Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Lost in Space season 3

The first season of Lost in Space had been a ratings bonanza. Ratings dropped disastrously in the second season. The third season which began airing in late 1967 was an attempt to repair the damage by changing direction. It worked up to a point. The ratings improved substantially but not enough to prevent cancellation.

Lost in Space had painted itself into a corner early on. Dr Smith, the robot and Will Robinson had established themselves in the first season as the most popular characters and that pretty much locked the series into a comedic kids’ show formula. Those three characters came to completely dominate proceedings and the other characters were left with very little to do. The problem was that the comic team of Dr Smith and the robot proved to be much too much of a good thing. Their repartee became predictable and repetitious.

The decision early on in season one to maroon the party on a single planet also turned out to be a major weakness. It became boring and the constant procession of alien visitors to this obscure planet seemed far-fetched. It encouraged storylines that were rather silly and it encouraged a Monster of the Week approach.

Season three’s solution was to get the Jupiter 2 operational again and get the Robinsons back into space. That offered opportunities for a lot more excitement and for stories that are more varied and felt a bit more genuinely science fictional. There was also an attempt to give the series a marginally more serious tone. Not consistently but at least some episodes were less overtly silly. The scripts were also generally better.

There was still the problem that too many episodes were built almost exclusively around the Dr Smith-robot-Will trio. That problem was never solved. One obvious solution would have been a romance between Major West and Judy Robinson but Irwin Allen refused to consider this, feeling it was inappropriate in a kids’ show. Which is odd since it always seemed fairly obvious that Judy was included in the crew for that very purpose and in very early first season episodes there are certainly hints of such a romance. And if you watch the original pilot, No Place to Hide, there is no question that there’s a budding romance between these two characters. It’s fairly clear that Irwin Allen’s original conception for the series was that it would be a science fiction series aimed at a broad audience rather than just children and that it would include a romance angle. It seems to be another case of the series getting painted into a corner. Its initial success with younger viewers made Allen less and less willing to risk a slightly more grown-up tone.

It’s a definite weakness is that the two younger female characters are pushed too much into the background. Penny is arguably the most likeable single character in the show and the few episodes in which she gets to take centre stage are usually pretty good. And in Marta Kristen (who plays Judy) they had a genuine blonde bombshell on their hands who could have been one of the great TV science fiction sex symbols. There’s really only one episode in this third season in which she gets to do the sex kitten thing, and she does it pretty memorably.

The third season is marginally more interesting visually simply because it gets the Robinsons off that wretched planet. We do at least see the Jupiter 2 traveling through space. Most of the new planets they find look just like the old one but at least some stories take place on alien spacecraft or space stations which adds a bit of variety.

When judging Lost in Space you do have to remember that it was targeted at a young audience so while the humour can be a bit cringe-inducing it’s the sort of thing that kids love.

There are some terrible episodes and there are some very good episodes and some of the good episodes are extremely interesting and provide tantalising glimpses of what might have been. Flight Into the Future shows what Marta Kristen could have done had she been given the chance to actually do something.

And there are even more tantalising hints that perhaps at least some of the writers hoped to make Dr Smith a slightly more rounded and much more interesting character. There’s an episode in which Dr Smith, as usual, is in a total panic to save himself. But oddly enough he wastes valuable time (which could have been employed in running away) trying to save Penny. The only plausible explanation is a momentary flash of chivalry. He intends to save his own skin but he can’t just leave a thirteen-year-old girl to her fate. And in Time Merchant we see very definite signs of honourable behaviour by Dr Smith. In this case he is actually willing to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of the rest of the crew. And, intriguingly, once again the motivating factor seems to be chivalry. He would cheerfully sacrifice the lives of Professor Robinson or Major West, but he can’t stand the thought of being cold-bloodedly responsible for sacrificing Penny and Judy. In his own mind Dr Smith is a hero, and heroes don’t betray the trust of innocent girls.

And there is a third episode, The Space Primevals, in which Dr Smith behaves with a considerable degree of decency and courage. There does seem to have been a slowly dawning realisation that Dr Smith needed to be made a bit more three-dimensional.

Episode Guide

Condemned of Space kicks off the third season and it’s an immediate sign of a change of direction for the series. A comet is on a collision course for the planet but that’s no problem since the Jupiter 2 is fully operational. They take off but they still have to dodge the comet and a passing supernova, and rescue the robot who is floating in space. And then they find an alien spaceship. It’s a prison ship, filled with deep-frozen prisoners, but they’re not deep-frozen for long once Dr Smith gets up to his usual bungling. There’s plenty of excitement and there’s a much more science fiction feel to this story compared to earlier seasons. There’s also a guest appearance by the robot from Forbidden Planet, as a prison guard. It’s all fast-paced fun. A very fine episode.

Visit to a Hostile Planet is another promising indication of the show’s change in direction. For starters there’s once again an actual science fiction concept - the Jupiter 2 goes out of control and approaches the speed of light. They get back to Earth but they discover it’s Earth in 1947. And the locals think they’re alien invaders and start shooting at them. Dr Smith makes matters worse by deciding that he can use his more advanced scientific knowledge to make himself supreme ruler of the 1947 inhabitants of Earth. There’s some of the campy tongue-in-cheek flavour of earlier seasons but there’s reasonable plot and we see a new side of John Robinson - when Judy is captured by the locals he threatens to blow their entire town into oblivion.

It’s nice to see Marta Kristen actually getting something to do. Another clever touch is the choice of 1947. That was about the time the flying saucer craze started up and since the Jupiter 2 looks exactly like a flying saucer we now know that it was responsible for the craze. All in all it’s a very decent episode.

In Kidnapped in Space Dr Smith rashly answers a distress call from an alien spaceship and gets captured, and gets everybody else captured as well. The aliens want him to do brain surgery on their leader (he even more rashly assured them he was a medical doctor). It’s not a bad episode, with the giant clock alien being an amusing touch.

Hunter's Moon is one of the countless TV and movie scripts to be inspired by Richard Connell's 1924 story The Most Dangerous Game about a hunter who finds hunting people to be more satisfying than hunting animals. In this instance John Robinson finds himself as the hunted after a crash landing on an unknown planet. It’s a reasonably entertaining story.

The Space Primevals is a goofy kind of story about a prehistoric tribe that is being subjected to artificial evolution by a super-computer. And a volcano is about to blow the tribe, and the Jupiter 2 and the planet to oblivion. Despite the campy nonsense this episode does do a couple of extremely interesting things. Firstly it separates Dr Smith from the robot. Instead Dr Smith and Major West spend the entire episode off on their own doing things like getting imprisoned and facing certain death. Having Dr Smith doing all his interacting with someone other than the robot or Will is a very refreshing change. The second interesting thing it does is to put Dr Smith in a situation where he has to be heroic. Not voluntarily of course but if he wants to survive he’ll have to do some hero things. As a result of these two very sound plot devices the episode has an intriguingly different feel to it. Dr Smith becomes a bit more believable and a bit more complex. And Don West becomes a bit more human. It’s enough to make this a successful episode despite its other flaws. And it’s a sign of the third season’s willingness to take a few chances.

Space Destructors is a return to the fairly tired formula of the previous season. Dr Smith finds a machine that makes cyborgs. And the cyborgs will serve him. He gets carried away with dreams of power but of course there’s a catch. The cyborgs that all look like slightly distorted versions of Dr Smith are a nice touch. Guy Williams gets to do an extended sword-fighting scene which must have brought back memories for the former Zorro star. A routine episode.

The Haunted Lighthouse is a lighthouse in space. It’s commanded by a doddery colonel who strangely enough seems to understand very little about the sorts of things you would need to know about to do such a job. The Robinsons end up there through the machinations of a strange alien boy whom Penny has befriended. It’s a lighthearted episode that manages not to be too silly and at least it gives Penny an all-too-rare important rĂ´le. It’s OK.

Flight Into the Future is an attempt to deal with cool science fictional themes. Dr. Smith, Will and the robot land on an unknown planet and there they find the wreck of the Jupiter 2, abandoned centuries before. They have travelled into the future, or at least that’s what appears to have happened. There’s some good creepy atmosphere in this story. The ending is a bit of a letdown although it could have been worse. It’s good to see Marta Kristen given something to do in this episode, playing a space babe from the future who happens to look uncannily like Judy Robinson. This episode at least tries to be a bit ambitious and it works reasonably well.

In Collision of Planets the planet on which the Jupiter 2 is currently temporarily stranded is scheduled for demolition - by a bunch of juvenile delinquent hippie space bikers. And Dr Smith gains green hair and super strength. It’s just as silly as it sounds. A truly awful episode.

The Jupiter 2 is back on the move in Space Creature. An encounter with a strange gas cloud proves to be a terrifying experience. Members of the Robinson expedition disappear one by one. And it’s the fear that proves to be the key. We also get to see a set that I’ve not seen before - the power centre of the Jupiter 2. A fairly decent story.

In Deadliest of the Species the crew of the Jupiter 2 find themselves in trouble with the galactic cops and the robot think he’s found love. The robot romance is of course played for some obvious laughs. A routine episode.

A Day at the Zoo is a bit too much like too many earlier Lost in Space episodes, with a galactic showman wanting to collect our space adventurers as exhibits for his travelling zoo. The best thing about this episode is that the two girls actually get something to do, and in particular Angela Cartwright as Penny gets to do some acting. The under-utilisation of Judy and Penny (both rather likeable characters) is one of the major weaknesses of Lost in Space.

Two Weeks in Space is a pure comedy episode, with Dr Smith tricked by aliens into turning the Jupiter 2 into a resort hotel. The aliens have taken humans form, with two of them being blonde party girl types. Dr Smith falls for one of the blondes, with predictable results. It’s all very thin but it has its amusing moments.

In Castles in Space the space castaways discover a frozen ice princess. Dr Smith accidentally thaws her out. The problem is the Mexican space bandit who is searching for her. It seems a reasonable supposition that he intends to hold her for ransom. Lots of rather uninspired silliness in this one, especially when the bandit gets the robot drunk.

The Anti-Matter Man is one of the more ambitious third season efforts. The Robinson expedition comes into contact with the anti-matter world, in which everything is the exact opposite of what it is in our world. So they have to deal with an evil Dr John Robinson and an evil Major West. This story has some actual science fictional elements and more surprisingly it even has an actual sense of menace. It’s even visually more interesting than most Lost in Space episodes. Guy Williams and Mark Goddard get to be really nasty bad guys. Even Will and the robot are much more interesting than usual. It’s the sort of thing they should have attempted more often. This is getting close to actual science fiction. A very very good episode.

Target: Earth has goofy aliens and a mixture of good and bad science fictional ideas. The bad is the hopelessly overused idea of exact duplicates. The good is the idea of an alien civilisation that is decaying because it’s too conformist and too afraid of challenges.

In Princess of Space Penny is daydreaming about princesses and fairytale adventures when suddenly space pirates show up and inform her that she really is a princess. The danger in telling a thirteen-year-old girl that she’s a princess is that she’s likely to believe you. The princess is needed to keep the rogue machines of the planet Beta under control. There are bit and pieces of good ideas in this story but they’re overwhelmed by incredibly silly ideas and the execution is pretty embarrassing. It’s always nice seeing Angela Cartwright get a chance to be at the centre of things and she does her best but she deserved better. Just too much silliness in this one.

Time Merchant is one of the most fascinating season three episodes. There are genuine science fictional elements involving not just time travel but the buying and selling of time. And Dr Smith gets to be genuinely heroic.

In The Promised Planet the Jupiter 2 finally reaches its destination, Alpha Centauri. But it’s not what they expected. They find a planet ruled by kids. It’s a pretty disturbing place. We get to see Penny go-go dancing, which is fine. We also get to see Dr Smith go-go dancing, which is not so fine. This one tries to satirise 60s youth culture, with at least some success. It does perfectly capture the combination of shallowness and spitefulness of the Flower Children. This episode is possibly Angela Cartwright’s finest moment in the series. Apart from the go-go dancing she is given the opportunity to give a subtle and sensitive performance as Penny is trapped between the seductive pleasures of  a world of carefree fun and her attachment to her family. Underneath the surface camp it’s actually not a bad episode.

Fugitives in Space sees Major West and Dr Smith convicted by an inter-galactic court for helping a prisoner to escape from a prison planet. Now that same prisoner wants to help them escape but Major West has a feeling this might be a bad idea. Some quite good alien makeup effects in this one but otherwise it’s pretty routine.

In Space Beauty that unscrupulous entrepreneur and showman Farnum B. Returns and he’s trying to persuade Judy to enter a galactic beauty pageant. The question is whether winning the contest would really be a good idea. And maybe she should have read the contract before signing it. A fairly silly episode but at least it’s one of the rare episodes in which Judy Robinson gets something to do.

The Flaming Planet is almost a great episode. Dr Smith’s tomato plant causes the spacecraft to crash on a planet which was once the centre of a mighty empire. Now there’s one warrior left but he still dreams of further military glory. It’s a good plot and it’s reasonably well developed but it’s let down by the excruciatingly awful and irritating plant creatures.

The Great Vegetable Rebellion is generally regarded as being the worst ever Lost in Space episode, although it has to be admitted that it has some stuff competition. This is the notorious talking carrot episode. Dr Smith pays an unauthorised visit to a planet that contains only vegetable life. Unfortunately for him these are intelligent vegetables. Even more unfortunately for him he is soon going to become an intelligent celery. This is all too typical of this series. The basic idea, of a planet on which plants have evolved intelligence, had potential but the treatment of the idea is irredeemably silly.

Junkyard in Space presents our intrepid spacefarers with a crisis. They are trapped on a junkyard planet and they have no food. The robotic junkman in charge of the planet makes a deal with Dr Smith but the price he demands is very high and can he be trusted? There’s really not much to say in favour of this uninspired episode. A disappointing end for both the season and the series.

Final Thoughts

The third season is the story of missed opportunities. Some good episodes, and some promising indications of a bit more character complexity, but too many episodes that are too silly and too campy. Still, it’s not an entirely bad season. Recommended for fans of the series.


  1. The Carrot Man alone is worth watching only for the silly factor, as much as Lobster Man from VttBotS.

  2. Hey, I just caught Hunter's Moon on DVR from a few weeks ago on ME-tv. You're right. Aside from the alien score-keeping robot, it's pretty darn good!