Archive for January 1, 2018

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979) Reviews: “Awakening”/feature film (spoilers)

After I did my Battlestar Galactica reviews several years back, I always intended to revisit the other major Glen Larson-produced space opera from the same period, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which ran from 1979-81 and whose first season starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Col. Wilma Deering, Tim O’Connor as Dr. Huer, and Felix Silla and Mel Blanc as (respectively) the body and voice of Twiki, Buck’s robot sidekick. I had to drop my Netflix DVD service due to lack of funds before I got around to those discs, but recently I finally decided to check my library for them, and so I’ve finally been able to do a rewatch. Along the way, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of magazine article scans from the period on the fan site, providing a wealth of production insights that have helped me enhance my commentary.

The character of Anthony Rogers debuted in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, in the 1928 novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Nowlan and its 1929 sequel “The Airlords of Han.” Rogers was a World War I veteran who was trapped in suspended animation by mine gas and woke up five centuries later in a post-apocalyptic United States that had long since been conquered by an enemy interchangeably referred to as “Hans” and “Mongolians,” even though the Han Chinese and Mongols are entirely different nations/ethnicities. “Tony” Rogers fell in love with resistance fighter Wilma Deering, and together they used a mix of Rogers’s WWI combat skills and 25th-century technology to fight for the liberation of the United States. The stories are typical of the preferences of Amazing’s editor Hugo Gernsback, focused more on the details of futuristic technology and language than on characterization. They’re pretty feminist for their era, portraying Wilma and the other “girls” of her era as strong, skilled fighters. However, they’re also deeply and horrifyingly racist. The whole duology is essentially one long white-supremacist tract about the need to defend the noble White Race (it actually uses the capitalized phrase and equates it with Americans) and “blast the Yellow Blight from the face of the Earth,” going on at great length about the moral degeneracy of the Han and how they don’t love their children as we do. In “Airlords,” Nowlan’s heroes freely use nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to exterminate the entire Han race from existence. It’s such a brutally racist, genocidal fantasy that I think it must have gotten complaints, because there’s a clumsily tacked-on retcon at the end of “Airlords” saying that the Han turned out after the fact to have been part-alien, so all the actual human races can get along as equals now that the alien taint has been expunged.

The first novella was soon adapted into a comic strip by syndicator John F. Dille, writer Nowlan, and artist Dick Calkins, who renamed its lead character Buck Rogers and added more characters including scientist Dr. Huer, the villainous defector Killer Kane, and his femme fatale girlfriend Ardala Valmar. The comic strip debuted at the start of 1929, initially adapting the same “war against the Mongols” premise as the novellas and employing the standard Asian stereotypes and caricatures in use at the time, but after the first year of the strip, the war was resolved peacefully by revealing that the benevolent Mongol Emperor was unaware of the atrocities his Viceroy was committing in America. After Buck and Wilma defeated the Viceroy, the Mongol angle was permanently, mercifully dropped and Buck became a planet-hopping hero taking on foes like the Tiger Men of Mars. Buck Rogers was the first space hero in American comics and radio, anticipating Flash Gordon by four years, though Flash made it to the movie screen first in 1936, in the form of Buster Crabbe.

Universal produced the three Flash Gordon serials and the 1939 Buck Rogers serial also starring Crabbe, and they held onto the rights to both characters for the following four decades. After the failure of an initial 1977 TV series pitch developed by David Gerrold (rejected because it was more science-fictional than Universal felt audiences were ready for), they hired Glen Larson and Leslie Stevens (the former Outer Limits producer who probably contributed a lot more to the creation of Battlestar Galactica than is generally recognized) to make a TV pilot in 1979, the 50th anniversary of the comic strip. The original plan was to do a 6-hour miniseries, but Larson decided the first 2 hours were worth releasing as a theatrical feature, as he had done before with Battlestar Galactica’s pilot. Thus, scenes were added, cut, and reshot for the theatrical version.

The feature film Buck Rogers in the 25th Century opens with William “Buck” Rogers (not Anthony, although that’s later established as his middle name) as an astronaut who, according to William Conrad’s opening narration, is thrown into a 500-year orbit and placed in suspended animation by a freak accident. (Perhaps they were influenced by Planet of the Apes? As it happens, Gene Roddenberry’s earlier Genesis II pilot was rather reminiscent of the original Nowlan story, with Dylan Hunt trapped underground in cryogenic suspension to awaken in a post-apocalyptic world.) The narration sets up the main title sequence as a hibernation dream of Buck’s, though it’s bizarre, like a cheap knockoff of a James Bond title sequence. While the insipid title song “Suspension” is badly sung by Kipp Lennon (no relation to John, but a sibling of the ‘50s/’60s singing group the Lennon Sisters), several women in skimpy silver outfits lounge and pose atop a huge BUCK ROGERS logo on the floor, staring “seductively” at the camera while Gil Gerard’s Buck lies there “asleep” on top of his own name. These women include Pamela Hensley (Princess Ardala) and Erin Gray (Wilma Deering), even though this is supposedly Buck’s dream and he hasn’t met them yet. The rest are just random models, one of whom is wearing oversized round eyeglasses for some reason. It’s insane and inept. The TV version, “Awakening” (which is oddly included only as a low-quality, unrestored bonus feature on the final disk of the second season’s DVD set), mercifully omits this absurd opening in favor of the standard main title sequence and its strictly instrumental arrangement of “Suspension.” (I always liked the more driving, dramatic music under the opening narration and Buck’s “flight through time” much more than the “Suspension” arrangement over the cast credits.)

The first conscious characters we meet, aside from some random fighter pilots, are Princess Ardala of Draconia and her second-in-command Kane (Henry Silva), a defector from Earth. They intercept Buck’s shuttle, almost blast him before realizing there’s something odd about his ship, and revive him out of curiosity, all while en route to Earth for a diplomatic mission that’s secretly a plot to conquer Earth. Buck spends this whole time either woozy from his 500-year nap or stoned on pain medicine, so there’s not much established about his personality except that he cracks wise a lot. Kane sends him on his way to Earth, assuming that if they escort him safely through Earth’s defense shield rather than letting him fry, it proves he’s a spy. This plot point will have no further relevance and is just an excuse to get Buck on his way to Earth.

It’s worth noting that this version of Ardala is virtually nothing like Ardala Valmar from the comic strips and radio series, a Terran femme fatale and “adventuress” and the girlfriend of chief villain Killer Kane. I never realized it until this rewatch, but what the TV series did was to turn Ardala into a virtual clone of Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura – the sexpot daughter of an evil alien monarch menacing Earth (though Emperor Draco never appears except as a hologram in the theatrical edition), smitten by the stalwart Earthman hero, and partial to wearing ornate, bikini-like attire. The one respect in which this Ardala differs from Aura is that she remains a villain throughout. I would have thought they were imitating Ornella Muti’s Aura in Dino De Laurentiis’s Flash Gordon, but this pilot was written and shot in 1978, before De Laurentiis’s film even had its final script or cast. So I wonder what inspired the producers to turn Ardala into a near-exact copy of Aura. Maybe they felt it would make her a more impressive foil and love interest for Buck. Or maybe they just confused the two characters.

The Earth defense forces are confused by Buck’s transmissions to “Mission Control” and send up a squadron led by Wilma Deering, but in contrast to Kane’s expectations, they lead him through the safe path in the defense shield rather than letting him burn. He’s escorted to the Inner City, the only remaining outpost of civilization on Earth, which by a huge coincidence was formerly Buck’s hometown of Chicago. The Syd Dutton matte paintings representing the Inner City are the only good visual effects in the movie. While its spaceship effects are visually and stylistically similar to John Dykstra’s Galactica work (and its Starfighters are a rejected Ralph McQuarrie design concept for BSG’s Vipers), they’re made with less budget and/or skill and don’t look nearly as good. (They’re done by the same company that did Galactica post-pilot, though – Universal’s in-house FX outfit called Hartland, which Dykstra set up before moving to Paramount for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I suppose maybe they had less time and budget to work on this one, because the FX are much better in the series proper.) But the Inner City sets are awful – mostly just an empty room whose walls are made of vacuformed pieces that look like Rubbermaid drawers. While in this 2-dollar set, Buck is briefly introduced to Dr. Huer, but the main characters he interacts with are Dr. Theopolis, a sentient AI or “quad” in the form of a circular box with flashing lights, and Twiki, the robot “drone” (or “ambuquad”) who carries Theopolis around like a giant medallion around his neck. Twiki (pronounced “Tweaky”) ws designed to look like a small boy with a bowl haircut, basically a mechanical version of Boxey from Galactica, but his large staring eyes and gaping mouth are a bit nightmarish and his head shape has been not unfairly compared to male genitalia. At first, Twiki only made low-pitched “Bidi-bidi-bidi” noises – sort of an electronic version of Porky Pig’s stutter – which Theopolis translated, but this was quite awkward and too similar to C-3PO and R2-D2, so Mel Blanc was given more actual dialogue to speak as Twiki as the movie progressed, in a deep wise-guy baritone that clashed oddly with Twiki’s wide-eyed moppet appearance. However, they kept the irritating “Bidi-bidi-bidi” at the start of his every line. (Amusingly, his first recognizable word was “L’chaim” when serving Buck a drink.) Inside the fiberglass Twiki costume was Felix Silla, an actor/stuntman best known as Cousin Itt on The Addams Family. Theopolis was voiced by Howard F. Flynn in the pilot, using a very HAL 9000-like voice (apparently they actually tried to get HAL’s voice actor Douglas Rain to do it), but the aptly named Eric Server would play Theopolis in the series.

Anyway, “Theo” and Wilma explain to Buck that Earth was ravaged by nuclear holocaust not long after he left, and that Earth has struggled to survive ever since, dependent on trade with other worlds for food and resources. Ardala is nominally coming in an unarmed flagship to solidify a defense pact with Earth against the pirates that have besieged its shipping, although Buck is suspicious about the carbon scoring on his shuttle’s hull. Meanwhile, in “Awakening” but not in the theatrical version, there’s a pair of scenes in the apartment assigned to Buck, one where Theo shows him its various futuristic features (presumably to lay pipe for future episodes, although the demonstrated features will rarely be used) and one where he expresses his frustration and rage at being cut off from his own time, in order to convince Theo to let him go out into “Anarchia,” the wasteland beyond the city dome, so that he can confront the reality of what’s happened. Buck then goes out into the ruins of Chicago with Twiki and Theo and finds the grave of his family, then gets into a fight with the mutants of the wasteland before being rescued by Wilma.

The post-apocalyptic element of the story is subsequently abandoned in favor of the Draconia story. Huer finds the homing beacon Kane planted on Buck’s ship to reveal the path through Earth’s defense field, and Buck is put on trial for espionage by the computer council (more quads like Theo) and sentenced to death, “to be carried out immediately.” However, apparently “immediately” means something different in 2491, since there’s enough time for Wilma to convince Huer to convince the council to suspend Buck’s sentence in order to let him visit the Draconian ship and help search it for weapons. We see this happen in “Awakening,” but the theatrical cut skips right from Buck’s death sentence to Wilma making her offer to Buck, making for a rather sizeable plot hole. On the Draconia, Ardala denies having met Buck before, then they almost immediately go out into battle against the “pirates” that Kane and Ardala have sent against their own ship to sell their story. These pirates are really Draconian “Hatchet fighters” softening Earth up to make it receptive to this alliance. The Starfighters’ combat computers prove useless against the Hatchet fighters, for reasons that are never explained, and Buck’s 20th-century Air Force fighter skills single-handedly save him and Wilma, though only after all the other fighter pilots are incidentally killed off. And then Buck and Wilma go back to Earth, completely forgetting their mission to search the Draconian flagship. Wilma starts to warm to him, and his death sentence is postponed until a retrial can be scheduled – another bit that I think was skipped over in the theatrical cut, making it feel like Buck’s trial was just forgotten.

But then, at a reception for Ardala, Buck livens up the courtly dancing by convincing the musician to play “rock” (which the musician has never heard of but picks up effortlessly despite Buck’s virtually nonexistent explanation of what it’s like), then seduces Ardala into making him think he’s defecting to become her consort, so he can get up to her ship and search it. This convinces Wilma he’s a spy after all. He gets Twiki to get him some potent headache pills before his “defection,” so he can lace Ardala’s drink and knock her out in order go search the ship – a rare case of a man giving a woman a roofie to avoid having sex with her. He also has to outfight her mute guard Tigerman, loosely based on the Tiger Men of Mars from the comics, to get away.

Twiki and Theo have snuck after Buck to see if he was a spy, but they learn he’s on their side when he uses a Draconian soldier disguise (with a samurai kabuto-style helmet, an echo of the Yellow Peril elements of the original novella and comic) to plant bombs in the tails of all the fighters, so they blow up when leaving the launch bay. The total lack of security in the hangar, allowing a single saboteur to wipe out the entire fighter squadron, is never explained. There is a second fight with Tigerman, but it was added for the feature version and they couldn’t get the first actor back, so there are two different Tigermen without explanation. Buck kills Tigerman with a bomb in his waistband, though the TV version omits the crotch kick that gives Buck the opening.

Wilma then braves the exploding ship to rescue the robots (and Buck, once Theo tells her he isn’t a traitor), Ardala and Kane escape in a shuttle before it blows, and the theatrical version ends with Wilma promising to be more of a “real woman” to Buck in the future, though Buck still seems more smitten with Ardala.

But “Awakening” skips Wilma’s “real woman” speech in favor of a lengthy final scene that sets the stage for the series to follow. With help from Twiki and “Dr. Junius from the Archives,” Buck has equipped his apartment with 20th-century furnishings, either genuine antiques or Twiki-made reconstructions. Huer and Wilma arrive to offer him an opportunity to work for them. Huer explains that every 25th-century Terran is thoroughly recorded and indexed from birth, known even by their enemies, but Buck is unique as an unknown quantity, a man with no digital footprint (in modern terms), and thus could help them with sensitive missions. Buck resists making formal commitments or putting down ties, but Huer predicts that some missions are bound to pique his interest enough that he’ll help out informally.

I really don’t understand why the DVD set’s makers chose to make the theatrical cut of the pilot the primary version and relegate “Awakening” to the bonus features on the very last disc of a different season set. It would’ve made more sense the other way around. The theatrical cut omits at least five scenes that are important to establishing the core characters and the foundations of the series to follow, as well as some important plot points within the story itself. Certain things in later episodes didn’t make sense to me until I belatedly saw the full pilot, particularly the basic question of just why the heck Dr. Huer kept recruiting Buck for so many missions. And the theatrical cut is a greatly inferior story as well, with a more superficial hero and a more incoherent narrative. If I’d seen the TV version first, I would’ve had a better first impression of the set. I also wouldn’t have had to rewrite this review, and several upcoming ones, quite so heavily.

But “Awakening” still has its problems with story logic and coherence, with a number of important plot elements being given the once-over and largely forgotten when the next bit comes along. The acting is mediocre; Gerard is largely one-note (again, more so in the movie cut) and Gray, though quite lovely (and one of my earliest actress crushes as a pre-teen, as I recall), is strident and stilted as Wilma in her initial, colder mode. O’Connor is given relatively little to do, while Theopolis and Twiki are given too much. Hensley’s wardrobe (or lack thereof) leaves more of an impression than her acting, though she’d do better in later episodes. Henry Silva is okay as Kane, but not as good as Michael Ansara, who would take over the role in the series proper. The best work comes from matte painter Syd Dutton and costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac, who comes up with good-looking future fashions and military uniforms for the Terrans and nice skimpy outfits for Ardala. (I do remember finding her bikini-like costuming quite impressive when I was 11-12. It’s still pretty impressive today.)

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