Wednesday, September 16, 2015

IRWIN ALLEN'S LOST IN SPACE: THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Television 1965-68) Fox Home Video

It’s been fifty years since the Robinson family began orbiting the galaxy in Irwin Allen’s trend-setting TV franchise, Lost in Space (1965-1968); a beloved memory from my own childhood, and one for which today’s market can still warrant an impressive Blu-ray release. Lost in Space officially blasted off into living rooms on Sept. 15, 1965; television’s first big-budgeted, prime-time sci-fi drama. The television branch of 2oth Century-Fox spent lavishly on producer, Irwin Allen’s exalted interstellar adventure, impeccably photographed with every penny up on the screen; brimming with ambitious production values, stunningly original sets and costumes; albeit either in silvery metallic or color-coded velour; the Robot B9 (voiced with esoteric wit by Dick Tufeld), hewn from a fanciful collection of spare parts, including a washtub basin for its main body. Allen, who would only direct the first 5 episodes of Lost in Space, and go on to become even better known as the ‘Master of Disaster’ with back-to-back big screen classics; The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), herein is channeling the forces of MGM’s 1950’s sci-fi colossus, Forbidden Planet (1956) for inspiration; right down to the similarly designed Robot B9; a knock-off of the iconic ‘Robbie’ (not surprising since both were designed by Robert Kinoshita. Robbie actually makes a guest appearance on Lost in Space).
References to Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson are transparent; Allen and his small army of screenwriters (too numerous to list herein) catapulting Wyss’ adventurous clan into the farthest reaches of outer space, circa 1997. Indeed, Allen’s working title for the show was Space Family Robinson, presumably because he had quite forgotten Gold Key Comics already held the copyright on that franchise, also based on Wyss’ 1812 novel. It would have been within Gold Key’s rights to sue Allen and 2oth Century-Fox for copyright infringement. Wisely, they stood down, realizing Allen would likely license rights from them as he had done only a few years before while preparing his big screen production of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). When Allen elected to change his series’ name to Lost in Space, Gold Key followed suit with their comic book franchise to capitalize on its prominence; a mutual win-win and one of the most lucrative marketing tie-ins for merchandise based on a TV show.
Time has proven the primitiveness of this exercise quaintly silly. What can I tell you? We were a different people back in 1965 – less judgmental about the world and each other, or perhaps, more willing to suspend our believe in an entire family being allowed to pilot a multi-billion dollar military space craft – the Jupiter II – for the express purpose of colonization. Who needs professional astronauts when we have Will and Penny Robinson – the wiz kids of today/the burgeoning great minds of tomorrow?  In 1968, Stanley Kubrick would shatter these old-fashioned notions with his uncannily prophetic 2001: A Space Odyssey; in hindsight, an ominous precursor of the darker outer space fantasies yet to follow it. But in 1965, with President John Kennedy’s commitment to the space race still firmly ensconced in the American lexicon, Lost in Space managed to tap into the nation’s bright-eyed optimism about the future, preceding Kubrick’s more dour opus magnum with very different precepts in mind: chiefly to entertain with a sort of Jules Verne-sian immersion of weekly escapes into exotic lands populated by very strange creatures.  For three years and 83 episodes, (more than even Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek 1966-69) Lost in Space dazzled us with its then state-of-the-art SFX.  In casting the series, Allen turned to some fairly credible actors for inspiration; Guy Williams (an easily identifiable face with credits on Bonanza and Walt Disney’s Zorro), herein playing devoted father and Prof. John Robinson), June Lockhart (notable in the Lassie series, his devoted wife, Dr. Maureen Robinson), Marta Kristen and Angela Cartwright as their daughters (Judy and Penny respectively) and Mark Goddard (of Johnny Ringo, and, The Detectives fame), as the strapping young pilot, Maj. Don West, holding a perpetual torch for the flaxen-haired Judy.
Gradually, the series began to revolve around three characters as yet mentioned in this review; the Robinson’s youngest - son, Will (Bill Mumy), the aforementioned Robot B9 (remarkably animated for a rubber-molded prosthetic and memorable for the oft repeated line: “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”) and finally, Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). Harris is today fondly remembered by a legion of fans for his delicious ability to play overt panic, his tag line “We’re all doomed” usually a prelude to some hilarious mugging for the camera. “Never fear. Smith is here!” Initially, Harris’ ‘good doctor’ was of a far more sinister ilk; the arch nemesis of the Robinsons. Indeed, in Lost in Space’s pilot, and for four additional episodes thereafter, Harris is the unrepentant and shifty-eyed villain, lit from low angles or emerging from the shadows, perpetually scowling as he plots his failed sabotage of the Jupiter II; hidden inside a secret compartment, reprogramming the robot to attack and destroy the ship, but becoming trapped during lift off; thereafter, forced to endure the unknown with these marooned unfortunates.
Setting aside Lost in Space as the highest rated show in its time slot with not one, but two killer anthems written by the great John Williams (herein, billed as Johnny Williams), the series was as notable for its formidable brain trust of writers (Carey Wilber, Norman Lessing, Alexander Singer among them) and a strong assemblage of guest stars (Kurt Russell, Warren Oates and Strother Martin). Viewed today, Lost in Space is very much a byproduct of the uber-groovy sixties. But it really has a flavor and a style all its own. While the initial season premiered in B&W, for its last two seasons the show switched over to color; Irwin Allen having the foresight to shoot many of the special effects inserts in Season One in color anyway in preparation for their re-usage in Seasons Two and Three. Personally, I’ve always felt B&W suited Lost in Space better. A myriad of movie-land sins can be cleverly concealed in B&W; the paper mache meteor storm in Episode One/Season One, as example, fairly convincing in contrasting black and white as opposed to, say, the gaudy cycloramas representing a foreign landscape, complete with obvious cardboard cutouts and plastic foliage in Seasons Two and Three.
Despite changing times and advancing technologies, Lost in Space holds a special place in the hearts of many as a pleasant alternative to the original Star Trek. As family-themed drama, CBS wasted no time slotting it into 7:30pm on Wednesday nights, surely to appeal to the kiddies just before mom and dad toddled them off to bed; able to fill their dreams and/or nightmares with fantastical figments from Irwin Allen’s own fertile imagination. Allen would only direct the first five episodes of this iconic series. These were actually shot as one long movie and then reedited to fit the time constraints of an hour long TV series. To some extent, Lost in Space ‘lost’ something when the program went to color for Season Two; the focus dramatically shifting to more far-fetched escapism. It was the executives at CBS who pressed Allen to skew the show toward Will’s burgeoning friendship with the Robot, reluctantly assisted by the ever more malevolently foppish Dr. Smith.  Also softening the blow, CBS encouraged Allen to find a way to wrap up every episode with a relatively happy ending; the Robinsons never in any real harm even if they did face some harrowing experiences along the way; hypnotizing aliens, man-eating/clone-making flowers, and, a computer virus that caused the Robot to swell to ten times his regular size.
If anything, Season One of Lost in Space represents Irwin Allen’s purer vision for the show; what it was and what Allen aspired it to remain. Out of the first season’s 29 episodes, 15 are still considered bona fide classics today, including Welcome Stranger (with Warren Oates), My Friend, Mr. Nobody, Invaders from the Fifth Dimension, and, The Keeper (featuring The Day The Earth Stood Still’s Michael Rennie).  By 1965, Allen, who had envisioned Lost in Space as the first legitimate sci-fi series for TV, possessed an enviable autonomy in Hollywood, thanks to a string of successes. His first producer’s credit appeared on the RKO B-budget noir, Where Danger Lives (1950). That same year, Allen would also win an Oscar for Best Documentary, The Sea Around Us. But his métier was undoubtedly science-fiction; tales of radioactive trips to the bottom of the sea or venturing into a protoplasmic epoch populated by giant reptilian dinosaurs in The Lost World (1960), creating a brand as the creator of lush and fanciful entertainments. When Allen moved to television he brought this same vigor for fantasy to the small screen, unwilling to skimp on production values, and, in fact, churning out one of the costliest and most technically demanding pilots in the history of the medium.
Any attempt to adequately summarize all 84 episodes (85 if you count Bill Mumy’s unproduced ‘epilogue’) is futile, and no attempt will be made herein to do so. Besides, Mumy had written the ‘epilogue’ in 1979, pitching it to Irwin Allen that same year. But Mumy, who had forsaken the popularity of his character after becoming a teenager, with misguided notions of breaking free from this alter ego, was to have second thoughts in his early twenties, his optimism shipwrecked when Allen telephoned to explain he would emphatically not even consider the script. The explanation given to Mumy was that he, Allen, might wish to consider his own ideas for a comeback special at some later date, but, having read Mumy’s script, might be influenced to ‘borrow’ ideas, either intentionally or ‘un-‘, thus, leaving himself wide open for a lawsuit. Whether or not this was actually his reason remains open for debate. But when asked about the prospect of a Lost in Space reunion some years later, Allen was circumspect, but receptive to the idea, although suggesting he had perhaps waited too long to partake. Indeed, he had.
For in May of 1989, a mysterious fate befell Guy Williams. After retiring to Bueno Aries for a little R&R, his nude and badly decomposed body was discovered by police lying next to the bed inside his rented apartment; apparently dead many days and of ‘natural’ causes. Considered something of a national treasure in Argentina, Williams (born, Armando Joseph Catalano) lay in state at the La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires until 1991 when, at his belated request, he was exhumed and cremated; his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. In 2002, Jonathan Harris became the second casualty to slip away, putting a period to Dr. Smith’s return to the franchise. Over the decades, Harris had been one of Lost in Space’s most ardent proponents. He never tired of resurrecting the specter of his cringing, yet diabolical Zachary Smith; beloved as a loveable old ham. Despite Irwin Allen’s reluctance to reboot the franchise, the collectability of Lost in Space memorabilia remained strong; the show proving to have remarkable resiliency, endless revived in reruns on mainstream television throughout the 1970's and early 80's; thereafter, finding a perennial home on cable access. In 1972, a pilot for a cartoon version was made. It failed to garner further interest. In the mid-1990s, two documentaries were released to celebrate anniversaries and in 1998, Hollywood took a stab at recasting and updating Lost in Space as a multi-million dollar movie, starring William Hurt.  To date, there have been two more failed attempts to bring Lost in Space back from the dead – an un-aired 2003 TV pilot and another spit-balled plan to relaunch the series for a 2014 comeback.
Lost in Space began life as a failed – and un-aired – pilot, sans two of the series’ most enduring ingredients – Dr. Smith and the Robot; the Jupiter II first referred to as the Gemini 12. In the revamped pilot, the astronaut family of Dr. John Robinson, accompanied by an Air Force pilot and an environmental robot, set out from an overpopulated Earth, circa 1997, to explore Alpha Centauri, a planet suspected of having similar life-sustaining properties for the future of the human race. Almost immediately, the mission is sabotaged by Dr. Zachary Smith — a rogue agent, presumably working for a never disclosed government. Alas, in all his last minute treachery, Smith is trapped aboard during blast off while the rest of the crew remains in suspended animation. Jupiter II narrowly avoids annihilation during a meteor shower; Smith freeing the crew from their hibernation prematurely. Quickly realizing they are lost in outer space, Jupiter II is forced to crash-land on the alien planet of Priplanis. Increasingly, Smith becomes a figure of comedic cowardice and villainy, exploiting the forgiving nature of the Robinsons. Major Don West is not fooled, however, and frequently he and Smith come to the brink of blows.  One of the most enviable aspects of Season One is the quality of its writing; the episodes evenly paced and continuing the saga for survival against inhospitable odds and a host of oddities with cliffhangers from week to week.
At the start of Season Two, the Robinsons manage to repair Jupiter II, narrowly escaping the demise of Priplanis, destroyed by a series of cataclysmic earthquakes. Alas, by Episode Four, Jupiter II has been pulled into the gravitational pull of another planet, crash-landing yet again, this time on an unclaimed hunk of rock suspiciously like Priplanis, and leaving the distinct impression of a formulaic regurgitation of Season One’s narrative machinations. Partly to appease CBS’s edicts for a more ‘family-orientated’ show, but perhaps also to prove the series was moving in a new direction, the writers in Season Two make the disastrous decision to move into rank campiness; the adventures subservient to an increasing focus on Will Robinson’s friendship with the Robot and an easily befuddled and bumbling Dr. Smith’s meddlesome interventions that result in idiotic setbacks to hamper the mission.  To some extent, this narrative shift was good for ratings, a younger audience gravitating to the show. Alas, mature audiences felt betrayed. And so, in Season Three the decision was made to achieve a healthier balance between the series’ adventuresome roots and the enduring Will/Robot friendship. The renewal of this ‘search through space’ premise allowed for the Robinsons to explore more planets, including a brief time warp return to earth, circa 1942. Later, the Robinsons would also reach their originally planned destination - Alpha Centauri. As if to herald the dawn of a new beginning, Season Three also retired the original John Williams’ theme for an even more robust replacement with differently designed credits, featuring inserts of the real stars in place of the original representational animation.
Today, Lost in Space remains a cherished television series; its legion of fans undiminished by time; its popularity with each new generation steadily growing. It’s hard to keep a good series down – harder still, not to fall under the spell of enjoyable camp.  Arguably, the cheese was influenced by rival network ABC’s decision to schedule their live-action Batman series in a competing time slot. Shooting Season Two and Three of Lost in Space in color also impacted the artistic look and feel of these plots; the uber-saturation of robust colors – particularly, Allen’s favorite – orange – coupled with overblown comic book styled representations, resulted in some of the most eccentric plots ever devised for television.  Both Mark Goddard and Guy Williams came to loath this move away from what they deemed ‘intelligently-made sci-fi’. But what finally did Lost in Space in was a dip in the ratings, brought on by the series’ inability to return to its more dramatic ancestry. Had Irwin Allen stuck to his artistic principles from the beginning and kept the Robinsons’ search for Alpha Centauri ever-present in the narrative arc, it is conceivable the franchise might have endured for at least another one or two seasons. 
And yet, it’s difficult to argue with the success of Lost in Space since the last episode officially aired on March 6, 1968 and the series has moved into perpetual syndication, not just in North America, but around the world. To date, Lost in Space is translated into over 40 different languages. It is playing somewhere right now on this planet, and quite possibly some other able to intercept our satellite transmissions. It has never left the public consciousness since 1968. Today, even the campier episodes are more easily digestible as a byproduct of the swingin’ sixties; Dr. Smith as a beatnik go-go dancer (in an episode devoted to ‘space hippies’) probably the lowest point in the franchise (although, I’ve never been a fan of the Great Vegetable Rebellion either).  Bottom line: Irwin Allen’s brainchild has evolved to have a life of its own that perhaps not even its creator could have imagined. So, anyone doubting the impact Lost in Space has had either on today’s big or small screen sci-fi movies and TV is probably just a ninny.   
When many inquire as to why more vintage TV series have not found their way to hi-def, the answer is usually very simple – money. The Herculean task of remastering Lost in Space for Blu-ray began in 2004 with the Season releases on DVD.  At that time, Fox showed little interest in revisiting the well for new HD masters; a tragedy, since the DVDs left much to be desired. Fox, however, was being more prudent with their money. In fact, the film negatives were not theirs, but controlled by The Irwin Allen Trust, with Fox merely along for the ride as a distributor. Undaunted, film preservationist, Kevin Burns brokered an arrangement with Fox, convincing Allen’s widow and her business partners to siphon off some of their revenues to use for a complete restoration; the final cost topping out at just under a million dollars. Retrieving the fine grain masters from their vaults, all of the surviving footage was then ushered off to HTV/Illuminate; the magnetic sound elements restored at SSI in Hollywood. As is usually the case, there were ‘issues’ along the way; missing leaders and presumably lost sound elements. These were eventually hunted down, digitally rescanned and cleaned up to bring the level of quality up to snuff with contemporary standards.  The results are breathtaking.
There’s no ‘danger, Will Robinson!’ here. Produced in conjunction with Space Productions, Inc. and Synthesis Entertainment, 2oth Century-Fox Home Entertainment has done the utmost to preserve Irwin Allen’s beloved intergalactic family franchise for future generations to treasure. The B&W episodes reveal a remarkable crispness with superb tonality in the grayscale and a modicum of film grain expertly preserved. The color episodes sparkle with renewed vibrancy and exceptional clarity; head and shoulders above the lackluster DVDs that have been available for nearly two decades. All of the episodes herein are framed in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.  A word about the audio – it’s mono and, at times strident – especially during the pilot episode, occasionally exhibiting minor distortion and damage. Otherwise, everything looks and sounds fabulous and will surely please both Lost in Space aficionados and newcomers to the series.  
This 18-disc behemoth contains all 83 episodes with over seven hours of extra features that will put you into orbit. In addition to all of the extras that were originally included on the DVD sets, this Blu-ray compendium contains new on-camera interviews with Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen, Guy Williams Jr. & Toni Williams.  Alas, these ‘interviews’ are more superfluous than enlightening, and, boil down to a lot of PR to promote this set with very little ‘history’ attached.  Mercifully, there is more of the latter and far less of the former on display in the original audio commentaries on the episodes:  No Place to Hide (the original un-aired pilot), My Friend, Mr. Nobody, Attack of the Monster Plants, Return From Outer Space, The Phantom Family, The Anti-Matter Man, The Promised Planet, and, The Great Vegetable Rebellion. Lost in Space: The Epilogue features a reunion with surviving cast and a few surprise guests, doing a reading of Bill Mumy’s proposed final episode script. Actually, Mumy’s prose are quite articulate and would have made one hell of a good comeback special, had Irwin Allen chosen to pursue it.
Extras continue with ‘No Place to Hide’; two versions of the original un-aired pilot. We also have Guy Williams’ screen test and Bob May's home movies, both shot in 1965; plus, original CBS advertisers, affiliates tags and promos, Seven Wonderful Nights’ - an excerpt hosted by Dick Van Dyke, CBS Network television spots from both Seasons One and Two, and preemption ‘bumpers from Season Two. Warren Barker’s alternative theme music, mercifully never used for the series, is showcased herein too and it’s terrible. From 1966, we have Dick Strout’s interviews with June Lockhart, Guy Williams and Jonathan Harris; from 1973, Lost in Space’s animated series pilot and from 1985, the never-before-released 20th Anniversary interview with Irwin Allen, audio only, but supplemented with archival behind-the-scenes footage and stills. Arguably, the best extra is The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen; a 1996 produced documentary for the Sci-Fi Network, hosted by June Lockhart and Bill Mumy with special appearances by surviving cast and crew.  Lost in Space Memories is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not a stand-alone retrospective, but actually a series of factoid tidbits about the series, produced in conjunction, to fit neatly between commercial breaks from the aforementioned documentary. From 1998, we get Lost in Space Forever, very brief sound bites, and A&E’s Biography Special from 2002 on Jonathan Harris.
A word about the packaging: it’s awkward. Lost in Space: The Complete Adventures is boxed, meaning you have to ‘unpack it’ to get to these discs. No easy access here – a pity too - and the discs themselves are housed in even more clumsily stiff cardboard sleeves. We get a reproduction of the pilot screenplay and lobby cards featuring likeness of the cast – mindless swag that, nevertheless, has its appeal amongst collectors and completionists. Bottom line: if you’re willing to invest in a lovingly produced box set of one of the most fondly recalled TV series in television history, then Lost in Space: The Complete Adventures is definitely the prime candidate for this year’s Christmas stocking stuffer.  Very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
5+

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