Lost in Space: The Challenge (1966) – Review

Kurt Russell is no stranger to science fiction – long before taking the role of Peter Quill’s father in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 he’d appeared in such sci-fi offerings as Solider, Stargate and John Carpenter’s The Thing – as his first foray into the genre was way back 1966 as a guest star on the Irwin Allen television show Lost in Space. The episode was called “The Challenge” and featured young Kurt Russell as the warrior Quano who decided to test his medal against Will Robinson.

The episode opens with Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) and Doctor Smith (Jonathan Harris) sleeping outside the Jupiter 2 in the hopes that their elaborate alarm system would entrap a mysterious invader who lurked somewhere in the shadows. This is one of those weird character inconsistencies when it comes to the cowardly Doctor Smith as we get no reason as to why he’d agree to rough it outside their perfectly safe spaceship when there is a possibly dangerous intruder about, but even stranger is that the Jupiter 2 had already been established as having force fields so such an alarm systems doesn’t seem to be all that needed in the first place. Regardless of its necessity it does alert Will, who has to kick Doctor Smith to wake up, that there is in fact an intruder about.

“Danger Will Robinson, its Kurt Russell.”

After this “menacing” intruder tosses as spear at Will and Doctor Smith, which of course misses wildly, he is introduced as Quano (Kurt Russell) and soon the whole Robinson family has to deal with this rather obnoxious visitor. “I am called Quano, I am twelve years old, I am very brave and strong, would you like to fight and see who is the better man?” This challenge was addressed to Will and is basicly crux to this episode’s plot; Quano is from an alien world ruled by a warrior class with strength and courage being weighed above all else, and at a certain age a young warrior must seek out an opponent to prove he is the best. I’m not sure what kind of warrior race would consider beating up little Billy Mumy as worthy proof of badassery but who am I to judge alien cultures.

Note: At the time of shooting of this episode Billy Mummy had just turned twelve and Kurt Russell was actually turning fifteen in a couple of weeks.  So yeah, totally fair fight.

It’s also made clear that Quano is from a rather sexist planet as when Penny Robinson (Angela Cartwright) questions him he responds, “I do not speak to weak and worthless girls.” This series is a major product of the 60s so the battle of the sexes was bound to make an appearance it’s just unfortunate that the script doesn’t have the women doing anything other than poor coffee, make breakfast and worrying about the menfolk. Wouldn’t it have been cool if Penny was the one to end up defeating Quano?

“Honey, I know you could totally kick his ass.”

When Will announces he is off to hunt rocks Quano offers to join him on the hunt, totally dissing Penny and refusing her wish to accompany them, but the little alien shit isn’t really interested in rock collecting and he tells Will that he is on this planet to be tested by his father, to prove he is worthy of becoming the ruler someday.  When Will doesn’t seem interested in entering a strange cave to do battle with an unknown enemy Quano calls him out, “I suspected from the first that you were a coward.” This of course results in the easily goaded Will into agreeing to go with him and the two head into the cave where they soon encounter a horrific creature from the studios used prop department.

The Fly meets the Creeping Terror.

Courage and stupidity go and in hand and Quano soon trips over a rock and knocks himself unconscious, Will valiantly stays by his fallen “friend’s” side and the pair only survive because Quano’s father The Ruler (Michael Ansara) arrives and chases the creature off with a couple of shots from his blaster. The Ruler berates his son for doing something so foolish and praises Will for his bravery, and thus the tension mounts between the two kids and Quano eventually offers his “Challenge” to Will. At first John Robinson (Guy Williams) refuses to have his son compete in some kind of intergalactic pissing contest, “Will doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone,” but when Quano then calls Will’s dad a coward the kid jumps the alien boy and takes him down (despite Kurt Russell considerably outweighing Billy Mumy).

“And don’t forget to grab his lunch money, son.”

Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart) demands that her husband call off the fight but John refuses as this would hurt their sons pride as it would imply that he doesn’t have faith in him, stating that “I don’t care how primitive or civilized a man is he welcomes a challenge, why it’s part of his nature to test his intelligence as well as his strength. Without these things we’d be living in caves and eating out of stone bowls.” This stirring argument clearly trumps a mother’s concern for her son and she agrees to let Will fight, but there is more at stake than just Will’s pride which we learn when Doctor Smith and the Robot (Bob May) overhear Quano and his father talking and discover that if Quano loses the two of them must kill the victor and all witnesses, “It is our law, no one must be superior to you.” In this conversation it’s also implied that Quano has lost on other planets and that The Ruler has had to dispatch people in the past, and kind of making thing Quano must kind of suck at the whole “Challenge “thing, but regardless this clearly upsets Doctor Smith who goes into immediate self-preservation mode.

“Nice ray gun you’ve got there, did you get it on sale?”

The Ruler catches Doctor Smith eavesdropping and he is warned, “Whatever you heard you will keep your silence. If you tell the others anything you will be destroyed.” Smith than proceeds to do his best to ensure that Will doesn’t win the contest, but what is interesting here is that Smith is completely in the right in this instance. There is no benefit other than to Will’s ego for the young Robinson to win and if Quano loses they all die, but of course the show highlights Smiths cowardly and duplicitous nature and that he is more concerned with himself dying than he is the others. So Doctor Smith tries to exercise Will to the point of exhaustion, and later even goes to Quano to offer his services in swaying the fight his way, but has no luck on either count. Thing is Quano maybe a sexist little jerk with the ego the size of a planet but he has honor and basically tells Smith to take a hike before he kills him.

People tend to threaten Doctor Smith a lot on this show.

The contest goes fairly well with Will losing the first event, which was a test of physical strength and which again I’ll point out it was to a guy clearly larger by a fair margin, and then they proceed to go through a battery of pretty non-life threatening events; a test of courage that has you wear a virtual reality type headset to face your greatest fear, they crush porous stones in their hands, and have cool laser target practice. During a break, and while the score is tied with only one event left, Smith tries to convince Will to throw the fight, “You’ve already covered yourself with glory Will, there’s nothing further to be proved in defeating Quano, if on the other hand he should win we could talk his father into taking us back to Earth.” Will doesn’t see it that way and states, “I’m not just trying to beat Quano for myself, it’s like I was representing every boy from Earth against every boy from another planet.” The problem with that reasoning is that not a single boy on Earth or from any other planet is going to know about this fight. It’s not like this event was broadcasting live across the universe.  So it’s really Will’s pride that keeps them stuck on this particular planet.

Way to go, you selfish little twerp.

All of Smith’s attempted machinations are for naught as The Ruler pulls his son out of the match in fear that his son will lose and he can’t risk Quano having another defeat (So what was with all that “We will have to kill the victor and witnesses” thing he was talking about earlier?), but the match isn’t over as The Ruler will substitute for his son and John Robinson will stand in for his. The final contest is a duel with Volta blades that are basically fencing foils that are attached to cables that channel roughly 50,000 volts through them. It’s a pretty spirited duel with Robinson does cut a tree in half with a swing, and despite The Ruler being some intergalactic warrior badass John disarms him and the contest comes to an end.

Apparently no one told The Ruler that Guy Williams also played Zorro.

The Ruler congratulates Robinson on his win but soon notices that his son has taken one of the spears and has run off. They quickly deduce that Quano has headed back to the cave to win back his father’s respect by defeating the monster they encountered earlier. They arrive just as the kid enters the cave and The Ruler runs to his son and informs him, “I was afraid you would be beaten, it was I who lacked courage, there is no disgrace in defeat, a man does the best he can, nothing more can be asked of him.” So the leader of an entire planet of warriors just tossed aside their people’s entire philosophy because he didn’t have faith in his son? Well I guess their planet still has sexism to fall back on. The plot wraps up with Quano turning to his father and asking, “Shall we fight the monster together, father?”

The episode ends with a nice father/son bonding moment.

The Robinson family quietly back out of cave to let the two have their moment together and the whole “Murder the witnesses and the victor” spiel is forgotten as The Ruler has learned the true meaning of courage. But wait a minute, wasn’t there a whole bit about Doctor Smith hoping this space faring planetary leader could take them home? You’d think after repairing the relationship between The Ruler and his son the least the two sexists pigs could do would be to give the Robinsons a ride home, but that was not to be, as with type of ongoing series every episode had to reset back to the status quo, each and every week.

“Relax, we’re not making art here.”

This was a fun episode – in what was a fairly engaging and entertaining series – but of course the real treat here was in seeing a young Kurt Russell as Quano, and sure the monsters were goofy, and the sets often looked threadbare at times, and that is part of the charm that makes this show so watchable.

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