Angles



Straight
Man?

Lost in Space finally trumps Star Trek.
An appreciation of Jonathan Harris.

by David Holzel

  


Back in my day, two science fiction series were just beginning their afterlife as television reruns. Star Trek and Lost in Space were peers on the TV lineup, if not in the strength and longevity of the hold each had on the imagination.

After I became a teenager, I didn’t give Lost in Space another thought. Star Trek, on the other hand, has remained with me, becoming something of a touchstone for my view of the world.

There’s no mystery why. Not only could Star Trek’s episodes be appreciated as allegories—comments on our time and the state of our humanity, dressed in the garb of a distant but recognizable future—the stories also seemed to be about adult adventures that an adolescent boy could hope to have someday. Lost in Space seemed to be about—what, exactly?

The story was preposterous: A family of wholesome, well-scrubbed, non-ethnic white people—headed by he-man dad and levelheaded mom (whose virtuousness was authenticated by her earlier role as the materfamilias on Lassie)—are launched into space and immediately marooned. The author of their troubles is Dr. Zachary Smith, an enemy agent sent to sabotage the mission, but who gets trapped aboard the spaceship and must share the fate of his victims.

Rounding out the cast of implausibilities is the ship’s short-fused pilot, Don West, who is expected to develop a love interest with cool, blonde, eldest daughter, Judy. Then of course there are the kids, Penny and Will, and the Robot, whose character, sadly, evolves more than any of his human companions.


I began thinking about all this after I read that Jonathan Harris, who played Dr. Smith, had died last November at the age of 87. His obituary told some fascinating things—that Harris was Bronx-born, not British, as I had somehow imagined. (It turns out that this was a common misconception. His response to "Are you British?" reportedly was, "Oh no, my dear, just affected.")

And that, not unlike his character, Harris schemed to steal the show, taking the plot off course until Lost in Space became—well, what exactly? Whatever it became, Don and Judy’s smoldering attraction vanished and the 1950s-holdover parents were reduced to playing straight men and women, while the episodes increasingly focused on the adventures of the boy and his dog/robot and the congenitally scheming Dr. Smith.

"I realized that the original concept of Smith was a deep-dyed, snarling villain, and he bored me to death," the Los Angeles Times obituary quoted Harris as saying. "There’s no longevity in a part like that. They’d have to kill me off in five episodes, and I’d be out of a job, unemployed again, right? So I began to sneak in the things for which I am—at the risk of seeming immodest—justly famous. Comedic villainy."


Ah, but today, closer in age to Dr. Smith than I am to Will Robinson, I see the Robinsons et al. as straight men and women in more ways than one. Harris’s Dr. Smith stands very much apart. He is characterized not only by his indolence and lack of conscience. There is his nose-wrinkling prissiness,  his prim walk and that god-awful shriek. Dr. Smith was the first gay man in space—at least on TV.

"I am deliciously wicked," Harris told TV Guide in 1966. "I am selfish, self-pitying, pompous, pretentious, peremptory, conniving, unctuous, scornful, greedy, unscrupulous, cruel, cowardly, egotistical and absolutely delightful. The boy [Billy Mumy as young Will Robinson] loves me, but I would gladly sacrifice him to achieve my ends."

Harris schemed to steal the show, taking the plot off course until Lost in Space became—
well, what exactly?


Not that he ever hit on Will Robinson. On a show of cardboard characters no one was fleshed out enough for questions of the flesh to even arise.

As Harris was not British, it turns out he also was not gay. He was survived by his wife of 64 years, Gertrude, and a son.

The obituary told me something else I never suspected about him. Jonathan Harris was born Jonathan Charasuchin, "to poor Russian Jewish immigrants."


Now Lost in Space starts to get interesting. A Jew is put in the role of saboteur, responsible for the destruction of clean, all-American gentiles. Instead, he turns the show on its head and, rather than become the villain/victim, and possibly subject to some form of frontier justice, he runs away with the show, staying one step ahead of the pogrom by making the others to react to him.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Leo Frank, blood libels, the whole litany of well-worn themes are at work here, like the dark fissures running across Dr. Smith's forehead: malevolence, cupidity, shiftiness. But the Jew, condemned to be an outsider no matter what he does, inverts his fate by turning the Robinsons into wandering gentiles.

This is not the solution to the Jewish Problem that anyone had in mind. It is so unexpected as to be truly visionary.

Star Trek may have had its Jewish actors and given the world the priestly hand sign, but Lost in Space, it turns out, has given a harried people the last laugh.

Ó Copyright 2003 by David Holzel


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