A salute to Parker Posey and Dr. Smith in Lost in Space
Later in his life, Jonathan Harris would describe his first impressions of Dr. Zachary Smith, the character he played on Lost in Space for three seasons and generations of reruns. “He was written as a deep-dyed, snarling villain,” Harris said, “And he bored the s— out of me.”
As creative fuel, boredom is underrated. We talk so much about inspiration, a story that must be told, a performance pulled from the deepest reaches of a performer’s soul. Harris was a jobbing character actor, middle-aged, theater career and then a TV career. He was excited to get a part on Lost in Space, because “a series means you get paid every week, and that’s very important.” (All quotes from this mesmerizing video. Harris died in 2002, after a career that stretched from prewar to Pixar.) In his telling, the gradual creation of Dr. Smith was on-camera larceny, a bit of fun, a clever act of High Hamming. Introduced as a straightfaced baddie, Smith got pushed toward comedy by Harris. He was prone to insult outbursts — “Jabbering jackanapes!” “Presumptuous popinjay!” — an idea of evil too pitiful to seem believable.
Harris would usually credit himself with the full creation of the iconic version of Dr. Smith. This sounds like actorly vanity, but nobody disagrees. The show’s producer, Irwin Allen, liked what he saw, told Harris to keep it up. And Lost in Space tilted its axis toward Harris’ gravity. Any notion of the series as a believable science-fiction odyssey went out the window. After the first season, the show filmed in color — bright, garish, the kind of style that looks campy if you’re boring enough to think fantasy should look realistic.
Legend (and a half-century of interviews) holds that some of the other actors were a bit miffed to watch Lost in Space become a show about a wacky scientist, a chatty robot, and a brainy kid. When I was growing up, I absorbed the conventional wisdom that something had gone wrong with the show, that an urge toward kid-friendly instincts ruined a super-serious saga.
Netflix has now rebooted Lost in Space. I wouldn’t call this new version super-serious, but it’s certainly the show for anyone who wishes Lost in Space had been somber, gray, and lifeless. Ma and Pa Robinson are halfway divorced. Will Robinson, once a child prodigy played by Bill Mumy, is now an anxious, underperforming kid astronaut played by Maxwell Jenkins. Major Don West, trusty Space Age military type, is now a lawless smuggler, sort of like Han Solo if Han Solo never seemed dangerous. The robot was a talking trash can, and now it looks like the Guyver.
And then there’s Parker Posey. She’s the new Dr. Smith — an act of icon gender-swapping that lets the actress take the idea of Nefarious Scientist Type in a whole new direction. It’s not quite a good character. Posey’s Smith has a dark backstory, an origin which is also her main topic of conversation. You get the idea here: Let’s give our villain some MOTIVATION.
Fine, but consider: Maybe part of what made Jonathan Harris so delightful was Smith’s lack of motivation. He was a mad scientist; he either wanted to destroy or control the Robot; he wanted to make wine in outer space. He would betray the Robinsons on the spur of any moment. His motivation was Harris’ motivation, and Harris’ motivation was don’t be boring. You recognize that there are Essentials of Drama lacking here, like why would you constantly betray the only people who keep you alive? (And why would they still let you live in close proximity to their children?) But it’s not like Iago has any obvious motivation in Othello, and it’s not like Iago has any obvious motivation in Aladdin, and every Iago is fun, and everyone in Lost in Space besides Parker Posey bores the s— out of me.
Her first scene, at the end of first episode, is the cleverest moment in the reboot, a mystery with a touch of fan service. Then she pairs up with Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West. They go on a long walk. (This new Lost in Space is full of long walks, and is itself a long walk.) Don keeps saying he’s a bad person while constantly proving he’s a decent person. He rescues a human. He rescues a chicken. Parker still has that unexpected way of turning dialogue sideways. She has one line, insanely written, that comes out pure poetry:
“You put on a good show of being completely self-interested. But I know you’re a good person. Look how you saved this chicken.”
Look how you saved this chicken! It’s possible that Smith’s joking at that moment. (Much of her treachery across season 1 is explicable only because she’s trolling every other character.) Posey has a very different acting background from Harris, the ’90s indie scene vs. ’30s theatricality, but in that moment her Smith mind-melds seamlessly with Harris’ Smith, a ham chewing through thin scenery.
Along the margins, Posey gets funky. There’s a brilliant flashback-y scene where Selma Blair plays her sister, suggesting a completely different Lost in Space reboot — soapier and funnier and bleaker — about two siblings who hate each other even as the world ends. The show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Posey. At a climactic moment, she has to open an instruction manual to find her way out of a locked room. But the original Lost in Space didn’t really get Dr. Smith until Jonathan Harris created him. If there’s a season 2, I hope they let Posey’s Smith run equally wild. Lose the motivation. Save the chicken.