The 1979 Buck Rogers series was a hip updating that kept all the character names from earlier incarnations, but veered sometimes into tongue-and-cheek, humorous settings. We all know the premise: Astronaut Buck Rogers awakes in 2491 and finds Earth has survived a devastating nuclear war. Vulnerable, the planet is on the verge of annihilation from many alien sources. Pirates regularly attack shipping lanes, and every two-bit dictator in the galaxy has set his sights on conquering the green planet. In this environment of danger, Buck, his "ambuquad"(!) Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc) and the gorgeous Colonel Deering defend the planet as secret-agent type operatives. In addition to his peerless ability as a starfighter pilot, Buck takes the world of the 25th century by storm with his 20th century wisdom and colloquialisms.
However, in one important category, Buck Rogers was a letdown. The outer space battles were competently achieved with the special effects of the day (models; motion-control), but were often badly mis-edited into the proceedings. In the early episode "Planet of the Slave Girls," mercenary ships transformed into Draconian marauders - a noticeably different design - from shot-to-shot. In the same episode, a shuttle on the distant world Vistula launched skyward and passed the matte painting of New Chicago (on Earth), a matte painting that was used EVERY SINGLE WEEK to depict Directorate headquarters. This was the kind of goof that occurred repeatedly. The impression here is of an over-worked special effects department, and an editor with no eye for detail.
Special effects from Buck's sister series, Battlestar Galactica, were mercilessly plugged into the proceedings too. In "Planet of the Slave Girls," the Cylon base from "Lost Planet of the Gods" substituted for Vistula's launch bay. In "Vegas in Space," "Cosmic Wiz Kid," and many others, the Galactica planet Carillon, seen in "Saga of a Star World," was substituted for the planet of the week. This was achieved in so sloppy a fashion that the Cylon-mined Nova of Madagon, a red star field, was even visible for a few seconds. BG spacecrafts were also brought out of mothballs. The Galactica shuttle doubled as Buck's shuttle in the second season, and ships from Galactica's rag tag fleet showed up in "Planet of the Amazon Women" and "Space Vampire" among others.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- though designed as a TV series -- actually had its premiere in American movie theaters on March 30th, 1979.
The film, originally a pilot called "Awakening" quickly provided a remarkable return on Universal’s investment. It was produced for a little over three million dollars (or one-third of Star Wars’ budget, essentially, in 1977) and the movie grossed over twenty-one million dollars in American theaters alone.
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Other moments are more clumsily folded into the narrative than the enjoyable Bondian-opening. Late in the film, aboard the Draconia, for instance, Ardala declares she wants Buck to take her father’s “seat” on the throne. Suddenly, the film cuts to a shot of Buck -- obviously shot at some later date, on a different set -- declaring that her father’s “seat” is the furthest thing from his mind (implying it’s her seat – her buttocks – that interests him).
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It’s all a little bit…incoherent. Yet the film gets away with it because, again, of the James Bond comparison. We all know that James Bond is irresistible to all women, best in a fight or shoot-out, and supreme exemplar of style and taste. Nobody does it better, right? Here, Buck Rogers seems to have the same magic touch. We accept the premise, in short, because we recognize it from that other franchise.
Next up: "Planet of the Slave Girls."