Blast from the past.
In the spring of 1979 yet another feature film seemingly riding the late 1970s “Star Wars” wave was coming to theaters, complete with a Harrison Ford-esque hero and a little robot sidekick. The difference being that 1979’s “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” predated Star Wars by 48 years. 1979’s “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” was another adaptation of Philip Francis Nowlan’s old 1929 comic strip series based on his novella, “Armageddon 2419.” The original strip concerned a World War 1 veteran, Anthony “Buck” Rogers, who is accidentally frozen in a cavern and reawakens Rip Van Winkle-style in the year 2419… a 25th century where a war-ravaged Earth fights off various foes, including “Killer Kane” and the Draconians.
In 1939 there was a movie serial version of “Buck Rogers” starring “Flash Gordon” actor Buster Crabbe (a former Olympic swimming star), with Constance Moore as Wilma Deering. Buck also had a youthful sidekick named Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran). The serials were very similar to Crabbe’s own “Flash Gordon” series; in fact, I used to get theme confused when watching them on TV as a kid.
I would giggle at the rocket-ships, with sparklers for exhaust trails, making buzzing Tesla coil noises. There was also a 1950s TV series (which I’ve never seen), starring Kem Dibbs (and later Robert Pastene) as Buck, with Lou Prentice as Wilma Deering.
My personal focus is on the version I grew up with, the 1979 version produced by “Battlestar Galactica” creator Glen Larson, which I used to eat up as a kid.
****DRACONIA-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
The 1979 feature film (later retitled “Awakening”).
The movie opens with William (“Ironside”) Conrad telling us that in the year 1987 (that far-off future world of 32 years ago) NASA launched the last of America’s deep space probes. Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers (a charmingly goofy Gil Gerard) is accidentally flash-frozen aboard his mini-space shuttle.
After Conrad’s somber opening narration (Conrad would also narrate the TV series version opener), there is a James Bond-style credits sequence featuring with a bevy of beautiful women (including stars Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley) writhing across a glowing floor. The title music was composed by “Battlestar Galactica” maestro Stu Philips, with some achingly sincere lyrics sung by Kipp Lennon (who sounds like Luke Skywalker on karaoke night).
The action then cuts to the year 2491 (not 19), when Buck’s frozen shuttle is intercepted by starfighters from a massive enemy starship called the Draconia, the flagship of the Draconian Empire. The ship is commanded by Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), and her henchman Kane (Henry Silva, of “Ocean’s Eleven”).
A disoriented Buck is awakened by the Draconians (Ardala takes a liking to the brash 20th century astronaut) and is sent on his way to Earth, with a transmitter planted aboard his ship that will reveal a secret access corridor through Earth’s planetary defense shield. The Draconians are coming to Earth under a flag of truce, but it’s only a ruse to conquer the planet (shades of the Cylons in “Battlestar Galactica”). The trojan horse ruse is a recurring theme in Glen Larson’s works, whose politics tended to be somewhat…right-leaning (he seemed to continually advocate for a martial state).
Buck’s shuttle is intercepted by Earth’s defense squadron, led by the no nonsense Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray, yet another childhood crush of mine). Deering doesn’t trust the ‘barbarian’ Buck Rogers, but slowly warms up to his 1970s, Burt Reynolds-style charms.
Buck also meets kindly Earth administrator Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor), and is assigned a ‘drone’ named Twiki (played by Felix Silla, voiced by Mel “Bugs Bunny” Blanc) and a clock-like computer worn around Twiki’s neck called Dr. Theopolis (a member of “New Chicago”‘s ruling ‘computer council’). The two are assigned to help Buck acclimate to the 25th century.
Buck, Twiki and “Theo” reluctantly escort a determined Buck outside of the protective domed utopia of New Chicago to help the lost astronaut gain some closure on his past. In a scene reminiscent of many early 1970s dystopian flicks (including “Omega Man” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”), Buck learns old Chicago is a post-atomic wasteland populated by dangerous mutants. Buck also finds a mass gravesite, and a single stone for his buried parents. He now realizes and accepts that he truly is on Earth…it becomes real for him. This bifurcated utopian/distopian world is indeed the one he left behind in 1987, since ravaged by nuclear war.
This sequence is one of my favorite in the movie, as it gives the previously shallow hero some much needed depth. Surrounded by a wild mob of vicious mutants, Buck and Twiki are nearly done for when they are rescued by Col. Deering and company, the first of several times she rescues Buck in the film. Wilma Deering kicks serious ass, predating both Ellen Ripley and Buffy Summers. She was sci-fi’s first true female heroine.
It’s around this time that the Draconian transmitter is discovered aboard Buck’s ship, and he is accused of being a spy for nameless pirates who are harassing Earth’s shipping space-lanes. Buck is put on trial by the computer council and quickly sentenced to death (justice in the 25th century consists of computerized kangaroo courts). Before his death sentence is carried out, Buck is offered the chance to prove himself with a trip to the starship Draconia to prove it is coming to Earth fully armed (against the terms of their own treaty). Unbeknownst to Earth, the ‘pirates’ are actually disguised Draconian vessels, intentionally attacking Earth’s supply lanes from other planets in order to force Earth into a protective treaty with Draconia (basically mob ‘protection money’).
After a lot of hemming-and-hawing over Buck’s innocence or guilt, he eventually proves his mettle by seducing his way aboard Ardala’s private shuttle (with disturbing use of a roofie), stopping Ardala’s primitive henchman “Tigerman”, sabotaging most of the Draconian fighter fleet, and saving Earth from conquest.
As the Draconia collapses around Buck (and sidekick Twiki), Wilma comes aboard to rescue Buck and the bots yet again.
From the silver screen to the cathode-ray tube.
The 1979 film, capitalizing on both Star Wars and the 50th anniversary of the original comic strip, was as breezy, silly and unabashedly fun as its inspiration. The word in nerd circles (Starlog magazine, the internet before the internet) was that the movie was a pilot for a TV series coming to NBC network that fall. The pilot aired only a few months later, in September of 1979, with a few edits and a couple of added scenes to help transition the film into a television series format. An added coda has Wilma and Dr. Huer formally asking Buck to sign on as a permanent Earth Directorate secret agent. He doesn’t initially commit, but agrees to help when/if needed.
The movie and subsequent series are laden with some anachronistic humor that doesn’t work so well today (lots of disco music, a few dated references, and tons of casual sexism). The casting is a bit on the white-bread side, too. Apparently there’s not a whole lot of diversity in the year 2491 (unlike Larson’s previous “Battlestar: Galactica”, which featured several non-white main characters). Overlooking these faults, the feature film is a breezy, silly good time, with its tongue set firmly-in-cheek. It’s a 100-minute Saturday matinee serial. When I first saw it, I was surprised at how much fun it was…arguably more so than the straight-laced “Battlestar”. Yes, I cringed at a few bits, but overall I liked it… enough to eagerly anticipate the forthcoming TV series. In fact, I still remember getting my own copy of a free Buck Rogers TV series promo poster from our local Burger King (and how wish I had the foresight to hold onto it!).
The series would last two seasons, from 1979-1981, with a prematurely (but mercifully) cancelled second season.
The series that followed was largely hit and miss; a lightweight ‘Mission: Impossible-in-space’ first season was followed by a heavy-handed “Star Trek”-ripoff second season (with shades of “Galactica” as well, searching for the ‘lost tribes’ of Earth). Buck Rogers’ first season was, in many ways, a tonally (if not directly) faithful extension of the Crabbe serials. Crabbe himself cameoed as reactivated former pilot “Brigadier Gordon” in the episode, “Planet of the Slave Girls”, part 2. Lots of ex-“Batman” villains guest starred as heavies in that first season as well (Frank Gorshin, Caesar Romero and Julie Newmar), which fit the playful, campy tone of that first year.
Pamela Hensley’s Ardala would return three times during the first season (“Escape From Wedded Bliss” “Ardala’s Return” and “Flight Of The War Witch”) and in most cases, her return was usually some hair-brained attempt to dig her claws into Buck Rogers, the object of her unyielding desire. Her henchman Kane was also recast with the less-wily, more pompous Michael Ansara (“Bewitched” “Star Trek”). While I liked Pamela Hensley’s energy and wicked humor, it’s too bad her character was so often reduced to a haughty, lovesick annoyance.
Other high-profile guest stars of Season One include Jack Palance (“Shane” “City Slickers”), Jamie Lee Curtis (fresh off the success of the original 1978 “Halloween”), Roddy McDowall (“Planet of the Apes” “My Friend Flicka”), Peter Graves (“Mission: Impossible” “Airplane!”), Ray Walston (“My Favorite Martian”) and two appearances from the late Gary Coleman (“Diff’rent Strokes”).
There was also a heavy reuse of opticals, miniatures, sound FX, props, sets and occasional costumes from Larson’s previous “Battlestar: Galactica.” Waste not, want not, right? Recycling of expensive TV production bits is a tradition that continues unabated to this day, but they’re just a little better at hiding it now than they were then.
My personal favorites of Season One.
—“Awakening.” The pilot film is still the best of best, with significantly greater production value and cinematography than the TV series could afford. Could easily be enjoyed as a standalone feature (especially if you only watch the theatrical version that is on the 2003 DVD collection).
— “Vegas In Space.” Probably the most typical sampling of the series, with Buck going to “Sinoloa”, a gambling space station full of crime, vice and exotic aliens. Costars Caesar Romero, as well as “Halloween II” (1981) costars Ana Alicia and Pamela Susan Shoop (Shoop’s costume left my then-12 year old-self gasping for air). Biggest downside: Erin Gray is out for most of the episode, as she briefly considered leaving the series…luckily, she stayed on (couldn’t imagine the show without her).
—“The Plot To Kill a City” Parts 1, 2. Frank Gorshin (“The Riddler” from “Batman”) leads a group of rogue villains, including a telekinetic boor, a deadly vixen, and a sad-sack mutant in a deadly vengeful plot to devastate New Chicago by destroying the city’s matter/antimatter reactor. Lots of dumb fun as Buck goes undercover (wearing what looks like something discarded from a 1970s leather bar) to infiltrate the gang and stop their dastardly plan.
—“Cruise Ship To The Stars.” The ‘Love Boat’ in space, with Buck befriending a sad young woman named Alison (Kimberly Beck) who unwittingly transmutes into a wild-haired super-villain thief named Sabrina (an insanely camp Trisha Noble). The ‘Sabrina’ alter-ego is used by Alison’s shady boyfriend Jay (Leigh McCloskey) to commit crimes against Alison’s will. A tragic bit of casting with former Playboy Playmate (and future murder victim) Dorothy Stratten as “Miss Cosmos”, a genetically perfect beauty pageant winner whose very DNA is sought by the thieves. Stratton was killed mere months after the episode was broadcast.
The scenes of Twiki trying to make time with a female robot named Tina are just… insane.
—“Space Vampire.” A rare foray into horror, with Buck playing Van Helsing against a “Vorvon” (Thomas Horrman), a ‘space vampire’ who invades a lonely space station from a crashed freighter. The episode is a surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in some ways (the deserted ship, the dying captain’s logs, and a bald monster right out of 1922’s “Nosferatu”). No one believes Buck, of course, save for Wilma (this version’s “Mina Harker”), who is the Vorvon’s intended victim. While the vampire makeup is decidedly goofy (that unibrow!), the tone and feel of the episode are genuinely unsettling. Erin Gray’s performance, both as terrified victim and newly-minted vampire (with her voice slightly pitched down), make this Gray’s best episode, as she gets to play both terror and vampish delight with equal aplomb.
—“A Dream Of Jennifer.” For the first time since “Awakening,” we see Buck genuinely struggling with the loneliness of being alienated from his own time. While out with his robot pal Twiki, Buck spots a young woman (Anne Lockhart) who looks exactly like the girlfriend he left behind in the 20th century. Buck follows her to 25th century New Orleans, a city that still retains a bit of the magic of its colorful past, to learn more about her. Sadly, things aren’t what they seem for Buck. Flashbacks of Buck’s pre-flight days, as well as exceptionally strong performances from both Gerard and Lockhart make this episode arguably a series’ best.
Listen carefully for in-joke, as a spaceport public address calls for a “Captain Christopher Pike” to “report to the Veterans Affairs Office” (a throwaway reference to TOS “Star Trek”). I never caught this gag until I bought the DVD set in 2004.
—“Flight Of The War Witch” (two hour movie). The season finale is a feature film length adventure which goes all out; you have the former Batman villain (Julie Newmar), Princess Ardala, an alien invitation to a whole new universe, and the Earth heroes combining forces with the Draconians to save a peaceful, hi-tech civilization. The premise of a new universe adds just a teensy bit of wonder to what is essentially a ‘Seven Samurai-in-space’ story, with a peaceful planet instead of a small village. Julie Newmar and Pamela Hensley try their best to out-camp each other, with Ardala also showing a rare hint of pathos and depth as she sees her own reflection in the evil ‘war witch.’ Other guest stars include Sam Jaffe (“Day The Earth Stood Still” “Lost Horizon”), Sid Haig (“House of a Thousand Corpses”) and Vera Miles (“Psycho”).
The second season was an ill-conceived, desperate attempt to reimagine the entire show. Glen Larson relinquished control of the second season to former “Gunsmoke” producer John Mantley (a guy who clearly didn’t get the show at all). The result was a flaccid clone of Star Trek.
The series was now set aboard the starship “Searcher” (the thinly-redressed miniature of the cosmic cruise ship from Season One), with repainted interior sets mainly used from the Draconian ships seen in the first season, and a bridge that looks like a prop storage bay with chairs. There is no coherency or grace to the Searcher interior’s cobbled-together design whatsoever.
Buck was less of the first season’s swinging ladies’ man now (more Michael Landon than James Bond). Season one’s take-charge Col. Wilma Deering became little more than a sexy flight attendant. Wilma’s new costumes looked, in Gray’s own words, like a “dairy queen in space.” The late Tim O’Connor’s affable, likable Dr. Huer was thrown to the curb in favor of two terribly misguided would-be shoe-fillers; the bumbling Admiral Asimov (the late Jay Garner) and the doddering, half-senile Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid Hyde White, of “My Fair Lady”). There was also a new robot; an obnoxious mobile coat hanger on wheels named Crichton (with his pompous knob stuck at 11). Twiki’s voice was also changed to a shrill, nasally whine until Mel Blanc was mercifully rehired a few episodes later.
The one interesting addition was a new character named “Hawk” (Thom Christopher), the last surviving member of a flightless, bird-man species hunted to near extinction by humans. He is welcomed aboard the Searcher, yet he maintained a certain Spock-like stoicism and distance from his human crewmates. His costume, including what looked like a feathered shower cap, was somewhat laughable, but the character was always played straight.
Personal highlights of Season Two.
—“Time Of The Hawk.” The feature-length season opener (of a prematurely cancelled 2nd season) has Buck, Wilma and Twiki inexplicably reassigned to the starship Searcher looking for ‘the lost tribes’ who left Earth after the holocaust (very “Battlestar Galactica”). An angry bird-man named “Hawk” seeks revenge against all humanity for the slaughter of his people by drunken renegades. With his wife Koori (Barbara Luna) is mortally wounded, Hawk is eventually won over by Buck, who tries to help Koori and later gives the angry alien sanctuary aboard the Searcher. Strong performances by Gil Gerard and Thom Christopher punctuate this otherwise so-so story.
—“Journey To Oasis.” A two-part story sees Wilma rekindling a former flame with an older alien ambassador (played by late Star Trek veteran Mark Lenard), who, unbeknownst to Wilma, is able to remove his head at will (!). Felix Silla, out of the Twiki costume for a change, is slathered in blue makeup and a white wig (looking exactly like a Smurf) as he plays an enigmatic alien who acts like a discount Yoda. Some nice desert location cinematography and shuttle crashing miniature FX accent an otherwise overlong quest story. Nice to see Lenard back in the sci-fi genre (this was a few years before “The Search For Spock” would see him return to Star Trek).
—“Mark Of The Saurian.” A feverish Buck, with his 20th century optic nerves, is able to see visiting alien ambassadors as the deceptive reptiles that they truly are, in this slightly better entry of the otherwise lackluster second season (which only lasted a few more episodes). Think 1983’s “V,” but with electronic forcefield disguises instead of rubber masks. One of the few stories of Season 2 that could’ve worked just as well in Season 1.
The absolute nadir of the second season (and arguably the entire series) is the hideous “Shgoratchx”, which sees the Searcher visited by a group of mischievous, obnoxious, telekinetic dwarves who are transporting dangerously unstable bombs aboard their derelict ship. Things go from bad to worse as the little people (who’ve never seen a human woman before) try to “off-think” Wilma’s sailor dress with their minds in order to see her “bumps” (mind you, this qualified as a family show, circa 1981). It is the ultimate degradation of Wilma’s character, as the formerly take-charge colonel of the first season is now being virtually gang-raped for laughs. “Shgoratchx” is shockingly offensive, both for little people and for victims of sexual assault. It’s the #MeToo era equivalent of wearing blackface.
Runners-up include the hilariously outdated “Space Rockers” from season one (it’s aged about as well as Star Trek’s “space hippies” from “The Way To Eden”), and the pure nonsense that is season 2’s “The Golden Man.”
Over the course of my two decades of convention-going, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few people involved with the show, including Gil Gerard, Erin Gray and Felix Silla. I’ve also met composer Stu Philips, who is arguably one of (if not) the best TV composer of the 1970s.
I still remember seeing Gerard and Gray at a “Buck Rogers” 80th-year anniversary panel (counting the 1929 comic strip) at San Diego Comic Con back in 2009; they mercilessly teased each other, and very much entertained the packed little auditorium. Gray joked that her costar has Tourette’s syndrome, which explained his stream of raunchy one-liners. Both held court at the panel, and the fans (including myself) loved it.
I actually met Gray at my very first San Diego Comic Con back in 2004, and she was just lovely. I complimented a performance of hers (TV’s “Starman”) and she joked she wanted to take me home (!). She also takes donations for a battered women’s shelter called “Haven House.” I try to give a small donation to her cause every year. Nice to see that a former childhood crush of mine has a true heart of gold as well.
Summing it up.
While “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” isn’t the best science fiction series out there, nor has it aged terribly well, it does maintain a certain silly charm. I still remember giggling at the primitive black & white Buck Rogers serials of 1939, and I’m sure current generations feel exactly the same way about the 1979 series, even more so, in fact (at least Crabbe’s version didn’t have space-rope/disco dancing).
What all Buck Rogers adaptations have in common is that they’re best enjoyed as message-free, guilty-pleasure adolescent fun…and in that regard, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” still bears a few faded charms here and there. Yes, the slower “CHiPs”-era pacing, blatant sexism and white-bread casting of the series might turn off younger viewers weaned on snappier, smarter fare, but for a patient (and very forgiving) viewer, the show is a goofy, charming glimpse into a camp, spandex-and-glitter future world that never was, and never will be.