When Don McLean sang about "a generation lost in space" on his 1971 mega-hit "American Pie," the folk-rocker was making a pun about the goofy pop-culture aspect of the 1960s, which was inseparable from the more self-consciously significant and sometimes drug-influenced art that helped inspire the so-called youth revolt.
Specifically, he was referring to "Lost in Space," the far-out Irwin Allen sci-fi series that amused adults, delighted children and spanned 83 episodes over three seasons, from 1965 to 1968, on CBS.
At about that same time, the original "Star Trek" was airing on NBC. But if Gene Roddenberry's brainchild used science fiction to explore racial prejudice and the Cold War as well as "the final frontier," "Lost in Space" was more interested — at least after its first season — in campy, colorful comedy and outrageous, even cartoonish monsters and aliens, as in the infamous 1968 highlight, "The Great Vegetable Rebellion."
In that surreal episode about sentient plants, character actor Stanley Adams played Tybo the carrot-man, and "I couldn't do my scenes with him," recalls actor Mark Goddard, 75, who had studied "the method" with acting coach Lee Strasberg before he signed up to play handsome and heroic Major Don West on the Allen series.
"In the show, you can see me turning my head and trying to control my laughter," Goddard said. "I said to the director, Don Richardson, 'I need some help with this. How do you talk to a carrot?' And he said, 'The same way you talk to a stalk of celery.'"
Goddard and co-star Marta Kristen, the Norwegian beauty who played Judy Robinson on the series, will constitute a "Lost in Space" mini-reunion this weekend at the Hilton Memphis on Ridge Lake Boulevard during MidSouthCon 30, the annual convention for fans of science fiction, fantasy and horror in all its forms, from literature to film to comic books to video and board games and so on.
The convention features panels, screenings, an art gallery, a dance party, a masquerade parade, charity auctions, practical discussions about electronic publishing and comic-book drawing, a "dealer's room" filled with toys, books and other on-sale memorabilia, and much more — a range of interests and events that seems to reach "to infinity and beyond," as a popular successor to Major West might say.
"Guests of Honor" include — to name a few — best-selling author Michael Stackpole ("I, Jedi"), comic-book illustrator Joe Corroney ("Star Trek"), game designer Andy Looney, NASA physicist Les Johnson and Portland theoretical cosmologist Ethan Siegel, who at 11 a.m. Saturday will discuss "Where Does This All Come From?," which, true to its title, will explain the origins of every element on our planet.
But Goddard and Kristen may be the most recognizable celebrities at the convention, at least among mainstream audiences. The duo -- who, like many of their genre fellow travelers, appear with some regularity at nostalgia and film and television events -- will participate in a panel discussion at 2 p.m. Saturday. At 3 p.m. Sunday, Goddard will discuss and read from his memoir, "To Space and Back." Both performers also will sign autographs and meet and greet fans throughout the weekend, mostly in the dealer's room.
Inspired by novelist Johann Wyss' castaway classic, "The Swiss Family Robinson," "Lost in Space" was the story of a futuristic all-American "Space Family Robinson" on a mission to colonize deep space that was doomed by the treachery of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), whose sabotage throws the family's spaceship, the Jupiter II, light years off course.
In addition to Don West and potential romantic interest Judy Robinson, the characters included Judy's parents and the program's supposed leads, Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams) and his wife, Maureen (June Lockhart); little sister Penny (Angela Cartwright); and little brother Will Robinson (Billy Mumy). Eventually, the series become dominated by the often-comedic byplay among Will, the conniving but cowardly Dr. Smith and the mission's Robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld, acted by Bob May), whose warning cry of "Danger, Will Robinson!" became a national catchphrase.
Kristen, 67, who lives in Santa Monica with her husband and two "rescue" dogs, credits the popularity of "Lost in Space" to its fundamental "sweetness," as manifested in its ideal portrait of a loving family, with Dr. Smith as the inevitable but tolerated black sheep. (Kristen said Harris told her his prissy yet cunning Dr. Smith characterization was based on character actor Clifton Webb, supercilious star of the "Mr. Belvedere" films, and actress Martita Hunt, the spinsterish Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations.")
"So many people tell me on a serious note that 'Lost in Space' helped them through their childhood," said Kristen, whose own family history is unusual: The child of a German soldier and a Norwegian mother, she was born in Oslo during World War II and raised in a secret "underground" orphanage before being adopted by American parents after the war.
"People tell me the show gave them a feeling of how they had dreamed their family could be," Kristen said. "It sounds schmaltzy, but that's what people tell me."
Goddard, too, has made a connection between "Lost in Space" and family, of a sort. Since giving up acting more than 20 years ago, he has been a teacher of at-risk, special-needs children in Boston. "I always had a lot of things going my way. I just figured for the second half of my life, I wanted to work with young people and help them, in a small way, if I could, achieve a level playing field. I get more gratification from doing this work than I did as an actor."
Did experiencing the behavioral problems of his "Lost in Space" adversary, Dr. Smith, help Goddard deal with his students?
"The way he acted on the show, he was like a lot of my kids. He did act like a 3-year-old. But I'm much more understanding with the kids than I was with Dr. Smith. I would've thrown him off the spaceship; I wouldn't throw any of my kids overboard."
Whatever life lessons "Lost in Space" offers, somehow the discussion always gets back to shrubbery. Kristen said her favorite episode may be 1965's "Attack of the Monster Plants," in which an outer-space posy creates a duplicate Judy Robinson.
"There's one part when I'm sort of in this fugue state and I step into the flower that's supposed to duplicate me, and it's almost poetic; it's quite beautiful. And then later around the dinner table, I'm the vegetable version of me. And they ask me if I want any salad, and I say, 'No!'"
Today through Sunday at the Hilton Memphis, 939 Ridge Lake Blvd. Registration: $45 for the weekend. Daily rates vary. Visit midsouthcon.org or call (901) 684-6664.