Few science fiction relationships stick in my mind better than the love/hate between Dr. Zachary Smith and Robot in the original 1960s version of Lost in Space. It has far more spark and shine than the Dr. Smith and Robot in the 2018 Netflix reboot. The modern Smith and her encounters with Robot are a frustrating puzzle.
Actor Jonathan Harris created the original Dr. Smith, who started as the series’ villain. Producer Irwin Allen and his team suggested he might have caused the crash of the Jupiter 2 spacecraft, which was carrying the Robinson family to a new life on Alpha Centauri. By the end of the first season, Dr Smith had become comic relief, turning a show that started as a drama into a fantasy.
Comedy acts need a straight man, or in this case, a straight automaton. Robot (shorthand for “Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot”) fed Harris lines that set up the most creative insults ever hurled at a computer, such as “Mumbling Mass of Metal” and “Tin-Plated Tintinnabulation.” Robot, on the other hand, always appeared to know just what Smith was about, which was cowardice and buffoonery.
Robot fed Dr. Smith lines that set up the most creative insults ever hurled at a computer.
Of all the moments in the original Lost In Space, the encounters between Dr. Smith and Robot endure. They’ve even been collected into a YouTube video.
When I first heard about the Netflix reboot, I immediately thought of Dr. Smith and Robot. How would the reboot honor the original characters? For Lost in Space, the answer is: It does and it doesn’t.
The two Dr Smiths begin in a similar way. They are both dark villains, and they are both stowaways. The similarity stops there. As the original show progressed, Dr Smith evolved in a bumbling fool, a kind of light villain, a trickster who gets in the way and causes mayhem. The 2018 Dr Smith stays dark. She is a sociopath, feeling no empathy for others around, acting completely selfishly for reasons unclear through most of the series.
Whereas you could like Harris’ Dr Smith, despite his incompetence and interference, it’s impossible to like Parker Posey‘s Dr. Smith, because her badness is a puzzle. She’s bad for the sake of being bad. She even seems to enjoy it.
The key to the success of Harris’ Dr Smith was his relationship to Robot, who checks Smith’s self-interest with reason, even patience. The modern Dr Smith has no relationship to speak of with the enigmatic, serpent-like 2018 Robot. In her defense, it’s hard to be friends with an object which is largely mute, even inert, except for an occasional fight and a “Danger, Will Robinson,” the original Robot’s famous tagline.
Netflix has purchased a second season of Lost In Space. Showrunner Zack Estrin has an opportunity to put more color into the interaction between his versions of Dr Smith and Robot. They don’t need to echo the comedic cat and mouse of the originals, but it might make both more likeable as characters.
Who is your favorite Dr. Smith from the two TV series or the 1998 movie?