Lost in Space


Melora Wolff

Thrown from its trajectory by a meteor storm, the Jupiter 2, a small, spoon sized saucer of a ship that contained elevators, long corridors, control rooms, and multi-levelled family quarters, traversed the galaxies hopelessly off course, for years. Would the Robinsons—a space colonist family of five, John, Maureen, and their three children Judy, Penny, and Will—ever find their way in the Jupiter 2 to their new home, a planet near the galaxy of Alpha Centauri? Or must they return to the Earth where they began? Aliens, giants, walking vegetables, and space monsters aligned against them. Doctor Smith, the cunning stowaway, did his utmost to lead the family to their doom. Would the Environmental Control Robot warn young Will Robinson in time of the unexpected dangers, its lights blinking like a Christmas tree, its spherical head spinning and pumping up and down in mechanical distress? “Warning! Warning!” I shouted to my father in imitation of the Robot when it waved its Slinky-like arms in the air. I waved my arms in the air too. “Ignominious ignoramus!” my sister said to me, playing Smith’s part. “You lame-brained lump! Pusillanimous Pipsqueak!”

“Shush,” my father said, patting the two of us back down. “Watch what’s happening. Wait until it’s over.”

“That does not compute, that does not compute!” I said in my best Robot voice.

“You’re going to miss all the important stuff!” My father flopped down on the center of the bed, more eager than we were to watch the week’s episode. I tucked myself under his right arm. My sister tucked under his left with her Bunny Puppet. I was four; she was seven. I could not see her over the broad expanse of our father’s chest. He smelled of soap, sweat, and wool. That scent, and the rough wool of his sweater against my face, are the first details I recall of our weekly TV ritual — watching Irwin Allen’s sci-fi adventure Lost in Space, or L.I.S., as my father called it fondly. “Kids, time for L.I.S.!” he yelled for us when he arrived home on those evenings. He kissed my mother, and then went straight to the Emerson. From 1965 to 1968. Three seasons. Black and white, for us. Every episode. Our three bodies pressed reassuringly together, my sister, my father, and me. Through all the endings of suspense, as the Robinsons once again headed toward their doom. The image on screen would freeze at the worst possible moment of their latest ordeal. What could possibly happen to the Family Robinson next? Would they survive?

“A cliff hanger?” my father exclaimed in mock disbelief.

Words flashed across the screen in answer.

“To Be Continued Next Week! Same Time Same Channel.”

The faces of the Robinsons appear to me now fifty years later, as I remember my father. In 1965, when the first season began, my father was forty years old, and actually looked a bit like Professor John Robinson, or like the actor Guy Williams (known to some as Zorro), himself forty-one. Both of them were trim, dark, and their hair was always disheveled despite their efforts to slick it back—a problem, maybe, of gravity. Williams never acted again after Lost in Space went off the air — apparently he flew to Argentina after the last episode, and did not return to the States — but for a while, my father and Robinson seemed twinned in their white T-shirts and high-waisted trousers, their belts cinched tight. I knew they each had the tough job of being captain of the ship, but John Robinson seemed to have the harder time of it. The threat of lightning storms, quicksand, missiles, and time warps kept Robinson always in a light sweat as he scouted the terrains of unfamiliar planets with his family huddled in the back seats of the space chariot. Miraculously, there was always oxygen to breathe, but his radio often failed from cosmic interference, and the alien ground seized and shook with unexpected thermal upheavals. Nevertheless, Robinson always reassured his trembling children. “Now, we’re all going to be without gravity for a while,” he would explain casually, “so we better hang on”; or as their ship slipped hopelessly toward the Sun, “In a matter of hours, we’re going to be in danger of roasting alive. There’s no time to get back to the ship, we’re going to have to build a shelter right here.” Maybe my father admired the man’s obvious finesse in tight spots, or hoped to fashion himself after his look-alike Robinson, a brave pilgrim of the future. I am surprised to notice now in photos of my father as a boy — sandy hair combed neatly in a bowl cut and his lower lip slightly pouting — that he also once looked exactly like young Will Robinson, transported in time to 1935.

Of course, my father’s universe in boyhood was a much smaller one than Will Robinson’s — just a few short streets of pool halls, a hardware store, a smoke shop, a movie-theater, and a penny candy counter at a cinderblock gas station in a failed coal mining town in Pennsylvania. Daily after school let out in spring, my father ran beside the river, past the baseball field, past the graveyard where his relatives all lay buried beneath brown grass, past the plot of earth that was marked already for him. In one photo from that time, he wears a crisply pressed sailor suit, although there was never a ship in sight, and he looks directly in to the camera with a solemn gaze. He sits beside his father. Doc Wolff’s fleshy hand rests firmly on the boy’s bare knee. The gesture appears benign and possessive at once. That hand, I imagine, pressed down on my father throughout his life, and held him inside to a place he wanted to escape. How far was he willing to go? He enlisted in the army. He changed his first name, and shed “junior” permanently. He traveled through three countries in two years. He considered moving to Indiana, or Ohio, then landed in New York with my mother where he finally had children of his own and watched Lost In Space in the evenings with them like the family man he had determined he would be. When he settled in to cheer for the Robinson family, he seemed to my sister and me more like a big kid. Did he imagine himself soaring beyond the Earth in the Jupiter 2 at a calibrated “perfect escape velocity”? Might it have been the Robinson son he watched and rooted for so faithfully, and not the Robinson father? When he watched Lost in Space, did he see the son and father together as two resilient versions of himself, boy and man, traveling together through time?

When I watch Lost in Space now, I see in the first season the serious ambition of the show’s writers. They offered a TV show of the future that pitched a plausible physics, a new frontier in space, but that also regularly paid homage to older fantasy narratives. The show drew adventures and tropes visibly from the science fictions of Wells and Verne, Jack Finney and John Wyndham, yes, but also from Victorian fairy tales, Norse mythologies, medieval legends, and Bible stories. Fittingly, the show’s episodes were all over the place, careening among their source materials, albeit dependent mostly on the lode stars of Virgil and of Homer whose epic tales of Aeneas and Odysseus — their vessels tossed and wandering upon the seas — foretold John Robinson’s future odyssey in deep space. In voice-overs, Robinson narrates his adventures in the tradition of the ancients. Alas, the special effects of the show, like craft projects, seem silly to me now. The meteor storm that tosses the spaceship looks like a handful of granola tossed at an Altoid; the Robot resembles a Shop Vac; the space suits that once looked to me so shiny and impressive, featured even in fashion magazines of the 60s, now look right for a Zumba class. These details are to me as charming as the Robinsons’ prevailing trust in honor, in virtue, and in each other. Certainly, the Robinsons are a very unlikely family: daughter Judy clearly has Nordic roots, daughter Penny uses a breathy, British inflection, son Will is all-American, a heartland child. Only Penny resembles her parents. Nevertheless, they do all speak — and shout — similarly; that, is, very slowly, even as they shoot their lasers, dodge rockets, confront extra-terrestrials, and sink deep into galactic quicksand. How is it possible for actors to be both lethargic and urgent simultaneously? The cast manages it, and this now seems right to me, actually even inspired, because this is what it feels like to be truly lost: Urgent Lethargy steers your ship. I am startled to feel that the show is strangely relevant too in 2017, and may be in any era. In the episode “The Stowaway,” a President of the Future (1997!) deeply laments the overpopulated Earth and the dying environment, as most Presidents do. The Russians manage to sabotage the ship’s course at launch. The flecked paint-swirl of the cosmos depicted outside the viewing deck of the ship and inside the lens of the Jupiter’s telescope strikes me as a strangely authentic metaphor for hope. Most remarkably, the actors of Lost in Space throw themselves into every far-fetched scenario without a flinch or a blink of irony. Instead, they look at one another with trust and love—prevailing values of L.I.S. Through the force of their will, the Robinsons still command our attention. Our respect. Our loyalty.

My father gave them all of this fully, for three seasons.

He followed nothing else on television in the 1960s as far as I know. For a long time I believed my father was a dedicated fan of Science Fiction. He did own a two-volume vinyl recording of Orson Welles’s infamous radio broadcast, Warof the Worlds, but in time, it became clear that his enthusiasm was only for the genius of Welles, and not for the Martian invasions. A few years after Lost in Space surprisingly beat Star Trek to the coveted network spot, that other show finally surged into popularity and it seemed that no one cared much about the idealistic L.I.S. anymore, except my dad. The crew of weird trekking isolates aboard the Starship Enterprise bored him completely — he preferred the wholesome Robinsons, whose tight-knit family allegiance eclipsed every threat in outer space. I am not sure to what extent L.I.S. was indebted to Johann David Weiss’s 1812 novel Der Schweizerische Robinson, the tale of a Swiss family, also named Robinson — Weiss’s own backward nod to Robinson Crusoe — shipwrecked in the East Indies after seriously losing their way to Australia in a storm. I do not believe my father owned that book as a boy or had any special interest in German novels about the Swiss. I am certain that the opening of each L.I.S. episode — scored with orchestral brass and woodwinds in a buoyant tune by the young composer “Johnny Williams,” who would later define the sound of fantasy cinema — must have thrilled my father’s ear for music. He would be delighted, surely, by the opening credits that featured simple cut out figures of Robinson, Maureen, and their two daughters arranged in an animated collage, the four of them tied safely together by a rope as they galloped happily through the stars. What could possibly be better than that? my father must have thought — did think — throughout his life.

Does the explanation for my father’s love of L.I.S. hide somewhere in his life story? He should tell the story himself, although it is one that he never wanted to tell anyone in much detail, except in small bursts of anecdote or anger. Sometimes, he mentioned men we never knew, fellow soldiers who had traveled with him across England, France, and Germany until the war’s end; or a place he had once enjoyed as a boy — a theme park, an ice cream shop, a baseball field beside the Allegheny River. Sometimes he mentioned an insult that he had endured and carried with him across decades; or his rolling with his benumbed Unit into Marseilles at dawn after a three-day pull without sleep; or a rare surprise trip to Philadelphia he had once taken long ago on a train with his father, just before his parents’ terrible divorce. He seemed to have saved few artifacts of his journeys. One Christmas when my sister and I were still children, my father did pull a large box out of storage and unpack for us eight metal cars of an old electric train. “My father gave this to me when I was a boy,” he said in apparent disbelief. My sister and I joined him on the floor where he sat cross-legged, in deep concentration, carefully hinging all the cars back together and laying the metal track in an oval on the carpet. When he hit the switch, the first time he had done so in decades, the train lit up — we all cheered! ­­— and the cars lurched into a slow whirring motion. After decades in suspended animation, the train resumed its journey. In a way. It traveled backwards, caboose pulling the engine in the wrong direction, and then it stopped despite my father’s repeated flicks of the switch. My father packed the train back into storage, where it remains to this day.

Nevertheless, I have now inherited abundant mementoes of my father’s life. Open boxes of his letters, his war medals, and his photographs surround me. On army stationary I find, and in small black and white snapshots, he documented his journey with the 26th Special Service Company from 1943-1945. He recorded his observations of people, the ruined cities, and of the larger military operations as he understood them at eighteen. He found himself in charge of the entertainment for the 26th, and in tents along the route often played music and projected reels of black and white films for the men. He was responsible too for driving through dozens of deep night landscapes while the other soldiers slept in the back of the vehicle. Swindon. Newbury. Perrier. Eisenberg. Bensheim. Erlangen. Munich. In July of 1945, he wrote, “Homeward bound. But when? They keep saying soon, soon. Then nothing.”

In a photo I took myself at the Veteran’s Day Parade in Manhattan a few years ago, he grins atop the WWII float, his arm raised to the cheering crowds as he sails along happily. In the older snapshots I scrutinize, I can see the tall, slender soldier that he once was, standing alongside a barracks, or pouring gasoline into a six by six, or perched on a tractor in a barren field, or leaning in the aftermath in full-bodied relief against my smitten mother.

Maureen Robinson is the only character in Lost in Space whom I now find impossibly outdated. This is not surprising. Identified as an Astrophysicist when the Jupiter 2 launches, Maureen enacts mostly domestic duties in space as the series unfolds. Accompanied by a gentle oboe theme, there she is, — perfectly coiffed with strategic curls that frame her face, her bow-shaped mouth thick with lipstick — carrying a white plastic laundry basket. She sorts the Robinsons’ towels and napkins. She instructs Penny and Judy on the proper planting of peas in alien soil. She explains the first stirrings of sexual desire to a disgusted Penny, who has glimpsed her older sister practicing the art of flirtation, which prevails even in other galaxies. “Well, Penny, dear, young people sometimes have ways of doing things that may seem a little strange,” Maureen tells Penny sweetly while John smiles at such carefully chosen words. He kisses Maureen later with passions of his own.

That current of desire between Maureen and John — or was it between June Lockhart and handsome Guy Williams? — seems genuine. Desire fills the void of outer space with an electric energy I never noticed as a child, but that must have been more than evident to my father. Did he heartily approve? “I’ve got to get back to the ship!” Robinson says fiercely whenever he strays too far from Maureen. With Maureen, Robinson concludes every triumph over danger with a lingering sensual kiss, and then, a big hug for the kids. Without Maureen, who registers on her heart shaped face the reality of danger, the burden and depths of her worry — No water! No food! — the Robinsons would cease to be a family facing the loss of one another. Robinson’s mission, I see clearly now, is to hold his family together — to secure them to one another, perhaps, with a steel tether. As a result, every episode has the same predictable plot: Judy saves Will; John saves Penny; Will saves John; Penny saves Will; John saves the children; the children save their parents. I always loved it as a kid when Maureen finally shook things up and showed her stuff! She grabbed her space helmet, threw on her jet pack, hooked herself to the side of the ship, and swam through space to reach poor John Robinson, accidentally untethered from the Jupiter 2, and floating away from them all, until Maureen hauled him back to port.

Unlike Maureen, my mother would not have boarded the Jupiter 2. She feared travel, and for the entirety of her life could not bring herself even to sit in an airplane, despite the opportunities, so great was her terror of flight. After my sister and I were born, my mother took only one journey with my father. I remember them standing together, his arms wrapped around her on the dock before they boarded the Queen Elizabeth II, the ship that would carry them to England. She waved their tickets above her head, and looked up at my father with absolute trust, but I am certain she was frightened. When they returned from the journey, they both seemed deeply relieved to be back and they told no stories of whatever sights they had seen. I have to imagine them on the ship as they once were, in love beneath the crescent moon. I imagine they stepped out onto the deck, hand in hand, to admire the sea in a rosy-fingered dawn. Maybe they looked through the telescope and spotted a blackened wooden vessel disappearing over the ocean’s edge; or maybe they just gazed at the stars flung far above them, shining in the distant galaxy called Alpha Centauri.

Desire fills the void.

In a box of ephemera, I found the two creased QEII tickets my father saved, along with dozens of hand-towels from every locale where he and my mother had traveled together, including the House of Lords.

* * *

When Lost in Space went off the air after three brief seasons, television rituals with my father ended. So did that particular kind of early closeness that my sister, my father, and I had shared. Whatever the tether was that secured us all together, eventually unraveled, and our long drifts apart began. After they did, I do not recall my father watching much television again for over forty years, until he was in his eighties. By 2016, the small apartment where we had all lived together had been my father’s, alone, for over two decades. My mother died in 1994. My sister flew immediately that same year to land permanently on the West Coast, which was, for my father, another galaxy. They rarely spoke, and by all accounts, communications were poor. I moved upstate, where I routinely left one town and relationship for another every few years, and with only a few possessions — the supplies and habits necessary to pretend a settled life — my time passed at the speed of light, and not at all. I did stay connected to my father by phone. I sent him weekly reports, or sometimes I traveled back into the city for a visit with him. I watched him get smaller, though undefeated by age. Sometimes he looked deep into my eyes. Other times, he seemed not to see me at all. In the evenings, he shuffled down the hall between the rooms that his family had once filled and that now overflowed with all the possessions of his ninety-one years. In one room, the objects were stacked so high a window was no longer visible. No light came in, no breezes. The place was always dim. The radiators clanked and spewed steam. The climate often seemed uninhabitable, but he did not want to leave. He fell silent when anyone suggested he move on to an assisted living facility or to any space more benign and navigable for a man of his age. His will, it seemed, was inexhaustible. Pure power of mind held his ailing body together. Gradually, I understood that my father needed not only to live in his own space; he lived for it. His home — his idea of home — kept him alive.

I sat down beside him in the oppressive dark. We watched TV together again.

He lowered himself cautiously into his favorite winged-chair in front of his new flat screen television. He clutched the TV remote in one hand, his cell phone in the other. He alternated turning the TV volume up and then down with his left hand and answering the phone with his right. He worked the controls. My father and I watched football, mostly, and game shows. He watched as though he had never seen a television before. He became an obvious admirer of a game-show-hostess. He knew the answers to all of the questions on Jeopardy! He sampled the show Mad Men, but only once. “They all drink a lot” he said and shrugged with irritation. “Nothing interesting ever happens.” Instead, he surfed the stations looking for old classic films, always hoping to see Orson Welles magically appear. He was largely disappointed. The only series I believe he followed for a while was Desperate Housewives, but the crush he confessed to having on the housewife who bears a mild resemblance to my mother soon overwhelmed him and he had to stop watching. Surprisingly, he showed no interest in family dramas or in Science Fiction. His youthful loyalty to the adventure of Lost in Space had been unique, a quirk of mood inspired in him by the mood of the 1960s, or by his children, or by — something else.

Maybe, after all, Lost in Space just meant a lot to me, and nothing to my father. That is possible, I suppose. When I hear the opening theme of the show, I still feel a sudden surge of joy. I look forward to something — who knows what? — although my habit is to travel backwards. Was there joy for him, with us — with my sister, and me? I think so, but I will never know for sure. Possibly, when he arrived home, my mother met him at the door and looked at him with desperate eyes that begged him to allow her a quiet moment to herself, away from the children. Could he give her that? Could he just take them so she could have one hour alone to play a record she loved, or make a phone call, or even to weep a little in the kitchen over a burnt meatloaf she had yet to master? She was completely exhausted. One hour, or even a little more? Please?

Was Lost in Space my father’s gift to my young mother?

Silence stretches between us now and yet my father’s voice remains perfectly clear to me, without any cosmic interference at all. He still sounds in my head just the way he did in 1965 when he lay in front of the TV, and hugged my sister and me close. He whoops and cheers as the Robinsons’ space chariot, with John at the wheel, heads boldly toward an inland sea the family must cross together. My father yells at the television, “Yeah! Keep going! Do not turn back! You can do it!” He squeezes us and says, “Do you think they’re really going to make it, kids?” I twist the wool of his sweater and squeal. I hide my face against his arm, place his hand over my ear, and then peer out at the television again, enthralled. I remember the sudden rise of waves, the black sky and the black water indistinguishable from one another. Wind spins the space chariot and lightning strikes the waves. The Robinsons, drenched, toss around together inside their tiny ship, which heads toward a whirlpool, a Charybdis that pulls the sea into its vortex and then spews it out again. Will Robinson shouts. Judy sobs. Penny sobs. My sister and I scream. Robinson pounds on the controls as they head toward the abyss. What is he thinking? Maybe he sees himself as an ancient seaman — a born navigator, a survivor — who will rebuild his ship every time it shatters. After all, he slid into the catacombs beneath an avalanche of galactic ash, and he escaped! A rampant King controlled his soul, and he escaped! He staggered and fell paralyzed in an electrical storm, and still, he escaped. True, he concedes, lost in thought, the family is in some trouble, but he wants only to dance in his space boots with Maureen, kiss her pink bow-lips, and secure in her hair a flower plucked from the soil of a fertile planet.

My father yells loudly at the TV screen. “No! No! There’s no power! Goddammit, there’s got to be more power! Keep going!”

As though he has heard a voice in the currents, or a distant dispatch from Alpha Central Command, Robinson looks up wildly. He flicks a switch. The space chariot surges forward past the vortex, and my sister and I clap and cheer as my father pulls us to his chest. “See kids?” he says. “They made it! Again! We didn’t worry, did we?” The episode draws to its close as John Robinson writes peacefully about the ordeal in the ship’s log. We hear his final words. “We have passed through the fury of the inland sea. We are now safely encamped in the spaceship, at least momentarily secure from the extremes of heat and cold as well as the violent molecular storms that characterize this remote and unidentified planet. The supreme question now is whether we can survive.”

To Be Continued Next Week.

“Same time!” my father says.

“Same channel!” my sister and I chime.

After the memorial service, my sister asked me “Do you remember when we used to watch Lost in Space every week with Dad?” She is just shy of sixty years old now, and on the few occasions when we are together, I find it extremely difficult to picture the two of us, as we were in the 1960s — tiny enough to fit our bodies entirely beneath our father’s arms. My sister often says that she remembers very little of her childhood, but on that day she remembered the L.I.S. ritual. “I do remember,” I assured her. For a second, she and I were not strangers.

Without speaking much, we began the long work of sorting through my father’s belongings. We stuffed them into garbage bags. We hauled them down to the street, delivered them to charities, and to the recycle bins of Got Junk?. We distributed the most precious items among relatives and friends. We divided the letters and the photos. I took down all of the old draperies and the gates on the windows that my father had installed decades ago to bar all invaders and enemies. Two hired men arrived, and with sledgehammers, they finally got the family sofa out the front door. I shredded and recycled the carpets. Wrapped the mattress in plastic. I found a small painted carving my father had made by pounding on wood with a cut-off ten-penny nail when he was a little kid — a perfect yellow house with open shutters nestled beneath a blue sky, an ideal home. I also kept a wool rug I found rolled up in a blanket in his closet. “Guess who made this?” he had asked me once, spreading the rug proudly across a table. “Not bad, huh?” The soft yarns he hooked himself long ago depict a rolling ocean, and at the center, a ship with sails unfurled. I sorted through all of the pictures he had sent back on his one road trip around the United States in his station wagon, the Maid of the Mist. He had loved to drive the rusted Maid. He swore she would get him across the country, and she almost did. He booked a flight back. There were images of Mount Rushmore, Pike’s Peak, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Yellow Stone Park, with my father standing proudly in the foreground of the landscapes, his eyes shaded behind sunglasses. On the back of each card and photo were his brief travel notations: Two more weeks, then home. Home in one week. Three days left, and then, Home! At last! Tomorrow!Flying home!

We boxed up the dozen stuffed animals we discovered he had saved on a top shelf of the cabinet for over fifty years since our childhoods, and we shipped them far away to needy kids in Africa — or so the charity worker promised — except for Bunny Puppet, which my sister clutched in a spasm of grief.

In 1968, Lost in Space was cancelled without notice. After 83 episodes, the station did not renew. None of the actors, the writers, or the viewers ever found out what happened next week. The story stopped in the middle as the family wandered a planet of ephemera that they had barely explored. So all of the questions remain.

Were they lost in space forever?

Did they ever find the galaxy Alpha Centauri?

Did they finally make it home?

I think of my father’s last day on Earth. He knew when he woke up in a hospital that it was the end. The nurses tried several times to place an oxygen mask over his face to ease his breathing, but he pushed them away. “It’s over,” he said. “Don’t any of you know that? It’s over.” He had just enough breath left to cry out two words.

Home. Now.

In the empty space where my father once lived, I found a last object left behind. In the kitchen closet, hanging on a yellowed two-by four board among dozens of rusted keys, was a plastic key-chain: a tiny replica of the Robot from Lost in Space, its arms outstretched as if to me.