Archive for January 11, 2018

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Cruise Ship to the Stars”/”Space Vampire” (spoilers)

January 11, 2018 5 comments

“Cruise Ship to the Stars” is the second episode in a row by staff writers Alan Brennert and Anne Collins under their respective pseudonyms of Michael Bryant and Corey Appelbaum (story by Brennert, teleplay by both). I wonder, was there some union rule forbidding staff writers from doing too many episodes per season or something? If so, that would’ve been quite different from the modern approach where almost all TV writing is staff-generated rather than freelance. Or it could be that Brennert and Collins took their names off in protest for how their scripts were being rewritten by others. I’m only speculating, though.

Anyway, the titular cruise ship is the Lyran Queen, and it’s the same miniature that would later be remodeled into the Searcher, the hero starship of season 2, in which the show was revamped to be more of a Star Trek clone. Huer and Wilma gently encourage Buck to take an assignment to the cruise ship to protect “Miss Cosmos,” a beauty queen – although Huer and Wilma explain that 25th-century beauty pageants value genetic perfection rather than outward beauty, which is a creepily Aryan idea if you ask me. Apparently her genes are so perfect that thieves are trying to abduct her to obtain her genetic material. Sheesh, guys, just steal her hairbrush, why don’tcha? Anyway, the show finally gets around to reminding the viewers (for the first time since the pilot) why Huer keeps giving these missions to Buck, pointing out that he’d attract less suspicion since he’s not a formal Directorate agent. Yet it does establish that Buck Rogers is a celebrity in his own right, which makes his frequent undercover missions a bit hard to credit.

Miss Cosmos, aka Tara, is played by Dorothy Stratten, midway through her tragically brief period of fame between her discovery as a Playboy model at age 18 and her murder by her abusive husband/manager at age 20. Ironically, the 1981 TV movie dramatizing the story of her life and death would star another Buck Rogers guest actress, Jamie Lee Curtis (“Unchained Woman”), as Stratten. Knowing the details of Stratten’s story makes it kind of hard to watch this, but she’s only briefly featured, not being that much of an actress (though she’s adequate in the two main dialogue scenes she has).

Wilma accompanies Buck in the persona of a New Manhattan heiress wearing a huge amount of priceless jewelry, in order to draw out the thieves (although I didn’t even notice her jewels, since I was too distracted by Erin Gray’s endless legs). Twiki and Theopolis are also along for some reason. Isn’t Theo supposed to be one of the councillors who govern the whole of Earth? Anyway, there’s an annoying subplot where Twiki meets with a fellow “ambuquad” called Tina (Patty Maloney), who – I kid you not – says “Boodi-boodi” in a flirty feminine voice instead of Twiki’s more electronic-sounding “Bidi-bidi.” Twiki’s instantly smitten and goes off with her to make a boodi call. Yes, I went there.

Buck soon encounters a shy, fragile girl named Alison (Kimberly Beck) who’s suffering from blackouts and says her boyfriend Jalor brought her on the cruise for relaxation. But Jalor (Leigh McCloskey, who would play villains in Star Trek Voyager: “Warlord” and Deep Space Nine: “Field of Fire”) is a creepy guy who’s gaslighting Alison, and it turns out that he’s provoking her transformation into a Mr. Hyde-like alter ego, his partner in crime Sabrina, who has superstrength and can fire psionic bolts from her hands. Sabrina is played by Trisha Noble, who would later play Padme’s mother in Star Wars Episode III. (Which means that Buck Rogers gets beaten up by Luke Skywalker’s grandmother.) Here, though, she reminds me physically and vocally of a cross between Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt – quite an effective villainess. The casting director did a pretty good job of finding two actresses of similar height and build, so that it’s plausible when one transforms into the other and is still wearing the same outfit. The transformation effect is a fade-to-red overexposure/dissolve that’s similar in principle to the effect Doctor Who used to transform William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton.

Anyway, after a couple of encounters with Sabrina and her accomplice, and after failing to prevent Miss Cosmos’s abduction, Buck somehow manages to make the intuitive leap that Sabrina is a mutant who can camouflage herself with an alternate form – a “transmute,” as Theo calls it. Maybe he made the connection with Alison’s blackouts, or maybe he recognized that they were wearing the same outfit. He and Wilma arrange to provoke Sabrina’s emergence, with some unexpected help from Alison, who’s gotten tired of being handled by Jalor and lets her anger at him bleed over into Sabrina when she changes. Team Buck then herds Sabrina into a trap with sonic cannons, and once defeated, she turns back into Alison, who manages to remember where Miss Cosmos is being held prisoner – strapped to a very Goldfingery laser that was meant to carve her up for easy smuggling, but that’s conveniently been taking its time to build up power so as not to register on ship’s sensors, allowing Buck to save her in the nick of time. Alison is sent back to Earth so her condition can be cured, and Team Buck enjoys the rest of the cruise, with the implication that Buck’s going to be one with the Cosmos before much longer.

All in all, a pretty typical episode – a somewhat cheesy concept that’s largely a present-day plot dressed up with some futuristic tropes, but executed better (and with less blatant sexism) than it could’ve been given the premise, with some decent scripting and sci-fi ideas, but with annoying comic relief from Twiki. I’m coming to realize that Twiki is probably the main reason for this show’s poor reputation in retrospect. Mel Blanc does what he can with the material, but he really has nothing to do but crack wise and use anachronistic expressions he presumably picked up from Buck, and there’s kind of a discord between the deep, wise-ass baritone voice Blanc uses for Twiki (not far off from his natural voice at that age) and the boyish, wide-eyed character design.

“Space Vampire”: Finally, we get an episode by other writers – the team of Kathleen Barnes & David Wise, who had previously written for Filmation’s Isis, Space Sentinels, and Tarzan, Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla, and an episode of Wonder Woman. (Wise would later develop the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series.) If the title sounds familiar, it’s because Wise was inspired by the novel Space Vampires, later the basis for Tobe Hooper’s 1985 horror film Lifeforce. However, it doesn’t feature a gorgeous female vampire walking around stark naked for half the episode. What we get instead is… well… not so much to look at.

Even with freelance writers, it’s loaded with continuity nods. Buck and Wilma drop Twiki off at Theta Station for repairs while on their way to a vacation on Genesia, Hieronymous Fox’s planet from “Cosmic Whiz Kid.” Wilma is wearing the same halter-and-pants ensemble that Fox’s bodyguard wore, suggesting that it’s a standard Genesian fashion. They’re traveling in a new ship that Buck has bought (same miniature as Ardala’s shuttle from the pilot), and he’s showing Wilma how to operate it, including a reference to the separable rear compartment with its own identical controls. Surely this won’t come up later, will it? (It struck me as odd that Buck would need to teach an experienced fighter pilot like Wilma to operate a civilian ship. This is an artifact of the rewrite process – though Wise and Barnes developed it for Erin Gray, the script was written to Gil Gerard’s insistence that it be a guest actress instead, until Gray put her foot down.)

Before they can ditch Twiki (which they’re clearly eager to do, and who can blame them), a derelict freighter comes through the adjoining Stargate and crashes with the station, embedding itself and exposing the station’s atmosphere to its own. The crew are found dead, and the captain’s log reports that her “paramed” believed it to be a case of EL-7, a highly deadly virus that causes hallucinations. But when she’s the last one left, the captain screams in terror as some unseen force comes for her. The station’s Commander Royko (Christopher Stone) is convinced she was hallucinating with the virus, and orders the station’s Doctor Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) to begin vaccinations, though the supply on hand is inadequate. But Ecbar tells Buck the bodies aren’t quite dead, but rather in some sort of cellular stasis, as if something has drained their life essence. Buck’s reference to vampires is one more bit of Earth heritage forgotten by the 2490s.

Meanwhile, there’s a swirly red energy creature wandering around, looking a lot like the evil pinwheel thingy in Star Trek: “Day of the Dove,” and Wilma is struck with an uncharacteristic sense of anxiety and dread. Buck investigates further and finds evidence that the freighter crew was killed, or rather, soul-sucked, by a mythical alien creature called a Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann). The rest of the episode is a creepy horror movie pastiche as the Vorvon stalks Wilma, Buck plays Van Helsing, and Royko plays the skeptical authority figure who’s convinced the disease is making Buck hallucinate. Wilma ultimately gives herself over to the Vorvon in exchange for sparing the others, but once she’s vamped (in more ways than one), the first thing she does is to go all Brides of Dracula on Buck, who barely gets away. Eventually the Vorvon flees with Wilma, but Buck has arranged things so that his new ship is the one it steals, and he’s booby-trapped it to emerge from the Stargate near a sun. (Which raises all sorts of questions about how Stargates work, since I thought they were point-to-point, with a gate needed at both ends.) Luckily, the sunlight weakens the Vorvon and frees Wilma, who (under Buck’s urging over the radio) remembers all that convenient exposition about how to separate the rear half of the ship and fly away in the nick of time.

This could have been a hell of a good episode. It’s quite effective at creating a moody, eerie horror-movie feel and giving Gil Gerard a chance to play a much more solemn Buck than usual, which he does well. Sure, it’s a vampire movie pastiche in space, but it’s a fairly good one. With one major exception: The Vorvon’s makeup is ridiculous! He looks like a Ferengi Nosferatu with a giant honking unibrow. Seriously – when he smiles maliciously, he looks like Rom from Deep Space Nine grinning goofily. And the bald cap is very poorly blended with the actor’s face. The resemblance to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok from the 1922 Nosferatu was no doubt intentional, but the execution was very poor and it just looks absurd. It’s an awful makeup design that really spoils the scary mood, and the actor underneath doesn’t leave much of an impression either. Also, helpless dread and panic is a really bad look for the normally unflappable Wilma, although at least the episode acknowledges how strange and out of character it is for her. I was hoping she’d turn around and save herself and Buck in the end, but I guess that was too much to expect for 1980.

Back on Earth, Dr. Huer and Theo have a comic-relief subplot, in which Huer despairs at his inability to care for the rubber tree that Buck gave him in an earlier episode’s tag (more continuity!) and ends up replacing it with a totally different plant, which completely fails to fool Buck. It’s a fun bit, and I’m loving the tight continuity, but it kind of clashes with the dark tone of the rest.

Note: This is Anne Collins’s last episode as story consultant.

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