Lost in Space gets crap sometimes for being campy, or sometimes too silly, or having a terrible movie adaptation. It also gets crap for not being Star Trek, but it should be noted that, of those 4 things, Star Trek has been accused of 3. All of those things are accurate, but, sometimes the campy and silly elements of the show would combine into something amazingly over-the-top that would make it unforgettable. Plus, it was scored by John “Think of a Movie Theme and I Probably Wrote It” Williams.
The premise of the show is that the US has finally tried to colonize space in the far-off year of 1997. To do this, they launch a ship containing Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), his wife Maureen (June Lockhart), and their children Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Billy Mumy). The only other person on board was supposed to be the pilot, Major Don West (Mark Goddard), but the launch is sabotaged by double agent and legendary coward Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), who reprograms the ship’s robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld) into going on a rampage that accidentally activates the hyperdrive and traps Smith on board as they are sent in a random direction into space.
Ultimately, the things that worked for Lost in Space were usually that it had pretty good special effects and costuming for the time (getting Emmy nominations even against Star Trek), the simple character dynamics (a space-family Robinson, a robot, and a cowardly scientist villain were the only characters in some episodes), and that they would have hammy overacting guest stars a la Batman. This episode has all three.
It starts off with the family celebrating the robot’s birthday. That alone is provocative and says a great deal of the effects of long periods of time stranded with a small group. But, Dr. Smith, the possibly pedophilic pedagogue, decides to sneak off to a nearby planet run by plants, where he picks a flower and is sentenced to death by literal “tree-hugging” by a carrot-man. Eventually, everyone is captured and sentenced to turning into celery or flowers until the resolution. I know that plot summary sounds stupid, but it somehow actually manages to be just surreal and fun enough to work. Plus, it has Stanley Adams, 60s actor extraordinaire, who works harder than any man ever should to embrace the role of “carrot-man.”
Some production details help this episode. The sets are in this episode are definitely worthy of mention. The planet on which the episode takes place resembles a garden paradise, which allows the space-props of the cast to stand out more. The other thing is that all of the plants have voices, so when they’re hurt throughout the episode, even as a background action, they cry out in anguish (which the cast chooses to ignore, because plants). The costume of Stanley Adams as Tybo the Carrot-Man, while goofy, is actually very well done. Willoughby, Tybo’s human-with-a-heart-of-lettuce, similarly, is a surreal purple shade, which still somehow works within the episode. The episode’s musical arrangement, too, is excellent, even if it isn’t by John Williams.
Ultimately, after they’re all captured and placed in a hot house, the Robinsons manage to subdue Tybo and escape from the plant planet.
So, why is this episode on the list? Well, some episodes are born great, some episodes have greatness thrust upon them, but this episode stumbles into it like a drunken frat boy running an obstacle race. This episode is simultaneously on multiple lists of the greatest episodes, but also on lists of the biggest “Jump the Shark” moments of all time. When the episode’s writer, Peter Packer, handed the script to Jonathan Harris, he actually apologized for writing it, saying that he just didn’t have any ideas for a good episode left. I think that Harris took that as a challenge. Throughout the episode, Harris’s over-the-top mugging, monologuing and soliloquizing, rather than being off-putting, manages to hit right in the sweet spot of fun enough to keep us entertained. He manages to sell even the most melodramatic acts as genuine. His interactions with the Robot, who has to deliver everything in monotone, make for a hilarious dichotomy.
But, mostly, the episode actually raises a very interesting line of thought, and I have no doubt that it was completely unintentional. In this episode, the Robinsons aren’t the good guys. They show up on a planet and murder a ton of sentient life forms. There’s no ambiguity about it. At one point, Willoughby tells them that they just have to talk to the plants, and the plants will happily get out of their way, but that doesn’t stop them from using machetes on vines in the next scene. Plants are crying out in agony throughout the episode, but the Robinsons are so ingrained with the concept that animal life is the only kind of life that matters, that they don’t stop killing the plants EVEN WHEN TOLD THEY’RE SENTIENT. Again, I don’t think this is intended, but it’s part of why this is such an interesting episode: It points out that what we consider “life” is based on a series of established assumptions of our own superiority, but here, everything is turned on its head. It’s this interesting flipped perspective within the episode that convinced me that, while the episode is cheesy, it was cheesy in the best way.
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