Archive for January 7, 2018

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Unchained Woman”/”Planet of the Amazon Women” (spoilers)

January 7, 2018 1 comment

“Unchained Woman” is another title that sounds kinkier than the actual episode. Said woman is Jen Burton, played by a young and doe-eyed Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh off of Halloween. Buck is sent to infiltrate a harsh, android-run prison on desert planet Zeta Minor, in order to break Jen out so she can testify against the pirate leader Pantera, her boyfriend whom she took a murder rap to protect. The Zetan government refuses to extradite her to Earth to give her testimony, necessitating more drastic measures. Jen’s a reluctant rescuee, unwilling to testify against Pantera, but she bonds with Buck as they face the perils of the desert – and the damaged but relentless prison-guard android (the aptly named Walter Hunter) who pursues them throughout the episode. Forget Halloween, this episode anticipates The Terminator by five years.

Anyway, Wilma gets captured by Pantera (Michael DeLano) on the way to rendezvous with Buck, but she manages to escape through her own resourcefulness and Buck’s judo lessons. Back on Earth, Dr. Huer discusses the Pantera matter with an old friend, Ambassador Warwick, who’s Earth’s representative to Zeta and is suspiciously squirrely about the extradition matter. Warwick is played by veteran actor Robert Cornthwaite, who was in The Thing From Another World and The War of the Worlds in the ‘50s, and who played Allan A. Dale in the Archer episodes of Batman, where he was a corrupt official secretly working for the villain. He’s the same here, for Warwick, a once-ambitious man frustrated by the low station he’s ended up in, is working with Pantera, using his diplomatic position to provide cover for his piracy. When Theopolis and Twiki unearth the evidence and tell Huer, the doctor is regrettably unsurprised, and insists on confronting his old friend alone. It’s a nice bit of drama for Tim O’Connor to play.

Back on Zeta, Pantera’s latest moll helps Jen escape from Buck, but her happy reunion with her lover is dashed when he reveals he only used her and now intends to kill her, taking her to his ship to throw her out the airlock once they’re out in space. Buck and Wilma find the baddies and try to rescue Jen, but Pantera gets the drop on them – until the proto-Terminator shows up and causes havoc. They finally stop the guard android and leave the planet, and Buck assures Jen she can safely keep the prison tracking bracelet the android homed in on as a souvenir, since there’s no way he can follow. Back on the planet, the android’s hand twitches…

It suddenly strikes me that Buck Rogers has settled into being basically The Six Million Dollar Man in reverse. It’s a show about a charming, wisecracking Air Force pilot who does clandestine work for a government intelligence and law enforcement agency, but in this case, he’s the normal human being and it’s the people around him who have superpowers or other unusual attributes. The thing that makes him exceptional is that he’s the only normal 20th-century guy in the future setting, and somehow that’s always an advantage, never a drawback. But the show has not done an adequate job explaining why Buck is motivated to do this, or how he’s become their top man so quickly. It’s just something he does because it’s the formula for this kind of ‘70s adventure show.

And “Unchained Woman” is yet another crime/spy story that could’ve pretty much been done in a present-day show, with the only real genre element being the android guard – who really does come off as a forerunner to the Terminator, albeit far less visually impressive in both casting and prosthetic effects. Maybe he was meant to evoke the kind of relentless horror-movie killer that Jamie Lee Curtis had faced the year before in her breakout film role. It’s pretty effective, but it makes me wish the storylines were more science fiction-based overall and not such generic TV plots.

“Planet of the Amazon Women”: As usual, this one isn’t as lurid and trashy as its title suggests, though it comes a bit closer than most. It’s by Star Trek scribe D.C. Fontana under her Michael Richards pseudonym, along with a writer named Richard Fontana (as Clayton Richards), though I’m not sure how they’re related (I’m guessing siblings or cousins, since Fontana was her maiden name and Richard was only 12 years her junior according to IMDb).

While Earth is in delicate negotiations to avoid war with an alien world called Ruatha – which has occupied the planet that’s the only known source of a vital mineral, barberite – Buck is lured to the planet Zantia by a distress call from a pair of sisters who insist on taking him home to show their gratitude. But their come-ons are a little too strong and Buck catches on that they’re trying to drug him, so he’s taken by force by the women and their employer Thorne (Jay Robinson). Turns out he and several other captive men are being auctioned off as slaves, specifically as mates for the planet’s man-hungry women. (The displays in the auction room that show off the bid prices have a familiar shape – at first I thought they were the basis for the body of the robot Crichton in season 2. But it turns out they’re just broadly similar, perhaps designed by the same artist. The props would be reused in one or two later episodes, though.)

Buck is bought by the planet’s prime minister (Anne Jeffreys) as a mate for her unwilling daughter Ariela (Ann Dusenberry), who explains to Buck that her mother instituted this policy after the Ruathans killed or captured most of Zantia’s men in a war. The PM feels that Zantia would be quickly conquered if it let on that it were nearly manless, so they hide the fact and lure in men to take as slaves rather than just advertising for men. Buck, to his credit, wonders why the women couldn’t defend the planet themselves, but apparently they were a less egalitarian society than Earth and the women depended too much on the men to do the fighting. (I’m glad this show didn’t go the route of having Buck be a 20th-century chauvinist who had trouble adjusting to the future’s egalitarianism, although he does sometimes come off a little too idealized.)

But Ariela has a plan to kidnap the Ruathan ambassador (another blinky-light-box AI “quad” like Theopolis) and force him to give their men back, and Buck goes along and escapes with her in his Starfighter. But Wilma has come to rescue him, and when she learns about his and Ariela’s plan, she convinces the PM to let her go after them and stop them, since their plan would lead to a war with Earth that would hurt Zantia as well. So it gets kind of complicated as Wilma and Buck end up on opposite sides while Buck tries to forcibly board the Ruathan shuttle. But Buck convinces Wilma to trust him and let him board. He’s actually here to negotiate rather than kidnap, since he has an ace in the hole, one that seems lifted from Star Trek: “Elaan of Troyius” (which also featured Jay Robinson, but did not involve Fontana). Turns out barberite is a common mineral on Zantia, so Buck and Wilma convince Huer to give up their claim to the disputed planet if the Ruathans will let the Zantian men go home, as well as letting the miners on the disputed planet leave. The plan works, and the fact that they negotiated in bad faith by not telling the Ruathans about Zantia’s mineral wealth – which I’d think would probably lead to the very war they were trying to avoid – is never addressed.

A story like this could’ve been a sexist mess, but as it turns out, it barely touches on the gender issues it raises. It’s ultimately more about the convoluted politics between Zantia, Ruatha, and Earth, and it gets kind of hard to follow it all. Ultimately it’s all kind of unfocused and cluttered, and the frequent intrusions of comic-relief lines from Twiki are more annoying than usual. (The funniest lines of the episode actually comes from Dr. Theopolis. Sometimes dry wit is the best.) But at least it’s an attempt to tell a science fiction story of sorts, a “what if” scenario about how a human colony world adapted to the loss of its male population, rather than just a routine crime, spy, or war story in a future setting. Not an especially good attempt, but at least it’s something.

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