After reviewing every episode of Lost in Space last summer, I thought it would be fun to create a list of personal favorites while my memory of the show is still fresh. Below are my rankings for the episodes that are, in my opinion, the best of all time.
10) The Derelict
Though not usually ranked among Lost in Space’s most exceptional episodes, “The Derelict” earns a spot on this list for several reasons. For one thing, a relatively slow pace works to acquaint audiences with the main characters and their relationships with one another. Whereas the action-packed pilot provides only a brief introduction to the Robinsons and Dr. Smith before delving into its riveting disaster elements, “The Derelict” explores the inner dynamics of this tight-knit family on a more profound level. Don’s implied romance with Judy would also be alluded to for the first time, as would the meddlesome behavior that later became a defining attribute of Jonathan Harris’ character.
Another reason why “The Derelict” stands out among an equally phenomenal first five episodes is that the antagonists (known colloquially as “bubble creatures”) appear convincingly alien in nature. In addition to their bulbous, nonhuman forms, the bubble creatures communicate solely through electrical impulses—a stark contrast to the Earth-centric conceptions of alien speech detailed in later episodes. For its unique depiction of an extraterrestrial species alone, “The Derelict” should be regarded as the purest science fiction piece ever featured in Lost in Space.
9) Trip Through the Robot
While many second season episodes are made unwatchable by a combination of bizarre fairy tale elements and the asinine antics of Dr. Smith, “Trip Through the Robot” marks a return to the science fiction roots of season one, specifically by putting a clever spin on the concept that inspired Fantastic Voyage. The twist is that instead of traveling through a human body, Dr. Smith and Will take a trip inside the Robot B-9—now enlarged as a result of surrounding radioactivity—in a last-ditch effort to save the “life” of their dearest friend.
It should be noted that, like the majority of second season episodes, “Trip Through the Robot” will appeal primarily to youngsters given that a strict focus upon the Will, Dr. Smith, and Robot trio is maintained at all times (such had become a hallmark of Lost in Space after season one’s “The Raft”). That being said, a number of magnificent set designs, incredible sound effects, and a heartwarming narrative penned by Barney Slater should satisfy fans searching for a 1960s science fiction classic.
8) Return from Outer Space
In contrast to the dark atmosphere of many first season episodes, “Return from Outer Space” benefits from a touching holiday story that fans of all ages can appreciate. The premise is simple: after tinkering with the matter transmitter unit left behind by the Taurons, Will travels back to Earth in order to replace the carbon tetrachloride that Dr. Smith selfishly wasted on himself. Unfortunately for the young tyke, no one believes his account of interstellar travel.
Like the aforementioned “Trip Through the Robot,” this episode places Will in a role of critical importance and will therefore appeal primarily to children over adults. Nevertheless, “Return from Outer Space” contains an air of nostalgia for those who lived during the time period in which Lost in Space was produced. Also worth praising is that “Return from Outer Space” offers a welcome change of scenery (i.e. a quaint Vermont town decorated for Christmas) from the dreary planet, Priplanus, on which the Robinsons are initially confined.
7) Wish Upon a Star
Though “Space Creature,” “The Cave of the Wizards,” and “The Astral Traveler” serve as fine examples of how effective Lost in Space could be when flirting with the horror genre, “Wish Upon a Star” surpasses each of these efforts by comparison. Specifically, this episode begins on a fairly benign note before gradually unfolding a more nightmarish scenario, at which point the so-called Rubberoid makes a horrifying entrance. The striking contrast between the lighthearted fantasy of acts one and two and the almost surreal terror elicited by later scenes should demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion, the Lost in Space creative team was more than capable of employing subtlety when necessary.
While Universal Monster buffs and classic horror fans in particular will enjoy “Wish Upon a Star” for reasons outlined above, casual viewers may also value this episode for its simple but poignant morality lesson. In keeping with his selfish character, Dr. Smith chooses to ignore Professor Robinson’s wisdom regarding the alien thought machine and how easily it can corrupt those who take advantage of its power. Needlessly to say, Dr. Smith’s foolish dismissal of John’s advice proves unfortunate when the grotesque Rubberoid extends its clammy hands to reclaim that which was taken from it. For those in search of a decent commentary on the human condition sans the goofy tone of later episodes, this one is a must.
6) War of the Robots
Prior to this point in the series, the Robot was perceived as little more than a piece of equipment that the Robinsons felt entitled to do with as they pleased. In fact, some may wonder why the Robot wasn’t simply deactivated or destroyed outright after endangering his human companions in the inaugural five episodes. That being the case, “War of the Robots” marks the turning point at which the Robot—now challenged by a superior model—transitions from a mere utility to a valued member of the Robinson family. This change is made most apparent when Will remains loyal to the Robot, refusing to hypnotize himself with Robby’s charm as do his parents and Major West.
In addition to its emotionally stirring material, “War of the Robots” contains all the workings of a classic 1950s science fiction film (Forbidden Planet fans will surely appreciate that Robby the Robot is featured as the primary antagonist). Lost in Space newcomers, on the other hand, may wish to view this episode in order to understand how the Robot developed from a mindless killing machine to a cherished friend in just twenty episodes.
5) My Friend, Mr. Nobody
A fan-favorite, “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” gave Angela Cartwright a rare opportunity to showcase her delicate acting abilities. Later episodes such as “Princess of Space” and “A Day at the Zoo” would also allow Cartwright to expand her tragically underused Penny character; however, this one does so without relying upon the Will, Dr. Smith, and Robot trio to save the day. Rather, only Penny’s connection with her “imaginary friend” can spare the Robinsons from certain doom—a consequence of paying too much attention to Will at the expense of poor Penny.
There are times when “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” forgoes hard science fiction in favor of pure fantasy, a trend that would severely diminish the quality of future episodes. While the concept of a disembodied cave entity consisting of conscious energy may be too far-fetched for certain fans to accept, it should be noted that this “fairy tale” carries sufficient pathos to prevent a juvenile execution from ensuing. “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” therefore distinguishes itself from other fantasy-themed episodes, many of which fall prey to the high jinks of talking carrots, space Vikings, and sky pirates of the mischievous variety.
4) The Reluctant Stowaway
Always one to initiate his series with a bang, Irwin Allen introduced the world to Lost in Space with the most exciting episode of all. Combining the action and disaster elements of “No Place to Hide”—the original series pilot that would remain unaired until a Sci-Fi Channel broadcasting in 1993—with the human conflict that only a conniving saboteur could provide, “The Reluctant Stowaway” set the ultimate standard for spacefaring fiction (at least until Star Trek debuted on television the following year).
In contrast to his future self, the Dr. Smith (or “Colonel” Smith as he was addressed here) presented in “The Reluctant Stowaway” exhibits a cold, calculating demeanor that should induce a chilled reaction from audiences of a sensitive inclination. An unscrupulous villain also has the benefit of evoking sympathy for the Robinsons and the trials they will inevitably face given their proximity to a dangerous psychopath—an effect that Zachary “comic relief” Smith of later episodes would never again produce. Though arguably better suited for a series more worthy of its remarkable content, “The Reluctant Stowaway” earns its reputation as the quintessential Lost in Space offering.
3) The Keeper (Parts 1 & 2)
The only two-part Lost in Space episode, “The Keeper” follows an intergalactic zookeeper (portrayed in a decidedly elegant and graceful manner by The Day the Earth Stood Still actor Michael Rennie) and his attempts to complement a vast collection of alien specimens with Will and Penny. As one can imagine, John and Maureen are less than willing to oblige their new guest, even when Dr. Smith’s idiotic behavior prevents the Keeper from controlling the assortment of rubber monsters contained in his spaceship.
Though criticized for a notoriously bad special effect involving a giant spider, “The Keeper” should be commended for giving each cast member an important role to play. Specifically, Dr. Smith returns to his original purpose of providing realistic problems for the family to overcome, Will and Penny are used as pawns in the Keeper’s ongoing conflict with the Robinsons, and Don and Judy offer themselves in the children’s stead after John and Maureen volunteer to do the same. By treating every individual character with the respect that he/she deserves, both installments of “The Keeper” provide an insightful perspective on human interactions that few episodes manage to parallel.
2) The Anti-Matter Man
After years of playing second fiddle to Will, Dr. Smith, and the Robot, Guy Williams was at last given the opportunity to employ his wonderful acting abilities in season three’s “The Anti-Matter Man.” Noteworthy for pitting Professor Robinson against his evil doppelgänger from an alternate dimension, this episode allowed Williams to challenge his limits by exemplifying a variety of malevolent and fearsome attributes—much in contrast to the upright nature of his “matter” universe character. A similar chance was afforded to Mark Goddard, whose praise for “The Anti-Matter Man” stems from his delight in exploring a sinister side of Major West.
Complementing the uncharacteristically dark subject matter, a haunting “shadow world” accentuates the frightening performances of Williams and Goddard. An assortment of dreary, purple-colored backdrops in particular combine with unnaturally white trees and rocks, thereby establishing the perfect atmosphere for a world governed by ominous and unpredictable forces. Several goofy moments work to undermine the chilling nature of an opposite reality; however, minor inconsistencies in tone can be forgiven when considering the high camp factor of season three in general.
1) Follow the Leader
Interestingly enough, the darkest Lost in Space episodes seem to earn the greatest amount of praise from fans and critics alike. Similar to “The Anti-Matter Man,” “Follow the Leader” required Williams to embody a more conflicted presence than what the role of Professor Robinson typically allowed. Where this episode takes a more unique approach, however, concerns the abrupt personality transition that John undergoes, this time resulting from the possession of an evil spirit named Canto—a likely allegory of the sudden but odious changes that occur when men become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other detrimental substances and proceed to abuse friends and loved ones as a result.
When combined with the supporting performances of an exceptional cast, Williams’ tormented portrayal of Professor Robinson/Canto gives “Follow the Leader” a marked advantage over those Lost in Space episodes that examine relevant topics from a less mature framework. In addition, even casual science fiction fans should take note of the poignant ending (John is redeemed by the unconditional love of his son), which bears a striking resemblance to Return of the Jedi’s iconic finale. Who could’ve guessed that George Lucas sought inspiration from Irwin Allen when searching for a conclusion to his original Star Wars trilogy?
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