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In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns to Earth.
Having been held in an alien prison for fifteen years, Traeger swears vengeance on the one man he deems responsible: Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor). Traeger’s mission of revenge is made easier by a talent he has learned in captivity: the art of molecular transformation. Now, with a touch, he can turn any living matter to stone if he so desires.
Meanwhile, in New Chicago, Buck is down in the dumps about his 534th birthday. He is lonely, and tired of the sterile, controlled environment of the 25th century. Wilma comes up with the idea of throwing him a surprise party, and arranges for Buck to escort a courier, Raylyn Derren (Morgan Brittany) to an appointment at the City on the Sea.
There, Buck runs afoul of Traeger’s assassination plot, and his accomplice, a psychologist Dr. Bayliss (Tamara Dobson).
Buck must race back to New Chicago to save his friend, lest Dr. Huer be turned to stone.
“Happy Birthday, Buck” is a futuristic retelling of the Ancient Greek Midas myth.
That is the story of “The Golden Touch,” as you may recall. Specifically, King Midas of Phrygia in Asia Minor, was unsatisfied with all his earthly treasures, and wanted to be able to turn items to gold by touch.
His wish was granted with the so-called “Midas Touch,” but he realized that it was actually a curse.
Since his touch turned objects to gold, he could no longer eat food. It too, became gold. Nor could he ever touch another human being, whether out of affection or romantic interest, without that person becoming a gold statue.
His wish to be rich was, in fact, suicidal.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) here presents a story of a man bent on revenge, who uses an ability to change the molecular make-up of objects and people.
Traeger is thus a 25th century Midas. He can turn everyday objects into fabulous jewels but he chooses not to enjoy this ability, but to use it for negative aims.
Some people may also recognize Traeger as having similarities to Garth of Izar from the classic Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy.”
There, the mad Garth of Izar (Steve Ihnat) developed on distant Antos IV the amazing power to change his shape at will. Here Traeger can change matter, a lesson taught him, apparently, while he was in captivity on the alien planet.
Actually -- and strangely -- “Happy Birthday, Buck” also forecasts many of the narrative details of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Here, a man bent on revenge (Traeger/Khan) seeks to kill the man he deems responsible for his fifteen years of exile/captivity (Huer/Kirk).
In his long absence from society, that enemy has been promoted (Kirk/Huer), worsening his resentment.
Also, both characters are depicted, in close-up, removing a glove, uniquely.
Additionally, both stories are set around the occasion of a birthday party (Buck/Kirk), and one character’s mid-life crisis that comes with it (Buck/Kirk).
Although those similarities are certainly coincidental, they do add up.
But “Happy Birthday, Buck” has always intrigued me for a few production-value reasons.
First, I enjoy seeing the alien “Ovions” -- if that is their name – because they are essentially the people in the ape make-up from Planet of the Apes (1968).
Secondly, this episode features a fifteen-year old Directorate Starfighter design and I love it. It looks appropriately older than the other, commonly-seen model, and has some fascinating flourishes.
But basically both of these touches expand the Buck Rogers world a bit. We meet a new alien race, and also an aspect of Directorate History; from before Buck’s return.
On the other hand, the episode also gets saddled with an unnecessary complex plot about couriers keeping top-secret information locked away in their minds (forecasting Johnny Mnemonic, perhaps…) and the byzantine scheme to extract that information.
Also disappointingly, Raylyn Derren is not fully distinguished as a character. She’s just another pretty woman for Buck to partner with on an adventure.
Fans of Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) will recognize Dr. Bayliss. She is played by Tamara Dobson, who starred as Jason’s partner, Samantha, during the second season of that Filmation series.
Finally, this episode features the trope of the gigantic vent shaft. In fact, the vent shaft seen in “Happy Birthday, Buck” is second in size only to the one Kirk encounters in the Trek episode “Dagger of the Mind.”