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In “Vegas in Space,” Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) is assigned by the Directorate and Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor) to visit Sinoloa, a city of casinos in space run by the crime lord, Velosi (Richard Lynch).
Buck is accompanied on his journey by Colonel Marla Landers (Juanin Clay), and their mission is to spring a kidnapped young woman, Felina (Ana Alicia), who is secretly the daughter of a rival crime boss, Armat (Cesar Romero).
An agreement is made: Buck and Marla save Thelina, and the crime boss will provide information about the Draconian’s new hatchet fighters, which have proven impossible to defeat.
Once at Sinoloa -- which is described by Dr. Theopolis as an “orbiting city of moral depravity” -- Buck is befriended by Tangy (Pamela Susan Shoop), a woman who is also being held captive by Velosi. She helps Buck and Marla free Felina before a sadistic expert at extracting information, Morphius (Joseph Wiseman) gets an opportunity to ply his trade.
My perception is that “Vegas in Space” is a well-liked and popular episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), but despite this act, it has never been one of my favorite installments. It’s an early episode of the series’ first season, and the actors, writers, and directors are all still in search of a consistent tone.
This episode follows very much the kind of glib approach we see in “Awakening,” with Buck as the grinning Burt Reynolds of the future.
Gil Gerard, in future episodes, brings depth and humanity to the role, but one can see here that he is fighting against a script which features a different vision of the character. For example, just look at the scene in “Vegas in Space” in which Wilma recruits Buck for this particular mission, and he perks up at the word “gambling” and his (lascivious) memories of (the attractive) Marla Landers. Again, this is a guy who has lost his own world, but we’re supposed to believe he just wants to gamble and bed beautiful women.
Late in the episode, Buck is also somewhat insufferable. After his victory over hatchet fighters, he gloats to Wilma: “I told you so.”
The approach here is, also, clearly much in the pattern of Mission: Impossible (1966-1972) or the James Bond films of the era. For example, Dr. Theopolis, at the start of the episode, outfits Buck with a series of gadgets to help him escape from Sinoloa. He might as well be designated “Q.” In the final act, of course, those gadgets come in handy to escape from Sinoloa.
The episode also continues the early (and soon dropped…) conceit that no one in the 25th century can think without computer assistance. Here, the crisis of the week involves a new design of Draconian fighters. These hatchet fighters can out-maneuver human pilots. Buck wants Directorate pilots to go to manual, to counter the moves of these new crafts. Wilma doesn’t believe that this will be enough, or that her pilots can do it.
Then, on Sinoloa, no computers are allowed, so that human gamblers can lose at games such as “10 and 11” (Black Jack). Apparently, the human mind of the future has atrophied to a terrible degree. Buck’s dialogue spells it all out. “People’s minds have gotten flabby,” he notes.
The problem is that this “history” and characterization of 25th century man doesn’t always fit with what we see. For instance: Noah and his team of gruff veterans in “The Fighting 69th.” Don’t tell me those grizzled space dogs relied on piloting computers. And if they didn’t, why should other human pilots?
In the end, the plot doesn’t exactly resolve, or go anywhere interesting. Buck bests a hatchet fighter during a space dogfight by relying on his instincts. So he doesn’t even need the information that was the motivating factor behind the mission to Sinoloa.
Another intriguing, but unexplored angle of this story involves the Draconians. How would Earth crime lords have top secret information about state-of-the-art Draconian spacecraft? Is there some alliance between Big Business and a foreign power threatening Earth? Certainly, we see this today with various corrupt politicians/business figures working with a foreign power, such as Russia. But “Vegas in Space” doesn’t explore the connection, or make anything dramatic of it. And the connection between the crime lords and the Draconians is never raised in the series again.
“Vegas in Space” features a lot of superficial on-screen value. Consider the guest stars, for example: Cesar Romero, Richard Lynch, Joseph Wiseman, Pamela Susan Shoop, and Ana Alicia. That’s a lot of on-screen talent for what is, essentially, a caper story. “Vegas in Space” also moves at a quick clip and features an easily comprehensible gimmick so as to appeal the widest possible audience demographic: an outer space casino. A similar space casino had been seen in the final part of the original Battlestar Galactica pilot, "Saga of a Star World" (Carillon).
Beyond those shallow virtues, the episode isn’t really about anything. I watch “Vegas in Space,’ and I can’t help but see a series that hasn’t yet found -- or cemented – its own identity. This isn’t one I often choose to re-watch because there’s nothing of substance to mine, or to think about.
I do very much like the performance of Juanin Clay, however, as Marla. It's an intriguing historical footnote that she was nearly cast as Wilma Deering, when Erin Gray was not certain she wanted to commit to the series.