Pawing through pop culture’s never-ending garage sale, Netflix has come up with a conspicuously big but dissatisfyingly flat remake of “Lost in Space,” Irwin Allen’s initially serious, then kitschy 1960s sci-fi TV series based on a comic book that was itself based on an early 19th-century novel called “The Swiss Family Robinson,” about a family shipwrecked in the East Indies.
Even “The Swiss Family Robinson” borrowed a little from a novel that preceded it by a century, Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” which is another way of noting that Western civilization is basically just a remake on top of a remake on top of a remake. In the hype surrounding America’s race to the moon, the Robinsons became a Space Family, marooned among the stars; they lasted 83 episodes before succumbing, in part, to their sworn prime-time enemies, “Batman” and “Star Trek.”
The new “Lost in Space” (all 10 episodes premiere Friday) is visually adequate but substantially thin, a stack of matzoh crackers where one hoped for frosted Pop-Tarts. Set 30 years in the future, the series stars Toby Stephens and Molly Parker as John and Maureen Robinson, a couple on the verge of divorce. He’s a military man whose extended absences from home have distanced him from his wife and three kids; she’s an astrophysicist, ready to move on.
The Robinsons — including bickering sisters Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) and their sensitive kid brother, Will (Maxwell Jenkins) — are approved to join a select group of colonists who will leave an irreparably polluted Earth and travel to a hospitable planet that orbits Alpha Centauri.
In a misfire of story structure, we join the Robinsons in the first episode already en route to Alpha Centauri; “Lost in Space” leans on flashbacks to fill us in on their personal backstories, but not enough to give the characters a necessary vitality. Disaster strikes the Resolute, the mother ship on which they’re traveling, and the colonists evacuate on their assigned family shuttles to a nearby planet. The uncharted planet seems at first like an REI member’s dream — snowy mountain peaks, gravelly deserts and lush forests with fields of flowers that bloom when you clap.
Trouble abounds, of course: While the Robinsons struggle to free their ship from a frozen glacial lake, Will makes a new friend: a deadly, superstrong robot of mysterious origin, which reboots itself to become his sworn protector and learns those crucial three words: Danger, Will Robinson. (Besides some rusty lunch pails, that catchphrase is just about only surviving memento from the original show.)
Soon enough, the Robinsons encounter other survivors from the Resolute, including a cunning pseudo-psychologist named Dr. Smith (Parker Posey, always cast as the snake!), who lied her way onto the Resolute’s manifest and — true to the original male character from the ’60s series — can’t be trusted as she schemes to make certain of her own survival.
Then as now, “Lost in Space’s” biggest problem is tone, which unfortunately makes it the perfect show for Netflix, where anything goes in the attempt to make everything stick.
Setting aside the fact that this “Lost in Space” is unforgivably predictable, badly written and slow as Christmas, it also suffers from a lack of clear intent: Is it meant for kids and teenagers, mainly? (And if so, does that forgive the clunky dialogue and stiff acting?) Is it meant as an homage to the original? (Thus pardoning a messy mix of genres?) Is it just another piece of Netflix content that doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be?
On the matter of the show’s intended age group, I’m not opposed to blurred lines. Book publishers have spent a couple decades profitably encouraging grown-up readers to help themselves to a whole catalogue of appealing novels classified as “YA” (young adult), while collectively tuning out armies of critics who fret about an encroaching childishness in mass culture. If you’re still bothered by those distinctions, let me assure you that horse has left the barn, not only in books but also in movies, where superheroes and Jedi reign.
Netflix, which has surely noticed that its younger users are among its most active and omnivorous, has started make more shows that seem to eschew the old boundaries between adult and kid material. Recent examples include “13 Reasons Why,” “Atypical,” “American Vandal,” “Everything Sucks!” and “On My Block.”
“Lost in Space,” on the other hand, never stops to consider that viewers don’t like being underestimated or overestimated, and what I’m getting at here goes beyond industry ratings and parental guidelines. There’s a difference between the much longed-for “family programming” and shows that fail to engage on any level.
Instead, “Lost in Space” has a problem with marketing, promotion and, most of all, vision — which remains Netflix’s biggest creative struggle. From the way “Lost in Space” has been advertised, it seems like a big-tent TV extravaganza, crash-landing in your viewing queue with lots of promise but no clarity. Is it different from the original? Is it better than the tepidly received 1998 movie remake? Is it for you, or is it for your kids? And which kids — the little ones or the college dropout?
All of you. Netflix believes that you’re all supposed to watch “Lost in Space,” primarily because it’s on Netflix, and Netflix has it all — and, in a lot of homes, Netflix is now all that you have.
In a weird and almost counterintuitive way, what Netflix is doing bears a passing resemblance to the earlier days of television, when there were a limited number of networks and all programming was meant for the whole family to enjoy. The old “Lost in Space” aired on CBS in prime-time’s earliest slot, well before bedtime (preceding “The Beverly Hillbillies”), carrying a strong allure for young viewers who were certain it was made just for them — and any older siblings and adults who might have been in the living room.
Only recently have we grown-ups expected, for our monthly fee, the kind of TV that is aimed right at us: the sexy, violent, complicated, astonishingly smart and deeply thematic shows about drug dealers, mobsters, serial killers, counterterrorism agents, medieval dragons, cowboy robots and so on. Netflix makes shows like that, too (“House of Cards” was its signature debut), but it increasingly makes the mistake of lumping all its content together, from conception to promotion. It’s making so many shows that it’s grown lazy about finessing them and getting them in front of the right eyeballs.
You can dress up “Lost in Space” in all manner of nifty special effects and clever updates, but the stink of its mediocrity is immediately apparent, as is the clumsiness of its broad intent: It’s asking everyone to gather round a medium that nobody gathers round anymore. It’s a kids’ show disguised as a grown-ups’ show, and it’s unlikely to entertain either.
Lost in Space (10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.