In life, neither show was much of a hit. Neither made the Nielsen Top 10, neither lasted beyond three seasons. But their obits took them into different orbits. Lost in Space crossed whatever time-space continuum separates prime time and Hades and now dwells in the shadowed realm of reruns (it airs on the Sci-Fi Channel on weekday mornings). Star Trek, on the other hand, has enjoyed the most robust afterlife of any series in history. It was resurrected 18 years after its network demise as a spinoff (Star Trek: The Next Generation), which led to two more spinoffs (Deep Space Nine, in national syndication, and Voyager, on UPN). The original series, which airs throughout the country in reruns, has also spawned seven movies. An eighth, Star Trek: First Contact (from STNG), is due in late November.
Having tried, and failed, through these past three decades to develop an interest in Star Trek Inc., I can only confess that the original show's dreary self-importance always put me off. To me, Star Trek is the United Nations of outer space—different life-forms instead of countries, but the same bland, high-principled pronouncements: "To boldly go..." etc., etc. And, like the real UN, the show bogged down in administrative and bureaucratic detail. When I try to remember the old episodes, what generally come to mind are not plots but conferences, tribunals, questions of protocol, and dialogue as orotund as an official report (which is why Patrick Stewart, with his big, hollow voice, was ideal as leader Jean-Luc Picard in Next Generation). The characters, exotic enough in concept, always struck me as underwhelming in execution. The hyper-rational Mr. Spock, as played by sour-faced Leonard Nimoy, reminded me of the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland. Captain Kirk, a decent man who should never have been wearing form-fitting clothing, at least benefited from William Shatner's cornball energy.
Lost in Space, much less ambitious, took the same space-exploration theme but shucked all the star-and navel-gazing wonderment. The Robinson family landed on a succession of planets with a robot named Robot and the conniving Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris). They spent most of their time trying to repair their spaceship and warding off the extraterrestrial visitors who insisted on dropping by. It's the predicament of every transplanted suburban family, getting used to the neighbors. (Fans of the late Joseph Campbell, on PBS, will recognize this as one of the great myths.)
The story never advanced much beyond that situation, a stasis that seemed suited to pleasant performers such as June Lockhart and Billy Mumy. The exception was Harris, clawing his way to histrionic heights as simpering, shrieking Dr. Smith. (The fact is, Robot, with a voice supplied by Dick Tufeld, gave the better performance.) The sets were simple, cheap but beautiful, with their basic forms (rocks, brush) and bold colors. The effect was of a dreamscape, which is how the series lingers in the mind.
One note of concern: There are plans for a Lost in Space movie. If this turns out to be anything like the big-screen Star Trek adaptations, I hope it gets lost in turnaround.
PBS (Sun., Sept. 8, 9 p.m. ET)
This Stephen Sondheim musical is essential viewing, if only for Donna Murphy's Tony-winning performance as a repressed, neurotic spinster who falls head over heels for a handsome army captain at a desolate Italian outpost. Murphy's voice is deep and soaring, with a great vibrato. I'm less crazy about the musical itself. The unhappy love that develops between these two is expressed with fainting spells, psychosomatic illnesses, and teeth and fists clenched in exasperation. One doesn't expect Pillow Talk from Sondheim, whose melodies are suitably astringent. But this is more anguish than passion.
Fox (Tues., Sept. 10, 8 p.m. ET)
This two-hour movie is a potential series. Don't bet on it. Eric Roberts plays a New Orleans detective with a tangled past on the trail of a serial killer who has it in for adulterous wives. Fine as far as it goes, but too much time is wasted on Anne Rice atmospherics—mossy tombstones, religious morbidity and the like. Roberts, who insists on addressing everyone as "brothah," is more subdued here than usual.
CBS (Premieres Friday, Sept. 13, 8:30 p.m. ET)
Ray Romano is a standup comic who looks like Jerry Seinfeld but has a temperament closer to Tim Allen's. Which perhaps explains why, in this sitcom about life on New York's Long Island, the humor comes in those two flavors. The badinage with his wife plays nice and easy, like Home Improvement, while that with his parents and brother across the street has more of a Seinfeldian silliness. In the pilot's best scene, his otherwise unflappable mother (Doris Roberts) panics at the prospect of a regular delivery from the Fruit of the Month Club.
NBC (Sun., Sept. 15, 9 p.m. ET)
The network has taken a gaggle of its biggest stars (Kelsey Grammer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jonathan Silverman, Michael Richards) and airlifted them into an undistinguished Neil Simon comedy about the guests, American and British, of a high-class London hotel. A few of the performers—notably Madeline Kahn, as a widow having a bad-hair day while getting ready for a date—know how to make this stuff more light than slight, but all you'd need to turn London Suite into The Love Boat would be Captain Stubing and water.
>The Jeff Foxworthy Show
BACK IN THE RACE
WHEN THE JEFF FOXWORTHY SHOW flamed out on ABC last season, fans may have reckoned that prime time wasn't ready for rednecks. But NBC picked up the down-home sitcom and will relaunch it on Sept. 23. (In addition, NBC's Brotherly Love and JAG will appear this season on WB and CBS respectively, and ABC's The Naked Truth will move to NBC as a mid-season replacement.)' Meanwhile, NBC's Foxworthy promos cackle like a moonshiner who has swiped a neighbor's still; in one, Haley Joel Osment, who returns as Foxworthy's son, asks his TV dad, "Where's Mom?" His reply: "She's being recast."
If only the series is as funny as the promo campaign. This time around, Ann Cusack will replace Anita Barone as Foxworthy's wife, the star has gained a father and new best friend, and now Foxworthy plays a Georgia loading-dock foreman instead of an Indiana air-conditioner repair shop owner. NBC execs are hoping that those changes, coupled with the star's popularity—Foxworthy won a People's Choice Award last year for favorite male actor in a new series, and his No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem and You Might Be a Redneck If...are bestsellers—will carry the show. Says NBC executive vice president John Miller: "It will be the same Jeff, better show."
- Jeff Schnaufer.
IN HONOR OF THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY of Star Trek, which made its debut on NBC on Sept. 8, 1966, I'd like to pay tribute to...Lost in Space, which I thought then (and think now) is the better show—less pretentious, more playful, maybe even more poetic. It turns 31 on Sept. 15.