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Doctor Zachary Smith

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Doctor Smith

Oh, Dear!!!

Doctor Zachary Smith is a character from the classic 1960's Sci-Fi series, Lost In Space, and its 1998 remake feature film version as well. He shifts at first from being a devious and cunning spy and saboteur to being a comical, bumbling, greedy troublemaker as the series progressed. By the time the series was done, he was almost merely an untrustworthy ally.

In the series, he was memorably played by Shakespearean actor Jonathan Harris, who all but immortalized the character with his greed, cowardice and catchphrases, not to mention his feud with the series' Robot character.

In the 1998 film version, he was portrayed by noted actor Gary Oldman. He was much more the spy and saboteur in this, with only a hint of comedy at the very end. In this case, practicality forced him and the other characters together, though never truly in trust.

TV Version (Jonathan Harris)

Early version

In the initial pilot, never seen by most until the late 1990's, there was no Doctor Smith. The marooning of the Space Family Robinson and their spaceship, the Jupiter 2, came about as the result of a meteor storm. The staff came to feel that an antagonist was needed, and so certain scenes were re-filmed with Smith having snuck aboard, with his extra weight having thrown the delicately-balanced ship badly off course. Under the guise of being a senior safety inspector for the vital space mission, Smith undertook to sabotage the ship's environmental service Robot, B-9, so that it would in fact kill the Robinsons once they were away from Earth. Forced to hide out during final boarding, Smith was possibly also betrayed by his employers, an entity known as Aelous 14 Umbra. Though the show was set in 1997, it was made in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, and most believe that Smith was working for either of the two Communist powers at that time.

When the meteor storm came in this version, Smith was forced to awaken the Robinsons, who were in suspended animation for the long space-voyage. They were automatically suspicious of his claims that a final inspection had gone awry, with him being caught on board out of devotion to duty. But as Smith foresaw, the circumstances forced all but the mission pilot, Major Don West, to put aside those suspicions. In fact, he used those very suspicions against all of them and to his advantage. Claiming to fear for himself, he placed Robot B-9 entirely under his control, meaning the Robinsons could not function without this vital resource without also having Smith's cooperation. But when circumstances shifted again, Smith was forced to yield up absolute control, which began to also undo his makeshift protection. It seemed his exposure and possible expulsion was inevitable, this despite having made a show of befriending the two younger Robinson children, Penelope and William. Major West remained deeply suspicious throughout, with elder daughter Judith on the fence, and her parents/mission leaders, Doctors John and Maureen Robinson, having moral and religious objections to simply turning Smith out. Still, a closure for this version of the character was coming.

Jonathan Harris knew well that such a villain could not be logically tolerated or kept around for very long, even if he were not killed off. Fond of his role, not to mention steady employment, he worked with the creative staff to slowly remake Doctor Smith. An episode after the crew made planetfall,  a transition of sorts began. Smith was found to have made a suicidally selfish choice and used up all the ship's precious water-stores for the sake of a long shower. While this could be seen as the actions of a saboteur, it also set the series other cast and Smith into their most familiar roles. Typically, Will and Penny would be exasperated but try and support keeping Smith around. Maureen and Judy grudgingly accepted vague assurances that he would get better. Having survival of his mission and family foremost on his mind, John Robinson gave warnings even he seemed to realize were pointless. Only Major West remained adamantly opposed to keeping the increasingly comical (if dangerously foolish) Smith among them. The unworkable master spy was gone, but his role on the show would increasingly be that of a Gilligan in space, with all the attendant questions of why he was kept around still in the background.

Classic Doctor Smith

By most accounts, the change in Smith was also the change in the show, turning from an effort at serious science fiction to nearly a situation comedy. Yet it is this era that is most remembered and loved by fans, and there is no denying the scene-stealing central role Jonathan Harris played in making it so. Needing an in-universe explanation for the change, some fans have stated that the spy and saboteur, cut off from his masters and his power of surprise, had a breakdown that made him into the clown he became. For the series itself, it seems more like Smith was always that way. Whatever the case, Zachary Smith became by turns more pompous, greedier, and unable to avoid picking up strange artifacts or making deals with sometimes-dangerous aliens. While the Robinson children were just as apt to cause some sort of problems, these would mostly arise from circumstances that could not be easily avoided. Only Smith would repeatedly ignore warnings and his own experiences, often causing the gravest kinds of disasters for the family and crew. Like its spiritual descendant, Star Trek : Voyager, Lost In Space would more or less reset any losses incurred, but often shortages caused by Smith's antics would carry over from episode to episode, as would the memories of them. As a result, even these were toned down, and the puffed-up character would be cast more in a feuding-buddy situation with Robot B-9, who had developed a snarky personality to burst the ego-bubble of Smith. In perhaps the greatest walking-down of the original character, a time-travel episode gave Smith the opportunity to erase his ever having been on board the Jupiter 2. But when he learned that his presence actually saved the Robinsons by diverting them from an even deadlier meteor shower, Smith, who had endangered them all with endless schemes to return to Earth and/or make himself wealthy/powerful, deliberately made sure his past self was on the Jupiter 2, saving them all. Of course, it didn't hurt that, back on Earth, he was now suspected of being a spy and saboteur, which he originally had been, forcing him to flee arrest.

In the series final episodes, Smith showed that he could in fact be trusted, if only kept an eye on, and if the one dealing with him was prepared to put up with a lot of whining. No matter how far he progressed, getting him to do any chores or needed work was like pulling teeth.

Innovation Comics

ComicSmith

Smith as seen in Innovation Comics

In a TV-based series of comics, writer/actor Bill Mumy (Will Robinson on the original series, as well as an alumnus of Twilight Zone, Babylon 5 and many others) recreated the classic situation with several modern twists. Due to his personal friendship with all the primary actors, he was able to obtain use of their images for the characters, including Doctor Smith. While not dismissing the events of the series outright, he placed what we saw happen on TV into two categories. The very silliest events were made over as the comical reinterpretations of Penny's private journals, an effort to cope with a situation where neither she nor Will had any romantic prospects or other friends (Judy and Don had begun a relationship when Judy turned 18). As for Smith, the comic series put forward that the spy and saboteur had never gone away. While never becoming the clown of the TV series, Doctor Smith did play down his cunning and deviousness in order to keep from being continually suspected. He was still particularly close to Will, but still also awaited the opportunity to have power over the situation once again. He allowed West to keep his suspicions, which had long since become nothing but background noise to the rest. Smith's opportunity came when he was once more contacted by Aelous 14 Umbra, the power that had sponsored his sabotage of the original mission. To his shock, however, this group was not a bunch of foreign spies with an ideology, but aliens bent on revenge. It was their race's ship that had been reverse-engineered to create the Jupiter 2, and the child of the alien leader had been tortured and dissected in the process. Smith, after flirting with aiding his former masters, once more found himself forced to aid the Robinsons, who rewarded his partial change of heart by keeping him in cryo-stasis. When they at last reached their goal, an Earth-like world orbiting the star Alpha Centauri, the same aliens lay in wait for all of them, and Smith was awakened by Will to face down the threat. In the course of this adventure, new depths of Smith's character were revealed, though Will, once the man's greatest booster, now found giving his trust again very hard indeed.

Coda

Harris was a prolific actor, seen on such classics as Bonanza and Bewitched. Talk of a TV-series reunion TV-Movie surfaced but never came to pass as a realized project. The death of Guy Williams (John Robinson) cooled this, and the later death of Jonathan Harris made most see this as now absolutely pointless, as the series was unthinkable without its loved/hated antagonist. Harris did make frequent appearances in specials and reunion talk show events, and had a career as a voice actor, playing the animated role of Martin in My Favorite Martian, a role started by Ray Walston, and even an animated Doctor Smith in a very forgettable unsold pilot of Lost In Space. He was also in a 70's Live-Action Saturday Morning kids adventure show called 'Space Academy', wherein he played an equally uptight but more morally upright character. One of the last voice roles of his career was on the WB Kids! show Freakazoid, where he played the skittish Professor Jones, an obvious homage to his most famous role. Candlejack spent most of one episode scaring Jones out of his skin. In addition, Jones would often be asked "Weren't you on that show with the Robot?".

DoctorSmithAnimated

Not the way Mister Harris wished to be remembered...

Harris made many appearances around the time of the 1998 remake, but, along with Bill Mumy, did not join the rest of the surviving cast in making cameos within the fim itself. He was to have played Smith's betraying spy-master, but stated that he would never play any role in Lost In Space besides that of Doctor Zachary Smith himself.

Film Version (Gary Oldman)

GaryOldmanSmith

Surely, you're not Sirius?

Like the overall tone of the film, this Doctor Smith was a much more serious villain, and never trusted, even by Will.

Whereas the original version had Smith only speaking to an unseen co-conspirator (thus allowing for later retcons of their true identity) he had two scenes with his spy-master, who as mentioned above, was at one time to have been played by Jonathan Harris. In this instance, the film was set in 2057, with Earth's political situation having changed any number of times, so who the powers were that wanted the Jupiter 2 brought down remained a mystery.

In any event, it was no mere accident or bad timing that placed Smith onboard the ship as it took off. A last taunting message from his spy-master told him that they did not want evidence of his sabotage to come to light, nor did they wish to pay his fee. As the ship encountered dangers largely based on his sabotage, this smarter but still cowardly Smith moved to save his own hide and awoke the Robinsons, all of whom found his cover story less than solid.

Despite all his best scheming and efforts, especially to gain the confidence of young Will, Smith found events spinning out of his control. At first bitten by space-thriving arachnids during an attack, Smith was later forced to confront his maddened future self, mutated hideously into a Giger-esque spider-being and still locked into schemes destructive for himself and everyone else. With the aid of that future's adult Will Robinson, Present-Day John Robinson was able to defeat and destroy the Spider-Smith-Monster, though Present-Day Smith was not cured of his affliction. This was, reportedly, to have been the focus of a sequel, which never emerged due to the film's poor box office. In one of his final scenes, Smith has a classic TV-style bout of cowardly panic as the ship faces certain doom. This is ended forcefully when Major Don West (played by Matt LeBlanc) does a Batman-backhand on the shrieking scientist, knocking him silly until just before the credits roll. This may have been mere homage to Jonathan Harris's version, or an indicator that this Smith would perhaps also start to become more clownish.

Trivia

  • SpiderSmithLIS

    This time, he brings the pain!

    In the Harry Potter series, a rare less-than-heroic Gryffindor student went by the name of Zacharias Smith. Egotistical, arrogant and not at all a team player, this obnoxious would-be Quidditch champion was admitted by JK Rowling to have been inspired in both name and persona by Johnathan Harris's Doctor Smith.
  • In 2004, the WB created a pilot for a new Lost In Space series. It did not sell, and this version did not include any version of Doctor Smith.
  • The friendship between Smith and Will Robinson has sometimes been parodied as a decidedly unhealthy one.
  • Just as Star Trek : Voyager has many of the same themes as Lost In Space, so does the early version of Doctor Smith share similarities with the USS Voyage
  • In the 90's, Harris also voiced clone-master Professor Miles Warren, though with the series' subsequent cancellation, he never became the Jackal.

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