01/04/2002. Contributed by Rod MacDonald
Sitting comfortably? Then lean closer, dear reader, while Roderick S. MacDonald recalls the glory days of that classic TV series, Lost in Space. And a curious chap called Dr. Zachary Smith.
When making the 'Lost in Space' movie a few years ago, it would have been easy to imagine the following scene: Jonathan Harris, the original Dr. Zachary Smith, may have brushed aside Gary Oldman with a disdainful motion of his hand, making the comment, 'Stand aside you atrocious amateur, there's only one Zachary Smith (finger pointed in air) and I am he!’ (finger pointed to himself).
Oldman, the pretender to the part, may then have twitched uncontrollably and pulled out a blaster, only for Harris to make an expedient exit in the manner of a pusillanimous pip-squeak.
Actually it's said that Jonathan Harris was offered a few thousand dollars to briefly appear in the movie but the veteran actor turned it down saying that the only part he would consider was that of Zachary Smith, his creation.
Yes, indeed, the real Zachary Smith, which is certainly not the impuissant impostor portrayed by Oldman, was uniquely a creation of Jonathan Harris. Initially, he was due to appear as a guest actor in only the first six episodes of Irwin Allen's 1960's TV series for CBS. The idea to produce something similar to Swiss Family Robinson (marooned on a planet instead of an island) was first tried out in a pilot episode with no Smith and no Robot.
Something was lacking. (of course something was lacking, you blithering buffoon: the show had no talent!) They needed a villain to instigate the show's raison d'ê tre and so, Dr. Zachary Smith was created, along with his sabotage tool, the Robot.
I must apologise profusely for the occasional Smithisms. Danger! Danger!...An alien Dr. Smith is attempting to take over my psyche!
Anyway, things must have seemed very promising for the original cast. Guy Williams, following his success in the TV series ‘Zorro’, had a starring role as Professor John Robertson. His wife, Maureen, was played by former 'Lassie' star (she played the mother and I'm afraid to say I remember the series) June Lockhart, Major Don West by Mark Goddard, and John's children, Judy, Penny and Will by Marta Kirsten, Angela Cartwright and Billy Mumy respectively.
Poor old Zachary - he was destined for the chop but true to his style, by his cunning connivances and wistful wile, he not only endured but stole the star role within a few weeks. (Stole the star role, indeed? It was a natural evolution of events.) After that, the show should really have been called, 'Smith in Space'.
A man of my erudition reduced to such an ignominious existence. Oh, the pain...the pain of it! Wandering about space, haunted by its horrors when I should be back on... Euuarth!
Jonathan Harris, born in November 1914, was almost fifty-one when the series hit American TV screens in September 1965. With a long career acting in theatre, TV and movies already experienced, his abilities far exceeded the original script limitations for Zachary Smith. Many will remember him as Bradford Webster, Harry Lime's (played by Michael Rennie) assistant in the TV series 'The Third Man' and also a couple of episodes of 'The Twilight Zone'.
He was, and still is, an extremely hard worker who pays attention to detail and is meticulous in his delivery. Also a cultured man with a fine command of English, he soon had virtual carte blanche with the 'Lost in Space' scripts. Irwin Allen knew who the real star was.
What began as a serious science fiction series became a vehicle for Jonathan Harris to deliberately ham things up. Some fans didn't like the change and went through the whole three years and eighty-four episodes hating the man and the character.
This wasn't the true American hero, the dynamic, debonair, serious spaceman they'd expected! Truth to say, had 'Lost in Space' continued in the same vein as the first six episodes, it's unlikely that it would have seen a second season; this sort of material has a certain affinity for twelve-year-olds but they soon become thirteen and more discriminating. As it was, Zachary's pantomime went on for as long as ‘Star Trek’ and, unbelievable as it may seem to us today, had higher ratings virtually all the way through.
‘Star Trek’ commenced in 1966 and its highest ratings were always lower than ‘Lost in Space's lowest ratings but the latter's syndication potential was decreased because the first season was shot in black & white). (‘Star Trek’ indeed! I didn't need pointed ears and silly haircuts!)
You know, they could have saved a fortune in the making of 'Seven' simply by having Kevin Spacey murder Zachary Smith. No other murders would have been necessary; Smith had all seven deadly sins and probably more he invented himself. He was a bad egg but somewhere there's a bit of him in every one of us, even if it's hidden in a closet. Besides, Smith was funny and someone to be pitied. In the long run, this curious combination of character traits made him far more endearing to a TV audience than a one dimensional super hero.
To give an example of his villainy, in the eleventh episode of the first season, the Robinsons find themselves virtually out of water. What's this they hear from outside? 'Da dum di dum'. There's Smith seeing to his ablutions in a makeshift shower. Naturally, the family are a bit peeved and poor old Zac (Zac? How dare you, you impudent upstart. It's Dr. Smith to you!) is chucked out to fend for himself but he comes across a ruined spaceship which contains a device that materialises his thoughts.
Gradually he tries to worm himself back into the Robinsons' affections by giving them all sorts of gifts. This is only partially successful, however, and his greed and laziness are his undoing when, amidst a luxurious banquet, he asks for a servant and gets a monster instead. Saved by the Robinsons and taken back to the fold, everything returns to normal. But, normality wasn't the norm in this programme, they had no sooner gotten (how's that for my American-English?) out of trouble when a new disaster loomed. This was the hook that would make you watch next week's episode.
Is there something about a character who is beyond redemption which makes us seek to find some vestige of the good in him? Is there something within us or the Robinsons that must try to reform the bad to make it good? (Bah! Cease and desist at once, I say! Less of the fanciful philosophising and more about me!)
Smith related to each of the Robinsons differently. Maureen and her eldest daughter, the blonde and glamorous Judy, didn't really have pivotal roles in the series. Sometimes assisted by Smith's gourmet talents, they were always busying themselves with food preparation.
Even though set in the late nineties, as family head, Professor John wasn't a nineties man; you never saw him washing the dishes. In real life, Guy Williams seems to have been a bit of a sexist too. However, they tolerated Smith up to a point, even when he sold them to a travelling zoo. Of course, he didn't really want to sell them but the offer was enticing. 'Diamonds, did you say? Emeralds, did you say?'
Many of the problems were caused by the Robinsons' stupidity. They were always digging holes or laying pipes, though why they should still remains a mystery. Professor Robinson often threw a shovel at Zachary, saying something about working for his keep, and despite Smith claiming that his back was a disaster area, forced labour ensued, at least until he was out of sight.
On another occasion, when tinkering with the force field apparatus, they asked him for help. 'As I've said many times before, never fear, Smith is here!'. Why were they so stupid - they knew he'd get it wrong!
Major West had no tolerance at all for Smith. Apart from one episode where they were forced through mutual danger to cooperate, most of the time the hot-tempered major would have easily killed Smith. Well, it was the military mind, you know. Alas, poor Major West had a very small intellect and despite a reputation for being a wonderful pilot, he always seemed to crash us on planets, rather than land on them!
Penny, ah, poor Penny. Such a gullible girl. She was another with a couple of slates missing. Her brother, Will, was little better. He didn't have the ability to distinguish between good and evil. After all the terrible things Smith had done to his family, he still believed that a modicum of good in a person meant that he was worth salvaging. Truth to say, over the episodes he did make a slight difference to Smith's character. He would even call him by his bogus doctorate title. Supposedly, Smith was a doctor in alien psychology though it wasn't made clear from which university this was obtained.
Dr. Smith and Will made up a trio with the Robot. Now, the Robot was really a good chap. Any wrong doings had been caused by Smith's programme alterations, (not at all - it's plain for all to see that he's a bumbling bubblehead!) which Will cured, or by extraneous electromagnetic events that made him wave his arms about and shout, 'Danger! Danger!' There was a love-hate relationship between Smith and the Robot, a relationship which spawned hundreds of insults. An Australian fan listed nearly two hundred including: 'Hopeless heap of tainted tin; tin-plated tintinnabulation; mechanical meddler; and, digitised dummy'.
'Lost in Space' survived three seasons before finally running out of ideas. The first season, although shot in black & white, was probably the best. Some episodes of the second and third series left a lot to be desired. It wasn't really Science Fiction.
It was more a pantomime parody of life on Earth. Every aspect of fiction was covered, from pirates, prisoners, Mexican bandits, cowboys, zoo keepers, Scotsman with Loch Ness Monster, junkyard proprietor, hippies, a department store, kings, queens, Romans, hunters and punters but when it came to walking carrots, maybe it was time to say, 'That's all folks'.
Jonathan Harris' quick wit and command of the English language enabled him to play voice-overs in a few television series and movies, 'Battlestar Galactica', 'Dinosaurs' and 'A Bug's Life' springing to mind. He also did voice-overs to hundreds of U.S. advertisements and is still very much in demand but his jewel in the crown was the magnificent magnum opus of Zachary Smith, doctor of alien psychology, the reluctant stowaway on the Jupiter II.
'Lost in Space' was originally shown in the 1960's and sporadically appeared on television until completely rebroadcast by Channel 4 in the late 1980's. Since then, it found a home on the Sci-Fi channel and enjoyed a brief revival in conjunction with the film. Maybe it's time for a return to television? One thing is certain though - there seems to be a current fashion to remake old sixties TV series but there could never be another Dr. Zachary Smith without Jonathan Harris.
'Come along, my boy,' Jonathan was overhead saying some years ago. 'Let's leave these gabbling geese to their own devices. I've a new part lined up for you and I'll be your manager for...say, 80% of your fees. It's and intelligent part. Nobody will call you a bone head!'
Roderick S. MacDonald
(C) R.S. MacDonald.
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