When it debuted in 2018, the rebooted Lost in Space series was (according to Netflix’s self-reporting) watched by 6.3 million Netflix subscribers in its first 72 hours, one of strongest debuts on the platform that year. Since then, streaming services have hosted an unprecedented boom in big-budget space sci-fi television. The Expanse found an audience on Amazon Prime, Disney Plus launched The Mandalorian, CBS/Paramount Plus expanded from one new Star Trek series to four (going on five) — there’s more than any fan of the genre can keep track of, let alone watch. This goes double for series that debut on Netflix, whose “all at once” season drops mean that anything short of a smash hit completely disappears off the cultural radar in a matter of days. In an arena this crowded, Lost in Space seems to have gotten, well, lost.
Thankfully, this hasn’t kept showrunner Zack Estrin from completing his planned three-part arc for the series, which concludes when Season 3 lands on Netflix on December 1st. While it might be dismissed for its “Family Watch Together” label (as if The Mandalorian isn’t as much for kids as for adults), Lost in Space is an exciting, delightful, and self-contained space adventure that stands in contrast against the ever more complex universes of its contemporaries. What’s more, Lost in Space rests in the Goldilocks Zone of rebooted intellectual properties — it’s got a strong central premise and a recognizable name, but there’s little else salvageable about the original work, allowing modern storytellers to take their version in whatever direction they choose without being weighed down by the pressure to “play the hits.” Instead, the finale of Lost in Space gets to focus on completing its own story, bringing the 23-hour adventure to a mostly satisfying, appropriately saccharine conclusion.
You may already know the basics of the original 1960s Lost in Space series, itself a riff on the 1812 novel Swiss Family Robinson. The Robinsons, a family of five, depart from Earth on a mission to lay down roots on the planet Alpha Centauri but are thrown off-course by an act of sabotage and wind up bouncing between habitable worlds in search of a route home. Along for the ride are their military escort Maj. Don West, the devious stowaway Dr. Smith, and of course, the Robot, who has a fondness for the word “Danger!” The series grows ever campier over the course of its 83 episodes, as the Robinson family copes with space pirates, a space mummy, and even a giant sentient space carrot. It made an impression on the children of its day, but it holds up poorly in comparison to its NBC cousin Star Trek, or even Batman, the direct competition for its time slot.
The Netflix Lost in Space series begins by adapting the broad strokes of the original’s pilot episodes (like Star Trek, Lost in Space had two) and discards just about everything else. Here, the Robinsons are not the first but in fact one of many families being sent to colonize Alpha Centauri after a disaster covers the Earth in a perpetual cloud of dust. On the way to their new home, their colony transport comes under attack by alien robots, which forces the colonists to crash-land on a barely habitable world full of hazards and mystery. Over the course of three seasons, the Robinsons take turns saving each others’ lives and those of the rest of the colonists as they’re forced to make detour after detour on their way to their new home. Apart from the Robinsons and new takes on Dr. Smith (comedy stalwart Parker Posey), Don West (Ignacio Serricchio, Good Girls), and the Robot (veteran creature actor Brian Steele in a terrific practical costume), all of the characters are original to this series, as is the ongoing mytharc in which the colonists are pursued by malevolent machines. In-jokes for fans of the source material are scant and, more importantly, invisible. Unlike some of the other franchise offshoots on the market, Lost in Space has no homework to assign you.
Each of the Robinsons brings a different set of skills to the table. Matriarch Maureen (Molly Parker, Deadwood) is a genius engineer and mathematician who helped design the colony ships, while her husband John (Toby Stephens, Black Sails) is a Navy SEAL. Eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) is a first-year medical intern at only 18, having fast-tracked her training in preparation for the journey to Alpha Centauri. Middle child Penny (Mina Sundwall, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) is a talented writer, but since that’s not terribly useful in a survival scenario, she mostly serves as an impulsive counterbalance to the rest of her family’s rigid pragmatism. The youngest, Will (Maxwell Jenkins) shares his mother’s knack for the sciences, but he takes on an importance of his own when he rescues one of the hostile robots from a deadly predicament and gains his trust and friendship. The Robot becomes Will’s own personal superhero, protecting the family from physical dangers. (“Danger” is still his favorite word.)
While the 1998 film reboot of Lost in Space injected an overdose of Gen-X angst into the Robinsons’ homelife, the family dynamic of the Netflix series is refreshingly functional. Conflicts within the family exist, but never explode into hyperbolic “I hate you, dad!” melodrama. Each character has baggage related to the family, but they are not antagonists for each other. John’s commitment to his military career has put increasing physical and emotional distance between himself and the family prior to their departure from Earth, and he has to repair each of his neglected relationships. Middle child Penny is the only one of her siblings who seems interested in acting her age, and struggles to feel adequate in a household of geniuses. Judy’s admiration for her parents has led her to set impossible standards for herself, and she has to learn to accept failure. The Robinsons are indirectly the source of each other’s problems but also the solution to them, and they’re fiercely dedicated to each other. This is part of what makes Lost in Space such feel-good television despite the characters being in near-constant peril.
Much of that peril, and the conflict of the series, is of the “humanity vs. nature” variety — alien eels who feed on their fuel, a virus that eats metal, etc. The most thrilling moments of the series come when the Robinsons and company must triumph over these natural obstacles through daring and ingenious feats of engineering. During the first season, the colonists’ last hope of escaping a dying planet is to make direct visual contact with their mothership in orbit. Most of their fuel’s been gobbled up by those damn eels, and they’re just shy of what they’d need to send up one of their Jupiter landing craft. Their solution — gut the Jupiter of all its computers and guide its launch into space from the ground like it’s 1965. Both nature and technology are framed as equal parts wondrous and dangerous, and every victory for technology is the result of hard work by the human hands and minds that create and operate it.
Lost in Space is less successful at creating actual human antagonists, even struggling to make the most out of Parker Posey’s Dr. Smith. “Smith” is in fact a con artist who assumes the identity of a dead passenger in order to start a new life on Alpha Centauri but ends up stranded along with the rest of her colonist group. Posing as a family therapist, Smith attempts to manipulate the Robinsons into helping her secure a position of power, but Smith never feels all the way menacing or all the way funny. While her character achieves more depth and a shot at redemption over the following two seasons, she feels like an extra appendage a lot of the time. Season 2 briefly pits the Robinsons against the authorities aboard the colony ship Resolute, but this conflict doesn’t really have teeth, nor does the arc’s villain, Hastings (Douglas Hodge, The Great). Contrary to all conventional storytelling wisdom, Lost in Space is most interesting when everyone’s getting along and working together.
For Season 3, the storytellers seem to have learned this lesson well, centering the narrative around the conflict between the human would-be colonists and the army of alien robots that chasing them across the galaxy. Circumstances have forced the colonists to split up by generation, with Judy Robinson leading the group’s 97 children to a new world while their parents draw the attention of the aliens and their leader, who the kids have named SAR (for Second Alien Robot). Once again the human characters are all focused on the goal of survival, but they face an opponent who has a steep technological advantage. With no hope of overpowering the robots, the colonists must rely on cunning to evade them without bringing the alien horde along with them to Alpha Centauri.
Characters are shuffled around liberally to give each relationship a chance at closure. Judy finally learns the fate of her long-lost birth father, which helps her recontextualize the effect she’s had on her mother’s life and vice-versa. Penny finds herself in a love triangle with awkward ex-not-boyfriend Vijay (Ajay Friese, Riverdale) and bland hunk Liam (Charles Vandervaart, The Craft: Legacy), but this is just background to her finding her own confidence. Maureen and John cope with being separated from their children, while Will and the Robot consider leaving the colony behind to take on SAR alone. Will is the character who has most obviously grown up, but everyone’s growth is given equal attention and feels equally organic. Even the Robot gets to complete his arc, even if it’s more or less a rehash of The Iron Giant.
The season projects “finale vibes” throughout and there’s the sense that anything can happen at any time, perhaps to a fault. The back half of the season feels like a marathon of climactic moments that could be the turning point of the story, but then aren’t. The final episode alone has three such twists before ending on the one that’s the least visually interesting, and the attempt to give every lead character their own shining moment of triumph within a limited time frame diminishes a bit from each. This is the only season that runs eight episodes instead of 10, and it’s possible that COVID-era production complications required the story’s final act to get compressed. While the path to the finish line is a bit jagged, the finale effectively hammers home each of the show’s overarching themes, namely the value of trust and the ability of each person (human or robot) to change their own programming.
There are some systemic issues with Lost in Space that the third season fails to resolve, or it seems, to consider. While the series adds a fictional disaster to accelerate the environmental decline of our planet, it’s still a fantasy about leaving behind a dying Earth rather than saving it, a fantasy that is unfortunately shared by the very few people alive who are equipped to decide all of our fates. While it’s explicitly stated that anyone who passes the colonization program’s rigorous tests earns a place on Alpha Centauri, this implied meritocracy would still heavily favor those with the money, time, and resources to train to become an astronaut. That the one working class character Don West is portrayed (at least at first) as a selfish, short-sighted buffoon adds to the sense that the show is, perhaps unwittingly, kind of classist. For a show that frequently expresses the importance of “leaving no one behind,” there’s little acknowledgement that most of humanity has been and will continue to be left behind.
Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of classic Star Trek idealism in the DNA of the new Lost in Space — a preference for communication and self-sacrifice over violence, an optimistic outlook on human nature, and a belief that “human rights” are not reserved for humans alone. Also like Star Trek, this optimism doesn’t mean an absence of eye-catching action sequences, and the final threat to the Robinsons has the sense of scale and stakes to lend urgency and profundity to its message. Lost in Space’s production values are impressive, and there’s simply no overstating the value of Christopher Lennertz’s broad, Williams-esque orchestral score. (John Williams composed much of the original music for the 1960s show, but Lennertz seems far more inspired by the wonder-struck tone of his Jurassic Park, which is pitch-perfect for the new series.) There’s so much raw joy to be had in the adventure of Lost in Space that its flaws can be easily dismissed.
Within a week of the third season’s debut on Netflix, it’s likely that Lost in Space will get buried under another wave of original programming. Fans of space sci-fi already have a new series to look forward to in the South Korean thriller The Silent Sea, which lands on Netflix on Christmas Eve. Social media discourse can create the impression that new content has a short shelf-life, that you have to either digest it before the next big thing arrives or just let it pass. This is not the case, in fact, television has never been more permanent and more accessible. Lost in Space is over, but does not have to disappear — you can find it any time you like.
Lost in Space season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.