It’s been 53 years since the Robinson family originally got “Lost in Space,” in a TV series that might seem like a pop culture footnote but was – in its original run – more popular than Star Trek. But whereas Gene Roddenberry’s creation went on to spawn six TV spin-offs, a blockbuster movie franchise and an endless revenue stream via lucrative merchandising tie-ins, Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space has floundered for half a century — including a stillborn reboot directed by action movie legend John Woo, the helmer of The Killer, Hard Boiled and Face/Off. But now the franchise has a new shot as relevance as yet another remake debuts on Netflix, so what better time to look back at the Lost in Space that almost — but never — was.
The original series aired for three seasons, from 1965-1968, and told the story of the Robinson family, a group of intrepid intergalactic explorers who veer off course and get stuck in the vast void of space. Along for the ride is a helpful robot (helpful, that is, when it isn’t reprogrammed to destroy them) and Dr. Smith, the conniving saboteur who got them stranded in the first place.
Lost in Space was a minor hit, regularly earning higher ratings than Star Trek, but although the title was burned into the pop culture memory, the original show is rarely re-examined today, and the lone attempt to transform Lost in Space into a blockbuster movie, back in 1998, was (at best) only a minor success, despite a respectable cast which included William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Heather Graham and Matt LeBlanc. Plans for a sequel were scrapped, and Lost in Space retreated back to its smallish corner of the pop culture cosmos.
It was after that, in 2003, that the ambitious WB reboot spearheaded by John Woo was mounted. The show ultimately didn’t go to series, but the pilot was filmed, and it turns out it was pretty darned good.
John Woo’s The Robinsons: Lost in Space took place in the far-off year of 2097, 15 years after an alien invasion which was repelled by none other than John Robinson (Brad Johnson, of Left Behind). Now, John Robinson is retiring from service, and moving his whole family to the farming planet of Nova. It’s supposed to be a leisure cruise, but shortly after takeoff their vessel is attacked by the alien enemy, and they are forced to escape through a wormhole that leaves them… lost in space, obviously.
The cast of John Woo’s Lost in Space is capable and the pilot’s screenplay, written by Douglas Petrie (a producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Daredevil), lays the foundation for familial strife. John Robinson’s career in the military has alienated him from his kids, all of whom have to deal with the baggage of his celebrity. His wife, Maureen (Jayne Brook, from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead), has to act as a moderator between her husband and his estranged children, and proves time and time again that she’s the real leader of their family.
Judy (Adrianne Palicki, of The Orville) doesn’t want to move to another planet, and her romance with Captain Don West (Mike Erwin) is threatened when West realizes her father could destroy his career. As she gets more aggravated, she gets more motivated, and she ends up kicking the butt of several alien invaders before the pilot is through.
The other Robinson children are less confident than Judy. Will Robinson (Ryan Malgarini) invents a robot to protect him from bullies on their new planet, and David Robinson (Gil McKinney, of E.R.) resents having to live up to his father’s example. David’s character didn’t exist in the original series, but when the aliens attack and the Robinsons have to escape to the other end of the galaxy, he gets left behind with the enemy. So David was either created specifically to die, and raise the stakes on the series, or the showrunners had other, more complicated plans in store for him.
It’s worth noting that the breakout character in the original Lost in Space, Dr. Zachary Smith (originally played by the great Jonathan Harris), is nowhere to be seen in the pilot episode for John Woo’s Lost in Space, and it would seem like he wasn’t directly responsible for the tragedy that befell the Robinson family. Or, and this is mostly speculation, the history of resentment between David Robinson and his father, combined with his “conveniently” getting left behind with the alien enemy, may have hinted at a future plot twist that would leave David Robinson filling the role of Dr. Smith in this reboot. Maybe David’s middle name would turn out to be “Smith?”
We’ll probably never know where John Woo’s Lost in Space was heading, but if you track down the pilot, at least you’ll see a quality episode of television. The family melodrama takes up about half the episode, but the cast is capable and again, the foundation is laid for more interesting character interactions down the road. And once the aliens do attack, John Woo proves once again that he’s one of the best action filmmakers around, with exciting shootouts and fistfights, and impressively suspenseful sequences of aliens breaking down the Robinson family’s doors, bursting open airlocks and potentially killing the Robinson children.
The pilot wasn’t finished, and some shots still feature green screens outside of windows instead of CGI star fields. Keep an eye out for all the wires which would have been digitally removed by the time John Woo’s Lost in Space aired on television, but are still clearly visible because that never happened.
This reboot of Lost in Space never went to series, but it doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the quality of the pilot. It’s an engaging hour of television, with a rich cast of characters, and a new take on the old Lost in Space concept, grounded in wartime scenarios that were particularly resonant in the mid-2000s in an America still reeling from the most devastating attack in the nation’s history.
The pilot plays not unlike the acclaimed pilot for the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which also depicted a world finally at peace that gets rocketed back to war after an unthinkable tragedy, with a cast of dynamic characters venturing further into the unknown, on the run from mysterious enemies. Funnily enough, the Battlestar Galactica reboot – which debuted the same year this pilot was completed – transformed their version of Gaius Baltar into a character very much like Dr. Smith from the original Lost in Space. (And also funnily enough, the sets from John Woo’s Lost in Space were eventually purchased by the producers of Battlestar Galactica, retrofitted, and used as the set of the Battlestar Pegasus in their Season 2.)
If anything prevented this show from going to series, it was probably money, the bane of any interstellar sci-fi series’ existence. It costs a lot to make alien worlds, strange costumes, and put green screen effects into every shot. In the mid-2000s, most WB programs were family dramas set in small towns, like 7th Heaven, Everwood and Gilmore Girls. Even the network’s genre outings were relatively inexpensive, with shows like Supernatural and Smallville taking place in the real world, with a relatively small number of VFX shots per episode.
Was it a tragedy that we never got more of John Woo’s Lost in Space? Perhaps, but it nevertheless proves that there is life in this story, and that its characters and storylines can be successfully adapted to the modern era of television sci-fi. And that means that, maybe, the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space will also be good. Or at least interesting. Or at least it might not suck!