Monday, September 19, 2016

Buck Rogers Week: An Introduction

I know we’ve just been through a Star Trek (1966-1969) Week and a Space: 1999 (1975-1977) Week here on the blog, but I thought it was about time to devote a week on the blog to another of my favorite space TV series from childhood: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981).

I looked back in the archives, and I haven’t written about the NBC series since 2012, and that’s hard for me to believe.  So I’m rectifying that error right now.

Buck Rogers, -- the character -- as you may recall, first came into the public consciousness in 1928, in a novel called Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. The lead character was Anthony “Buck” Rogers. He was a man who fell asleep in a mine (from exposure to gas...) and woke up five centuries in the future, to find Earth a changed place.  In other words, this is a futuristic Rip Van Winkle Story.

In 1929, Buck moved to comic-strip format courtesy of by John Flint Dille, and artists Russell Keaton and Rick Yager, "Rogers" then became a perennial American pop-culture favorite. 

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. Short lived, it was limited to small sets and primitive (by today's standards...) special effects.

This week, however, I’m focusing on “my” Buck Rogers incarnation, which premiered shortly after  the arrival of Star Wars (1977), in 1979.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is the late Glen A. Larson's second science fiction "opus." It premiered on NBC scarcely a year after Battlestar Galactica bowed on ABC. 

And like its 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).

At the time it aired, the 1979 Buck Rogers series was considered a hip updating of a classic character that kept all the character names from earlier incarnations, but veered into tongue-and-cheek, humorous settings.

We all know the premise: Astronaut Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) returns to Earth in 2491 and finds that the planet 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 (what’s left of…) the green planet. 

In this environment of danger, Buck, his "ambuquad"(!) Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc) and the gorgeous Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) defend the planet as secret-agent type operatives.  They work for the Earth Defense Directorate, which is overseen by Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor).

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. He is the American Space.

Unlike its somber Galactican counterpart, Buck Rogers was, much less serious-minded, at least generally speaking. 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, led by Frank Gorshin's Kellogg. 

In "Unchained Woman," he masqueraded as an inmate on Zantia to rescue from a subterranean prison a woman (Jamie Lee Curits) who might finger a crook. 

In "Cosmic Whiz Kid" -- starring Gary Coleman -- Rogers rescued a 20th century genius from the hands of a mercenary played by 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.

Commendably, some stories, such as “Plot to Kill a City” and “Olympiad” had political and cultural commentary too, engaging with aspects of the Cold War Era 1980s, namely fear of nuclear Armageddon, and the competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Buck Rogers, there was no continuing alien menace, although Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), 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."

These touches were inventive and lots of fun. The writers knew their sci-fi conventions, and played them to the hilt.  They also knew literature, and composed many stories as pastiches of disparate elements, including (but not limited to...) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and even the legend of King Midas.

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 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 relentlessly 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. 

BSG 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.

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 such 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 sometime 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 a bit 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 senile 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 chilling 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."

Also, season two produced two utterly embarrassing episodes: "The Golden Man," which featured life-forms aging backward, and "Shgoraphchx," about mischievous alien dwarves on the Searcher.

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 Emmy Awards 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," a story that was a parable about alcoholism, essentially.

Today, Buck Rogers is more influential than some viewers may 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 approach, but what's wrong with a sci-fi Starsky and Hutch or Mission: Impossible every now and then?

I’ve always really enjoyed Buck Rogers -- both seasons, frankly -- so I figured a week-long celebration would be…fun.  

Today and Tuesday, I'll be looking at the first season of Buck. Wednesday will be a retrospective of series merchandise and tie-ins.  And Thursday and Friday will remember the ill-fated second season of the series.


  1. Buck Rogers faced the same problem that vexed the Professor. Except instead of Mary Ann or Ginger? it was Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) or Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley)

  2. John,
    I'm probably in the minority in that I enjoyed the second season much more than the first. I often find myself revisiting these episodes when pulling the dvd's off the shelf. I will absolutely agree with you that "The Golden Man" and "Shgoraphchx" are nigh unwatchable. One gets the feeling that the writing was on the wall at this point, and all those involved in the production knew its days were numbered.
    Some of the messages in the latter season appealed to me and resonated with my younger self. I particularly enjoyed the thoughtful "Journey to Oasis," and Mark Lenard's brilliantly poignant performance in that episode. Star Trek - The Next Generation would also mimic the story for its second season entry "The Dauphin" - far less successfully, I'd add.
    Looking forward to your coverage, as always.