Fear of a Queer Planet
One of the most tiresome avenues of gay and lesbian film criticism has been the
cataloguing and dismissing of "negative images of gay people" as either bad
politics or bad art. Thus defined, the question of "is it good for gay people"
feels overly restrictive and unfruitful. Life—and art—is far more complicated
than simply producing or enjoying "positive images" of gay people (or Jews, or
women, or progressives, or African Americans)—that is, gay people who act only in
righteous, moral, and virtuous ways. Positive? Sure. But interesting? As Mae West once
said, "Goodness has nothing to do with it."
In 1992, when GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and other queer media
watch groups were complaining about Sharon Stone’s murderous bisexual black widow
character in Basic Instinct, a noted lesbian novelist came to Stone’s defense.
"I mean, here is a lesbian or bisexual women who goes around murdering creepy men and
gets away with it. What’s the problem?" Stone was a positive role model for our
post-modern times. More important, the "bad girl" image also dovetailed neatly
with a new sense of transgression and edginess that defined some aspects of contemporary
feminism and queer liberation; a move that can be seen in the presentation of African
But there are times when the flight from positive images does not necessarily lead to
the immediate embrace of the good "bad guy." Sure, Glenn Close’s
bunny-boiling scorned woman was a hell of a lot more interesting than Anne Archer’s
goodly wife in the 1989 Fatal Attraction, but it was no great stretch to see
that the film reinforced our culture’s most traditional "values" of home,
family, and monogamy. Now Lost in Space—the film version of the mid-1960s
television series—offers us not only one of the more problematic images of the evil
homosexual in recent movies, but a look at how Hollywood is presenting the happy, nuclear
family as well.
Plot-wise Lost in Space feels like a repeat of some of the episodes on the
original series only 60 minutes longer and with a few lame sexual jokes tossed in. Here
the family Robinson—father John (William Hurt), mother Maureen (Mimi Rogers), and
children Judy (Heather Graham), Penny (Lacey Chabert), and Will (Jack Johnson)—are
lost in space on the Jupiter II space craft and are looking for a way to get home. For
plot reasons that are far too complicated to explain here, they are trapped in space with
Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman), a completely untrustworthy scientist who—working for a
different space-age power block—has already tried to kill the cute family Robinson.
We are led to believe that Smith is a homosexual of the evil variety because he
continually proclaims his loathing for the very concept of family, hates children, has no
allegiances to anyone but his own selfish self, quotes Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz,
and mutters Susan Hayward movie titles under his breath. As played by Gary Oldman he also
postures and struts like an ego-wounded King Lear trapped on an intergalactic heath, and
sounds like an injustice-collecting, complaining Hamlet. He is also far more interesting
than anyone in the tediously attractive family Robinson.
The evil homo is nothing new in Hollywood movies. But Lost in Space has some
interesting twists on the theme. One of the major plot threads is the tension between the
Robinson father and mother over his resistance to spending more quality time with their
son, the young Will.
Too concerned with saving the world and battling the hostile universe, John Robinson
is—in strictly Freudian terms—the uncaring, distant father who fractures the
cohesion of the family unit and causes homosexuality in his son. Add to this tension, the
holistic family Robinson confronted with the visceral image of the child-hating,
family-loathing homo, Dr. Smith.
This tension is explored in a somewhat startling plot twist that posits a clever
science fiction variation on psychoanalysis. In traditional analysis the patient goes into
the past to revisit a primal scene and from that experience can rectify actions in the
present. Here—it being science fiction—they go into the future to find that
In the family Robinson’s alternative future, they are all dead, except for an
older Will (now played by Jared Harris) who has perfected the time travel machine that his
father never believed would really work. The evil-homo Smith has become Will’s father
and mentor (as well as a giant deadly spider; don’t ask) and has killed off the
Robinson family. This all happened because father Robinson didn’t have enough time
for Will when he was a boy. The distant father has literally been replaced by the
homosexual father and look what happens: family’s killed, boy becomes a queer, and
the universe falls apart. The older, disenchanted Will now wants to use his time travel
machine to go back and prevent the entire space voyage (and by extension the film) from
ever happening. The arachnoid Dr. Smith wants to use the time travel machine to go back
and conquer the universe, which is, of course, the paranoid heterosexual fantasy of a
world-wide queer conspiracy.
Needless to say, father Robinson learns to appreciate Will’s talents and
intentions and, in doing so, saves the family, the earth, the universe, and
heterosexuality. Too bad. The one saving grace is that by changing the future, father
Robinson also saves the present. In their quest home, family Robinson is
accompanied—as always—by Dr. Smith. He may be evil, but he isn’t going
away. He is the necessary reversal that continually validates the goodness and rightness
of the Robinsons.
Beneath its not very special effects and its lame attempts at humor, Lost in Space
presents us with a portrait of how the media—and, by extension, the dominant
culture—views the family. We are being told that things are getting better for gay
people—by the mainstream print media like the New York Times, and gay rights
groups like the Human Rights Campaign. Lost in Space makes it clear, on a
metaphorical and entertainment level, that homosexuals are still a danger to the
biological, nuclear family. No matter how much cultural, social, and political place
"the family" and heterosexuality seems to take up, it still views itself as
under attack by homosexuality.
Although Dr. Smith is the most interesting character in Lost in Space, the film
does not side with him. Basic Instinct treated Sharon Stone’s charming
murderer with ironic insouciance and Silence of the Lambs presented Hannibal Lector
as a charmingly civilized savage (the elegant white version of the racist stereotype). But
Lost in Space wants us—well, at least the heterosexual, pro-family
audience—to side with the inept and stupid Robinsons and to see Dr. Smith as a
spoiler of civilization and family values. One almost expects to see Gertrude Himmelfarb,
Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Schafley, and Irving Kristol on the film’s list of credits.
The "Lost In Space" television show that ran from 1965 to 1968 seemed a
trendy retread of 1950’s family-values sitcoms: "Leave it to Beaver" on
a space ship, "Father Knows Best" in the firmament. But the show was
actually—inadvertently—a more prescient marker of the times. Here was the
all-American family—loving mom, professional pop, smart older daughter, sassy teenage
brat, quirky kid brother—unanchored from their suburban moorings and spit-out into
the scary void. In the 1950s and 1960s, "space" and science was the possible
future, but it was also "not home." It didn’t take a rocket scientist to
figure out that in the TV show the Robinson’s—emblematic of the perfect, media
created American family—were displaced and facing a dangerous and inhospitable world:
not outer-space, but the enormous social and political changes of the 1960s. "Lost in
Space" was about the attempted domestication of this new "space"; the
family unit was so adaptable that it could function in a space-station outside of a
hostile galaxy as well as it could in their perfect pastel kitchens. But this glitzy
updating never hid the fact that "Lost in Space’s" basic values and
viewpoint were out of sync with the onset of the 1960s counter-culture revolution. By
comparison, Star Trek, which began broadcasting in 1969, was much more savvy to its
cultural context. Here humans, aliens, and even odd creatures understood that the universe
was a new place that could accommodate difference with elan and wit. With Stonewall,
feminism, Black power, sex, drugs, and rock and roll just around the corner, "Lost in
Space" was Lost in Time.
It is interesting that the movie remake of "Lost in Space" attempts to
generate simple-minded nostalgia for the 1960s. It is aimed as much at younger baby
boomers as it is at their kids. The difference here is that to make it work, Lost in
Space recycles the pro-family nostalgia of the early 1960s with the panic pro-family
paranoia of the later 1970s. The message of Lost in Space is not much different
from Anita Bryant’s Save the Children campaign or the spew of the right-wing 700
Club. It is a defense of family values against the onslaught of the encroaching
This is a betrayal of the enormously radical potential of science fiction. Just think
about it. We can conjure realities and worlds startlingly different from our own and what
do we end up with?: the stupid, heterosexual family under attack by an evil, Judy
Garland-quoting homosexual. A more startling leap of the imagination would be to
envision a world in which homosexuals (who have done nothing wrong, except not be
heterosexual) are under attack by conformist-demanding heterosexuals. Oh, I’m sorry.
That isn’t science fiction—that’s socialist realism.
Lost in Space gives mainstream audiences no basis for appreciating or valuing Dr.
Smith. He is a self-avowed, as they used to say about homosexuals, evil monster. As in the
television show, the robot in Lost in Space sounds continual warnings: "Danger
Will Robinson. Danger." I’ll say. But the danger to innocent Will is not from
evil monster Smith, but from Will’s own horrid family Robinson whose worth and purity
is attained and sustained through attacking the evil homo as the source of all of the
dysfunction and dissatisfaction in the universe.