Saturday, November 06, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 121: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Plot to Kill a City" (1979)

Well, I didn't necessarily expect to revisit Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) again so soon after my 2010 review of the second season premiere, "Time of the Hawk," but one of my favorite bloggers in the known universe (and in the Uncharted Territories...) -- Sci-Fi Fanatic -- recently posted for debate and discussion the genre magazine Sci-Fi Now's list of the five best and worst episodes of the disco decade series. 

I won't pillory or second-guess that periodical's list too roughly, primarily because I believe it's extremely cool of the magazine to look back at a thirty-year old sci-fi series and give it some much-needed love and attention (remember, when I worked for another genre magazine circa 2000, the editorial  rule of thumb was that you couldn't write about any genre TV series that a contemporary "16 year old" wouldn't be familiar with.)

That sense of appreciation carefully established, I don't agree with very much on the Sci-Fi Now Buck Rogers list, save for the inclusion of "Space Vampire" as one of the five best installments. 

But I felt the most glaring omission involved the absence of the series' epic two-parter, "The Plot to Kill a City" as a selection for best segment. 

Buck Rogers vs. The Legion of Death.
This exciting two-parter aired on October 11 and October 18, 1979, and was written by the talented Alan Brennert.  Dick Lowry directs.

"The Plot to Kill a City's story opens in media res, with Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) on a mission to take out and replace a legendary criminal named Raphael Argus.  Argus, you see, is a member of "The Legion of Death," a terrorist group planning to deliver "final retribution" on New Chicago (a city of 10 million people...) for the death of one of  its comrades.

Because Buck hails from the 20th century, there's no record of his existence anywhere in the data-heavy, computerized 25th Century, and so Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) at the Earth Defense Directorate sends Buck to infiltrate the Legion and learn its secret plan.  Since the Legion of Death members rarely gather -- and don't know each other by sight -- this seems a perfect plan.

Not so fast, however, as Buck is soon pitted against a team of James Bond-worthy villains. 

A soldier villain? Varek (Anthony James)
Leading the Legion of Death is a brilliant scientist from Rigel IV, Selon Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). 

He's the mastermind and formidable "general" villain of the organization.  Kellogg is cruel and merciless, willing to visit death upon innocent millions for a personal slight. 

If you've watched Batman, you may recall that Gorshin is expert at portraying exaggerated, larger-than-life villainy, but his Kellogg is a different breed from the Riddler all-together: a deadly serious, deadly somber threat; a real (and utterly horrible...) person.

At Kellogg's side stand several incredibly powerful and memorable "soldier" villains and minions.  Their numbers include Quince (John Quade), an assassin from a heavy gravity planet armed with telekinetic powers, Sherese (Nancy DeCarl), an empath who picks up "vibrations" and who is "pathologically suspicious," and Markos, a martial arts expert who has "partially severed" his nerve endings to reduce his ability to feel pain (and yes, we saw a villain much like Markos in The World is Not Enough [1999], didn't we?). 

Finally, there's the hulking Varek (Anthony James), a masked mutant and Kellogg's personal bodyguard.  He boasts the ability to "alter his molecular density."   In other words, Varek can walk through walls.

During the course of the story's two-parts, Buck must infiltrate the Legion and stay ahead of these powerful villains.   This task is made more difficult by his entanglement with a betrayer named Barney (James Sloyan), after the comic strip's "Black Barney."  Buck must also evade galactic police, who believe he really is the notorious Raphael Argus.

As Buck soon learns, the Legion of Death plans to destroy a matter/anti-matter power generator outside of New Chicago. The Legion forces an employee at the power station to help them evade security by threatening the lives of his children. 

"Show me a family man who can afford to be a hero..." Kellogg quips.

With time running out, Buck finds an unexpected ally in Varek...

The space port on Aldebaron (later re-used in ST: TNG: "Coming of Age").
It seems to me that --  especially in the case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- one must judge the quality or worth of the series' installments within the boundaries of its action-oriented format and particular historical context. 

In this case, the Glen Larson TV series was broadcast post-Star Wars.   That says a lot.

That historical context means audiences  must expect a cute robot (Twiki), plenty of flashy laser beam fire, space dogfights, and a heightened sense of romantic action/adventure.  

In broad terms, the series format basically makes Buck and Wilma futuristic "secret agents" working for Dr. Huer's Directorate, putting cosmic bad guys out of business while acting "undercover."   Not particularly deep; but the stories are often immensely engaging, and almost universally entertaining.

Many weeks, it's James Bond in space, all right, and as is the case with the best Bond films, the best Buck Rogers episodes are often those which feature the most interesting villains

"The Plot to Kill a City" serves up a literal "legion" of such nemeses, plus an appealing Bond girl (Buck girl?)  in Markie Post's cute-as-a-button Joella Cameron.  The threat is also grave enough to hold the attention: the destruction of New Chicago and 10 million people at the hands of the terrorist villains.

If you choose to look at Huer as "M" or "Q" while he gives Buck his gadgets of the week (black light bombs...) the comparison to the Bond franchise is complete.

Within the parameters established above -- Buck as Bondian secret agent, bracing space adventure -- the truly rewarding Buck Rogers episodes remain those that  are able -- through clever writing and execution -- to often find a sort of unexpected "sweet spot" in this superficial Bond formula:  a spot where story and character ingredients work on a deeper-than-surface level. 

Markie Post is a futuristic Bond Girl.
Where was that sweet spot located?  Well, it often became apparent when Buck's humanity and fish-out-of-water predicament played an important role in the narrative, and when good, solid science fiction concepts ably supported the front-and-center action. 

Even better, it occurred when those solid science fiction concepts were ones that had something relevant and important to say about American life during the late 1970s or early 1980s.

With the "The Plot to Kill a City,"  you can put checks in all those boxes.  

Make no mistake, Buck Rogers is not Star Trek, which by and large remains a meditative vehicle on human morality, but this  comparison doesn't mean Buck couldn't tell meaningful, dimensional tales, either.  

Most importantly, the superficial good guys vs. bad guys nature of the "Plot to Kill a City" is supported ably by a surprising, welcome and very human character subplot.  In this case, Varek -- the masked body guard -- originates from a planet that survived a "winnable" nuclear war, only to face a future of terrible genetic deformity.  Varek hides his misshapen face behind a golden mask so as not to reveal his hideous visage.

Late in the first segment, Varek tells Buck Rogers that he deserves to be Kellogg's servant, a slave essentially. 

"I deserve no better," he declares with self-loathing.  "My people were a proud race...too proud.  It wasn't enough that we had tamed our planet, built a great culture, reached out into space.  We had to have other worlds too.  We abused our freedom and we lost it, and deservedly so."

Later, when Varek realizes that Kellogg plans to visit a similar apocalypse upon Earth's innocent children, he gets over his self-pity and hatred and actively joins Buck's cause.  "You can't imagine life on my planet," he explains.  "Children afraid to look at their own reflections.  Children with the touch of death."

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In the end, Varek saves the day by facing his own death.  Eyes wide open, he walks straight into a radioactive anti-matter chamber to stabilize the reactor. 

Inside, Valek re-aligns the power system, and saves the generator...and all of New Chicago.

And yes, this heroic incident -- with a character bravely and knowingly facing extinction before the eyes of his comrades in a sealed compartment -- oddly foreshadows the specifics of Spock's death in the engine room in The Wrath of Khan.

More to the point, however, Valek is no ordinary "guest star of the week," but rather a character who is well-developed, and undergoes an arc of learning and development during the story.  He changes sides not on a writer's whim, not because the story demands it, but based on his difficult life experience, and that idea comes through pretty powerfully without being overtly preachy.

Also, it's important to recall that America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in late 1979, when this episode aired.  The specter of nuclear annihilation was always present -- every day -- like a shroud, hanging over all of us.   This episode of Buck Rogers expresses the terrible horror of nuclear Armageddon, with children paying the consequences for an "international" disagreement over political ideology.  Even more so, it suggests that those who use such weapons to conquer others deserve themselves to be subjugated and enslaved.  Not a tame statement in the year leading up to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics.

Again, this "apocalypse mentality," this expression of fear around a nuclear war, lends a commendable gravity to this episode that not all Buck Rogers episodes abundantly possess.  Although the Earth itself is a victim of nuclear holocaust in the series, the writers of the program never returned Buck to Anarchia to face the savagery of his time period, and the ideological passions that led to such global horror.  "The Plot to Kill a City" gets at the idea in a different way, and in a way that resonates well.  Other episodes of the series would certainly try --"Olympiad" was about a defector from an oppressive planetary regime -- but none truly got to the stark horror of nuclear brinkmanship in the way that "The Plot to Kill a City" does.

Kellogg's starfighter.
When I discuss solid science fiction concepts in terms of this two-part episode, I'm talking about the way the episode creates deadly and unique "assassins" out of other-worldly environments. 

It imagines a world of heavy gravity where the inhabitants develop the power of their minds (telekinesis) so as to control their environs.  It imagines Valek's world of nuclear apocalypse; a world that took a dark path which, fortunately, our Earth has not. It features an "empath" as a deadly conspirator and interrogator, and much more.

With the exception of Valek and his milieu, these concepts are not explored in great depth, merely touched upon, but then again we must return to the concept of Buck Rogers as an action series.  The natures and backgrounds of Quince, Sherese, Markos and the others are imaginative and believable enough to make the story fly (and to suggest a larger world), and that's what's important.

I still remember watching this compelling two-parter when I was nine years old, and being absolutely glued to the television as those terrible words -- "To Be Continued" -- popped up.  There was the feeling then that Buck Rogers -- for all its swashbuckling fun -- was hitting on all creative thrusters too.

"A Plot to Kill a City" serves up a number of great villains, and one tragic character too.  Because it consists of two parts and has roughly ninety minutes to tell its tale, the story is fast-paced but also takes the time to get the small touches right.  For all of the series' sense of fun and humor, there was always the impression here that the danger presented by Kellogg was real and grave, and that matters of great consequence were occurring.

Certainly, I didn't feel this involved, this intrigued with "Space Rockers," or "Cruise Ship to the Stars" either -- two relatively lame Buck Rogers installments that somehow made Sci-Fi Now's list of five best episodes. 

So I'd substitute "The Plot to Kill a City" for either of those episodes without reservation.


  1. Good morning John.

    You know, I don't own the box set of this yet but intend on getting it soon.

    Like you, I have a hard time understanding SciFiNow's selections often times. I find them maddening and illogical, but great for conversation. You have taken it to the next level. I was excited to read this.

    I loved your one positive point about the magazine. Any magazine willing to look back at the classics certainly deserves a nod. I agree. I completely appreciate that aspect of the magazine. Nice point.

    Glad to see you remedied what you believe to be a miscarriage of science fiction justice by writing about this entry. : )

    This one souns like a fantastic story and like so many classics from the 70s and early 80s I simply cannot recall it.

    I loved your point about the Star Wars-influenced framework, but that the stories are infinitely engaging. Very true. This is why Buck Rogers was so much fun.

    Markie Post- aye-ka-rumba!

    Your Bond analogy is terrific and you know something, in some ways, character was certainly explored in much greater depth here than there.

    Your reference to politics is one of the things I love about looking back at science fiction when it captures the mood of the day and delivers the influence of those factors. Vietnam on Star Trek, Cold War on Buck Rogers.

    Also, as influential as Star Trek was, thankfully we were delivered some science fiction series that were completely unique like Space:1999 and Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica that weren't clones of Star Trek but fresh in their own right and stood on their own. Buck never gets compared to Star Trek. I love this about these special moments in science fiction. They capture something entirely unique.

    Anyway, your review was fun and engaging just like Buck Rogers and I can't wait to see this one again soon!

    Best to you JKM,

  2. Hi SFF:

    I agree with you. I praise Sci-Fi Now to the Heavens for taking the time and energy to look back at classic shows; at the same time I question the selections the magazine made. But as you say...great conversation starter, so it's a net positive, right? I think so!

    I'm so glad the sci-fi canon has Buck Rogers. If you want very serious, very speculative programs, there are plenty of 'em out there to enjoy. Buck fulfills a different, "fun" niche perfectly and you are absolutely doesn't get compared to Trek. Again, I have to believe that's a net positive for the series.

    I also agree with you that -- in many important ways -- the Buck universe is more well-developed than the Bond one. Just by the fact that it is a weekly show, with continuing characters, we get a sense of Bond the man without the whiplash of changing Bonds every so many movies. Here, we get 37 episodes of Gil as Buck and you get a sense of the men; especially in the better shows.

    I think you'll really dig "The Plot to Kill a City" when you revisit Buck!

    Thanks for the great comment, and the great blogging too!


  3. Anonymous1:43 AM

    Glad to hear this series is getting a bit of love here. I always found this series very entertaining overall. I watched this 2-parter about a year ago, and still enjoyed it after all these years. Great characters. I also found the death scene of Spock very similar to the scene involving Valek.

    The show certainly had its fair share of cheese, but I still enjoy watching it 30 years later.

    If you're a fan, definitely pick up the box set - it's out there now as cheap as $14 for both seasons - it's ridiculously cheap. I guess nobody bought it, what a shame. Only problem is that they are flipper discs like Battlestar Galactica (the original series), by the same studio. Those dual-sided discs tend to have problems - several of my Galactica discs developed problems and I had to send them in to Universal last year for replacements, which they reluctantly did replace. Sadly, there are no extras whatsoever in the set, unlike Galactica, which had tons of cool stuff.

  4. Anonymous,

    I agree with you that this fun series deserves some affection. There's no show out there quite like Buck these days. And I also agree that while it is great to have the episodes available on DVD, the set is sort of lacking; a bare bones product. Still, I'll take it!

    Thanks for the comment.


  5. John, as I think we've discussed, I totally agree with your choice of "Plot to Kill a City" as the best episodes of "Buck Rogers." I've long felt that they were the only episodes to have a true comic strip feel, with the villains having powers without those powers being the primary focus of the story. I'd forgotten many of the details over the years, so thank you for your extensive review.


  6. Hi Howard,

    That's a good point, my friend. Between the comic-strip feel of the villains and the inclusion of Black Barney (after a fashion...), this two-parter does feel somewhat more faithful to the spirit of the original Buck Rogers than some episodes.

    It's a rip-roaring good story, and a heck of a lot of fun too. I remember "Plot to Kill a City" was released into syndication for a time as a "movie" and in that format, it played very strongly, actually. I agree with you that it's one of the best of the Buck Rogers canon.

    And I can't fathom the choices of "Space Rockers" and "Cruise Ship to the Stars," frankly...