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The Robinson Party Campsite

The classic American television series Lost in Space, which was broadcast on the CBS television network for three seasons starting in Fall 1965, was a complex and captivating science-fiction drama whose underlying theme was the struggle for survival of a small party of Earth travelers whose space ship crash lands on a hostile and desolate planet somewhere in the charted reaches of outer space. During its three-year run, the show underwent a number of superficial changes in style motivated by attempts to keep pace with ever-changing audience preferences. Nevertheless, the basic themes and concepts behind Lost in Space remained constant, even if they were increasingly muted as a consequence of market pressures to make the show compete for ratings with rival network time-slot contenders like Batman [ABC television, 1966-1968].

During the first season of Lost in Space, prior to the advent of competition from Batman, the key note of the series remained the struggle for survival of this small band of humans, composed of the five-members of the Robinson family plus a robot, a pilot, and a sabateur who was accidentally trapped on board the ship prior to its departure from Earth. Serious and thought-provoking scripts were prepared for the series with the idea of exploring the theme of survival from a variety of angles. At various times, the Robinson party is seen trying to farm the alien land, find water, seek shelter, and exist in much the same way that American homesteaders did in the seemingly untouched vastness of the American West in the nineteenth century. Survival, of course, can only be understood in the context of threats to survival. As such, the creators of Lost in Space employed a variety of narrative and iconographic devices that depicted both the struggle and the threats to survival.

In their alien environment, the Robinson's gains were jeopardized in much the same fashion that nineteenth-century pioneers on the prairie might have been threatened: by drought, famine, unfamiliar poisonous or otherwise dangerous flora and fauna, extremes of temperature, hostile natives, and by an inability to apprehend, appreciate, and adapt quickly enough to inscrutiable alien cultural expectations. The Robinson's predicament exactly matched that of early American pioneers, but the fact that the Robinsons were marooned on an alien planet rather than 1850s Kansas, raised the intensity and impact of these factors. As new and unfamiliar as Kansas might have been to Western eyes in the 1850s, it was still earth. While the natives of the American plains were of a different race and culture from the frequently unwelcome Western pioneers whom they encountered, they were still human. As such, their actions and motivations could be fundamentally understood and perhaps predicted even if they were not joyfully embraced. The alien context of the extraterrestrial wilderness in which the Robinsons were marooned, however, exacerbated these cultural clashes and clouded them with an aura of impenetrable and perilous mystery. Finding themselves on a world entirely different from the Earth, the Robinsons had no point of reference to aid them in understanding their new environment. While the Robinson party expended heroic efforts to adapt the alien wilderness to meet their survival needs, their efforts were frequently negated by the natural forces of the alien planet. The Robinsons were unable to predict these outcomes due to their total and understandable ignorance of the nature of the planet. Thus, the planet itself was the dark and objectively malignant force that threatened the survival of the Robinson party. The Robinsons were powerless to predict the consequences of actions directed at altering the alien environment. Understandably, the natural human reaction to these circumstances is abject terror and crippling fear.

In order to establish an underlying mood of fear and forboding that would enhance the drama of the show, its creators employed mythic landscape imagery that was calculated to signify to the audience both awesomeness and hopelessness. The audience would be impressed by the desolate majesty of the alien landscape but, at the same time, the landscape was studded with signifiers whose meaning was instantly understood on a subconscious level as being inhospitable, dangerous, and deadly to human life. Thus, in the mind of the audience, the Robinson party was doomed to extinction despite the heroic action of its members to avert their seemingly inevitable fate. Consequently, cinematic tension was to a large measure skillfully manipulated by use of landscape imagery that pitted narrative action again audience expectation of the consequences of that action.

The Meaning of the Campsite

By necessity, the Robinson party spent a lot of time inside and within the immediate vicinity of the Jupiter II after it crash landed. The campsite therefore become the focal point for the Robinson's contact and conflict with the alien planet. For cinematic reasons, one would naturally expect that this fact would have prompted the creators of the show to produce a series of long to medium range shots of the Jupiter II in its landing spot.  This, however, was not the case. Most scenes filmed in front of the the Jupiter II were filmed close up and from the same angle, with the hatch in the left side of the picture. Rarely does the picture include the roof of the ship. The reason is that the roof of the Jupiter II was normally removed and in its place was a vast hanging scaffolding containing stage lights and sound equipment. This structure can be seen in the following photograph, taken during a break during the shooting of the first-season episode "War of the Robots" [production number 8521].

[Image from proof sheet for "War of the Robots" The large circle in the foreground is actually a hole punched in the negative. Sound Stage 11]

Nevertheless, a number of special stock shots were created of the Jupiter II in its resting place. These stock shots were cut into the final edit of the episodes and were used by the editors to establish place, mood, atmosphere, and time of day. Usually, these shots appeared at the beginning of a scene.

The first such shot was created for the unaired pilot, "No Place to Hide" [Production number 6203]. This shot is quite unusual in that it is a process shot. It is a combination of matte painting and live action. A segment of the side of the ship (comprising the hatch and viewport) is the actual physical set on the Fox sound stage. The terrain directly in front of the ship is also part sound stage 11 at 20th Century Fox Studios. The roof of the ship and nearly everything to the left of the hatch, however, is a matte painting, as is the rest of the image. All of the rock formations that frame the ship are part of the matte painting. Note how the terrain underneath and immediately surrounding the ship is level.

[Process shot from pilot "Not Place to Hide," scene 40]

Once Lost in Space was picked up as a weekly television series, plot changes necessitated a redesign of the camp area. As a result, the terrain surrounding the ship was altered. The following shot, created for "Island in the Sky' [production number 8503], is the first exterior view of the ship after it is crashed landed for the first time in the series.

[Exterior shot of the Jupiter II showing entire ship from "Island in the Sky," scene 67]

Instead of its lower half being buried in the soil as in "No Place to Hide," the ship balances on the fusion core, exposing the lower deck in a realistic manner. Also, the terrain surrounding the ship is no longer level. Instead, a substantial ramp of dirt conveniently leads up to the hatch.

The following shot was taken using the exact same camera and lighting set up, although the camera (on a crane) is gradually lowered to follow the progress of the robot down the ramp:
[Exterior shot showing entire ship from "Island in the Sky," scene 81]

Here is another scene employing the same camera set up from "Island in the Sky."
[Exterior shot showing entire ship from "Island in the Sky,' scene 87]

Here is yet another scene from "Island in the Sky" that employs the very same camera angle and stage dressing. It is important to bear in mind that all scenes employing the same camera angle were filmed consecutively during the same shooting session. Episodes were not filmed sequentially. Instead, the shooting schedule was determined by camera set up.
[Exterior shot showing entire ship from "Island in the Sky," scene 187]

While the camera was still set up for this shot, the crew lowered the lights and created a nighttime scene that was intercut into a few first-season episodes. The nighttime version of this shot was first used in "There Were Giants In The Earth" [production number 8504] although it would have been filmed earlier. In this beautiful shot, the dome on the roof of the Jupiter II pulsates with a soft light. This footage is a classic example of the beautiful and eerie nighttime shots created by Lost in Space's first-season cinematographer Gene Polito (born 1918).

[Night time shot of Jupiter II landing site shown during opening title sequence of "There Were Giants In The Earth." This shot was also used between scenes 20 and 21 of the Revised Shooting Final script, dated 10 August 1965 to set up a change of location. As stock footage, this image was reused in "The Oasis" as an establishing shot for scene 57.]

This powerful image conveys a sense of the heightened nighttime danger and peril that envelops the ship. The light from the ship's dome and windows are the only artificial lights on the entire planet. While they may give a slight sense of security to those inside the ship, these lights -- representing human ingenuity and the will to survive -- do not extend beyond the ship. The planet is too strange and its sheer alienness too deeply frightening to be mitigated by the presence of the Robinsons. Instead, the alien darkness is encroaching upon the ship, slowing and surely working to extinguish the light and the displaced terrestrial life inside it.

In later episodes, when the Robinsons would take to dining outside in the late evening, the darkness of the alien night would no longer portent danger and mystery. Instead, the meaning of the darkness would shift from oppression to absolutely freedom from earthly social problems and constraints. The night was so liberating and comforting that Dr. Smith and Will would occasionally choose to sleep outside, confident that they were perfectly safe from any form of danger or discomfort. During sleep, humans are at their most vulnerable, so clearly an environment in which such vulnerability is without consequence is liberating. Once the Robinsons' had made peace with the alien environment, this nighttime shot would no longer be used.

On a purely technical note, this would be the very last time that a shot of the ship from this angle would ever be filmed.

In the following shot, from "There Were Giants in the Earth," an entirely new arrangement of the set has been achieved. In this shot, the soil surrounding the Jupiter II has been leveled. The lower deck of the ship has largely been buried, and a skirting perpendicular to the ground has been erected around the perimeter of the ship. A special ramp has also been constructed leading up to the hatch.
[Conventional exterior shot showing only a fraction of the ship from "There Were Giants in the Earth," scene 33. Sound Stage 11]

There were probably several factors that necessitate the change in terrain. First the set changes served to recreate the terrain created for the pilot. This was important because scenes from the pilot were reused and intercut into the first five episodes of the television production. Second, the level terrain around the ship made it easier to more props, actors, crew, and cameras around the front of the ship. Third, the new level terrain made it much easier to move the robot around the set. The reduced angle of the ramp leading up to hatch made it simpler to get the robot to go up and down the ramp. This last consideration was especially important now that the robot's two tread sections had been bolted together and Bob May could no longer shuffle his was carefully down the steep dirt ramp as he had done in "Island in the Sky." There is no evidence that any scenes were filmed of Bob May attempting to shuffle the robot costume back up the old dirt ramp. The scripts of the first few episodes do not call for such scenes, and this is likely a consequence of the realization that a smooth ascent up the steep dirt ramp would be a well nigh impossible.

The following shot of the campsite was used in "Island in the Sky," but was actually filmed for the pilot. The differences in the ship (note the long parallel vertical groves that run up the left side of the hatch up to the dome), the ramp, and the set dressing are striking. Among the most important differences, the ship in the pilot (known as the Gemini 12), has no airlock. This was not an oversight in the design of the ship because the plot of the pilot did not call for any space walking scenes. The addition of space walking scenes into the first three episodes of the Lost in Space television series ("The Reluctant Stowaway," and "The Derelict," and "Island In The Sky") necessitated the creation of an airlock.

[Exterior shot from the pilot (scene 92 in the pilot script) reused in "There Were Giants in the Earth," scene 227]

The following image, also originally filmed for the pilot and reused in
"There Were Giants in the Earth," is interesting because it shows a jumble of logs at the foot of the ship. The lush garden, banana trees, and animal pens are also an artifact of the pilot and do not appear in any other scenes of "There Were Giants in the Earth." This sort of continuity problem did not seem to bother the producers of the show.

[Exterior shot from the pilot (scene 99 in the pilot script) reused in "There Were Giants in the Earth," scene 236]

Henceforth, shots of the exterior of the ship were either stock footage seen above or conventional shots that excluded the roof of the ship and only showed a small circle of the ship to the left of the hatch. As mentioned above, this was because of the scaffolding that sat on the roof of the ship.

The following shot from "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension" [production number 8508] is interesting in that it obeys the new conventions of excluding the roof, but is taken from an unusual angle. The camera is suspended above the set in the catwalk.
From this angle, it is easier to see that the ramp is not a true rectangle. Instead, its long sides are tapered inward.

[Unusual shot from the tag (popularly called the "cliff-hanger ending") to "My Friend, Mr. Nobody," scene 180. This shot is repeated in the teaser (introduction prior to the opening credits) to "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," scene 2. Sound Stage 11]

The following shot first appeared in "The Oasis" [production number 8509]. It is actually a reworking of the process shot and matte painting created for the pilot. The differences are more easily seen in the side-by-side comparison.
The "Oasis" matte painting was most certainly created for "Island in the Sky," even though it never appeared in that episode. Note the dirt ramp, the tangle of white tree roots to the left of the dirt ramp, and the attempt to paint in the exposed lower half of the ship. These set details had already been changed to match the pilot set by the time "There Were Giants in the Earth" was filmed.
Reworked process shot created for "The Oasis," inserted into the final edit as an establishing shot for scene 140.

Original process shot from the pilot.
The powerful cinematic effect of this long-range establishing shot is to heighten the sense of isolation, hopelessness, and desperation of the Robinson party's predicament. The landscape beyond the ship, extending to the horizon, is, harsh, hard, barren and lifeless. A conscious decision was made to erase the winding pathway seen to the beyond the ship in front of the the three weathered volcano necks. The absence of the pathway intensifies the idea that the strange planet is inhospitable. Unlike the pioneers who worked their way across the North American continent in the nineteenth century "taming" and civilizing the landscape, the Robinson party was powerless to shape the environment of the alien planet with the aim of preparing it for the march of human civilization.

The winding pathway in the background of the matte painting for the pilot can also be read as a dry riverbed. Dry riverbeds suggest the possibly of periodic water flow. The absence of the riverbed in matte painting for "The Oasis" is appropriate since this episode revolves around the scarcity of potable water on the planet and the dire consequences that this poses to the Robinson party. As such, the oasis of the title is not to be found in a topographical feature of the planet similar to an oasis in the Sahara desert. Instead, the oasis is the Jupiter II campsite itself. Imperfect and fragile as it is, this transplanted capsule of terrestrial life is the only habitable spot on the planet, and its continued existence depends not on the geology of the planet but on the ingenuity of the humans who create and maintain that oasis.

The geological formations that surround the ship have their own special symbolism. Rather than offering protection, the craggy rock formations around the ship appear to loom menacingly toward the ship in a threatening, ominous, and disturbing way. These crags almost appear to be weird alien life forms that watch the ship in a curious but immanently hostile manner. The overall impression is that the Robinsons are profoundly powerless on this strange and desolate world. Their attempt to survive and eke out an existence on the planet seems doomed to failure. Instead of providing shelter, these rocks threaten to crush and suffocate the life of the campsite.

The Campsite in Color

In its second season, Lost In Space not only made the switch to color, but the story line took the Jupiter II to a different planet. Despite a radical change of location, it is remarkable how similar the immediate terrain surrounding the ship on the new planet is to the terrain of the old planet. This following shot is the first daytime exterior shot of the ship after its crash landing in "Forbidden World" [production number 9504].

[Exterior shot from "Forbidden World." Sound Stage 11]

Despite the addition of fallen trees, interesting plant life, and large purple boulders, the standard camera placement for exterior shots established in the first season remains constant.

In the following shot from the very next episode, "Space Circus" [production number 9505], the standard camera set up for exterior shots remains the same, but the set dressing has been slightly altered to open up the set for more action shots in front of the Jupiter II.

[Exterior shot, "Space Circus." Sound Stage 11]

Because the interesting exterior footage showing the entire ship from the first season had been filmed in black and white, it could not be used in the second and third seasons of Lost in Space. New exterior footage of the entire ship was not created. Most likely this is because of the time and effort it would have taken to dismantle and remove the scaffolding on top of the roof of the ship. This is a shame because long-range exterior shots are very valuable in establishing place, time, and mood. The use of such shots in the first season contributed in no small measure to the superior cinematic and dramatic production values of the first season of Lost in Space.

Text copyright 2005 Berkeley Robot Project