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Picks and Pans Main: Tube

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IN HONOR OF THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY of Star Trek, which made its debut on NBC on Sept. 8, 1966, I’d like to pay tribute to…Lost in Space, which I thought then (and think now) is the better show—less pretentious, more playful, maybe even more poetic. It turns 31 on Sept. 15.

In life, neither show was much of a hit. Neither made the Nielsen Top 10, neither lasted beyond three seasons. But their obits took them into different orbits. Lost in Space crossed whatever time-space continuum separates prime time and Hades and now dwells in the shadowed realm of reruns (it airs on the Sci-Fi Channel on weekday mornings). Star Trek, on the other hand, has enjoyed the most robust afterlife of any series in history. It was resurrected 18 years after its network demise as a spinoff (Star Trek: The Next Generation), which led to two more spinoffs (Deep Space Nine, in national syndication, and Voyager, on UPN). The original series, which airs throughout the country in reruns, has also spawned seven movies. An eighth, Star Trek: First Contact (from STNG), is due in late November.

Having tried, and failed, through these past three decades to develop an interest in Star Trek Inc., I can only confess that the original show’s dreary self-importance always put me off. To me, Star Trek is the United Nations of outer space—different life-forms instead of countries, but the same bland, high-principled pronouncements: “To boldly go…” etc., etc. And, like the real UN, the show bogged down in administrative and bureaucratic detail. When I try to remember the old episodes, what generally come to mind are not plots but conferences, tribunals, questions of protocol, and dialogue as orotund as an official report (which is why Patrick Stewart, with his big, hollow voice, was ideal as leader Jean-Luc Picard in Next Generation). The characters, exotic enough in concept, always struck me as underwhelming in execution. The hyper-rational Mr. Spock, as played by sour-faced Leonard Nimoy, reminded me of the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland. Captain Kirk, a decent man who should never have been wearing form-fitting clothing, at least benefited from William Shatner’s cornball energy.

Lost in Space, much less ambitious, took the same space-exploration theme but shucked all the star-and navel-gazing wonderment. The Robinson family landed on a succession of planets with a robot named Robot and the conniving Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris). They spent most of their time trying to repair their spaceship and warding off the extraterrestrial visitors who insisted on dropping by. It’s the predicament of every transplanted suburban family, getting used to the neighbors. (Fans of the late Joseph Campbell, on PBS, will recognize this as one of the great myths.)

The story never advanced much beyond that situation, a stasis that seemed suited to pleasant performers such as June Lockhart and Billy Mumy. The exception was Harris, clawing his way to histrionic heights as simpering, shrieking Dr. Smith. (The fact is, Robot, with a voice supplied by Dick Tufeld, gave the better performance.) The sets were simple, cheap but beautiful, with their basic forms (rocks, brush) and bold colors. The effect was of a dreamscape, which is how the series lingers in the mind.

One note of concern: There are plans for a Lost in Space movie. If this turns out to be anything like the big-screen Star Trek adaptations, I hope it gets lost in turnaround.