Archive for January 23, 2018

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY First Season Overview (spoilers)

So what to make of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century? Going into this revisit, I was expecting something cheesy and dumb, and I got that in the pilot and the last few episodes. In between, though, the show we got was competently written and acted, had fairly decent production design and effects and great costumes (by Jean-Pierre Dorleac in the pilot and Al Lehman in the series), was generally watchable aside from certain chronic annoyances (bidi-bidi-bidi) — yet was assertively unchallenging, superficial, and devoid of any ambition beyond weekly ratings. The show strove to avoid anything science-fictional, allegorical, or thought-provoking enough to scare off the average viewer, and so it never really had anything to say beyond “Hope you had a good time, come back next week.” And when viewers didn’t come back enough, the series displayed signs of desperation with ratings-grabbing gimmick episodes focusing on celebrity guests or tying into the Olympics.

This seems to be in keeping with Bruce Lansbury’s overall record as a producer. He joined Mission: Impossible in the late fourth season, beginning with its best episode “Submarine,” and was actually the producer during M:I’s ambitious, daring, formula-challenging fifth season; yet he was also the producer who ushered in its season 6 retooling into a more formulaic, stateside crime-fighting drama. When he took over Wonder Woman 8 episodes into season 2, he stripped away virtually all its comic-book elements and turned it into a formulaic attempt at a Bionic Woman clone. Later on, he’d produce further cozy, formulaic, unchallenging dramas including Knight Rider and his big sister Angela’s Murder, She Wrote. M:I season 5 aside, his career seemed to be defined by a quest for the banal, an ambition to remain unambitious.

But Lansbury shouldn’t be held exclusively to blame. According to the accounts of Alan Brennert and Gil Gerard in Starlog, there was extensive meddling from the NBC executives (and probably Glen Larson as well), forcing rewrites that dumbed down the scripts or simplified the character interactions. Nobody involved in making the first season seemed to enjoy it much or to take pride in the results. Gerard and Brennert both blamed each other for the show’s writing problems (or at least Brennert blamed the rewrites that Gerard separately took credit for), but perhaps they were both misdirecting blame that more properly laid with the higher-ups, since it sounds like they both wanted a smarter, more science-fictional show, although they seemed to differ on how much humor the show could have (with Gerard finding the scripts overly comical and Brennert finding the rewrites overly humorless).

By the way, this article from Starlog #28 (Nov. 1979) gives plot summaries of a number of early scripts, and it’s interesting to see how heavily they were rewritten. A couple were either changed past recognition or never filmed at all.

Internal strife notwithstanding, the cast is a large part of what makes the show watchable. After being nothing more than a (literally) warmed-over Starbuck or Han Solo wannabe in the pilot, Buck became a more thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic, lonely, and guarded character through Gerard’s acting if not often through the writing, and though Buck was written as a stock womanizing ‘70s hero, Gerard always conveyed Buck’s respect and gentlemanly reserve toward the women who threw themselves at him. Tim O’Connor was given little to do beyond being the exposition giver and surrogate father figure who was constantly confused by Buck’s anachronistic banter, but he brought considerable charm and understated authority to the role. As for Erin Gray, the pilot served her poorly (and almost drove her away from the role) by demanding she play Wilma as a cold, mannish harridan, the sexist stereotype of what a strong female authority figure would have to be, until she finally softened under Buck’s manly influence; but in the season proper, at least until the last few episodes, Gray played a more authentic, natural female leader, someone who was calm, ultracompetent, reasoned, strong, dynamic, and simultaneously open, caring, warm, and feminine in a way that was strikingly beautiful but not at all objectifying. As I mentioned before, I believe Erin Gray was one of my first actress crushes as a preteen, and I think her portrayal of Wilma may have been part of the reason I came to find strong, dynamic women so appealing.

And it wasn’t just Wilma. This show may have had no ambition to use science fiction plots for social commentary in the vein of a Twilight Zone, Star Trek, or Alien Nation, but for the bulk of the season, it managed to make a quiet statement about gender and racial equality through its writing and casting. It’s evident that story editor Brennert, at least, was strongly influenced by Star Trek, and the makers of the show did seem to try to live up to its ideal of a future where equality among all humans had long since become taken for granted. In this respect, and in the production design aside from a certain Universal-TV cheapness to the sets, season 1 Buck Rogers managed to create a future I would’ve been comfortable living in, or at least seeing a more thorough exploration of. I liked these people (mostly) and their world, and I wish we could have gotten more and better stories about them.

So let’s see, how about some stats?

Best episodes: “A Dream of Jennifer,” “The Plot to Kill a City,” and “Space Vampire” (aside from the terrible makeup).

Worst episodes: “Space Rockers,” “A Blast for Buck,” and the theatrical cut of the pilot.

Best guest star: I’d go with Michael Ansara, whose compelling presence, strong acting, and magnificent voice elevated what little he had to work with as Kane. I’d also give nods to Trisha Noble as an impressive supervillain in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Judith Chapman as the luminous and sad Lara Tizian in “Olympiad,” and Julie Newmar as the enjoyably campy War Witch in the season finale. Honorable mention to Roddy McDowall just for being Roddy McDowall, even though he was wasted in an unfortunate part.

Worst guest star: No one can out-stink the truckload of spoiled ham delivered by Jack Palance as Kaleel in “Planet of the Slave Girls.” Other low points are the poorly cast villains Nicholas Hormann in “Space Vampire,” Paul Koslo in “A Dream of Jennifer,” and William Smith in “Buck’s Duel to the Death.” I resist listing Gary Coleman among the worst; he’s too obvious a target, he did the best he could for an 11-year-old, and it wasn’t the kid’s fault that NBC boss Fred Silverman thought “supergenius Arnold Drummond in the future” was a good idea.

Best science fiction concept: The “spaceberg” terraforming project in “Twiki is Missing.” There’s very little else to choose from.

Worst science fiction concept: Well, the worst one scientifically is “We haven’t used electricity in 400 years” in “Buck’s Duel to the Death,” while the most disturbing one conceptually is eugenics-based beauty contests with a pale blonde representing ultimate genetic perfection, as established in “Cruise Ship to the Stars.” Dishonorable mention to “Cosmic Whiz Kid”’s flimsy backstory of Hieronymous Fox’s self-invented cryochamber being bought and sold by various aliens over the centuries without anyone ever defrosting him until less than a year before the episode. Why?

Most inspiring moment: Buck’s fascination with scientific discovery in “Flight of the War Witch.”

Most embarrassing moment: Wilma’s degrading and character-assassinating “You made me feel like a woman for the first time in my life” speech in the same episode.

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