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A Casual TV Fan's Guide

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series, part one
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1979-1981

By Dan Toland
24 April 2008 — "The year is 1987... and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot, Captain William "Buck" Rogers, are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems, and returns Buck Rogers to Earth... 500 years later."

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series
Episodes / DVDs: 37 episodes on five double-sided DVDs
Starring: Gil Gerard as Captain William "Buck" Rogers, Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering
Featuring: Tim O'Connor as Dr. Elias Huer, Thom Christopher as Hawk, Mel Blanc as the voice of Twiki

Would you like some cheese? I have some cheese for you.

In the wake of the first Star Wars, the appetite for science fiction, and space opera in particular, had never been higher. And after the premature cancellation of his still-popular Battlestar Galactica, Glen A. Larson was looking for another opportunity to rip-off George Lucas. (Sorry, Larson fans. The man was prolific as hell, but he never had an original idea in his life.) He found his opportunity in 1979 with Phil Nowlin's Buck Rogers, an icon of 20th century science fiction who brought with him a boatload of instant name recognition, and had been an inspiration for Lucas in the first place. In the two-hour pilot (which was originally theatrically released), Buck Rogers is re-imagined as an astronaut who fell into suspended animation in 1987 while on a five-month mission to explore the solar system. How? No idea. Something exploded. I think. I've just watched the scene three times, and I'm pretty sure it hasn't actually been explained. Anyway, awakened after 504 years to a post-apocalyptic world of domed cities and interstellar combat, Buck is given a position of power and authority in the Earth Defense Directorate; the fact that this is a lot like taking a man from the year 1504, waking him up today, giving him his very own F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and then telling him to go about his business is not really touched on.

This show wears its dumb very proudly.

So anyway, Buck goes up against classic comic strip villains Kane and Princess Ardala, assisted and abetted by Twiki, a robot that everybody but the Pope hates. Other than Twiki, however, if watched with an open mind, a roomful of friends and perhaps an open bottle of something vaguely alcoholic, the pilot can be a lot of fun. Gil Gerard, for his limitations, gives a charismatic performance in the lead role; he plays Buck as a charming rogue, and a bit of a good ol' boy, which is more personality than the character had ever seen. He also holds a Master's degree from the William Shatner Academy of Stage Combat. And not to be obvious (or sexist), but any project that consistently features Erin Gray in spandex is worth a look. The production values are halfway decent for the time; the space dogfights can get pretty exciting, even if they're lifted almost verbatim from the attack on the Death Star, and recycle elements of Galactica's Viper starfighters. And the artwork and model designs are pretty good, but the world of 2491 is very 1970s. Anchorman wasn't this 1970s.

I have to come clean right up front: this show, for whatever reason, fired my imagination like few others when I was a kid. However, I haven't seen it, other than the occasional episode on Sci Fi, since I was probably about 12 or 13. So this is going to be a rediscovery for me as well. Will my nostalgia make it through intact?

This is a special case. All scores and reviews are based on a certain expectation of total cheesiness, suspect acting from the guest cast, less than totally successful visual effects and a thick coat of 1970s slathered all over everything. Assume that's all there, within acceptable limits, unless I specifically call attention to it being really bad (or, occasionally, really well-done). There's a certain mindset one needs to be in. If you can achieve that mindset, you'll enjoy a lot of this.

There's much to get through, so unless something really jumps out, I'm going to dispense with random observations this time around.

Disc One
Writers: Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens
Guest starring: Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala

The Plot: Buck gets unfrozen. It's all in the introduction. Two-hour movie, originally released in theaters.

Good Stuff: Eric Server does a fine job as the voice of Dr. Theopolis, the sort of clock-face computer mind who's Buck's advocate with the Council of Clock-Face Computer Mind Things. It reminds me of Douglas Rain's performance as HAL 9000, which is probably not coincidental. The only drawback is that he has to be carried around by Twiki, who looks like a marital aid, and sucks hard. (Essentially, Theopolis is the Threepio to Twiki's Artoo.)

The world is created and realized very effectively. Good use is made of matte paintings and models.

Not So Good Stuff: The opening sequence has to be seen to be believed. Chicks in silver lycra writhing around on a big Buck Rogers logo while the theme song is warbled over the top. I have to admit I have a certain perverse fascination with it. YouTube it and prepare to be amazed. They canned it when the actual series started.

The fact that everything and everyone Buck had ever known is dead and gone is touched upon briefly then dropped. A whole lot more time should have been spent on this.

Overall: This is a lot of fun. Don't walk in expecting Citizen Kane and you'll have a good time: 9 out of 10.

Planet of the Slave Girls
Writers: Steve Greenberg, Aubrey Solomon and Cory Applebaum
Guest starring: Buster Crabbe as Brigadier Gordon, Roddy McDowall as Gov. Saroyan, Jack Palance as Kaleel

The Plot: The defense squadron's food supply is being poisoned. This has been traced to Kaleel, a cult leader who has been selling slaves to the governor of Vistula. When Wilma is captured, Buck has to join forces with her old boyfriend, Duke Danton, before Kaleel can send his secret fleet to attack Earth, now that the defense squadron has virtually been depleted to nothing.

Good Stuff: Buster freaking Crabbe! The original Buck Rogers is here, flying his ship, tossing off wisecracks and still looking like he could kick the ass of any three men in the room. And he's called Brigadier Gordon, in reference to the other great serial hero he played.

Not So Good Stuff: Jack Palance sucks, kind of. He's chewing that scenery like it's his last meal.

This so did not need to be a two-hour movie.

There's an OJ Simpson reference. Weird.

Overall: Long, but fun. Excellent for those of you who need to get your "Gil Gerard in gold lamι" fix: 8 out of 10.

Disc one only has two movies on it (which equate to four episodes), but it's got the original theatrical pilot. Even before I finish the rest of the series, I'm going to suggest that you watch this. "Planet of the Slave Girls" is okay, too, and not the worst way I've ever spent a night.

Disc Two
Vegas in Space
Writer: Anne Collins
Guest starring: Cesar Romero as Armat

The Plot: Buck is sent to the gambling world of Sinaloa to rescue a woman kidnapped by ruler Velosi, who could use her to get information on her boss, a crime lord who's also the Joker from Batman.

Good Stuff: In one scene, while telling a story about a trip he took to Vegas with some friends, it hits Buck that all his friends are dead. It's good to see them pay some attention to this fairly important aspect.

Between the costumes, lighting and set, I was strongly reminded of Marvel Comics from the 1970s. Don't ask me why, but it really has that vibe.

Not So Good Stuff: Apparently, in the 25th century, everyone is borderline retarded. The most difficult game in the universe is blackjack, because no one can count to 21 without taking off their shoes and pants. Buck wins close to 10,000 credits because his 20th century wiles allow him to figure out not to hit on 19.

Overall: Meh. Even for this show, this episode is like getting punched in the face with a disco ball, and everyone is just so stupid: 5.5 out of 10.

The Plot to Kill a City
Writer: Alan Brennert
Guest starring: Frank Gorshin as Kellogg

The Plot: Buck goes to Aldebaran undercover as Rafael Argus to infiltrate the Legion of Death, a league of superpowered assassins plotting to destroy New Chicago, led by a crimelord who's also the Riddler from Batman.

Good Stuff: James Sloyan is a lot of fun as Black Barney, a fast-talking pirate Buck runs into in his travels and a holdover from the comic strip.

Frank Gorshin manages to get through two entire episodes without once breaking into his Riddler laugh. He's actually pretty restrained.

Quince, as played by John Quade, is an interesting character: a telekinetic criminal who gives Buck an especially difficult time. Even better is Anthony James as Kellogg's disfigured servant, Varek; he has a great voice and physical presence.

Not So Good Stuff: Nothing specifically. Oh, except for one piece near the end where Buck is flying his fighter and he's sitting in front of a blue screen. As in, they forgot to put in the background, and Gil Gerard is sitting with a big blue curtain behind him. (I fucking hate Twiki, in case I forget to mention it.)

Overall: This isn't bad. Gerard is having fun, the villains of the week are suitably evil and the threat is a good one: 8.5 out of 10.

The Return of the Fighting 69th
Writer: David Bennett Carren
Guest starring: Peter Graves as Major Noah Cooper

The Plot: Members of the retired 69th Squadron come to the aid of Wilma and Buck as they go against former gunrunners who look to poison the Earth's atmosphere.

Good Stuff: Erin Gray is starting to find her voice as Col. Deering. She's sounding a lot more confident here.

The 69th are in their old uniforms, which look realistically like an older model of the uniforms worn by Buck and Wilma. Nice touch.

Any show that has a woman with a bionic flamethrower-hand can't be all bad.

Gil Gerard busts out his flying scissor kick. It's kind of awesome and totally hilarious, all at the same time.

Not So Good Stuff: Oh, old people and your crazy shenanigans! You weren't actually allowed to say "I'm getting too old for his shit" in 1979, but it's there in spirit.

Roxanne Trent's bad eye job has had a bad eye job. She's supposed to be hideous because of her bionic hand, but her facelift has done the trick just fine.

Okay, henchmen of the universe, I'm going to help you out: if the hot chick in the cell you're guarding suggests that you unlock the cell so that the two of you (or, even better, the two of you and the other two guards in the room) can get to know each other better — especially if the guy she's locked in there with is encouraging you to get in there and get some of that — do not let her out! She is not going to have sex with you. She's going to kick you in the stomach and steal your uniform. Henchmen fall for this all the time — so don't feel bad — but this has to stop.

Overall: This is okay, but kinda blah. It's an awful lot of talking, and "old people are people too," which, okay, yeah. But it's not terribly exciting, and when someone is trying to destroy the Earth's atmosphere with nerve gas, excitement shouldn't be that hard to generate: 6.5 out of 10.

Disc two has "The Plot to Kill a City", which isn't bad at all. "Fighting 69th" is okay, as well, although "Vegas in Space" kind of blows.

Buckle up, kids. We're just getting started.

Disc Three
Unchained Woman
Writer: Bill Taylor
Guest starring: Jamie Lee Curtis as Jen Burton

The Plot: In exchange for her testimony, Buck breaks into prison to break out the girlfriend of a pirate Earth Defense is trying to put in prison. They are pursued by a relentless, indestructible android.

Good Stuff: The idea is a really cool one.

Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh off Halloween, is quite good here. She's got much more personality than most of the guest actors that come through. Also giving a fun performance is Bert Rosario as Sergio Sanwiler, an information broker who'll take money from anyone who feels like giving it to him.

Tim O'Connor is given some acting to do in this episode

Not So Good Stuff: The relentless indestructible android doesn't have a lot to do. He's a really neat idea, and the few times he gets to do anything he impresses. I suppose "there's not enough of the best thing in it" is not the worst complaint to have.

Overall: I liked this one. It's lower key than it probably should be, but the outdoor locations keep it from being as garish as it usually is, and Gerard and Curtis play off each other really well: 8 out of 10.

(FYI: I heart these episode titles.)

Planet of the Amazon Women
Writers: Michael Richards and Clayton Richards

The Plot: Buck is taken captive on Zantia, a world without men.

Good Stuff: Erin Gray has a lot to do here. It's a good showcase for her.

Not So Good Stuff: Gerard is clearly not into this. He was notoriously unhappy with the tone of the first season, and seems to have mentally checked out of this episode.

Man, there is just no excuse too lame to get Gerard to take his shirt off.

"Thank you for your help, Captain Rogers! We now reward you with sex, which is something men enjoy!" Oy! It's a little on the nose.

Overall: This isn't awful, but it's not great, either. It's kind of dull, actually: 5.5 out of 10.

Cosmic Whiz Kid
Writer: Alan Brennert
Guest starring: Gary Coleman as Hieronymous Fox, Ray Walston as Roderick Zale

The Plot: Hieronymous Fox, a super-genius and president at age 11, is kidnapped.

Good Stuff: Ray Walston was a wonderful character actor, and he lives up to expectations here. He's just a villain of the week, but he injects a lot of personality into it.

This hurts to say, but Gary Coleman... isn't... bad. He's become a punch line, which is unfortunate, but he was wildly popular for a reason: he's an adorable little kid who can ably deliver wisecracks.

Toman the assassin is actually kinda cool. He's from a planet with an extremely high gravity, and the writers actually give that some thought; he's very small and compact, and in the Earth-type environment, he's quite agile and very strong. He absolutely hands Buck his ass.

Not So Good Stuff: Gary Coleman is the ruler of the planet Genesia. 'Nuff said.

No, wait, not 'nuff said. A child is the president. I don't care if he's the smartest kid who ever lived. That's just retarded. If my son were made the leader, there would be no school, Slurpees would be free and there would be a government-mandated cable channel devoted to showing nothing but Avatar: The Last Airbender. That's about as much thought that would go into things. Chaos would reign. And he's, like, scary smart.

How hopeless is everyone in the 25th century that they have to keep unfreezing people from the 20th century and putting them in positions of authority?

Oh, and because I haven't said it in a while, fuck Twiki. Seriously, what were they thinking giving him a helmet that looks like that?

Overall: I took one look at this episode and figured it was going to be miserable. To my surprise, it actually wasn't bad. The guest cast is good, and there's very little filler: 7.5 out of 10.

Escape from Wedded Bliss
Writers: Cory Applebaum and Michael Bryant
Guest starring: Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala

The Plot: Princess Ardala demands Buck's hand in marriage, or she'll destroy the Earth.

Good Stuff: Ardala is always better than no Ardala. Hensley is perfect as the haughty and spoiled princess, who's totally and irredeemably evil, but has genuinely fallen for Buck.

Buck engages in a gladiatorial-style duel with Tigerman, Ardala's enforcer. This sort of thing is a staple of space opera, and I'm glad to see it get a nod. It's actually pretty cool, for the entire two minutes that it's on.

Not So Good Stuff: Roller disco! Fucking roller disco! A lot of fucking roller disco!

So, Buck's response to Ardala's ultimatum is to go on a road trip with Twiki. What this means, naturally, is that there's altogether too much Twiki going on here.

There's a new actor playing Kane; he's much lower key than Henry Silva, who was in the pilot. He's a little bland and much more likely to go along with whatever Ardala has going on, which makes him a lot less interesting.

Overall: Groan. There is virtually no reason to watch this episode. It's dull and joyless, and although it does start to pick up about five minutes before it ends, there's at least 300% more roller disco than the human mind should ever have to endure: 4 out of 10.

Disc three starts off well with "Unchained Woman" and has the decent "Cosmic Whiz Kid" (I know, I was shocked too), but also has the less enjoyable "Planet of the Amazon Women" and the fairly crappy "Escape from Wedded Bliss." There are other discs that are better worth your time.

We're halfway through the first season, and about a third of the way through the series as a whole; things started off pretty strong, and are beginning to slide downhill. I'm starting to get discouraged. However, there are some episodes coming up that actually look sort of decent. Remain positive; I'll be back next week.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :

Part One: discs one through three
Part Two: discs four through six
Part Three: discs seven through ten

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