When you think of Classic TV from the 1960s that were sci-fi in nature, odds are that your mind will go to the original Star Trek and not necessarily Lost in Space. But this show was the more family-oriented, campy drama that followed the adventures of the Robinson family (plus a couple of non-relatives) — and which is being reborn as a new Netflix series. Sent from Earth to explore the potential of another habitable planet, their mission is sabotaged and they find themselves… well, lost in space. But what they found were generations of fans who have celebrated the show for all these years. One was Kevin Burns, a producer who fell in love with the series and has carried the torch, putting together the massive 50th Anniversary Blu-ray complete series set in 2015 (with an unbelievable amount of extras), and who serves as executive producer of the reboot that launches on April 13 on the streaming site.
Bill Mumy, who played young Will Robinson on the series, and who, with the rest of the cast, sat down to talk with us about Lost in Space said, “Kevin Burns, who has kept the flames burning for a quarter of a century now, really worked himself to the bone to make sure no stone was unturned and every little cool thing he could fit was included on the Blu-ray, and it really is amazing to rewatch the show.”
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Adds Angela Cartwright, who played Will’s sister, Penny, and whose credits include The Danny Thomas Show and The Sound of Music, “What I think about is that we could have very well just melted into the past. It would be so easy to do, because how often does someone come in and love a show and nurture it to the point of the 50th Anniversary and then actually get people excited about it again? And recognize that there’s a fan base for it.”
The show stars Guy Williams as Dr. John Robinson, patriarch of the family, commander, pilot and astrophysicist specializing in applied planetary geology; June Lockhart (star of the Lassie TV series) as Dr. Maureen Robinson, biochemist wife of John, but overall pretty much a typical housewife and mother of the time, only, you know… in space; Mark Goddard as Major Don West, military pilot of the Jupiter 2 spaceship; Marta Kristen as Judy, oldest child of the Robinsons, and briefly a romantic interest for Don West; Angela as Penny, middle child of the Robinsons, about 13 when the show begins; Bill (then Billy) as Will, youngest Robinson child, who eventually become a focal point of the show along with Jonathan Harris’OH GOD LOVEL Dr. Zachary Smith, initially a saboteur of the mission who inadvertently finds himself trapped with them and evolves into the show’s comic relief; and Bob May physically bringing the Robot to life, with Dick Tufeld providing the voice. There to help the Robinsons, Robot often went off on silly adventures with Will and Smith.
For Marta, Lost in Space quite literally was a dream come true. “I was from Norway,” she explains. “I was adopted when I was five. My adopted parents, who were teachers, would drive me to the studio at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, and I would think to myself, ‘Here I am. I was an orphan, now here I am in show business. I’m going to the set at 20th Century Fox. I cannot believe my good fortune.’ Then I would get there and would be treated so well. It really was a dream. It was just hard to believe that I was in that situation, because I’d always wanted to act. My mother said that when I got off the plane from Norway, and when they picked me up in New York, I got off the plane walking like Charlie Chaplin.”
Smiling, and making no secret of the affection he feels for his co-star, Mark adds his own memories: “It’s always the fun I had with Bill Mumy on the show. I’m a prankster, and Bill came along with me during my pranks, because I had him with me in case I got in trouble. See, if I had Billy with me, I wouldn’t get in trouble, because he was the star of the show more than anybody else.”
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Which is an important point to make about Lost in Space. As previously noted, it started off pretty seriously, especially in Season 1, but then something happened and the focus shifted. Dr. Smith, established as the villain, became a comic buffoon who would get involved in adventures with Will and the Robot. That trio became the heart of the show, much to the detriment of the others in some ways, and this was a rare opportunity to address that with the cast.
“Even though I had a lot to do, I actually was very happy with the first season; it’s by far my favorite,” Bill comments. “I’m sure the rest of the cast would feel the same way. But what’s interesting to note is that, historically speaking, when we went into color — season one was black and white — with the campy, fantasy, pop art episodes, our ratings improved. I think Batman [the Adam West series that debuted in 1966] was a big shakeup for us. It was our opposition at the same time and we had to deal with that. But I’m proud to say that Lost in Space was on before Batman, and was still on after Batman had phased out and was canceled. But Batman definitely affected the change in our show. Also, we were on in the family hours. We went on from 7:30-8:30 on CBS, and CBS had an absolutely powerful mandate that there was nothing to scare little children in that hour. And they had some complaints during the first season, because it was kind of dark — well, relatively speaking, dark.”
(Photo Credit: 20th Television)
Angela admits, “I don’t think I fully realized that there was going to be this big sort of change until it aired in the second season, and then it was, like, ‘Wow, this is like a whole new show.’ I mean, I knew my costume was brown in the black and white shows and all of a sudden it was orange. But the show did take on this kind of different feel about it. And probably the second season is my least favorite. I love third season; I thought there were some really cool things in that.”
Mark, humorously, didn’t feel much of a change. “It was what it was and when it changed… it was still was what it was. Maybe you did,” he shrugs, looking at the others, “but I didn’t. I worked with the family and Jonathan, so except for the costume changes, I wasn’t aware that anything changed.”
One person most definitely aware of the change was Marta, who suddenly found that she didn’t have much to do anymore. She explains that when initially contacted about the show, she turned producer Irwin Allen down out of concern that with an ensemble of that size, she would just be standing around. The producer showed her a variety of storylines involving Judy, and she changed her mind.
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“In the beginning.” she says, pointing to Mark, “we had a really nice relationship and I thought it was going in a good direction. So I was very disappointed in not having anything to do in the second and third years. It was no longer ‘Space Family Robinson’. It did become about the Robot and Dr. Smith. I think part of the reason was because the writers found it very easy to write for that. It was much harder to write for the family dynamic as a whole. And Jonathan made it very easy. He was a wonderful actor and a wonderful person. He would rewrite most of his scenes. He did all the alterations; things like referring to the Robot as a ‘Bubble-headed booby.’ He just instinctively knew that if he continued to be the serious villain on the show, rather than what he became — the villain with a heart of gold — he wouldn’t have survived on the show.”
But whatever direction the show went in, all of them (particularly Marta and Bill) are aware that it managed to capture the imagination of the audience during its run and long afterward.
(Photo Credit: 20th Television)
“There was, I think, an element of the show where each of us had something that everyone could watch and enjoy,” offers Marta. “I mean, young guys would like Penny and myself. Mark would be the hero for another group of kids. And Bill, of course, and the Robot and Doctor Smith, everybody loved.”
Bill closes, “Kids and robots in space is a wonderful arena to let your imagination loose in. And in the three years we coverered a lot of territory; a lot of different styles. You can look at Lost in Space from almost three different perspectives. The black and white/ensemble perspective; that campy fantasy ridiculous humor, almost Three Stooges-esque element of Smith, Robot and Will in the second season. And then the third season, more or less a melding of both of those, where half the cast was playing it very straight again, and Jonathan was still over the top, playing it comedically. So it works on all three levels, and I can say without hesitation it was always a pleasant place to go to work. The fact that it had and continues to have so many fans is just a bonus.”
And to bring yourself up to speed, what follows is a timeline for the franchise, from before the original series right through the new Netflix show.
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