Friday, October 14, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 13: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century:

Well, you won't be reading here a deep, insightful "critical analysis" of what a brilliant and artistic program the Gil Gerard/Erin Gray Buck Rogers (1979-1981) was. Sorry. Look elsewhere for that. Basically, my opinion on this quarter-century old TV series is this: it was merely...fun. The show, which aired on NBC for two seasons remains wildly entertaining and enjoyable to this day (and, hey, I own the DVD Box set...), and after all, there's no reason I have to be serious in every one of these Cult TV Friday flashbacks, is there? I mean, I feel like just having fun today, and hence this selection for my thirteenth re-cap.

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.

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:35 AM

    One must never forget the awesome "James Bond" opening credit sequence from the feature version of the pilot. The sight of sexy women in very little clothing crawling on the BR logo around a sleeping Gil Gerard is cool enough on its onw. But add to that the version of the theme song with lyrics and you have 70's pop culture gold!

    I also think BR's women present the sci-fi version of the Ginger or Mary Ann question from Giligan's Island. Are you a Wilma Dearing man or a Princess Ardala man? Me, I have no shame, give me Princess Ardala!

    -Chris Johnson

    ReplyDelete
  2. Princess Ardala or Wilma Deering? Now that is a tough question! I respect your decision (check out Ardala's mid-riff in the two-hour pilot! Wow! ) but I may have to ultimately choose Wilma. I never really understood what spandex was, or what it COULD BE, until I saw her wearing it back in 1979. She's amazing.

    And yeah - that disco opening sequence from the 2 hour pilot is hysterical, like a 70s Bond flick. And the babes are wearing big fat 70s sun glasses too. Very cool. I think this whole Buck Rogers phenomena for guys our age is wish-fulfillment. Buck was one lucky guy...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous11:33 PM

    Whatever love I have for this show is rooted in nostalgia and appreciation of the great guest stars. Still, that Bond-style title sequence is the bee’s knees. If ever I attend another con' featuring Ms. Gray, I’ll be sorely tempted to ask her if she can recreate that toss-the-hair/smoldering-glare maneuver she treated us with in the pilot/movie.

    As for the Wilma vs. Ardala debate, I have to say I’m an Ardala man. Honestly though, I’d probably trade them both for Markie Post in ‘The Plot to Kill a City’.

    -Tony Mercer

    ReplyDelete
  4. I also loved the feature film's credit sequence and theme song, and was disappointed that they ditched it when the film was shown on TV (just 3 months after it opened in theaters-a bizarre forerunner of today's quick-to-home video turnaround time).

    I always thought that the best episode(s) of "Buck" was "Plot to Kill a City," which emphasized the pulp/comic book origins of Buck by having super-villains whose powers weren't the be-all and end-all of the story.
    If memory serves, this was written by Alan Brennert, an excellent writer who has also written for comics, prose, and the 1980's incarnation of "Twilight Zone."

    And, like John, I also noticed the similarities (to say the least) between "Mark of the Saurian" and Space: 1999's "Bringers of Wonder." Unfortunately, just like Buck and John Koenig, no one believed me when I tried to point that out in 1981.

    Especially after having Erin Gray as an in-studio guest on "Destinies," I would have to say I always preferred her to Princess Ardala. Now, though, the question is, did Wilma fans prefer her in the season one spandex (and as a blonde) or, the sailor-suited brunette from season two? For the record, Erin preferred the spandex as far as costuming, but liked herself better as a brunette.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Okay, we've got two votes for Ardala and two for Wilma so far. Any tie breaker out there?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous8:09 PM

    Has to be Wilma - although Ardala was a minx! But with Wilma you had the often officious, down to buiness, ice would'nt melt perona along with angelic face and that body in those costumes. Erin Gray as Wilma Deering is the best!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous11:49 PM

    John, your comments on Buck Rogers are just about the most interesting I've read anywhere. I couldn't agree more. I bought the show on DVD since I remember it with such fondness from childhood. The show featured some of the most spectacular special effects of any sci-fi show. Particularly impressive is the first season ep "Flight of the War Witch"; the trip through the vortex and the Sharks attacking the force field of Pendar are still awesome (even in this age of CGI wonders). Hawk's ship ripping into Buck's starfighter with its "talons" in "Time of the Hawk" is great too. One of the serie's most impressive effects shots is the zoom into the landing bay of Sinaloa in "Vegas in Space". I could go on forever praising the effects. I noticed another 'borrowed' effect, not from Battlestar: Galactica, but form the Logan's Run tv show. The force field effect in "Olypmiad" is the same blue effects seen in the title sequence from the '77 Logan's Run show (that show had impressive animated laser and force field effects).

    I've come to appreciate the writing of some of the first season eps more (I always prefered the more serious second season). Eps such as "Vegas in Space" are amusing if looked at in the proper perspective; campy, but not over-the-top such as Batman. I can't stand "Cosmic Whiz Kid" though. As a kid, I didn't like Gary Coleman (the kids at school thought he was a major nerd), plus I didn't like his oversize ego. He reportedly wanted to be on Buck Rogers, so an episode was written for him. Imagine if Paris Hilton said she wanted to be on "Enterprise" and the producers tailor made an episode for her. I view "Cosmic Whiz Kid" in the same light. Plus, he's one of the worst actors ,child or adult, I've ever seen.

    One thing tiresome about the show is the sloppy editing and mismatched effects shots- they didn't get past me as a kid either. Equally tiresome, is the continual reuse of Galactica props. Adama's pendant in "Planet of the Lost Gods" becomes a pendant to ward off Buck's "Space Vampire", and on and on...

    Despite all its faults, I still love the show.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anonymous1:33 PM

    Sorry. Being a gay man, the only reason to watch this show was for Gil Gerard. It never failed to amuse me how they could always manage to get Buck out of his shirt or into a skin tight, crotch hugging outfit. He was the James Kirk of the 70s.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Anonymous2:24 AM

    I guess that makes the score:

    Wilma: 3
    Ardala: 2
    Buck: 1

    I was not expecting that, but good for a laugh. I guess the the same way I loved Wilma in her Disco suits, Gil Gerard was not shy in showing that he "dressed left".

    I found the DVD set and just about crapped. I do have to say the second season was disapointing in that Erin Grey became a Sailor, but the change overall in the storyline did mix it up a bit.

    Season 1 had some of the greatest Sci-fi cheese. One particularly funny episode was "Olympiad" and how the writers viewed what future man could do athletically. If you see it though, these 'Galaxy Class athletes' look like a bunch of bums pulled off the extras lot...

    Definetly a guilty pleasure...
    P.s. Currently downloading Megaforce ala Barry Bostwick...there's another dud (er I mean stud)

    Thanks for the great site

    ReplyDelete
  10. You can add "Hawk: 1" to the score :-)

    The only redeeming feature of the awful Season Two episode The Golden Man, which is rightly on your "To Avoid" list, is that Hawk had a big part in it. Unfortunately this forces me to re-watch the episode from time to time... At least in the other, equally terrible episode Shgoratchx! he was wise enough to leave the ship immediately after the dwarves came on board. This is the one time I was almost happy with his endless patrolling!

    ReplyDelete