“Star Trek was a show that aimed at your head. Lost in Space was a show that aimed at your heart.”
– Mark Goddard
This was one view expressed explaining the longevity of “Lost in Space” an Irwin Allen produced TV show about a family which was literally lost in space, which had its premiere on the CBS television network on the evening of today’s date, September 15, in 1965. I freely admit that this event was certainly not a great historical moment. But it was an important part of popular culture when I was a kid. So if you, my “Today in History” readers will indulge me for a few minutes, I would like to reminisce about one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I call it a favorite not because its production values, which were pretty poor by today’s standards. But the character of Dr. Zachary Smith played with pompous delight by the actor Jonathan Harris made the show frankly hilarious fun to watch. An “iconic” character in TV history? Maybe not, but he certainly was iconic for me!
The Original Story of “Lost in Space”
The original story was set in the year 1997. Earth at this time is vastly overpopulated, so a family – the Robinsons are selected for a mission which sends them to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri
star system in hopes of establishing a colony where other earthlings can settle. Professor John Robinson, his wife Maureen, their children (Judy, Penny and Will) and Major Don West are sent on their space craft – the Jupiter 2, to investigate this possibility. But an agent is sent by an enemy government to sabotage the mission; one Dr. Zachary Smith. But the hapless Dr. Smith in the process winds up being trapped on the ship when she takes off. As a result of Smith’s excess weight the ship runs into a meteor shower, and the Jupiter 2 and all aboard are thrown way off course and she, and the Robinsons, Major West, and Dr. Smith all become lost in space, and now must find their way home to earth.
The Dr. Smith, the Robot and the Robinsons
The show’s original concept focused on the Robinson family. But the character of Dr. Smith (below) wound up as the primary foil and the source of most of the troubles. Initially conceived as a completely evil, saboteur, the character became a self-centered, scheming, and eternally
greedy man who provides comic relief for the more serious characters of the Robinson family (his original identity as an enemy agent was not mentioned again). But while always protesting his good motives ( “I’m innocent!!”), Smith always maintained a measure of good underneath his surface cowardice. He developed a friendly relationship with the boy – Will Robinson, played by Bill Mumy and an abusively working relationship with the Robot whom he is forever dismissing with his articulate tongue (“Silence, you babbling booby!”). But the basis for all of this was the Robinson clan – with the father John played by Guy Williams and his wife Maureen played by June Lockhart, providing gentle but firm parental guidance. Major Don West, the ship’s pilot, played by Mark Goddard was the male action hero who had a kind of romance going with the eldest of the Robinson children, Judy played by Marta Kristen. And Angela Cartwright as Penny and Will provided an innocent and trusting child’s eye view of life in space.
“Lost in Space”…. Lost in the TV Ratings
The show ran for three seasons, between September 15, 1965, and March 6, 1968, putting out a total of 83 episodes. The first season was in black and white, and the second and third seasons were in color. “Lost in Space” was Irwin Allen’s most successful television program. While the ratings were lackluster at the start, they improved by the second month. By January of 1966, “Lost in Space” was a top ten show, soundly topping its competition on the other networks.
When “Star Trek” premiered in September 1966 on NBC, there were inevitable comparisons between the two. Trek maintained a fairly serious science fiction focus, but by its second season “Lost in Space” had become a kind of parody of science fiction. The ratings began to suffer, and LIS dropped out of the top 20. And it has been said that Guy Williams and Mark Goddard were unhappy with the shift in emphasis to Dr. Smith and away from serious sci-fi. In the third season the show took on a more adventurous sci-fi bent with the crew of Jupiter 2 visiting different planets every week and the shift back to science fiction produced some of the better episodes o the series. But the shift didn’t hold – one of the worst episodes of the series, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” (above) came late in that season. Amid talk of declining ratings and escalating production costs the show was cancelled in early 1968.
“Never Fear… SMITH is here!!”
The main reason why I’ve made this TV show the subject of a Blog is that I had soooo many enjoyable moments watching it. The over-the-top performances by Jonathan Harris as the scoundrel Dr. Smith made it one of the happiest parts of my childhood. Now tell me, any of you who watched this show: can you recall with the same hilarious reaction I always had these signature Dr. Smith lines: “Oh my back! My delicate back!!”, or “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH MEEEE?!” , or the slimy greed exuded by this one: “Did you say… diamonds??”
The man was a textbook hypochondriac, a sniveling coward, and as greedy as they come. And yet, he loved the Robinson children. A main idea in the show was that although he was a stowaway, it had been his excess weight on board that not only drove the Jupiter 2 far off course and hence “Lost”, it had also pulled them from a collision course with a huge meteor that would have killed everyone aboard. Nevertheless in an episode wherein Smith went back in time and had a chance to avoid getting left on board, he stays. All the time crying that “Wild horses couldn’t pull me back onto that ship!!” he sees Penny and Will boarding, and knowing that without his presence aboard that they will die in the meteor crash, he runs aboard at the last minute. Yes, as he said countless times with Dr. Smith’s usual mock bravado:
“Never fear…. SMITH is here!!”