10:15am PT by Byron Burton
The Inside Story of How 'Lost in Space' Got Off the Ground at Netflix
Irwin Allen's original 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space gave the world its first space family as well as pop culture phrases like, "Danger, Will Robinson." The property remained dormant until the 1990s when a film franchise was attempted, but never achieved liftoff. Now the Robinsons are back 20 years later and exploring the strange new territory of digital streaming.
Netflix's Lost in Space reboot opens in the middle of an outer space disaster, which causes the Robinson family's spacecraft to crash-land on an unknown planet similar to Earth. The pilot, aptly named "Impact," was written by the show's producers, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. In the episode, viewers learn that the Robinson family is one of many that passed difficult training in order to take part in a vital space colonization mission. The massive global effort is in response to an unknown object's impact with the Earth, which has made the planet inhospitable.
Showrunner Zack Estrin (Prison Break, The Whispers, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland) was looking forward to a nice vacation when he received the Lost in Space script. "I had done so many shows in a row, but this script was too good not to develop. I have two kids, ages 14 and 11, and they haven't been able to watch anything I've done. When I pitched them this show, they basically signed the contract for me."
When Estrin sat down with the producers and Netflix executives, he felt an instant chemistry with their artistic vision for the show. "It was like everyone was swiping right on all the creative ideas," jokes Estrin. "It was sort of Tinder meets The Love Connection."
In preparation for the show's technology, Estrin and his team talked with scientists at NASA, specifically about their research and development on new technologies. "We told NASA that we didn't want ideas for things they were hoping to achieve, we wanted to know what they could actually deliver," he says. Their conversation led to an interesting plot point in season one. "In one of our storylines, the Robinson family is able to convert the waste of a creature into usable fuel," says Estrin. "That's something that NASA is working right now."
Estrin doesn't consider himself a hardcore sci-fi fan and prefers to focus on the humanity of character-driven storytelling. "When you look at the relationship between Will and the Robot, you can draw comparisons to The Iron Giant, Black Stallion, Old Yeller. I really wanted to show that we're more focused on quality storytelling and not ships firing lasers."
Toby Stephens (Black Sails) and Molly Parker (House of Cards, Goliath) lead the Robinson clan as estranged husband and wife. The complicated family dynamics are just one of the many things that the Netflix team reimagined from the original series, which ran for 83 episodes from 1965-1968."The individuals roles within the Robinson family in the original series certainly reflected the views of 1960s society, particularly in regard to women. If you go back, you'll see that Maureen was the only one doing the cooking and cleaning," Estrin says. "We're in a much different time now, and we wanted our characters to reflect that. Roles for race and gender have certainly evolved, and we're proud to have a very diverse and independent Robinson family."
Estrin also didn't want to steer the show too far from the original's adventurous tone. "I think that there's a stereotype that all remakes have to be dark and edgy. We didn't want to do that with this show. Our family dynamic is one that loves each other, they have problems just like every family has," Estrin says. "There's an arc throughout the first season, if people stick with it they'll see the changes that the family goes through … they actually rediscover each other through this traumatic experience."
For casting, Estrin was given a list of available talent. He immediately connected the strong-willed character of Maureen Robinson with actress Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood). "She's one of those actresses who can communicate so much by saying nothing," says Estrin. "You can always cut to Molly in a scene and get something from her. When we'd have a line that wasn't connecting, I'd always suggest that we cut to Molly because she gives such strong reactions."
The pilot features a cameo by Lost in Space alumnus Bill Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the original Irwin Allen series and appears as an injured physician. Mumy's jacket has a shoulder embroidery that reads, "Dr. Z. Smith," which is a nod to the villain of the original series. Mumy's Dr. Smith is left for dead by Parker Posey's character, after she steals his jacket and identity. Estrin thought that the swapping gender via identity theft was a very topical move for the show's antagonist. "Data theft is becoming a bigger and bigger thing, this is sort of the Cambridge Analytica moment for Lost in Space," Estrin jokes. "I thought it was a clever move, because as iconic and clever as Jonathan Harris' take on Dr. Smith was, it couldn't be duplicated, nor should it. With Bill in that role, it really felt like he was passing the torch to Parker and our cast."
In terms of musically passing the torch, the show honored its original composer, John Williams, by reviving his original theme. "It was a decade before John got Star Wars, and he went by Johnny in the early days,” says Estrin. "We wanted the show to have a sense of classic summer escapism and adventure, and John's theme was a big part in achieving that."
Composer Chris Lennertz and Estrin went to London to record the Lost in Space score. "We took that main theme and asked ourselves, 'How would John Williams score this show today?' So much of science fiction now is defined by electronic music and synth sounds. We consciously wanted this to be a return to the classic style," says Estrin.
Once the series was filmed, the team binged the first 10 episodes. Estrin recalls the moment when they realized that one episode didn't quite mesh with the rest. “We saw the forth episode and said, 'We made some story mistakes on this one,'" says Estrin.
"We'd wanted to do a sort of Stand By Me episode [referencing the 1986 Rob Reiner film]. We had the kids off together exploring, but there wasn't a sense of jeopardy or danger. Our show is a thriller, and while you can have exploration of the characters, it's better when they're running from something or trying to overcome a challenge," says Estrin. "So we went back in and made a couple adjustments that really brought the episode to life."
In terms of the hardest episode to film, Estrin puts episode five at the top of the list. "For starters, the set was a real nightmare. It was 22 degrees in the middle of the night and we were filming until 5 a.m.,” says Estrin. The nightmare worsened when they discovered that their creature suit wasn’t performing as they’d envisioned. "We'd wanted to make the creature practical and not CGI,” recalls Estrin. “During the initial testing, we really liked it, but on the night watching it on the monitor it was like, 'Oh man, is this going to work?’”
The creative team got together the following morning to discuss how to salvage the sequence. "Everyone agreed that the sequence needed to be approached with digital in mind. The practical creature suit was reminiscent of the original Lost in Space, and not in a good way,” jokes Estrin. “Audiences expect a certain look, and if you can't deliver that then you have to go digital.”
For Lost in Space’s famous robot, Estrin estimates that he saw more than a hundred designs. "We were very inspired from some of the early Star Wars designs. When you look at R2D2, he had a personality, but he didn't talk. All the droids had their own personality. We wanted our robot to have some of that, but also be mysterious. It conveys its mood through his body movement and the light shifts in its face," says Estrin.
One robot design that Estrin and his team considered was literally all legs. "We had so many artists throwing stuff at us in the beginning. One design had two massive legs, with just a massive ball between them. The ball would rotate around, revealing different things that were going to be part of its personality. The legs were seven feet tall, and the ball hung down in the middle," says Estrin.
Another design featured a floating head that could move freely through the air and return to the robot's body. The search for the appropriate design oscillated between too scary and too cuddly. "We had to find a design that made you feel the robot could be your protector and friend, but also a dangerous entity. It was a bit like being Goldilocks and trying out different porridges," jokes Estrin.
For season two, Estrin has a strong sense of where the characters are headed. "If Netflix decides to do a season two, we want to focus on our young cast coming of age. Our kid actors are going to age, so we want to embrace that with our storytelling," says Estrin.
"If you look at Will throughout the first 10 episodes, be goes through an incredible arc. He's come a long way from the boy who didn't want to jump into the water in the pilot. He achieves a level of confidence and bravery that will play out over the coming seasons."
Lost in Space is streaming now on Netflix.