One thing I never expected from Netflix's Lost in Space was that the childhood relic it would remind me of wasn't the CBS original — campy as it was, I once loved it — but that weirdly addictive feature from my mother's Ladies' Home Journal: "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"
The marriage of Maureen (Molly Parker, Deadwood, House of Cards) and John Robinson (Toby Stephens, Black Sails) is running on fumes as they set off Friday on a 10-episode first season. Accompanied by daughters Judy (Taylor Russell, Falling Skies) and Penny (Mina Sundwall), and son Will (Max Jenkins), their plan is to join other colonists emigrating from Earth to a promised paradise in the Alpha Centauri system, where Maureen seems to anticipate quickly filing for divorce.
TV science fiction, family dramas, and production values have all come a long way since 1965, when producer Irwin Allen's update of The Swiss Family Robinson first blasted into America's living rooms. Set in 1997, it featured a less fractured family, chosen to pioneer America's flight from a dangerously overcrowded planet.
Its vision of the '90s looked a lot like the '60s, but with silver jumpsuits. And it makes me cringe a little now.
The unaired pilot for the original, available along with all three seasons on Hulu, introduces Maureen, played by June Lockhart, as a biochemistry Ph.D. who represented "the first time in history that anyone but an adult male has passed the National Space Administration's grueling mental and emotional screening for intergalactic flight." In the series, Lockhart's Maureen was depicted as smart and brave, but still more wife and mother than scientist.
Young Will (Bill Mumy) complains at one point, "You women are always getting lost," and early episodes had Judy (Marta Kristen) mooning over the expedition's pilot, Maj. Don West (Mark Goddard), and saying things like, "I never did like school."
You won't hear talk like that from this version's Judy, a biracial teen who's Maureen's daughter from a previous marriage and who's also, not incidentally, the expedition's medical doctor. Maureen, a brilliant engineer, is the driving force behind the family's move. She comes off as a bit of a cold fish, especially with her soldier husband, who's apparently missed huge chunks of his kids' childhoods while away at war and who seems desperate to reconnect with a family that's learned to get along without him.
The evilish stowaway Dr. Smith, reimagined as a woman (and played by Parker Posey), has a new backstory, as does the Robot — don't worry, "Danger, Will Robinson" is still a thing — and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) is more roguish than his '60s predecessor.
We'll never know what Allen could have done with Netflix money, but the new Lost in Space is unquestionably lovelier to look at. Its casting is more diverse, its women more nuanced. Its Robot is amazing.
But the story, which I liked better 10 episodes in than I did at the beginning, takes a long time to get off the launchpad.
And in envisioning the way humans might interact 30 years from now, Lost in Space imagines male-female relationships as a zero-sum game, where men can expect to pay a price for women's increased opportunities, if only in subtracted IQ points.
Who needs a brave new world like that?