Without a doubt, two of the biggest science fiction TV shows of the 1960’s had to be STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE. LOST IN SPACE ran for three seasons over at CBS from September 15, 1965 until March 6, 1968. The show underwent a fantastic revolution in concept from the first pilot until the final episode, when the cast was finally informed that the show was going to be unexpectedly canceled. And the show survived some major cast frictions when both Guy Williams, who was formerly cast as the lead in ZORRO, had his role in the show greatly reduced as actor Jonathan Harris witnessed his role in the show dramatically grow.

In December 1962, Gold Key Comics started a new comic called SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON, a futuristic take-off on ROBINSON CRUSOE, the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe, about a family lost in space much akin to the shipwreck of the Robinson Crusoe character. The comic was a great inspiration to fans of science fiction as well as producers who put together a black & white pilot to shop to CBS executives who wanted the show’s producer, Irwin Allen to improve it because it had a flat feeling pilot that lacked something. Two more characters, Dr. Zachery Smith and a robot were added to the show.

The first season started off much like a normal adventure series, where Dr. Zachary Smith appeared to be some stowaway saboteur aboard the ship who tried to reprogram the robot to attack the ship and crew, but instead the damaged ship which was soon lost in space due the extra weight of Smith throwing the ship off course during a storm in space. The role of Dr. Zachary Smith slowly started to evolve as a purely evil agent, likely of some foreign government, such as the old Soviet Union, started to take on a role that was almost grandfatherly to the children in the crew as well as that of cowardly guy who would scream like a girl when he got himself into serious trouble. His banter with the robot became something of legend, and quickly evolved the show by the second season into a campy science fiction offering than ran opposite to BATMAN over at ABC.

Guy Williams, a former male model, had been promised the lead role as an action star. Williams was very excited to have his second big action role next to his role as ZORRO. Instead, as actor Jonathan Harris began to ad lib with the robot more and more on the set, Harris was given more and more time on-screen, and was actually elevated to acting as a co-writer on the scripts. Very soon, Williams found his role reduced on the show to a supporting character to Harris and the robot, which caused him a great deal of upset. June Lockhart was also very upset at her reduced role on the show as well. But, young actor Bill Mumy and Jonathan Harris became lifelong friends on the set of the show.

The surprise cancellation of season four of LOST IN SPACE might have been attributed to a couple of reasons far beyond on set frictions between Williams or Lockhart and the show. The show was very expensive to produce although it often seemed like it was low budget, with Irwin Allen reusing much of the same monster costumes from VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA as space aliens in LOST IN SPACE.

Harris also played Dr. Zachary Smith is an unusual manner, where some critics thought the actor was Gay or at least played the character as an outrageous stereotypical Gay man. In reality, Jonathan Harris was not Gay. But, his character was an outrageous one, where he threw around outrageous insults with the robot, which were much loved by the viewers of the show where the characters of the robot and Dr. Smith quickly stole the show and became the most popular cast members. With the close relationship of the boy character, Will Robinson, the robot and Smith, the show had a lot of appeal to younger viewers. But, that also helped to hurt the show among advertisers, who wanted an older demographic to sell their wares to. It was also a likely reason for the eventual cancellation of the show as all shows all driven by advertising revenues.

Bob May, performed inside the robot suit, and would often remain in the suit during breaks. Sometimes smoke would be coming from the suit, as May was a smoker and would even take smoking breaks inside the suit. The voice of the robot was dubbed in by narrator Dick Tufeld.

The third season of the show took on some very silly elements such as an episode entitled “The Great Vegetable Rebellion”, which looked like a Fruit Of Loom outfit supposedly used as an alien costume. The IDAK robot in another episode looked like a Superman suit and a face spray painted silver. In another episode, a terrible stereotype of a Mexican bandit was portrayed with a silver face and a silver costume. Irwin Allen seemed to think that a little silver spray paint would make anything into a space prop. Even a common house broom spraypainted silver suddenly became a space broom with this reasoning.

Strangely, it was a little known fact that STAR TREK was also being shopped to CBS about the same time that LOST IN SPACE was, but it was rejected by CBS. Over on NBC, STAR TREK wasn’t really a hit either, quickly falling to 52 among the 94 shows aired on TV. But, after a third year cancellation, STAR TREK, gained a cult status leading to many sequel TV shows as well as many movies based on the series. LOST IN SPACE did inspire one movie as well as a failed TV pilot to bring the series back. Yet, both shows remain wildly popular among their respective fans. Most of the LOST IN SPACE cast remained for reunion events, although Guy Williams was quick to leave the U.S. for Argentina, where he eventually died at the relatively early age of 65 in 1989. Actor Jonathan Harris died in 2002 at the age of 87. Bob May who played the robot on the series died at the age of 69 in 2009. The other cast members still survive.

LOST IN SPACE has remained a very popular cult favorite still aired in syndication such as on MeTV and available on DVD. Some popular catch phrases from the show include Dr. Zachary Smith’s moaning complaint, “Oh the pain…the pain”, or the robot’s famous, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger”.

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  • The first season, as I remember, was great fun. Action! Adventure! But then, as you point out, the focus changed and a lot of the episodes were pretty silly.

    The “Lost In Space” movie that came out in ’98 could have been a lot better – but they couldn’t make up their mind whether it was supposed to be action-adventure or semi-horror. And as such… it flopped.

    • It was a strange change of pace for the show to play as a pretty much straight on sci fi adventure action show for much of the first season, but then as actor Jonathan Harris started more and more ad libs with the robot. he was given a co-writer role to write himself the lion’s share of the show’s script. They might as well have called the show LOST WITH SMITH at that point. Some of the space alien costumes were light years beyond absurd, with lots of silver makeup. The banter between the robot and Smith sometimes took on a nature much like the fighting between The Smothers Brothers. But, the show was entertaining, although often laughably silly in the second and third seasons. Strangely, actor Jonathan Harris played Dr. Zachary Smith as cross between the children’s grandfather and a raging drag queen Shakespearian actor who way overacts. It was a bizarre, but memorable character.