Friday 9 June 2023

Lost in Space (TV tie-in novel)

Lost in Space by Dave van Arnam and Ron Archer is as its name suggests a TV tie-in novel inspired by the classic TV series.

One intriguing thing about TV tie-in novels is that some are very close in spirit to the TV series while others are quite different. Some were commissioned at a time when only one or two episodes had gone to air. The novels sometimes reflected the original concept for the series, rather than the way the series actually turned out.

In this case the series premiered in 1965 and the novel was published in 1967 so I can only assume that the reason it differs so radically from the series is that it was a conscious decision on the part of the writers.

It is however worth observing at this point that Lost in Space was not conceived of as a silly goofy kids’ show. If you watch the pilot episode (No Place to Hide) or, even more to the point, the first few episodes of season one then it is plausible that the authors of the novel decided to make that very early version of the series the basis for their novel.

It’s obvious that the authors were attempting to write not just serious science fiction, but Big Ideas science fiction.

Some of the characters also differ markedly from their television counterparts. Especially Dr Smith. The Dr Smith of the novel is a serious scientist and he’s not the least bit lazy. He’s also not especially treacherous. He’s not even all that cowardly. He does have some megalomaniacal tendencies, which the TV version of the character doesn’t really have, at least not to anywhere near the same extent.

The authors also decided that the Robot would be groping towards acquiring independent decision-making abilities, which is certainly not the case in the TV version.

It’s also obvious that the only characters in whom the authors are interested are Dr Smith and Professor Robinson, and to a much lesser extent Don West and the Robot. Maureen Robinson becomes a very minor character. Will, Penny and Judy are even more minor characters. I suspect that the authors marginalised Will and Penny because they didn’t want to be seen as writing a science fiction novel for kids.

There is some of the familiar verbal sparing between Dr Smith and the Robot but the relationship between the two is overall quite different. In the novel the Robot’s function is not to provide comic relief. The relationship between Professor Robinson and Dr Smith is very different.

One positive thing about the novel is that it takes advantage of a huge advantage that novels have over TV series - the ability to operate on a truly epic scale. The novel takes the form of a series of three linked short stories and not one of those stories could have been attempted with a 1960s television budget.

In the first story the crew of the Jupiter II find a city that seems to have been home to an advanced civilisation but the planet is now deserted. Deserted, apart from a large number of robots and a central computer, all of which are dedicated to maintaining the city for the benefit of its non-existent inhabitants. The first mystery to be solve is obviously the lack of living inhabitants. There’s a second mystery - the central computer is hiding something very important and appears to be hopelessly conflicted over its own deceptions. It is now neurotic and guilt-ridden.

In the second story our spacefarers find a planet which is home to intelligent life, but it seems to take the form of a kind of hive mind.

The third story is even more ambitious. Our space adventurers find a vast city which turns out to be rather old. Billions of years old. And the history of this planet is somehow intertwined with Earth’s history and its destiny may be linked to Earth’s as well.

And Dr Smith believes he has finally gained what he aways wanted - the power to be a galactic emperor. Of course he’ll need an empress, and he feels that Judy Robinson would be an ideal choice. The prospect of marriage between Dr Smith and Judy is certainly something you wouldn’t have seen in the TV series,

If you’re looking for a novel that captures the feel of the TV series then you’re going to be pretty disappointed. About the only things it really has in common with the series are the names of the characters and the name of the spaceship. If that bothers you then you definitely should avoid the novel.

If you approach it merely as a science fiction novel then it’s not too bad. It grapples with big ideas with reasonable success. If you’re content with that then it’s not a bad read.

So I can’t really say whether I recommend it or not - it depends so much on what you’re looking for.

I’ve mentioned the origins of the series. I’ve reviewed the pilot episode Lost in Space - No Place to Hide and the first few episodes of the first season and they’re very much worth seeing as a glimpse of what the TV series could have been like.