Thursday, August 12, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 114: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Time of the Hawk"

Earlier this week, I posted about genre television and specifically "first season wonders" and "second season blunders."

Keeping with that theme, today I want to remember "Time of the Hawk" by Norman Hudis and directed by Vincent McEveety, the premiere episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's hotly-debated second season. The two-hour episode aired on NBC, January 15, 1981, following a lengthy writer's strike, and eventually earned an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Cinematography in a Series" for director of photography Ben Colman.

Loyal viewers of Buck Rogers' first season were in for a shock with the opening moments of Season Two. Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) and Dr. Theopolis had been erased from the format (along with the Earth Defense Directorate), and were never mentioned again. The Draconians were also gone.


Instead, Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and Twiki -- now voiced by Bob Elyea -- were officers ensconced aboard a starship called "The Searcher," heading out on a space mission in search of the "lost tribes of Earth." They hoped to find humans who had fled Earth following the nuclear holocaust... and re-establish contact.

New characters on the series included the gruff, temperamental commanding officer of the Searcher, Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner), a dotty, scatter-brained professor, Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid-Hyde White) and an officious robot called Crichton, who refused to believe that humans had actually constructed him. Dennis Haysbert -- later President David Palmer on 24 -- had an early, recurring role as a "communications probe officer."

"Time of the Hawk" introduces the second season's most prominent new character, a noble bird-man called "Hawk" (Thom Christopher).

As the two-parter commences, Hawk and his mate Koori (Barbara Luna) return home to their peaceful village on the distant planet Throm in the Argus Sector, only to find that drunken humans have murdered all of their people, including Koori's family. Hawk swears vengeance on the human race and begins to launch lightning raids against human-owned starships from the cockpit of his deadly fighter, the war hawk.

"The Galactic Council" orders The Searcher to stop this "devil" called Hawk, and Buck tracks the bird-man down to the City-State of Neutralis on Throm, where Hawk's ship is often serviced by local engineers who are -- you guessed it -- "neutral" in matters of conflict.


"Forget the hatreds of the past," Buck urges Hawk, "help us discover the future..."

The first thing you may notice about this particular narrative is the overt western genre structure.

A decent lawman (Buck Rogers) on a frontier of sorts (the West/Space) needs to bring in a terrible criminal from a different or "alien" culture (think of Hawk as a native-American, a wronged Apache-Chief...), but it is mankind's (America's...) difficult history actually put on trial, particularly for the crime of genocide.

Indeed, this structure was absolutely intentional. New Buck Rogers producer John Mantley had also overseen a decade's worth of Gunsmoke (1955-1975) stories, and had re-vamped a script from that long-running series to open Buck Rogers's sophomore sortie

Mantley told Starlog Magazine's Karen E. Willson (#39, October 1980, page 18) that "something can be said for the fact that Matt Dillon and Buck Rogers are the same man, six or seven hundred years apart. They're 'both' superheroes -- the difference is that up to now, Buck has not been very real. In the first show that Matt Dillon was in, the 'heavy' blew him down. He didn't outshoot the heavy. He even hanged the wrong man once. That made him very human. In the first show of this year, Buck is going to be soundly whipped in the air by a character named Hawk..."
In theory this may have sounded like a strong and intriguing idea -- to allow Buck to finally meet his match after a season of handily dispatching space tyrants -- but Mantley's concept was also, plainly, a western re-tread, a rerun.


Author Norman Hudis explained to CFQ's Steve A. Simak (CFQ: "Back to the Future," February/March 2005, page 46) that Mantley and fellow producer Calvin Clements Jr. had "used the story at least twice before when they worked on Gunsmoke. The idea was very vaguely about somebody who was wanted either by the police or by some authority but he was safely hiding somewhere. The only way they could entice him out was to flaunt his girlfriend or romantic interest and [then] he took the chance of coming out of hiding..They both giggled about it and said 'We've used the story twice before in the Old West and now we're going to use it in outer space.'"

Basing a high-profile re-vamp of an already popular show on a decade's-old rerun may not have been the best or most creative way to countenance a futuristic series going into a critical time period, but nonetheless, Hudis's version of the familiar tale is emotionally affecting at points. "Time of the Hawk" proves a fine introduction for Hawk, at the very least.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's second season faced additional concerns too. The shooting schedule per hour-long episode was cut an entire day from what it had been the year before. And the budget per episode of the series was drastically reduced, to approximately half-a-million dollars a show. This meant that props and miniatures largely had to be re-used from older episodes (and other Glen Larson series...), a fact which gave the new season a kind of bizarre, on-the-cheap visual aura. The Searcher, for example, -- the starship Enterprise of this new season, essentially -- was simply a redressed version of a vessel seen in "Cruise Ship to the Stars" in the first season. Had this fact simply been mentioned in the screenplay -- that a civilian ship had been retrofitted for the mission -- the re-use of a familiar miniature might not have been so disappointing.

And Buck is also seen in "Time of the Hawk" tooling around in a Colonial shuttle craft from the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979). These two space vessels don't appear to be products of the same technology, history or culture...and that's part and parcel of the problem. In visual terms, the new Buck Rogers just looked scatter shot...like a spaceship and prop vault at Universal had been raided.

The same criticism applies to Searcher's bridge: it looks like a hodgepodge of spare parts from the first season of Buck Rogers. It's crowded, ugly -- and again -- cheap-looking. And don't get me started on the fishbowl space helmets Buck and Wilma adorn early in the show. Suddenly, we're back on Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers.

 
The criticism of slipshod production values does not affect however, anything Hawk-related in this premiere episode. Hawk is introduced with great flourish, and actor Thom Christopher remains a powerful presence as the stoic, dangerous bird man. The actor brings tremendous gravitas and dignity to the role, and his "war hawk" fighter is one of the coolest, most sinister-looking miniatures ever featured on Buck Rogers, replete with retractable claws that can tear apart enemy ships.


At least this introductory episode, with its western storyline, boasts the sense to present Hawk as an authentic menace (right down to his ship...), and as a character who seems believable in terms of the genre. Some people have complained about Hawk's costume, but I submit that the overall look of the character works just fine, especially given Christopher's serious, intense interpretation of the part.


The central idea governing Mantley's re-vamp of Buck Rogers was that characters and ideas would now take prominence over space battles and action scenes. Hawk is a good step in that direction: an "outsider" with his own world perspective, and a serious counterpart for the more impish Buck.

Yet, after "Time of the Hawk," Hawk (like Maya before him on Moonbase Alpha and the Maquis after him on Voyager...) is far too easily and quickly assimilated/integrated into an existing crew structure. There's not much sense in presenting an "alien" character who quickly fits in with human buddies. You lose the chance to mine drama from that conflict. Hawk should have always had a different way of doing things, and always chafed at his proximity to humans. Thom Christopher always maintained his dignity, and the character's "outsider" traits, but often with precious little assistance from the story lines that followed "Time of the Hawk."

This was not the only problem with the "new" approach of the second season. Wilma has very little of substance to do in "Time of the Hawk," and soon becomes a console jockey in the series, flying the Searcher and pushing buttons. In Season One, Deering was a sexy, independent, operative for the Directorate. Here she's almost invisible, as if Buck Rogers had also adopted a Western-style aesthetic about the role of women.

In space, in the distant future, this is nothing short of absurd.

"Time of the Hawk" also presents Crichton and Asimov, two dreadfully-cartoonish, cardboard characters who hurl insults at each other ("ridiculous lamp post!" "kettle belly!") and, if anything, evoke only memories of Dr. Smith and the Robot on Lost in Space.

Where is the so-called "serious" drama in this relationship? Bickering is not a substitute for mature storytelling, just because Star Trek did it (and did it well...) with Spock/McCoy.

Most disturbing of all, perhaps, Buck and Wilma are now forced to endure playful romantic banter that, in contest, just seems ridiculous.

In their first scene of the season, they engage in a mock argument, flirt a little bit, and then reconcile...but it's all over nothing at all. It's strictly canned characterization. Everyone is too jovial, too emotional, and trying too hard to be likable and "human." This was also my problem with some of Space: 1999 Year Two: everybody was trying so hard to laugh and smile that it actually became painful to watch. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray are enormously likable performers, and one just wishes they had better material to work with here. In Buck Rogers' first year, Buck and Wilma had great chemistry and shared a kind of tongue-in-cheek relationship. The stories may not have been overtly serious, but the characters seemed real and human, and not forced, like grins had been plastered to their faces at gunpoint.

In terms of story lines, one can argue that the new season of Buck Rogers tried sincerely to make a statement about conformity, and the way that people fear or kill that which they don't understand. "Time of the Hawk," "Journey to Oasis," "The Golden Man," and "The Dorian Secret" all -- at least tangentially -- revolve around the idea of prejudice against those who are deemed different. This is a commendable and consistent theme. The best enunciation of it -- for all its flaws -- is likely in "Time of the Hawk," which condemns man for his predilection to render other species extinct because differences are perceived as threats. "The history of your race is written in its own blood," Hawk tells Buck at one juncture, and the point is made.

Looking back, I enjoyed (and still enjoy...) several episodes of Buck Rogers' second season, mainly "Time of the Hawk," "The Guardians," "The Satyr," and "Testimony of a Traitor," but the second season changes -- excluding Hawk -- by and large did not improve the series. Today, the first season is generally regarded more highly. Still, I can't help but wish that the second season had been granted a full renewal instead of just thirteen episodes. Maybe those last dozen or so episodes that were never produced would have been the very ones that revealed just how well the second season format might have worked. We'll never know.

Lastly, I'll say this. At age 11...what I wouldn't have done to get my hands on a war hawk model kit...


The center-piece of this two part episode is a still-impressive space/sky battle between Buck (aboard an Earth starfighter) and Hawk, aboard his bird-of-prey-shaped ship. The effects and photography are outstanding, and, for once, Buck is facing an enemy that is his equal.

Koori dies from wounds sustained in the aerial battle, and Buck captures a grieving Hawk, who has shared with him the history of his bird man culture. Apparently, Hawk's people once lived on Earth (in pre-history) and dwelt on Easter Island before mankind nearly rendered the aliens extinct.

Later, on the Searcher, Hawk is tried for murder, for his war on humanity. Buck defends Hawk before the tribunal and the bird-man is allowed to serve out his sentence on the ship, joining the team, as it were.

16 comments:

  1. HOLY FUCKING SHIT I LOVE THIS SERIES! I'm no sci-fi TV nerd either. In fact, this may be the only sci-fi TV show I've really watched (apart from Outer Limits, I guess). I bought the box set and snorted up those discs like candy coated cocaine, and Erin Gray's galactic hot pants continue to sparkle in my subconscious.

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  2. Thomas Duke:

    Wow. The last line of your comment should win some kind of writing award: "Erin Gray's galactic hot pants continue to sparkle in my subconscious."

    I love that. i just love it. I wish I had written it. :)

    best,
    John

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  3. Great post. Thank you John. I learned a great deal about Buck Rogers Season Two. I've planned on watching this series start to finish someday.

    Sad to hear Wilma is underutilized perhaps even less than eye candy.

    So, do you prefer the second season of Space:1999 over Buck's second season or are they incomparable. Their format changes are interesting especially the losses of some of those original characters from Season One.

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  4. I love Buck. I was just watching the Jamie Lee Curtis episode "Unchained woman" the other day. The season two opener was a big deal in my household and we were not disappointed. The death of Hawk's wife was actually pretty grim. When it aired I could tell the show was on the decline but I still found the chaotic atmosphere of season two enjoyable. There was a sense that just about anything could happen. The episode from season two you mentioned "Satyr" is my favorite. I think it's really about alcoholism in the same way "The Shining" is , with the once lovable father transformed into a monster.

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  5. Hello my friends,

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: Season Two of Space:1999 seemed so disappointing the first time in part because of what Year One had been.

    Frankly, Buck Rogers Year One wasn't that good, so even though the changes in season two were drastic, the sense of disappointment wasn't quite as grave (at least personally).

    Twenty years on, I can appreciate both Season Two of Space:1999 and Buck Rogers, if that makes sense. And I never dismiss Buck, as some sci-fi fans do...it has some very interesting stuff in it, both seasons.

    Kindertrauma: I was tuned in to the second season premiere as well...and when it first aired, I loved "Time of the Hawk." The disappointment set in with some of the later episodes, particularly the one with the dwarves (!), and the one with "The Golden Man." Now, I can see how "Time of the Hawk" feels kind of labored and drawn out, and stitched together out of re-used parts, narratively and production design-wise.

    But I totally agree with you about The Satyr (which is star Gil Gerard's favorite episode, if memory serves). The metaphor for alcholism is exactly as you so insighttfuly recognized...and it's terrifying. A powerful installment on an inconsistent series.

    best to you both!
    John

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  6. Sigh, why oh why did they do all this in the second season....these changes are basically what killed the show.
    Well, I still have my memories of seeing the theatrical release of the pilot at the drive in!
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

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  7. Anonymous2:42 AM

    My girlfriend gave me this series on dvd for Christmas a couple years ago, knowing I was a fan, and of all the vintage sci-fi shows I make her watch (Space:1999, Lost In Space, Galactica, etc.), she has said numerous times that she enjoys Buck Rogers the most because it is just a fun show. There is definitely some drama, and Gil Gerard has some very serious moments, but it is indeed a fun show to watch. The special effects were often quite impressive, the sets were great, and nothing beat the crazy "space dancing" and wild costumes in episodes like "Cruise Ship to the Stars" or "Space Rockers".

    I agree that year two was quite a shock from year one, and what a disappointment to lose Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis to Crichton and the totally incompetent Dr. Goodfellow. I also hated Twiki's new voice - what were they thinking? But I still enjoy season two, even with those changes. They never should have messed with the season one format though.

    By the way, there is a new "Buck Rogers" being developed for the internet starring Bobby Quinn. There is a 3-minute preview available on youtube called "Buck Rogers: Exclusive First Look!", featuring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray as the parents of the new Buck Rogers. Definitely worth checking out. It was great just to see the two of them together again, especially after reading about Gil Gerard's health problems.

    Also, the dvd set is being sold dirt-cheap now (I've seen it in stores for as little as $13 for the entire 2-season box set). The downside is the discs are 2-sided, and from my own experience, I had 2 Galactica (original series) discs become unreadable, which were also 2-sided and by the same company. At least they sent me replacements.

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  8. I don't mean to be snarky (no, wait, I actually really do), but what are the chances that a man from a bird based culture would just happen to be named "Hawk"? That's not his nickname, mind you, but his actual given name. It would be like an alien race bumping into a guy from Earth named "Human Martinez".

    I just wanted to add that you can also watch every episode on streaming Netflix, if you belong to that service. I just watched the first episode of Season one. I found it pretty hilarious when Buck inspires a band leader to reinvent "rock music" (which is actually disco music) simply by snapping his fingers and saying "Let yourself go". That's literally all it takes.

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  9. According to Thom Christopher, Hawk was supposed to be a one-episode character, but everyone realized what an incredible character this was and asked Christopher to become a regular.

    Many scripts had already been written so they kept sending Hawk out on patrol to explain his absence, and some of Wilma's lines were given to Hawk so he'd have a reason to be in the scene.

    Many of Thom's interviews and Q&A sessions at various cons in the Eighties are available at
    his unofficial website, http://home.planet.nl/~theun390/tc-hawk/

    I have never had a problem with the Western script aspect of BR. The Western horse opera and the TV space opera are essentially the same form in different locations. Gene Roddenberry didn't call the original STAR TREK, WAGON TRAIN to the stars, for nothing.

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  10. I meant to add that the series is available for free at Hulu.com if you live in the US.

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  11. Correct my memory if I'm wrong, but wasn't Time of the Hawk another contender for Vasquez? http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/2010/08/cult-tv-faces-of-vasquez-rocks.html

    As for the issue. I feel very much the same way with Season 2 of Buck as I do with Space:1999 - both feel downgrades of season one(s), but ultimately in some cases, carry a little more rewatch factor. Possibly because the ideas are more pulp and less character driven - but generally speaking, I find for both shows Season 2's episodes less appetising in their ingredients but very easy to watch.

    While I would have to say I part company with your appreciation for Maya, who I found a underwhelming to the cast and a cringeworthy sci-fi device (with all respect to CS for her acting), I do agree with your analysis of Hawk so far as enriching the character dynamic (and boy did it need it for season 2). I did however, as with Maya, the sci-fi aspect, rather weak. I hated the look and his terrible fighter - it would have pulled me right of the show if it wasn't for the strength in the actor's potrayal.

    Budget on Buck Season 2 - thanks for bringing that up. It did weaken the show. The Searcher was a cheap and bland vehicle, with its corridors and bridge feeling not just like old props, but utterly unrelated to the exterior. The mix up of starfighters in season one always used to bug me (watch how many times the double and single seat starfighter switches in both prop and model), but season 2 seemed to throw all care to the wind with poor binding between models and real scale, but as you say, over use of old material.

    A shame really, because I think if they'd kept Buck on Earth, but added Hawk, thrown in a few different supporting characters and STILL moved towards the more pulp Trek tone, the second season would have worked as well as the first. For me, it wasn't the stories, it was the set-up that was set up to be a bold new frontier.. dressed up with old, reused ideas and set-pieces.

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  12. Wow! Some more great comments on Buck Rogers' second season here.

    Marilynn: Like you, I really appreciated the character of Hawk, and in particular, Thom Christopher's dignified portrayal. The Western tradition is fine, but I think it would have been great to aim for something more original for the season premiee. Just my opinion. Looking back, I still like the episode and count it as one of the better outings of the second season.

    Hi James! Yes, Vasquez Rocks was utilized here, buddy. I couldn't find a good shot of that big, pointed rock though (The one at the weird angle...) so I jumped to "Journey to Oasis," which afforded a better view of the formation.

    I agree with you that Maya tended to make things too easy for the Alphans, with her incredible shape-shifting ability. But, Maya also served another purpose, which I liked: she showed that the Alphans were merciful and tolerant, and could welcome even an outsider into their community. And Maya was played with such charm and -- ironically - such humanity, that I really fell in love with her.

    I also liked Hawk very much. I just wish he had more to do, and in better storylines!

    But I love your comment: I think you summarize the problem with the season very well. A bold new frontier...dressed up with old, re-used ideas and set-pieces. Such a wasted opportunity.

    Thank you both for the great comments!

    regards,
    John

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  13. Thanks for this great discussion of The Time of the Hawk and Buck Rogers season 2 in general. I completely agree that Hawk was the best thing about that season. As Marilynn already pointed out, because of the positive audience reaction to the character, John Mantley reportedly said they just had to show him at times, even though he didn't actually have anything to do.

    I think the insights in your blog and the comments will be interesting for anyone who's interested in Buck Rogers and the character of Hawk, so I've linked to it on my website www.thomchristopher.info. I hope that's OK!

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  14. Mariet,

    Thank you for the wonderful comment, and for linking to your own web-site. I hope your readers enjoy the look back at season two.

    I share your admiration for the character of Hawk, and for Christopher's portrayal.

    All my best,
    John

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  15. "Time of the Hawk" is easily my favorite episode of the series. It's more emotional and exciting than many of the others, and it gave Gil Gerard (who was never the best actor in Hollywood) a chance to show his chops. Also of note is the showdown between Buck and Hawk. It was the most realistic and harrowing fight of the series, ending in a draw (something of a change for the usually invincible Buck) thanks to the intervention of the ancient mystic. But there's no "one punch" victory, or those damned kicks. In the first season, I was desperate for Buck to throw a simple punch instead of continually high-kicking his adversaries like Yvonne Craig (both in spandex, so maybe that's a reason). At least then Gil Gerard could have done the thing himself instead of plugging in the shorter, thinner stunt guy.

    However, my favorite part of this episode comes afterward; Hawk is about to be sentenced to die when Buck gives a desperate and passionate speech to the court. Not only is the speech very well written, but it also provided the opportunity for Gil to deliver the best work of his career. It's a sober and adult moment in a series often lambasted for it's cheese and disco atmosphere. The finale, where Hawk is (thanks to the court's change of heart) asked to join the crew and he agrees, is a touching and emotional ending and a promising start to the new season. Sadly, few episodes took advantage of this promise, but I still found the show extremely enjoyable.

    Buck Rogers. . .one of the many shows I love that most people hate.

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  16. Hi Scott,

    Great comment. I still enjoy Buck Rogers too. It may not be the "best" sci-fi series ever, but it is certainly among the most entertaining. I also like "Time of the Hawk," despite many criticisms. I think the season very much went downhill after this two-parter.

    Thank you for your thoughtful insights.

    best,
    John

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