Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Memory Bank: Caverns of Mars (1981; Atari)


Near the top of the list of my most fondly remembered early-1980s games (right beside Realm of Impossibility, perhaps), would be Caverns of Mars (1981).

I had never heard of the game before my father -- the vice-principal of Mountain Lakes High School in N.J. -- brought it home one day on a floppy disk.  At the time, I believe the school was going whole hog into computers and Atari in particular, and he had a friend, Frank Pazel, who was constantly shipping us home new games in either cartridge, cassette, or floppy format.  

We had an Atari 800 as I’ve written about before, and many of these games were amazing.  I remember enjoying a lot of them, including Murder on the Zinderneuf, and Temple of Aphsai.

But Caverns of Mars was designed by a high school senior named Greg Christensen in 1981, and it quickly became a smash-hit for Atari. An 8-bit game, it positions the player aboard a small spaceship that travels down a vertical shaft, into the red planet’s rocky interior. 

Along the way, the ship must destroy other ships, fuel depots and the like. The longer you play, if memory serves, the faster your rate of descent, so that soon it becomes insanely difficult preventing your ship from getting pulped on the rock face.

It’s a basic game by today’s standards, I suppose, but as an eleven and twelve year old, I found it highly addictive. I would play the game for hours, and it really got the adrenaline going. 

I showed some images of the game to Joel at one point and he told me, with apologies, that it looks “derpy” by modern standards. 

In this case, I think he may be wrong. Some of the games with basic graphics today, like Undertale thrive on elements not directly related to visual definition, it seems to me.  

Caverns of Mars may not be in the same league, but it was a great game for its time, and a key memory from my first days with the Atari 800. 

Hard to believe it was more than thirty years ago that I first encountered it…

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

UFO: "The Long Sleep"

In "The Long Sleep," Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) learns that a woman he accidentally hit with a car ten years earlier, Catherine Fraser (Tessa Wyatt), has awakened from her decade-long coma. He goes to visit her in a local hospital, and the young woman recounts an incredible story.

Catherine reports how she met another hippie, Tim (Christian Roberts), and they left London together. They then shared a day together -- along with some liberal recreational drug use -- at an abandoned rural farmhouse.  While experiencing their drug trip, they encountered aliens, who were planting a device of some kind in the farmhouse basement.

The hippies stole a piece of the device, and the aliens sought to get it back, even as the addled youngsters failed to realize the danger to themselves, and to the planet. Tim fell to his death, after jumping from the farmhouse roof. Catherine fell unconscious only to see Tim being carried away by the aliens the following morning.

Catherine fled the scene, and then dropped the bomb piece somewhere...but all these years later, she doesn't remember where. 

Straker fears that the alien weapon is a bomb, and remembers that an earthquake in Turkey from around the same time, killed 87,000 people. Would this bomb decimate England in the same fashion?

Also watching the awakened Catherine is Tim, now under alien control for the long decade. He uses dangerous alien drug to learn where Catherine dropped the bomb activation piece, and the aliens set out to complete a murderous plan a decade in the making.

In the end, the bomb is found, and exploded safely in space, but Catherine dies, leaving Straker moved at her story, and strange fate.

I will confess it right out the gate: "The Long Sleep" is one of my favorite episodes of UFO. In fact, it may have actually been the first episode of the series I ever saw, back when the Sci-Fi Channel was running the series on weekends in 1994. On my first re-watch in over a decade, I found the episode emotionally-moving, stylishly-filmed, and mind-blowing, especially in the weird climactic reveal of Catherine's rapid aging, as a result of Tim draining the life from her. It's a weird, but wholly inventive hour.

I love the story of Tim and Catherine, two kids minding their own business (circa 1970, the hippie era), tuning out of the world, and finding each other, only for things to go tragically wrong. Tim talks meaningfully about how he once desired to becomes a doctor, and in a horrible perversion of that dream, he becomes (or masquerades as) an alien-controlled "doctor." It is a horrifying outcome, but fascinating considering the counter-culture times. Tim wanted to check out of life, and give up his dream of being a physician, but then is forced, basically to become a "zombie" within the system, controlled by the aliens.  Catherine, so much a part of the youth-culture, grows old before her time, losing the cherished youth and freedom, in a similar fashion. She is recruited, basically, by both the aliens and Straker in a  deadly war, and the life is literally drained from her by her service.

It has always fascinated me how the hippie generation sold their souls for corner offices and stock options in the  yuppie 1980's, but "The Long Sleep," sub-textually, at least, is about how youthful idealism gets drained away, bit-by-bit by a corrupt but powerful establishment/system, and freedom, idealism, and hope are lost, along with youth.

There are some people who look at hippies, no doubt, as destructive or irresponsible, but "The Long Sleep" shows them, like everyone else, eventually trapped by a system that mainstreams them into roles they don't necessarily want to play. My great friend and the script-editor for Space:1999 (1975-1977), Johnny Byrne, once termed the 1970's the "wake-up" from the "hippie dream," and "The Long Sleep" feels like a perfect visualization and exploration of that idea. The hippies thought they were charting something new, meaningful, and permanent -- a new way of living -- only to see their independence and counter-culture movement subsumed into the larger culture. Nothing changed, but the 1980's era of conspicuous consumption consumed them.

I admire the stylish touches of "The Long Sleep," from the slow-motion photography to the sepia-tone flashbacks, to the "bad trip" aspects featuring strobing red and blue lights (usually associated with the aliens.)  The episode is weird and haunting (just like I prefer them). There's a surreal nightmare sense to Tim and Catherine's deaths.  Tim transforms into a skeleton before our eyes, after his alien-sponsored mission is complete, and Catherine dies an old crone, since Tim was leeching life from her all along, to stay alive. These fates are horrific, and weird, and dream-like, and somehow speak to the idea of an epoch -- the hippie counter-culture -- living on borrowed time, as the mainstream culture also leeches life away from it.'

The episode also serves as a unique meditation on drug use. The recreational drugs that Tim and Catherine used impede their judgement, but make them feel free and unfettered. They find a crate of clothes and put on the clothes they want; the identities they desire. Ten years later, the drugs forced on Catherine by the establishment (human and alien) kill her.  One drug, used willingly, frees her. The other, used by Tim, against her will and knowledge, ultimately kills her.

"The Long Sleep" is also, a bit surprisingly, a very strong Straker-focused episode. He feels enormous guilt about striking Catherine with his car, and embodies a father's care about her. It is clear she is not simply a means to an end for him (as she is for Paul Foster, who is very cold-blooded here). Ed cares about Catherine, and wants to explain to her why it is necessary to give her a second dose of the alien drug, to find the bomb. He knows, basically, that he is killing her, and there is a softness, gentleness in her approach to her.  Perhaps her death reminds him of John, his son, who died in a hospital in "A Question of Priorities." 

I have always found the last scene of "The Long Sleep" haunting. Straker walks out of the hospital  alone, and stops in the courtyard, where he and Catherine once shared a visit. He pauses very briefly, and then continues on his way out, without a word, Colonel Lake (Wanda Ventham) moving to catch up with him.  This is our last view of Straker in "The Long Sleep," and in the entire series, actually. He walks away, haunted by another loss in his life, and in this unending war with the aliens. He walks away, meditating on the cost of that war -- a perennial theme of UFO -- and  strides into the cult-TV history books.

As most sci-fi fans know, UFO morphed into Space:1999, essentially, and for that I will always be grateful, since I some such a fan of that 1970's space opera.  And yet, one cannot help wonder what a second season of this format would have brought to audiences. I feel like the last several episodes of UFO, from "Mind Bender" to "Timelash," to "The Long Sleep" took real chances, were ambitious, and were, finally, brilliantly-executed. Had the series continued for another season or two in this format, with the remarkable Ed Bishop further developing the haunted Straker, the series would be better remembered today, no doubt.

"The Long Sleep" really gets it right, and I must note, for the record that there is no Skydiver, no Moonbase, no Interceptors, no mobiles, in it.  It is a story not about technology, but about people and relationships, and I feel like this was the vision of the future that UFO always wanted to enunciate, in tragic tales such as "A Question of Priorities," or "Confetti Check A-OK." Another season might have seen the writers, directors, and performers really make that vision a consistent reality, instead of the scattershot one we see develop in fits and starts in this single season.

Despite its large cast, the main takeaway from UFO is Ed Straker, and Bishop's focused, consistent , brilliant performance. He created in Straker a man who gave up everything in a time of war, and was haunted by his choices.  I would have loved, circa 1996 or so, to see a movie starring Bishop as an older Straker, reflecting on the choices he made. Would he have been alone? Lost? Would he have been appreciated, or a name lost to history, his suffering solitary forgotten?

With that thought, we leave this retrospective of UFO, a truly memorable entry in the cult-TV Valhalla. Next week, I begin a retrospective of The Evil Touch, a low-budget, Australian horror anthology from roughly the same era, the early 1970's.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Cult-TV Faces of: Moon Buggies/Lunar Rovers









Sunday, July 28, 2019

Guest Post: Once Upon a Time In...Hollywood (2019)

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Polanski’s
By Jonas Schwartz
Not since Pulp Fiction has a Quentin Tarantino film caused such anticipation. Like in ’94, when Pulp Fiction was a revelation to the Cannes Jury, this year, Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood was lauded by critics when the film debuted at the festival in May. 
Audiences are expecting a masterpiece from the new millennium’s great auteur and Once Upon A Time In…Hollywoodis quite intelligent, and media savvy. It stars two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and features a who’s who of greats from the past (Al Pacino, Kurt Russell) and up-and-comers (Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley). It evokes a nostalgia for the final months of the Hippie movement and the free-love sixties, which had been decimated by that boogieman of the establishment, Charles Manson, when for two nights in August 1969, his followers butchered seven people, including movie star Sharon Tate and her unborn child. A love letter to the ‘60s and the entertainment industry, Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood definitely has the Tarantino touch, but it still feels like lesser Tarantino rather than his Magnus Opus.

Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood follows two stars on opposite trajectories. Beautiful Sharon Tate (Robbie), a sparkling talent with a keen eye for goofy comedy, has a budding movie career, a marriage to star director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), and a circle of famous friends. She and Roman have moved into a dazzling home in Beverly Hills and she anxiously awaits the birth of her child. In the house next door, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) a once-popular TV western actor, has fizzled out, now stuck playing one-episode heavies on other actors’ popular shows. Cliff, his stunt double/best friend (Pitt) barely gets work and relies on Rick to pick up odd jobs, such as driving Rick around town. On the periphery, a slew of pretty girls hang around the Sunset Strip hitching rides, smoking dope, and stealing food from garbage cans. Both the movie star and the has-been have a date with destiny, when three of those pretty urchins, under orders from a deadly pied piper, come a-callin’ to the neighborhood of Cielo Drive.
There is much to admire in Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood. As always, Tarantino’s dialogue crackles. A scene about acting and feminism, between Rick and a child on the Western set (played winningly by Julia Butters), could not possibly have been written by anyone else. Prescient talk about fleeting fame and the loneliness of standing behind a façade that can collapse at any moment reaches a level of poetry. The perverse ending turns into a black comedy due to the scene’s excesses, which is Tarantino's trademark. 
Visually, Tarantino strikingly captures the detail of ’69 Los Angeles, with gaudy colors and costumes, drug fueled music, and a desperation for frivolity. One shockingly sloppy shot for someone so meticulous: in one scene Pitt drives down Forest Lawn in Burbank and passes a large mirrored building with cable satellites named The Pointe, located by Warner Bros Studios. The building is so clearly modern that it sticks out like a bloody thumb, and it’s unclear how Tarantino didn’t edit around the building or FX it out. Editing could have turned this ambitious film into a classic. A good 30 minutes could have been cut from the first third in order to delete some obvious deadweight. The scenes with Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, and Pacino’s agent Marvin Schwarzs are the most inconsequential to the themes and storyline. 
Tarantino's handling of Tate is perplexing. Though Robbie is excellent in the role -- more about that below -- Tarantino treats her like a phantom, a girl he's ogling as opposed to attempting to understand. The camera tracks her dancing at parties, giggling with friends, and driving in fast cars, like one would admire an unobtainable girl. Her complex relationship with her husband is barely explored. The character of Polanski is almost a cameo in the film. If their story wasn't based on fact, the audience would barely remember her husband existing in the film at all. 

Tarantino has assembled a blue-ribbon cast. DiCaprio has never been better as the drunk, lost Rick. A hilariously painful scene in the character’s trailer after flubbing lines feels achingly honest. Much valuable time is spent watching Rick play the stock villains in the TV Western Lancer or the True Crime show THE FBI, but it’s obvious how talented DiCaprio’s character can be in the right circumstances. DiCaprio gives Rick a distinct stutter which humanizes his character more. Pitt takes his persona of the swaggering stud and presents a man with very little in his life other than his dog and his friend. Robbie is ravishing as Tate. She captures the innocence and innate joy of this tragic character. When Sharon talks her way into a movie theater showing her latest film and sits anonymously in the darkened theater, enjoying the audience laughing at her silly hijinks, Robbie exemplifies the high when a new actress realizes the effects she has on movie watchers. Though Tarantino seems unclear of the Sharon behind the legacy, Robbie fills in all his script's blanks. Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Austin Butler, Lena Dunham, and Mikey Madison are vipers as the various Manson family members who ensnare new recruits. One of the most intense moments involves Pitt as a mouse in their snake pit, blustering around these hippies who are harmless in his eyes. Yet they’re sitting in wait.
A time capsule of a distinct moment in time in American history, Once Upon A Time In…Hollywoodis a fairy tale of the land of make believe, where painted sets, Playboy Mansion parties, and swanky cars can give the illusion that the American Dream is attainable and free-flowing, but a hangover is coming. On Cielo Drive, a family of degenerates will end that dream, and on the other side is defeat in Vietnam, a crippling recession, and a break in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC that will lead to the destruction of America’s delusions once and for all.

Jonas Schwartz is Vice President / Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle,  West Coast Critic for TheaterMania, Contributing Critic for Broadway World, and a Contributing Critic for ArtsInLA.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Unchained Woman" (November 1, 1979)

The early first season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) titled “Unchained Woman” finds Buck (Gil Gerard) undertaking the futuristic equivalent of an impossible mission. 

The man out of time is tasked with breaking a prisoner -- Jen Burton (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- out of an inescapable, subterranean prison on the moon Zeta 3 so she can testify against her boyfriend, Mal Pantera (Michael Delano), who has been ambushing Directorate shipping lanes.

Complicating the mission, Buck must also contend with a relentless and invincible android prison guard whom he has nicknamed Hugo (Walter Hunt). 

After escaping from the prison with Jen, Buck has to not only escape Hugo’s pursuit (and deal with hungry sand squids...) and meet Wilma (Erin Gray) at a rendezvous point. He must also deal with an unseen menace: Earth ambassador Warwick (Robert Cornthwaite), who is secretly allied with Pantera.

Watching "Unchained Woman" today, it is clear that the android Hugo is a sort of science fiction missing link between Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in Westworld (1973) and Arnie’s cyborg from the future in The Terminator (1984). This relentless, incredibly strong individual drives much of the episode’s action and even provides “Unchained Woman” its sting-in-the-tail/tale conclusion. 

Although the mission ends successfully, Buck’s android nemesis is still “alive,” still hunting his escaped wards.  He is never going to give up. Ever. And in fact, the machine is referenced in a later episode ("A Blast for Buck.")

This is a funny happenstance, in terms of the pop culture, because guest star Jamie Lee Curtis is famous, of course, for being pursued by an unstoppable villain of another stripe, Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers.  

Here, Jen believes she is finally free, but the episode cuts back to Hugo on Zeta's surface, his hand twitching, thus signifying the fact that the nightmare continues.

What remains so intriguing about “Unchained Woman” (and much of Buck Rogers’ first season, as well) is that it focuses on a crime or “caper” story.  The prison break-out story, for example, is a genre trope, seen on such programs as The A-Team and the tongue-in-cheek The Lone Gunmen (2000). The story itself is familiar, even old, but the writers for Buck Rogers cleverly adapt all the 20th century clichés to the 25th century setting thus making them memorable, and in some sense even fresh.  

Here, we get an underground prison on Zeta 3 (two-hundred feet beneath the surface and carved “out of bedrock”), an explosive medallion, android prison guards, a decontamination chamber, and prison identification bracelets. These trappings are inventive enough to make the story feel fresh. The episode's director, Dick Lowry, creates a lot of tension from the fact that the prison is inescapable, and Buck's only method of getting out, the aforementioned medallion, is torn from his neck and thrown in a garbage bin.

When you couple these futuristic trappings with Buck’s sense of humor and quips, “Unchained Woman” emerges as quite the entertaining romp. For example, here he notes, with apparent appreciation, that prisons have gone “co-ed” since his era.  At another juncture, he considers an android’s law-and-order “motto” (“On Zeta, they do things right…”) and suggests it would make a good bumper sticker. Gil Gerard makes such a good series lead because he can alternate readily between sincerity and humor without either emotion seeming forced. "Unchained Woman" puts those talents to good use.

Every sci-fi TV series possesses its own unique alchemy. Buck’s is ably represented by this episode: crime-related “caper” tales in which Buck goes undercover, helps someone, and  cracks wise along the way, all while contending with the technological "miracles" of a de-humanized future age. 

The nice thing about this formula is that it can be varied to be more serious (like the brilliant “Plot to Kill a City,”) more horrific (“Space Vampire”) or even a bit more on the comedic side (“Cosmic Whiz Kid.”) 

I still remember watching “Unchained Woman” for the first time, and worrying about how Buck was going to stop an unstoppable android. The episode’s cleverness comes from the fact that --in the final analysis -- he doesn't accomplish the impossible. The androids still functions, and is still out there, in search of his prey.

“Unchained Woman” is a fun episode of the series, bolstered by some nice location shooting in the desert, and some good special effects, such as the matte painting of the outpost called Station Post 7.  

Several Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) costumes get recycled there, but it hardly matters. And one final bonus of Bill Taylor's teleplay is a rare subplot involving Dr. Huer's back-story and friendship with Warwick. Huer (Tim O'Connor) is a truly interesting character, a principled leader who grew up in a time of famine and asceticism, while Earth was climbing back on its feet.  Buck Rogers rarely took the time to focus on the character, but "Unchained Woman" reveals his true humanity, and his sense of decency, and loyalty.

Next week: "Planet of the Amazon Women."

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Memory Bank: The Atari 800

I was a lucky kid growing up in the 1970's. I was the first one in my neighborhood to own an Atari 2600.  But also, so far as I know, I was the first one to possess an Atari Computer.

I remembering seeing the Atari 400 in stores, the one with the “flat” or membrane keyboard, and wishing we could get it. The console was released in November of 1979, and was produced until the mid-1980s.

But instead of the 400, my parents sprung for the Atari 800 – which was marketed more as a home computer and less as a game system -- and over the years we had numerous accessories for it, including a light pen, joysticks, a cartridge drive (yes, that was a thing) and then later, a floppy disc drive

But the Atari 800 had games too, and we got upgraded versions (with better graphics) of Pac-Man, Missile Command, and -- my favorite -- Attank.  I would arrive home from school in the afternoons and wait for my Dad to pull up on his motorcycle after a hard day’s work.  He was vice-principal at a high school nearby, in Mountain Lakes.  Once he was home, it was on, and we’d go up against each other for three or four games of Attank on the Atari 800. It was awesome, and a good memory.

I also remember playing Star Raiders on the Atari 800 for hours.


The Atari 800 was also the first word processing device I owned. And in high school, I wrote my papers on it, and also my short stories and movie scripts (The Intergalactic Police!).  I got to know that system, and that keyboard, really well.  I may owe my writing career to the fact that my parents purchased that machine for the family.

When I went away to college in 1988, my parents gave me the next generation of Atari computer: the much-more sleek Atari 1200XL.  That was a good machine too, but I missed the big-boxy, typewriter-like Atari 800.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

UFO: "E.S.P."

In "E.S.P.," a tortured man with extra sensory perception, John Croxley (John Stratton) encounters a U.F.O. His wife (Deborah Stanford) is killed when an alien ship crashes into his house, and aliens proceed to take control of his vulnerable mind.  

Baiting Straker (Ed Bishop), Croxley writes a movie script about SHADO and sends it to Harlington-Straker Studios. The script contains references to every facet of Earth's defenses, and the men and women who defend the planet. Straker and Freeman (George Sewell) go to the wreckage of Croxley's house to confront him, only to find it a trap, with him waiting, ready to murder them.

Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) shows up at the last minute to save his cohorts, even as the alien-controlled Croxley fights to hold onto his mind.

"E.S.P." is another episode of Gerry Anderson's UFO in which an alien-controlled human attempts to assassinate Straker, a plot-line used in the appropriately-named "Kill Straker" and also in "The Man Who Came Back." 

In-universe, this means that the aliens have recognized Straker, not Earth's technology, as the greatest barrier to their success. Out-of-universe, it means viewers get another overly familiar story.

The most intriguing facet of this episode is the script that Croxley writes about SHADO, and which focuses on the organization's installations and personnel. Had he really wanted to mess with Straker, Croxley might have sent it to a competing studio, rather than Straker's. Imagine Ed learning that a "UFO" film was in production at a rival studio, "outing" every aspect of his organization. That would have been a real security breach. As it arNSA, the script is just a trap to lure Straker to Croxley's ruined home.

The alien plan doesn't seem terribly thought out, but "E.S.P." works hard to generate empathy both for Croxley and the aliens. Croxley's extra-sensory perception is driving him to "mental illness," and then he loses his wife, his only foothold on normality. Straker's last thought about Croxley, that -- in the end -- Croxley let Foster kill him so as not to be a tool for the aliens -- is affecting, even if we don't quite understand how or why Straker arrives at that particular conclusion.

As for the aliens, they speak through Croxley and plead with Straker, noting that they are fighting "for existence" and that they "must come to Earth to survive." In another kind of sci-fi series, this admission might be the opening for a dialogue between Earth and the aliens. A peace treaty could be arranged, with the aliens trading their miraculous technology for access to Earth. Of course, they couldn't harvest bodies, but this episode suggests, in some small way, that the aliens want, at least, to talk. Of course, it is the aliens who began the relationship through abduction and murder, so it is understandable that Straker is implacable.  Still, this (and other episodes) establish that the aliens have very few choices left, in the war to survive.

This episode is from the early batch of episodes (with Sewell as Freeman), and I confess that I generally prefer the latter batch of episodes, which are heavier on action, and feature more mind-bending plots. There is nothing in particular wrong with "E.S.P.," yet it is never terribly original, or even thought-provoking.

Next week, the last episode of U.F.O., the stylish "The Long Sleep."

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Dune Buggy










Thursday, July 18, 2019

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)

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.

Next week: "Unchained Woman."

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