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BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Space Rockers”/”Buck’s Duel to the Death” (spoilers)

“Space Rockers”: Oh, dear. This is everything you’d expect from the title. Chris Bunch & Allen Cole return with yet another “20th-century trend… in spaaaace!!” plot, and one that’s right out of the stock ‘60s/’70s TV playbook of tone-deaf attempts to depict youth culture.

The titular Space Rockers are Andromeda, a trio who perform synth music in light-up bargain-basement TRON costumes, under the management of the sinister Mangros (Jerry Orbach), who’s working with his henchman Yarat (Richard Moll) to do something to their broadcasts that’s causing young people who hear them to riot, steal, and commit other crimes. A Directorate spy posing as their sound engineer is murdered mid-broadcast to Huer, cut off just as he reports that the music is being used to “veck,” a word that nobody in the room, including Huer, seems to recognize.

After a pair of These Kids Today are brainwashed by Their Heathen Music into stealing a Starfighter that, by an astonishing coincidence, happens to be Buck’s, he chases after them until the music stops and they immediately come to their senses and become good, obedient sitcom teens once again. So Buck, Twiki, and Theo head to the orbital satellite Music World, where the band broadcasts from (since apparently in an age when interstellar travel is a matter of hours thanks to Stargates, live concert tours are nonetheless a thing of the past), in order to investigate.

The members of Andromeda (Nancy Frangione, Jesse D. Goins, Leonard Lightfoot) seem nice enough, bewildered at the black-uniformed youth gangs who follow them despite acting in opposition to everything the band believes in. Buck investigates and finds the agent’s hidden data chip, containing another use of the word “veck,” according to Buck (even though the screen just shows wave patterns when he says it). So Buck calls Huer and asks if he’s ever heard the word “veck,” and Huer informs him that it’s slang for “vector,” one thing used as a carrier for another. Why didn’t this conversation happen when the word was first brought up?

Mangros wants to get rid of Buck in a “subtle” way, so he sends his submissive, Marilyn Monroe-voiced girlfriend Joanna (Judy Landers) to “entertain” Buck in his quarters, then pipes in the music with the evil signal that, according to his earlier villain monologue to Yarat, will cause anyone under 30 to become violent. Joanna is immediately affected and attempts to kill Buck, but Buck is immune, which is a pretty precise cutoff, since Buck is exactly 30 at this point going by “Happy Birthday, Buck.” Of course, Buck stops her, and when she recovers, he tells her to leave the station for her own good. He then learns from Theo that Mangros published a paper on using “ionized particles” transmitted through sound waves (????) to control human behavior. Buck goes to warn Andromeda, and once he convinces them, he inexplicably allows them to confront Mangros about it alone while he helps Joanna get to safety. What?? Buck already knows the man is a murderer, and he just lets them walk into danger!

Naturally, the band gets captured and Mangros plans to fake their concert with recorded video. Buck sends Twiki and Theo to Die Hard through the trash ducts and steal the ionizer thingy, which almost gets them sucked out into space (oh, no, poor Theo! Twiki who?). Buck gets captured and thrown in the closet with the band, kept alive on the flimsy pretext that Mangros plans to arrange a convincing fatal accident for them later, and they rig the band’s instruments into a sonic weapon to blow the door. Buck destroys the ionizer just before Mangros goes onstage and rallies the youth of the galaxy to rise in revolt, but since they’re non-ionized, they just laugh him off the stage. Because of course there’s no way the younger generation in a galaxy where war, slavery, and environmental devastation are rampant would have any legitimate reason to rise up in protest.

Wow. It’s like we had to pay for the show’s best episode, “A Dream of Jennifer,” by following it directly with the worst episode. If “Dream” represented everything Buck Rogers had the potential to be, “Space Rockers” represents everything I was afraid it might be when I approached this revisit. It’s dumb, cheesy, thoughtless, cliched, illogical, and thematically confused. It seems to be trying to have it both ways, telling a stock plot that embodies the conservative older generation’s worst paranoid fears about These Kids Today and Their Heathen Music, while also being sympathetic to the youth and the musicians and making them just dupes of an older villain. Yet it still slopes toward conservatism by assuming that young people have no interest in bucking the system (so to speak) unless they’re tricked or brainwashed into doing so, and that there’s no valid reason to protest the status quo even when it’s as troubled as the one we’ve glimpsed over the course of this season. I’ve seen this same set of tropes used in shows from the late ‘60s – Star Trek’s “The Way to Eden,” Get Smart’s “The Groovy Guru,” Mission: Impossible’s “The Martyr” to an extent (which Bruce Lansbury also produced) – but it’s kind of weird to see it still hanging on in 1980.

The episode also suffers from a dearth of Wilma – who’s there as a fixture in Huer’s office early in the episode but completely disappears once Buck gets to Music World – and an excess of Twiki, on whom Buck actually relies to perform the vital task of retrieving the ionizing device, but which he fails at utterly because Twiki is still useless. Also an excess of Judy Landers, who really didn’t contribute much to the episode, and whose inspid, weak, Monroe-esque babe-in-the-woods character is almost nauseating to watch after a season in which the majority of female characters have been portrayed as strong, smart, and capable, even the oversexualized Ardala.

“Buck’s Duel to the Death” is story editor Robert W. Gilmer’s first credited script for the show. It involves the people of the planet Katar, who live under the tyranny of the malevolent dictator called the Trebor (which is the writer’s first name spelled backward, although the DVD notes spell it “Traybor”). The Trebor is played by William Smith, with a hamminess level of as much as 0.6 Palances. When he kidnaps the daughter of Prime Minister Darius (Keith Andes) to be the next addition to his harem, Darius is too cowed by the Trebor’s deadly powers to do anything until Deputy Minister Neil (Edward Power) reminds him of the legend of the Roshon, a 500-year-old man prophesied to defeat the Trebor. Neil believes that Buck Rogers can be passed off as the Roshon to rally the spirits of the Katarian people enough to get them to stand up against the Trebor at last, and lures Buck to Katar under false pretenses. As usual of late, poor Wilma gets left behind while Twiki remains Buck’s inseparable sidekick.

Buck is resistant when he learns why he’s been brought to Katar, insisting its people need to fight their own battles. So Darius’s elder daughter Vionne (pronounced “Vee-own,” and played by Robert Stack’s daughter Elizabeth Stack) turns on the waterworks to convince him to help save her sister. He convinces the ministers to let him lead a small squad of “your best men” to infiltrate the Trebor’s palace, rescue the harem girls, and capture the Trebor, and somehow “your best men” includes the elderly Darius himself as well as Neil. Well, I guess I can buy that he wanted to save his daughter personally. Buck gets the harem girls out with ridiculous ease – and with an extended shot of the half-dozen or so scantily clad women climbing down a ladder with the camera pointed right at their buns – and then goes after the Trebor. He’s briefly captured but manages to get away with Darius, who stayed behind to help. Oh, and there was a smarmy minister who was obviously a spy for Trebor, but he’s dealt with easily because the Trebor happened to out him as a spy in Buck’s hearing.

Meanwhile, Buck has learned that the Trebor has the superpower to fling electric bolts from his hand, with a buzzing sound effect straight out of a Buster Crabbe serial. He calls home and asks Huer and Wilma to research electricity, which they insist they haven’t used in over 400 years while they’re speaking to a man on a cathode ray tube TV monitor. Seriously? Why do so many people writing about the future assume they’ll stop using the basic principles we use today? We still use fire and textiles millennia after the Stone Age. And electromagnetism is one of the fundamental forces of the universe. What else are they gonna use to store and transmit energy? Gravity? …But I digress.

For some reason, to research a present-day warlord on an alien planet, Wilma goes to visit the oft-mentioned Archives, source of Buck’s various 20th-century relics. For a moment, I thought we were finally going to meet the mysterious Dr. Junius of the Archives, but instead, Junius is out and Wilma has to settle for his wacky assistant Dr. Albert (Robert Lussier). Which makes no sense, since Junius has been unseen up to now, so why not just have Lussier play him? I guess maybe they wanted to keep him an unseen figure as a running gag, like Vera on Cheers, but it’s not like we ever expected to see him before, so if it’s a joke, it doesn’t really land. (Come to think of it, I don’t think it’s ever made clear whether Junius is human or an AI “quad” like Theopolis.) Albert reads Wilma a note from Junius (which she can’t read herself for some reason) providing an extraordinary amount of exposition on the Trebor, who apparently spent some time stranded on a planet inhabited by beings of pure electricity, a planet called… ohh, I can hardly stand to type it… Volton. And somehow, as a result of living among beings of pure electricity, he has electric microcircuits implanted under his skin to let him shoot energy bolts. Which doesn’t follow logically at all – why would beings naturally made of electricity need technology to channel electricity? The whole thing is gibberish, and ultimately it just boils down to the fact that the dude can shoot electricity from his hand, and Buck already knew that.

So Buck knows the Trebor is coming to Darius’s HQ to confront “the Roshon” and take his harem back, and Buck is now ready to step up and adopt the Roshon role for the confrontation. But he uses his 20th-century smarts about electricity and rigs Twiki with a small transformer so he’ll be more than meets the eye. (He could hardly be less.) So when they fight and the Trebor fires electricity at him, Buck grounds himself by holding onto Twiki, and the bolt feeds back to the Trebor and shorts him out, letting Buck take him down hand-to-hand (or rather, foot-to-hand – have I failed to mention how much Buck’s fighting style relies on jumping and kicking?). Afterward, he makes a speech to the people of Katar (which the show didn’t have the budget to actually depict) about how he’s not the Roshon, they are, and they’ve all got to work it out for themselves and be their own heroes and so forth – which is just about as close as this season of the show ever comes to making any sort of philosophical or social commentary, however generic. Oh, and then there’s the side plot where Vionne has fallen in love with Buck and tearfully says goodbye to him when he must ride off into the sunset. And then there’s the obligatory tag scene where Twiki comes in wearing a cowboy getup and oh gods don’t make me finish that sentence.

Well, it wasn’t “Space Rockers,” I’ll give it that. But it’s still pretty cheesy and silly, and has the same problem with its Twiki-to-Wilma ratio. In general, I feel the treatment of women in the show is deteriorating rapidly. We’re getting less screen time for capable, smart, or heroic women and more women being portrayed as helpless victims, even to the point of having a literal harem in this episode.

Note that “Space Rockers” and this one are the fifth and sixth episodes to air following Alan Brennert’s departure as story editor, and Anne Collins’s story consultant gig ended two weeks before that. But the development and writing of a TV script typically takes as much as a couple of months, so if a head writer leaves a show, their imprint will usually be felt on several later scripts, ones that were in outline or early draft phase at the time they left. So I’m guessing we’re now at about the point where stories that were conceived and plotted under Brennert and Collins have given way to stories originated under Gilmer. Now, granted, these are just the story editors; Bruce Lansbury was the showrunner throughout the season. But given how much of the scriptwriting Brennert and Collins did during their tenure, I have a feeling they were largely responsible for setting the show’s tone, and that suspicion is supported by how quickly the show has begun to get dumber and more sexist at around the time their influence on the script development has died out.

Next time, the 2-hour season finale!