The pilot episode of Lost in Space captures the nostalgia of the original but leaves much room for improvement.
The highly anticipated reboot of the classic science-fiction show Lost in Space debuts on Netflix on April 13. The new version stars Mina Sundwall, Toby Stephens, familiar faces from Netflix’s 1922 and Wormwood, Molly Parker and Sense8’s Maxwell Jenkins, as well as Taylor Russell and Parker Posey.
I saw the first episode as part of an exclusive screening at the Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai. Here are my initial thoughts.
The Pilot Packs in a Lot
The episode begins with the Robinson family – parents John and Maureen, and children Judy, Penny and Will – aboard their spaceship, Jupiter 2. An unknown object crashes into the ship, pushing them off-course and forcing them to crash-land on an icy planet.
Once they land, the family assess the damage – they’re mostly okay but are cut off from their ship in an environment that fast becomes unfriendly.
The family’s primary aim is to stick together till help comes but when one of the children becomes trapped in the ice, the Robinsons have no choice but to split up. Father John and son Will head towards a source of help but they get separated from each other, as well, leaving John to decide between which child he should get to first.
Along the way, viewers get flashbacks to the Robinsons’ lives before they crash-land, as well as hints to the disquiet that has been brewing within the family.
There is also the introduction of a familiar robot, a gender-swapped scientist who will play a huge part in the rest of the season, and that iconic line of dialogue!
Great Visual Effects
From the spaceship to the planet that the protagonists crash on, the effects are outstanding. The green screen integration is seamless with the location shots and the sets are impeccably designed.
During the Q&A, Mina Sundwall, who plays Penny Robinson, told the audience that the sets were built to scale and included a great many visual details, more than viewers will be able to see. She also said there were a lot of buttons on the consoles of the Jupiter 2, which she thoroughly enjoyed fidgeting with.
Toby Stephens said that there was a fair amount of location shooting in Vancouver, which was complicated by the rain – Sundwall called the city ‘Rain-couver’ – and these location shoots were spliced into shots on the vast sets. Stephens compared the experience to his work on Black Sails, saying that after the long, arduous physical work on the Starz period drama, Lost In Space was much more enjoyable and less physically taxing.
Viewers will notice that the Robinson family spend a fair amount of time in their spacesuits in the first episode. The suits look brilliant and, according to the actors, the costume designers were influenced by the suits of real astronauts when creating them. They were apparently quite functional but also very uncomfortable.
According to Molly Parker, the actor playing Maureen Robinson, wearing the suits was absolute torture. The only one who enjoyed being in the spacesuit was 11-year-old Maxwell Jenkins. But, of course! Well, torture or not, the spacesuits looked great on screen.
The robot and other visual effects, which we won’t mention as they would spoil the episode, were remarkable and completely transported the audience into the show. Netflix has clearly spared no expense for the look of this reboot.
Room for Improvement
Considering how good this show looks, it is a real shame that the acting is so poor in the pilot. Stephens, who is British, does a passable American accent but assumes a gruff Batman-esque growl from time to time that is grating to hear.
Parker isn’t given enough to do in the pilot but the flashbacks give us an idea of a more developed character. At the Q&A, she spoke about the writers updating the character from the 60s show where Maureen spent most of her screen time cooking for the family. This is a relief to viewers but it would have been great to see her do more in the opening episode instead of being incapacitated.
Of the children, Taylor Russell, who plays Judy Robinson, was the most emotive and natural. Mina Sundwall was good but her character fell into too many verbal tropes to be realistic. 11-year-old Maxwell Jenkins, in the pivotal role of Will Robinson, has some work to do. Child actors can make or break a series and his expressions were often out of sync with the circumstances his character found himself in. Jenkins is definitely an assured young boy and conducted himself with aplomb at the talk but he needs more direction if his Will Robinson is to become as iconic as the original.
The Robinson family also struggle to display any chemistry with each other, which, one assumes, will evolve as the show progresses. Certainly, when the cast appeared on stage together, they seemed far more comfortable with each other than the characters had seemed to be on screen.
The actors cannot take all the blame. The writing in the first episode is turgid. So many things happen just because the plot needs it to happen, even though no preamble to events is shared with the viewer. The world-building is choppy and rushed, leaving viewers pondering the mechanics of what is happening. There were a few too many moments when one’s suspension of disbelief was stretched to breaking point.
The pacing in the first episode was inconsistent, as well, and it will definitely need to get better if the show hopes to maintain its audience. There is a lot of exposition for a pilot episode and a lot is told to the viewer instead of shown, which really doesn’t work with modern audiences. Hopefully, these will have been rectified by the next few episodes.
Reasons to be Excited
Despite the patchy writing and the off-kilter acting, the last five minutes of the pilot will make you want more.
The final scene is gripping. It is unexpected and tense and sets up the story for a new and twisted turn. If the show can bring some of that energy into its scenes with the Robinson family, Lost In Space could avoid the follies of fellow Netflix sci-fi attempts Altered Carbon, Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox.
Admittedly, there was a lot to put into the first episode – revamped characters, new settings, flashbacks – and that is possibly why the writing and acting sometimes seemed off. But, this is just the starting point. One can assume that, having laid the foundations of this new world in the pilot, upcoming episodes will have more room to develop the plot and the character relationships, making for the thrilling sci-fi show viewers are expecting.