A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series, part three
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1979-1981
By Dan Toland
08 May 2008 When Buck Rogers returned for its second season in the winter of 1981 (delayed by a writer's strike), the producers heard lead actor Gil Gerard's pleas. For months, Gerard had decried the campy tone and over-the-top pulpishness of the first season. More important, however, were the behind-the-scenes shifts; series creator Glen A. Larson was out, replaced by new executive producer John Mantley, known best for his work on Westerns like Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won. The end result was a vastly different show. No longer part of the Earth Defense Directorate, Buck, Wilma and Twiki had taken positions aboard the Searcher, a starship (which looks like a cross between the Rebel Blockade Runner and the Discovery from 2001) on a quest to find the 12 lost tribes of Earth (people who had fled the planet at the onset of the holocaust), with new regulars Wilfrid Hyde-White as Dr. Goodfellow (a scientist who looks like he's minutes away from his grandkids sending him forcibly to the home), Jay Garner as Admiral Ephraim Asimov (a distant descendant of science fiction icon Isaac Asimov) and Jeff Davis as the voice of Crichton (an insufferably stuffy and egomaniacal robot). Above all, this season saw the introduction of Hawk, last of the Birdmen, as played by Thom Christopher. Gone was Tim O'Connor as Dr. Huer and Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala, as well as any real connection to the "man out of time" concept which, admittedly, was not really adhered to all that much before. The series had abandoned the goofy tone and disco staging, and was now a much more straightforward sci-fi / adventure program in the mold of Star Trek. It didn't take; fans of the first season (which was a monster hit for NBC) were turned off by the sharp change in tone and abandoned the series in droves, and it failed to attract new viewers. The series was cancelled halfway through the second season.
I didn't think it was possible. I really didn't. I thought that one particular situation was as dire as it could possibly get, but it gets so much worse: apparently, it is possible to make Twiki suck even more. How do you do this? You replace Mel Blanc, a titan in voice acting, with someone who sounds like Hermie the Elf. You know, the one who wanted to be a dentist. I just can't figure it out. Twiki's whole character is different; he had been a grumpy wiseass with a suitcase full of wacky catchphrases, and now sounds like he's leading into the big end of a musical number with every line. Man, Twiki sucks no matter what you do with him. At least they toned him down for this season. Pretty significantly, actually.
Time of the Hawk
Writer: Norman Hudis
The Plot: After the massacre of his village, Hawk swears vengeance against all humans and proceeds to embark on a campaign to destroy any human who crosses his path. This does not go unnoticed by the crew of the Searcher, and Buck goes to find him.
Good Stuff: The show's new robot cast member announces himself: "Crichton... is here." I seriously laughed out loud.
Buck is actually pretty smart here. He lays a trap for some toughs who are out to steal his shuttle; rather than just wait for them and assume he can scissor kick his way out, he comes up with a way to get Hawk to come to him, which doesn't involve, well, scissor kicking. Gerard is into this again, and he does a really good job.
There's a very young Dennis Haysbert (24, The Unit) here as the helmsman. He'll pop in and out as the series progresses.
Dr. Goodfellow is the living, breathing personification of the word "doddering," but you really believe he's an excellent scientist with a vivid fascination for the unknown. I've seen the "absentminded professor" character a hundred times, but I honestly believe Goodfellow needs someone to follow him around to ensure he doesn't walk into a propeller. It's a totally natural performance.
Hawk's starfighter is the shit. It's been nearly three decades since, and I still want this toy.
Buck and Hawk have a fairly brutal fight. Gerard isn't Shatner-fighting, all kicks to the chest and rabbit punches; this goes on for a few minutes and Hawk gets in some good ones. It's very well choreographed, and they beat the crap out of each other.
Not So Good Stuff: Wilma has gone from being the commander of Earth's Defense Squadron to a glorified stewardess in a sailor's outfit. That seriously sucks.
They have a new guy giving the opening spiel during the credits ("In the year 1987," etc.), replacing William Conrad, who did the honors the first season. It's a minor thing, but the rewritten opening is really weak and the guy reading it ain't so hot, either.
Hawk and the birdmen have feathers on their heads. It looks like your grandma's shower cap.
When I was a kid, and my hair started to look like Buck's, that was when my mother used to start nagging me about it being time for a haircut.
Overall: I was worried when I heard about this season, but I really liked this. It's a 180-degree turn from the first season; it's less garish, less goofy and less fun, but it's a good example of simple, straightforward sci-fi adventure. Christopher gives a wonderful performance as Hawk, which cements the entire piece: 8.5 out of 10.
Journey to Oasis
Writers: Robert and Esther Mitchell
Guest starring: Mark Lenard as Aram Duvoe
The Plot: Buck, Hawk and Wilma are escorting a visiting ambassador to a peace conference. However, when their shuttle crashes, a war may start unless the ambassador can be brought to the conference in time.
Good Stuff: Mark Lenard in on hand as Ambassador Duvoe, a Zykarian nobleman. Sarek! Woot!
Instead of the "On tonight's Buck Rogers!" preview that ruins a lot of the episode before you get to actually watch it a very common thing for TV at the time this episode has a cold open. This will continue for the rest of the series.
The shuttle crash actually looks pretty good.
This episode is virtually Twiki-free. So, yay!. Felix Silla, the artist inside the Twiki suit, has a role as Odee-X, a little blue guy with the powers of telekinesis, matter transference and plot exposition.
Len Birman is wonderful as Admiral Zeit, the Zykarian field commander. He's being forced into a war he doesn't want, but doesn't betray any of his ambivalence to Admiral Asimov; he's prepared to blow the Searcher out of the sky if he deems it necessary. It's a nuanced performance in a series that doesn't see many of them.
Alex Hyde-White, son of Wilfrid "Dr. Goodfellow" Hyde-White and the future Reed Richards in Roger Corman's version of Fantastic Four, is briefly seen as a technician aboard the Searcher. He'll return off and on for the rest of the series.
Not So Good Stuff: Why is a captain in charge of this mission when a colonel is sitting right there? The equivalent in terms of grade would be like Lt. Worf giving orders and planning strategies while Captain Picard sits quietly in the back, reading his US Weekly, drinking Mr. Pibb, waiting to be told what to do. This will actually become a theme for this entire season.
At one point, Odee-X zaps Hawk, puts him to sleep, then snuggles up next to him and goes to sleep as well. It's five kinds of weird.
Overall: Yeah, this is a Star Trek episode. We've got the brave, rugged leader (Kirk / Buck); the stoic, otherworldly sidekick (Spock / Hawk); the emotional doctor (McCoy / Goodfellow), plus Sarek (Sarek / Sarek). It even has filmed exteriors at Vasquez Rocks and a big rubber plant monster. Every second of this episode feels like an old Trek. That is by no means a bad thing. If you bear that in mind, this is enjoyable: 8 out of 10.
Disc seven gets the second season off to a good start with two solid movies.
Writers: Paul Schneider and Margaret Schneider
The Plot: Buck gets a green box from an old man who looks like Santa, which causes delusions in the minds of the crew.
Good Stuff: Buck has a dream in which it's finally revealed exactly what the hell happened to freeze his ass in the first place.
In many instances, the box actually seems to cause some sort of flash-forward, where the person sees something that may or will happen. Some of them are pretty trippy.
Not So Good Stuff: The actress playing Buck's mother is really not great. She seems to be trying to remember her lines throughout the scene.
In fact, there's a lot of less-than-Emmy-caliber acting going on here.
The story introduces the effects of time dilation as the ship speeds off course and winds up having lost eight months. The ship then continues to go hundreds of light years off course at incredible speeds, and the time dilation effect is now ignored. Einstein, apparently, is for losers.
Overall: It's a story with interesting ideas that isn't totally successful. This is really more of a "watch it if it's on" episode than one you should actively seek out: 7 out of 10.
Mark of the Saurian
Writer: Francis Moss
The Plot: No one believes a virus-addled Buck when he warns them that the VIPs aboard the Searcher are lizards. Lizards, he tells you!
Good Stuff: Buck's not making a lick of sense and pretty much everyone is just chalking it up to the fever, but Wilma's worked with Buck long enough to trust him even though she can't really wrap her mind around his claims. It makes sense for the character.
The Saurian make-up, despite being men in rubber costumes, looks pretty good. It's a good design.
For what might be the first time, Buck's initial plan fails. He has to work at.
There has been less and less Twiki as the season goes on.
Not So Good Stuff: Nothing, really. This is a solid episode.
Random Observations: Dr. Goodfellow is now more or less officially the ship's medical doctor.
Overall: I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. You're really not certain how Buck is getting out of this, leading to real moments of tension: 8 out of 10.
The Golden Man
Writers: Calvin Clement and Stephen McPherson
The Plot: The Searcher rescues a life pod containing a golden-skinned boy, who is searching for an adult member of his race.
Good Stuff: Anthony James (the disfigured Varek from "The Plot to Kill a City") is decent as Graf, the leader of the penal colony on Iris VII.
Not So Good Stuff: Buck's one-piece coverall uniform looks like he's in a pair of footie pajamas.
Oh, this kid is awful. "Oh, I must find him! I must!" Shut up, junior. Come back, Twiki! All is forgiven!
The villagers of Iris VII (who apparently live on the Universal Studios backlot) are apparently descended from a lost colony of inbred play-by-play announcers or Chris Claremont. "Look! He's gold! Look at him now! What's he doing? Why, he's changed the bars into glass! Now what's happening? Why, it looks like he's breaking the bars of glass, which he only recently transformed, and is escaping from the cage! He's running! He's running further! Should we run after him?" I'm 15 minutes in, and I'm not sure I'm going to make it.
Buck's Shatner-fighting is back. It was really fun last season. Now it's dumb.
Overall: This episode sucked hard. It's easily worse than any episode from the first season, with the possible exception of the clip show: 1.5 out of 10.
Writers: Robert and Esther Mitchell
The Plot: Buck, Hawk and Wilma go to a planet to search for crystals that power the Searcher. They're not actually called "dilithium," because Roddenberry's people get a quarter whenever someone says that. They find a really compliant amnesiac girl who's totally into Buck. Oh, and a mummy. Who isn't.
Good Stuff: Well, kind of. Mel Blanc is back as the voice of Twiki. He's brought the "bidi-bidi-bidi" back with him (Hermie the Elf dispensed with it), but he seems to be altogether less obnoxious than he was in the first season. So far.
The girl is played by Amanda Wyss, the very first victim in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.
There's been a uniform redesign. Erin Gray is no longer being forced to wear the sailor costume.
Just as Crichton was starting to lose his novelty, he starts to get awesome again.
Not So Good Stuff: The mummy's really kinda goofy looking. It also looks absolutely nothing like a mummy.
Overall: This episode is mediocre at best. The explanation for the monster of the week is half-baked, we're back to the "female guest star falls instantly in love with Buck" situation and everything goes from bleak to resolved 30 seconds before the closing credits. Oy: 4.5 out of 10.
Disc eight is a mixed bag. I can't recommend ordering this, even though it has the excellent "Mark of the Saurian," what with half of the disc being taken up by crap.
Writers: Paul Schneider and Margaret Schneider
The Plot: Buck and Twiki attempt to rescue the last survivors of a colony destroyed by a plague and terrorized by a goat-man.
Good Stuff: You would absolutely not be allowed to do this nowadays, but the satyr rides some kind of dragon-like creature, which is a horse covered in scaly armor, light-up eyes and something that sprays smoke out its nostrils. The idea is better than the execution, but I still have to give it points for making the attempt.
Gil Gerard said in an interview (I do a lot of research for these things, folks) that he counted this as one of his favorite episodes. I can understand why; he gives a solid performance and gets a chance to stretch his legs.
Not So Good Stuff: Buck and the colonists are being terrorized. By a goat-man.
Aargh! Erin Gray's sailor suit is back. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
Overall: This feels remarkably like a rewritten episode from the first season. It's an incredibly goofy pastiche of Shane, except instead of a cattle baron and his hired gun, it's a guy in fuzzy pants riding a plastic lizard. With that said, there's a lot of pathos and serious themes at work as well, and if you can get past the fairly ridiculous premise you'll enjoy this: 7 out of 10.
Writer: William Keys
The Plot: Wilma Deering and the Seven Dwarfs.
Good Stuff: Well, it might be good, it might not be. This is the single goofiest episode I've seen. Of anything. Ever. I laughed quite a bit, but it's the "I can't believe people got paid for this" kind.
Tony Cox, who I guarantee you've seen in lots of other stuff, owns this episode as Private Zehdt, the only private on a ship full of generals.
Crichton recites Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
Not So Good Stuff: Okay, so Buck and Hawk enter a derelict ship, and are set upon by a bunch of little people in Napoleon costumes shooting popguns at them. The tone for the episode has now been set. Incidentally, it seems like six of them have some measure of acting ability. Therefore, the one who doesn't has to be the leader who does most of the talking. That's okay, though; he makes up for it by shouting every line.
The visitors have never seen a woman before. They decide they need to examine Wilma. I don't have words for how wrong this scene feels. It's short and doesn't get very far, but there's no way a TV show aimed at kids which this episode assuredly is would ever be allowed to have a scene like this these days.
Overall: This episode about a bunch of dwarves running around the Searcher, acting like drunken monkeys, destroying virtually everything they come across for no real reason is aimed squarely at kids. There's a lot of humor, but it's on the cringe-worthy side: 4.5 out of 10.
The Hand of the Goral
Writer: Francis Moss
The Plot: After Buck, Wilma and Hawk bring a crash survivor aboard the Searcher, the personalities of the crew alter dramatically.
NOTE: Unfortunately, this episode was scratched up pretty badly, and was not playable.
Testimony of a Traitor
Writer: Stephen McPherson
The Plot: A videotape from the 20th century implicates Buck in the holocaust that devastated the Earth, leading to a war crimes trial.
Good Stuff: William Sylvester, the original Heywood Floyd from 2001: A Space Odyssey, appears as General Myers.
Buck is put through the wringer. Some of the flashback scenes are actually pretty exciting.
Unless I'm misremembering, this episode has the only space combat of the entire second season.
Not So Good Stuff: I don't care if it's in a lead box, a Betamax videotape is not surviving a nuclear holocaust.
Crawford, the caretaker of Mount Rushmore, is awfully helpful. "Hello, friend! Welcome to Mount Rushmore! Say, would you like to see the president's top secret hidden bunker?" (They were running out of episode.)
Overall: This is a highlight of the entire series. An Earth setting, some starfighters going at it, Gerard gets to emote, there's a real sense of dread and virtually no Twiki: 8.5 out of 10.
Bearing in mind that I was unable to review "The Hand of Goral" due to technical difficulties, disc nine is home to the superb "Testimony of a Traitor," the highly enjoyable "Mark of the Satyr" and the craptacular "Shgoratchx!" I wouldn't go so far as to call this a disc you should go out of your way to find, but there's some decent stuff on it.
The Dorian Secret
Writer: Stephen McPherson
The Plot: Buck and Hawk rescue a Dorian woman from a disaster, only to find themselves under stack by Dorians who claim the woman is a murderer.
Good Stuff: Just in time for the series to end, Buck busts out his scissor kick!
The Dorians wear masks, and look like Kabuki luchadores. It's a striking design.
Not So Good Stuff: The head Dorian bad guy whose name I don't have in front of me, so I'm going to refer to as Mr. Shouty is really irritating. There's also a passenger named Rand, who is equally (if not more) shouty than Mr. Shouty, and seriously needs to be pushed into an airlock.
Overall: The series ends with a truly irritating episode. The acting is suspect from all corners, there's way too much "volume = emotion" and seemingly no one cares. It's a shame, really: 3.5 out of 10.
And that's it. There's one episode on the last disc. I don't care if it's the finest 45 minutes ever produced for television, I am not recommending that you rent a disc with one episode on it.
Final Verdict: This is almost like two completely different shows. The first season was a very lighthearted, campy series that either tended to be a lot of fun or really bad. The second was much more serious and staid, and rarely went to the lows the first season managed to hit, but also was never really capable of the same level of fun, either. (If we're feeling uncharitable, it went from being a Star Wars rip-off to being a Star Trek rip-off.) So with that said, I'm going to make a pair of recommendations. Rent disc one if you want a feel for the first season: the pilot is very good and "Planet of the Slave Girls" is a blast, plus it has Buster Crabbe in it. Disc seven is a good example of the second season, with "Time of the Hawk," the introduction of the new cast and setting and "Journey to Oasis," which is easily the most Trek-like episode. All of these episodes are actually double-length, so each disc will give you four episodes' worth.