Imagine, if you will, that the 2018 version of “Lost in Space” began with a crash landing — not the Robinson family’s icebound spacecraft, but the robot’s doomed ship. Instead of seeing a pedestrian, unfinished game of Go Fish, viewers could’ve been introduced to a strange new world through the eyes of a strange new machine.
What if “Lost in Space” was told from the robot’s point of view?
Much of the story doesn’t need to change. The robot still could’ve wandered in the wilderness until it spotted a young boy, and, after chasing him down, it could’ve been flipped; what was once malicious (or, at least, devastatingly self-protective) could then become friendly to a human (a human the audience instinctually trusts because he’s got the bland haircut of all adolescent Disney kids).
From there, the robot (which, let’s be honest, deserves a real name) could’ve been introduced to the rest of the family, slowly earned their trust, been painfully discarded (out of safety concerns), and later turned to the dark side by the twisted mind of the so-called Dr. Smith (Parker Posey). Imagine the power of scenes where the robot is asked to walk off a cliff or reveals his loyalty to the evil human: If those scenes worked for viewers who identified with the robot because they first identified with Will (Max Jenkins), they’d be doubly powerful if the robot was their primary hero.
The only major changes to the show would’ve been formal: Since Robot is about as loquacious as Wall-E, much of the show would’ve been executed like a silent film (or at least the modern equivalent, where dialogue is nixed but other diegetic sound remains). That’s not an extreme shift given how much of “Lost in Space” is driven by action, and all the precious educational value — like Papa John Robinson’s magnesium trick or the parents using helium to escape a tar pit — could’ve been imparted to the robot instead of around him. Just have him watching in the background, either observing from afar (out of curiosity) or restrained from helping his human friends. (The kids already knew all the series’ science, so why not share that expository dialogue with something that’s actually eager to learn?)
With the robot as the main protagonist, so many problems go out the window. Gone are the extended relationship woes; John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen’s (Molly Parker) marriage issues can be briefly alluded to whenever Robot catches a glimpse of their conflict, but they don’t need to steal focus anymore. Much of the questionable dialogue can be cut in favor of what the series does best: thrills. Even the cookie cutter survival story construction would suddenly seem inspired: It’s 2018, and a robot that looks like a robot can lead a live-action TV show. Audiences have been primed for this moment, and “Lost in Space” took advantage.
After all, when it’s all said and done and the Robinson family has improbably escaped death for the umpteenth time, what character are you drawn to the most? Is it John and his unceasing, uber-macho grunting? Or is it Maureen and her constant overanxious mom-ness? Perhaps you connect with one of the kids and their one-dimensional “Wizard of Oz” arcs: Will wants to be brave, Penny (Mina Sundwall) wants a heart (/boyfriend), and Judy (Taylor Russell) has a brain, but she’s gotta get it working again after she almost froze to death in the ice.
No, none of these named humans make you feel as much as the nameless robot. It’s no mystery why — quite the opposite, in fact. It’s the mystery surrounding the robot that makes him so interesting, while his clever design and anthropomorphic actions help elevate his stature. (Though, admitting for a moment a human pronoun is justified by the robot’s innate humanity, shouldn’t the robot be referred to as “they”? It’s presumptuous even for a future child to guess that the sexless being identifies as masculine — just sayin’.)
As IndieWire noted in its Season 1 review:
What really makes the robot stand out is its complexity. It’s mysterious, both in its origins, intentions, and inability to over-communicate. It doesn’t talk, so you can see whatever you want in its childlike actions (playing catch, learning Go Fish, following people like a duck). That it’s a reformed killing machine makes it interesting: Where did it come from? Was it really Will that made it change? Why did it do what it did? These questions are addressed throughout the series (especially in Episode 9, “Resurrection”), which makes for a satisfying journey of discovery.
It’s a bit frustrating Season 1 didn’t employ the above perspective switch, but it’s not too late. Whether the writers recognized their best character and wrote toward him or simply stumbled into an ending that sets up a robot-centric Season 2, there’s a chance to really dig into the Robot’s world (and viewpoint) if Netflix renews the sci-fi family drama.
Wherever the Robinsons end up in the finale, Will oh-so-wisely points out that it looks like a galaxy the robot knew well. Those two overlapping orbs could signify we’re in for more robots in Season 2 or even — dare we dream? — a robot origin story. Either way, the second season is set up even better than the first to follow the robot’s point of view. Hopefully this time next year, we won’t have to imagine it.