Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Always fear, when Smith is near!

Always fear, when Smith is near!


In a previous blog I noted that I have been watching a lot of Lost in Space. Looking at Lost in Space from the view point of an adult I was surprised by two elements that disturbed me about the series that I completely overlooked as a child.


I am not talking about the cheesy production values, the often godawful writing or the total lack of scientific verisimilitude but rather about the characterization of Dr. Zachary Smith and how the Robinson family interacts with him. My impression of Dr. Smith from childhood memory was that he started out as a bad guy but later became something of joke as his laziness and cowardice were exaggerated for comic effect.


However upon seeing the show as an adult it brought home to me just how vile was Dr. Zachary Smith.


The backstory of the series is that by 1997 Earth’s overpopulation had reached critical levels. Various nations planned to send ships to Alpha Centauri, the nearest solar system that was believed to support inhabitable planets.  The Jupiter 2 comprised the test vessl of the Americans. It was crewed by Dr. John Robinson, his family and astrogator Don West. The crew was placed in suspended animation while the ship made a decades long journey to Alpha Centauri. While the Robinson family slept the ship’s main functions were supposed to be overseen by a robot.


Why sending this one vessel was thought to be a solution to overpopulation was never explained. Presumably once the Jupiter made its way to Alpha Centauri and set up a colony they would have sent word for more ships to come. However this would have taken about a half a century so and during this time population would have grown at a geometric rate and precious resources would have dwindled. Would there been enough resources to build a fleet of ships to save even a fraction of the earth’s population?


The show was made in the sixties during the height of the cold war so instead of the Jupiter project being a global initiative; it was a strictly American one. In the first episode there was a distinct impression that there was a great haste to get the Robinson family into space in order to beat an unfriendly nation. There were a couple of differences between the unaired pilot and the aired first episode that reflect the cultural stamp of the early Sixties. When the Robinson family was introduced, Mrs. Robinson was introduced as Dr. Maureen Robinson a biochemist. Will Robinson was introduced as a child prodigy in math and science, the oldest daughter Judy Robinson gave up a career in music and dance to be with her family. Penny Robinson has an interest in classical music and animals. After the first episode it was never again mentioned that Maureen Robinson was Dr. Robinson. She was portrayed as a typical homemaker, although in outer space. The female characters in the show were portrayed as stereotypical females who haven’t much interest in science and needed male protection and guidance.


Dr. Zachary Smith was one of the technical experts that worked for the launch. He was apparently a medical doctor who also specialized in robotic. Prior to the launch he went on the ship ostensibly to do a last minute medical check on the Robinson family. However he was working for an unfriendly power and reprogrammed the robot to sabotage the mission after it left the solar system.


While carrying out his mission of sabotage Dr. Smith became trapped on the Jupiter spacecraft and panicked. He started messing about with the control panels and sent the Jupiter off course in a hyperdrive that send the Jupiter careening out of the galaxy. (One has to wonder if they had hyperdrive capabilities why didn’t just hyperdrive directly to Alpha Centauri instead of going at a slow speed and using suspended animation.) Realizing he had really screwed up Dr. Smith woke up the Robinson family. Due to Dr. Smith’s efforts they were lost in space. Dr. Smith refused to take responsibilities for his actions and demanded that the Robinsons use all their efforts to return him to Earth before continuing on their mission.


As a child it did not really register that by working for a foreign government Dr. Smith was a traitor to his country. Furthermore he had, without any compunction, programmed the robot to sabotage the Jupiter mission. This would have killed all five of the Robinson family including the two children and the ship’s navigator Don West.


As the series progressed the more overt, malevolent aspect of Dr. Smith’s personality was downplayed while his other attributes his constant laziness, his arrogance, his cowardice, his lust for power and riches and his hypochondria were played for humor. Yet his darker aspects never entirely disappeared even as he became more buffoonish. He stole necessary equipment and traded it for food, ate more than his share of food, used drinking water to take a shower, hoarded food, etc. At the drop of a hat he would have abandoned the Robinsons or allowed them to perish if he thought it would benefit him, to save his own life he was even willing to trade the life of Will or Penny Robinson.


When I was a kid watching the show, I always thought Don West was a bit of a jerk for being on Dr. Smith’s case all of the time. Now I see that Don West was the only one on the Jupiter 2 with a lick of sense. In one episode, the Jupiter 2 had gone off course, due to Dr. Smith deliberate course change. They encountered a Space Siren who lured Doctor Smith out of the ship. They were faced with a difficult decision, saving Doctor Smith meant that they would miss a critical course change that would take them back to Earth otherwise they would once again be lost in space. When Robinson decided that they had to save Dr. Smith, despite his misgivings Don West volunteered to do the spacewalk to get Dr. Smith back into the Jupiter 2.  Bad move.


I watched first and second seasons of Lost in Space, I found myself getting increasingly disgusted by Dr. Smith’s behavior. Beyond simply being a narcissistic, lazy coward his series of negligent behavior, thefts and treachery endangered the lives of West and the Robinson’s time and time again. All in all he was a vile, despicable and utterly worthless human being. Dr. Smith was almost all of the worst traits of humanity embodied in one singular form.


However much the Dr. Smith character irritated my adult sensibilities, what really pissed me off was the Robinsons’ behavior towards him, especially that of Dr. John Robinson and Maureen Robinson. Will and Penny I forgive for being immature and so being impressionable. They could be swayed by Dr. Smith’s charm, although it was an unctuous charm, a smarmy Eddie Haskall type charm. That is, the charm was a sham, a façade that anyone with a glimmer of sense could have penetrated.


Although the Doctors Robinson remained unaware that Smith had planned to scuttle the Jupiter 2 and kill its entire crew, they soon became aware of his other less than desirable qualities. They became aware of his penchant for treachery, his criminal negligence, his thefts, his cowardice and his laziness. Yet they constantly tried to reform him, to make him a functioning member of their tiny colony. They gave him crucial responsibilities and allowed him access to critical equipment over and over again even when it was apparent that Dr. Smith had no intention of living up to his assigned responsibilities much less reform.


In one glaring example, the Robinsons gave Dr. Smith the responsibility of caring for their hydroponic garden. After a week Dr. Robinson checked up on how he was doing to discover that the hydroponic garden had died. Upon seeing this as an adult my first response was-- well what did you expect? Smith had demonstrated time and time again that he could not be entrusted to do even simple tasks. Knowing this Robinson should have never assigned such a vital task to be entirely in Dr. Smith’s care. As the series progressed I became less and less sympathetic towards the Robinsons and their plight since about 75% of their travails were directly or indirectly attributable to the actions of Dr. Smith.


As the leader of the expedition however John Robinson bears the ultimate responsibility for all of these problems. With the life of his family (since Don West was romantically involved with Judy we can include him under this banner) living on such a marginal existence that John Robinson I think that it is criminally negligent on the part of Dr. Robinson that he not only continued to allow Dr. Smith to remain as a member of the expedition but also continued to give him tasks upon which the lives of his family depended and access to vital equipment which Smith stole or destroyed.


I watched Lost in Space against with the recent Presidential campaign in the background and realized that John Robinson was the sort of liberal that conservatives always mock. Now mind you Robinson isn’t one of disingenuous ones such as those who make lip service to going green but gallivant all over the globe on personal jets but rather the impractical idealist who sacrifices all for his principles. John Robinson places the lives of his entire family, and if we are to believe the premise of the television, the welfare of the Planet Earth (who are depending on a successful Jupiter 2 mission) at risk because he cannot endanger the life on one human being, because he pursues a quixotic quest to redeem the irredeemable.


Perhaps if, despite his treachery Dr. Smith were someone who had some great contribution to make to the universe, Robinson’s continual willingness to risk the lives of his crew and the welfare of Earth by keeping Dr. Smith around might be understandable. However, unlike the treacherous Senator from Connecticut, there is no sign that Dr. Smith has anything useful to contribute. Even if he did, it is quite likely that he would not be willing to put forth any effort to make this contribution. Robinson’s insistence on hauling Dr. Smith around with them thereby placing his family in constant jeopardy owes more to Robinson’s belief that human life is sacred, even some as worthless as Dr. Zachary Smith. Robinson is seemingly willing to adhere to this principle even at the cost of his own family’s life, and in a larger context, at the expense of the Earth.  Perhaps this makes the intention was to make him seem like a man of great principle but it seems to exemplify the sort of impractical idealism that scientists were stereotyped as having.


As a child I glossed over the down right evil traits of Dr. Smith by being distracted by the more comedic elements of his character. As an adult the comedic aspects seemed less humorous, knowing the malevolent spirit lurking beneath the surface of “poor” Dr. Zachary Smith. As a child I never appreciated that talent that Jonathan Harris had in portraying Dr. Smith. Yes, he was often over the top and hammy but every now and then you could see the glittering malice of Dr. Smith’s true character in his eyes or the quirk of his smile.


Throughout the series, Dr. Smith constantly demanded to be returned to Earth and Dr. Robinson steadfastly refused to even consider doing so until they first reached Alpha Centauri. Personally I would not have taken Dr. Smith to Earth, I would have shoved him out of the airlock after the first time he tried to trade away one of my family members to some alien bastard or tried to hijack the ship.

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