Danger, Herman Melville! Much-Needed Literary Notes in the Lost in Space Re-boot

I’m always a little leery of re-boots of classics, particularly classic science fiction shows. I loved the cheesy old Image result for lost in space 2018Battlestar Galactica and was let down by the darker, modern interpretation, just for one example. However, I decided to give Netflix’s new take on Lost in Space a try, mainly because it looked good, and because I never cared much for the original, so I knew that it wouldn’t damage my youthful expectations. And, to be totally honest, I was just delighted by the fact that if the show becomes popular, most of my students may not look at me in bewilderment when I try to warn them off Wikipedia or Cliffnotes as sources for their essays by waving my arms and yelling, “Danger, Will Robinson!” So, I gave it a whirl. After just one episode, I am already intrigued, not just because the effects are awesome and the kids are charismatic (though really, kids, if your name is Will, and you are on a Netflix show, there is a really good chance that you will get lost someplace scary and that large chunks of the script will consist of family members yelling your name…). What excites me are the fantastic literary hints that tie this new series into some of the old texts that we love and discuss here. So fasten your safety belt, and join me after the jump to get lost in some literature!

Great Books!

While I have been relatively pleased with the Star Trek reboots, and have enjoyed some of their nice symbolism, I have been disappointed with the way the new films have left behind one of the most important features of the original voyages of the Enterprise, and most of the subsequent ones: literature. Whether Khan was spouting Milton, Kirk was quoting Shakespeare, or Mr. Data was playing Sherlock Holmes, the Star Trek universe was a literary one, with titles, plots, and characters straight out of the great books soaring out past the stars along with all the great technology of the 23rd and 24th centuries. Lost in Space has gotten right to the literary good stuff in its opening Image result for moby dickepisode, as Judy Robinson, trapped in ice and awaiting rescue before her oxygen runs out, requests that her younger sister Penny read to her. Penny is a bit surprised by the request, but assures Judy that she has the good stuff, specifically Dickens and Shakespeare, on her near-future smartphone. Judy, disappointed by the fact that Penny didn’t bring anything “trashy,” then says that she has heard, “Everyone should read Moby Dick before they die.” While I couldn’t agree more with the bright young Ms. Robinson, Penny is at first dismayed, and then finally agrees, beginning, of course, with “Call me Ishmael,” to which a bewildered Judy replies, “If you insist, Ishmael,” before the bookish Penny proceeds with the famous seafaring tale, one she has not read herself, having not made it to the Ms yet.

Moby Dick is a wonderful allusion, not only because Judy is submerged and got that way insisting she could grab a battery from the family’s sinking spaceship, but because her actions, like Captain Ahab’s, remind us of the dangers of hubris and overestimating our power against the forces of nature. Judy becomes frozen in the ice when she disobeys her father’s orders and attempts to secure a battery from the submerged ship to keep the family warm. While her intentions are noble, her insistence that she could do accomplish this task is prideful and nearly kills her.

In addition, Moby Dick has a distinguished science fiction resume, most notably in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as the vengeful Khan Noonan Singh set off the Genesis device from his crippled ship, thinking he will take the Enterprise and James Kirk with him, and quotes Ahab’s famous last words: “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee!” The more enlightened Captain Picard, however, in First Contact, is convinced of the futility of his efforts to avenge himself on the Borg by Lily Sloane’s scornful “Ahab has to hunt his whale!” (Even more powerful is the fact that Patrick Stewart has also played Ahab on screen.) Shamed, Picard chooses the better part of valor, saves the day, and is saved from the destructive path that consumes Khan, although Lily admits she herself has also never read Moby Dick.

Alchemy, well yes, sort of…

Around my house, it’s a bit of a running joke to see how Mom will find literary alchemy in this text or show or movie (I have a doozy of a Star Wars post in the works on that note, but I keep adding to it). So of course, I was quizzed on how alchemy is part of Lost in Space. While the jury is still out on some elements, I’m following some pieces that could evolve nicely along those lines. Most importantly, though, we’ve already had the most important alchemical hat-tip, from Penny’s reading list. Though she says she hasn’t made it to the Ms yet, she immediately mentions Dickens and Shakespeare, clearly treasuring them enough to have brought along their entire collected works. Not only do those authors re-enforce Penny’s book-nerdiness (versus science-genius Judy’s less sophisticated tastes), but they are also literary alchemists, with A Tale of Two Cities  and Romeo and Juliet setting the bar for the entire scope of alchemical literature.Image result for lost in space 2018

The subtle alchemy nod is beautifully reinforced by the physical appearances of the Robinson girls: dark Judy and fair-skinned, redheaded Penny together create the familiar alchemical color scheme (I also expect we’ll see the three Robinson children fully form as a soul triptych as we go forward, but the formula of Will=heart, Penny=body, and Judy=mind/will is already taking shape).

A Tale of Two Cities also has an impressive Star Trek resume, as Admiral Kirk, having been given a copy by Spock as a birthday present, quotes from Dickens’s alchemical masterpiece after his Spock’s sacrificial death to save the Enterprise and his friends.  By aligning with Syndey Carton and his “far, far better thing,” rather than with selfish, pride-maddened Ahab, Spock has proven himself the better person, and the mirroring of these two great books helps drive home the differences between our Federation heroes and the villains of the Botany Bay. (I’ve also often pointed out that the publication success of the two books should also give even non-Star Trek fans a clue who will win; A Tale of Two Cities  was a huge commercial success, while Moby Dick, accidentally published without its last chapter, was a huge flop until its re-discovery after Melville’s death.)

Ring around the planet

One of the other best uses of what C. S. Lewis called “good unoriginality” is the use of Ring Composition, one of our favorite subjects here at HogPro. With a series, it’s sometimes hard to get a good ring structure, but the first episode Image result for lost in space 2018of Lost in Space has done a swell job of getting this great literary element in play. The episode begins with the Robinson family’s ship being hit by unknown objects in space, leading to their crash landing. Throughout the course of the episode, flashbacks are inserted to explain the family dynamics of the Robinsons and to fill in their story. Only at the end of this episode do we see how the original crash happened, as the ring closes and returns us back to the opening sequence, from a different perspective, revealing that most of the objects that hit the Jupiter 2 are parts of their colonial mother ship, severely damaged and jettisoning the Jupiter craft, some of which are the other objects that pummel the Robinson’s craft.

Circular imagery, from the shape of the Jupiter 2 herself, to Will’s baseball, to the round “face” of the newly re-imagined Robot, all reinforce the fact that planets may orbit in ellipses, but science fiction stories speak in circles.

As I get through the rest of this first season (Netflix has the entire first season up now, but I’m pacing myself, so don’t spoil me!) I look forward to seeing how the ring closes with the last episode in this set, or if it stays open for the next season. Other Netflix shows, most notably Stanger Things (and more about that coming soon, too) do a great job with the ring composition, so my hopes are high.

Of course, the series is just starting, though it is getting positive reviews that will likely prompt a second season, and hopefully, more literary adventures await the Robinsons and the audience following them.


  1. Lana Whited says

    I’m not a big TV watcher, mostly due to lack of time, but I am happy to read that allusions to the Great Literature We Love abound in new series. And I am always happy to read analysis on such a deep and useful level. Good work, Elizabeth!

  2. Really interesting, Elizabeth. I enjoyed the first episode, and will plow ahead with indications that so much actual thought and meaning was poured into it. Plus, cool robot.

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