Archive for January 15, 2018

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Ardala Returns”, but “Twiki is Missing” (spoilers)

January 15, 2018 6 comments

“Ardala Returns”: And story editor Alan Brennert departs, replaced for the rest of the season by Robert W. Gilmer, who had no prior TV experience as far as IMDb records, but who would go on from here to – uh-oh – Galactica 1980, but also to shows like Magnum, P.I, Knight Rider, and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The script is by the duo of Chris Bunch & Allen Cole, who were also relative TV novices at this point and would also become Galactica 1980 story editors, after which they would write for numerous shows including The Incredible Hulk, Quincy, M.E., Werewolf, and the animated Defenders of the Earth (meaning they went from Buck Rogers to Flash Gordon).

The premise here is kind of an odd one. Kane (Michael Ansara) has designed a new variety of Draconian Hatchet fighter, which looks just like the old ones but has some unspecified differences that make it impossible for any Draconian pilot to fly without blowing up. (It’s unclear how or if this can be reconciled with “Vegas In Space” establishing that Velosi was the supplier of the Hatchet fighters. With Brennert and story consultant Anne Collins gone, the show’s continuity might no longer remain so tight.) So Ardala (Pamela Hensley) uses a faked 1996 space capsule (complete with a plaque based on the Pioneer 10 plaque, with the nude human figures surprisingly uncensored) as a Trojan Horse to lure Buck (and Twiki) into a trap. Her plan is to use him as the template for Kane’s “Zygots” – synthetic duplicates with “alloy skeletons, vat-grown protoplasm,” and computer brains. Buck is put in a “neural capacitance suit” – modified from what looks like a cheesy ‘50s B-movie spacesuit with a fishbowl helmet, though it might be one of the spacesuits from Battlestar Galactica’s “Fire in Space” – to record his memories and piloting experience. We get stock video footage of fighter planes, representing Buck’s Air Force memories—which I believe is the first time this series has directly depicted any events from Buck’s life on 20th-century Earth, even if it is just stock film.

The prototype Repli-Buck is absurdly cheerful and mangles Buck’s 20th-centuryisms, and he’s sent to Earth with a bomb inside, to detonate when he’s alone with “New Chicago’s three main leaders” – which, oddly, means Huer, Theopolis, and Wilma, even though Huer is only the head of the Earth Defense Directorate and Theo is one member of the Computer Council, with Wilma just a colonel in the defense forces. The security sensors detect the bomb priming, and Wilma rather absurdly disintegrates Repli-Buck one second before the bomb goes off. Not only have EDD sidearms never previously been shown to be capable of Star Trek-style disintegration, but disintegrating a bomb should not make it harmless, since disintegration is basically what an explosion is, and if it’s a nuclear device, then its disintegration should mean a whole bunch of radioactive vapor was just released into the air.

Meanwhile, back on the Draconia, Kane continues picking Buck’s brain (including a fighter simulation in a proto-holodeck – I’m reminded that this is just seven years before Star Trek: TNG) to build three more duplicates of Buck to pilot his fighters. But Ardala, having been rebuffed in her romantic advances to the real thing, has more amorous intentions for her new Real Dolls and has them gather in her quarters (though only one of Gil Gerard’s two doubles looks even slightly like him from the rear). But Buck had Twiki use a low-level shock to scramble his neurons, so one duplicate is highly introverted and another can only talk about flying F-16s. The last is suitably amorous, but Ardala finds herself unwilling to settle for a mechanical substitute and gets all weepy and lonely. She then sends the Bucks to attack Earth, but Real Buck escapes by tricking her into thinking he’s another Zygot (which she falls for way too easily), then helps Wilma shoot down his not-so-better three-fourths. (A similar problem to the above arises when Buck saves New Phoenix from an antimatter bomb by blowing up the fighter carrying it while it’s right over the city. That shouldn’t work!!) Though Wilma has her own fighter-based equivalent of the stock “Which one do I shoot?” evil-twin conundrum, and apparently chooses right by pure luck. And Buck inevitably plays a prank on her and Huer at the end by pretending to be a Zygot again, haw-haw.

It’s ironic that the show’s primary recurring villains, Ardala and Kane, always seem to be saddled with the show’s weakest episodes (even if you include the clip show, since they appeared in archive footage). This is one of the sillier premises they’ve done, it has a fair amount of implausible ideas and plot holes, and it’s an odd fit to the characters; Kane has never been an inventor before. Ardala’s obsessive crush on Buck as the ultimate specimen of manhood, combined with the episode’s assertion that his reaction times are the most superhumanly swift in the galaxy, is kind of embarrassing in how it aggrandizes the lead character. What makes Gerard’s performance work is that he plays Buck as an everyman – certainly not lacking in confidence and courage, but not arrogant or aggressive either. So when the scripts try to play him up as this superhuman Adonis, it feels incongruous.

“Twiki is Missing”: He is? Oh, good. Moving on, then…

Oh, wait. They’re gonna look for him, aren’t they? Rats. Anyway, this episode is by Jaron Summers, who had previously co-written a script for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II revival series, “The Child,” which was eventually filmed as the second-season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation thanks to the 1988 writers’ strike. It opens with, unusually for this show, a pretty smart science-fiction idea. Wilma is escorting a “spaceberg” of frozen oxygen to Earth to help replenish its holocaust-depleted atmosphere, a maneuver that’s been done successfully twice before, but that carries considerable risk of a catastrophic ignition if the berg doesn’t hit its atmospheric window just right. While the idea of a frozen mass of pure molecular oxygen existing in space seems chemically unlikely, the idea of terraforming a planet by using cometary impacts to increase its stock of volatiles and atmospheric gases is pretty solid scientifically, featured in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and in Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Terra Prime.”

The not-so-great part involves a tyrannical mining consortium head named Belzack, hammily acted by John P. Ryan (at a ham level of about 0.4 Palances, I’d say). He mines the universe’s most powerful chemical explosive, blazium, but he’s frustrated by miner inefficiency and revolts cutting into his profits, so his assistant suggests a solution: Twiki. Or as he’s formally known, Ambuquad N22-23-T. (25th-century English in the show is written in a font where some letters are always upper-case and some are always lower-case, so it’s actually written “AMbuQuAd n22-23-t” on the photo.) Supposedly, what makes Twiki such a wiseass is that Buck, with his limited 1980s technological skills, has somehow reprogrammed a 25th-century AI to have unique properties like loyalty and imagination, and Belzack somehow thinks this will make for better mining thralls than ordinary mindless drones. At least two things about that sentence seem backward to me.

So Belzack sends his employee Stella, who’s played by future Sledge Hammer! female lead (and future Mrs. Michael Crichton) Anne-Marie Martin, under her birth name Eddie Benton. Stella tries to buy Twiki from Buck, and when he refuses, she convinces him to let her photograph Twiki’s circuits, which is a ruse to lure him into a trap. Stella is one of a multiethnic trio of women who manifest psychokinetic powers when they join hands and “mind meld” (the term is actually used in the episode). It’s kind of an odd limitation on their powers, given that they clearly aren’t siblings like most superpowered characters who need to use their powers in tandem (see the Wonder Twins on Super Friends – or better yet, don’t, that’s a terrible idea – or the Strucker children on The Gifted). They mind-blast Buck, quadnap Twiki, and load him into a remote-piloted Starfighter, but Buck gives chase and retrieves Twiki, though not before a stock-footage dogfight with the empty fighter once Twiki has ejected.

So Belzack has his Wonder Triplets kidnap Buck this time in order to extort Huer into sending him Twiki. Huer can do nothing, both because of Directorate “no negotiation with blackmailers” policy and because the spaceberg has hit an ion storm and gone dangerously off course. So Twiki goes to Buck’s rescue, somehow managing to board and launch a Starfighter by himself without clearance, even though we see repeatedly in the course of the episode that he can’t even navigate stairs without being carried. (Why design an “ambuquad” who can’t ambulate? Conversely, why design facilities that aren’t accessible to drones in the first place? Aside from Twiki’s limitations, we’ve seen a number of wheeled drones in the show. So shouldn’t there logically be ramps everywhere?) Of course, Belzack captures Twiki, because Twiki is useless. Buck has to convince Stella – who’s confessed her sob story that Belzack is threatening her son’s life to ensure her compliance – to help him escape, not only to save Twiki, but because he’s realized the blazium explosive is just what’s needed to course-correct the spaceberg and save Earth. While he and Twiki are searching for the explosive, Buck is overcome by a sonic security device which Twiki “saves” him from – but Twiki can only “save” Buck by getting the agonized Buck to lift him up high enough to reach the sonic emitter, because Twiki is bloody useless.

(Just to be clear, I don’t actually hate Twiki as much as it sounds. I don’t think he works very well as a character, largely because of his design and the fact that there’s nothing to his personality beyond random wisecracks – which never work that well because the constant “bidi-bidi-bidi”s inserted before his lines ruin their comic timing. I think the show might have a better reputation if not for the cheese factor of Twiki’s constant presence. But I don’t care enough about Twiki to make the emotional investment for hatred. It’s just fun to trash him.)

So Buck is almost caught again, but Stella finally finds the strength to turn on Belzack and helps him and Twiki get away with a chunk of blazium. With help from Huer and Theopolis’s computations, Buck cuts the chunk to size and drops it on the spaceberg, and Wilma fires to detonate it and set the berg back on course, saving the Earth – from its own people for once. Well, I guess it was their turn. Belzack is conveniently overthrown off-camera, and the comic-relief banter ends the episode like clockwork.

I wouldn’t call this an especially strong episode, but it’s better than I expected a Twiki-centric story to be. The spaceberg plot is pretty cool and sciencey, and the stuff with Stella is okay, though the rationale for why Belzack wanted Twiki in the first place is implausible and continuity-challenged. Twiki has never before been implied to be unique; the other ambuquad we’ve met, Tina in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” seemed just as human and emotional as he did. And the pilot established that the whole civilization is governed by a council of AIs like Dr. Theopolis, who are certainly sentient and capable of imagination and problem-solving. So the premise doesn’t really fit the universe, any more than it fits Buck’s character to suddenly make him a genius programmer who’s responsible for Twiki’s personality. (I could buy the idea that he’d encouraged Twiki to develop more of his own innate potential for individuality than most drone owners prefer, like how Star Wars: The Clone Wars portrayed the Anakin Skywalker/R2-D2 relationship. Belzack could have simply misunderstood Twiki’s nature and Buck’s role in it.) Also, Huer explained that Belzack made his fortune by selling the highly useful explosive blazium to buyers throughout the known universe, which raises the question, why didn’t the Earth Defense Directorate already have its own supply of blazium to use on the spaceberg? And could there be a sillier name for an explosive than “blazium?” And why do sci-fi universes that already have antimatter insist on making up chemical explosives that are supposedly more powerful? Nothing’s more powerful than 100% conversion of mass to energy.

Also, just to get annoyingly literal, Twiki is never really missing for any significant portion of the episode. When he’s kidnapped, Theo almost instantly tracks down the fighter he’s in. When he’s ejected into space, Buck loses track of him for slightly longer than a commercial break before the New Tulsa traffic center locates him (somehow drifting near “Alpha Centura,” which is a hell of a long range for New Tulsa’s space radar). Once Buck’s kidnapped, Twiki goes off on his own, but he couldn’t really be considered missing because anyone could’ve guessed exactly where he was going, if they hadn’t been too busy trying to save the Earth.

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