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Friday, August 4, 2017

Irwin Allen's Lost in Space
Subtitle: Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series, Volume 2
Author: Marc Cushman
Publisher: Jacob Brown Media Group; 1 edition (November 1, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0692747567
ISBN-13: 978-0692747568

Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton originally for BookPleasures.com

I rather expected Volume 2 of Marc Cushman’s exhaustive history of Lost in Space would have to be much thinner and less engaging than Volume 1. After all, Vol. 1 included the pre-LIS careers of Irwin Allen and all the cast members as well as an in-depth look at Allen’s first TV sci fi series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. For Vol 2, what else could Cushman do other than review all the episodes produced in season 2 of LIS? Well, he could, and does, give us a very decent overview of Allen’s prematurely cancelled Time Tunnel that ran on ABC from fall 1966 to spring 1967. 

In many ways, my expectations were spot on. But not completely. This is especially true of the early discussions which focus on the changes that came when the show was now produced in color.  Over and over, we’re told how “pop art” the visuals became, perfectly timed to coincide with the psychedelic ‘60s. As Cushman looks at the first episodes of the 1966-1967 season, it doesn’t seem like most of the cast members were all that important, other than the break-out star, Jonathan Harris.  As with season 1, he continued to be not only an actor but a major script re-writer as well.

In fact, cast member Marta Kristen, who played Judy Robinson, said the program became the Jonathan Harris show with his evil Dr. Zachery Smith taking up the lion’s share of the time along with Bob May inside the robot and Bill Mumy’s Will Robinson. Guy Williams and June Lockhart, who had been major TV stars in their past series (Zorro, Lassie) had only sporadic lines and duties. In addition, the program became, more and more, a comedic fantasy emphasizing monsters, special effects, outlandish props, and oddball guest stars.   With the apparent exception of network president William Paley, whom Cushman says was embarrassed by shows like LIS, CBS liked the changes. Top executives preferred a lighter touch that appealed to younger viewers which made for a winning formula against ABC’s Batman.

I was surprised to see just how much competitiveness Allen felt with the newcomer to network TV sci fi, the more serious Star Trek. For much of that season, in terms of ratings, LIS was often the weekly winner. Writers who worked on both series felt freer when scripting for LIS as there were fewer restrictions on what they could create. I wasn’t aware of how much pioneer work took place in LIS, especially with filming those outer space visuals and creating those weird props.

For a time, I felt like I was reading nothing more than a very, very detailed episode guide, something only diehard fans would enjoy. As Cushman admits, “my books redefine `TMI’." True enough. Nonetheless, there’s a warm tone that runs through the production notes. It’s clear Cushman liked the series when it first aired and he likes it, perhaps even more so, now.  There are frequent moments when Cushman takes the time to point to just what made a specific episode special or entertaining. He tells us the better stories had themes, as in the lessons children learned about topics like self-sacrifice, tolerance, lost innocence, or sexual equality. Such thematic material, of course, wasn’t present in many more fantastic episodes. 

In the end, it will be the serious fans who’ll want this second volume in the LIS saga. I can well imagine many TV sci fi fans who would also like to skim a book about one of the pioneer series in the genre. Certainly, most libraries should shelve this series, especially if they specialize in popular culture, TV production, or media studies. It’s not a cover-to-cover read, but rather a readable reference work.

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Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of Beta-Earth Chronicles

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