Return to the 25th Century: Buck Rogers Revisited

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!

Like a lot of kids in Great Britain in 1979, I didn’t initially realise that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a TV series. It was common practise in Europe for feature-length episodes of expensive and popular American shows to be given a cinema release; I saw everything from Battlestar Galactica to The Amazing Spider-Man on the big screen and it didn’t strike me as anything unusual. The first I knew about Buck Rogers wider existence was when I read about it in an issue of Marvel UK’s Starburst magazine (like a British version of Starlog, but cheaper). Of course, not much later it appeared on TV, on the ITV network on a Saturday – directly opposite Doctor Who! In the days before domestic video recording (not long before, but it may as well have been 500 years), this posed a mighty dilemma for many young sci-fi fans and I’m ashamed to admit that, for several weeks, I did stray to the side of the flashy American series over the well-worn British institution.

These days, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is regarded as a kind of harmless kitsch that it’s okay to be a fan of. It wasn’t always thus, however; in the 1990s, when sci-fans took themselves incredibly seriously and BBC2 scheduled reruns of the series in the same 6pm slot inbetween seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, fans railed that this was silly, dated nonsense by comparison to the new adventures of the USS Enterprise. It didn’t really come with any love at all; its child fans from the 80s had grown to adulthood and were rocking up to sci-fi conventions in trench coats in a vain attempt to look like Fox Mulder. Battlestar Galactica, from the same stable and sharing many of the same props and costumes, was taken a little more seriously because it was considered ‘dark’ (though, on rewatch, it isn’t really) but the shiny, colourful adventures of Buck and his chums were horribly passé and no-one really wanted to know about it.

I was aware of Buck Rogers before the TV series came about, because the BBC used to habitually show all those old Buster Crabbe serials during the school holidays because they were cheap (or possibly free) to broadcast. In fact, when Buster himself turns up in an episode of  Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as the cheekily named Brigadier Gordon (referring to his other well-known 1940s role Flash Gordon) I knew who he was and I got the joke. I think I vaguely knew that it had started life as a newspaper serial, having probably been told by my Uncle, who was a big film fan from back in the day, but it wasn’t until I got the 1981 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century annual that I got to really understand; short of new material for the book, it padded out its content with a 1930s Buck Rogers comic strip. I still rather enjoyed it though; even at 11 years old, it was fun to compare the 30s Buck Rogers, all jet-packs and flying-helmets, with his more modern equivalent.

In the 1979 TV series, Buck Rogers was played by Gil Gerard. In TV series of the 70s and 80s, it’s often quite easy to see the Hollywood ‘type’ that the casting director was going for; a Clint Eastwood type, a Paul Newman type etc. Gil Gerard is a Burt Reynolds type; though lacking the moustache, he was a former college Football player (as was Reynolds) and easily picks up the flirty, wise-cracking style of the movie star. He’s a distinct, and possibly deliberate, move away from the square-jawed all-American Flash Gordon and fits in perfectly with the subtly sexy feel of the show. There seems to be a deliberate contrast between this and Battlestar Galactica, being produced by the same company at the same time, with Galactica being sombre and a bit more serious, whereas Buck Rogers hits you straight away with a kind of disco era sex appeal engendered by Princess Ardala wearing next to nothing and Colonel Wilma Deering fully covered up but in costumes so tight they leave little to the imagination.

Erin Gray plays Colonel Deering and, according to legend, she initially chose to leave after the pilot film, but changed her mind and stayed to the end of the series. Watching the series back, it’s interesting to note how many episodes barely feature her, particularly towards the end of the first season; in many, she appears in the opening and closing scenes with aged administrator Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor) and robot helper Twiki (voiced by Looney Tunes veteran Mel Blanc) but then fades away for most of the episode, while Buck is off on an adventure with guest-disco-chick-of-the-week. It’s a shame because she’s really very good and plays the part admirably straight; she might look like she’s just stepped out of Studio 54 on many occasions, but she plays the part as a hard-nosed military veteran and she certainly takes no nonsense from old horndog Buck. Her relationship with Buck is not so much will-they-won’t-they as they-almost-certainly-are-but-we’re-not-about-to-show-you-in-a-family-series, but it never gets in the way of a good adventure story and her general demeanour is one of really liking Buck but find him absolutely infuriating.

Twiki is a product of the Star Wars legacy, which decreed that all science fiction films or series must have an amusing robot for comedy effect. To be honest, he’s one of the more successful entries into that trend, taking an active part in many of the episodes and never becoming a hindrance like Galactica’s Muffet. He’s modelled to look like a small boy, but his 1970s bowl-cut shaped head is often mocked by the dirty minded as looking unintentionally phallic. He serves an actual purpose in the early episodes as the assistant to slab-like computer councillor Dr. Theopolis, but seems to much prefer hanging out with Buck, from whom he picks up many bad habits. Mel Blanc’s vocalisation of Twiki as a slightly sleazy innocent is his saving grace and stops him from being merely cutesy. In the second series (of which more later), he briefly switches to being voiced by Bob Elyea in squeaky Mickey Mouse style tones, which sounds just awful, but the producers eventually come to their senses and bring back Mel Blanc.

The physical performance of Twiki is from diminutive actor and stuntman Felix Silla and despite being stuck in a very restrictive costume, he manages to put in a distinctive and characterful performance; so much so that in the episodes Space Vampire and A Blast for Buck, when Twiki’s ‘body’ is briefly played by actress Patty Maloney (who played Twiki’s love interest Tina in Cruise Ship to the Stars), it’s quite clear from the body language that it’s a different performer inside the suit. Unlike a lot of 70s sci-fi robots, Twiki is more mobile – he can run (which even C-3PO couldn’t manage), negotiate uneven ground and climb to a limited degree, so it’s unfair when people criticise the character and the costume. As robots of that particular era go, Twiki is an artistic success. He even had his own catchphrase: BIDDI-BIDDI-BIDDI.

Although it borrows from Battlestar Galactica and other sources (a sin both series are guilty of), it’s clear that Universal put quite a bit of money into Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. There are some impressive and interesting guest stars: Frank Gorshin, Caesar Romero, Julie Newmar (was someone a Batman fan?), Gary Coleman, Jack Palance, Peter Graves, Woody Strode, Roddy McDowell, Robert Hardy, a young Jamie Leigh Curtis and tragic starlet Dorothy Stratten, as well as Wilfred Hyde-White (and his son Alex Hyde-White) cropping up as regulars in the second series. The visual effects on the first series are pretty impressive, though it does have a tendency to reuse them as the series goes on; as a cost-saving measure, it’s pretty effective – you have a spaceship banks left, spaceship banks right, spaceship flies into stargate etc. in stock, so you don’t have to go the expense of filming them again and again. The ‘Thunderfighter’ is also a pretty awesome design, less obviously based on a Star Wars X-Wing than Galactica’s Colonial Vipers, but with an inexplicable ability to expand in size to seat as many people as the story dictates.

Although the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was popular with viewers, the new producers on the second series decided to inexplicably re-tool it as a Star Trek clone. So, instead of protecting New Chicago on Earth, Buck, Wilma and Twiki are now travelling the universe in the starship Searcher, which looks like 2001’s USS Discovery that’s been hit with a lump-hammer. Out go Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis and in come Admiral Asimov (oh dear), Dr. Goodfellow and Hawk, an alien bird man who’s a sort of cross between Spock and Tonto. Ship’s scientist Dr. Goodfellow is played by veteran British comic actor Wilfred Hyde-White, whose rambling delivery gives the impression he’s never providing more than a vague approximation of the scripted line. He has a plummy-voiced robot assistant called Crichton; a clumsy prop with a telescopic neck and arms that seem only capable of rising into a snooty hands-on-hips pose.

Although it has adopted a superficially Star Trek ethic, a lot of the stories in season two have quite a fantasy feel, with mystics and mythological creatures being the order of the day, which works against the premise. Hawk is quite an interesting character and very well played by Thom Christopher, but neither he nor Buck seem to serve any practical function aboard the Searcher, apart from being sent on every single away mission. They still fare better than Wilma though, who has the ignominy of going from a high-ranking member of Earth’s security forces to a mini-skirted navigator aboard the Searcher. If she was sidelined in some episodes of the first season, than that goes double for the second! This is the problem with a lot of the characters in the second series of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, they exist without having much to do. Stripped of his function as an ‘ambuquad’ for Dr. Theopolis, Twiki just wanders around the place sparring with Chrichton, and Dr. Goodfellow frequently just drifts in at the end of an episode to say, “You’ve all done very well, ha-ha-ha.”

One thing the second season rarely gets credit for are the special effects, which are actually rather good. Hawk’s bird-shaped spaceship looks pretty spectacular when it deploys its razor-sharp claws and the Searcher, as ugly a model as it is, is very nicely filmed. The design of Searcher’s interiors are dreadful though, going from the gleaming white of New Chicago to a dowdy colour scheme of beige and brown that looks for all the world like a cut-price 1980s hotel chain. The crew costumes look as though they might have been borrowed from The Love Boat, though Wilma occasionally gets back into one of her season one catsuits and Buck mostly wears what appears to be a Battlestar Galactica Colonial warrior’s uniform, sometimes in powder blue. There’s little sense of synergy between the design elements, which is why season two looks such a mess. It was cancelled mid-season after just 13 episodes and is largely unloved by cast and fans alike.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a product of its time. If you made the series today and adopted today’s music, fashions and attitudes, that would eventually end up looking every bit as dated. But it’s a lot of fun and was never really intended to be taken seriously. When Glen A. Larson was making Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century at the same time, Galactica was the serious series and Buck Rogers was the fun series and although those definitions blurred a little as both shows progressed, it’s still pretty much the way people see them today. For all its many faults, the second series of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century never sank to the same low as Galactica 1980 and that’s something for which we should be grateful. When Battlestar Galactica was revived in the mid-2000s, it was more serious than ever and I’d like to think that if Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was ever revived, it would be more fun than ever. Some things just don’t work as a ‘dark’ vision and I’m pretty sure this is one of them; Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was light, fun and sexy and that’s the way it ought to stay.

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