Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Buck Rogers Week: "Space Vampire"

When I was eleven years old, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) episode about a monster called a "Vorvon," was probably the scariest thing I had yet seen on network television (with the exception of Space:1999's "Dragon's Domain.")

That episode, titled simply "Space Vampire," aired on January 3, 1980 on NBC, and the Kathleen Barnes and David Wise teleplay concerned Captain Buck Rogers' (Gil Gerard) chilling encounter on Theta Space Station with a cosmic Nosferatu or "Undead," a soul stealer known as a "Vorvon."

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights: unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled. This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.

On the other hand, I watched the episode again recently with a friend's ten year old son and it thoroughly freaked him out. So there's definitely something frightening there; at least to impressionable young minds.

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop-off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship (the Gemonese Freighter from Battlestar Galactica actually...) plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right. The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I rather enjoy is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, cheap sets and callow characterization, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story (and history) of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

What's funny (and silly...) about this "ancient power lock" is that it is really just Commander Adama's collar medallion from Battlestar Galactica. And ironically, Adama was played by Lorne Greene, a man who had recently portrayed Dracula himself in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977! Yep, it's Six Degrees of Cult-TV Dracula...

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the Monster.

Obviously, the name of the derelict ship, the Demeter, itself originates from Stoker's novel and serves the same purpose in both texts: carrying the "disease" (Dracula or Vorvon) to civilization.

Even the uni-browed, long-fingered physical appearance of the Vorvon is similar to Stoker's written description of the vampire.

From almost a century of vampire cinema, the episode appropriates the idea that the Vorvon cannot survive in sunlight, and in an interesting final twist, Buck destroys the soul sucker by flying it into a star itself.

There are actually some pretty solid horror compositions featured in this episode too. A slow, steady pan ominously marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge (where an arcade video game unit, circa 1979 is plainly visible...) and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent eyes.

There's also a great shot (pictured above), in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these examples economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

And finally, you haven't truly lived until you've seen Erin Gray -- in a skin-tight spandex cat-suit -- playing the soulless, avaricious, seductive bride of the Vorvon. But seriously, what makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody seems to believe that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerlessness here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works pretty well.

"Space Vampire" may not be the best episode of Buck Rogers (I'm rather fond of "The Plot to Kill a City"), but it is certainly the installment that most people of my generation seem to remember most fondly. 


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed "Space Vampire" as a boy because of all the reasons you have stated. It is basically a reboot of the "Dracula" novel and a very good one.


  2. This episode stuck in my memory for years. There are some vampires I want to see on the screen and some I don't. The Vorvon, the Lifeforce vampires and good old fashioned Nosferatu are in the first group. Twinkly or Anne Rice vampires just don't do anything for me:-)

  3. The reuse of Cmdr Adama's Seal of the Lords of Kobol is thematically appropriate, esp when you consider the long-standing fan theory that Galactica and BR take place in the same universe.