This past Friday, Renee, Ethan, Jessica and I made a date to watch the first two episodes of Netflix’s new Lost in Spaceseries. I was guardedly excited. I love Lost in Space, the original, classic, 1965 – 1968 series, campy, silly, scientifically inaccurate as it is. The show had heart, especially early on, before it became a Vaudeville showcase for the talents of Jonathan Harris, Bob May in the Robot suit, and Dick Tufeld providing the Robot’s voice. It was about a pioneer family who stuck together, looked out for each other, believed in morality and the Golden Rule. Its overarching message, delineated in the first season’s finale, was “Love. In all the universe, there is nothing stronger.”
In 1998, a disappointing attempt to revisit the adventures of the Space Family Robinson was brought to the big screen. Five of the original cast returned, with only Dick Tufeld taking on his original role voicing the Robot. It was neither a box office nor a critical success, and hoped-for sequels (hoped-for by the producers and pretty much no one else) never materialized.
In 2004, the CW commissioned a pilot, The Robinsons – Lost in Space, which was not picked up as a series, but was an enjoyable hour of television. Disappointment again, this time because the attempted reboot never got a chance to prove itself.
Last Friday, disappointment was blown out of the water. For me, anyway. I was so moved by the opening episode of this new series that I was literally in tears by the climax. These were not my childhood friends as I had known them, but this series had heart. This family stuck together, loved each other, and believed in morality, allowing them to overcome character flaws and weaknesses that 1960s television never dared expose in series regulars.
When the credits rolled, apart from annoyance at Netflix’s asinine habit of interrupting the end credits (and a new version of John Williams’s classic 3rdSeason theme!) to start the next episode immediately, all I felt was forgiveness.
I forgave Star Trek the Next Generation for being too politically correct.
I forgave Star Trek Deep Space Nine for being lethally boring.
I forgave Star Trek Voyager for being more Gilligan’s Islandthan Trek.
I forgave BSG for being too cynical and depicting a universe where clothing, sets and landscape could come in any color as long as it was brown or gray.
I forgaveStar Trek: Enterprisefor being, well, Star Trek: Enterprise.
I forgave Star Trek: Discoveryfor making me not care that it existed at all.
I forgave The Orvillefor fostering the belief that all science fiction fans—surely the most educated, most intelligent crop of people on Earth—should want to do is watch the same content over and over again.
I forgave the DC Expanded Universe movies for turning my childhood heroes into cold, unfriendly killers.
You might think I had held onto a lot of negative feelings for a very long time—since the late 1980s, anyway.
You might be right. Disappointment is a poisonous thing. We expect something. We might not even know we expect it, but we expect it all the same. That expectation isn’t met. We’re frustrated. We’re sad. We’re angry. We wanted something and we didn’t get it. And how much worse is it when we want something, we don’t get it, we get something else instead, and a lot of people are ecstatically happy with that other thing. Sometimes, they’re so ecstatically happy with that other thing that they identify what it was wewanted, and they rhapsodize on how wonderful it is that we didn’t get that thing.
Wow. That hurts. That’s frustrating. That makes us mad. It makes us mad at the people who delivered ‘B’ when we wanted ‘A,’ and it makes us mad at the people who wanted ‘B’ all along.
For instance, my first example up above—Star Trek: The Next Generation. I actually loved that show… at first. I was very defensive of it when others said, justifiably during its first season, that it was a weak attempted to re-capture lightning in a bottle. As time passed and its fame grew, however, even though the scripts got better, I, perversely, became disenchanted with it. The setting was too sterile. The characters felt limited, rehearsed, not quite human. Something was missing that had been there in the oldStar Trek.Maybe it was a sense of wonder. Maybe it was a willingness, on the part of the characters and their creators, to get their hands dirty. Maybe it was the fact that the original Star Trekhad been a brash voice, speaking out against a conservative authority, carefully treading the line of what television was allowed to say and what neededto be said. Meanwhile, STTNG wasthe voice of a more liberal authority, speaking down from its summit, telling people how to live their lives, making judgmental statements about its viewing audience, all the while lacking the guts to do anything as brave as feature a gay or bisexual character in a sympathetic light.
It was too damned safefor me, but a lot of people loved it. The ranks of fandom swelled. And that fandom began to condemn the Star TrekI loved, in particular the character of James T. Kirk and the actor who portrayed him, William Shatner. “Dated and camp,” they called the show. “Rash and dangerous” they called its lead character. “Bad actor,” they called its star.
I was angry. I felt isolated in fandom, especially when, in its big screen debut, STTNG killed James T. Kirk. Badly.
Similar attempts to recapture the spirit of a beloved property from the past ended similarly for me. They disappointed, and they were sometimes embraced by others.
So what’s different about Lost in Space, and why does it fill me with such joy that I can forgive all these past disappointments? Isn’t this just a case of me finally liking one of the reboots or continuations, just like other people liked some of the others? Aren’t I just filled with the milk of human kindness because something finally got through my thick skull and made me say, “Oh, that’s good!”?
I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why.
The new Lost in Spacecaptures the spirit of the original, without slavishly imitating it, without declaring that there was something wrong with the original, without being stopped in its tracks by fear.
STTNG was constrained, especially at the outset, and to some extent throughout its life, by a presumed requirement to be the same as its predecessor in format. The Captain hadto be the star. There hadto be an outsider character who had trouble with emotion. The uniforms hadto be made in the three primary colors, and the ship hadto be a saucer on the front of a structure with two engine nacelles. Most stories had to be about a new planet, new race or new phenomenon.
This last was probably the most limiting. It often forced the writers to wrap problems in the last five minutes of the show, causing emotional and dramatic disappointment. It caused the writers to put plot ahead of character. (In 1990, Susan Sackett told an Oktobertrek audience something to the effect of, “Listen, we know you fansare interested in the personal lives of the characters, but we writers have interesting science fiction stories to tell.” I was convinced by wiser friends and better judgment not to call out, “So this will be a new direction for the series?”)
And the plot-over-character limit became more limiting. Before STTNG wrapped, the Powers That Be had redefined as Star Trekstory to be “A planet is going to be destroyed unless a scientific problem is solved by the crew, most likely Data and Geordi.” No, that’s not inference on my part. I was told that by an editor who oversaw Star Trek licensed products.
First the fans of the new show, and then the production team, turned against some of the tenets of the original. Or perhaps it was the production team to begin with, when they declared that the Captain on the new show would not be allowed to place himself in the line of fire. (He did.) Or that money no longer existed. (So they had to invent “Gold-pressed latinum.”) Or that the military was a full-employment project, dedicated to self-actualization, not war. (And then they went to war.) James Kirk was now a villain, because he wanted to help people, because he had a sense of right and wrong that outweighed rules and laws. He was characterized (unfairly) as a womanizer and a danger addict who always acted before he thought. Suggesting that maybe the contempt came more heavily from the production side, it was a test audience that put the skids on the idea of him dying by being shot in the back while saying, “The 24thCentury isn’t so hard!”
But above all, fear made STTNG a frustrating proposition for me. They were afraid to let Picard love Crusher, or Riker love Troi, at least until the series went to the big screen. They were afraid to let Wesley Crusher be a teenager with teenage feelings and behavior issues. They were even afraid to let Roddenberry’s late-life conversion to some flavor of New Age philosophy, which informed his creation of the show, actually set the tone. That was a healthy fear because, in the words of producer Maurice Hurley, Roddenberry’s philosophy was “Wacky Doodle.” But they made enough references of it to annoy the more mature members of the audience while simultaneously convincing the less mature that “Wacky Doodle” was what Star Trekhas always been about.
The result was a mess. Sometimes entertaining. Too often disappointing.
Forgiveness can happen once some expectation ismet. It can also happen once the original, unmet expectation is understood. So there’s an example of some of my unmet expectations. What are my metones, and how did they show me what was missing?
If lack of originality, a sense of rejection and fear were my problems, what was I expecting? Their opposites, one presumes.
I was expecting something fresh, something that expanded the universe, something that gave me, not exactly what I had received in the past, but morethan I had received. Star Trek, and science fiction in general, rewarded their audiences with a sense of wonder. It’s a sense that, gee, the universe is big, and it’s exciting, and you never know what might happen next. Star Trekbrought us beings made of silicone, beings made of energy, beings that fed off of emotion, androids who were millennia old, races on the verge of extinction. It showed us love, obsession, tragedy and fear. It taught us that there were alien ways of thinking that were still valid, that a perfectly rational, hyper-intelligent man could feel lonely and incomplete, that a murdering monster just might be a mother protecting her children, and that wemight look like murdering monsters to someone else.
Anything could happen. But when STTNG and all of its successors began to revisit the Star Trek universe, they made it smaller. The made it formulaic. Only a handful of things could happen, and we knew what they all were. They even—repeatedly—capped off the lives of our beloved characters and told us they had been in limbo for decades since we last saw them (a trick they pulled on Kirk, Spock and Scotty.) The sense of wonder became a sense of frustration.
I was expecting that the creators and the other fans both loved what I loved. This one is the most personal, because, when the people responsible for continuing a story that once came alive for you show that they don’t actually value the original story, it’s like they’re saying you were wrong to love what you loved. That’s after you’ve (hopefully) gotten over the pain of watching someone other than you continue the story. Because, even if you’re not a writer, artist, director or actor, if you’re a fan, you’ve answered the question, “What happened then?” over and over again in your mind. And then, insult to injury, other fans, other people who claimed to love what you loved, embrace this thing that you find disrespectful to what you loved? That’s rejection. You were wrong to love what you loved.
Finally, I expected and wanted fearlessness. I wanted bravery. Change is scary. Aging is scary. Death is scary. But they all happen. The thing I loved when I was too short to reach the freezer door and too young to shave is no more. That’s hard to accept. It still lives in my mind, but, in the outside world, it’s gone, and I have to deal with that. I expect, I neednew creators to tell me that it’s okay to love something else. Being afraid to let characters grow, being constrained by formula, being afraid to offend anyone, falling back on makeup and special effects and war stories to hold an audience, none of these things say that it’s okay to love something new. That’s especially true when they don’t validate your old love. That’s like having a spouse who wants you to not only abandon but forget your parents, and then doesn’t fulfill your need for love.
Lost in Space‘s first episode fulfilled my ancient expectations. The sense of wonder was back. By showing me a family that looks like families I know now—parents who aren’t sure their marriage is still viable, children who have trouble coping with their parents’ flaws, children who are afraid of not meeting expectations—it grounded me in reality. Then it pitched me into space. But the contrast between a harsher reality and a new world made space again big, frightening, awe-inspiring.
There were no moments, no gestures, no plot points which said, “That old Lost in Spacewas silly, or scientifically inaccurate, or crudely mounted. In other words, there were no moments which seemed to say, “You were wrongto love the old show.” Indeed, the very existence of this show, produced by longtime fan Ken Burns, says that there wassomething to be loved in the original, and, in that spirit, we’re going to go on an entirely new adventure with similarly named but different characters. There will be a villainous doctor, there will be a sympathetic robot, there will even be a pet named Debbie running around, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And bravery there was in plenty—especially in the creators not being afraid to place the characters in mortal danger, to make you really believe that, on a family show which is a tribute to a program where practically no important character everdied, one of the heroes might not make it through the first episode. You knewshe would, but you didn’t feel it until the resolution—perhaps the coolest damned deus ex machina in the history of theater—ran over you like a truck. This is a program not afraid to take chances, even as it works within constraints and expectations inherent to any remake.
This isthe Space Family Robinson, just not the one I used to know. And it doesn’t diminish my love and admiration for that old family one little bit. They are still the friends and imaginary playmates of my childhood, and this new fictional family is there to remind me how glorious it was to imagine myself among them all those decades ago.
The universe isbig and exciting.
What you loved, you were right to love.
Don’t be afraid—it’s okay to love something else.
Your expectations are met, and now you can forgive the unmet ones. Because now you see them for what they were. They’re quantified. Their shape is apparent. When you were little, and imagined being in love and married, you didn’t know what that person who would share your life with you would look like—until life showed you. When you thought about having children, you had no idea what kind of people they would be—until they came along and showed you. On a much simpler scale, you didn’t know what your favorite dish would be until you ate it. You only knew you were disappointed with all the ones that weren’tit, until it came along.
If you’ve never had any of these expectations met, I’m sorry. I truly hope, someday, you will. Until then, forgiveness must be awfully hard for you. Because forgiveness
is about acceptance—first of yourself, then of other people. And to accept yourself, you have to figure out who in the hell you are. Which means you have to figure out what you’re looking for, what your expectations are.
You might say that’s a lot to take away from fifty minutes of television.
But, hey, what were you expecting?
Right on the money, Steve.