Film and drama

Screen Themes: Lost in Space vs The Handmaid’s Tale

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It is often said that we live in a golden age of TV drama, with more original dramatic content being produced now than at any other time in history, largely thanks to the rise of streaming giants like Netflix. This week entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out two very different dramas: the sci-fi remake Lost in Space and dystopian morality fable The Handmaid’s Tale.

Lost in Space

Created by Irwin Allen, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless (2018)

You all remember Lost in Space, right? Based on the novel Swiss Family Robinson, the series was about precocious tween Will Robinson and his family lost on a brightly painted studio backlot accompanied by a duplicitous doctor and a friendly robot.

The original series was created by Irwin Allen in 1965, with 83 episodes produced before being cancelled in 1968. Even for 1960’s TV, the series was pretty average,  which the 1998 movie starring William Hurt and Matt LeBlanc emulated by being bloody awful.

The premise of the new series is basically the same, with the family Robinson signing up for a planetary colonisation mission which goes awry, stranding them on a planet that looks a lot like Vancouver. Sure, Dr Smith is now a woman (Parker Posey), the robot is now an alien killing machine with amnesia and the Robinson family is rife with tension, but they’re still a bunch of good-looking people stuck on a vaguely alien planet.

While the series starts strongly (particularly the pilot), much of this goodwill is squandered as the season progresses. Characters make poor decisions simply to advance the plot, other survivors are introduced and killed off almost immediately for dramatic effect, and the robot may or may not turn evil, although you know he probably isn’t, because this is one of those series where humanity is the root of all evil and so forth…

If you like family-friendly sci-fi you could probably do worse than Lost in Space. The characters are all relatively well developed, the plotlines aren’t totally predictable and former indie darling Parker Posey brings more nuance to Dr Smith than we’ve seen before. But, ultimately, it’s all a bit unsatisfying.

Last but not least, because the internet is a weird and disturbing place, a community has sprung up that thinks the new robot is sexy. Take from that what you will.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Created by Bruce Miller (Season 2, 2018)

Based on the book by Margaret Atwood, the first season of the Handmaid’s Tale told the story of June (Elizabeth Moss). June's a fertile woman in a dystopian future, where infertility is rife and the government has installed a religious totalitarian state under the guise of embracing traditional values. Women are second-class citizens and any hint of rebellion is met with brutality. Rechristened Offred, and assigned as a surrogate for senior official Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his prickly wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), June’s husband is murdered and her child is taken.

As June/Offred struggles to adjust to her new life, she is introduced to the resistance by fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) and begins a covert search for her missing daughter. Surrounded by people she can’t trust, yet determined to survive, June makes deals and compromises, seeing brief flashes of hope immediately extinguished by the system. The season ends with June heavily pregnant and kidnapped by mysterious operators, her fate uncertain due partially to the fact that this is where the book finishes as well.

Despite being a clear parallel for Trump’s America, Atwood’s novel was written over 30 years ago. Still, it is hard not to compare true believer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — both seem to fervently believe the ridiculous rhetoric they spout. The word "freedom" is used as a razor – used to justify the worst torture and abuses – and those in power do everything they can to maintain that control.

Make no mistake: The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t an easy watch. The first episode of Season Two includes a sequence that builds the tension to almost unbearable levels and the world of Gilead is so broken that a happy ending seems unlikely. On the other hand, if you’re willing to endure the on-screen suffering you’ll be rewarded with one of the best dramas on TV.

The Verdict

If you’re looking for escapism, Lost in Space is probably a good option. The budget is big, the special effects are decent, the storylines adequately entertaining and, most importantly, it won’t make you think about how horrible a place the world is becoming.

If, on the other hand, you want to immerse yourself in a fictional version of what America could look like in a dozen years, with all of the horror that comes with that, then The Handmaid’s Tale might be the best drama you watch this year.

Lost is Space is available on Netflix. The Handmaid’s Tale is available via SBS On Demand.

Lost in Space — 7/10

The Handmaid’s Tale — 9/10

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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