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BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Cosmic Whiz Kid”/”Escape from Wedded Bliss” (spoilers)

“Cosmic Whiz Kid”: Oh, boy. This is the infamous episode written (teleplay by Alan Brennert, story by Anne Collins, at the instigation of NBC president Fred Silverman) as a guest vehicle for Gary Coleman, the diminutive, wisecracking child actor who’d become famous from his role in the NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes starting the year before. Here, he plays a character written specifically for him – Hieronymous Fox [sic], a brilliant 11-year-old prodigy from the late 20th century (born 493 years earlier, which would be 1998 or so), who had just invented cryogenics when the nuclear holocaust broke out and froze himself to survive it. (Since he was 10 at the time, that gives us the most precise dating of the holocaust yet – it would’ve been in 2008-9. This will be contradicted in season 2, however.) After the war, Earth was plundered by aliens, who for some reason thought a cherubic boy corpsicle was worth stealing and passing around from owner to owner for 400-odd years until he landed up on Genesia, whose inhabitants thawed him, discovered his genius, and made him their president so he could improve life on their world. (A president elected on the basis of high intelligence. Imagine that.)

Which was going fine until he was kidnapped by Uncle Martin. Yes, Ray Walston is our other classic sitcom star here, playing the villainous Roderick Zale, who has Fox kidnapped to extort ransom from the Genesians, or else sell the boy genius to the highest bidder. Fox takes his abduction in stride because he’s already outthought his abductor, and he demands the royal treatment, knowing what he’s worth alive and well.

Meanwhile, Fox’s bodyguard Dia Cyrton (Melody Rogers) – who’s written as a perfectly competent bodyguard but who inexplicably spends the whole episode in a midriff- and cleavage-baring halter top – implores Dr. Huer for help, and when she’s turned down, she kidnaps Buck to help her, based on his reputation from the prison break in “Unchained Woman” two episodes back. Unknown to her, Huer sends Wilma to free Fox on her own, since Earth can’t openly be seen to intervene with a Genesian matter.

In another continuity calback, Fox is being held on Aldebaran II, the planet from “Plot to Kill a City,” which Buck describes as “the Barbary Coast of space.” (Buck also name-drops Tangie from “Vegas in Space” as someone he had plans with before his abduction.) Buck and Dia find Fox’s location courtesy of Selmar, a telepathic informant played by Earl Boen (both face and voice, even though all his dialogue is in telepathic voiceovers), once he reads the mind of the assassin sent to kill them, Toman (Lester Fletcher) – a deceptively diminutive man who looks like Henry Gibson but who turns out to be a superstrong heavy-gravity worlder. Meanwhile, Fox brainstorms his own escape and runs into Wilma, who’s infiltrated the planet’s administrative center to track Zale through his voice print and who runs afoul of a comic-relief AI boss who holds organic beings in contempt. But Buck and Dia get captured, and since Gary Coleman is the featured guest, he gets to sneak back in the way he got out so he can shut down security for Wilma. Although Buck and Dia manage to free themselves at the same time, and the two 20th-century survivors finally get to meet and spend some time together in the tag scene.

You know, at the time this episode first aired, I was a Diff’rent Strokes viewer – in fact, I was nearly the same age as Gary Coleman – and I probably took his guest spot here in stride. Watching it now, though, I’m hard-pressed to understand why Coleman was such a phenomenon at the time. His sassy attitude and sitcommy mugging as Fox are a little annoying, and his acting is okay for an 11-year-old but nothing spectacular. Fox has a lot of comedic dialogue, but Coleman’s comic timing and delivery are just okay. So I just don’t get it. Honestly, it’s the supporting characters like Toman and Selmar, and Wilma’s cyber-chauvinist boss, who bring the most interest and humor here.

The worldbuilding is also of some interest. It’s nice to see the show maintaining continuity, building on past episodes, and we get the state of the universe fleshed out a bit more. One thing I’m unclear on, though, is the nature of the human-appearing “aliens” we’ve seen in a number of episodes, like the Genesians here or the Zantians and Ruathans last week. I’ve been assuming they were descended from human colonists, but sometimes the writing seems to imply they’re not human at all, but humanoid. And if the holocaust happened in 2008-9, that’s too early to support the idea that Earth established extrasolar colonies that were then cut off when civilization fell. Although an article from Super Star Heroes #11 in January 1980 claims that the “alien” enemies of Earth were intended to be renegade human colonies. Season 2 would later establish that a human diaspora into space occurred after the holocaust, but would treat those humans as “lost tribes” distinct from the various humanlike aliens in the show, muddying the issue further.

As a matter of fact, the idea of humanoid aliens being lost human colonies was the basis of my own worldbuilding in my SF universe in its early stages, after I decided humanoid aliens were implausible and tried to come up with an alternate origin for them. That would’ve been somewhere around 1981-2, I think, so I may have been more influenced by Buck Rogers than I’ve realized. Although I eventually gave up on the idea in favor of populating my universe with nonhumanoid aliens, once I embraced the potential of prose SF to do things impossible on a film or TV budget.

“Escape from Wedded Bliss”: The second Ardala/Kane episode is again from Anne Collins and Alan Brennert, for some reason under the pseudonyms Corey Appelbaum and Michael Bryant this time. It opens with yet another plot to destroy the entire Earth, as the Draconians unleash a strange, pyramidal crystalline weapon of alien origin – a mining device the Draconians stole on an expedition to the Galactic center and repurposed as a weapon, which sounds like it might’ve been a more interesting story than this one. Emperor Draco has ordered his daughter Ardala to annihilate Earth, but Ardala has other ideas – namely, to use the threat of the weapon to blackmail the Earth Federation into turning Buck Rogers over to be her consort. (“Talk about a shotgun wedding,” as Buck says later in the episode.)

There’s some weird runaround before we get there, though. First, Huer gathers the leaders of the Earth Federation to entertain Ardala and hear her demands. Bizarrely, it seems the only 20th-century entertainment form to have survived 500 years, other than blackjack, is… roller disco. Yes. I said that. A quartet of “disco skating” performers puts on an interminable show before we finally get around to Ardala’s demands. Also, the Earth Federation leaders are depressingly monoracial, all white except for one token Asian man. That’s actually surprising, since the show has previously been pretty good for its era at diverse casting of both guest stars and extras. But then, it’s also been relatively good at not being sexist or objectifying its female characters, with some exceptions, and Ardala’s aversion to non-bikini-based attire blows that out the airlock. We’re talking about a woman who dresses more modestly for an intimate seduction of her intended mate than she does for a formal state dinner.

Anyway, Buck seems to flee into the wilderness on a vintage motorcycle (courtesy of “Doctor Junius of the Archives,” Buck’s oft-mentioned but never-seen supplier of surviving 20th-century entertainment and relics), but it turns out he’s searching for Garedon (rhymes with “harridan,” and played by Alfred Ryder), an old, senile Draconian defector who, we now learn out of nowhere, came to Buck for sanctuary some months before and has been living as a hermit in the wastes beyond New Chicago, with Buck bringing him supplies. His plan is to learn what Garedon knows of the layout of the Draconian flagship so he can find the pyramid weapon’s controls and destroy it, once he’s turned over to Ardala.

Once Buck finally gets on board, the Draconians conveniently fail to detect the spy devices he’s brought aboard, including a hypo which he uses, for the second time, to drug Ardala in order to avoid sleeping with her. This is getting to be a habit. Although it’s a relief, since Buck is here under duress so Ardala would’ve essentially been raping him if they’d gone through with it, though the episode certainly doesn’t play it that way. Anyway, Ardala seems to be building up a resistance, since she wakes up early and has Kane (now recast as Michael Ansara) capture Buck. Which means Buck has to go through with “Phase 2” of the wedding ritual, i.e. fighting Ardala’s burly bodyguard Tigerman. This Tigerman is played by H.B. Haggerty, the same actor who played the second Tigerman in the pilot, the one whom Buck fought in the hangar bay. Which is a continuity hole, because Buck blew him up shortly before the whole ship he was on blew up. (Some sources report that this bit was cut from the series version of the pilot movie to allow Tigerman to return, much like Baltar’s death in the Battlestar Galactica feature film pilot. But it is on the version of “Awakening” included on the DVD set, just with a couple of the more violent moments edited out.) Anyway, they have a gladiatorial contest which ain’t no “Amok Time,” and Buck refuses to kill Tigey when he wins. Which means, to make a long story short, that after Buck escapes the wedding, blows up the weapon, and gets caught, Tigerman repays his life debt by helping him get away. Ardala and Kane are oddly okay with just standing back and letting this happen, with Ardala saying there will be another time.

The return of the series’ primary villains was no doubt meant to be a big event, but it’s one of the weakest episodes yet, padded and meandering and trashy and awkwardly plotted. Its main asset, unsurprisingly, is Michael Ansara, who makes Kane come off as a more thoughtful, measured antagonist than Henry Silva did. Also, the people doing Pamela Hensley’s hair, makeup, and lighting did a better job than in the pilot, because she looks terrific. And I suppose she does a reasonable job playing the petulant, spoiled, and hedonistic princess, though I have a little trouble buying into her belief that Buck Rogers is “the most genetically perfect and physically attractive human male in the universe.” (Also, are Draconians human? Ardala says her mate is required to be a human male, which would seem to argue that the various “alien” humanoid populations we’ve seen around the Buck Rogers galaxy are human colonies after all, or else humans were seeded on multiple worlds as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, say.)

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