Some Thoughts On Dr. Zachary Smith

In the first few episodes, Dr. Zachary Smith is very evil, very cold and cruel. Really, try to imagine being an actual doctor, examining these people, including two young children, smilingly assuring them that all is well, and sending them on their way to the death which you yourself have engineered! That’s really hard to wrap your head around, ya know?

There is much fan discussion regarding Smith’s motivations, whether he was an “ideological” agent, purely mercenary, or was under blackmail or duress. His manner shows no remorse, hesitation, or guilt, so I think we must rule out the latter. After launch, trying to contact Aeolus 14 Umbra, he asks rather derisively how much more they are going to pay him for his inconvenience, so I think we can assume he is not purely ideological: we know he is getting paid, and has no compunction about asking for more. However, a man who can so coldly plot the murders of six sleeping men, women, and children and be motivated purely by financial reward seems to me to indicate a level of sociopathy bordering on the literally insane, on par with a hitman for the Mob or some particularly vicious drug cartel. (I’m thinking like Luca Brazzi or Tony Montana.) It’s hard to imagine a personality profile like that penetrating to such a deep level of security on such a highly classified project, and why he would have made the effort. Such a ploy would have required extensive planning and forethought, not to mention the fact that whoever was behind his actions would demand such an agent be utterly reliable – something usually not seen with sociopaths. My personal theory is that Smith was such as to be inclined favorably toward whichever “foreign power” it might have been, and was carefully groomed along the way, partially –maybe even largely—by the promise of financial reward. But I don’t believe that was all. Perhaps he did have political tendencies which sympathized with enemies of the United States; perhaps too his handlers were more subtle than that. We see, later, that Smith can be very vain, quite impressed with himself. Maybe along with money he was being extended some sort of recognition which played up to his ego – the sense that this foreign power appreciated him in a way that his own country did not. In fact, this was a common ruse of the KGB during the Cold War – spies who were low-ranking military or diplomatic personnel were awarded all sorts of high KGB ranks, medals and citations for their service (all secret of course!), even given KGB uniforms! I think it very likely that Smith’s handlers –whoever they were—were playing off of his vanity as much as simply material greed (what is vanity but a kind of greed?). This would explain, I think, his detached coldness in plotting mass murder: he has been trained to think of himself as simply better than these people. He is the smart one; he is the superior being; he is the future. All these other people are lesser creatures who must be swept away so History can proceed as ordained: you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, as Lenin infamously said.

Feeding that feeling of superiority, too, is just what and who he is: he is the spy, the sneak, the genius who is fooling the entire security and military apparatus of a nation. He is far above such mundane conceits as compassion, love, mercy. And of course, such mental states are sadly familiar to human history. One need think only of the Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags, where seemingly normal men & women engineered the wholesale extirpation of other people, men & women who then engaged in perfectly ordinary lives off-duty. Of course in those circumstances, there was usually a strong herd instinct around this evil, and a strong sense of “us vs. them,” which probably did not attach to Dr. Smith, acting much more as a lone agent. But at bottom, the only difference is one of scale – 6 rather than 6 million; 6 who are “less than me,” who need to be gotten rid of. This mindset, and the suggested circumstances which cultivated it, are the likeliest explanations for the sheer evil we see in Smith.

What of the alternatives, though? I have already explained why I don’t believe Smith is purely mercenary. Similarly, I can’t see his cold detachment as consistent with him being under some sort of duress; additionally, this would be inconsistent with his demand for payment. I just don’t see this adding up whether the bad guys are holding a relative hostage or are threatening to reveal some disastrous personal secret.

There is another kind of turncoat, though, the “revenge” traitor. This would overlap slightly with my previous analysis, to the extent that we must suppose Smith to have either been wronged in some way by his compatriots, or –more likely – imagined himself wronged. In this case, his grievance would compel him to seek out the enemy for precisely the purpose of avenging himself on those who he thinks wronged him, probably imagining them as being jealous of him. Here too, his vanity would likely drive him, with the same sense of being better than those he has turned against. He likely would not distinguish between those whom he actually has a grievance against, but (especially in a military setting) cause him to see the Robinsons as part and parcel of the guilty faction. In other words, he is bearing a grudge against the whole US military establishment, maybe even the entire USA:  this is to be his revenge, and the Robinsons are just the specific vehicles of that revenge. There is some slight evidence for this, as he makes at least one somewhat disparaging remark about the military in “The Reluctant Stowaway”:  “That’s the military mindset for you, kill or be killed,” referring to Maj. West. This is a particularly ironic line, as he is the one on the mission to kill, and –regardless of his motivations – it may also be a sardonic hint at the price of his own failure.

One problem with this is simply that he is still Col. Dr. Z. Smith, flight surgeon and medical officer for the Jupiter 2 mission. He would not appear to have a real grievance against the military; he is both a high-ranking and well-trusted officer. That leaves us only with an imagined complaint – perhaps he believes he has been passed over for promotion, or denied some coveted ribbon or award. The problem here is simply this:  as little evidence as there is for any of this speculation, there is even less with this. Also, looking at this scenario as realistically as possible, it is just too handy a coincidence that one of the few people in the world who would have had an opportunity to pull off a mission like this (remember he is also a robotics expert) would also be the one to imagine an injury grievous enough to sell out his country for. So – a possibility, but even less so than my prime theory.

But what of Smith as he becomes? We know the real-life answer to that, of course: Jonathan Harris didn’t want to be written out of the story! Is there any way, though, to reconcile the later Smith with the early Smith, and perhaps explain not just his change of personality but help solve the mystery of why there was an “Evil” Smith at all?

Quite simply, Dr. Smith (despite being best known as a buffoon) is quite a complex and fascinating character. I have tried explaining him in my own “Endless Skies Trilogy” and “Lost In Space Adventures,” although not in ways necessarily consistent with each other or with the series itself. My favorite analysis of him is rather simple, and (to paraphrase my own work), I think that although he has some very bad inclinations, these are due to weakness of character rather than actual evil. I think that he is aware of this, even painfully aware at times. He acknowledges this at the end of “Space Destructors”:   “I’ll never change. I’m afraid it’s time for me to face up to the cold, hard facts about myself: greedy, rapacious Zachary Smith. If ever there are riches or power or enormous glory to be had, I know I’ll always endanger the lot of you to get my hands on them. . . . . I’ll always be a menace. I know it. . . . I know I do bad things from time to time, but I don’t mean it. It’s just that – well – I can’t control myself.” (Of course, this could just be his ruse to keep from being finally and terminally exiled!)

But I think there is little doubt that he truly regrets his wickedness. Possibly the greatest, almost surely the best known, evidence of this is seen in “All That Glitters.” Similarly to King Midas (which this episode largely recapitulates), his greed has turned Penny into a statue of lifeless platinum. His regret is profound. The scene of him kissing her cold, metal cheek is one of the most moving of the entire series, and his exclamation, “I don’t care about myself, it’s only Penny I want saved!”, certainly one of his best and most sympathetic moments. Beneath it all, I believe he truly loves her, and Will too. Another of his best scenes comes in “The Questing Beast.” Although this tends to be overlooked in an episode perhaps more notorious than others as one of the “silly” ones, he displays tremendous compassion and empathy for Will, when Sir Sagramonte is revealed as more pretender than paladin, and acknowledges his own duplicity. He says at one point, “I regret every lie I’ve ever told, because this time I’m telling you the truth,” and again, when Will’s illusions about the knight are all but shattered beyond repair, “Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up . . . . It really isn’t worth it.”

One might possibly rationalize his regret in “All That Glitters” by noting that he himself was doomed (as he might himself say), in that just as Midas, he was starving to death by not being able to eat: any food he touched became inedible. Likewise, in both “Space Destructors” and “The Questing Beast” his wrongdoing had already been exposed, and the cynical might similarly tag his expressions of regret as simply his attempt to put the best face on a bad situation. But there is also the episode “Time Merchant.” By a fluke, Smith has landed himself not only back on Earth, but at Alpha Control in the last hour before the liftoff of the Jupiter 2. He has the chance to re-write history to his presumed liking, staying on Earth and allowing the Robinsons (and Maj. West) to proceed to the fate which Earth had already presumed: death in an asteroid barrage. At the last moment (literally), he realizes he cannot allow it to happen and fights –fights! – his way onto the ship, where his presence –again—both saves their lives and sends them hopelessly off course.  Here, he has nothing to lose, no public shame to be endured. He could have stayed contentedly home while these people flew off to die. And he couldn’t do it. Deep down, Zachary Smith is a good man. Like many good men, he battles with his baser, coarser inclinations, and often loses the battle. Unlike many, he does overcome them to do what’s right . . . in the end.

Is it just the children though? Would he have run back on board the ship if it was just the adults? Would he have stubbornly starved to death amidst his wealth if it had been Don who was the platinum statue?

Well . . .possibly. This gets too far afield into speculation. One would like to think so. I do think it is the children who bring out his better nature. With his weak character, unable to resist temptation, he is perhaps more of a frightened child than man. Will in particular seems to recognize this, and often acts as if he is Smith’s older brother. Will is usually the one who sticks his neck out, disobeys orders, and goes to rescue Smith from whatever catastrophe he has brought on himself. Maureen too is frequently protective of him, as if she sees him as another one of her children.

But what is Smith to us, as viewers? Many think of him as simply annoying and the spoiler of an otherwise acceptable TV show. By way of comparison, I’ve read that another famous doctor, Dr. McCoy of Star Trek fame, was written as a sort of touchpoint for the viewer. That is, amidst all the high technology and warp drives and fantastic adventures, McCoy was deliberately something of a Greek chorus, providing a viewpoint from an average mid-20th century vantage: somewhat “lost in space” himself amid the wonders of the future. Dr. Smith, I think, provides something of the same function. Most men or boys watching Lost In Space would prefer to identify with either young Will – a boy out in space, adventuring with a robot as companion; Major West, a hotshot young space pilot, or John Robinson, courageous pioneer guiding his family through inconceivable danger. But who would we most really be like? One of them? Or . . . a poor frightened soul far out of his element, amid unimaginable dangers, with equally inconceivable temptation before him? Who of us would be able to resist the lure of the “Wishing Machine” or having the Midas Touch? Or commanding an army of soldiers looking just like us, with which to conquer the Universe? Or being king of a planet? I think Smith is much more of a realistic touchstone for the average viewer than most of us would care to admit, and that is one reason he is perhaps disliked more than might be warranted. John Robinson is the best example of a man, and how we would like to think of ourselves, but Zachary Smith is who we fear we really are.

Irwin Allen produced four science fiction series: Lost In Space, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants (which was really just Lost In Space in another guise.) Time Tunnel had no movie made, long after it ceased airing on TV. None of those others have catchphrases which are almost universally recognized, such as “Danger, Will Robinson!” Zachary Smith is an infuriating character, but it is he who is largely responsible for the enduring appeal of Lost In Space. Without Smith, it would have been a very different show, maybe a better show, possibly even a much better show. Or maybe not at all. But one thing I think is certain: it would not be the show which even now stirs the passions and excites debate, and which lives in our hearts like few other TV shows ever have.



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3 responses »

  1. Another excellent article! As you know, I am writing an article myself which, among other things, gives us one more reason to hate Dr. Smith. But I like what you said, ” Like many good men, he battles with his baser, coarser inclinations, and often loses the battle. Unlike many, he does overcome them to do what’s right . . . in the end.” There is something almost religious in that, and you’ve given me something to look for as I watch more.

  2. Telstar says:

    And because Jonathan Harris was made of awesome. He is the only man who could trifle with Chuck Norris…and survive.

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