No matter what part he’s playing, there are a few things you notice right away about Toby Stephens: his almost insultingly square-jawed and handsomely intelligent face, and his visible disdain for those around him. That last one is something he inherited from his mother, Dame Maggie Smith, who turned disapproval into an art form as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey. These qualities have gotten him cast as a James Bond villain, the villain in Robin Hood and the hulking central anti-hero on Starz's pirate drama Black Sails, a part he played for four years.
After a lifetime of fans rooting against him, it’s with some relief that he finds himself playing John Robinson, the concerned father of three on Netflix’s reboot of ‘60s family sci-fi adventure Lost in Space, which is now available for streaming. The original show aired on TV for three seasons, following the Robinson family (a nod to the Swiss Family Robinson, also lost and far from home), as they flew their ship around the galaxy looking for home.
“Part of the joy of doing Lost in Space is that it was totally not like Black Sails,” Stephens tells Playboy. “I mean, I loved doing Black Sails, and I’m incredibly proud of the show. But it was a really tough job, and it was a tough character to play.”
Still, don’t people say playing the villain is more fun? “For once, you know what, I’d had my fill of it. It was great to let someone else get on with all of that stuff.”
“John isn’t this kind of cardboard guy. He is conflicted, as well. He has this distant relationship with his wife and his kids, and he has to somehow try to bridge this gap, in the midst of the extreme drama of this series.”
In addition to the family, Lost in Space has two other main characters. One is Doctor Smith, a scientist and sometimes villain played here by Parker Posey, the fantastically manic force behind ‘90s classics like Waiting for Guffman, Clockwatchers and Party Girl. The other is a robot.
The '60s show’s robot character (proper name: The Robot) was a combination of dog, protector and best friend for the show’s main character, the young boy Will Robinson. He had a huge glass head, arms that looked like they were pulled from the back of a dryer, and tank treads instead of feet. You probably know its catchphrase, “Danger, Will Robinson!” even if you have never seen or heard of the show. It was among the first pieces of pop culture to treat a robot not as a mechanical Frankenstein’s monster, but as a funny, relatable member of an ensemble. In short, a good person.
In the decades since, we’ve stopped feeling so optimistic. In a time where we’re nervous about robots stealing our jobs and AI tricking us into buying or voting for things that are actually terrible, The Robot has been recast. In a movie reboot from the ‘90s, it was designed to be good, but malfunctioned and attempted to murder the human crew. In the Netflix version, the robot’s allegiance and motives are more of a mystery. Where did it come from, what does it want and can it be trusted? (Also, why does it look exactly like a geth from Mass Effect?)
So, we put it to Stephens—does he trust robots? “No! No, I don’t trust them at all,” he says with a force and decisiveness that I personally find surprising. “Would you get in a driverless car? I mean, that would freak me out. I kind of like humans doing things. This obsession that we need to create robots to do things that we can already do perfectly well, but we’re just too lazy to do—I just find it slightly dubious … What worries me is, what the hell are human beings going to do once that happens?”
One supposedly benign function of robots is looking after the elderly, something already being actively explored in Japan. Would Stephens let a robot care for his own mother?
“I wouldn’t a trust a robot to look after my mother—and I don’t think she would want a robot looking after her, either, quite frankly!” he says, laughing. One imagines Dame Maggie Smith as a Black Mirror version of her Downton Abbey character the Dowager Countess, scowling as a hulking white plastic robot with a digital smile makes a poor cup of tea and stumbles over a Louis XV settee, and it's immediately easy to see Stephens' point.
Of course, this isn’t the first time someone has tried rebooting Lost in Space. The 1998 movie, starring Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman, is mostly remembered for being a failed, bloated mess, which Roger Ebert called “a dim-witted shoot-'em-up.” It was the 15th highest-grossing movie of that year, behind the equally risible Patch Adams and The Waterboy.
I wouldn’t a trust a robot to look after my mother—and I don’t think she would want a robot looking after her, either, quite frankly!
As it happens, that is the show we get this time. Netflix’s Lost in Space opens with a technically deft unbroken shot, the camera floating around the Robinson family like the cards they’re using to play a game of zero-G Go Fish. Their ship has suffered some kind of disaster, and they’re making an emergency landing, we learn, though unusually for a show like this, things are going relatively according to plan. The computer’s landing the ship on a strange planet, so they have nothing to do but chat and play cards. This lasts about two minutes, until the sparks begin to fly, the computer starts advising them to brace for impact, and bulkheads begin to fly off the walls and careen around the room at bone-shattering velocities.
What follows in the next few episodes are a series of disasters that the family (and eventually a few other castaways) have to work together to solve. What happened to their ship? Where are they? Will they ever leave again?
“I think this would not work if anyone other than Netflix had got behind it because you really need an organization with enough finance to do it properly,” says Stephens. “We want to make kids as excited about this as kids watching it in the mid-'60s were watching the original. It really caught people’s imagination, and you really want that to happen again."
He adds, "There’s a lot of really depressing TV at the moment. This is just something that’s escapism, and it’s affirming.” And if it helps the actor escape as much as the audience, well, that’s not a bad thing.