In fandom the chatter has always been that the first several episodes of Lost in Space were the “best”. There are several reasons for this, for instance, the realization by actor Johnathan Harris that a pure villain on an adventure show had a short life span. He thus ingratiated himself with Irwin Allen and the writers to spin the show off in a campy and quirky direction. This eventually led to a “monster of the week” facing off with the three amigos – Zachary Smith, boy wunderkind Will Robinson, and the Robot.
So how does one explain the comparative genius of the pilot, and those first several episodes? Perhaps the dynamic acting of legendary Guy Williams (previously Zorro) with a top notch, experienced cast? Maybe. However, a notable difference was that the pilot – which later was sliced into those first episodes – was created by Shimon Wincelberg.
Shimon Wincelberg (1924-2004) was born in Kiel, Germany, and wrote for many 1960s and 1970s television shows. He was a refugee of Nazi Germany, and later became fascinated by Japanese culture (1959 Broadway play Kataki). He wrote under the pseudonyms of S. Bar-David, Shimon Bar-David, Simon Wincelberg, and Simon Wincelverg. If he submitted a story, and then wrote the screenplay or teleplay, he would use two different names for the credits. His first big break was a light science-fiction/documentary “On the Threshold of Space” (1956), a drama about the high-altitude experiments that were a prelude to the then-U.S. space program.
Leaving aside Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space temporarily, Wincelberg wrote two standout episodes of Star Trek: The “Galileo Seven” and “Dagger of the Mind”. The former involved a claustrophobic set with apish creatures killing off crew members one by one. In this situation, first officer Spock makes one logical calculation after another only to see total defeat looming before him. In the latter, another very cloistered set has a sociopathic psychiatrist using a special “chair” to do high-tech hypnotic lobotomies on otherwise strong-willed individuals.
Wincelberg clearly enjoyed writing intense person-to-person conflict, but also liked adding the exaggerated and fantastic elements that Irwin Allen also enjoyed. It seems clear that Allen had a fixation of gigantism as a cyclops was featured in the first set of shows (and pilot), and later did an entire series Land of the Giants, and disaster situations of which most of his career was built upon (Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, etc.). Allen sets were never shy on the expansive. Removing those two elements from Wincelberg’s scripts, most of the scenes involve heroicism (John Robinson), romantic love (Mark Goddard/Marta Kristen), and realistic interpersonal conflicts.
Clearly this added a sense of drama that contrasted from many other subsequent episodes of Lost in Space. Allen went to Wincelberg time and again, despite Allens’ desire for wide open vastness, and Wincelberg’s need to write close quarters interpersonal conflict. Perhaps the contrast of the two together did bring “movie magic”.
Allen tapped Wincelberg to do the pilot of Time Tunnel, also. The original script was known as “The Man Who Killed Time” (circa 1964), and involved a time traveler going back to the sinking of the Titanic. The unaired pilot (circa 1967) leaned visually heavily on the movie, Forbidden Planet as seen below in some comparisons.