Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Olympiad”/”A Dream of Jennifer” (spoilers)

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Olympiad”/”A Dream of Jennifer” (spoilers)

“Olympiad”: This one’s written by the appropriately named Craig Buck, whose other credits include The Incredible Hulk, Magnum P.I., and V: The Final Battle (as Faustus Buck). It’s right in the show’s wheelhouse of a present-day plot dressed up with futuristic trappings, as our Captain Rogers is invited to the 2492 interstellar Olympics (on the flimsy pretext of presenting the 20th-century Olympic flag) and gets involved in the attempted defection of two athletes, space-sled racer Lara (Judith Chapman, Angela from Galactica 1980’s only good episode “The Return of Starbuck”) and vertical high-jumper Jorax (Barney McFadden). They’re in love, and Lara asks Buck for help getting Jorax away from his tyrannical Lozerian masters, Deputy Minister Allerick (Nicolas Coster of Star Trek TNG: “The Offspring”) and his henchman Karl (Paul Mantee of Robinson Crusoe on Mars). Wikipedia says this plot was inspired by a real defection of lovers from behind the Iron Curtain in the 1956 Olympics.

The catch is, Jorax has a bomb implanted in his brain, and Allerick will set it off if he attempts to flee and make the Lozerian Satrap look bad. So Buck has to figure out a way to get them out safely, with help from Twiki, Theopolis, and Wilma, who impersonates a hooker to take advantage of Allerick’s fondness for women in an attempt to steal the detonator (and she uses a knockout-needle ring straight out of Mission: Impossible). It gets a little implausible in the ending, where Buck has to take his Starfighter through the orbital force-field bobsled course to intercept the space sled in which the lovers are attempting to flee before the conveniently slow Zeta waves from Allerick’s detonator can reach the bomb implant. The idea is to tractor-beam the sled and get it to the nearest Stargate before the signal catches up, but the sequence is edited so that it takes barely over one second (albeit an unnaturally elongated TV-style second) to get from the middle of the sled course to the Stargate. I’m not sure Craig Buck understood that Stargates are fixed jump points rather than portals generated by the ships themselves. Buck (Rogers) mentions the sled not having “Stargate capability,” which doesn’t make much sense when we just saw a giant hunk of oxygen ice go through a Stargate last week.

“Olympiad” was no doubt intended as a cross-promotion with NBC’s coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics, which began the week after this episode aired on NBC. That probably explains why the Olympics are virtually the only facet of 20th-century culture that this show’s 25th-century humans still remember. In addition to its Olympic theme, the episode features awkwardly shoehorned cameos by a number of real-life athletes playing their 25th-century equivalents. A fair amount of time is spent on showing off their athletics, albeit updated for the future. As mentioned, bobsledding is now space-sledding through a force-field course. The vertical jump is 20 meters high from a standing start. Boxers zap each other with energy bolts from their fists. There was also a pair of gloved wrestlers fighting without touching each other; I think the gloves were meant to be generating a tractor beam effect, but given what we’ve seen in past episodes, it’s conceivable they were psychokinetic wrestlers, which is actually a more interesting idea so I think I’ll go with that. I mean, if superpowers like psychokinesis are as common as we’ve seen, it naturally follows that people would eventually invent sports based on them.

Conceptual holes aside, it’s a pretty straightforward, harmless Universal adventure-show episode, decently told. Judith Chapman is lovely and effective as Lara, and Coster and Mantee are effectively smarmy, though McFadden leaves little impression. I am getting a little tired of how often the show puts Wilma in the seductress role, which feels incongruous given that it’s generally quite effective at showing her as a strong and capable military leader. But on the plus side, it’s generally portrayed as her own choice to use seduction, just a tool in her kit as an intelligence operative. And the show is relatively good for its time at not objectifying her or its female guest stars (Dorothy Stratten in “Cruise Ship to the Stars” being the exception), though that may be simply because it was seen as a child-friendly family show. Still, I think Erin Gray does a good job of making Wilma an impressive and competent female lead, and I feel the writing doesn’t do enough to let her fulfill her potential, not compared to the kind of writing for female action leads that we have today. But for its time, it wasn’t bad – less Charlie’s Angels and more The Bionic Woman. (Or Bruce Lansbury’s previous series before this one, Wonder Woman, which Lansbury did his best to turn into a Bionic Woman clone.)

“A Dream of Jennifer” is the final Buck Rogers script by former story editor Alan Brennert (as Michael Bryant), and it’s an unusually serious episode. At the “Old Chicago Mall” maintained by the Historical Society (which we barely get a glimpse of), Buck sees a woman (Anne Lockhart, formerly Sheba on Battlestar Galactica) who’s a dead ringer for his old girlfriend Jennifer. She vanishes in the crowd, but that night Buck has, well, a dream of Jennifer, in our first fully dramatized scene set in the 20th century. Apparently he loved her and intended to return to her for good after the Ranger 3 flight that trapped him in time – which is something that you’d think would’ve come up before now, but was only alluded to in passing in the pilot when Buck mentioned “a woman I cared for” among the people he’d lost.

He spots the woman again later on at the central spaceport (where Brennert slips in another public-address Easter egg, a page for Captain Christopher Pike to report to the Veteran’s Affairs Office), but she boards a flight before Buck can reach her, and a very young Dennis Haysbert (unmistakeable from his voice) won’t let him board. But a clerk recognizes him as Captain Rogers and helps him find out that she’s Leila Markeson and went to City-on-the-Sea for a festival – in other words, to New Orleans for future Mardi Gras. Buck gets permission from Dr. Huer to go search for her, and in an atypically dramatic and character-revealing moment, Huer refers to the death of his wife to show his sympathy for Buck.

But it turns out that Leila is working for a group of red-skinned aliens called the Koven, led by Commander Reeve (a stilted and miscast Paul Koslo). She was given “molecular surgery” to look like Jennifer and lure Buck into a trap. She lets him find her and they talk, and of course she’s so moved by his story – and by his general irresistibility to 25th-century women – that she can’t go through with it and tries to warn him. But the Koven catch them anyway, and Reeve tells Buck they need him to blow up an android-crewed freighter being sent to aid rebels against the Koven on Vega 5, claiming that “the Federation” (Brennert really wants to be writing Star Trek) has been given false intelligence and Buck will be doing them a favor. The fact that he’s threatening to murder Leila to force his compliance doesn’t exactly incline Buck to believe his story.

And Buck is right, of course. When he gets to the freighter with Reeve’s second-in-command Nola (Mary Woronov), he discovers none other than Wilma aboard. She and a hand-picked crew have been sent to secretly aid the rebels with a weapons shipment. Nola gets Wilma at gunpoint, but Buck and Wilma make a great team and wordlessly arrange a double play to beat her, then use a “contraterrene” bomb from the weapons shipment to fake the explosion of the freighter for the benefit of the Koven’s long-range sensors. (Earth sent the rebels an antimatter bomb?? That’s deeply disturbing. But I guess writers in 1980 were naive about the downside of supplying foreign resistance fighters with weapons and training that might one day be turned against you.)

Yet Reeve isn’t fooled by Buck’s deception, especially when Buck blows his way in guns blazing to rescue Leila. His men capture Buck and hold him at gunpoint for execution. But Reeve has already told Leila she has no chance of escaping him, due to a tracker permanently implanted during the molecular surgery. So of course, since this is a Very Special Episode, she takes the laser blast meant for Buck and dies poignantly in his arms. Although formula must be maintained, so we fade to three weeks later when Buck has completed the grieving process and is fit for another unfunny comic-relief tag scene.

This is a pretty good one. It was clearly intended to be something special, and relative to the show’s general mediocrity, it succeeds. It’s unusually dramatic and character-driven for this show, and I like it when we get some exploration of Buck’s loneliness as a man who’s lost his entire world. I’m not much of a fan of Anne Lockhart’s acting, but she does okay here, although her scenes are enhanced by a beautiful score by John Cacavas. We get rare insight into Dr. Huer, and Wilma gets to be a solidly competent commanding officer. There’s some pretty good effects work with some new matte paintings and ship miniatures (including a shot where the freighter accelerates with “tachyon drive” with streaks of light very reminiscent of the kind of Star Trek warp drive effect that had been introduced in The Motion Picture months earlier). It would’ve been better with a different actor as Reeve, though. And Buck’s past with Jennifer does feel awkwardly retconned in, but it’s an improvement on the general lack of exploration of Buck’s personal history in the early episodes. There were moments when I felt this episode should have come earlier in the season, when the pain of Buck’s loss would still have been fresh. It was actually written during Brennert’s tenure as story editor, and as Brennert wrote in a July 1981 Starlog commentary, the manner in which his script was rewritten by the producers above him was one of the factors that precipitated his departure from the series. Gil Gerard had told Starlog in November 1980 that he was responsible for the rewrites and for getting Brennert and story consultant Anne Collins fired due to what he considered their bad scripts, although Brennert insists he left voluntarily. They both agree that NBC’s executives at the time were largely to blame for the show’s problems. Still, if the rest of the season represents Gerard’s influence winning out over Brennert’s and Collins’s, I think it proves that Gerard should have stuck to acting.

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