The 1964 pilot was based on a script by Shimon Wincelberg and enjoyed a
budget of $600,000 which made it the most expensive pilot episode ever
produced until that time. It told the story of the launch of Gemini 12
on 16 Oct 1997, a vehicle that was to take the world’s first space
family to colonize a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. Led by
Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), the family consisted of his
wife, Maureen (June Lockhart) and their children, Judy (Marta Kristen) ,
Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Billy Mumy). Accompanying them was
Major Don West (Mark Goddard) who served as the vehicle’s pilot. The
flight plan called for this crew to be placed into suspended animation
for a 98-year journey.
When the pilot film was completed, Irwin Allen widely announced that it
was beyond doubt his “best work ever”. The CBS executive staff didn’t
agree. A few openly laughed at the film causing Allen to go into a rage
and stop the film midway. Allen was ready to use whatever leverage he
had to stop all series production when story editor Anthony Wilson
pulled him aside for a private conversation and explained that although
some of them laughed, everyone in the screening room loved the show.
Irwin Allen stepped away from the project momentarily as Wilson went to
Smith was developed to be an agent for a hostile foreign nation that was
caught aboard the spacecraft in his attempt to sabotage it just prior to
its launch. His actions fail to prevent the launch but do cause the ship
to veer off course and crash-land on a far away desert planet. Actor
Carroll O' Connor was seriously considered for the role before he was
replaced by the very talented Jonathan Harris. To round out Smith’s
introduction, Wilson also added an environmental robot, Robot YM-3,
designed by Robby the Robot designer, Robert Kinoshita. With the
assistance of this mechanical ally, Smith was ready to continue to
confront the Robinsons.
On 15 Sep 1965, the series premiered to widespread critical acclaim
which did little to impress the Studio executives who declared that if
Lost in Space didn’t have at least a Nielsen rating share of 20 or
higher, they would declare the idea a failure. The premiere scored a
rating of 18 and slipped the following week to a rating of 17.6 with a
further slip the next week to 16.9.
However, the core of the letters concerned Dr. Smith. Most of the
viewers loved him, even though he was a cunning, cruel, evil man with
only two motivations, namely to kill the Robinsons and return alive to
Earth. In the first couple of episodes he’d already sabotaged the
spacecraft, damaged Professor Robinson’s parajet pack, and ordered the
Robot to “liquidate” the family members one by one. Anthony Wilson and
Jonathan Harris decided to refine the character, believing that such
pure evil wasn’t going to last with viewers throughout the season. With
careful planning, Harris softened the character to transform the
murderous spy into a cowardly and lazy lingering problem.
As the series progressed two themes developed. Professor Robinson
attempted to turn Smith into a useful space pioneer by giving him simple
tasks like digging wells and standing guard. Smith always ignored these
responsibilities, expecting Will or the Robot to accomplish the work.
This enhanced Smith’s new reputation as a greedy, pompous, and inept
tag-along. Balancing this tolerance was Major West who rightly saw Smith
as a serious threat to the team’s survival.
For Anthony Wilson, these studies were important but they totally missed
the mark. He knew that viewers tuned in because Lost in Space delivered
adventure and challenges in exotic settings and clever situations.
Whether the latest episode showed Will blasting a towering Cyclops with
a laser weapon, Penny posing as space royalty to serve as a negotiator
between warring alien factions, or Professor Robinson fighting
possession by evil alien spirits, the series continued to throw one
thrill after another. The Robinsons couldn’t as much as have a peaceful
dinner in the campsite outside their spacecraft without being
interrupted by cosmic storms, space wizards, or wandering monsters.
As the series popularity increased, the show experienced increased
scrutiny from the network's censors who expressed ever-growing concerns
about the impact it might be having on its audience’s younger members.
They constantly sent the production team reminders warning them to “use
appropriate judgment”. These mandates became more and more frequent
until the team felt they were straight-jacketed. The restrictions
increased until such offensive aspects as on screen kissing between
Professor Robinson and his wife Maureen had to be eliminated because
censors felt it would disturb younger viewers and embarrass older ones.
After campaigning by Irwin Allen through senior CBS executives, the
husband and wife team were allowed to show affection through “hugs, pats
on the arm, and affectionate looks”.
The second season gained the benefit of being broadcast in color. This
caused further concern for network censors who warned that monsters in
color were far more frightening than their black and white counterparts.
They also began to hack at small elements of dialog throughout the show,
forbidding the use of the word “kill” and insisting it be replaced with
the words “destroy” or “disable”.
The series also faced a growing challenge in the battle for dominance in
science fiction on TV from Star Trek on NBC. Although Lost in Space
overpowered Roddenberry’s series, Star Trek’s contrary view of space
adventure was gaining attention. Critics liked the more adult treatment
of the genre and respected that Rodenberry had gained the support of
some accomplished science fiction authors. Conversely, Dr Smith, now the
center of the Lost in Space, became ever more comical and bumbling as he
confronted space Vikings, gunslingers, lost knights, and wildly dressed
magicians. While Smith, Will, and the Robot stumbled through one
situation after another, the rest of the Robinsons were left picking up
after them. By the middle of the second year, some episodes didn’t
feature Professor Robinson or Maureen at all. Given the conditions on
the set, the actors displayed winning personalities in the face of some
very frustrating working conditions.
Allen arranged for more dynamic shots of the Jupiter 2 to be filmed and introduced the Space Pod, a landing craft that dropped from the spacecraft’s bay doors. He also hired composer John Williams to enhance the show with dramatic new music. The scripts shifted focus to highlight a different cast member each week, providing each character a chance to develop through more versatile stories.
The changes seemed to work and by the end of the third season Lost in Space was again on a ratings upswing. It wasn’t enough. CBS executives cancelled the series. Irwin Allen and the rest of the production team was informed of the cancellation only when a blanket notice was sent from the executive offices to the entire staff. He was outraged and immediately began to rally fans and supporters in the media to support a call to continue the series. The effort failed miserably. The core of the Lost in Space fanbase was still older children and young adults who could do little to influence the thinking of major studios. CBS executive Perr Lafferty allowed Allen one chance to detail how a fourth season would develop and instructed him to provide detailed story outlines. Instead, Irwin Allen arrived, talked about the show’s past strengths, and promised the next season would be the “best year ever”. The executives were not impressed. They confirmed the cancellation.
The Robinsons adventure had come to an end.
- written by Russell Sanders