Some remakes take a basic setting and create something wholly new (see Oceans 11), others remain true to the central premise and retain its originator’s best loved moments. In the opening episode of Netflix’s remake of Lost in Space, when a towering robot looks down at a young boy and recites the familiar line “Danger, Will Robinson”, we know we're somewhere in the latter category.
The original series was the epitome of popular Sixties television: tacky, wholesome, made on a shoestring, and embraced the science fiction futurism that came part and parcel with the space race.
In this new 10-parter written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (The Last Witch Hunter), the basic set-up remains the same: on an overpopulated, resource-drained Earth a few decades in the future, the Robinson family are selected to become pioneers who set out to colonise a habitable planet in the star system Alpha Centauri, unexpectedly accompanied by a hapless doctor who stowed away on their craft. But a crash throws them off course, leaving them lost on an unidentified planet.
It is a series that’s ripe for remake. Sixties television, though pioneering at the time, frequently fell back on plots that now seem both dated and deathly slow. In the old Lost in Space, giants could be killed by a single ray gun shot; the mother, despite being a scientist, would still be seen carrying around a plastic laundry basket, lest she accidentally wander too far outside her domestic role.
But the concept of a family being lost in space is one that flows with potential, providing fertile ground for a complex, multi-layered story with genuine jeopardy – which this new arrival does achieve, but only to a point.
Now the family aren’t the only ones going into space, they’re part of a large-scale group of colonisers who travel on a vast mothership and it’s their “pod” ship that crash lands, along with a handful of others. Parents John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen (Molly Parker), a soldier and an aerospace engineer, are married but separated, his long stretches away from the family having taken their toll. Their two daughters (Taylor Russell and Mina Sundwall) are also now both teenagers and closer in age (thus opening both up for potential romantic entanglements with dark, brooding young chaps).
Dr Smith, now a woman played by “indie film queen” Parker Posey, once again smuggles herself onto the ship by nefarious methods. The Robot, which here resembles a cross between the Terminator, Stranger Things’ Demogorgon and “Max” from Flight of the Navigator, is encountered on the alien planet, rather than travelling with them from Earth, and provides an underlying threat – its motivations and likelihood to commit violence not entirely clear. (Though its relationship with young Will Robinson, the precocious nine-year-old son played by Maxwell Jenkins, remains as heartwarming – if rather nerve-wracking – as ever.)
The world built by showrunner Zack Estrin is impressive, and there's no faulting the painstaking CGI. The flora and fauna of the new planet is rather more complex, though no more plausible, than those Sixties alien creations of chimpanzees and ostriches wearing costumes. Instead we have grass that changes colour at the sound of a clap, eels that feed on fuel, and rocks that rain down from the atmosphere during a storm. The costumes, too, are rather better suited to a venture into outer space: the silver lamé spacesuits, flimsy trousers and trendy Sixties fashion replaced by thermal outdoor coats and practical khakis.
To the possible relief of many parents, this is not squarely aimed at children, teenagers or adults. In the vein of Doctor Who, this is family entertainment, one that all generations can watch together. What was a common occurrence in the Sixties, it’s a rare thing in drama, these days. And though accusations of a lack of clarity may be laid at the show’s door, really, it’s okay to try to appeal to everyone. Adults like to indulge in nostalgia of their youth and children yearn to be older, after all.
The issue here is that the series lacks charm and a plot that grips. Stranger Things masterfully showed us how to blend otherworldly elements with family-friendly drama and comedy. The moments of jeopardy do often engross, though they're almost always brought about by one character wrongheadedly taking a risk. The rest frequently drags, an issue exacerbated by the often stilted, awkward dialogue between the characters, who too-often express their words in that quiet, serene manner that is over-used by actors but doesn’t actually happen all that often in real life.
Parker Posey is the worst culprit of this. She’s an excellent actress, and does creepy very well here, but is given too flat a character to work with. For too long her only motivations are ruthless greed and a survival instinct that comes to the detriment of everyone else – making her predictable.
In need of a diligent script editor and tighter direction, this remains a series with a lot of potential. But it craves a more creative force at the helm.