In 1965, Lost in Space chronicled the adventures of the family Robinson, a nod to Daniel Defoe’s Robison Crusoe (1719). In the original pilot, “No place to hide”, their ship is damaged by a meteor storm and they crash land on an alien world. There, they run into, among other things, a cyclops. The next three seasons chronicles the further adventures of the family, although in the first official episode their crash is the result of sabotage rather than a natural phenomenon.
Lost in Space started out as a fairly serious science-fiction show, but the tone shifted to be more humorous in an attempt to distinguish it from its rival, Star Trek, which began airing in 1966. The first and second seasons had the crew of the Jupiter 2 crash, sooner rather than later, on a planet, where they then had to fend for themselves.
In the third season, the series became more similar to Star Trek in that they moved freely through space and even used a small shuttle to travel down to planets that they happened to come across. Nevertheless, the overall arc of the show still focused on the crew of the Jupiter 2 being lost in space and searching for a way home.
With regards to Star Trek, the show that perhaps best epitomizes the term “Odyssey in space” is the spin-off Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). In the show’s pilot episode, “Caretaker”, the Federation starship Voyager, under the command of Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), is pulled into the Delta Quadrant by a powerful alien. They end up some 70,000 lightyears from home: it will take the ship 70 years to get home. Like Odysseus, Janeway refuses to give up hope and settle on a hospitable planet: she is driven to return her crew home.
The adventures that the crew of Voyager run across resemble the kinds of challenges that Odysseus and his men faced: they encounter monsters and hostile aliens, but also run into some people that are more friendly disposed towards them. There are no Phaeacians here, though: Voyager is able to shave off thousands of lightyears thanks to some helpful encounters, but no one volunteers to get them all the way to Earth. Even the godlike alien being Q (John de Lancie) tells Janeway flatly in the seventh season episode “Q2” that he won’t do the ship’s crew work for them, even though he does offer some advice that will make the return journey a little shorter.
There are a few episodes of Star Trek: Voyager in particular where the Homeric influence is felt most strongly. In the third-season episode “Favourite son”, ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) ends up on a planet filled with beautiful women who, like the Sirens from the Odyssey, don’t exactly have his best interests in mind. (As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that this well-written review regards the episode as problematic in that it seems to demonize female sexuality.)
In the fifth season, there’s the episode “Bliss”, which offers another take on the theme of the Sirens’ lure. A huge alien creature, referred to as analogous to a telepathic “pitcher plant”, is able to give the crew visions of what they most desire. Most of the crew believes they are flying into a wormhole that will take them back to Earth, but Seven (Jeri Ryan), who has no particular desire to return home, realizes things are not what they seem: the ship is flying into the maw of the creature, to be slowly digested.
Finally, the television series FarScape (1999–2003) focused on a human astronaut, John Crichton (Ben Browder), whose experimental shuttle was sucked into a wormhole and spat out into a distant part of the galaxy. There, he has to adapt to being the only human being in a setting filled with strange and the often truly alien creatures designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
Most of the early episodes focus on Crighton getting to grips with the alien cultures that he is exposed to. His ultimate goal is, of course, to return home. And unlike Lost in Space or Star Trek: Voyager, the show eventually did see him return to Earth well before the end of the series. However, he realized that there was little on Earth for him to go back to now that he had started a new life in space with his love interest, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black). He also decided that it would be safer for Earth to stay away because of his detailed knowledge regarding wormholes.
Since the Homeric poems are so ancient and are considered foundational works of literature, we shouldn’t be surprised that later writers and artists created works inspired by them. My focus here was on pointing out how useful the template offered by the Odyssey was for a few science-fiction TV shows, but the examples could be easily extended.
In the realm of movies, the most obvious and fairly recent example is the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), where George Clooney’s character is called Ulysses (the Latin form of Odysseus) and John Goodman portrays a character analogous to Polyphemus. Less obviously examples include Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) and, after a fashion, the Wizard of Oz books and movies.
When it comes to modern literature, there are also many examples of works that are inspired by the Odyssey, ranging from the less obvious entries like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937) to more easily recognizable works like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997). Existing literature, tropes and clichés can be continuously re-used and re-appropriated to make new and exciting works of fiction that reveal continuously evolving aspects of the human condition.