Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Flight of the War Witch” (spoilers)

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Flight of the War Witch” (spoilers)

“Flight of the War Witch”: The 2-hour season finale (conceived as a TV movie but aired as a 2-parter) is scripted by story editor Robert W. Gilmer and showrunner Bruce Lansbury (as William Mageean) from a story by David Chomsky. It’s the only episode whose title follows the formula Lansbury had originally planned to use (with every episode title being “Flight of/to/from…” something, in the same way Lansbury’s first series Wild Wild West had used “Night of…”) before the network handed down the cruder, duller titles we ended up with. Perhaps by this point, the network had stopped caring.

The finale opens with a strange golden orb descending to the desert outside New Chicago (which looks exactly like Vasquez Rocks out in California!), where it’s discovered by Buck while he’s returning from a vacation with a random anonymous woman. He, Wilma, and Huer go out to investigate it and it extends a smaller orb through its liquid-like surface, a simple but pretty neat visual effect using a liquid pool with the camera angled to make it look vertical. The orb contains a chip giving instructions for how to penetrate a “vortex” (black hole to us primitives) to a new universe, essentially an invitation. Buck jumps at the opportunity to explore a new frontier, and the thirst for discovery that he and Huer express is refreshing to see in this show that’s generally avoided feeling like science fiction.

The large orb returns to its own universe, and we follow it to the world of Pendar, whose council (including Sam Jaffe and Vera Miles) is worried about one of their people who’s been captured by the War Witch Zarina of the Zaad, who’s torturing the man for information about how to penetrate Pendar’s defense shield. The War Witch is none other than Julie Newmar!!, and her torturer Spirot is Sid Haig, fresh from his turn as the villain Dragos in Filmation’s Jason of Star Command. Zarina explains to her victim that “as a transmute,” Spirot can cause cellular disruption in his victims – contradicting “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” which used “transmute” to mean a shapeshifter.

Meanwhile, Princess Ardala’s spy reports the discovery of the orb and she sends him to steal it. There’s a rather unpleasant bit where she learns that Tigerman, her rarely-speaking bodyguard from her previous appearances, has been reassigned and replaced with another silent muscleman, and she… oh, I hate to type this… names him Pantherman because he’s “black [and] beautiful.” Anyway, the spy steals the orb despite Buck trying to stop him, and when Huer’s formal protest is rebuffed, he decides that he and Wilma will go to the Draconian ship themselves.

Before Buck leaves, there are a couple of character-driven scenes that were only added after the airdate for the first half was moved up and the writers needed to replace 8 minutes’ worth of effects scenes they didn’t have time to complete. (Which tells you something about the priorities of the show’s makers.) First, Huer talks to him about their shared love of discovery (turns out Huer was the first human to go through a Stargate, though only across the Sol system) and how Buck has become like family to him. Then he says his farewells to Wilma, who’s been mostly just standing around reacting and looking bored up to now, and… oh, dear… she gets all teary-eyed and tells him how he taught her how to express her feelings and made her “feel like a woman for the first time in my life.” She stops just short of confessing her undying love for him. Ohh, good grief, what sexist twaddle! This show used to recognize that Wilma could be strong and feminine at the same time, and she never seemed out of touch with her emotions except in the dreadful pilot, which also had her express the idea that being a “real woman” meant being something different from a competent military leader, and that Buck had awakened feminine feelings she’d never experienced before. And since the pilot, it’s never portrayed Wilma as being romantically interested in Buck; if anything, she’s consistently reacted with approving amusement to his many romantic liaisons. And that’s another thing – Buck’s always been portrayed as a womanizer, but Gil Gerard’s respectful charm toward his female co-stars has tempered that, and we’ve always gotten to know the women he’s connected with. But here, he’s seen dallying with two different anonymous women in the first half of the episode, and it makes his womanizing feel more shallow and empty. This show has become far more sexist in a startlingly brief time. Although it turns out, according to Starlog’s coverage in their September 1980 issue, that David Chomsky wrote Wilma’s farewell scene at Erin Gray’s request and she was quite happy with it, at least according to him. I wouldn’t have expected that.

Once Buck and Twiki get through the vortex into the new universe, they pass through an energy field around Pendar and observe various weird creatures represented by double-exposed images of a dragonfly, rhinoceros beetle, and various lizards. On landing, they meet Chandar (Kelly Miles), a Pendaran who materializes out of thin air to escort Buck to their council. She asks about Twiki, but the writers seem to forget that Dr. Theopolis is there too. Poor guy. His last episode and he’s more neglected than Wilma. Chandar explains the energy field as the “Life Zone,” in which they trapped alien invaders a thousand years ago to live eternally, since they’re a life-loving people who refuse to kill.

Anyway, Sam Jaffe, “The Keeper,” recites some gibberish about how the Pendarans are energy beings manifesting as humans for Buck’s convenience, like Star Trek’s Organians or maybe the Q, though it’s unclear whether that applies to the Zaads as well, and it never comes up again. He explains that Buck was brought here to fight their war for them, since they can’t stand to kill so they want Buck to kill for them. Yeah, that makes sense. Oh, and they predicted that Ardala would steal the orb and bring the Draconia through herself, and Huer and Wilma are aboard the flagship when she does, on a diplomatic mission to protest said theft. Neither faction is eager to fight for a cause not their own, so the Pendarans say “We can’t force you to help, but you’ll never get home through the vortex unless we tell you how” — which, of course, is forcing them to help. Hypocrites. So Buck agrees to help, then romances Ardala to win her over as well. It’s implied that this time, he finally doesn’t avoid sleeping with her.

So Buck has a plan to sneak aboard Zarina’s ship on a robot supply freighter, but he’s immediately caught, because Ardala decided to have a “woman to woman” talk with Zarina and rat him out. She thinks she and Zarina are kindred spirits and that she’ll help conquer the Pendarans if Zarina helps her strand or kill the Terrans, except for Buck, whom she’ll keep for herself. But Zarina scornfully dismisses Ardala as a petulant child playing petty games, and though Zarina is hardly a sympathetic character, it’s satisfying to see Ardala put in her place, especially by the likes of Julie Newmar. Although it leads to Ardala breaking down in Buck’s arms and finally seeing things a bit more clearly, so they work together, along with the captive Pendaran (who’s Chandar’s fiance), in order to escape.

Back on Pendar, a Zaad infiltration has damaged the defense shield, creating a hole that Zarina’s forces can get through unless Twiki and Theo can fix the computer in time. But Buck has a plan, and he and Ardala coordinate their respective forces (luckily Huer and Wilma brought an escort of several Starfighters with them to the Draconia). The idea is to keep the Zaads busy long enough to fix the shield, but hold off activating it until their mothership is in the shield perimeter, where it will be destroyed. The life-loving Pendarans cheer this plan to kill all their enemies, and it’s never explained why they can’t just trap them in the Phantom, err, Life Zone like they did the other invaders.

Before the battle, Kane gives his warriors a rousing speech, which is marvelous to hear in Michael Ansara’s voice, but Ardala gets tired of his loquacity and orders him to launch the fighters: “I don’t want them to be late for the war.” The Earth and Draconian fighter pilots (including Wilma, who thank goodness gets to do some heroics to make up for that travesty earlier) stand together against their mutual foe and mesh quite well, holding the line until Zarina’s ship reaches the shield and blows up on impact. Then they all celebrate and get to go home, and maybe Earth-Draconian tensions are eased at least for the moment – or that was the thinking at the time, because the second season would retool and we’d never see Ardala or Kane again.

Well, this one had some of the problems characteristic of this last batch of episodes, like the more chauvinistic writing of Wilma. It also feels a bit racist in comparison to previous episodes. Not only do we have that unfortunate “Pantherman” business, but aside from him and Michael Ansara, all the guest actors and extras in this one are white, unlike the usually diverse casting of supporting characters and extras. I don’t know why that should suddenly be the case. The writing is also inconsistent, with ideas cropping up briefly and then being forgotten or contradicted later on, a level of sloppiness I haven’t seen since the feature version of the pilot.

Still, despite all this, it’s a pretty entertaining finale. It’s the only time the first season has really embraced a science fiction plot – ironically, given that it was co-written by Bruce Lansbury, the very showrunner whose mission statement for the series was to keep its stories as “basic” and conventional as in any present-day adventure show. It’s nice to see the characters fired up with the spirit of discovery in the first half, even though it ends up somewhere silly. And this is the most enjoyable of the Draconian episodes; toning down Ardala and Kane’s villainy and playing them as comic foils is probably the best use of a pair of characters that it’s been hard to take quite seriously before. And I always enjoy stories where the heroes and their recurring foes team up against a common threat. As for said threat, Newmar and Haig are perfectly cast, hamming it up marvelously in villain roles straight out of a ‘40s movie serial – totally one-dimensional and corny, but quite fun to watch. Newmar’s black dress and turban with red, spangly stripes coiling through them and a large, red Ming the Merciless collar is something to behold as well. I think the costume design is one of my favorite things about this show.


Next time, I’ll offer an overview of the first season.

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