Family flourishing and the education of killer robots

Netflix’s re-imagining of a sci-fi classic shows what does—and does not—change about the human condition when a family is “Lost in Space.”

Image via Netflix

Science fiction, at its best, does two things. First, it probes our relationship with technology. Second, in common with the Western’s exploration of frontiers, by putting us into unfamiliar settings it can show the contours of our problems, shining a new light on them or framing them in a way that allows us to see them clearly. Netflix’s Lost in Space does both these things well.

Warning: what follows contains spoilers for the first season of Lost in Space. The basic plot of the show, re-imagined from the 1960s version that originally aired on CBS, is unchanged: the Robinson family, on the way to colonize another world, is thrown off course dramatically and has to survive in an unexplored and often hostile region of space by pulling together as a family. The original, notoriously picked up by CBS after the network passed over Star Trek, has not aged well: it is campy and corny, with cartoonish characters and predictable plots. The re-imagined version has jettisoned the camp, invested heavily in character development, and features an exciting plot that flows out of the conflicts between the characters, who are well-written and believable.

Lost in Space probes our relationship with technology primarily through a robot, whose warning “Danger, Will Robinson” has entered the popular lexicon from the 1960s version. In the new show, the Robot is not brought along by the Robinsons, but rather is a mysterious interloper whose relationship to the humans is ambiguous and worrisome. Is it benevolent or malevolent? The answer to that question turns on what it is and where it comes from, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say: when we meet the Robot, it seems to be hostile, but through an encounter with Will Robinson, it turns into a kind of helper and bodyguard, usually obeying Will’s instructions and, occasionally, acting on its own to save Will from danger. Will’s assistance has clearly caused its programming, if that is an adequate term, to reset and, because of the reset, it has bonded with Will in some way. One of Will’s first instructions to the Robot forbids it to hurt anything.

At the outset, there are a lot of questions about what the Robot is to Will: only a machine? A pet? A friend—and therefore some kind of person, albeit an alien person? The Robot quickly makes itself—himself?—useful by saving Will’s older sister Judy’s life and providing muscle in the mundane tasks of survival, and as he spends time around Will, he begins to imitate his master’s mannerisms and personality. The Robinson children at one point leave their mark in a cave by putting hand-prints on the cave wall, which the Robot imitates with one of his metallic claws—indicating the Robot’s desire to be counted as a Robinson, perhaps? Or is this simply a case of monkey-see-monkey do?

The Robot’s face-plate is filled with colored, swirling lights. When he is friendly, it shines blue; when he is about to commit acts of violence, it shifts to angry red. At one point, the Robinson’s camp is attacked by ferocious predators. The Robot saves Will from them, but then, obedient to Will’s prohibition of violence, does not resist the animals as they attack him and start to pull him apart. Seeing his peril, Will tells him, “You need to be bad.” The Robot hesitates, but then his face-plate turns red and he attacks the animals, killing them or driving them off. Afterward, he begins to turn on the marooned colonists until Will interjects himself. Recognizing Will, the Robot’s face-plate turns back to blue and he stands down. At this point, the Robot is only able to distinguish between violence and non-violence.

In a climactic sequence in the last episode, a second robot appears and begins to attack the Robinsons. It interfaces with the Robinsons’ Robot, whose face-plate turns red. The second robot strikes Will,  damaging his space suit and putting him in danger of suffocation. Seeing Will helpless, the Robot’s face-plate turns blue and he turns to defend Will from the second robot. He quite clearly has an awakening in this moment, recognizing that there can be a moral use of force to defend the weak. Up until this moment, the only words the Robot speaks are to warn about danger; he is a kind of guard dog. But in this moment, he turns to Will and queries, “Friends?” Will answers in the affirmative, and the Robot, face-plate still blue, launches himself at the second robot, sacrificing himself to save Will.

Lost in Space is not likely to be a show like West World, which deliberately probes the roots and meaning of consciousness in a way that at least tries to be philosophic. Instead, Lost in Space tackles what it means to be a person by approaching the matter through morality and friendship. What is important about the Robot is not really how he could be a moral agent, but, as with the Cylons in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (to which Lost in Space bears some similarities), that it is a moral agent. By examining the Robot’s moral awakening, Lost in Space actually has something to teach us about moral education, which parallels what we find about the education of the auxiliaries in Plato’s Republic. The problem of the auxiliaries, whose job it is to defend the city from enemies, is how to get them to identify who is a friend and who is an enemy. Without providing further spoilers, the Robot’s trajectory is supposed to show how that might happen.

The show also takes perennial human struggles and failings and shows what does—and does not—change in a completely alien setting. John and Maureen Robinson, the parents, are married but estranged before the show begins, and only reunite because John wants to be able to shepherd his family to the new colony. At the beginning of the season, it is understood that this does not mean that Maureen is willing to take John back. John has too often chosen to absent himself from his family, ostensibly in the name of duty as a Navy SEAL in a time of global upheaval, but really out of his incapacity to fulfill his fatherly role. Likewise, Maureen, in desperation to qualify her family for the colony, makes an underhanded deal to cover up the fact that Will failed the stress test needed to be accepted on the mission, and has to go to extreme and dangerous lengths to protect him at several points. Lost in Space manages to zero-in on archetypal male and female parental failings: male absenteeism and female smothering. Again without offering further spoilers, the show points to a resolution of these problems in highly satisfying, coherent ways that can help the viewer think through what a family is by examining the obstacles to its flourishing.

The major character change from the original show is that the mysterious Dr. Smith is now played by a woman (Parker Posey, whose Emmy should by rights already be in the mail). Her complex performance, and especially the fascinating relationship Dr. Smith’s character develops with Maureen, gives the show the kind of story depth missing in the original. The show works to set up a contrast between Dr. Smith and several other characters—Maureen, John, and especially the Robot. At one point Maureen tells Dr. Smith that the reason she trusted Dr. Smith is because Dr. Smith was helping them—the same reason Will initially trusted the Robot. The reasons different characters trust or do not trust Dr. Smith and the Robot provide fertile ground for reflections on friendship and the foundations of society.

There are many other things can could be said in praise of Lost in Space. The Robinson children are well-drawn and extremely well-acted. The relationships between the siblings, and between each parent and child, are believable but not predictable. These characters live. The supporting characters, from the amiable rogue Don West to the conniving but ultimately well-meaning politician Victor Dhar, are well-executed. The only flaw is that we are asked to swallow that children could be authorized to function as part of a space-ship crew on a colonization trip—which poses obvious difficulties, as several plot conflicts rather predictably show. Still, the one flaw is easily forgiven for the sake of the whole. Highly recommended as a fun, surprisingly thoughtful, science fiction yarn.


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About Thomas P. Harmon 13 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Professor of Theology and Culture at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.

2 Comments

  1. I don’t know what to make of reviews like this in an otherwise serious Catholic publication. Is this program really such a profound meditation on the family that I should spend family time watching it? And spend money on Netflix, as they hand a soap box to Obama for spreading more of his noxious views, so dangerous to families?

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