|A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series, part two
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1979-1981
By Dan Toland
01 May 2008 — Know your history: the character of Anthony Rogers appeared for the first time in Phillip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon 2419 AD," a story which was published in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. As a (decidedly amateur) student of the history of science fiction, I can attest to having read this story (as well as its sequel, "The Airlords of Han," which appeared seven months later), and while it is indescribably important as a milestone of science fiction, with some amazing ideas and imaginative concepts, it's also fairly crudely written, and bears the unfortunate reality of being a part of the Yellow Peril mindset which was so prevalent in pre-war pulp fiction. Passing out in a disused coal mine outside Scranton, PA in 1927 (due to the presence of certain "radioactive gases"), World War I veteran Anthony Rogers awakens in 2419 to a world which has been overthrown by the Mongol Empire of the Han after the second World War weakened the world's defenses in 2109. Americans have been divided into barely organized gangs that are kept separated and overrun via the use of the Han's great airships — fitted with disintegrator beams. Naturally, Rogers uses his wartime experience to give the Han what for, and is made leader of the Pennsylvania gang. Within a matter of months, Nowlan took his creation to the comic pages, creating the first science fiction comic strip and one of the two first serialized strips (having debuted on 07 January 1929, the same day as Tarzan). While at first the strip serialized the events of "Armageddon," the stories quickly turned to outer space and rocketships, creating what would become known as "space opera," and the character, now referred to as "Buck" Rogers, was well on his way to becoming one of the most famous characters of the 20th century, predating Lester Dent's Doc Savage, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Siegel and Shuster's Superman by several years; among important sci-fi characters, only Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars can lay a realistic claim to be older and still in the public consciousness.
And as a side note: in a story highly reminiscent of far too many of the time, to this day, the character of Buck Rogers is owned not by the estate of creator Phil Nowlan, but the family of John Dille — the president of the company that ran the comic strip. These owners include Lorraine Dille Williams, the president of TSR, Inc. She instigated the creation of the Buck Rogers XXVC role-playing game, and eventually killed the company before selling it to Wizards of the Coast. She co-owns the character with her brother, Flint Dille. He's a screenwriter who wrote all kinds of cartoons for Marvel Studios in the 1980s (such as Transformers, GI Joe and Inhumanoids), and he co-wrote the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer video game.
Earth-2.net: Schooling your unruly ass.
Five decades later, Buck, now sporting the real first name "William," arrived on the small screen in the show we began discussing last week. Campy and silly, but still awfully fun, the series began with a fairly strong movie, but to slowly got weaker. Due in large part to the well-publicized complaining of star Gil Gerard, who wanted Buck to be more serious, the outrageous cheesiness and sense of fun began to turn into a generically flat 1970s sci-fi show. He would eventually get his wish, but not before the first season continued to pit Buck and Wilma against space pirates and alien princesses.
Cruise Ship to the Stars
Writers: Michael Bryant and Cory Applebaum
The Plot: Buck is aboard the luxury liner Lyran Queen to protect Miss Cosmos (yeah, I know), a genetically perfect specimen who's become the target of a kidnapper.
Good Stuff: The main villain of the episode is a decent Jekyll and Hyde riff. She's really sweet and innocent in her "good" form, and appropriately evil and bitchy when she's got her "evil" thing going (along with enormous crimped hair). And the douchebag boyfriend wears a pink and lavender windbreaker — from the future!
There's something about Alison (Jekyll). I want to make her some soup and tell her it's going to be okay.
Not So Good Stuff: "Beauty contests are much more sophisticated in the 25th century." Nice try.
Holy home perm, Wilma!
There's another Twiki. A girl Twiki. A girl Twiki who chirps, "Booty-booty-booty." They have a conversation. It goes a little something like this:
Girl Twiki: Booty-booty-booty!
Girl Twiki: Booty-booty-booty!
Girl Twiki: Booty-booty-booty!
Me: SHUT UP! SHUT UP! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SHUT THE HELL UP!
Ack! More disco. At least everyone kept their roller skates at home this week.
Overall: I'm giving this episode a lot of crap, but it's actually not bad. The bad guys are pretty charismatic and give Buck and the gang a run for their money: 7.5 out of 10. (It would be higher, but it alluded to Twiki having sex, which in turn made me think about Twiki having sex, and I can't forgive that.)
Writers: Kathleen Barnes and David Wise
The Plot: A derelict spaceship crashes into Theta Station, its crew wiped out by a vampire-like creature called the Vorvon — and Wilma may be next.
Good Stuff: This is the first attempt at a non-human character (other than an elephant-nosed woman Buck accidentally hit on, before he realized she was hideous, in the first couple of episodes). It's branching out.
Twiki sucks ass, but Mel Blanc does not. Buck has to pick Twiki up and carry him down a set of stairs, and Blanc lets loose with a little "Whee!" It's pretty awesome.
There's a very claustrophobic tone to this episode. They're trapped in the station with no way off, with a monster capable of killing them at any time.
I heart evil Wilma.
Not So Good Stuff: The vampire just gives me the giggles every time I see it. It's preposterous.
Overall: This is a great "base under siege" story that was hurt by an absolutely ridiculous-looking monster. It's a shame, because otherwise I really enjoyed this one: 8 out of 10.
Happy Birthday, Buck
Writer: Martin Pasco
The Plot: Buck's birthday — the big 5-3-4 — rolls around, and he gets incredibly depressed at remembering everything he's lost. Meanwhile, a criminal from Dr. Huer's past returns, intent on revenge.
Good Stuff: In the pilot, Buck happened across his parents' grave, decided it was interesting, and went to go look for something else to do. Finally we get him to really act the way he should have all along.
Dr. Huer, on being asked to wear a party hat: "I most certainly will not. Colonel, there will soon be dozens of Security Directorate agents swarming through the building and guarding the entrance downstairs. Perhaps it's academic, but if by some small chance an assassin does get into the building after me, I will not be murdered wearing a blue-and-white plastic cone on my head." It's the single most sensible thing anyone has ever said on this show.
Not So Good Stuff: Are these people seriously worrying about how a threat on Dr. Huer's life is going to disrupt Buck's freaking surprise party?
I call bullshit. No way is Buck just now turning 30 (all right, 534). He's closer to 40.
Buck gets philosophical: "You're never more nostalgic than for the things you once knew and have no more." Um, Buck? That's what "nostalgic" means.
During a starfighter chase, the alien ships even sound like TIE Fighters. Oh, Larson. (The aliens use recycled Planet of the Apes masks, though. That's kinda neat.)
Master of Disguise! Lord of Illusion! A man who can bury himself so deep into society as to render himself invisible:
Overall: This is an adequate episode, for lack of a better word, that has a few good moments. It's okay: 7 out of 10.
A Blast for Buck
Writer: Richard Nelson
The Plot: A big yo-yo gives Buck a limerick, so Huer puts on a clip show. Honest to God.
Good Stuff: Thanks to "Planet of the Slave Girls," there are some awesome scenes of space combat, which have been in short supply for quite a while. Of course, you could see more of these same scenes in their proper context by actually watching "Planet of the Slave Girls."
Not So Good Stuff: A dozen episodes in and we're "treated" to a clip show — with a really bonehead framing device, at that.
Overall: Don't waste your time. It was one thing back before VCRs and limited access to old episodes, but there's no reason to watch this now: 1 out of 10.
Disc four isn't bad. Except for the clip show, which undoubtedly breaks Ape Law, these are three fairly solid episodes. It's a step up from the last disc.
Writers: Chris Bunch and Larry Stewart
Guest starring: Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
The Plot: Ardala has a new plan to ensnare Buck: she makes a copy of a 20th century ship, and when Buck arrives to investigate, Kane traps him and makes android duplicates.
Good Stuff: They caught Gerard on a good day. He's clearly putting some thought and effort into his performance. Oh, he's still a wooden plank. But he's trying. And his performance as the android Buck is hysterical.
Hensley is back as Ardala, and she makes her a multidimensional character, which can't always be said on this show; again, Ardala is evil and wants nothing more than to either conquer or destroy the Earth. But she loves Buck, and it crushes her that he won't return her affections.
Yay! Starfighter dogfights! It's been way too long.
Not So Good Stuff: There's an assload of Twiki in this one. In fact, the "Buck and Twiki Show" really gets rolling with this episode. And when I say that, you can assume that most of the episodes for the rest of the season will have Buck and Twiki having adventures, while Wilma stays home and handles library duty. That sucks.
Henchmen of the universe, I'm going to help you out again. If you've just watched the prisoner you're guarding take out two soldiers with something called a "stun stick," it's generally a bad idea to let him walk slowly across the room, stick in hand, while you stand still and do nothing. Chances are excellent he's not going to be looking for someone to give him a congratulatory fist pound for the great job he did of beating up some of your fellow soldiers. No, he will probably be looking to hit you in the face with the selfsame stun stick. Several times.
DO NOT SHOOT THE NUCLEAR BOMB!
Overall: I liked this. It's cheesy and weird, but between Gerard's performance as Android Buck (which is like regular Buck, only completely retarded), and the emotional moments Hensley has as Ardala, this is a fairly decent episode: 8 out of 10.
Twiki is Missing
Writer: Jaron Summers
The Plot: While a giant "spaceberg" made from frozen oxygen is on a collision course with Earth, threatening to ignite the atmosphere, the ruler of a mining colony kidnaps Twiki to work in the mines. (Yay!)
Good Stuff: Twiki's missing! (Yay!) He doesn't turn up at all until about a third of the way into the episode.
The spaceberg plot is an interesting idea.
Not So Good Stuff: Twiki is not actually missing. (Boo!)
What's the best way to illustrate someone using their psychokinetic powers? Jazz hands!
Twiki is floating in space at one point (which is awesome), and Buck rescues him (which is not), but how did Buck get him inside his fighter without, you know, depressurizing the cockpit and blowing Buck into open space? (Just a TV show, I know.)
If an evil genius calls you and says, "I kidnapped someone! They will die horribly, unless you hand over your toaster!" What do you do? Does it even take an entire second to decide to just hand over the toaster? Fuck Twiki. And fuck Dr. Huer for not immediately trading the mechanical object for the actual human life. Oh, this episode makes me so angry.
The way the "spaceberg crashing into the Earth" situation is resolved is just too stupid to be believed. It's rushed something fierce, kind of like how on TNG Picard would look at the clock about five minutes before the show was over and say, "Crap! We're going to run out of episode soon!"
Overall: Seriously, fuck Twiki. The writer takes a perfectly good idea (like Twiki being exiled to work in a mine, never again seeing the light of day), and comes up with 45 minutes of total garbage: an extremely generous 2.5 out of 10.
Writer: Craig Buck
The Plot: Buck is the guest of honor at the 2492 Olympic Games, where he meets an athlete who wants to defect to the Earth.
Good Stuff: Some of the sci-fi Olympic events are kinda cool. Most of them are cheesy and stupid, but to the show's credit, Buck's reactions to them are the same as mine.
Buck shows some ingenuity in escaping from the bad guys.
Not So Good Stuff: The Olympic Games of the 25th century are held in what appears to be my high school gymnasium.
IMDB confirmed my suspicions: Judith Chapman, the actress playing Lara, is a soap opera actress. She's hyper-emotional and melodramatic, with lots of breathy pauses and eyes glistening.
Overall: This is a slow episode, with a lot of talking and explaining, and not a lot of actually doing anything. It's kinda bland, and there's no real sense of danger coming from anyone: 4.5 out of 10.
A Dream of Jennifer
Writer: Alan Brennert
The Plot: Buck meets a woman who resembles the girlfriend he left behind in the 20th century.
Good Stuff: This is, naturally enough, a very emotional episode for Buck. Attempting to help him, Dr. Huer has some nice moments, as well.
Up to this point, Gerard has generally played Buck as being flippant and not taking anything very seriously (which fits the tone of the series). There's a lot of pathos to his role here, and he brings it to the table fairly well. The episode is written better than average, too.
The producers have the good sense to keep this episode relatively Twiki-free.
Not So Good Stuff: Mardi Gras is awfully lame in the 25th century.
Women generally fall for Buck pretty quickly, but here it's ridiculous: "I'm evil! Hello, Buck! No, wait! I'm good now!"
You really shouldn't get to play the "we're not evil, just misunderstood" card after you've cackled your way through your ingenious scheme to kidnap someone.
Overall: This is an emotionally powerful episode that is much better than it has any right to be. It's not perfect — the head bad guy was kind of irritating — but it's very good: 8 out of 10.
Disc five is very uneven: "Ardala Returns" and "A Dream of Jennifer" are both very good, "Olympiad" is totally mediocre and "Twiki is Missing" gives me hives. Oh, but I do hate Twiki so.
Writers: Chris Bunch and Allan Cole
Guest starring: Jerry Orbach as Lars Mangros
The Plot: The manager of rock group Andromeda plans to send a signal through the band's music that will incite the galaxy's youth to riot.
Good Stuff: Lennie Briscoe is in this! Lennie says lines like, "Just a little longer, and the galaxy is mine!" Also, Richard Moll (Bull Shannon from Night Court, Two-Face in Batman: The Animated Series) is his henchman.
While Andromeda should by no means be mistaken for a good band, it's the first time music has been played in this series that wasn't disco. (Well, not totally disco. It's still 1980.)
Not So Good Stuff: Andromeda's costumes are absolutely humiliating. They look like Teletubbies. I honestly feel bad for the actors.
Buck: Sounds like the Beatles.
Wilma: The who?
Buck: No, not the Who. The Beatles.
Also, no, Buck, they sound nothing like the Beatles.
This signal incites everyone who hears it to try to kill anyone in his / her area — except Buck? What?
Overall: Read the plot. This episode is every bit as cheeseball as you'd imagine. This series is pretty campy to begin with, but this is Batman campy. Only the presence of Lennie Briscoe keeps this even kind of watchable: 4.5 out of 10.
Buck's Duel to the Death
Writer: Robert W. Gilmer
The Plot: Buck tries to liberate a peaceful world from an alien warlord, free some prisoners, wrestle a bear and eat a 72-ounce steak. (Some of those I made up.)
Good Stuff: The art direction is kinda cool. The various buildings and outcroppings on the planet Katar are obviously glass matte paintings and models, but aesthetically they look neat. And the clouds (which are red... ooh!) are actually moving behind everything, which in 1980 was usually just not done.
This is probably the first episode where Buck being from the 20th century was actually an asset that allowed him to figure something out that no one else could. Took them long enough!
Not So Good Stuff: Maybe I fell asleep, or experienced lost time while the aliens had me, but as far as I can tell, Buck mounts a rescue mission, goes inside the villain's stronghold and comes back out again maybe a minute later with all the prisoners. The episode doesn't actually, you know, show us anything.
Twiki in a cowboy hat! Twiki in a cowboy hat!
Overall: This episode was okay. This isn't something I'd hunt for, but I'd probably watch it if it was on TV: 6.5 out of 10.
Flight of the War Witch
Writers: Robert W. Gilmer and William Mageean
Guest starring: Julie Newmar as Zarina, Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
The Plot: Buck is trapped in another universe, where he tries to save the planet Pendar from the war witch, Zarina. Who's also Catwoman from Batman.
Good Stuff: As Buck gets ready to go to another universe, fully aware he might not come back, Wilma and Huer share an excellent farewell scene with him. In fact, Huer and Wilma have quite a lot to do in this story, which is something that's been missing for a while.
Hensley makes her final appearance as Ardala, and as always, she's a trip.
Sid "Captain Spaulding" Haig is here as Zarina's chief torturer.
Not So Good Stuff: Tigerman, Ardala's bodyguard, apparently couldn't make it today. His replacement is Pantherman, who... no. Just no. He achieves new levels of ridiculousness that have yet to be approached. First of all, he looks like he could beat the living bejeezus out of an aircraft carrier. Dude is huge. So they decided to dress him in a leather Speedo and a prison-porn mustache. And nothing else. He wasn't using that dignity, anyway.
Pendar has an energy shield consisting of movies of lizards. You cannot make this up.
She manages not to say "Purrrr-fect," but otherwise Newmar is playing Catwoman here.
Overall: This is longer than it needs to be, but it's a very pulpy, Saturday-morning serial type of story. The first season finishes up with the same type of story it started off telling, and got away from for a while: 7 out of 10.
Disc six has a couple of episodes which are fairly decent ("War Witch," "Duel to the Death") and "Space Rockers," which is pretty dreary. There's enjoyment to be had on this disc.
We've gotten through the first season. It was campy, cheesy and very dated, but this really is a fun show if you can get into the appropriate mindset. Gil Gerard was quite vocal about his unhappiness with all the lightheartedness, and when we look at the abbreviated second season (more like a half-season), we'll see the status quo change dramatically, a herd of new characters* and, for all intents and purposes, virtually a brand new show.
* The action figure of one is, to the best of my knowledge, still stuck in a rain gutter on my roof. Back then, a viable way to spend an afternoon was to throw him up in the air over and over again.
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Part One: discs one through three
Part Two: discs four through six
Part Three: discs seven through ten
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