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‘Lost In Space’: Cast and Creators on the Challenges of Setting a Relatable Family Drama in Deep Space

Parker Posey, Molly Parker, and Toby Stephens explain why Netflix was the best place for the complicated interpersonal dynamics at the heart of the remake.

LOST IN SPACE

Netflix

The first episode of Netflix’s “Lost in Space” opens with a scene that might feel awfully familiar to anyone who remembers long trips with the family: Mom, Dad, and the kids killing some travel time by playing Go Fish.

“It’s like they’re on a train journey. Do you know what I mean?” actor Toby Stephens told IndieWire. “A family on a train journey. What do you do? You play cards. You’re killing time, you’re playing a card game. Like any family on a journey somewhere or in an airport or whatever.”

However, the Robinsons aren’t traveling by train or plane — they’re on a spaceship, escaping potential disaster, and John (Stephens) has started this zero-G game of cards to distract his family from the peril they’re in.

“I thought that that was just a really, really clever idea, as a setup, to introduce everybody in the family and the dynamic. To set up that domestic situation but in this extraordinary circumstance that rapidly goes wrong,” Stephens added.

It was something co-creator Burk Sharpless considered one of the most exciting moments for him, when it came to writing this redo of the classic sci-fi series. “To have the first scene be one of just seeing them really have that dynamic as a family — what does it look like for a bunch of people to sit around and be in this situation?” he said. “In some ways, that moment set out our take for the entire show.”

This tracks with everything Sharpless and co-creator Matt Sazama, along with stars Stephens, Molly Parker, and Parker Posey, told IndieWire about developing the show’s emotional core: The Robinsons, who might match with the original series in terms of names, represent a hyper-modern take on the typical American family.

“This Is Not an Apple Pie Family”

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Burk Sharpless: We talk about aspirational, but …sometimes that word is a little bit like that’s a fantasy. We wanted the family to be relatively realistic. It’s funny, how do you make the best of the best, a “Right Stuff” family, seem flawed and realistic? We took each character and tried to make them be sort of raw and vulnerable and relatable.

Toby Stephens: When I discussed it with [executive producer] Zack Estrin he was like, look, this is not an apple pie family. This is a family that is full of great people, but they’re damaged here. The relationship between the mother and father is dysfunctional. They’ve padded it, and it’s in disrepair and that’s part of the drama. Are they gonna be able to figure things out? How do they relate to one another? It’s an estranged father, who’s been away fighting wars and stuff like that, and he has become disconnected from his kids.

Molly Parker: I love that they took Maureen Robinson and turned her into this aerospace engineer, science-minded STEM girl. And John Robinson, while he’s this masculine warrior, he also turns out to be kind of much more emotionally available as a person than the female. So those roles are kind of subverted and that was interesting.

Matt Sazama: The main thing we wanted to do was that we wanted to have it be relatable to people who were watching it in 2018. The original family from the ’60s was a show that we love, but it really reflected what was considered to be the “normal” American family at the time, which was great for what it was. But we feel for parents and kids who are watching this show today, we want people to see themselves in it, and maybe the best versions of themselves, where things aren’t perfect and people have their disagreements. But at the core, it’s based on everyone loving each other, which is the one thing that does connect us to the family from the ’60s. But we wanted it to be a little bit rough around the edges, just so that people could maybe see themselves in it a little bit better.

Stephens: It’s just not very dramatically interesting to have a family that’s always kind of fine. I mean, it’s dramatic enough that they’re in this life-threatening situation, but you add to the drama by saying they don’t really know how to relate to one another and there’s this whole family dysfunction that they have to work out as well. And are they gonna work that out?

Sharpless: I’ve had so many people saying, “Oh, do you think it’s a dysfunctional family?” All I can say is that I just think it’s kind of like my family. It’s just like a family, because people aren’t perfect.

Stephens: There’s something disingenuous about them being a family that’s perfect. Not only would it be dramatically boring, but it’s also just not true. We know anybody who has a family knows that it’s not perfect and that people make mistakes. But the thing is that these people, like everyone, are just trying to do better. And I think that that is something everyone can relate to, whether you’re a kid or you’re an adult.

“It Has A Lot of Heart”

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Stephens: One of the things that I really love about [the show] is that it’s aspirational. This family, they are, they’re people who are trying to be better and do good and to survive. And so it’s very, in many ways I think it’s a very cognitive show. And all these relationships in the end, while they’re complicated they are part of this. And we need that kind of, I think we need the kind of show like that because there’s a lot of really depressing shows out there, which are fantastic and amazing, but they’re really depressing. And this is one has a really positive message and a kind of affirming message.

Posey: It’s cool that Netflix has made something that’s so big in scope, and I hope it fills up people’s homes and gives them lots of good energy. It has a lot of heart and it’s emotional and I think that’s really cool. I hope it’ll bring a lot of energy to families. Kids will want to go run out and play in the background, play spaceship and get into science. That’s cool.

Stephens: To be able to do what they wanted to do with this show, to kind of make it as magical to kids now as it was when it originally came out in 1965 — it takes an organization like Netflix that can throw enough money at it to achieve that. The kind of wonder and the kind of adventure. The scale of the adventure that they’re going for.

Posey: What’s so cool about shows that take place in outer space is that everyone is alien on the planet that they’re in. They’re just surviving it. This is a warm family, smart. They had their challenges in their marriage and all that, but they’re trusting of me and they let me in. That kind of seduction and manipulation isn’t, there’s no time for that. I thought it was just really lovely too, their take. There wasn’t any “I’m going to get Maureen’s husband.” You know what I mean? There’s no time for that. That was nice, that was cool.

Stephens: I think what I really loved about it was the kids are really intelligent. If I was a kid watching this I would go, “I want to be as intelligent and as capable as that child. I’m gonna work harder in school. I’m gonna really try and work hard at math.” That’s great as well. So I like that, the fact that the kids, to some extent, end up helping out the adults. It’s a nice dynamic.

“What Would Happen if You Added ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ to the Mix?”

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The Robinsons’ family life has more complications than the danger of space travel. Parker Posey, as a very new take on the character of Dr. Smith, adds a whole new sense of peril to the series — because no one’s totally sure what she’s after, except for the sort of family security the Robinsons seem to have.

Sharpless: There is a sort of earnest “Little House on the Prairie” quality to the Robinson family journey. We’re suckers for it and we love it. But it was like, what would happen if you added “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to the mix — a person who had so many layers of lies that even they believe that they’re a good person?

Posey: I watched [the original series] in reruns as a five- and six-year-old, and I would get up early and see the static on the TV and then wait, and then change the color bars, and then wait for “Lost In Space.” I was a fan, and I loved Dr. Smith, and I thought Bill Mumy was a terrific actor. It was really fun to get the offer to play this role.

Sazama: Parker is the special sauce of our show. She has the quirkiness of the original, but she also brings in this whole other group of people that wouldn’t maybe watch our show otherwise.

Posey: What I liked about the show so much was that it was a family trapped on their own planet. Dr. Smith gets to project her own fantasy of family onto the Robinsons, so it’s layered in this like, “I’ve never had this warmth, this family.” She gets a fantasy fulfilled and also has some power struggles.

“Families Want to See Families That Look Like Them”

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As opposed to the original series, John and Maureen Robinson’s marriage is troubled at the beginning of the season, which was a deliberate choice.

Stephens: The kids need that adventure and the fun. But then the grown-ups who are watching the show need to care about these people as well and enjoy the show on a different level. So we were kind of like, that part of the show is for the grown-ups. For them to relate to these people and to identify with them. To go, “I know what that’s like. I know how difficult that can be sometimes.”

Parker: Tonally, there’s a kind of balance that you need to strike on a show like this. Because it felt incredibly important to us, that their relationship feels truthful and relatable. And at the same time, it is a family show. It was just quite delicate. And we also, while making it fun, didn’t want to have it be like these people who bicker all the time. So we really did work very hard, Toby and I, to just make sure that in all the scenes… You know, when you’re dissecting a space eel, there is still something going on underneath that. There’s these levels of things going on that may or may not be getting talked about in the scene, but that we feel them all the time.

Stephens: I really love working with Molly. We actually had a lot of dialogue early on, both together and with Zack Estrin, about just figuring out exactly what their relationship was. Because when we were talking, we were both like, “This marriage has to seem real to people; otherwise people just aren’t gonna care.”

Parker: I love the fact they would allow the mom and dad in the show to be the ones that have a kind of romance. You know that there’s this potential, like they’re not together at the beginning. And so there’s the potential to fall in love again or not. And I also like that kids get to see a family that is alive. A lot of kids out there whose parents are divorced or not together — kids want to see that on TV too. I think families want to see families that look like them.

“Lost in Space” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.

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