There are people who regard Lost in Space as the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction television, and yet night after night me and the frau have been captivated by the antics of interstellar yellow-belly Dr. Zachary Smith, played by the one and only Jonathan Harris.
For three seasons in the late 1960s, Smith was Richard III and Sir Harry Flashman wrapped up into one: a conniving, possibly inverted rogue whose foils were a bunch of squares in tin-foil clothes and a slow-thinking robot. Six of the seven deadly sins were his playground; wiseasses claim that they discern the seventh, Lust, when Smith looked upon Will Robinson, but that seems too pervy to be anything besides a dirty joke. Besides we know what he saw in Billy Mumy’s young sprat: a sucker, a chess partner (because dumb as the robot was, it could whip him at chess), and, if necessary, a human shield.
One of Harris’ most bliss-enducing poses is hiding behind Will when danger strikes, with a wonderful whipped-dog yelp of fear; he struck just this pose on one episode when he and the younger members of the Robinsons were menaced by—oh, bliss!—a space werewolf. In another episode, he played a “good Smith” (“Call me Daddy Zach!”) synthesized by a scheming alien, puttering around, cooking and cleaning for the Robinsons, and acting in such a horribly smiling manner you were glad to find out that this replicant was going to be sent off to be skinned alive on a hell planet, while the real, crotchety Smith (“Dr. Smith, if you please!”) was going to stick around and put those whitebread Robinsons in their place.
Oh, my God, we’ve been enjoying Smith’s spinelessness around here. It was a real performance. In real life, Harris was as faithful as Smith was treacherous; he was married for some 60 years to the same woman. The son of Russian immigrants, he learned to speak posh from British movies. The alliteration (“You blithering bag of bolts!”) was something he rehearsed at nights, mulling over new insults to blast the robot. In Harris was the combination of two luscious traditions: the gilded syllables of a poncy British actor and the agonized face-pulling of a Russkie in emotional torment. We’ve been luring people over to watch the majesty of Dr. Smith, and they just get disgusted. “What an a-hole! Why don’t the Robinsons kill him!” People really just don’t get the picture: the Robinsons are chumps, and they deserve to be reminded of their chumpiness in every episode! And Jonathan Harris is the thinking man’s Shatner. I always wanted to grow up to be exactly like Dr. Smith, and I feel that I have done a pretty good job of it.