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