Remote Outpost by Mark Onspaugh
This week: A VOYAGE OF THE LOST IN THE TIME OF GIANTS
PART 1 of 2
Hello from the Outpost, located on a small planetoid that is actually a dead generation starship which is hurtling out toward the edge of the galaxy… And we’re all out of Poptarts™ and peanut butter……
Today I wanted to talk about the science fiction of Irwin Allen. Allen never created a franchise to rival STAR TREK or STAR WARS, but his own name became a recognizable brand in the 60s and 70s. He is responsible for two of the most iconic disaster movies in the history of cinema, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)—both loaded with stars and special effects. But before turning his attention to upside-down ocean liners and mega-skyscrapers aflame, Irwin Allen was ruling the small screen with family-oriented sci-fi adventures that were filled with great props, good actors, silly concepts, riotous color and little or no concern for the laws of physics, chemistry, biology—hell, any of the sciences that makes up science fiction.
The first and most successful of these shows was VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. It ran from September 14, 1964 to March 31, 1968. At 110 episodes, it was the decade’s longest running science fiction program with continuing characters.
The series was about a futuristic atomic submarine, the SSRN SEAVIEW, which was based at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research (NIMR) in Santa Barbara, California. When not patrolling the world’s oceans, the sub was moored some 500 feet below NIMR in a secret submarine base carved out of solid rock. The Seaview was officially designed for undersea marine research, but its secret mission was to defend the Earth from all terrestrial (mad scientists, dictators, Amway salesmen) and extraterrestrial threats in the then-future of the 1980s.
VOYAGE starred Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson (designer of the SSRN Seaview) and David Hedison as Captain Crane. Basehart and Hedison did an amazing amount of television, and there never seemed to be a period where they were not working. Basehart was Ishmael in John Huston’s MOBY DICK (1956, script by Ray Bradbury) and was the Narrator on KNIGHT RIDER (1982-1986). Hedison, of course, was the eponymous character in THE FLY (1958) and also played Felix Leiter in LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and LICENCE TO KILL (1989).
Based on his movie of the same name (released in 1961 with Walter Pigeon, he of FORBIDDEN PLANET, 1956), Irwin Allen recycled sets, props and models, something he was famous for. Later, when he had more than one series running, alien costumes from one show would show up a week later on another series with just a minor paint job.
Allen also was famous for the “Irwin Allen rock-and-roll,” —the camera was rocked as the on-screen cast rushed from side to side on the set, simulating the ship being tossed around. This would later be seen a lot on our next entry, as well. With an iconic theme (by Paul Sawtell), cool props like the flying sub, monsters and sea creatures, kids like me tuned in faithfully every week—how about you?
Irwin Allen’s second foray into 60s science fiction television was LOST IN SPACE. Based on the Swiss Family Robinson story (but not related to an earlier Gold Key Comic of the same name), this program ran on CBS for three seasons, with 83 episodes airing between September 15, 1965, and March 6, 1968. LOST IN SPACE was filmed in black & white the first season and then in riotous color thereafter. Its well known theme was by a composer named John Williams (billed as “Johnny Williams”)—I wondered what happened to that guy?
The pilot was much advertised and I watched it eagerly. It was far more serious than the series ended up: The year is 1997 and the Earth is overpopulated. The brave Robinsons are space-faring colonists headed for a planet revolving around Alpha Centauri. Since the journey will take some time, they’ll remain in suspended animation. Villainous Dr. Smith is an enemy agent who sabotages the ship so that the Robinsons will die and their mission will be a failure. When his people fail to extract him from the doomed ship, Smith has no choice but to wake the Robinsons to save his own skin. Had the tone and writing of the series continued in this vein, it might have rivaled the original STAR TREK (1966-1969) in popularity. But, no.
LOST IN SPACE didn’t really look much at the foibles of mankind or the consequences of bigotry, racism, war and greed like TREK. Its stories seemed more inspired by taking notions popular with kids and sticking the word “space” in as a qualifier: thus, Space Pirates! Space Cowboys! Space Orphans! Space Delinquents! Space Circus! Space Gangsters! Throw in occasional episodes about murderous, humanoid vegetables and you’ve got a series.
LOST IN SPACE starred many familiar faces and a robot second only to Robbie (FORBIDDEN PLANET) in look and personality. (Coincidence? Perhaps not, as both Robbie and the LIS Robot were designed by Bob Stewart.) Guy Williams (Doctor John Robinson) was TV’s Zorro on both the series ZORRO (1957-1961) and on WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR (1957-1962), and Sinbad in CAPTAIN SINBAD (1963). June Lockhart, (Doctor Maureen Robinson), was an iconic TV mom in LASSIE (1958-1964) and would leave outer space for PETTICOAT JUNCTION (1968-1970). Billy Mumy (Will Robinson) may be best known as creepy but powerful Anthony on the TWILIGHT ZONE (1961-1963) episode “It’s a Good Life” and the kid taking calls on a toy telephone from his dead gramma (eek) in the episode “Long Distance Call.” Mumy would return to space in BABYLON 5 (1994-1998). Angela Cartwright (Penny Robinson) was the epitome of a TV daughter on THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW (1957-1964). Rounding out the cast were Mark Goddard as handsome pilot Major Don West, Marta Kristen as blonde beauty Judy Robinson, Dick Tufeld as the voice of the Robot, and Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith.
As with other TV series (such as HAPPY DAYS’ Fonzie), villainous Dr. Smith was intended to be a limited or peripheral character, but took over the show. Jonathan Harris, a stage and screen actor, turned Smith from a cold and calculating villain to a whiny, lazy, selfish, greedy hypochondriac who was by turns sarcastic or petulant. Children adored him, especially when he was dressing down the Robot, referring to him as a “bumbling booby” or a “cumbersome clod,” among many, many other insults. Smith became pivotal to most episodes, which more and more focused on young Will, the Robot and Dr. Smith’s ill-conceived plots or alliances with treacherous aliens.
This focus (and ever-growing campiness) proved unpopular with adults and teens, leaving children the main audience, and children do not buy advertisers’ products. Its skyrocketing budget was cut—Paramount had lost a lot of money with CLEOPATRA (1963) and was trimming everywhere—and this caused Irwin Allen to storm out of negotiations for a fourth season, hastening its cancellation. Had it survived, it is doubtful stars June Lockhart or Guy Williams would have returned, as both were unhappy with the direction of the show and their diminishing roles in it. Oh, the pain, the pain!
(FINAL NOTE: It seems to me a strange notion to start a colony with one family plus one male – pilot Don West – but this was a family show and the writers obviously knew what the characters didn’t, that the mission was doomed and the idea of a colony would be abandoned in the search for home—back to good old overcrowded, polluted and doomed Earth.)
(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK….SAME BAT TIME….SAME BAT CHANNEL)
© Copyright 2012 by Mark Onspaugh