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Against the Odds: Netflix Brings Lost in Space to WonderCon

Something old is made new in Netflix's re-imagined "Lost in Space." Last Saturday afternoon, the pilot premiered at WonderCon in the Anaheim Convention Center's Arena before the panel discussion. For fans of the original series, the first episode featured a little Easter Egg, one that not even all the reporters at the round tables initially caught (so be sure to read the credits).

With actor/writer Clarke Wolfe moderating, the panel featured executive producer Zack Estrin and cast members Toby Stephens, Molly Parker, Max Jenkins, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Ignacio Serricchio, and Parker Posey. Panel members were joined by writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, and executive producers Kevin Burns and John Jashni for the press round tables with Nathan Fillion dropping in to talk about another Netflix series, "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

For what Wolfe called "an epic family adventure" during the panel, Estrin noted that the producers "didn't want to do this show if we couldn't do it right." The writers looked back at the 83-episode original series, completely bypassing the 1998 Stephen Hopkins-directed movie with William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman. Roger Ebert called that movie “a dim-witted shoot-‘em-up” despite his love for the novel “The Swiss Family Robinson.”

If you were fond of the episodic, idealized family, and the campy, hysterics and alliterative insults of Dr. Zachary Smith from the 1965 series, you will be in for a disappointment. The Irwin Allen-created series that began with established stars Guy Williams and June Lockhart as the parents John and Maureen Robinson in a Swiss Family Robinson-in-space scenario, ended with more focus on the machinations of sometime saboteur Smith (Jonathan Harris) and his relationship with the youngest Robinson, Will (Bill Mumy), and the Robot.

In this new series, there is a robot, and it will utter the line, "Danger, Will Robinson,” and a Debbie will make an appearance (no bloops as far as the fifth episode), but it isn’t clear who made the robot and where the robot came from. Like the movie, this series has a darker tone.

In the Netflix series, the Robinsons are no longer a family isolated in space with three outsiders: Don West, Dr. Smith and the robot. Estrin explained, “One thing it is clear is that these aren't the only people who end up on the planet. One major change from the original is this family encounters other people. The Robinsons weren't the only ones on the [mother] ship” and the series features “a big international cast.” The earth is engulfed in a thick, poisonous haze and only those who can pass certain tests are chosen to become part of a new colony. Before the Robinsons reach the colony, they crash land on an unknown planet with similar atmosphere as earth but some very different flora and fauna. This is a different family for an audience that is over 50 years away from the original viewers and the series takes place 30 years in the future (2046). And different times requires different characterizations.

Toby Stephens, who plays father John Robinson, has experience playing a leader under adversity; from 2014-2017, he was pirate Captain Flint in “Black Sails”—a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel “Treasure Island.” What he likes about John is he’s part of a “real modern family.” He explained, “He has faults; he is not some ideal parent. He’s trying to be the ideal parent; he’s struggling to be better.” And he draws from his own experience parenting.

As his wife, Molly Parker, who played widow Alma Garret in “Deadwood,” noted, “I love the original. I certainly love the original Maureen, but we obviously are in a different time in terms of gender dynamics. All the girls and the women on the show are strong. It is not even a question. It’s not a rah-rah girl power thing. It is just a reality.” This is “30 years in the future” and “a reality we’d like to see in terms of class, race and gender.”

Filling out the family are Taylor Russell as oldest daughter Judy, Mina Sundwall as sarcastic middle-child Penny and Max Jenkins (“Sense8” and “Betrayal”) as Will. For fans of the original series, part of the suspense in the first five episodes will be seeing how the writers get the Robinsons together with Smith (Parker Posey) and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Maureen, Smith and West have a backstory of cheating the system in this iteration and from the beginning, Maureen and John seem to be in a marriage careening toward a bitter end.

But, as with the original, Will and his affection for the robot is an important feature. Jenkins knew “I have big shoes to fill; we all do.” And despite his tender years, he had heard the iconic “Danger, Will Robinson” line before but on “Family Guy.” He got to meet Mumy and “We bonded over Pete Seeger and comic books,” he confessed to the Arena audience. Later during the press round table, he admitted his favorite hero was Captain America and he’s hoping to meet the current captain, Chris Evans.

As Penny, Sundwall said that she’s an outsider, “this romantic soul, a literature buff, in this science family” but as the series goes on, she becomes "more comfortable and strong in herself.”

Russell’s character Judy faces a life-threatening situation early on which might bring nightmares to people with claustrophobia. She admitted during the filming it “did really feel constricting in every way possible” and she did experience some anxiety.

During the press round tables, Sharpless explained this isn’t like one of those adventure TV programs or movies where something horrific happens and the people will be “making jokes and moving on.” The writers want to show that the traumatic experiences shook them and had consequences. Judy's harrowing experience is referenced in the subsequence episodes. In the end, this “Lost in Space” “should feel more like a 10-hour movie.”

In the first episode, Russell’s Judy appears to be swimming, but that is all green screen, with people in green suits. The guys who, Burns joked, looked like oversized oomph loompas, were throwing Russell around and looked more comical pre-CGI than the post CGI graceful. Yet the locations such as the beautiful forests and the glaciers are all real. Jenkins noted how lucky he was to be on top of a glacier as part of his job. Stephens and Parker both noted that the wonder and enthusiasm that the kids feel can be inspiring.

While the original Don West, played by Mark Goddard, seemed more like the pragmatic military man irritated by Smith, Serricchio’s West is a man with a plan, his own plan and a mouth constantly in motion. That’s a lot like him behind the scenes. One slip had to do with his lip, and a shaver. As he told it during the panel, “If I don't talk I get aneurysms because I have a lot I have to say.” That can be frustrating for makeup and hair. “We were joking around” and when he “turned around our hairstylist and goes up and takes off an entire chunk of my head (in the front). They had to make a wig.”

During the panel discussion, Serricchio noted that he and Posey’s Smith are more similar than in the original because they really look out for themselves and as a result, “keep at a distance” and “don’t trust anyone.” Serricchio’s West is strictly “blue-collar” and he would have been one of the people at the bottom of the Titanic. The original West was a military pilot with the rank of major.

Posey explained that “once you start conning, you can’t stop,” not only because you have to build on your lies, but also because of the high of getting away with it. Her Smith has a few secrets, some of which are revealed in the first five episodes, but Smith also has a plan that begins to form, particularly in reaction to West.

Serricchio’s West and Posey’s Smith meet as the mother ship is in peril and when they meet again under different circumstances, they are wary of each other. Serricchio commented that “Don West never met someone who has challenged him. He cannot read her at all and that’s worrisome” and as a result “he doesn’t feel as loose, funny and sarcastic.”

Sazama and Estrin emphasized that this version of “Lost in Space” goes back to the basis of the original. Sazama commented that “wanting to be with these Robinsons” and part of that family was “what the original fans connected to.”

Sharpless said this version is “more timeless” and emphasizes the notion that “if you use your intelligence, if you are brave as you can be, you can do anything.” And, after all, the family might have its flaws, but “Robinsons stick together.”

Ultimately, West and Smith will be drawn into the Robinson family and Estrin believes that what the Robinsons originally represented during the three-season run was hope; a family surviving against the odds and despite some dubious dealings by Smith. For this version, the main question the Robinsons will be wrestling with during the first season will be, according to Sazama, “Is this robot good or bad?”

“Lost in Space” is scheduled for release on Netflix April 13, 2018.


Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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