Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Buck Rogers: "The Guardians"

The second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is not generally high-regarded among fans. In its sophomore sortie, the Glen Larson series eliminated the characters of Dr. Huer, Dr. Theopolis and the Draconians, downplayed Buck’s (Gil Gerard) strong sense of fish-out-of-water humor, and moved Buck from sexy secret agent work on Earth to a deep space assignment aboard the Earth ship Searcher.

These format changes cast the new Buck Rogers rather firmly in the mold of Star Trek or Space: 1999 with the new series acting as a vehicle for “civilization of the week” stories. 

In that particular format, success or failure rests largely on how well interesting and likable main characters interact with intriguing or convincing alien cultures. The Fantastic Journey (1977), for example, got the former aspect of that alchemy right (the likable main characters), but had a difficult time coming up with good stories, and original alien cultures to explore.

In broad terms, this was the very problem with the second season of Buck Rogers. Episodes that involved mischievous dwarfs, (“Shgoratchx!), or backwards-aging men spray-painted gold (“The Golden Man”) failed to impress or persuade either mainstream audiences or die-hard sci-fi fans.

Some second season episodes were better, including the dynamic “The Satyr," a show that pinpointed a great “alien” metaphor for alcoholism and its impact on families.

The subject of this review “The Guardians” may not work as effectively as “The Satyr” -- at least on a metaphorical level -- but I still estimate it’s one of the best episodes of Buck Rogers’ second season, in part because it deploys a tried-and-true Star Trek technique for better developing the dramatis personae.

On Star Trek, an alien disease or weapon was often utilized to examine emotional aspects of the characters that they normally keep hidden. “The Naked Time” or “The Naked Now” are two such notable examples.

In those episodes, a disease that mimicked alcohol intoxication “exposed” the underneath characteristics of our favorite Starfleet officers. The character revelations were sometimes funny, sometimes extremely moving. 

That general idea informs “The Guardians,” only an alien artifact is the catalyst for the character reveals.

Here, Buck and his new friend Hawk (Thom Christopher) investigate a “Terra Class satellite.” Although the exploration of the planet is supposedly “strictly routine,” Buck and Hawk soon hear a distant bell ringing over the wind's howl. They follow the noise and discover that the bell tolls for Janovus XXVI, an old man now on his death bed.

This ancient “Guardian” informs Buck that he has been waiting for Captain Rogers for over five hundred years. Now, he must pass on to Buck – “The Chosen One,” an ancient green Pandora’s Box. This jade artifact must be transported to the old man’s unnamed successor and only a person of both “the past and the present” (like Buck) can get it to its destination successfully. 

That night, Buck sleeps in proximity to the jade box and dreams of his life on Earth. In particular, he experiences a vision of his mother, one from the eve of his disastrous mission on Ranger 3. After the box is brought back to the Searcher, it begins to have strangely deleterious effects on the ship and crew. The ship inexplicably goes off course and makes a setting for the edge of the galaxy.

This trajectory especially concerns Lt. Devlin (Paul Carr), since he is due to be married on Lambda Colony in only a few days. 

When Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) is exposed to the box, he imagines his crew…starving to death on the long journey in the void from the edge of the galaxy to Lambda.

When Wilma (Erin Gray) is affected by the box, she sees herself as a hopeless blind woman wandering the corridors of Searcher alone.

Then, in a matter of an hour, Wilma is blinded in real life, and realizes her vision was prophetic. Even Hawk is affected, and he experiences an emotional moment with his dead mate, Koori (Barbara Luna). 

As the Searcher reaches the edge of the galaxy, Buck realizes the box must be passed on to a Guardian, a “saintly figure” seen throughout many cultures and on many worlds. When a Guardian does not possess the box, chaos ensues, and that sense of chaos explains a lot of Earth’s violent history. Buck realizes that the Time Guardian is the very one that they now must seek… 

By and large, Buck Rogers is a pretty light show, a fact which distinguishes it from the original Battlestar Galactica or Space: 1999. There’s often a great deal of humor on Buck, and a tremendous amount of physical action too.

In some sense, “The Guardian” showcases how the series could have approached more serious sci-fi storytelling.

 This episode is not without flaws (and the ending looks cheap...), but the crew member visions of people starving to death and going blind are authentically disturbing. I remember watching the program for the first time in 1981 and feeling pretty jolted by Asimov’s vision of a crew dying from hunger…and looking like zombies.  This moment resonates, and is probably the strongest in the show, despite the fact that Gil Gerard, in the vision, hardly looks emaciated...

"The Guardian" also delves into some pretty dark territory regarding erstwhile Lt. Devlin. While Searcher is lost and heading to the edge of the galaxy, he learns that his fiancé on Lambda Colony has died.  She was killed while out searching for him and his lost ship. Again, this bit of drama is just a bit darker than the typical Buck Rogers show, and here it all works well.  A sense of panic and anxiety builds up as "The Guardian" reaches it final act.  

Frankly, the writing for the main characters here is also among the best in the series' second season. We learn how heavily Asimov carries the burden of command (imagining a future of starvation, in which he is incapable of helping his crew…), we come to understand Wilma’s fear of appearing vulnerable or being pitied. And we are reminded once more of Hawk’s utter isolation and alone-ness. 

Of all the phantasms featured in "The Guardians," Buck’s may be the least effective. It’s great to meet a Rogers family member, since we know very little of the astronaut’s family history, and yet Buck doesn’t really do or say anything important in this dream.  You’d think Buck might want to warn his Mom about the coming nuclear holocaust…tell her to go into hiding, or something. Instead, she’s the one worried about his mission. 

Buck’s dream is a bit off tonally, though it’s fun to see the special effects from “Awakening” recycled as a callback to the Buck Rogers pilot.

In toto, I would have preferred to see a dream in which Buck revealed some personal flaw, foible or fear.  Like the fact that he was afraid of never again making a meaningful connection with the world around him.  I don't know.  But something other than an idyllic dream of lemonade and small-town Americana.  This dream tells us where he came from, but in a sense, we already know that.  Better to explore how he feels about where he was, or where he is, or where he might be headed.

Like many cult-tv programs, “The Guardians” also imagines an external force as being the guarantor of peace or war in the galaxy.

On the original Twilight Zone, the great (and incredibly atmospheric) episode “The Howling Man” postulated that man would experience peace only during those intervals during which he held the Devil captive. Whenever the Devil escaped captivity, world war would occur.  

Likewise, in Star Trek’s “The Day of the Dove,” an alien monster that thrived on “hate” was believed responsible for the violent, war-like aspects of humankind’s long history. 

Here, the Guardians preserve galactic peace, but during the uncertain periods of succession, elements of the space-time continuum “jump” their tracks, and chaos is the result.  In all these situations, "fate" is determined specifically by some agency outside of man's dominion and yet he can  still struggle to rein the situation back in during each crisis.  

Probably the best aspect of “The Guardians” is simply the fact that the episode creates a sense of terror (especially in the scene wherein the box is jettisoned from the ship…but then re-appears aboard her…) without ever focusing on a humanoid villain. There are no bad guys to be found here, at all, only a strange alien artifact that the crew of Searcher, including Buck, doesn’t quite understand. 

This conceit was very much of the Space:1999 playbook: terror is forged because man doesn’t have all the answers, and his curiosity or other emotions only create more danger.

It’s nice to see Buck Rogers operate on that more intellectual, spine-tingling level, at least for a short duration. Had later episodes followed this relatively intelligent formula, the second season might today be much better perceived.

I don’t often return to the second season of Buck Rogers today because of some of the really dreadful episodes, but “Time of the Hawk,” “The Satyr” and yes, “The Guardians” reveal how the changes from season one to season two could have truly created an interesting space opera and interesting, early 1980s alternative to Star Trek.  

I don't know if the second series was too rushed, it was difficult to find good writers, or there were problems elsewhere that needed to be addressed first, but at least for "The Guardians" everything seems to come together for Buck. 

In this case "opening up Pandora's Box" gave the sci-fi series a pretty visceral and intriguing hour.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Buck Rogers: "Journey to Oasis"

In "Journey to Oasis," the Earth is on the verge of war with the secretive Zikarians, a militaristic alien race with a dark secret. Specifically, the Zikarians are double or hybrid entities: they boast human-like heads attached to humanoid bodies, but each exists symbiotically.  In short, Zikarians and can remove their heads and their bodies still function on their own.

No one on the Searcher is aware of this strange fact, as Buck (Gil Gerard) and Wilma (Erin Gray) are assigned to transport the Zikarian Ambassador, Duvoe (Mark Lenard) to a peace conference in the city of Oasis on the planet R4. Unfortunately, all around Oasis is a wasteland, a "depository of failed experiments" and "genetic garbage dump" going back thousands of years.

Buck and Wilma's shuttle, with Duvoe and Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfred Hyde-White) and Hawk (Thom Christopher) aboard, goes down in the wasteland, and the crew must make for Oasis, and the peace conference, on foot.  The Zikarians will declare war, and destroy the Searcher, if Duvoe does not attend the conference on time.

On the planet surface, Buck and Duvoe clash, in part because Wilma knows him from a mission years earlier. She admires him, and is attracted to him, but Duvoe does not wish her to learn his secret.

The survivors of the shuttle crash make for Oasis, but must contend with a little blue imp, ODX (Felix Silla), and an invisible warlord who guards the only path to the city, and peace conference...

Stretched out to almost interminable length at two parts (or two hours), "Journey to Oasis" is a horribly sloppy episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1978-1981), and one that shows off the new format to poor effect. 

Where to begin on this one? 

Throughout the location shooting, it is abundantly plain that Wilfred Hyde-White's role of Dr. Goodfellow is being played by a double, one who doesn't very closely resemble him.  No doubt that this was an expedient because of the actor's advanced age, at this point.  But still...

Similarly, there's a strong disconnect, visually, between the location footage, and the footage shot with the primary actors on a sound-stage. The soundstage looks appropriate to Star Trek, circa its third season, in 1969, with its abundantly fake paper mâché rocks.  But this episode aired in 1981.

ODX's bight blue make-up, meanwhile, has visible edges where the paint  job just...stops. 

And Buck's final battle over the chasm, with the invisible warlord and his glow-in-the-dark sword, is rendered with fast motion photography. The result is that the final confrontation looks ridiculous. It doesn't help that the bridge Buck traverses  doesn't appear to be more than three or four feet off the ground, and it is very short in length. This episode clearly runs smack into budgetary problems that impacted the design and execution of the episode's major sets.

The shuttle in this episode, similarly, is from Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), and doesn't look like a product of Earth technology.  It's a cheap leftover.  The Searcher shuttlecraft changes designs virtually every week in the second season.  Maybe the exploratory ship carried lots of different shuttle types?

Meanwhile, the script treats Wilma badly. When she sees that cannibals have decapitated their prey and jammed their heads on pikes, she screams at the top of her lungs like a child.  She's a colonel in the military, and has seen things, in many episodes, that are far more terrifying than severed heads.  The episode makes Wilma react in this unprofessional manner so that audiences will believe she would reject Duvoe, since he too has a severed head, or whatever.

I know, it's all ridiculous, and in the service of a thin plot: a trek across the desert to reach a peace conference in time.

On the other hand, one can see that the show was, at this point, at least still trying. There is an impressive miniature for the Zikarian ships on display and I applaud the effort to fill in Wilma's back history, even if it doesn't seem consistent of what we know of recent Earth history, from the series' first season.  

It is also nice that there is the idea, here, no matter how half-unearthed, that Buck may actually be jealous of Wilma's affection for Duvoe. Too often in the first season, the relationship between Buck and Wilma is undefined.  Here, we know that he possesses deep feelings for her.

Casting Mark Lenard as Duvoe is a good call, too, though he has played alien ambassadors before (Sarek), of course, and his role here is ridiculous, and made even more ridiculous by his bad, curly wig.  

Lenard plays an important scene with his "severed" head hoisted up between two hands (perhaps his own, perhaps not), and the effect is just silly beyond measure.  He is an actor of such dignity, and yet there is little dignified about the design of his character in "Journey to Oasis."  At one point, it's clear Lenard's head is jutting out from a large rock, while his actual body is hidden inside it.  He shouts orders at his headless body, which is walking around aimlessly.

Again, the mind boggles that anyone thought this was a good idea, or would have looked anything but silly.

All in all, one can't help but think that "Journey to Oasis" would have been a tighter, more effective story at just one hour in duration. A lot of the sloppy execution might have been featured less prominently or mitigated by breezing past it as fast possible.

Next week, a much better installment: "The Guardians."

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

25 Years Ago: Voyager's Opening Credits

Whether Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001) is your favorite entry in the long-lived space opera franchise or not, it is pretty much undeniable that the series' introductory montage is the most beautiful and gorgeously realized in Trek history.

The original Star Trek (1966 - 1969) remains my overall favorite series in the Roddenberry universe for many reasons, but in this terrain, it simply doesn't compete. If you go back and watch the opening credits for Star Trek, even with high-definition special effects, you can see that it doesn't quite capture the majesty, mystery or wonder of space. 

At least not in the way that Voyager's opening manages. Indeed, I have readers asked me to feature a Star Trek series here on Outre Intro, and I have resisted for a variety of reasons.  

DS9's (1993 - 1999) opening is sedentary and dull, even though the series itself is great. 

I never took to Enterprise's (2001 - 2005) non-traditional theme song. 

And The Next Generation (1987 - 1994) got close...but Voyager perfected the "space art" formula, revealing deep space as a realm you would actually want to explore.

Specifically, Voyager recognizes a fact that Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) learned in the seventies: outer space looks a lot cooler when you're not looking at it simply a black background with pinpricks of light.  A colorful nebula helps break the visual monotony.

Accordingly, in Voyager, space is a living place of fire and ice, of fog and shadows.  In short, it looks like a place you might actually want to spend money to visit.

This is not a small deal. 

By the 1990s, the American space program had become "routine," taken for granted by most citizens. The shuttle program was aging, but one bright spot (after initial problems...) was the Hubble Telescope, which revealed some of the most beautiful cosmic imagery one could imagine. Voyager's introductory montage seems to have been created with this ideal in mind, forsaking the traditional image of outer space as nothing but blackness and snowflake stars.

As the montage commences, cosmic rays are visible, stretching across a section of space. The light and particles are golden, suggestive of heat, but sort of a welcoming heat, in a sense.  In the next frame, we see that these are emissions from a bright star, and a lone starship passes within our view.

We move through the wave of particles, and when they dissipate, disappearing from view, the series title comes up. 

Importantly, the lettering of the word VOYAGER is gold too, exactly like the light we saw from the sun.

Next up, the great starship passes by our eyes. It moves above us, so that we get a good, detailed look at it.  It is familiar, like the U.S.S. Enterprise, in shape, but different too.

Instead of a saucer, we get an arrow head, or spear point. That seems appropriate for a ship blazing new trails, in unexplored space.

Next up, the Voyager cuts through what looks like a glowing fog-bank in space, and we get only intermittent views of her, as we might get similar views of a submarine at sea, moving just beneath the ocean's surface.

Next, an asteroid tumbles through view, and there is, perhaps, a cosmic string in the background, letting off white light.

A planet surface becomes visible, and in the foreground an icy, mountainous moon.  Once more, the array of sights is dazzling and beautiful, and a repudiation of the idea that space is a barren, empty place, devoid of light and life, devoid of beauty.

The message: this is an exciting show worth watching, and space is a realm worthy of exploration.

Another gorgeous sight: we move through the rocks comprising the rings of an alien world.  

I love this next sequence of shots, as it suggests one reason to love film (and television). Both media, at their best, can take us to places we have never been, but perhaps imagined in our dreams.  This shot, moving through the rings of a Saturn-like planet, at least for me, fulfills that idea.

A color inversion is next, as Voyager moves beyond an eclipse of some type.  Again, the montage seems to stress color and a variety of environments.  This shot looks like "negative" space, and like nothing we would expect to encounter.

In the montage's final sequence of shots, Voyager warps into a nebula, into -- importantly -- a zone of light, and varied colors (crimson and blue).  It's destination is not a world of black and white, but wondrous color.   This is what awaits us in the stars if we are brave enough to tackle them.

I absolutely love the visuals of this montage, and how they are coupled with Jerry Goldsmith's remarkable, inspiring and bombastic score.  

Buck Rogers: "The Guardians"

The second season of  Buck Rogers in the 25th Century  is not generally high-regarded among fans. In its sophomore sortie, the Glen Lars...