Television

The Evolution of Dr. Maureen Robinson, Scientist (and Mom) in Space

Netflix released its reboot of the famous space odyssey series Lost in Space on April 13th. The Robinson family is back, but not without some major changes in dynamic, diversity, and “danger”. Reviews are mixed. My mom doesn’t like it much, especially the new, very creepy robot. Metacritic score is 58%, IGN has it at 8.5/10, and IMDb has it at a 7.3. One of the most prominent features of this new family drama is Dr. Maureen Robinson, aerospace engineer, mother, estranged wife, and perfect example of a member of house Slytherin. She is hardcore, she wears cargo pants, she ties herself to weather balloons, and she cheats on exams for the sake of her kids. She also bends the truth, manipulates her kids in order to wound her husband, and steamrolls people without mercy.

This is the third time audiences have gotten to know Dr. Robinson, and each iteration of her and the family that she cares for has been different. Lets come get lost in the history of our favorite badass mom, Dr. Maureen Robinson, from flawless 60’s cat-eye to 3D printed leg brace.

Original Series (1965-1968) played by June Lockhart

Full disclosure for the sake of journalistic integrity (lol look at how professional I am. 10 points to Gryffindor) I have to confess that I haven’t seen *that* many episodes of the original show. However, the overall tone, and Maureen’s general characterization are pretty accessible, even to those plebs like me who haven’t watched all the sci-fi reruns on Nick at Night.

The Lost in Space fandom wiki does a great job summing up Dr. Robinson pretty succinctly:

“In the original pilot episode Maureen Robinson was introduced as: Dr. Maureen Robinson; a distinguished biochemist from the New Mexico College of Space Medicine. She is the wife of

John Robinson, and, according to the unaired pilot, the first person other than an adult male to pass the International Space Administrations screening for Intergalactic flight. Though a brilliant woman of 35, she was described as perhaps too maternal for the adventures that lay ahead. Nevertheless, she is a brave leader when left in charge of the Jupiter 2.”

It’s also super important to note that she was NOT the one to have the idea to colonize Alpha Centuri, but that she agrees to John’s idea to do so. The family then goes on their journey and encounter all manner of scary space stuff. While she is accomplished in her own right, she still defers ultimately to her husband on matters. The 60’s were witness to the Women’s Rights movement, which seem to be reflected by the intelligent, capable Dr. Robinson; however her ultimate nature to be caretaker, maternal, etc. was still palatable for audiences who weren’t totally ready for a woman to be completely autonomous. I mean, what are these women things anyway?  You mean to tell us they are fully realized human beings who can feel or think for themselves?! Kudos, though, for her character being a start. 

Movie Adaptation (1998) played by Mimi Rogers (billed 3rd)  

Not that billing is determined solely by the prominence of the part (William Hurt, Gary Oldman, and Matt LeBlanc all had greater name recognition at the time of  release, but it’s still worth mentioning when comparing Maureen’s place in the series)

The premise of this is slightly different – rather than abandoning the planet for colonization, the Robinson family is trying to save the world by opening hypergates between Earth and Alpha Prime. However, an attempted sabotage and stowaway Dr. Smith put the entire mission – and family – in jeopardy.  

I really try to pay attention during this movie, but I get really distracted by Matt LeBlanc every time. Who’d have thought that such a lovable doofus could also pull off sci fi – action star status, however briefly. Be still, my adolescent heart.

Consequently, it’s not super fair for me in particular to say this, but Maureen is pretty forgettable in the movie version. The moment that sticks out the most is the scene where she is the level headed voice of reason, getting “the boys” to calm down and focus on the task at hand. She is still Dr. Robinson, brilliant scientist and caring mother, but without the benefit of longer form storytelling, we don’t get much insight about her. The family dynamic is changed somewhat – both parents seem to be more equal in terms of say and power within the relationship. 

The film itself, too, focuses more on Will Robinson’s relationship with his father on the family side This is also an important component of the show, however the longer form of television allows for that to move to the background more often. Ultimately, however, Lost In Space is a sci-fi/action film that doesn’t worry too much about anything else.The late 90s were a weird time for all of us.

Netflix Series (2018- ): played by Molly Parker (and top billed, too)

The Robinson family has gotten a serious update – they are blended, intelligent, and replete with issues. John is absent, Maureen is bitter, Penny and Judy fight constantly (but also love each other, so cute), and little Will is the dang cutest chipmunk-cheeked genius boy who freezes during tense situations like any 11 year old would. Gone are the days of happily eating around the space table and discussing problems while the rest of the family demonstrates perfect active listening. This family is complicated, and what better to bring out those complications than life threatening situations in space. Dr. Robinson is in no way immune to these changes.

One of the most striking things about her transformation is the prominence of her role. While both series are – at their core – ensemble productions, it’s impossible not to reflect on Maureen during pretty much every scene. Even when she’s not on screen, her effect on other characters is palpable. She is the one who decides to colonize Alpha Centuri, completely apart from John.

She is the major decision maker, which causes tension between her and John throughout the series, and reveals her cunning and her willingness to use her kids to get what she wants. That’s not to say she is entirely selfish; she till prioritizes her family, to the point that she gets Will’s exam scores changed so that he is not left behind. She also cites them and their happiness as the main reason for leaving Earth, although some of her conversations with John and actions towards him throughout the series make it seem like she is intentionally punishing him.  It is particularly hurtful when she mentions taking the kids was not an unacknowledged part of the plan.

The dynamic nature of the current Dr. Robinson is absolutely made by Molly Parker’s excellent performance. She has a particular skill with roles that include intelligent women in crappy circumstances who take matters into their own hands – her portrayal of Alma Garret in HBO’s Deadwood is proof enough of that. She’s also a great presence (albeit a short one) in Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1922. Her performance as Maureen reveals the human side of the intense scientist, both good and bad. Her chemistry with John Robinson (Toby Stephens) is strained and unyielding most of the time, but the sparse positive interactions between them are totally believable.

Season One of Lost In Space is currently on Netflix.

Is this adaptation worth the time? Which Maureen do you like the best?  Join us over at The Horror Pod Class Facebook group.  There you will find some great conversations about Feminism and Toxic Masculinity and the horror genre.  We did an entire episode on it.  Check it out.  Tell us what you think!

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