Back to the future
When I was a little kid, my favorite afterschool activity was to plop down in front of the television and watch the recently syndicated reruns of my favorite program, Lost in Space! The show’s premise was pretty simple: with Earth dangerously overpopulated, America decides to colonize a distant planet, far outside our solar system.
To jumpstart the colony, the government sends the Robinson family (a nod to The Swiss Family Robinson) as an advance party. Professor Robinson, his wife, and three kids were joined by a robot and the spaceship’s pilot (the very hunky) Major West. But the conniving Dr. Smith accidentally stows away in a failed sabotage attempt, which sends the ship drastically off course.
Dirt-cheap special effects (like the Bloop, a chimp with hairy Mr. Spock-inspired prosthetic ears) and memorable catchphrases — the effete Dr. Smith’s, “Oh! The pain!” and the robot’s, “Danger! Danger Will Robinson!” — made this program the height of 1960s camp.
What’s wild is that this brightly colored velour clad adventure was set in the not-so-distant future: 1997. Yes, a year that came and went almost 25 years ago.
When the boys were younger, we watched the series on Netflix. They were the perfect ages to find the mixture of adventure and suspense exciting. They even got a kick out of the kitschy special effects — “That’s just a monkey with pointy ears!”
I found myself explaining a lot about how the female characters were portrayed. I wasn’t comfortable with how the women asked for permission and needed reassurance so frequently from the men. In fact, it seemed like the only characters the women outranked were the kids … and the seemingly very gay Dr. Smith.
I admit that when I was first watching the series all those years ago, I accepted the roles everyone had been assigned — including the sniveling doctor —without question. I also let myself believe that just maybe the future the show imagined would be my real life as a grown-up.
Thankfully, that didn’t come to fruition.
Yes, Earth’s population is taking a dangerous toll on our natural resources. Yes, women and minorities are still treated unequally too frequently. However, we can’t deny that society has advanced in leaps and bounds.
In just a few weeks, the first female vice president of the United States will be inaugurated. She’s also a woman of color and the first-generation daughter of immigrants. Regardless of whether you think she’s the right person for the job, it’s a great advancement for our society.
LGBTQ+ people have won important hard-fought rights not available in the Robinsons’ future, and we’ve gained acceptance by large swaths of people. Portrayals of us are more realistic — some are heroes, some are villains, some are partiers, some are parents. Nevertheless, more work still needs to be done.
Maybe the best part of sharing this childhood favorite with the boys stemmed from the fact that it was so cheesy. Even as young as they were, they could identify it all as being fake. The spaceship was obviously just a prop, the scenery clearly painted sets, and even the bad guys were laughable — famously the Robinsons once battle vegetable people. If all that was false, so was the show’s portrayal of women and a villain widely assumed to be a gay man.
Lost in Space wasn’t the only show from my childhood I shared with my boys. There was also the very trippy H.R. Hufnstuff and the more subdued Land of the Lost with its weird monkey-boy, Cha-Ka. But the adventures of the intrepid colonists were always our favorite. Maybe because it hinted at a real future better than what television could dream up.