Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Buck Rogers Week: "Olympiad" (February 7, 1980)

Although Star Trek (1966-1969) is the cult-TV series best known for Cold War subtext and social commentary, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) also delved into this artistic terrain at the end of the Carter Era and at the beginning of the Reagan Era.

“The Plot to Kill a City” -- the series’ finest episode -- was a powerful anti-nuke statement, for example.

An episode from later in the 1979-1980 first season, “Olympiad,” arrived with the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, and also qualifies as a Cold War parable.

Those real life games convened on February 14, 1980, and closed on February 24th.  Thirty-seven nations participated, and more than a thousand athletes competed. The highlight, of course, was the so-called “Miracle on Ice,” wherein the U.S. ice hockey team unexpectedly defeated the Soviet team, 4-3.

In “Olympiad,” Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) visits the distant planet Mikos for the 2492 Interplanetary Olympic Games.  He attends in an official capacity, to deliver a 20th century Olympics flag to the games.

Once there, however, Buck is asked by a lovely astro-sledder, Laura Teasian (Judith Chapman) to help her secret lover, vertical jumper Jorex Leet (Barry McFadden) defect to Earth.

Jorex is a citizen of the repressive planet, Losira. The world’s tyrannical Satrap uses athletes like him as propaganda tools to further his anti-freedom aims and agenda. To assure total loyalty, Losiran citizens, including Jorex, are fitted with “dis-harmonizer” devices in their heads. These can cause headaches in the athletes, or be rigged to explode their struggles.

Accordingly, Buck must get Jorex away from Mikos before his disharmonizer can be activated.

In disguise as an escort, Wilma (Erin Gray) attempts to get the dis-harmonizer away from Jorex’s womanizing handler, Allerick (Nicolas Coster), but finds that the device can’t be tampered with.

Buck hatches a dangerous plan to outrun the device’s “zeta waves” by having Jorex and Lara escape in her sled.  Once they escape the astro-slalom, Buck and Wilma’s starfighter will be waiting to bring them through a stargate, and out of range of the disharmonizer.

I’ve often described Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as “American Exceptionalism in Space,” with Buck serving as the avatar for the authentic 20th century “real” American.  He is a grounded, skilled, heroic, funny man of the 20th century who brings his wisdom to the repressed, buttoned-down, computer-centric world of the 25th century.  

The irony, of course is that in the series continuity, the “real” Americans of the 20th century weren’t able to solve their problems peaceably, and resorted to the holocaust, a nuclear war that all but destroyed the planet.  There’s some exceptionalism for you!

Leaving that point aside for the moment, this episode not only creatures a future corollary for the Olympic Games of 1980, but sees Buck again demonstrating his American-style superiority in terms of instincts, empathy and heroism. Although he is a man five hundred years out of date, Buck successfully flies his Starfighter through the astro sled slalom course (featuring force fields rather than snow…) to rescue Jorex. 

The final slalom is a suspenseful scene, replete with Dr. Theopolis counting down to the arrival of the fatal zeta waves. Buck and Wilma rescue the defector with all of 2 seconds to spare.

The episode’s “impossible mission”-type premise also finds Wilma going undercover, like Cinnamon Carter on that Bruce Gellar series (1966-1972). She plays a 25h century “escort” (read: prostitute) and incapacitates Allerick, only to find her efforts are for naught.  There’s a blooper here regarding Wilma too. She uses the wrong name in a scene involving Allerick and Jorex. 

The weakness, structurally, of Buck Rogers’s first season is the fact that Buck is so often depicted helping a beautiful young woman on unofficial missions of the type we see in “Olympiad” rather than exploring, for his own reasons, his new century, future Earth, and learning more about the history he missed. 

In other words, the stories involve Buck only at a very surface or superficial level. We don’t learn anything about him, at least anything deep.

Yet some series stories, (again, “Plot to Kill a City” and “Olympiad”) are able to fill the character void with allegory or social commentary This episode, with the planet Losira acting as a latter-day Soviet Union, and Buck acting as an agent for the West (the Defense Directorate) is certainly entertaining, and gives the episode an added layer of significance and relevance to the audience of 1980.

All the futuristic sports touches -- clearly tongue-in-cheek – give the episode, a jaunty, light-hearted feel as well.  

In addition to the astro-sledding -- the coolest, most imaginative aspect of “Olympiad” – we see “sonic boxing,” the “vertical leap,” and weight lifting in a “Gravity pool.”  Again, perhaps not strictly plausible, but nonetheless imaginative and droll.

A lot of cult-TV series in the 1970s featured defectors from “The Iron Curtain,” but it’s intriguing how Buck Rogers puts a spin on that familiar tale.

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