *less* than the other iterations of LIS, and far, far less than I had anticipated. It’s got a lot of flaws, but unlike the previous three versions I can actually see where this one had a little bit of built in potential. I found myself vaguely interested to know what was going to happen next, and ever so vaguely annoyed to realize that I never would.

The production values are actually surprisingly high. The sets for the Jupiter Colony Transport Ship are impressive and sprawling, there’s a lot of neat-looking corridors and hallways, the observation deck is neat, the control room is tolerable. Really these are better Big Space Ship sets than most SF shows have. I’m less impressed with the Jupiter 2 itself, but we don’t really see all that much of it. It feels a bit more like a bungalow than a space ship or a space trailer home. There’s a large atrium/living room in the middle of it and interestingly while there’s *CLEARLY* an upper deck to the set, we never get a shot of it, nor even get a shot of someone up there looking down. Obviously they skimped on the budget, and didn’t built out the upper level, and this kind of restricts the choice of camera angles they can effectively use in the pilot, so the thing never really effectively grabs the imagination. They made the curious decision to spend all their money on sets for a ship that was blown up in the end of the episode. Presumably those sets would have ended up being re-used as any generic human vessel in subsequent episodes, and I've heard rumors that a running subplot of the show would have been Earth's attempts to find The Robinsons, but that might just be stuff you hear on the playground. I am impressed over all with the scale and look of them, however.

And so were the people at the Reimagined Battlestar Galactica. In the second season they decided to introduce the Battlestar Pegasus. Unfortunately they couldn’t really afford to build sets for it - that would have broken their meager budget - and they didn’t want to just use redresses of the Galactica sets, so they were kind of stymied. Then they hit on the idea of purchasing the Jupiter sets from the LIS pilot, and quickly redressed them. Thus the inside of the Jupiter Colony Transport (But not the Jupiter 2 itself) is identical to the inside of the Pegasus, effectively. I admit to having some perverse fascination with that. Much as I feel betrayed by the New Galactica, I was always fond of the Pegasus.

The story and acting are tolerable. There’s nothing embarrassing in it, though I think they spent a bit too much time establishing the family dynamic. No, I take that back, I think they spent just the right amount of time on that, but I feel like they went about it in an overly-talky teen soap opera kind of way. It was a bit too Seventh Heaven for me. It was a WB show, after all. I thought the portrayal of Dr. Maurine Robinson was a bit too derivative of Mimi Rogers in that crappy movie, but otherwise I had no real problem with it. The idea that John Robinson was a career military guy and not a professor was probably the largest departure from earlier versions of the story, it gives things a different dynamic, but it mostly worked even if the actor playing the dad was a bit stiff in places. The younger, more driven version of Don West isn’t given much to do, but he was adequate in the role and I like that they played it with Judy chasing him and him wisely backing away. The kid who played Will did nothing for me, and this iteration of The Robot (in a near-cameo) was just irritatingly gay looking and dumb. Didn’t like that at all, though I can see why they did it. Penny Robinson is a baby in this version, which worked out fine. I actually liked the invention of an older Robinson child - David - but it was interesting to me that he ended up captured by the aliens and separated from his family. Presumably if they’d gone to series he would have been off on a Helo Plot for much, if not most, of the first season. Interesting move. Finally, there is no Dr. Smith character, and this is a welcome absence.

The pilot didn’t have it’s own score or theme, so the music tracks are cobbled together from other productions. The CGI is good, but rather minimal. They show the same scene of the Jupiter getting pummeled like five times, and when Will is getting sucked out in to space they don’t even bother to matte out the wires holding him up. The unnamed aliens are kinda’ weak. Presumably these elements would have been cleaned up if they’d gone to series.

Setting the show further in the future and placing it after a major alien war completely changes the inherent assumptions of LIS, but I found that refreshing, actually. I’m not sure why.

Really, my one big question in all this is why they even bothered to call this “Lost in Space.” I mean, they changed so much stuff in terms of the premise, setting, family, characters, backstory, and dynamic that there’s not TOO much of the original LIS in evidence here. Ok, yeah, they’ve got a little space ship and they’re lost in space, and they’re a family, so there’s some conceptual overlap I agree, but change their names and the name of the ship, and it could be a completely different show in the same way that SeaQuest DSV is clearly a bewilderingly bad attempt to reboot Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in everything but name. Or the way "Earth 2" was a clear rip off of the original LIS, right down to casting Tim Curry as the Dr. Smith analogue. So why this didn’t just go that extra yard and end up with an 'original production' I don’t know.

So, in conclusion it wasn’t that terrible, and I wouldn’t have minded watching 13 or so episodes of the series, had it been picked up, even if that would have meant the Battlestar Pegasus ended up looking completely different on the inside.

Picture quality is really poor, but if you want to you can watch the entire thing on Youtube here

and if you don’t wanna’ watch it - hey! - you might just be a network executive!

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