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BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Happy Birthday, Buck”/”A Blast for Buck” (spoilers)

January 13, 2018 1 comment

“Happy Birthday, Buck” is the TV debut of one of story editor Alan Brennert’s fellow comic book scribes – Martin Pasko, who was writing Marvel’s Star Trek tie-in comic at around this same time, and who would go on to write extensively in animation (including a stint as Batman: The Animated Series’ story editor) and occasionally in live action (including the ‘80s Twilight Zone revival and a Max Headroom episode). It opens with Buck feeling especially melancholy and sick of the 25th century as his birthday approaches, so Wilma and Huer conspire to throw him a surprise party. Huer says it’s Buck’s 534th birthday, which doesn’t quite add up; since it’s stated to be January, we’re in 2492 now, which would mean Buck was born in 1958 and was thus only 29 when he was frozen in 1987, making him 7 years younger than Gil Gerard. Wilma makes plans to invite all Buck’s friends, name-dropping virtually every friendly female guest character in the series so far.

But they need a pretense to get Buck out of his apartment while they set up the party, and fortunately, an excuse for their frivolity is provided by, of all things, a plot to murder Dr. Huer. Not that Huer takes such things seriously, since he feels the Security Directorate is overprotective, but he’s informed of a dead Capellan who’s had half his body turned to silicon and who managed to warn of a plot against Huer before he died. Capellans, in this universe, are mildly telepathic humanoids, and the trait that makes them recognizably Capellan to a casual observer is, get this, curly black hair and thick beards. Which serves as a cheesy disguise for the aspiring murderer, Traeger (Peter MacLean), a former Science Directorate officer who’s been imprisoned on a frontier world for a dozen years and blames his ordeal on the man who sent him to explore it, Dr. Elias Huer. But he picked up a matter-transmutation power from the local environment somehow. (Pasko’s script makes the common SFTV mistake of using the term “molecular transmutation” to describe what’s clearly an atomic-level change, e.g. carbon to silicon.) He intends to kill Huer with it, but he needs help from Cleopatra Jones. Yep, Tamara Dobson appears (just a month after her stint as a regular in season 2 of Filmation’s Jason of Star Command) as Dr. Bayliss, a corrupt psychotherapist who steals secrets from her patients’ minds. He needs her to get Huer’s itinerary for him.

Why? Well, apparently the procedure in a case like this is to send a courier to have Huer’s itinerary programmed into her subconscious so that she can deliver the information to the Security Directorate, where they can extract it without her ever knowing what it was. It seems a very convoluted way to deliver encrypted data, but perhaps vidphone or electronic data transmission is too easy to intercept. Anyway, the courier, Raylyn, is played by the quite lovely Morgan Brittany, and Buck’s interest gives Huer the idea to ask him to escort her, as a distraction so Huer and Wilma can set up the birthday party. (See, I finally got back there.) Which, of course, gets Buck in trouble when Bayliss’s goons come to abduct her. While Wilma is baffling Huer with replicas of 20th-century party favors (and he refuses to be murdered in a party hat if the threat is genuine), Buck tracks down the abductors, learns the plot, gets caught, and escapes in time to chase down Traeger – and gets the surprise party spoiled for him in the process.

An okay episode, fairly lightweight but entertaining. I’m still impressed by the continuity in this show, especially where their running gags are concerned. The replacement plant we saw in Huer’s office last week is glimpsed in the background here, clearly dying. Huer has finally figured out what “piece of cake” means after being baffled by it in earlier episodes. But there are a couple of things that don’t quite work. Raylyn is supposedly a highly experienced courier, yet she totally forgets about the preset code phrase exchange until it’s too late to avoid being kidnapped by the impostor agents. And while Bayliss is justifying herself to Buck, she says that Traeger has left a trail of bodies behind him all his life, then in the very next sentence says he used to be a good man when she knew him before his ordeal. Also, I’m not that impressed by Tamara Dobson’s performance here. I don’t remember her being this clumsy in other roles. And it is a bit odd that the director of Earth’s entire defense establishment has so few responsibilities that he can devote so much of his time to planning a friend’s birthday. All in all, this one’s a pretty frivolous exercise, but a reasonable palate-cleanser after last week’s eerie vampire outing. And at least it’s better than what comes next.

“A Blast for Buck”: Not much to say here – it’s a clip show. In recent decades, series that have needed to do clip shows to save money have put some effort into doing them creatively and making them meaningful stories rather than just throwaway time-wasters; see, for instance, Stargate SG-1’s “Disclosure” or Andromeda’s “The Unconquerable Man.” But “A Blast for Buck” is from an earlier era, when clip shows’ plots were rarely anything more than flimsy excuses to cue up a series of stock-footage montages. And this episode is one of the flimsiest, even though they brought in experienced TV writer Richard Nelson to script it (from a story by John Gaynor, meaning it took two people to slap this together).

So basically: Alarms are going off because some unknown offworld force has focused an energy beam on Huer’s office. It’s a teleport beam that materializes a large yo-yo-shaped object (as Twiki describes it), whose only purpose is to beam a cryptic limerick onto Huer’s screen, in the visual style of a Jeopardy clue. It alludes to Buck and ends with the word “blast,” leading Huer and Wilma to jump to the conclusion that the entire Earth is in danger (a jump so vast it must have required a Stargate), so they stick Buck in a memory probe that puts his memories of his adventures up on a screen (including scenes he wasn’t actually there to witness), ostensibly to try to figure out which of his enemies could be behind this “attack.” Whole episodes are recapped in montages of several minutes each, including everything from “Planet of the Slave Girls” to “Escape from Wedded Bliss,” but in each case, the prospective enemy is discarded as a candidate in one or two sentences, which they could’ve done without bothering with the memory probe. In the context of the story, there’s no good reason to replay the actual memories rather than just going through the candidates verbally.

Finally it turns out that the whole thing was a New Year’s Eve puzzle courtesy of Buck’s boy-genius friend Hieronymous Fox (“Cosmic Whiz Kid”), a fact that was spoiled right off the bat when the opening credits listed Gary Coleman as the sole guest star (even though he only appears on a screen). There’s less than 20 minutes of new material in a 48-minute episode, all taking place on three standing sets with only the regulars. The whole thing is pretty disposable.

It was also apparently aired out of order, since it took place on New Year’s Eve, yet last week’s “Happy Birthday, Buck” was on January 7th. Also, Patty Maloney, who played the female ambuquad Tina in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” filled in for Felix Silla as Twiki in “Space Vampire” and this episode, but not in “Happy Birthday, Buck,” further suggesting this one was filmed after “Vampire.” I wonder why they delayed it. I doubt it was a production issue, since it’s a clip show with hardly any visual effects, so it can’t have been that time-consuming to finish. One possibility: the holiday-season hiatus was between “Escape from Wedded Bliss” on November 29, 1979 and “Cruise Ship to the Stars” on December 27, so maybe they wanted to have three relatively strong episodes in a row after returning from the break instead of just two.

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