Thursday, September 20, 2012

Buck Rogers Day: "Awakening"

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. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the film was generally well-received by critics, despite its TV origins.  Vincent Canby at The New York Times belittled the film as “corn flakes” while simultaneously comparing it to the big boys: Star Wars and Superman: The Movie.  He also noted (with grudging admiration) the ingenuity of the film’s makers.

I remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters and enjoying it tremendously, unaware that it had been conceived and shot as a TV series pilot and then kind of exploded into becoming a full-fledged feature film.  In 1979, the special effects held up on the big screen beautifully (particularly the moments in Anarchia, a ruined 20th century city inhabited by mutants…), and the film, overall, was a lot of fun. 

Today, however, it is not difficult to detect some of the “growing pains” of this production as it stretched from being, essentially, a kid-friendly TV pilot to a more adult-oriented,“big” event movie.  What began as a relatively straight space adventure inched closer to a nifty and ingenious paradigm: James Bond in Space

This shift in premises is best exemplified by an opening credits sequence which features Buck romancing scantily-clad women of the 25th Century, who pose and preen on the over-sized letters of his “name” while a Bond-like ballad blares on the soundtrack.  It’s a little bit ridiculous, and a little bit cheesy, but it definitely captures the 007 aesthetic: sexy women and a catchy pop-tune.

The Women of James Bond Buck Rogers.

The women of Buck Rogers #2

The Women of Buck Rogers #3

The Women of Buck Rogers #4

The Women of Buck Rogers #5

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). 

Thus sexual double-entendres were ham-handedly added to the production when the shift in venues was broached.  Other double-entendres work a little better than this one because they arrive via the auspices of ADR or looping, and therefore we don’t get the chance to visually note the inconsistencies.

Another not-entirely successful addition to the original pilot sees Buck going mano-a-mano with Tigerman, Princess Ardala’s hulking bodyguard and the film’s equivalent of Oddjob, or Jaws…a so-called soldier villain.  There’s nothing wrong with the climactic physical confrontation between Buck and Tigerman, except that Buck faces a different Tigerman here, not the one seen throughout the film.  This discontinuity is left unexplained, but Derek Butler plays the character throughout the film, and H.B. Haggerty (who returned to the role in “Escape from Wedded Bliss” and “Ardala Returns”) plays him for the fight sequence.  The two men are both imposing, but boast very different looks in terms of muscle-mass and body-type.  Honestly, I didn’t notice the substitution as a kid, but the switch is impossible to miss now.

Tigerman #1 (Derek Butler)

Tigerman #2 (H.B. Haggerty)

These last minute additions to the enterprise feel somewhat jarring, even if they add to the James Bond mystique of the thing.  A more significant problem, however, involves the thematic approach to the material.  Buck -- in both the film and the series – is raised up as some kind of paradigm for Earth’s future, the ideal man.  A professor and friend at Hampden-Sydney College called the idea “American Exceptionalism in Space,” and he was right.

The only problem, of course, is that Buck is from the very age on Earth that brought about the devastating nuclear holocaust.  His generation, in essence, destroyed everything.  It seems strange and counter-intuitive, then, to deride the sincere 25th Century folks -- just climbing out of a five hundred year economic and cultural hole, as it were – for depending on computers, since the episode makes plain the notion that ungoverned emotions and passions were what brought about the end of 20th century mankind. These benevolent robots, acting dispassionately but helpfully, instead rely on logic and rationality.  As Dr. Huer notes, they saved the Earth from "certain doom" and have been "taking care of areas where we made mistakes, like the environment."

So…would you really want to go back to the approach that led to Earth’s ruin?  Would you life Buck up as a role model, or see him as a backward man from a much more primitive time?

It would be one thing if the movie noted that some balance between approaches -- logic and emotion -- needed to be struck.  But the 25th century characters are treated, in broad strokes, as gullible fools who can’t even pilot their own star-fighters (even though those ships are built with very prominent joy-sticks designed for manual control).  

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.

Despite such flaws, the movie vets an intriguing premise involving the Draconian “stealth” attack (a kind of Trojan Horse in Space dynamic), and features at least one authentically great sequence set in Anarchia, or “Old Chicago.”  Here, Buck goes in search of his past, and finds it…in a grave-yard. 

This scene in Anarchia is particularly well-shot, acted, and scored, and adds a significant human dimension to the film’s tapestry.  We are reminded that Buck has lost everything.  Not just his family…but the world he knew.  Here, Buck Rogers harks back to a 1970s movie tradition earlier than Star Wars: the dystopia or post-apocalyptic setting of such efforts as The Omega Man, Logan's Run or Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I’ve always wished that the ensuing TV series had followed up on this plot-line a little more sincerely.  There were many stories to be vetted in Anarchia, but in its two-year run, Buck never returned there (that we know of).

I should add, the special effects visualizations of New Chicago and Anarchia are nothing less-than-spectacular, even today.  Again, it’s difficult to reckon with just how cheaply this movie was made because it features extensive, highly-detailed matte paintings, numerous space dogfights, and huge sets (like Ardala’s throne room…replete with Olympic-size swimming pool). 

Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning Buck Rogers’ other great “visual.”  Vincent Canby writes: Pamela Hensley is the film's most magnificent special effect as the wicked, lusty Princess Ardala, a tall, fantastically built woman who dresses in jewelry that functions as clothes and walks as if every floor were a burlesque runway.

There’s probably a case to made that Hensley is one of the Best Bond Femme Fatales ever…except that she’s not technically in a Bond film, of course.  Still, the material is close enough, and boy does she have a sense of…presence.  I can't think of many actresses who could pull-off that "boogie" scene with Buck Rogers here.  But Hensley disco dances with the best of them, retains her character's regal sense of dignity, and is awfully sexy...

Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala

I can’t really argue that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is in the same artistic class as contemporaries like Star Wars or Superman: The Movie.  But the movie is undeniably fun, and it sets up – with tremendous entertainment value -- the boundaries of Buck Roger’s new life in the 25th Century.  In other words, it’s a pretty great TV pilot for 1979 even if -- blown-up to the silver screen – it all plays as a bit scattershot.


  1. Hello John, great review and gave me a lot of food for thought. I had not seen the movie version till many years after the series ended and I did find the opening credits rather silly. I was wondering if I could offer my alternate interpretation for the background of the show. I take your point about how Buck tends to outclass the 25th century people and how there is no attempt to draw a middle path between his and their approach. It then occured to me that Buck is the middle path. I was watching Space 1999 the other night and I noticed in other sci-fi of the period (including Star Wars): over reliance on computers over human judgment is considered a fundamental error and is sometimes even played for easy comedy. All the other pilots are totally reliant on their computers to pilot their fighters as the peolpe allow machines to run their world. Also, Buck is not representative of the generation that destroyed the world (although the people he meets certainly treat him as such). As an astronaut from a world where the space program was being cut back plus being "Buck Rogers" he represents a slightly prior time. In addition, we never really find out when the nuclear war takes place. It takes place in a fuzzy time slightly in Buck's future, which could mean that mankind turned a bad corner after Buck left. Buck from that point of view is a throwback. He does represent an idealized man. This is the type of human who was able to get to the moon and control his fear to prevent nuclear devestation. When he "leaves", the world is destroyed. Buck's computer escort is named Dr. Theophilus. In his Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, Theophilus was the person to whom Luke was relating his story. Buck has to convince Dr T (and the other computers and people) that he should not be destroyed. I submit that Buck's general purpose in the philosophical background of the series is one of teacher. Humanity has become savage and infantilized. Even while being friendly, Wilma and the other humans do nothing but threaten him with violence and patronize him. They are dependent on computers for making all their major decisions. They have alienated their space neighbors (and I'm not counting the Draconians) and colonies and generally made a mess of things. Buck's purpose is to teach them how to find a harmony between being computerized drones and savages. His being both a human being and a man apart suggest certain messianic overtones. In this way he's very much akin to Kirk and Luke. I'm not saying they exploited this background in the best ways but I do think it's there and I think it might clear up some of the "murkiness" of which you speak.

  2. I saw this movie as a kid (I must have been around 11-years old) and then was surprised when it became a TV show in the fall. I like to think that even back then I realized it was cheese. Then again, maybe that's wishful thinking.

    The theme of the 20th century man who helps people in the future has been done a lot. The George Pal movie The Time Machine had a similar theme (although he was from the 19th century). There were a couple of Gene Roddenberry pilots from the 1970s that tried the same thing. It's not just freeing them from their dependence on computers, but getting them in touch with their humanity (and teaching future women how to get in touch with their libido).

    You can kinda understand why filmmakers do this--it is audience wish fulfillment. After all, the guy from the present has to have _some_ kind of value in the future, so it's a simple idea to have him teach them to loosen up and be more human.

    Buck Rogers was one of those shows that careened around trying to find a format that worked. The second TV season was radically different than the first (and pretty boring). Gil Gerard once said in an interview that he didn't like the fact that the first season had Buck head out into space to be a James Bond type, because he thought that there were a lot of stories to be told on Earth (then again, Gerard was apparently very unpopular with cast and crew). And the show really rolled around in camp, with disco and hot babes in slinky outfits. But a lot of TV shows in the 1970s did that. It was a common style for shows to simply not take themselves seriously and view everything as a bit of a joke (maybe it was all the cocaine they were doing), and only later did shows like Hill Street Blues come along and have a more realistic approach.


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