Archive for January 3, 2018

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Planet of the Slave Girls”/”Vegas in Space” (spoilers)

The Buck Rogers series proper has less direct involvement from executive producer Glen Larson than Battlestar Galactica did, which is probably to its advantage. Neither he nor his pilot co-writer Leslie Stevens did any writing for it post-pilot. Bruce Lansbury, formerly of The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, and Wonder Woman, took over as supervising producer and showrunner for the series. His approach, according to an interview in the June 1980 Starlog, was to avoid telling “concept stories” like Star Trek did, on the theory that those alienated the average viewer. Instead, he wanted to “ignore the sci-fi nature of the show” and “look for a way to tell stories that are currently being told on other kinds of shows – basic melodrama, action-adventure, and humor.” This was a highly unambitious approach on Lansbury’s part, and as we go, we’ll see how that desire to keep it “basic” played out. Lansbury also largely dropped the pilot’s dystopian portrayal of Earth as a sparsely inhabited wasteland sheltering within a planetary shield, instead showing a more prosperous humanity that was a prominent interstellar power.

The second, also movie-length episode, written by the show’s story consultant Anne Collins, is pulpily and misleadingly titled “Planet of the Slave Girls.” (The working title was “Flight to Sorceror’s Mountain.” According to story editor Alan Brennert, Bruce Lansbury wanted all the episode titles to be “Flight of/to/from” something, in the same way that all Wild Wild West titles had been “Night of…”, but NBC’s executives handed down the more simplistic and/or garish titles the show used instead.) It starts with Wilma Deering introducing Buck (and the viewers) to the Stargates, the show’s method of FTL interstellar travel devised by Brennert – essentially a jump gate technology like that later used in Babylon 5, or for that matter the space-based gates in Stargate Atlantis, except this kind of Stargate is just an array of four animated starbursts that form a diamond-shaped area of squiggly light between them when a ship passes through. Buck and Wilma gate into a training exercise in which an Earth training flight comes under attack from pirates (using stock footage of the Draconian fighters from the pilot), and the flight leader Duke Danton (David Groh), an old flame of Wilma’s, is resentful of Buck intervening to save the pilot, and subsequently of Wilma’s evident closeness to Buck. They later clash when Buck tries to teach 20th-century combat strategy to the 25th-century pilots, using football metaphors that Buck and Duke end up demonstrating on each other physically, in much the way you’d expect from guys named Buck and Duke.

The rescued pilot, Regis Saroyan (Michael Mullins), is one of many Earth pilots to fall ill recently, weaking Earth’s defenses. (It’s mentioned that this has happened in several of Earth’s cities, promptly retconning the pilot’s assertion that Earth was a wasteland aside from “the Inner City,” which is now simply called New Chicago.) It turns out to be the result of poisoned “food discs” shipped from the planet Vistula, so Buck, Wilma, and Danton go there to investigate on the pretense of returning Regis home to his father, the Earth-born governor of Vistula, played by the incomparable but wasted Roddy McDowall. Governor Saroyan turns out to be enslaving the Vistulan workers, who are sold to him by Kaleel, a Vistulan cult leader who’s outrageously overacted by Jack Palance, and who has plans to overthrow Earth. This is presented as evil, even though the Earth people seem perfectly happy with the idea of slavery, with Buck and Regis being the only objectors. The Vistulans are played by white actors with some extras of color, but they’re coded as Arabs, desert nomads who dress in burnooses and keffiyehs and who follow a fanatical leader. Yeah, that stereotype goes way back.

Later, Buck meets Ryma (Brianne Leary), the one and only slave girl who plays a role in “Planet of the Slave Girls,” and actually a resistance leader who tips him off to the plant where the food supply is being poisoned. While Buck (and his stunt double who looks nothing like him) is off fighting the plant’s guards, Wilma and Ryma get captured and taken to Kaleel’s mountain redoubt. Buck and Duke follow and get shot down, and they bond while fighting off desert nomads, while Wilma escapes her captors and disguises herself in skimpy slave girl rags. The boys discover that Kaleel is readying a fleet to attack Earth, so Duke flies off to warn Earth while Buck infiltrates the mountain and gets captured. He, Wilma, and Ryma are stuck in a lava-pit deathtrap that’s poorly enough designed to allow them to escape, while Duke gets the handful of remaining pilots to join him in a raid on Kaleel’s fleet. Said pilots include Twiki and Theopolis, as well as Colonel Gordon, an old veteran coming out of retirement for one last mission. Gordon is a nice bit of homage, since he’s played by Buster Crabbe, the legendary star of the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials. Practically every line he has in the episode is a winking in-joke about that fact.

Incidentally, Twiki becoming a fighter pilot raises all sorts of questions. In the pilot, it was implied that “drones” were common enough that some random stranger who might be a spy was still able to get his own personal drone. So why doesn’t Earth already have a whole legion of robot fighter pilots? Or just put AI brains in the fighters themselves? Then again, given that AIs are considered sentient and that “quads” like Theo apparently run the society, maybe they don’t want to risk their own kind in battle. Which makes you wonder about their opinion of humans.

Anyway, Buck and Wilma steal the last two enemy fighters conveniently left lying around, and Buck proves his identity to Duke by referring to a conversation about football they had offscreen (would’ve been a better callback if it had been onscreen), and then they use Buck’s “quarterback” strategy from his earlier lecture to take out the enemy squadron leader and win the day. And Governor Roddy McDowall is mortified that he allowed Kaleel, the guy he bought the slaves from, to lead him astray, and his son and Ryma agree to work with him to make things better. So lemme get this straight – the true villain behind the slavery was the guy who sold the slaves, and the guy who bought and owned the slaves and ruthlessly punished them for the slightest transgression was the real victim? Uh-huh.

Aside from the horrifically clumsy approach to human rights and the horrific scenery-chewing by Jack Palance, and the waste of both Roddy McDowall and Buster Crabbe, this is a definite improvement on the pilot. It’s still silly and cheap (stock footage of the fighter launch tubes from the Draconian ship is repurposed as both the Earth and Vistula launch facilities, and will continue to be reused generically for most of the series), and it suffers from an excess of villains, but it’s at least a somewhat coherent story, and the execution doesn’t feel quite so lazy and uncaring, with better acting and better sets. There’s a nice little subplot about an Earth scientist and his computer partner searching for a cure – they bicker incessantly, but when a Vistulan agent sabotages the computer, the human scientist laments it as cold-blooded murder, and is moved when Twiki and Theo manage to bring him back to life later on. It’s also a lot less sexist than the title implied it might be; both Wilma and Ryma are allowed to be somewhat effective leaders and fighters, up to a point (Wilma needed Buck to teach her the lost art of judo, and both women relied on him to rescue them from the lava pit), and there are capable supporting women on both Duke’s fighter team and Kaleel’s band of villains. I like the music too. Though Galactica’s Stu Phillips scored the pilot, this episode is scored by Johnny Harris (fresh off of season 3 of Wonder Woman) and has a nice funky ‘70s sound – which, admittedly, is a bit incongruous for a show about a pilot from 1987 living in 2491.

“Vegas in Space” is the first regular-length episode and the second in a row by Anne Collins, who’d previously written for Hawaii Five-O and Wonder Woman, and would later write several episodes of Robert Urich’s Vega$. It’s actually the most solidly written episode yet, though it feels like Collins took a story pitch for a contemporary crime drama and reworked it for Buck Rogers.

Cesar Romero plays Armat, an infamous but untouchable Earth crime lord who’s willing to confess and turn himself in if the Earth Defense Directorate (the organization Huer runs and Buck and Wilma work for) will help him rescue a kidnapped employee, Felina (Ana Alicia), who inadvertently saw secret data that his rival Velosi (Richard Lynch) wants to extract from her brain and use against Armat. Huer is reluctant until he offers information on how to defeat the Draconians’ Hatchet fighters. Remember how the pilot established that the Starfighters’ computers were useless against the Hatchet fighters so Buck had to target them manually, but this was never explained or followed up on? Well, to my surprise, this episode plugs that plot hole by establishing the Hatchets’ resistance to computer targeting as an ongoing mystery stymieing Earth’s forces, and gives Buck and Wilma a debate about the merits of computer targeting versus human intuition.

Oddly, though, Wilma is missing for most of the episode, replaced by a Directorate major named Marla Landers (Juanin Clay), who recruits Buck to join her in infiltrating Velosi’s orbiting casino city, Sinaloa, because of his proficiency at “Ten and Eleven,” the game we know as Blackjack. Apparently Erin Gray initially hesitated to return as a series regular, due to the coldness of the pilot version of Wilma (according to a December 1979 Starlog interview), and Clay was slated to replace her. I found a later Starlog article stating that “the fifth hour,” which I guess would be this episode, was the first regular series episode to be filmed. My best guess is that Clay shot the bulk of the episode playing Wilma Deering, but when Gray finally signed for the series, they shot new framing scenes with Wilma introducing Clay to Buck as Marla Landers, a close enough name to “Wilma Deering” that it could easily be dubbed into the rest of the episode.

Anyway, Buck and Wilmaaaa… arla infiltrate the casino city, and Buck wows them at the gaming table by card counting, which is a lost art in the 25th century because everyone has become dependent on computers. Marla complains to Velosi about the “cheating” player, in order to attract the attention of a thug (The Rockford Files’s James Luisi) so Buck can overpower him and give him a truth drug to find out where Velina is held. Meanwhile, Marla has to fend off Velosi’s romantic advances, but she’s saved by the arrival of Dr. No himself, Joseph Wiseman, who had a cameo in the feature cut of the pilot as Emperor Draco but who now plays Morphus, the expert who will extract Felina’s memories in a manner that she won’t survive.

But Buck and Marla manage to steal Velosi’s master key so Buck can save her. They break out as planned – along with Tangie (Pamela Shoop), an indentured and scantily attired casino employee who convinces Buck to buy her freedom with his winnings. Then they have to fight off some Hatchet fighters – apparently Velosi was their supplier all along – and Marla has to carry the payoff of the Buck-Wilma debate from earlier by taking on the fighters manually. Then there’s a closing scene where Armat comes clean about being Felina’s father, which she doesn’t want to believe – something he tells her is probably for the best, for her own safety.

This is actually a decently written episode with some nice character bits. Buck is written more dimensionally, with some all-too-brief exploration of his feelings about being 500 years removed from the people he cared for, but also with a pretty fun interplay between him and Luisi’s casino guard. It isn’t much of a science fiction story, just a crime story that with a few minor changes could’ve been set in 1979 Vegas or Atlantic City, which is in keeping with Lansbury’s desire to avoid science-fiction “concept stories.” Still, it’s frankly better-written and more intelligent than I expected from this show, and it lets Gil Gerard play a more well-rounded, substantial character than he did in the first two movie-length episodes. And it actually makes the effort to fix up a plot hole from the pilot about the fighters, which is an impressive bit of continuity. Maybe there’s some modest hope for this show yet.

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