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In “Return of the Fighting 69th,” Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways.
First, two notorious gun-runners hiding out on an asteroid base near Necrosis IV -- Corliss (Robert Quarry) and Roxanne Trent (Elizabeth Allen) ) -- have sworn revenge against her and all of Earth for the injuries they received when trying to escape her pursuit, years earlier. Now, these villains have a cache of 20th century nerve gas at their disposal.
Secondly, Deering must go to the men and women of the Fighting 69th Space Marines for help navigating the asteroid belt.
Although she grew up with Noah Cooper (Peter Graves) and his team of silver-eagle pilots, Wilma recently flunked them on their annual physicals, as they are all nearing the mandatory retirement age of 85.
Cooper and the others put the past aside, and agree to work with Wilma and Buck (Gil Gerard) on a bombing mission of Corliss and Trent’s hide-out. They outfit several ships as “star belly bombers” and train to assault the base.
Unfortunately, Buck and Wilma are captured during the actual raid, and are held captive by the burned, scarred gun-runners. Fortunately, they are assisted by a young Terran slave, Alicia (Katherine Wiberg). Alicia is deaf, and has been separated from her family on Earth for five years, but puts everything on the line to help the Directorate end the threat of the nerve gas.
Like many episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s (1979-1981) first season, “Return of the Fighting 69th” is fast-paced and action-packed. The episode features space dogfights, new miniatures (the asteroid base), and new optical effects as well.
What differentiates this story from many others, however, is that it delves into the past of a character who is not often explored: Erin Gray’s Wilma Deering.
We learn a lot about Wilma from this episode. For example, we learn that her father was a pilot, as she became. When he died, she was raised, essentially, by his pilot friends (including Noah Cooper) and given the nickname “Dizzy D,” because she would get into everything, and make mischief. This is a nice, colorful peek at the character, and explanation for her life, essentially, of military service. She’s an Army (or Space Marine) brat, essentially.
Secondly, we learn about one of Wilma's important missions before Buck arrived in the 25th century. I like this touch, in particular, because it suggests that the 25th century didn’t just start when Buck showed up.
Wilma had a career, and a history, and it wasn’t all positive.
Here for instance, she failed to catch Corliss and Trent, and they have sworn a vendetta against her. Uniquely, this whole subplot ties in neatly with the personal back-story. In both cases -- hunting down the gun-runners (who are badly injured and scarred) and booting the fighting 69th out of the service -- Wilma is just doing “her duty” as she sees it.
But duty, while clear cut in the present, can sometimes have unforeseen effects from a point of retrospect. Here, Wilma makes two very dangerous enemies in space, and loses the people closest to her on Earth. She must feel in some ways that duty is a harsh master, as it often requires her to hurt those she cares for, or destroy lives.
One aspect of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” that doesn’t work quite so successfully involves series continuity. Just a few episodes back (in “Vegas in Space,”) Buck and Wilma were still arguing a core conceit of the series: computer control vs. manual control as it applies to Starfighter pilots. As we saw in the pilot “Awakening,” too, Directorate pilots could be beaten all the time, essentially, because they relied in combat on computer control. It took a good old fashioned, red-blooded American pilot of the 20th century -- Buck -- to show these stiff 25th century pilots how to fly by the seat of their pants.
Yet here, Cooper and all the other pilots seem quite capable and accomplished, and not-reliant on computer control at all. Indeed, there is no mention of this debate here, as if the series has dropped the whole pretense that this is a continuing thread. It is just as well, perhaps, that the notion is dropped, because looking at the grizzled, hard-boiled, experienced (and beautiful…) faces of Peter Graves, Woody Strode and the others, it isn’t easy to believe that they were raised and trained in an environment of computer control.
An answer to this? It would have been great if Wilma had noted that these pilots practiced in a time more like Buck’s when computer control programs were not as sophisticated, or ubiquitous.
In terms of history, “Return of the Fighting 69th” boasts some intriguing antecedents. The Fighting 69th is a beloved war movie, actually of 1940, which stars James Cagney, George Brent, and Pat O’Brien.
The Hollywood film, which is about courage and sacrifice in war, is based on World War I’s infantry regiment of the same name. It was called, like Noah’s space marines, “The fighting 69th.” That term was coined in a poem by Joyce Kilmer, “When the 69th Comes Home.” So it is fascinating to trace a line between the real fighting 69th, and patriots of Noah Cooper’s squadron in the 25th century.
“The Return of the Fighting 69th” is a fun, fast-moving episode of Buck Rogers, and the pace of the enterprise keeps one from thinking too much about some of the sketchy details. Corliss and Trent have weapons, ships, personnel, and an amazing facility. All of that is wasted by their pursuit of vengeance, which is part of the episode’s theme, no doubt, but their scenes play as two-dimensional.
Similarly, the episode falls all over itself to provide a happy ending for literally every protagonist.Noah survives the bombing run (when first thought dead). Buck reunites Alicia with her family…and she is scheduled for surgery to get her hearing back. Meanwhile, the Fighting 69th gets back its “silver eagles,” and the regulation about mandatory retirement at 85 is taken off the books. It’s just so…positive.
I would suggest that a more impactful ending would see Noah killed in action -- dying the way he lived; protecting his planet. That denouement would have given the story a bit of an extra (gut) punch.
Also, it is rewarding that the concept of “ageism” is brought up here, but it isn’t exactly treated in nuanced fashion.
Wilma’s point, that the Fighting 69th was not ready for combat proves wrong, but she is not wrong in every situation. My great uncle Arthur -- whom I loved dearly -- died at the age of 96 last une. He still would, occasionally, ask where his driver’s license was, so he could drive. Yet the man was virtually blind. As cold-hearted as this may sound (or read…), it is an act of kindness sometimes, to prevent the people you love from hurting themselves, and hurting others. My uncle did not belong, in his nineties, behind the wheel of a car. I would always offer to drive him to get whatever he wanted or needed (which was, usually, a bag of black licorice candy).
I understand that the story particulars of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” suggest that Noah and the others are as capable as ever, at their advanced ages. But in real life, it’s not often that clear cut. I don’t believe in discriminating against the elderly, and I believe that they should maintain their independence as long as they possibly can. But sometimes, sadly, other factors “weigh” on their ability to be self-sufficient.
To my delight, this Buck Rogers episode also addresses the issue of the hearing-impaired, and sign-language. Alicia is treated as less than a complete, or intelligent person by Trent, because she can’t speak; because she can’t use vocal language the way that we do. Buck connects with her, and helps her find her courage; her "voice," if you will. This is a nice touch that gives Buck something meaningful to do in what is, clearly, an over-stuffed episode.
Finally, and on a personal note, I love the miniatures of the star-belly bombers used in this episode. They look great, and the special effects visualizing them are certainly state of the art for 1979.
Although it moves very fast, and avoids reality strenuously with its happy, Hollywood ending, “Return of the Fighting 69th” still must count as a strong episode of this series in its first season.