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BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “The Crystals”/”The Satyr” (spoilers)

“The Crystals” is the second episode by Land of the Giants scribes Bob & Esther Mitchell (the first was “Journey to Oasis”), and it features the return of Mel Blanc as Twiki’s voice. Buck, Hawk, and Wilma descend to volcanic/jungle planet Phibocetes (fie-bow-see-teez) to search for dilith – err, thurbidian crystals to refuel the Searcher, which has randomly run out of them and apparently is unable to call galactic AAA for a tow. They find some crystals next to a strange mummy creature buried in volcanic ash, and take them both aboard their shuttle (a new Searcher shuttle mockup/miniature replacing the Galactica shuttle used earlier in the season), but the mummy comes to life, breaks out, and takes the crystals. Hawk and Wilma go back to report and investigate the evidence, and Buck stays behind alone to set up the mining camp overnight. He runs into a blonde beauty (Amanda Wyss) who has no memory or identity and is eager to please him and happy to accept whatever he says as the truth – every “Men’s Rights” type’s ideal woman. Buck names her Laura rather than go with her initial “My name will be Buckrogers too” plan.

On the others’ return (with an all-male mining crew, but at least there’s some ethnic diversity to it), they try to figure out who Laura is, going on Buck’s theory that she’s an amnesiac survivor of a crashed ship, while the Searcher crew mines the crystals. (I just noticed that the name Searcher on the ship’s equipment is written in much the same font that would later be used for the title logo of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) But they get attacked by the mummy creature, which steals the crystals. On the ship, Goodfellow puts Crichton on the task of researching the archives for historical data on Phibocetes, and Twiki complains about Crichton not being a properly obedient “son.” This isn’t explained in the episode, but is a reference to an unmentioned bit of backstory in which Goodfellow and Twiki built Crichton together, so that Twiki considers himself basically Crichton’s mother.

Speaking of parentage, Crichty eventually reports that the archives reveal that the planet’s humanoid inhabitants started out looking like Laura and then degenerated into the mummies, perhaps due to some sort of virus. Laura is very distraught on learning this and rants about how she’d rather die than lose Buckrogers, though Buck convinces her to trust him that everything will be all right. Turns out Crichters made a mistake and reversed the order of the images. Phibocetes was settled by human genetic engineers who replaced pregnancy and childhood with the mummy stage, activated by light through thurbidian crystals to evolve toward the human form with preprogrammed genetic memory. (Seriously, huh?) The colony was Pompeiied by a volcanic eruption, but now the dormant, larval “mummies” buried under the ash are reviving and Laura is the first to reach maturity. Buck gets into a fight with the mummy just in time to tear its outer layers off and reveal the human inside, and the sight awakens Laura’s memory of her true nature, so she’s no longer obsessed with Buckrogers. The crew gathers up their crystals and go off on their merry way while Laura and her new man friend prepare to shepherd their dormant race back into existence.

Okay, for once, we have an episode that isn’t worse than the preceding one, but it’s not that much better. It’s another goofy sci-fi idea without any real message or theme to it, unless it’s something about not judging by appearances. It’s also the second episode in a row where a humanoid breed’s life cycle has been the reverse of what we were led to assume, which made it pretty easy to guess the truth. But it’s a pretty harmless exercise, just hard to swallow in some ways. One thing that bugs me: This is the first episode – indeed, the only one – in which the Searcher actually finds one of the lost human “tribes” it’s looking for, and nobody’s all that interested. Perhaps because everything about the planet is already recorded in the archives anyway, just misplaced. Man, these archives Crichton keeps searching through must be incredibly poorly indexed, or else incredibly massive. The fact that it keeps taking this supergenius robot hours or days to dredge up any plot-relevant information from the archives is one of the most dated things about the show. As a search engine, he’s strictly impulse.

Twiki’s unexplained transition from Bob Elyea’s boyish tenor back to Mel Blanc’s gruff baritone and bidi-bidis is a bit jarring, but it’s nice to hear Blanc’s voice paired with Twiki’s season 2-style dialogue, which is more substantial and less annoying than just a series of random anachronisms and heckles. Blanc would continue in the role for the remainder of the series.

“The Satyr” is the second episode by Paul & Margaret Schneider (“The Guardians”), and like their first, it treats fantasy ideas as sci-fi — in this case featuring a literal satyr, Pangor (David S. Cass, Sr.), terrorizing a colonist named Cyra Samos (Anne E. Curry) and her young boy Delph (Robert Lane). I feel like I have to issue a trigger warning, for while he storms into their farmhouse nominally looking for wine and food, there’s a disturbing vibe of a drunk, abusive husband coming home to assault his wife. We know what satyrs are known for in myth, and it’s not just drinking.

Buck and Twiki head down to the planet in question, a lost Earth colony called Arcadus – although one that was lost only 6-7 years earlier, having been founded in the 2470s by a famous colonizer named Jason Samos, rather than one of the centuries-old lost colonies the Searcher is supposed to be looking for. Wilma and Hawk are marginalized by some makework asteroid survey so Gil Gerard can hog all the attention again. Buck does your standard TV-Western plot where he bonds with the frontier widow and her deeply impressed son, but Cyra rejects his offer to leave with him, insisting she can’t abandon her husband’s home like the rest of the colonists did (though their ship was lost, hence the colony’s fate being unknown). Her attitude – and the bruises Buck sees on her neck – only reinforce the impression of Cyra as an abused wife, and it’s easy to guess that “Pangor” is actually a mutated Jason Samos, though she doesn’t admit that until after Buck fights with him and apparently drowns him to death, though not before getting bitten by the satyr.

It’s just as easy to guess that this leads to Buck turning into a satyr himself, and what you’d think was that we’d get a story where Wilma and Hawk have to find the satyrized Buck and save him from his own toxic masculinity run amok. But Wilma and Hawk only get a few token scenes, and Buck is such a superman that he manages to maintain control and devise a plan to kill the other satyrs even while turning into one himself. Pangor turns up alive, his memories as Jason Samos reawakened, and manages to say goodbye to his wife before sacrificing himself to detonate Buck’s booby trap. Back on the ship, Buck is cured by advanced medicine, since his transformation was early enough to be reversed. (Too bad for those other disease victims that just got written off as monsters and killed.) The Samoses are resettling on a new planet and Buck and Wilma resume their flirtatious banter, the end.

Ugh. This was unpleasant and dumb. At least the first season had a sense of humor about its somewhat goofy stories and sci-fi gimmicks, and didn’t take itself too seriously. The second season has even goofier, more ludicrous ideas, but it plays them with ponderous seriousness and a dramatic intensity that clashes with their lack of thematic or character substance. The first season knew how lightweight it was, but the second season doesn’t. It makes it much less enjoyable to watch. There’s also an excessively masculine focus this season, with female guests fewer in number and tending to be in more traditional roles, and building an episode around literal satyrs terrorizing a lone, passive woman took that to a distasteful extreme. I can think of several reasons to recommend skipping this episode. The one good thing I can say about it is that, as the first season 2 episode to heavily feature Twiki, it’s a lot less annoying than it could’ve been, since Twiki is now being written as actually having useful things to say rather than just wisecracks. If he’d been written this way in season 1, he would’ve been a lot less of a drag on the show.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Mark of the Saurian”/”The Golden Man” (spoilers)

January 29, 2018 7 comments

“Mark of the Saurian” is the debut teleplay of Francis Moss, who would go on to write prolifically for animated TV shows including She-Ra, Dennis the Menace, Defenders of the Earth, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It begins by establishing the powerful Delta Quadrant Defense Station (same miniature used in season 1’s “Space Vampire”) as the key to the recent victory of the “Alliance” (which seems to have replaced last season’s equally nebulous “Federation”) over the enemy Saurians. But we see the station’s communications officer killed and replaced by a reptilian alien wearing a holographic disguise.

On the Searcher, Buck is bedridden with Cygnus fever, which his 20th-century metabolism isn’t immune to. Hawk goes off on patrol early to avoid the pomp and ceremony of the arrival of five Earth ambassadors going to finalize the Saurians’ surrender, including Ambassador Cabot (Linden Chiles) and Dr. Moray (Vernon Weddle), who’s somehow both a diplomat and a medical doctor. Buck watches on the monitor from sickbay and notices a green glow around the new arrivals. On learning that his nurse can’t see it, he staggers down to the flight deck and sees it in person. He keeps insisting something’s off about the ambassadors, but everyone else assumes he’s hallucinating, even when a burst of pain enables him to see the lizard person under Moray’s disguise. Moray and the others are all Saurian spies planning to infiltrate the Delta Defense Station.

But Moray uses a blood sample from Buck to engineer a fix for the spies’ holoemitters, while the others sabotage the Searcher to trap it on course into Delta’s exclusion zone. Buck seems “cured” of his hallucinations, but Wilma recognizes his description as matching a Saurian, a race he’s never seen before and thus can’t have hallucinated. Since Wilma figured this out, one would assume she would be the one to begin piecing together what’s going on… but in the next scene, she stands by passively and disbelievingly as Buck causes himself pain to try to see through Moray’s disguise, unsuccessfully.

So Buck is taken back to sickbay for his own safety, though he’s asked for Hawk to come back early from patrol. He then watches on his room’s screen while Ambassador Cabot helps Admiral Asimov convince the station’s head (Stacy Keach, Sr.) to disable the quadrant defenses and allow the ship to dock. Buck sees that the station’s comm officer still has the green glow, since he hasn’t recalibrated his emitter for Buck. So this man who’s been deemed dangerously delusional is able to waltz out of sickbay carrying the blaster that happened to be hanging in its holster by the door, then move unchallenged all the way to the bridge, where he holds everyone hostage to prove his theory. Hawk shows up just in time to back him up, and Buck turns down the thermostat to force the evil lizard men into hibernation, and once again the day is saved, early enough that the rest of the episode is padded out with a lengthy tag involving Crichton and Twiki debating the efficacy of bringing dead flowers to a sick human.

This feels like a first-season episode. It’s the first story this year that doesn’t make any attempt at theme, allegory, or commentary, just a simple good-vs.-evil gimmick story with one-note villains. It also seems to abandon John Mantley’s desire for a more vulnerable, imperfect Buck and return to his first-season characterization as the one guy who could solve the problem. I wonder if Gil Gerard was up to his old rewriting tricks again, because there are two parts here that make it seem like someone else is going to help and then they don’t. First it seemed like Wilma was figuring out the problem, but then she became passive while Buck did so. And they made such a point of Hawk leaving before the ambassadors arrived that I was sure they were setting up a plot beat of Hawk’s alien senses seeing through the disguises so that he could prove Buck right; but instead he just showed up at the climax to run interference for Buck’s grandstand play. It feels like the script was sloppily rewritten to give Wilma’s and Hawk’s contributions to Buck instead. (There’s also an odd bit where Wilma won’t let Cabot kiss her hand and Asimov berates her for giving offense, but her reasons for pulling away are never addressed. Maybe she was supposed to sense something off about Cabot, but it was lost in a rewrite.)

The episode does manage to pull off a bit of a Twilight Zone or horror movie feel in its first half – “I’m the only one who sees the monsters, but everyone else thinks I’m crazy!” But it stalls out just when it should get to the point where others start to believe the hero and join the fight, and it all kind of fizzles out. It’s also hurt by the show’s perennially poor alien makeup, although the Saurians’ rigid masks are infrequently seen due to the disguise gimmick.

Also, I realized something. Mantley told Starlog that he wanted to get away from season 1’s constant focus on interstellar war and spy missions and focus on the wider range of story subjects that a starship exploration show could offer. But so far, three out of four plots in season 2 have been driven in one way or another by warfare between humans and aliens. Only “The Guardians” has shown the Searcher doing any kind of searching or exploring.

Incidentally, Admiral Asimov finally defines Wilma’s role aboard the ship, introducing her to Cabot as “one of our executive officers.” It’s an elevated title, but a lot of the time, the writers seem to be treating her as little more than a communications officer, or just the token female in the crew. Although “Mark of the Saurian” is the first and only episode this season to give a prominent role to any Searcher crewwoman other than Wilma – namely Kim Hamilton as Nurse Paulton, who’s also the only black character in the episode. There’s also a bit role played by Andrea Pike as a random crew member with a single line, “Captain Rogers, do you need help?” Out of the entire season, they’re the only female Searcher personnel with credited roles or dialogue other than Wilma and a woman Buck was briefly flirting with in “Time of the Hawk” (and whose only line was “Yes, Colonel”). It’s quite a regression from season 1, which routinely featured capable, professional female characters in many walks of life.

“The Golden Man” is written by the second season’s supervising producer Calvin Clements, Jr. (who would go on to produce series including Airwolf, Dallas, MacGyver, and Walker, Texas Ranger) and its executive story consultant Stephen McPherson (whose most notable credit beyond Buck is as story editor on the short-lived Ben Vereen/Jeff Goldblum detective series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe from 1980).

The episode opens with the Searcher, a ship supposedly questing into the unknown reaches of deepest space, entering the “Alpha Centauri asteroid belt” (as in literally the nearest star system to Earth’s own) to answer a distress signal. They bring aboard a stasis pod holding a boy whose skin, hair, and clothes are all gold. Named Velis (David Hollander), he speaks with a maturity and precision beyond his age and asks for help locating another of his kind, Relcos, whose pod may have crashed on nearby Iris 7. But the Searcher, rather bizarrely, plows headlong into an asteroid as if nobody was bothering to steer the thing. Admiral Asimov is pinned under a fallen beam too heavy for four men to lift, until Velis touches it and makes it lighter, explaining that his people have the power to transmute the properties of metal.

The crew tries to unstick the ship from the asteroid, with Asimov ordering “reverse tractor beams” and Hawk contrarily calling them “reverse thruster beams” in reply, two or three times in a row. Hard to say which actor was misreading the script. But the ship is wedged in too tight to free it at its current mass. Velis says he’s too weak to make the whole ship lighter, but Relcos is big enough to do it. Buck takes Velis down to the planet to search. They have a deadline, since there’s a deadly magnetic storm closing in on the ship.

On Planet Universal Backlot, a crowd of scruffy villagers has captured the golden man Relcos (Russell Wiggins), who inadvertently changes the metal pitchforks and daggers thrust at him into jade, silver, and the like, which provokes various offscreen voiceover artists to exposit stiltedly about how amazed and excited they are at what he can do for them. But he turns the bars of his cage to glass and escapes. Soon Buck and Velis show up and are captured by the mob, placed in a prison where they’re confronted by colony leader Graf (Anthony James, who was the sympathetic Varek in “The Plot to Kill a City” last season). Graf wants the golden boy to lighten a crashed ship so the inmates can use it to escape. Velis is too small to do it, so Graf sends searchers out to find the big one. Meanwhile, Relcos has been found by a kindly farm boy and turns out to be frightened and childlike in his behavior. At this point, I groaned, realizing that this was one of those episodes where it turns out the aliens age backward.

Anyway, Hawk goes down to the planet disguised (by a robe) as a penal investigator and demanding that the visitors be brought to him safely. He tracks down an escaped Buck and Velis on his own, and eventually they find Relcos in the crowd’s custody and get him away, with Velis prompting Relcos to use his powers to fuse the city gate shut so they can escape. Up on the ship, Relcos uses his powers to lighten the Searcher enough to break free of the asteroid, with no mention of whether the change is permanent. (If it were, it’d make the ship a lot easier to accelerate, but probably more fragile.) The boy-sized Velis finally explains that the man-sized Relcos is his 5-year-old son. Ouch, I feel sorry for his wife! How would that even work? This is why I hate stories about backward-aging aliens.

So, yeah, this is a pretty silly one, another dumb sci-fi gimmick and another episode that’s just adventure with no theme or message or character exploration. I’m starting to suspect that John Mantley’s ambitions for a smarter show were quickly squashed by network suits wanting mindless action. There’s been a pretty consistent downward trend in quality all season, with each episode worse than the one before, and we’ve gone very quickly from a season premiere that reached Star Trek-level quality to a fifth episode that feels more like Lost in Space. At this rate, we’ll be hitting Galactica 1980 levels before long, so I pray there’s an upswing coming.

This is a good showing for Hawk, though, since he gets to be clever and resourceful and use his wits to try to get Buck out of a jam, even if it doesn’t quite pay off. I like it that the character who was introduced as a fierce alien warrior is turning out to be so thoughtful, witty, and quick to resort to brains over brawn, and characterized more by shrewd humor than aggression. Buck is his usual stalwart-hero self, but that’s starting to feel a bit one-note by this point. Wilma is underutilized, doing little more than relaying information from her bridge console. The other main Searcher characters have their usual bits and not much more, and Paul Carr leaves little impression in his final appearance as Devlin. On the plus side, Twiki is only briefly glimpsed in the teaser and has no lines whatsoever, a first for the series – although his current voice actor Bob Elyea has a minor on-camera role as an Iris 7 villager whose mother (the only speaking woman in the episode besides Wilma) tries to paint him gold to collect Graf’s reward for Relcos.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Journey to Oasis”/”The Guardians” (spoilers)

January 27, 2018 1 comment

“Journey to Oasis” is another 2-hour episode, written by Bob & Esther Mitchell, who wrote a dozen episodes of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants. It opens with a curly-haired Mark Lenard as Ambassador Duvoe of Zykaria, a civilization on the brink of war with Earth. The arrogant nobleman Duvoe is en route to a peace conference to try to head off the war, but he’s concerned about preventing the prejudiced humans from discovering the Zykarians’ major difference, namely that they’re symbiotic life forms whose heads can separate from their bodies. (Much the same idea as in David Gerrold’s Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “BEM” from 1974, but with fewer separable parts.) It’s hard to see what evolutionary purpose this could serve, since his head can’t move under its own power, needing an aide to detach and replace the head. Could it be that it allows a brain to swap out for a new body if the old one dies or is injured? How many spare bodies are available? Do noble heads hoard extra bodies while poor heads are forced to go bodiless or timeshare?

The episode doesn’t address this, instead having Duvoe reminisce about an enchanting human woman he fell for despite himself when they met 7 years ago. Naturally, this woman turns out to be Wilma Deering, and they’re reunited when the Searcher arrives to escort Duvoe to the peace talks on Oasis, the one civilized settlement on planet R-4, a galactic dumping ground for failed genetic experiments – basically the Island of Misfit Toys writ large (more of this show’s creepily cavalier approach to the idea of eugenics). While flying over the wasteland, a recycled Battlestar Galactica shuttle containing Buck, Hawk, Wilma, Dr. Goodfellow, and Duvoe is caught in a magnetic storm and drained of power, crashing next to Vasquez Rocks (every planet in the universe has a Vasquez Rocks). The shuttle sinks under the sands once the passengers get off, so the Searcher will have no way to find them, and Buck and the imperious Duvoe butt heads – heh – over the best way to survive and reach Oasis. Ironically, the Searcher can’t search for them, because all its surviving atmospheric craft are fighters whose deployment would break the peace – an odd limitation for a research vessel.

As they wander through the desert (or rather, around various parts of Vasquez Rocks and a studio set), they’re tracked by the mutants of the wasteland, while Dr. Goodfellow keeps trying to wander off to satisfy his scientific curiosity about them. This leads to him getting trapped in a pit under a big rock by a pair of mutants. But the team is helped out by a blue, gnome-like creature called Odee-X (Felix Silla, with what I think is Bob Elyea doing his voice), who emits telekinetic rays from his eyes. Apparently he’s an old genetic experiment created around Saturn 400 years before, the Ocular Dynamics Experiment, though how that fits into the timeline of Earth suffering a holocaust nearly 500 years before is unclear. Odee-X feels like something out of a Lost in Space episode, a cheesy-looking space leprechaun who talks in boasts and riddles.

Things up in space are more serious, as Admiral Asimov and his Zykarian counterpart Admiral Zite (Len Birman) deal with the inexplicable disappearance of the shuttle and their mutual suspicion of foul play. Birman effectively plays Zite as a thoughtful leader reluctant to go to war but goaded on by his intelligence officer Rolla (Michael Stroka), while the equally reluctant Asimov relies for counsel on his junior officer Lt. Devlin (Paul Carr), a new recurring character who’s basically there to be a sounding board for the admiral. We also get the first appearance of Wilfrid Hyde-White’s son Alex Hyde-White, who would also recur as a minor crew member. (Alex Hyde-White’s notable roles include Reed Richards in the unreleased 1994 Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie and Henry Jones Sr. from the neck down in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Anyway, Asimov’s reassurances fall on deaf ears, since the only conclusion the Zykarians can reach is that the shuttle landed in an underground hangar and that their ambassador has been abducted. Zite calls in battlecruisers to stand ready to fire if Duvoe doesn’t arrive in time for the conference. It gets to the point that Asimov orders Devlin to rig the Searcher to explode and take out the enemy ships if it comes to that.

Wilma and Duvoe exchange lots of heartfelt talk (romantically scored by John Cacavas) until they’re attacked and strangled by mutant lichen, and after they’re rescued, Duvoe wanders off to remove his head and massage his neck. He’s found by Buck before he gets himself back together, but Buck keeps his secret, feeling it’s a matter between him and Wilma. Still, Wilma senses he’s uneasy about something and is troubled that the two men can’t seem to get along. Meanwhile, Hawk gets his own subplot chasing after Odee-X, whom he inexplicably likes and gets further riddles from, mostly involving the threats they’ll face in the Cave of Winds. Deciphering those riddles helps them get through the inexplicable and contrived traps and ultimately destroy the cave’s guardian, though we’re supposed to believe that it’s hard for our heroes to figure out that “Give him the point of your argument, straight” actually means “Stab the guy in the heart.” Come on, did they really need to solve a riddle before trying that?

Finally we reach the moment I’ve always remembered most vividly from seeing this episode in childhood. The spires of Oasis loom before the heroes but they’re confronted by the wasteland mutants, who have been established as worshipping shrines of severed heads. A last riddle from Odee-X gives Duvoe the idea to scare them off by raising his head off his neck and pretending to be an angry god, shocking Wilma with the revelation of his secret. It’s supposed to be a big dramatic climax, but come on, it’s a guy holding his detached head up in the air, so it looks kind of goofy.

Later, though, after the peace conference is successful and Duvoe makes his farewells, Wilma assures him that she was only briefly shocked, not condemning, and that there’s still a chance for them in the future. Duvoe and Buck part as friends as well.

This was a letdown after “Time of the Hawk.” That episode had some silly sci-fi elements, but they were outweighed by the strength of the drama. “Journey to Oasis” shifts the balance the other way. It makes a respectable attempt to tell an allegorical story about how intolerance and mistrust can lead to unnecessary war, and the shipboard drama between the admirals is effective, although it’s a bad sign when the guest admiral gives a more impressive performance than the series-regular admiral – plus it’s disappointing that Asimov doesn’t find a better response to the crisis than setting the self-destruct. But the stuff on the planet with the mutants and Odee-X and the magic cavern just gets more and more silly and Irwin Allenesque as it goes, and a lot of it feels like unnecessary padding, random obstacles that serve no plot or character purpose beyond taking up time. This could’ve been a solid 1-parter without all that nonsense.

Although having the Zykarians’ shocking difference be removable heads is a somewhat silly choice that undermines the seriousness of the ideas the Mitchells were trying to explore. The Wilma/Duvoe story reminds me of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Host,” with Dr. Crusher falling in love with a Trill ambassador who turns out to be just the host body for a symbiotic slug (something commonly known about the Trill today, but treated at the time as a long-hidden secret). Something like that would’ve been a better choice than an Amazing Screw-Off Head. Although I will say “Journey to Oasis” surpasses “The Host” in its ending, at least, because Wilma is actually able to accept the ambassador’s alienness and remain open to a future relationship.

One point in this episode’s favor is that its story is set up so that Wilma spends the entire 2-parter in her snazzy Jean-Pierre Dorleac-designed military dress uniform from season 1 rather than her ridiculous sailor-suit Searcher getup. Also, Twiki remains agreeably marginalized. Rather than hanging out with Buck all the time, he’s set up here as the Laurel to Crichton’s Hardy, and as a general sort of steward or yeoman to the admiral.

By the way, the new backstory of young Wilma’s love affair with Duvoe seven years before overwrites the assertions in “Awakening” and “Flight of the War Witch” that Wilma had always been a cold, unfeeling officer until Buck had awakened new emotions in her. I can’t say I mind that at all. Still, Wilma is written in a more conventionally “feminine” way here than she was last season, involved primarily as half of a romantic subplot and screaming in un-colonel-like terror at her first sight of the mutants’ severed-head shrine. It’s not a good sign for her future characterization. Nor is the fact that Wilma is the only female character in this entire 2-parter, aside from some background extras on the Searcher.

“The Guardians” is a surreal episode by Paul Schneider & Margaret Schneider, the former of whom created the Romulans and Trelane for Star Trek. It’s notable for being directed by Jack Arnold, director of classic ‘50s sci-fi films such as It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, and The Incredible Shrinking Man – and by far the most prolific director of Gilligan’s Island episodes.

While surveying an uncharted planet, Buck and Hawk come across a dying old man (Harry Townes) who says he’s been waiting 500 years for Buck to arrive and accept the task of delivering a glowing jade box marked with arcane symbols (a prop I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on some other show). He says it’s for his successor, but dies without telling Buck where to go.

That night, Buck touches the box in his sleep and is whisked back in time to 1987, on furlough to visit his mother (Rosemary DeCamp) shortly before his Ranger 3 flight. She worries about the risks of the flight, but he cockily assures her nothing can go wrong. After that (and presumably after his previous flashback dream in last season’s “A Dream of Jennifer”), we finally get to see Buck’s flight dramatized directly, when before it was only summarized in images and narration. And it reveals something new: The accident wasn’t just a random mishap, but Buck’s own fault, because his pride led him to take a reckless risk with untested boosters. I’d say this is part of John Mantley’s desire to make Buck a more human, flawed character this season, but the revelation doesn’t really get much followup. The flashback continues until it catches up with the stock footage of frozen Buck from the pilot, whereupon Hawk awakens Buck and the latter finds that a flower he took with him on the flight, a memento of his mother, is in his hand in the here and now. It wasn’t a dream – he was actually there, back in time.

Back on the Searcher, Buck has brought the box aboard for analysis, though he honors the dying man’s request to keep it unopened. Dr. Goodfellow has studied the old man’s scrolls and spins some rubbish about the legendary cosmic Guardians of the fundamental forces of creation, including time. He believes the old man was a Guardian and the box is connected to time. Soon, the members of the crew begin to have disturbing visions of their own, and the ship is dragged inexplicably off course toward the “edge of the universe.” Admiral Asimov smugly ignores the warnings against opening the box and gets a vision of his crew starving to death. Hawk takes the box back to his quarters and uses its powers to summon Koori back from the dead, but they have a brief reunion before she convinces him it’ll never work out. The bridge crew discovers that they’ve been lost for 8 months relative to the outside universe, and Paul Carr’s Lt. Devlin learns that his fiancee, whom he was going to marry on reaching Lambda Colony in 2 days, was killed 6 months ago while searching for the missing Searcher. An enraged Devlin tries to jettison the box into space, and Wilma, who’d had a vision of herself as a blind woman, wrestles with him, causing the box to open and emit a flash that blinds her. Asimov does then jettison the box, only to find it sitting on his chair when he returns to the bridge. Buck realizes they have no choice but to let it take them to its intended destination. He and Goodfellow also realize that the box isn’t evil, just showing them the consequences of their own sins – Buck’s pride, Wilma’s anger, Asimov’s gluttony, etc.

Once they reach a “Terra-class star system” and go down to its studio-backlot settlement, they find a lame shepherd boy (Shawn Stevens) who’s friendly to them but can’t help them find the Guardian. The earth randomly opens up and the boy falls into a chasm, and when Buck endangers himself trying to reach him, the boy lets go and sacrifices himself to protect Buck, a total stranger. Apparently this was Buck’s role in the whole affair, for the Guardians (led by Vic Perrin) materialize and tell them that these events have revealed to them the new Guardian, the shepherd boy, who’s now resurrected as one of them and declares that everything will be put to rights. Wilma’s sight is restored, and back on the ship, they find they’re back where and when they belong, at Lambda Colony right on schedule for Devlin’s wedding.

Okay, this was weird. I wasn’t a fan of season 1’s aggressive avoidance of science fiction stories, but season 2 seems to have a hard time telling SF from fantasy. This is a pseudo-Biblical morality play through and through, as mystical as anything on Battlestar Galactica or season 1 of Space: 1999. It makes an effort to be more character-driven and idea-driven than season 1, but the only substantial character insights we get are into Buck and the minor player Devlin, with Hawk, Wilma, and Asimov getting more cursory arcs, and even the revelations about Buck are soon forgotten in favor of more weirdness. The futurism is iffy as well. Wilma’s vision of herself as a permanently blind woman with a cane and sunglasses doesn’t make sense in context with the first season, which established that nearly all forms of disability could be cured by advanced surgery.

Once again, Wilma is the only female Searcher crewmember to have any dialogue. The only other women in the episode are Buck’s mother and Koori.

Between “Time of the Hawk” and these episodes, it’s clear that early season 2 has far more ambition than season 1 — though it could hardly have less. But its ability to live up to its ambitions is iffy. It’s trying to be about something, but what it’s about is often pretty silly. Unfortunately, “The Guardians” is the last episode for a while that has even such flawed ambition.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Season 2: “Time of the Hawk” (spoilers)

January 25, 2018 5 comments

With an unhappy cast and sagging ratings, it’s no surprise that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was retooled for its second season. If anything, it’s a surprise that it was renewed at all. In addition to the show’s other woes, the second season was delayed by a 1980 actor’s strike. All the first season’s producers moved on, save for line producer David O’Connell, who returned only for the first two double-length episodes. Even co-developer Glen Larson was no longer an executive producer. Bruce Lansbury’s replacement as showrunner was, symmetrically, his predecessor as producer on The Wild Wild West, writer/actor/producer John Mantley – better known for showrunning Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won. It may seem odd that a Western producer was put in charge of Buck Rogers, but then, Gene Roddenberry had been largely a Western writer/producer before Star Trek. Westerns were ubiquitous in 1960s TV, and were the primary period and frontier narratives in the medium at the time, so they had a degree of overlap with science fiction. But Mantley did have a little SF experience: he wrote the novel The 27th Day and the Outer Limits episode “Behold Eck!,” and in 1978 he attempted to produce a film adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot with Harlan Ellison writing the screenplay. Apparently he was unjustly shut out of that film after bringing it to Warner Bros. and won a fraud case against their executives eleven years later, well after the movie project collapsed. (Ellison’s screenplay was later published in book form.) Perhaps this history was part of the reason he was pegged to take over Buck Rogers.

As Mantley told Starlog in an October 1980 article where they consistently misspelled his name, he had the same desire as Lansbury to get “back to basics” for the sake of audience identifiability, but he had a totally different, less condescending view of what that meant. Lansbury had taken it to mean avoiding science fiction “concept stories” that might scare off viewers, preferring to do routine action/adventure plots without any real speculative or thematic substance to strain the audience’s feeble little brains. But Mantley saw it more as a matter of making the characters human and relatable, something he didn’t think the first season had achieved. He wanted to embrace science fiction plots in a way the first season had aggressively avoided, but to give the characters more texture and vulnerability. He also wanted to get away from the intelligence/military focus of the first season and open up the storytelling more. Meanwhile, he and Erin Gray both felt that the first season’s Wilma – whom I saw as a natural, effective leader who conveyed relaxed authority and engendered an easy sense of trust in her ability and kindness – was “overbearing,” apparently because that was how people c. 1980 saw a woman who wasn’t soft and submissive all the time. They chose to tone down her leadership qualities and make her a more conventional female supporting player, unfortunately.

The result of these changes was an almost completely new Buck Rogers. Mantley wanted to do a transitional episode explaining the changes, but the network insisted on starting cold with the new format in place. As a result, Tim O’Connor (Dr. Huer) and Eric Server (voice of Dr. Theopolis) were dropped from the show without fanfare. Mel Blanc was replaced as Twiki’s voice by Bob Elyea, who gave the ambuquad a more high-pitched, boyish voice fitting his appearance. Since Elyea was uncredited, I mistakenly assumed at the time that it was the natural voice of Felix Silla, who returned as the body of Twiki. Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, and Silla were the only returning cast members at first, though Blanc would return midway through the season. Even main-title narrator William Conrad was replaced by Hank Simms, with a slightly different version of the narration.

The season 2 premiere, “Time of the Hawk,” was written by veteran TV scribe Norman Hudis. It opens on a hawk-shaped fighter craft flown by Hawk (Thom Christopher), who’s returning home with his mate Koori (BarBara Luna). They are birdlike humanoids with caps of white feathers in place of hair. They arrive home to find their tribe slaughtered by humans, and Hawk swears vengeance on all humans. There’s a strong vibe of a noble, stoic Indian warrior swearing to punish the white man for slaughtering his village. Right off the bat, the former Gunsmoke producer is giving us an overt space Western.

After the main titles, we’re introduced to the starship Searcher, which, as I mentioned before, is a rebuild of the titular “Cruise Ship to the Stars” from season 1, given proportionally larger windows to make it look like a somewhat smaller ship, and emblazoned on the side with the ship’s name and motto “Per Ardua ad Astra” – the motto of Britain’s Royal Air Force, meaning “Through Adversity to the Stars.” The Searcher is shaped kind of like the Discovery from 2001 if you fattened out its middle, a long, boxy cylindrical ship with a spherical bow section and a pair of large rocketlike engine bells at the rear. It’s not a design that really looks that great from multiple angles or cuts an iconic profile the way something like the Enterprise or Galactica does. Its interior sets are kludged together from season 1 set pieces and props – even its bridge, which you’d think they would’ve put more effort into designing. There’s a mess-hall set with faux-wooden walls, a more naturalistic environment than anything we saw in season 1’s sterile, technological cityscapes, but it’s never seen again after the first act of this episode. The Searcher’s crew members are very unattractively costumed, wearing what are essentially sailor suits in white and pale blue, with the skirted female versions looking like Sailor Moon cosplay. Even though they’re from Al Lehman, the same costume designer who did such great work in season 1, they look ridiculous by contrast to the season 1 Directorate uniforms.

Buck is part of the crew and is addressed as Captain Rogers, but he still wears civilian outfits. His specific role in the ship’s hierarchy is never defined, aside from being the guy who heads all the away missions. Wilma now seems to have an ongoing Hepburn-Tracy romantic tension with Buck, and also appears to be second-in-command to the Searcher’s commanding officer Admiral Efram Asimov (Jay Garner), supposedly a descendant of the Good Doctor himself (an homage Mantley made with Isaac Asimov’s permission, since they knew each other from the failed I, Robot film project, if not earlier – though as a kid, unaware of this, I was offended that a cheesy sci-fi TV show dared to invoke the name of one of the greats of science fiction literature). How a colonel is second-in-command to an admiral is left unexplained, as is how the woman who was the leader of Earth’s entire planetary defense force is now a junior officer on a single ship.

The Searcher is apparently just starting out on its mission, but we’re not yet told what it’s meant to be searching for. But we do meet its doddering, avuncular chief scientist Dr. Goodfellow (the utterly charming Wilfrid Hyde-White), whose personality is also based on Isaac Asimov – a genial old man defined by his bottomless enthusiasm for scientific discovery and his irrepressible fondness for bad puns (though fortunately not emulating Asimov’s inveterate womanizing). Even though Goodfellow is the Searcher’s medical doctor, he’s also its science officer and apparently a cutting-edge roboticist, since he’s recently constructed the third new character – the robot Crichton (voice of Jeff David), who’s amazingly brilliant but so arrogant that he refuses to believe an entity of his perfection could’ve been built by a mere human such as Goodfellow, though he hasn’t yet determined who else could’ve done it. This attitude infuriates Admiral Asimov, basically a spaceborne Perry White who’s driven to temper tantrums by Crichton’s arrogance. There’s a continuity error here, since Huer told Buck in the pilot that robotics had long since reached the point where robots and computers designed each other better than humans could. Crichton himself is nonhumanoid and has a fun design built around his personality, including a telescoping neck so he can literally look down on people and arms designed specifically to go akimbo in irritation. (There’s probably no connection to the mechanoid Kryten from Red Dwarf, introduced in 1988. Their names are homophones and they’re both fonts of information for their crewmates, but Kryten is as humble and self-effacing as Crichton is arrogant and egotistical.)

All these character introductions clutter up the first act, but are set aside once the main story gets underway, with Crichton and Twiki absent from most of the 2-hour premiere. The Searcher comes across a derelict spaceship (pointed out by communications officer Dennis Haysbert, his second role on the series and one that will recur) and is alerted to attacks on human shipping by a man or creature called Hawk, an unstoppable ghost bent on destruction. Buck is given authority by the “Galactic Council” to track him down, and Crichton’s sole role in the story is to deduce that he comes from the planet Throm in the Argus system. Buck goes there alone and arrives in the city/bazaar of Neutralia, whose tall-hatted natives maintain a policy of strict neutrality and aid to all ships, bad guys included. (What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were they just born with hearts full of neutrality?) They know of Hawk (who Buck has somehow figured out is a man instead of a creature), but won’t turn him over, for they have no strong feelings one way or the other. The same can’t be said for Flagg (Lance LeGault), a space ruffian who tries to steal Buck’s ship and gets outsmarted because a man from 500 years in the past understands spaceship airlocks better than he does. It’s nice to see Buck fighting with his wits instead of his fists and feet. Buck shakes Flagg down for information on Hawk by threatening to parade him through town in a hula skirt and a dog collar, though how he actually found those in an interstellar bazaar is anyone’s guess. Once set free, Flagg promises a reckoning.

Goodfellow convinces Wilma to take him along to search for Hawk’s nest, spinning a rather nonsensical ancient-astronauts tale about winged bird people who used to live on Easter Island and worshipped Makemake until they left for the stars 10,000 years ago. They find the “nest” in a cave, where they’re felled by a “giant” alien tarantula’s sleep-inducing web and need Buck to rescue them. They then pretty much vanish from the story while Buck finds Koori and takes her with him to lure out Hawk, once she convinces Buck he’ll be too hard to find any other way.

Indeed, Hawk’s Hawk Fighter (okay, he’s a hawk, we get it) soon intercepts Buck’s Starfighter and attempts to force him down. The fighter is not only shaped like a hawk, but has a truly ridiculous-looking control stick shaped like a hawk’s head facing the pilot. Hawk tries to snag Buck’s fighter in his ship’s talons just as Koori has risen from her seat to grab Buck’s blaster, so she gets impaled in the shoulder. Buck surrenders control of his fighter to let Hawk steer them to a controlled crash in the jungle, then convinces a grudging Hawk that they have to work together to get Koori to a doctor in Neutralia. (“If I don’t make it, tell my wife, ‘Hello.’”) Hawk agrees, but refuses to let Buck carry Koori. Once finally convinced to rest, in a fine bit of acting from Thom Christopher, Hawk bitterly tells Buck how his people lived in peace until they were hounded from Earth by humans and their love of killing anything with wings, and how his people then gave up the power of flight out of fear of history repeating itself, leading them to degenerate into their current, more humanoid form. Buck has little luck convincing him that humans have changed.

On reaching Neutralia, a healer waves her hands over Koori and tells them that she can’t save her but can point them to the Lamajuna, a supposed Hindu mystic in the mountains whose powers might be able to help. (“All I know is, my gut says ‘maybe.’”) Rather than asking for, like, an ambulance or a litter or something, they just pick Koori up and start walking again. En route, they’re ambushed by Flagg and his men, who draw on them with swords rather than blasters. Okay, it’s a Western with shades of Kurosawa. Buck tells Hawk to go on with Koori while he faces the circle of men alone, but Hawk decides to stand and fight with Buck, until the Lamajuna (David Opatoshu) uses his Vishnu-given powers to paralyze the thugs temporarily and let Buck and Hawk get away.

The Lamajunadingdong turns out to be pretty useless otherwise, since all he has for Koori are platitudes about how there is no death, only change. He can only keep her spirit tethered long enough to say goodbye to Hawk. Though Hawk is grateful for Buck’s help, he still refuses to surrender and Buck refuses to walk away from his duty, so they have a lengthy, brutal (by 1980 TV standards) hand-to-hand fight to the point of mutual exhaustion, and finally the Lamajuna zaps them both unconscious to be found by Wilma.

Weeks later on the Searcher, Hawk faces the Galactic Court, which he doesn’t recognize and has refused to defend himself to, as they prepare to deliver their death sentence. Buck angrily speaks up and gives a startlingly poignant speech about how the court will be confirming everything Hawk believes about humans if they execute the last member of a species for waging a rightful war against enemies of his people. It’s a revelatory, powerful piece of acting from Gil Gerard. Ultimately, Buck’s argument convinces the court that Hawk’s sentence should be in the hands of the people who know him best, the crew of the Searcher. Buck realizes that Hawk could serve his penance by joining the crew, since they have the same mission. Buck finally explains that the Searcher is on a quest to track down the lost tribes of humanity who fled Earth after the holocaust (shades of Battlestar Galactica’s premise, surprisingly, given that Glen Larson is no longer involved). He and Wilma propose that some of Hawk’s ancient bird people could still be out there as well. Hawk agrees, and the Searcher heads off on its mission without any tacked-on comedy tag scene.

Well. This started out sketchy and had some pretty silly ideas, but despite my wisecracks, it turned out to be a genuinely good episode of television. It was very much a Western, but it was also trying very hard to be Star Trek, and doing a surprisingly good job of it, aside from the weak set and costume designs aboard the Searcher. While it has its silly bits, it’s a quantum leap above anything season 1 achieved or even aspired toward. It’s a smart, dramatic story with intense character conflict and hard-hitting social commentary, and Buck is now much less Han Solo and much more James T. Kirk. Gil Gerard gets to act on a whole other level than he ever got the chance to do in season 1, and he rises to the occasion. Thom Christopher is superb as Hawk – it’s a pretty stock stoic warrior/noble savage role, but he brings a lot of dignity, poise, and weight to it, as well as a strong, resonant voice and a dancer-like physicality. I’m pretty sure that Hawk was my favorite part of season 2 when I watched it in first run. My second-favorite part was Wilfrid Hyde-White being his usual dodderingly adorable self as Dr. Goodfellow. Most of the rest of the cast gets little to do, but that’s a blessing where Twiki is concerned. Bruce Broughton takes over the music and works in a fairly traditional orchestral vein reminiscent of Star Trek or Westerns, rather than the funkier ‘70s sound of the first season’s scores.

Unfortunately, “Time of the Hawk” would turn out to be the exception rather than the rule for season 2. However ambitious Mantley may have been to make a smarter, richer show, he was still working for a network regime that expected very little from science fiction and its audience.

One further note: I realized a while back, even before this rewatch, that Buck Rogers season 2 was the closest thing in real life to the series within the movie Galaxy Quest. Indeed, part of what prompted this rewatch was my desire to verify my perception of the parallels, and if anything, it’s proven them to be even stronger than I’d remembered. Within the film’s reality, the Galaxy Quest series ran from 1979-82, while Buck Rogers ran from 1979-81. Both GQ and BR S2 were Star Trek-like starship adventure series with a macho male lead whose actor tended to hog the spotlight (Taggart/Buck), his stoic alien warrior best friend who’s the last survivor of a slaughtered people (Dr. Lazarus/Hawk), and a somewhat marginalized token female lead/love interest with a vaguely defined shipboard role (Tawny/Wilma). Meanwhile, Laredo, the child prodigy navigator of the Protector, has always strongly reminded me of Gary Coleman’s Hieronymous Fox from Buck season 1. Everyone assumes that Galaxy Quest is just a Star Trek parody, and to a large extent it obviously is; but if it isn’t deliberately based on Buck Rogers as well, then it’s a staggering coincidence, given the sheer number of strong parallels.

I finally saw STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (spoilers)

January 24, 2018 3 comments

I finally got a bit of money for a writing project this week, so I decided to celebrate by finally going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi while it was still in theaters, and before I got spoiled on more than I already have been (which fortunately was mostly little things). I gather that the film has generated some controversy, but it sounded like the aspects that were making a stir were the sort of things that I’d enjoy. And I was right. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so happy and fulfilled at the end of a movie. I’m not even that big a Star Wars fan — or at least I wasn’t in the past except to the degree that it’s been an ongoing part of my pop-culture awareness since I was 8 years old — but the recent iterations of the franchise, both theatrically and on TV, have been really well-done and have given me new appreciation for it. And The Last Jedi is probably the best installment yet. It was moving in ways a Star Wars movie has never been before (not that they’ve never been moving, just not in these specific ways). It was unpredictable in a good way, full of surprises and plot developments that didn’t “go the way you think.” It was one of the darkest, most tragic SW movies and one of the most optimistic and inspiring ones at the same time. Its action scenes were brilliant and innovative and remarkable. It was funny, sometimes a bit goofily so, but often quite cleverly. And it managed to hit all the nostalgia buttons perfectly while simultaneously challenging and deconstructing all the pat assumptions of the prior films’ heroic narratives.

If I have a problem with it, it’s that there’s simply too much going on, with all the lead characters separated on their own individual subplots for most of the film, only coming together at the climax. It’s kind of wild to realize that two of the central new heroes, Rey and Poe, never actually meet until very near the end of the second film out of three. And there were times when one or two subplots had been going on for so long that I found myself wondering, “Okay, when do we get back to Rey?” or whoever.

But most of the cast does get a lot of great stuff to do, individually or in pairs. It’s great to see Mark Hamill playing Luke Skywalker again as a mature actor, bringing much more nuance and depth and that superb voice to the role. Luke here is basically the character Obi-Wan probably should have been in the original, or might have been if what we later learned of his story had been established from the start — a scarred and bitter ex-Jedi who resists teaching a new student because of his failure with his last student who turned to evil. As it is, he shares that reluctance more with Yoda, and comes across as a more Yoda-like figure in both his eccentric, hermit-like lifestyle and his teachings about the nature of the Force. (There’s even a bit of a Dagobah callback with his X-wing being submerged once again.) Maybe that’s why it’s Yoda’s Force ghost who appears to him on Ahch-To, because of that affinity. I have to say, it was a thrill to see the return of the real Yoda, the latex puppet with a puckish sense of humor, rather than the solemn CGI sage from the prequels.

As for Rey, her interaction with Luke is effective, but it’s her bond with Kylo Ren through the Force that’s really intriguing. The way the two of them connect and try to win each other over, not through big noisy saber fights or grandiose speechmaking but through understated interpersonal bonding, is really intriguing and effective, and it shows how much this series has matured from its pulpy beginnings. It went to an unexpected place, too. Both Rey and the audience were led to expect that it would play out like the legend of Luke and Vader yet again, the heroic Jedi turning the Sith apprentice back to the light and leading him to betray his master. And it felt that way until the very end of their big, brilliantly choreographed fight with Snoke’s guards — and then Kylo pulled the rug out of all our assumptions and we realized that Rey, and we, had completely misinterpreted the future she’d seen. That’s deft. The revelation about Rey’s parentage also does a neat job of deconstructing the stock “Chosen One” narrative. Kylo literally says she’s got no special place in this story, that she’s just a random girl. And I love that. I don’t want every story to be about dynasties, hereditary lines of people who are somehow more important than everyone else. What the Resistance is fighting for, and what this film shows really well, is that everyone is important. A hero can be anyone from the big legendary mystical knight-sage to some random bomber tech or pipe jockey or a little slave boy cleaning a stable.

Poe clashing with Leia and Holdo and having to learn the downside of being a macho hotshot space jockey was effective, but it was Carrie Fisher as Leia who really stole the show, and it makes me so sad that we’ll never get the third film that was supposed to focus on her as much as The Force Awakens focused on Han and this one did on Luke. Still, it helps that Leia has so many other strong, rich heroines to follow in her footsteps now, rather than being unique. And this movie did give her a hell of a swan song. It sure faked us out that she was going to be killed off early in the movie — and then just as it had started to sink in emotionally that she was gone, we got that amazing moment that finally, finally answered the question of whether Leia can use the Force, and in the most superheroic-looking way possible. It’s been a long time coming, but wow, what a payoff.

Finn’s little side trip to Canto Bight with Rose Tico was fun too. I’ve seen reviewers call it one of the weaker parts of the film, a sidebar that slows things down, but it was actually really important, because it was the part of the film that did the most to explore just what it is the Resistance is actually fighting for. As Rose said at the climax, it’s not just about destroying, but protecting. That’s a really important statement. I also liked how this and the later Crait sequence revolved around animals, around connecting with nature and listening to it, as the path to success. It reminds me of the sort of thing Star Wars Rebels is doing with the Loth-wolves. Plus the creature designs for the horselike Fathiers and the catlike, crystalline Vulptices were really good. The Porgs were okay, too.

Oh, plus the Finn subplot ends up giving Captain Phasma the big moment she was deprived of in TFA. We finally get some payoff for all the setup for her character, with Finn getting a final battle with her as his personal archnemesis, and getting to deliver a pretty cool hero line at the end there.

The first really wow-inducing scene in the movie is Paige Tico’s sacrifice in the bomber. That’s a very different way of depicting a Star Wars action scene, really focusing on the heroism of one of the background rebels who are usually treated as faceless cannon fodder. We never really learn anything about her beyond her determination and self-sacrifice, but in a way that’s all we need to know, and her action drives a lot of what follows by motivating her sister Rose, without whom Finn would’ve deserted and the plan to shut down the hyperspace tracker would never have been formulated. (I was so moved by Paige’s heroism that I didn’t even stop to wonder how dropping bombs could possibly work in weightless space.) The sacrifice of Vice Admiral Holdo later in the film is also one of the most powerful moments, and the way the effect of her action is depicted visually and acoustically is extraordinary. It’s notable that both women’s quiet, powerful, almost unwitnessed acts of self-sacrifice are in contrast to Poe Dameron’s pursuit of the more conventional, flashy, masculine hotshot fighter hero narrative, are ultimately more effective than his efforts, and are arguably the avoidable result of his arrogance, certainly in the former case.

Not that this film is lacking for flashiness. I’ve already praised the fight choreography in the throne room, and the idea of setting the Crait battle on a salt plain makes for some inspired and unique visuals, even if they did have to toss in a slightly stilted bit of a random soldier commenting on the salt for the audience’s benefit. It also allowed for a subtle clue about Luke’s climactic trickery, which is one of the things I was spoiled on in advance, so I was able to notice a certain lack of footprints.

John Williams’s score was great too. TFA’s score didn’t stand out to me the first time I saw it, though I noticed its character themes more on a second viewing, and I’ve really come to like Rey’s theme. But this was a really strong and impressive score. Like so much else about the film, it did a great job balancing novelty and nostalgia, bringing back all the familiar themes from past movies and combining them with effective new motifs.

I really love the way this film managed to balance two things that might seem contradictory — honoring the past and the nostalgic elements that bring us back to Star Wars again and again, and taking a critical look at the franchise’s past assumptions, deconstructing their simplicity, and responding to them with a more thoughtful and nuanced point of view. Perhaps that’s because the deconstructions don’t invalidate what came before — they just show that it’s only a small part of something bigger and more complicated. To really honor the positive values and the spirit of hope that the heroes of Star Wars fight for, and to understand the stakes and the cost of their fight, you have to look beyond some of the more superficial elements like the traditional action cliches and Chosen One narratives. And the more traditional aspects of the stories and their newer elements can come together harmoniously, as Leia did with Poe, and as Finn did with Rose.

It’s that harmonious blending of old and new elements that makes The Last Jedi so intensely satisfying, because it fulfilled both the part of me that thrilled at nostalgia for the characters and adventures of my childhood and the part of me that needs something fresher, more adult, and more thought-provoking. Rian Johnson really pulled off a remarkable balance here.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY First Season Overview (spoilers)

So what to make of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century? Going into this revisit, I was expecting something cheesy and dumb, and I got that in the pilot and the last few episodes. In between, though, the show we got was competently written and acted, had fairly decent production design and effects and great costumes (by Jean-Pierre Dorleac in the pilot and Al Lehman in the series), was generally watchable aside from certain chronic annoyances (bidi-bidi-bidi) — yet was assertively unchallenging, superficial, and devoid of any ambition beyond weekly ratings. The show strove to avoid anything science-fictional, allegorical, or thought-provoking enough to scare off the average viewer, and so it never really had anything to say beyond “Hope you had a good time, come back next week.” And when viewers didn’t come back enough, the series displayed signs of desperation with ratings-grabbing gimmick episodes focusing on celebrity guests or tying into the Olympics.

This seems to be in keeping with Bruce Lansbury’s overall record as a producer. He joined Mission: Impossible in the late fourth season, beginning with its best episode “Submarine,” and was actually the producer during M:I’s ambitious, daring, formula-challenging fifth season; yet he was also the producer who ushered in its season 6 retooling into a more formulaic, stateside crime-fighting drama. When he took over Wonder Woman 8 episodes into season 2, he stripped away virtually all its comic-book elements and turned it into a formulaic attempt at a Bionic Woman clone. Later on, he’d produce further cozy, formulaic, unchallenging dramas including Knight Rider and his big sister Angela’s Murder, She Wrote. M:I season 5 aside, his career seemed to be defined by a quest for the banal, an ambition to remain unambitious.

But Lansbury shouldn’t be held exclusively to blame. According to the accounts of Alan Brennert and Gil Gerard in Starlog, there was extensive meddling from the NBC executives (and probably Glen Larson as well), forcing rewrites that dumbed down the scripts or simplified the character interactions. Nobody involved in making the first season seemed to enjoy it much or to take pride in the results. Gerard and Brennert both blamed each other for the show’s writing problems (or at least Brennert blamed the rewrites that Gerard separately took credit for), but perhaps they were both misdirecting blame that more properly laid with the higher-ups, since it sounds like they both wanted a smarter, more science-fictional show, although they seemed to differ on how much humor the show could have (with Gerard finding the scripts overly comical and Brennert finding the rewrites overly humorless).

By the way, this article from Starlog #28 (Nov. 1979) gives plot summaries of a number of early scripts, and it’s interesting to see how heavily they were rewritten. A couple were either changed past recognition or never filmed at all.

Internal strife notwithstanding, the cast is a large part of what makes the show watchable. After being nothing more than a (literally) warmed-over Starbuck or Han Solo wannabe in the pilot, Buck became a more thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic, lonely, and guarded character through Gerard’s acting if not often through the writing, and though Buck was written as a stock womanizing ‘70s hero, Gerard always conveyed Buck’s respect and gentlemanly reserve toward the women who threw themselves at him. Tim O’Connor was given little to do beyond being the exposition giver and surrogate father figure who was constantly confused by Buck’s anachronistic banter, but he brought considerable charm and understated authority to the role. As for Erin Gray, the pilot served her poorly (and almost drove her away from the role) by demanding she play Wilma as a cold, mannish harridan, the sexist stereotype of what a strong female authority figure would have to be, until she finally softened under Buck’s manly influence; but in the season proper, at least until the last few episodes, Gray played a more authentic, natural female leader, someone who was calm, ultracompetent, reasoned, strong, dynamic, and simultaneously open, caring, warm, and feminine in a way that was strikingly beautiful but not at all objectifying. As I mentioned before, I believe Erin Gray was one of my first actress crushes as a preteen, and I think her portrayal of Wilma may have been part of the reason I came to find strong, dynamic women so appealing.

And it wasn’t just Wilma. This show may have had no ambition to use science fiction plots for social commentary in the vein of a Twilight Zone, Star Trek, or Alien Nation, but for the bulk of the season, it managed to make a quiet statement about gender and racial equality through its writing and casting. It’s evident that story editor Brennert, at least, was strongly influenced by Star Trek, and the makers of the show did seem to try to live up to its ideal of a future where equality among all humans had long since become taken for granted. In this respect, and in the production design aside from a certain Universal-TV cheapness to the sets, season 1 Buck Rogers managed to create a future I would’ve been comfortable living in, or at least seeing a more thorough exploration of. I liked these people (mostly) and their world, and I wish we could have gotten more and better stories about them.

So let’s see, how about some stats?

Best episodes: “A Dream of Jennifer,” “The Plot to Kill a City,” and “Space Vampire” (aside from the terrible makeup).

Worst episodes: “Space Rockers,” “A Blast for Buck,” and the theatrical cut of the pilot.

Best guest star: I’d go with Michael Ansara, whose compelling presence, strong acting, and magnificent voice elevated what little he had to work with as Kane. I’d also give nods to Trisha Noble as an impressive supervillain in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Judith Chapman as the luminous and sad Lara Tizian in “Olympiad,” and Julie Newmar as the enjoyably campy War Witch in the season finale. Honorable mention to Roddy McDowall just for being Roddy McDowall, even though he was wasted in an unfortunate part.

Worst guest star: No one can out-stink the truckload of spoiled ham delivered by Jack Palance as Kaleel in “Planet of the Slave Girls.” Other low points are the poorly cast villains Nicholas Hormann in “Space Vampire,” Paul Koslo in “A Dream of Jennifer,” and William Smith in “Buck’s Duel to the Death.” I resist listing Gary Coleman among the worst; he’s too obvious a target, he did the best he could for an 11-year-old, and it wasn’t the kid’s fault that NBC boss Fred Silverman thought “supergenius Arnold Drummond in the future” was a good idea.

Best science fiction concept: The “spaceberg” terraforming project in “Twiki is Missing.” There’s very little else to choose from.

Worst science fiction concept: Well, the worst one scientifically is “We haven’t used electricity in 400 years” in “Buck’s Duel to the Death,” while the most disturbing one conceptually is eugenics-based beauty contests with a pale blonde representing ultimate genetic perfection, as established in “Cruise Ship to the Stars.” Dishonorable mention to “Cosmic Whiz Kid”’s flimsy backstory of Hieronymous Fox’s self-invented cryochamber being bought and sold by various aliens over the centuries without anyone ever defrosting him until less than a year before the episode. Why?

Most inspiring moment: Buck’s fascination with scientific discovery in “Flight of the War Witch.”

Most embarrassing moment: Wilma’s degrading and character-assassinating “You made me feel like a woman for the first time in my life” speech in the same episode.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Flight of the War Witch” (spoilers)

“Flight of the War Witch”: The 2-hour season finale (conceived as a TV movie but aired as a 2-parter) is scripted by story editor Robert W. Gilmer and showrunner Bruce Lansbury (as William Mageean) from a story by David Chomsky. It’s the only episode whose title follows the formula Lansbury had originally planned to use (with every episode title being “Flight of/to/from…” something, in the same way Lansbury’s first series Wild Wild West had used “Night of…”) before the network handed down the cruder, duller titles we ended up with. Perhaps by this point, the network had stopped caring.

The finale opens with a strange golden orb descending to the desert outside New Chicago (which looks exactly like Vasquez Rocks out in California!), where it’s discovered by Buck while he’s returning from a vacation with a random anonymous woman. He, Wilma, and Huer go out to investigate it and it extends a smaller orb through its liquid-like surface, a simple but pretty neat visual effect using a liquid pool with the camera angled to make it look vertical. The orb contains a chip giving instructions for how to penetrate a “vortex” (black hole to us primitives) to a new universe, essentially an invitation. Buck jumps at the opportunity to explore a new frontier, and the thirst for discovery that he and Huer express is refreshing to see in this show that’s generally avoided feeling like science fiction.

The large orb returns to its own universe, and we follow it to the world of Pendar, whose council (including Sam Jaffe and Vera Miles) is worried about one of their people who’s been captured by the War Witch Zarina of the Zaad, who’s torturing the man for information about how to penetrate Pendar’s defense shield. The War Witch is none other than Julie Newmar!!, and her torturer Spirot is Sid Haig, fresh from his turn as the villain Dragos in Filmation’s Jason of Star Command. Zarina explains to her victim that “as a transmute,” Spirot can cause cellular disruption in his victims – contradicting “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” which used “transmute” to mean a shapeshifter.

Meanwhile, Princess Ardala’s spy reports the discovery of the orb and she sends him to steal it. There’s a rather unpleasant bit where she learns that Tigerman, her rarely-speaking bodyguard from her previous appearances, has been reassigned and replaced with another silent muscleman, and she… oh, I hate to type this… names him Pantherman because he’s “black [and] beautiful.” Anyway, the spy steals the orb despite Buck trying to stop him, and when Huer’s formal protest is rebuffed, he decides that he and Wilma will go to the Draconian ship themselves.

Before Buck leaves, there are a couple of character-driven scenes that were only added after the airdate for the first half was moved up and the writers needed to replace 8 minutes’ worth of effects scenes they didn’t have time to complete. (Which tells you something about the priorities of the show’s makers.) First, Huer talks to him about their shared love of discovery (turns out Huer was the first human to go through a Stargate, though only across the Sol system) and how Buck has become like family to him. Then he says his farewells to Wilma, who’s been mostly just standing around reacting and looking bored up to now, and… oh, dear… she gets all teary-eyed and tells him how he taught her how to express her feelings and made her “feel like a woman for the first time in my life.” She stops just short of confessing her undying love for him. Ohh, good grief, what sexist twaddle! This show used to recognize that Wilma could be strong and feminine at the same time, and she never seemed out of touch with her emotions except in the dreadful pilot, which also had her express the idea that being a “real woman” meant being something different from a competent military leader, and that Buck had awakened feminine feelings she’d never experienced before. And since the pilot, it’s never portrayed Wilma as being romantically interested in Buck; if anything, she’s consistently reacted with approving amusement to his many romantic liaisons. And that’s another thing – Buck’s always been portrayed as a womanizer, but Gil Gerard’s respectful charm toward his female co-stars has tempered that, and we’ve always gotten to know the women he’s connected with. But here, he’s seen dallying with two different anonymous women in the first half of the episode, and it makes his womanizing feel more shallow and empty. This show has become far more sexist in a startlingly brief time. Although it turns out, according to Starlog’s coverage in their September 1980 issue, that David Chomsky wrote Wilma’s farewell scene at Erin Gray’s request and she was quite happy with it, at least according to him. I wouldn’t have expected that.

Once Buck and Twiki get through the vortex into the new universe, they pass through an energy field around Pendar and observe various weird creatures represented by double-exposed images of a dragonfly, rhinoceros beetle, and various lizards. On landing, they meet Chandar (Kelly Miles), a Pendaran who materializes out of thin air to escort Buck to their council. She asks about Twiki, but the writers seem to forget that Dr. Theopolis is there too. Poor guy. His last episode and he’s more neglected than Wilma. Chandar explains the energy field as the “Life Zone,” in which they trapped alien invaders a thousand years ago to live eternally, since they’re a life-loving people who refuse to kill.

Anyway, Sam Jaffe, “The Keeper,” recites some gibberish about how the Pendarans are energy beings manifesting as humans for Buck’s convenience, like Star Trek’s Organians or maybe the Q, though it’s unclear whether that applies to the Zaads as well, and it never comes up again. He explains that Buck was brought here to fight their war for them, since they can’t stand to kill so they want Buck to kill for them. Yeah, that makes sense. Oh, and they predicted that Ardala would steal the orb and bring the Draconia through herself, and Huer and Wilma are aboard the flagship when she does, on a diplomatic mission to protest said theft. Neither faction is eager to fight for a cause not their own, so the Pendarans say “We can’t force you to help, but you’ll never get home through the vortex unless we tell you how” — which, of course, is forcing them to help. Hypocrites. So Buck agrees to help, then romances Ardala to win her over as well. It’s implied that this time, he finally doesn’t avoid sleeping with her.

So Buck has a plan to sneak aboard Zarina’s ship on a robot supply freighter, but he’s immediately caught, because Ardala decided to have a “woman to woman” talk with Zarina and rat him out. She thinks she and Zarina are kindred spirits and that she’ll help conquer the Pendarans if Zarina helps her strand or kill the Terrans, except for Buck, whom she’ll keep for herself. But Zarina scornfully dismisses Ardala as a petulant child playing petty games, and though Zarina is hardly a sympathetic character, it’s satisfying to see Ardala put in her place, especially by the likes of Julie Newmar. Although it leads to Ardala breaking down in Buck’s arms and finally seeing things a bit more clearly, so they work together, along with the captive Pendaran (who’s Chandar’s fiance), in order to escape.

Back on Pendar, a Zaad infiltration has damaged the defense shield, creating a hole that Zarina’s forces can get through unless Twiki and Theo can fix the computer in time. But Buck has a plan, and he and Ardala coordinate their respective forces (luckily Huer and Wilma brought an escort of several Starfighters with them to the Draconia). The idea is to keep the Zaads busy long enough to fix the shield, but hold off activating it until their mothership is in the shield perimeter, where it will be destroyed. The life-loving Pendarans cheer this plan to kill all their enemies, and it’s never explained why they can’t just trap them in the Phantom, err, Life Zone like they did the other invaders.

Before the battle, Kane gives his warriors a rousing speech, which is marvelous to hear in Michael Ansara’s voice, but Ardala gets tired of his loquacity and orders him to launch the fighters: “I don’t want them to be late for the war.” The Earth and Draconian fighter pilots (including Wilma, who thank goodness gets to do some heroics to make up for that travesty earlier) stand together against their mutual foe and mesh quite well, holding the line until Zarina’s ship reaches the shield and blows up on impact. Then they all celebrate and get to go home, and maybe Earth-Draconian tensions are eased at least for the moment – or that was the thinking at the time, because the second season would retool and we’d never see Ardala or Kane again.

Well, this one had some of the problems characteristic of this last batch of episodes, like the more chauvinistic writing of Wilma. It also feels a bit racist in comparison to previous episodes. Not only do we have that unfortunate “Pantherman” business, but aside from him and Michael Ansara, all the guest actors and extras in this one are white, unlike the usually diverse casting of supporting characters and extras. I don’t know why that should suddenly be the case. The writing is also inconsistent, with ideas cropping up briefly and then being forgotten or contradicted later on, a level of sloppiness I haven’t seen since the feature version of the pilot.

Still, despite all this, it’s a pretty entertaining finale. It’s the only time the first season has really embraced a science fiction plot – ironically, given that it was co-written by Bruce Lansbury, the very showrunner whose mission statement for the series was to keep its stories as “basic” and conventional as in any present-day adventure show. It’s nice to see the characters fired up with the spirit of discovery in the first half, even though it ends up somewhere silly. And this is the most enjoyable of the Draconian episodes; toning down Ardala and Kane’s villainy and playing them as comic foils is probably the best use of a pair of characters that it’s been hard to take quite seriously before. And I always enjoy stories where the heroes and their recurring foes team up against a common threat. As for said threat, Newmar and Haig are perfectly cast, hamming it up marvelously in villain roles straight out of a ‘40s movie serial – totally one-dimensional and corny, but quite fun to watch. Newmar’s black dress and turban with red, spangly stripes coiling through them and a large, red Ming the Merciless collar is something to behold as well. I think the costume design is one of my favorite things about this show.

 

Next time, I’ll offer an overview of the first season.