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Netflix’s mediocre Lost in Space remake, explained in one episode

The series has one of the worst cases of Netflix bloat you’ll ever see.

Lost in Space
Will Robinson meets his new friend, who just so happens to be a weird alien robot. Were you so prompted to exclaim, “Danger, Will Robinson!” well, we wouldn’t stop you.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I watched all 10 hours of the first season of Netflix’s Lost in Space remake.

I could talk at length about what the new series does right and wrong, or the ways it’s updated the story of the Robinson family from the 1960s original series for the 2010s. I could look at the way the title Lost in Space now seems to mean Lost! (As in the Popular ABC Series That Ran From 2004 to 2010) ... in space. I could even analyze how the series fits into Netflix’s seeming move toward more family-friendly programming, or talk about how this was maybe not the property to get within 500 yards of the term “gritty reboot.”

But no. My first impressions of the series, formed in its very first episode, never steered me wrong. There were stronger moments and weaker ones in the episodes that followed, and that first episode didn’t quite get me to a point where I would have been happy to see several of the characters die, as later episodes did.

But nothing in the show quite caused me to abandon my initial irritation that the first episode is almost entirely about saving someone who became frozen in ice, or that it took more than an hour to do so. Lost in Space is one of the foremost cases of Netflix bloat I’ve seen.

Chop 20 minutes out of almost all of these episodes and you’d have a rollicking family adventure series. At their current running times, though, the series lags and sags in a way that will leave viewers bored stiff.

The central plot of Lost in Space’s first episode explains everything else that’s wrong with the show

Early in the first episode of Lost in Space, the series introduces the bright and spunky teenager Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell). Yes, she’s kind of perfect at everything she tries — she’s a brave explorer and something of an amateur physician, and she’s only 18 — but that’s par for the course in this sort of kid-friendly entertainment. I came to like her a lot, enjoying how the series was doling out its characterization among the three Robinson kids instead of heaping all of it on young Will (as the original ’60s series did).

Then Judy immediately becomes frozen in ice while trying to dive down to an underwater spaceship to retrieve a battery. And the time it takes to get her out of the ice keeps increasing. And increasing. And increasing. And increasing.

Somewhere within the episode’s structure, I could recognize an attempt to do some interesting things with the Lost in Space template. When Will (Maxwell Jenkins) bumps into Robot, one of the series’ most famous creations, the creature is distinctly alien and strange, rather than the campy character of the original. The idea that the Robinsons are leaving behind an Earth that’s slowly choking to death (after an asteroid impact) is compelling, and even if the scenes digging into the fissures in the marriage between John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) feel as perfunctory as possible, I liked the idea behind them — that of a troubled couple making another go of it among the stars.

And did I mention that Parker Posey is playing the villainous Dr. Smith, tongue not-so-firmly in cheek, and having a great time doing so?

Lost in Space
The Robinson family finds itself lost ... Listen. Just read the title. You’ll get it.

What’s more, the first episode, directed by the terrific Neil Marshall (helmer of some of the best Game of Thrones episodes, as well as the tremendous horror film The Descent) and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, has plenty of good ideas for how to increase the tension as the family scatters across the surface of this strange planet to find a way to rescue Judy as her oxygen levels run lower and lower. There’s a sharper, tauter version of this story that could have engaged me, that successfully took this inherently goofy property and gave it a sleek, modern sheen that might have made for diverting family fun.

Instead, the episode can’t find a groove. Every time tension mounts, it cuts away to something else for a long while, only beginning to build tension again in fits and starts. And then when it finally seems like it’s going somewhere, it cuts yet again.

I sort of understand what the series’ writers are going for here. They want to underline the dynamics of the Robinson family (which also includes middle child Penny, played by Mina Sundwall), as well as flesh out the world they live in, a world where a desperate attempt to colonize planets orbiting Alpha Centauri (the closest star system to the sun) results in a mysterious accident that deposits many of the colonists — and not just the Robinsons — on a strange, uncharted planet with many, many ways of dealing out death against frail, squishy humans.

But the thrill of exploration, or the examination of family dynamics, never feels like it arises organically from the action, in the way it might have on the show’s most obvious forebear that isn’t its direct predecessor: Lost. That series smartly found ways to build character by having its various castaways confront on-Island situations that mirrored chapters in their past. But when Lost in Space does a flashback, it’s too often a pure exposition dump.

This is too bad. There’s plenty of stuff to like in Lost in Space, from Posey’s weird and vaguely unhinged performance to the surprisingly intriguing revamp of Robot as a potential alien threat (instead of just Will’s best friend) to the way the show tries to give some degree of characterization to a chicken. (Yes, a chicken.) And in the season’s ninth episode, I even thought, briefly, that it might be going somewhere, as it surprised me with some solid twists I hadn’t seen coming.

But at the same time, too much of the series feels like it’s frozen in place, waiting for all the other stuff to get taken care of so the story can resume. There’s a version of Lost in Space that’s very entertaining, but it feels as if the series’ producers haven’t quite found it yet. They’re still chipping away at the giant block of ice, looking for the story within.

Lost in Space season one is streaming on Netflix.

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