Sunday, May 03, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 72: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Space Vampire" (1980)

When I was eleven years old, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) episode about a monster called a "Vorvon," was probably the scariest thing I had yet seen on network television.

That episode, titled simply "Space Vampire," aired on January 3, 1980 on NBC, and the Kathleen Barnes and David Wise teleplay concerned Captain Buck Rogers' (Gil Gerard) chilling encounter on Theta Space Station with a cosmic Nosferatu or Un-Dead, a soul stealer known as a "Vorvon."

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights: unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled. This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.

However, I watched the episode again recently with a friend's ten year old son and it thoroughly freaked him out. So there's definitely something frightening there; at least to impressionable young minds.

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship (the Gemonese Freighter from Battlestar Galactica actually...) plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right: The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I rather enjoy is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, cheap sets and callow characterization, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story (and history) of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

What's funny (and silly...) about this "ancient power lock" is that it is really just Commander Adama's collar medallion from Battlestar Galactica. And ironically, Adama was played by Lorne Greene, a man who had recently portrayed Dracula himself in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977! Yep, it's Six Degrees of Dracula...

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the Monster.

Obviously, the name of the derelict ship, the Demeter, itself originates from Stoker's novel and serves the same purpose in both texts: carrying the "disease" (Dracula or Vorvon) to civilization.

Even the uni-browed, long-fingered physical appearance of the Vorvon is similar to Stoker's written description of the vampire.

From almost a cinema of vampire cinema, the episode appropriates the idea that the Vorvon cannot survive in sunlight, and in an interesting final twist, Buck destroys the soul sucker by flying it into a star itself.

There are actually some pretty solid horror compositions in this episode too...to my surprise. A slow pan marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge (where an arcade video game unit, circa 1979 is plainly visible...) and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent eyes.

There's also a great shot (pictured above), in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these examples economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

And finally, you haven't truly lived until you've seen Erin Gray -- in a skin-tight spandex cat-suit -- playing the soulless, avaricious, seductive bride of the Vorvon. But seriously, what makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody seems to believe that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerless here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works.

"Space Vampire" may not be the best episode of Buck Rogers (I'm rather fond of the two-parter called "The Plot to Kill a City"), but it is certainly the single installment that most people of my generation seem to remember most fondly.

Yep, it definitely made an impression
. For me, this 1980 Buck Rogers episode played a crucial role in my youthful education. It was shortly after seeing "Space Vampire" that I sought out Bram Stoker's novel and read it (with shivers...) for the very first time; not to mention the time period in which I first discovered the Marvel Dracula comic, Tomb of Dracula...

13 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:08 PM

    Great review, as always. Can you share anymore about Lorne Greene playing Dracula?

    Hugh Davis

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  2. Thanks, Hugh!

    Well, it was an episode that aired September 11, 1977, and it was called, "Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula." I haven't seen it in years, but I think it had something to do with a rock concert taking place at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania, and there were some murders.

    Greene played another character (Insepctor Hans Stavlin) but was actually revealed as Dracula at the end.

    Again, this is just from memory...:)

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Anonymous7:55 AM

    That sounds like an interesting episode. Maybe it could be shown in tandem with the McCloud episode where John Carradine plays Dracula.

    Hugh

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  4. John,

    To this day, my brother and I remember and quote Wilma Deering saying, in her breathy vampire voice, "I drained them, Buck, and it felt so good."
    Absolute camp, yes, but memorable. And, I concur about "Plot to Kill a City" being the best episode(s) of the series.

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  5. Wow... reading that posting just dredged a frightening memory from the recesses of my mind. I can clearly recall being particularly scared of that episode of an otherwise benign T.V. show. Thanks for the reminder, and the hair raising on my arms.

    -BTW, came to hear of and enjoy your work through listening to you on Vyzygoth's show. I could listen to you two banter for hours about Millenium!

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  6. Hey John,
    I just rewatched this a month or so back, and was also surprised at how creepy it still was. I put it on thinking I'd have a good laugh, and was shocked(!) to find myself looking over my shoulder a bit. Campy as all getout (as Buck always was) but still effective.

    Lorne Greene as Dracula on the Hardy Boys is a perfectly outrageous example of why the 70's were so great! They just don't make 'em like that anymore : )

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  7. Chopper93: thanks for the nice comments on the Millennium series with Vyz. We both enjoyed doing it, and part 3 is coming up shortly!

    Howard and Jim: I concur with you both. Space Vampire overcomes those aspects of camp to be scary, or at least memorable. I'm not entirely sure why; maybe it's the commitment of the actors; maybe it's creepy conjunction of the 25th century with vampires, or maybe it's just Wilma's lonely plight. But it works pretty well, even today!
    -jkm

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  8. I remember being quite spooked by the Vorvon as a kid, but it also reminded me bizarrely of the twin monsters from Carry on Screaming !! I really liked the space station design in this episode and of course Wilma was red hot as usual !! Hubba ! Hubba !!! :)

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  9. I just saw that Hardy Boys. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Paul Williams is in that episode. It's awesome!

    I just recently watched the episode of Buck Rogers with Dorothy Stratten. They dubbed her voice and I cannot figure out why.

    Great review as usual!

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  10. You are right, Amanda-by-night, Paul Williams does star in that episode!

    Ah, and yes, I remember "Cruise Ship to the Stars." It's sort of a 25th century Jekyll-Hyde story...with Ms. Cosmos and her alter ego.

    best,
    JKM

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  11. Anonymous10:58 PM

    My favorite episode of the entire series, the story, acting, and creepiness are all still there! I was 11 years old when this first aired. Bravo to the makeup and costume , great tribute to the father of all vampires Nosferatu!

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  12. Anonymous12:40 PM

    I met Erin Gray and Gil Gerard at the Phoenix 2012 Comic Con, and I'm still geekin' out about having shook both of their hands. And I told them honestly that Awakening and Space Vampire were two of my absoulute top favorites. They remembered them all right. In fact, I'm watching Space Vampire on my portable DVD next to my computer. I'm at the part where Huer informs Buck about Helser and the Vorvon.

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  13. Anonymous10:25 PM

    I remember this particularly episode of Buck Rogers quite well. It terrified me as a 10-year-old. But when I watched it decades later, I was amazed at how low-budget and silly-looking it was.

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