I've been a part of sci-fi fandom for more than twenty years (yes, I'm officially old...) and based on my observations (and my own personal feelings), an important (and under-reported) element of fandom is wish-fulfillment, an active and happy fantasy life. I mean, why dress up all fancy-like and shiny in a Star Fleet uniform if there isn't a small part (maybe a large part...) of you that wishes you lived in the 23rd or 24th century, right? Well, I enjoy Buck Rogers in the 25th Century so much because, in essence, it appeals to that wish-fulfillment aspect of the genre.
Think about it. You fall asleep for 500 years only to wake up in a world populated by gorgeous women (like Erin Gray's Wilma Deering). She alternates between wearing tight red and tight blue spandex. Then, you get a little robot buddy to follow you around all the time, and laugh at your stupid jokes (Twiki). When aliens from another world arrive, their drop-dead gorgeous leader, Pamela Hensley's Princess Ardala, looks at you and decides you're worth going to war over; that you're a genetically perfect man ("Escape from Wedded Bliss").
Even better, none of the kind-hearted boobs who live in the 25th century can fly their own spaceships, so you - 500 years behind the times - are their savior. Only you can manage that joystick and make aliens eat laser dust. You alone can save Earth from marauding Draconians, space pirates and the like. So your new boss, Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) sets you up in your own apartment and makes you an "unofficial" spy for the Earth Defense Directorate. This is like being an intergalactic James Bond. Women want you; the Earth needs you, and you get to play with all kinds of gadgets. You missions will take you to a place called Sinaloa, a "Vegas in Space," and even on a cruise ship where you will meet the lovely beauty pageant winner, Ms. Cosmos ("Cruise Ship to the Stars.")
In the course of these dangerous missions, you'll romance hot space women who look like Jamie Lee Curtis ("Unchained Woman"), Pamela Susan Shoop ("Vegas in Space"), Anne Lockhart ("A Dream of Jennifer") and Markie Post ("Plot to Kill a City"). I mean, come on - how cool is that? Add a Burt Reynolds, 1970s disco vibe, and this is fan nirvana!
Let's pause for some history: the character of Buck Rogers first appeared fifty years before the 1979 television series debuted on NBC TV. Conceived first in comic-strip form by John Flint Dille, and artists Russell Keaton and Rick Yager, "Rogers" became a perennial Americam pop-culture favorite in 1929. A radio serial about the pilot trapped in a future world was produced in 1932, followed by a series of cinematic cliffhangers starring Buster Crabbe in 1939. It is fair to say that Buck Rogers, along with Flash Gordon, personified space adventure in the first half of the twentieth-century. Even that was not the end of Buck, however. Ken Dibbs took on the role for ABC television in 1950, in a series of twenty-five minute episodes that aired for a single season. Shot lived, it was limited to small sets and primitive (by today's standards...) special effects.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the 1979 series, is Glen A. Larson's second science fiction "opus." It premiered on NBC scarcely a year after Battlestar Galactica bowed on ABC. And like it's 1978 compatriot, the first Buck Rogers television pilot played with great success in movie theaters throughout the United States. Starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, the series last for two years, thirty-six hours in all. It was a moderate success in the ratings during its Thursday night time-slot, slated against the highly-rated Mork and Mindy (ABC).
The 1979 Buck Rogers series was a hip (perhaps too hip?) updating that kept all the character names from earlier incarnations, but veered wildly into tongue-and-cheek, humorous settings. We all know the premise: Astronaut Buck Rogers awakes in 2491 and finds Earth has survived a devastating nuclear war. Vulnerable, the planet is on the verge of annihilation from many alien sources. Pirates regularly attack shipping lanes, and every two-bit dictator in the galaxy has set his sights on conquering the green planet. In this environment of danger, Buck, his "ambuquad"(!) Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc) and the gorgeous Colonel Deering defend the planet as secret-agent type operatives. In addition to his peerless ability as a starfighter pilot, Buck takes the world of the 25th century by storm with his 20th century wisdom and colloquialisms.
Unlike its somber Galactican counterpart, Buck Rogers was, essentially, a lark. It was Mission: Impossible in space, and on that basis a tremendous amount of fun. In the first season, the series eschewed morality plays, focusing instead on Buck's "unofficial" missions to bring down galactic criminals. In "Plot to Kill a City", Rogers disguised himself as a mercenary named Raphael Argus and combated an organization called the Legion of Death, lead by Frank Gorshin's Kellog. In "Unchained Woman," he masqueraded as an inmate on Zantia to rescue from a subterranean prison a woman who might finger a crook. In "Cosmic Whiz Kid" - starring Gary Coleman(!) - he rescued a 20th century genius from the hands of mercenary Ray Walston. This was essentially the pattern for the 20-something episodes, and in many ways it was a unique formula for the genre on TV at the time. The "caper" was all that mattered.
On Buck Rogers, there was no continuing alien menace, although Princess Ardala, Kane (Michael Ansara) and the Draconians showed up occasionally. And unlike Star Trek, there was little or no exploration of new worlds. Instead, Buck was an outer space crime/espionage show. And that meant - that for the first time I'm aware of - all the conventions of crime and spy television were transposed to the future; to outer space. On Buck Rogers, this transposition was accomplished with charm and a degree of wit. There were telepathic informants selling their services in "Cosmic Whiz Kid," powerful assassins from "heavy gravity" worlds in "Plot to Kill a City," super-charged athletes looking to defect from dictatorial regimes (the futuristic equivalent of the Kremlin) in "Olympiad," cyborg gun runners in "Return of the Fighting 69th" and a planet conducting a booming slave-trade in "Planet of the Amazon Women."
Not a one of these above-listed episodes was particularly meaningful or even moderately artistically written, but each was enjoyable in a popcorn sort-of-way. The series seemed far more interested in humor and female pulchritude than in developing real people or compelling storylines. In fact most of the episodes featured not only fetching Erin Gray, but other gorgeous women in hip-hugging spandex and tantalizing leather garb. They had names like Ana Alicia, and Julie Newmar. Yowza!
These gorgeous women were joined by high-profile TV guest stars including Cesar Romero, Roddy McDowall, Peter Graves, Jay Robinson, Sid Haig, Vera Miles, Joseph Wiseman, Mary Woronov, Buster Crabbe, Jerry Orbach and the like. With this level of support, the series never lacked visual appeal or charm, and the first season was a fun, fast-paced jaunt across the galaxy.
However, in one important category, Buck Rogers was a letdown. The outer space battles were competently achieved with the special effects of the day (models; motion-control), but were often badly mis-edited into the proceedings. In the early episode "Planet of the Slave Girls," mercenary ships transformed into Draconian marauders - a noticeably different design - from shot-to-shot. In the same episode, a shuttle on the distant world Vistula launched skyward and passed the matte painting of New Chicago (on Earth), a matte painting that was used EVERY SINGLE WEEK to depict Directorate headquarters. This was the kind of goof that occurred repeatedly.
Another repetitive and very bad edit concerned the principal spaceship of the show, the very cool-looking starfighter. There were two different designs for this craft, the single and double seaters. Each one had a distinctive and recognizable cockpit design: one slim, one fat. However, the "space" footage of different crafts were often cut together interchangeably within one sequence. In one shot, Buck tooled around space in the single-seater, and in the next, his ship was the impossible-to-miss wider version.
Special effects from Buck's sister series, Battlestar Galactica, were mercilessly plugged into the proceedings too. In "Planet of the Slave Girls," the Cylon base from "Lost Planet of the Gods" substituted for Vistula's launch bay. In "Vegas in Space," "Cosmic Whiz Kid," and many others, the Galactica planet Carillon, seen in "Saga of a Star World," was substituted for the planet of the week. This was achieved in so sloppy a fashion that the Cylon-mined Nova of Madagon, a red star field, was even visible for a few seconds. BG spacecrafts were also brought out of mothballs. The Galactica shuttle doubled as Buck's shuttle in the second season, and ships from Galactica's rag tag fleet showed up in "Planet of the Amazon Women" and "Space Vampire" among others.
Make-up, costumes and props from Galactica also materialized with alarming regularity. The alien "Boray," the focal point of the Galactica episode "The Magnificent Warriors," was seen in the BR episode "Unchained Woman," and Colonial fatigues, also BG hand-me-downs, were utilized as the uniforms for Roderick Zale's henchmen in "Cosmic Whiz Kid." This oppressive re-use of Galactica equipment, effects, make-up and sets, along with the frequent editing glitches, often made the future depicted in Buck Rogers appear cobbled-together, cheap or just unimpressive.
Storywise, Buck Rogers also rehashed identical plot elements in tale after tale. A spy in the Directorate might have made an effective plot developmnet in one or two episodes. However, different spies in Huer's HQ showed up in "Planet of the Slave Girls," "Plot to Kill A City," "Return of the Fighting 69th," and "Unchained Woman," episodes 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the series! There was also the embarrassing overuse of the goofy drug. This was a chemical compound that, when injected into suspects, made them look like a total goofball, stoned and "groovy" feeling. Buck received the goofy drug twice in "Awakenings," and once in "Cosmic Whiz Kid." He used it on a thug in "Vegas in Space," and Wilma utilized it on Quince in "Polot to Kill a City" and then again on Mykos in "Olympiad." This drug was a truth serum, and interesting to see deployed, but six times in less than two-dozen episodes may have been gilding the Lilly just a tad.
After its first year on the air, Buck Rogers underwent dramatic changes. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray were both apparently unhappy with the less-than-substantive storylines. In an interview with Starlog, Gerard confided that he'd re-written virtually every episode of the first year, sometimes on-set, to make terrible stories passable. As a result of his disenchantment, a new format was devised. Dr. Huer, the Defense Directorate, Dr. Theopolis and the Draconians were axed. Buck, Wilma and Twiki became crewmembers aboard a starship called the Searcher (really the redressed cruise ship from "Cruise Ship to the Stars.") The Searcher's mission was to locate the "lost tribes" of Earth, men who were believed to have fled the planet some time after the nuclear holocaust of the late 20th century.
New to the cast as an alien named Hawk, played with great dignity and restraint by Thom Christopher. In conception, he was kinda ridiculous though: a half-bird/half-man alien with a grudge against Earthlings. The rest of the new cast was not even that inspiring. Crichton was a smart-ass robot who looked as though he had been designed out of spare parts. Dr. Goodfellow, played by the charming Wilfrid Hyde-White, came across as dottering instead of charming, and Admiral Asimov (played by Jay Garner) was an abrasive personality undermined by story exigencies. Asimov was commander of the Searcher, but Buck was the star of the show, so Asimov by needs had to be ineffectual. Rogers always had to jump in to save the day and so Asimov just seemed...inept.
The crime/spy template of the first season was gone, and the new Buck Rogers came to resemble the original Star Trek, focusing on heavy morality plays. "Time of the Hawk," the two-hour premiere, served as a diatribe against racial intolerance, and was probably the best show of the second season. "Journey to Oasis" was another plea for acceptance and diversity. "The Guardians" was a competently-produced space nightmare, and "The Dorian Secret" was a powerful indictment of the "mob mentality." Thought-provoking and competent, these shows were decent, if not great.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the second season stories saw a parade of cliches and time-worn sci-fi chestnuts. "Testimony of a Traitor" was that old gimmick, the court martial story (repeated on every variation of Star Trek from now till kingdom-come...). "Mark of the Saurian" was a bald-faced, unbelievably imitative, virtually play-by-play repeat of Space:1999's only two parter, "The Bringers of Wonder." "The Satyr" was the typical "single-mother in jeopardy" episode that appeard periodically on every genre show from Battlestar Galactica ("The Lost Warrior") to V: The Series ("The Wildcats.") Also, season two produced two utterly embarrassing episodes: "The Golden Man," which featured life-forms aging backward, and "Shgoraphchx," about mischevious alien dwarves on the Searcher. If you can, please avoid "Shgoraphchx" like the plague. It is really, really rotten. It could hurt you.
Buck Rogers' second run clearly lacked the sense of fun so prevalent in the freshman season. After just a dozen new stories, the series was cancelled in 1981. Before it made the journey to Valhalla, Buck Rogers was nominated for several Emmys including "Time of the Hawk" for Outstanding Cinematography and "The Dorian Secret" for Outstanding Costume Design. The series scored a win for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Scoring for "The Satyr."
Despite such honors, Buck Rogers is not a popular cult hit, today, though all the episodes work well-enough on a rainy day. It is, however, probably more influential than folks realize. Many of the episodes have been shamelessly echoed in later productions. The ludicrous, backwards-aging creatures of "The Golden Man" apparently inspired an equally ludicrous Star Trek: Voyager second season story called "The Innocent." The "Space Vampire" episode of Buck Rogers was rehashed, rather less-successfully in an early installment of Babylon 5 called "Soul Hunter," and if you think about it, Buck Rogers' stargates also appear to be the model for that series' "jump-gates." Lastly, the outer space/crime and espionage trappings of Buck Rogers have been revived on Space Rangers and Space Precinct, among other shows.
If the 1970s Buck Rogers remains truly disowned by any particular subset of fans, it would have to be the die-hard Rogers fan who felt that this version just didn't stack up or show adequate respect to an American legend. That's not really a fair assessment, I suggest. In the first year at least, Buck Rogers attempted the same swashbuckling sense of fun seen in the Crabbe serials, only updated for the more freewheeling 1970s. Yes, the icon was updated to include sexy costumes and disco music, but what else could one expect? Art must speak to its own time if it is to have a chance of surviving, and this is the 1970s take on Buck Rogers. Disco glitter balls and all...
And hey, who says that all science fiction television must always be deadly grim and utterly serious? Certainly there's a place for that lugubrious stuff, but what's wrong with a sci-fi Starsky and Hutch or Mission:Impossible every now and then? Must we all be so elitist about this stuff, must we take ourselves so seriously, that we can't have a good time with something designed just to be fun?
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a good time. It was fun. And, proving the existence of God, Erin Gray wore spandex. A lot.