Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “The Plot to Kill a City”/”Return of the Fighting 69th” (spoilers)

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “The Plot to Kill a City”/”Return of the Fighting 69th” (spoilers)

“The Plot to Kill a City, Parts 1 & 2”: This 2-parter by the show’s story editor, comics/TV/prose SF writer Alan Brennert (author of the classic Batman story “To Kill a Legend” in Detective Comics #500, and also a future story editor for the revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits), opens with Buck undercover to capture a thug named Raphael Argus, who’s known for frequently changing his appearance, allowing Buck to adopt his identity to infiltrate the Legion of Death, a notorious band of interstellar mercenaries seeking revenge for the Earth Defense Directorate’s recent killing of one of their members.

Brennert’s comics background shows in the composition of the Legion, most of whose members have various superpowers. Quince (John Quade) is a telekinetic. Sherese (Nancy DeCarl) is an empath who’s very suspicious and paranoid. Varek (Anthony James) is from a human colony that destroyed itself in nuclear war, leaving its survivors as deformed mutants with the ability to turn intangible and phase through walls. And the leader, Kellogg… well, he’s the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). He’s also the master strategist of the group.

Since the sensitivity of the mission means that Buck can’t tell the authorities who he really is, he gets pulled over in Argus’s ship by the space cops before he even reaches the Stargate for Aldebaran II, the wretched hive of scum and villainy where the Legion is meeting. Weirdly, when caught in the cops’ tractor beam, Argus’s amorous computer says their stardrive is shutting down and they’re dropping to sublight. Hold on, weren’t Stargates the method of FTL travel here? Anyway, Buck escapes with help from a fellow prisoner called Barney – played by a young and welcome James Sloyan, and based on a character named Black Barney from the Buck Rogers comic strip – who seems jazzed to meet the infamous Raphael Argus and helps him escape. Meanwhile, since Buck is delayed, Wilma dons a slutty disguise and lures the womanizing Quince to her room, using the same euphoric truth drug from last week to interrogate him.

Once Buck arrives, the Legion tests him out, first by attacking him, second by introducing him to Joella (Markie Post), an old flame of Argus, who instantly recognizes him as not Argus (Aren’tgus?) but plays along with his deception for her own reasons. Buck also bonds with Varek over the fact that both their worlds blew up in holocausts. Varek is a sympathetic character, but he feels he deserves to be bossed around by Kellogg because of his people’s crimes.

At the meeting the next day, Kellogg reveals that his plan is to destroy New Chicago. But Sherese senses Wilma listening before he can go into details, and Buck goes off to “chase” her, along with another Legion member. She does fine in escaping until she’s unfortunately saddled with the ‘70s TV female requirement of tripping over the first convenient obstacle, and Buck has to stun the other guy, then have Wilma take him captive and go back and report that Wilma killed the other guy before “Argus” killed her. Kellogg spells out his plan to detonate New Chicago’s matter-antimatter reactor, which is called a contraterrene reactor – an old term for antimatter coined by physicist Vladimir Rojansky in 1935 and popularized by SF author Jack Williamson in the 1940s. Knowing the plan now, Buck gathers up Joella and tries to escape to the ship – but the Legion has been tipped off that “Argus” is a fraud by Barney, who met Argus before and knows this isn’t him. And that’s the end of Part 1.

In Part 2, Buck gets out of trouble by using a fallback identity Huer arranged for him, an assassin named Whist. Kellogg contacts his agent in New Chicago to confirm the Whist identity, which checks out. But the agent then bugs Huer’s office to confirm he’s clueless about the Legion’s plot, and thus he finds out that “Whist” is actually Buck Rogers, a fact he transmits to Kellogg. Huer and Wilma subsequently arrest the agent, aware that he accessed the Whist identity. Now, logically, if they were monitoring the computer to tell them when the Whist file was accessed, wouldn’t it also have told them who’d done it, so they could’ve stopped him before he blew Buck’s cover? Worse, Huer says the only reason they knew the man had done it was because Theopolis had already pegged him as the Legion spy! So how was he allowed to get away with warning Kellogg? It’s either sloppy security or sloppy writing.

Anyway, Joelle helps Buck get away from the Legion at the spaceport. (Writer Brennert inserts some DC Comics nods into the PA announcements – “Dr. Adam Strange of Alpha Centauri” and a flight leaving for Thanagar.) He’s soon cornered by Varek – who fakes killing him and lets him get away because he doesn’t want Earth to suffer the same fate as his bombed-out planet (well, not again, anyway). Buck and Joelle intimidate Barney into giving him the Starfighter he bought with his thirty pieces of silver earned for selling out Buck, a fair enough exchange. Back on Earth, the Legion blackmails Selvan (James McEachin), an engineer who works at the CT reactor, into giving them access by threatening his family (though Varek bonds with his children while the others are talking to Selvan). Luckily for them, Selvan assumes they’re technology thieves and doesn’t consider that there might be a more apocalyptic reason to break into an antimatter power station. A mix of Selvan’s knowledge, Kellogg’s gadgetry, Quince’s telekinesis, Varek’s phasing, and Sherese’s empathic lie detection lets them get through the “nineteen or twenty” security barriers, actually more like five.

Once Selvan figures out that Kellogg is rigging the plant to blow, he fights back, and when ordered to kill Selvan, Varek refuses and finally turns on his master. Both men are felled for their troubles, though the “Legion of Death” members inexplicably use the stun setting, so that they’re able to recover when Huer arrives and work to shut down the reactor while Buck and Wilma chase after the escaping Legionnaires, dogfight with them, and blow up Quince and Kellogg while Sherese escapes off-camera. Since some antiparticles have already escaped containment and the main console is destroyed, Varek is the only one who can get inside the reactor chamber and restore the decaying magnetic bottles while remaining phased to avoid annihilation. (We saw before that he can selectively solidify different parts of his body – he put his arm through a wall to grab Buck around the throat.) Buck and Wilma get back from outer space just in time to see him succeed. And somehow, all of this takes place in just five minutes! A longer countdown, 20 or 30 minutes, would’ve made more sense, just to accommodate the moving around between the plant and outer space. (Although the elapsed screen time is about 5:45.) Varek is almost killed by stray antiparticles but manages to phase to safety, and Wilma promises to help heal his injuries. Cue unfunny comedy tag scene with Huer and Wilma forced to endure Buck’s attempt at reinventing wine and Twiki flirting with Joella (successfully, somehow), and we’re out.

While this one does have some pretty sizeable plot holes, it’s not bad. It’s still a plot that could’ve been done in a present-day show – stopping terrorists from blowing up a power plant – dressed up with sci-fi trappings like Buck’s gadgets and the Legion’s superpowers. But Brennert depicts antimatter fairly credibly, and even works a nice vintage science fiction homage with the use of the word “contraterrene.” And the strongest conjectural element, I suppose, is how Varek’s personality and actions are shaped by the holocaust his people endured. It’s also the strongest character element in the story, and the closest this season ever comes under Bruce Lansbury’s “keep it basic” guidance to making any sort of social commentary through science-fiction allegory. All in all, I’m not sure this needed to be a 2-parter – there’s a lot of padding and peripheral action that’s largely just taking up time – but there are some decent ideas at the core.

“Return of the Fighting 69th”: We go from a 2-parter about a “Plot to Kill a City” one week to a 1-parter about a plot to kill everyone on Earth the next. That escalated quickly. And it’s a bit of  a pacing problem for the series. It might’ve been wiser to put some space between these two episodes.

This one is written by David Bennett Carren, the debut SFTV credit of a writer who would work extensively in SF and animated TV, including a story editor gig on season 4 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The villains in this one are fairly petty for a scheme of planetary genocide – gunrunners Corliss and Trent (Robert Quarry and Elizabeth Allen), who seek revenge on Wilma Deering for the extensive burns and injuries they suffered when she shot them down three years earlier – injuries they declined to have treated on Earth because their freedom and revenge meant more to them. They pursue this revenge by raiding a recently unearthed stockpile of 20th-century weapons near Washington, DC, including enough nerve gas bombs to poison the planet’s entire atmosphere (which seems quite unlikely, but whatever).

When two rookies under Buck and Wilma’s command (seriously, how did a relic from the distant past get to be Earth’s top pilot so quickly?) get destroyed trying to get through the standard, absurdly dense sci-fi asteroid field that Corliss and Trent are hiding in, Huer orders Wilma to reactivate Noah Cooper (Peter Graves), the only person who can get through the asteroids. Cooper is Wilma’s old flight instructor and beloved family friend, whom she forced to retire the previous year along with his entire squadron, the 69th Squadron of the Earth Space Marines (gee, throw in Air and you’d have everything covered). This leads to some tensions when she and Buck go to recruit them. (Buck passes up the opportunity to mention that he’s far older than any of them.) Their grounding was on the, err, grounds that they were too old to meet the physical requirements, but Buck gets Wilma to realize she was biased by her love for Cooper and his squadron and her unwillingness to risk seeing them get hurt.

Cooper insists on reactivating his whole team and modifying some vintage bombers for the mission. He gets the squadron through the asteroids okay, but Buck and Wilma are shot down and taken captive, making Cooper hesitant to bomb the enemy base with them inside. This gives Corliss and Trent time to gloat and threaten, while Buck bonds with Trent’s deaf slave girl Alicia (Katherine Wiberg) by pulling out yet another 20th-century skill that’s been rendered nigh-obsolete by 25th-century science, namely sign language. She helps them escape from their cell, albeit in a way that requires Wilma to seduce the guards first, because of course. They’re almost recaptured, but Buck’s familiarity with obsolete weapons nobody else recognizes as weapons gives him the edge, and they escape just before Cooper blows the joint. There are some tense moments when Cooper’s ship appears to be lost in the explosion, but he turns up intact, and Buck finds Alicia’s parents, and it’s a happy ending all around as usual.

Once more, we get a standard, “basic” 20th-century plot dressed up with sci-fi trappings – in this case, a spaced-up riff on a war story. Indeed, all three of the male actors playing members of the 69th were actual WWII-era veterans – Peter Graves and Woody Strode were in the Army Air Corps and Eddie Firestone was in the Marine Reserves. (Which may have been part of the inspiration for the story, or at least the casting.) It makes for a perfectly serviceable, decent ‘70s TV episode, but it’s not particularly imaginative or innovative either. It’s just okay. Lansbury wanted the show to be “basic” and unthreatening to the average viewer, which means it’s watchable but nothing special. But at least that makes for a better show than I feared it would be, both from my memories and from rewatching the pilot.

One part of this one I liked was Johnny Harris’s score. Appropriately, the leitmotif used for the 69th’s bombers in this Buck Rogers episode reminded me of one of Ray Ellis & Norm Prescott’s music cues for Filmation’s Flash Gordon animated film and series from the same year.

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