To Bleak or Not To Bleak
The original Lost in Space series (1965 – 1968) began as serious science fiction, before descending into campy humour and outlandish storylines. But it worked because it found its voice, and has since become a cult classic.
The rebooted Lost in Space (2018 – ) has not only gone the serious route, but has also become gritty, bleak, and largely joyless. It’s a motif a lot of contemporary movies and series use.
Arguably, the template for this began with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), and was popularised with the follow-up, The Dark Knight (2008). Then just about everybody decided this was the way to go, as if it was a secret formula that would lend credibility and gravitas. What most (in charge of these reboots) don’t realise, though, is that Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman movies are great stories that generate, sustain, and justify that environment. Can these other stories say the same?
Credit to Marvel for largely doing their own thing and finding their own voice. While dramatic, their movies are bright and energetic and incorporate levity. I do think their glibness has progressively become overdone, and can (at times) undermine the drama and tension. But that’s just my own opinion. At least they’re doing their own thing.
The gritty, bleak, joyless universes are now tiresome. Superman is meant to be a character who exists in the light. He exemplifies the best we can be. Batman exists in the dark. He speaks to our darker need for vengeance and satisfaction. If you could mash Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Michael Keaton’s Batman, you’d have the perfect conflict of polar opposites. In DC’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), both characters feel the same shade. Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (2017) was the first DC movie to find some damn light and joy. What a shock it was the best received.
After watching the season 2 trailer for Lost in Space, I then watched the season 3 trailer for Star Trek: Discovery, and the season 1 trailer for Picard.
All three stories could’ve been painted from the same palette. At least Picard finishes on a heartwarming note, although that’s derived more from nostalgia than the actual storytelling. The series itself looks dark and glum, with the only splashes of colour coming from those original characters.
I have no problem with stories employing that aesthetic, e.g. Joker (2019), which is excellent. But there has to be a justification outside of it applied purely as a dramatic device (if not a gimmick). Lost in Space can employ levity without being camp. It can be serious without being grim. But that’s not the storytelling world we live in. Too many properties take this path.
Imagine Gilligan’s Island (1964 – 1967) was rebooted today. This is how I envision it would be pitched:
- the Skipper: an African-American Navy veteran who saw action and was dishonourably discharged when he refused an order that would’ve resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians. He now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This cost him his command, then his marriage and his family. He’s now estranged from his children (which is why Gilligan becomes like a surrogate son). We’ll slowly uncover the Skipper’s s secrets through FLASHBACKS as he learns to piece together his life on a deserted island, and reconnect with the people around him.
- the Professor: formerly a Soviet scientist, she (yes, we’ve gender-swapped the character) now works for a black ops branch of the US military (and is possibly CIA) experimenting in chemical warfare. It’ll be teased that the castaways aren’t marooned out of misfortune, but so the Professor can witness and record human response to isolation and weekly stressors as part of the development of some new secret biomorphic weapon. But the friendships on the deserted isle will slowly lead to the Professor rediscovering her human side. (Or will they?)
- Ginger (but her actual name would be Gunjan – ‘Ginger’ will be a nickname): a Bollywood star, she has fled India due to her father’s connections with the Indian mob. (I don’t know if there is an Indian mob, but research often doesn’t factor into these new scenarios.) Her father was indicted, and made a deal to testify for his freedom. The mob found him and wiped him and the family out. Ginger escaped and fled to the US, where she decided to take a three-hour tour. She vacillates between vengeance and her career, but fears if she takes vengeance, she will follow in her father’s footsteps, a la Michael Corelone. (Yes, it makes no sense if she’s marked for execution that she’d still pursue a very public career, but why let logic enter the fray now?)
- Mary Ann (from Marianela): a Mexican Olympian who won Gold in the high jump, although there was a furore about whether she used performance-enhancing drugs. She was also involved in an abusive relationship with her manager/coach, who it’s revealed pressured her into using supplements. The manager/coach is the sister of leading Mexican drug cartel kingpin. Although Mexico and India are nowhere near one another, coincidentally the Indian mob will know Mary Ann’s coach’s drug cartel. (There’ll be an episode where the Indian mob and the Mexican Cartel band together and come to the island, and the Ginger and Mary Ann fight them off with the help of the Professor, who creates an airborne toxin from a mixture of sea water, coconuts and monkey feces.)
- Thurston Howell III: a provincial oafish clod who built a media empire through tabloid journalism, championing certain political candidates, and good old blackmail. Insanely corrupt, possibly sociopathic, and hopelessly antiquated in his outlook, he is oblivious to his constant gaffes. When he was in college forty years earlier, he went on a bender, stole a truck, drove through a zoo and ran over (and killed) twelve endangered species (including one whose gene pool was going to lead to the cure of cancer). His parents bribed everybody they needed to so the charges would go away, but the shadow has always hung over him.
- Lovey Howell: her marriage to Thurston was arranged to consolidate the power bases of two families. To the public eye, she is a philanthropist, but privately she is greedy, corrupt, and ambitious. She has also protected her husband by eliminating competition through any means necessary (with some implied arranged murders). She is cunning, genius-level intelligent, and manipulative. She was just about to run for the presidential nomination, and was considered likely to win. While on the island, she engages in three different affairs.
- Gilligan: a stupid white male who dropped out of high school, has had his unemployment benefits expire, and has been placed with the Skipper as an apprentice by welfare (because welfare do that, right?). Gilligan isn’t just a bumbling fool, but insecure and needy. He sabotages the SS Minnow so that it washes up on a deserted island, maroons them, and leaves Gilligan with the friends he never had elsewhere. Whenever the castaways band together and concoct a plan that will get them off the island, Gilligan secretly wrecks the plan, passing off the sabotage as lovable ineptitude. The truth is he doesn’t want to lose his friends and wants to keep them on the island forever.
From here, I can’t see how the madcap weekly fun doesn’t write itself.