Oh Captain: John Robinson

Posted by CB Droege

Ship’s captains have been an important part of genre fiction for a long time. Thusly, in our first genre feature series, we’re looking at ship’s captains. Today’s captain is John Robinson of the Jupiter 2.

While he rarely used the moniker, preferring his academic titles of Doctor or Professor, John Robinson was the captain of the Jupiter 2 and commander of its mission, in addition to being the literal father of half of the crew.

Robinson is interesting more for how his role as protagonist was usurped than for his own adventures. In the first few episodes, he is the clear hero, guiding his small crew through the dangers on an unexplored planet.

The show was derived from a comic book called Space Family Robinson, an adaptation of the popular Swiss Family Robinson novel - which was in-turn inspired by Robinson Caruso - thus the name of the family.

As the comic book title suggests, the original plan was essentially Swiss Family Robinson in space, with each episode revealing a further danger of the planet upon which they had become marooned. The skills of the family would complement each other greatly while trying to survive.

Robinson himself was an astrophysicist and exo-geologist, his wife was a biologist and medical doctor, his oldest daughter was a musician, his son was an electronics prodigy - needed to maintain the robot who would act as the family’s servant and protector, and the younger daughter seems to have had some skill with animals, though it didn’t have time to be explored. 

Robinson’s friend and first officer, Major West, was intended to be the main antagonist of the series as a whole. While not villainous - that would be left the the alien monster of the week - he was a vestigial military man. With the Jupiter 2 crashed, his primary skill - starship pilot - would come to no use.

In the first episodes we see him begin to develop an obsession with Robinson’s older daughter, and the conflict between West and Robinson over who should lead the group starts to see its first sparks.

This was intended to be straight adventure, a classic and serious science fiction drama.

This all dies out, however, as an intended-to-be-temporary plot device changes the course of the show. Doctor Smith, a foreign agent of an unknown soviet country stows away on the Jupiter-2 to sabotage the mission. It was intended for Robinson to struggle with the morality of killing Doctor Smith for a few episodes, but to eventually decide that letting him live is too dangerous to the family, creating an arc that would last the whole series, as Robinson struggles with the guilt of having to kill Smith, and themes of regret, duty, and humanity enter the series. 

Jonathan Harris, however played the part of Doctor Smith as a goofy, almost flaming, sycophant, which audiences found humorous, and which changed the tone of those first few episodes from serious adventure to inane humor. All of the family’s skills and dynamics were forgotten. The conflicts between Robinson and West fell by the side, and Doctor Smith supplanted Robinson as the protagonist of the story, pushing almost the entire family into the background of the show, with the exception of Will, the young son, who befriended Doctor Smith, when no one else would. 

After the first season, Robinson is reduced to a smiling taxi-driver who ferries Doctor Smith and Will from one adventure to another on the now-repaired Jupiter 2, which most of the family never leaves. Of course, Robinson continues to serve as a father-figure for the crew, and as the moral compass for the show, often sitting down with Will to explain some important aspect of humanity, or angrily confronting Smith about some villainous, but ‘not so terrible after-all’ deed.

How would the story have been different if this change had not unexpectedly come?

What kind of classic sci-fi series would we have now if the original series plot arc had been maintained, and Robinson had been left with the charge of protecting his family from the harsh desert planet, and his crazed former best-friend?

Or would it have failed to gain traction at all, and fallen by the side as another failed attempt? 

As a side note: Back in the noughties, an attempt was made to John Robinson’s story redone as originally intended, but the idea gained too little support, and we got Battlestar Galactica remade instead. The planned reworking would have removed Doctor Smith, Penny and the robot entirely from the story, and grown Will up a bit.

Come back tomorrow when we will cap off this series with Captain James Hook.