Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Season 2: “Time of the Hawk” (spoilers)

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Season 2: “Time of the Hawk” (spoilers)

With an unhappy cast and sagging ratings, it’s no surprise that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was retooled for its second season. If anything, it’s a surprise that it was renewed at all. In addition to the show’s other woes, the second season was delayed by a 1980 actor’s strike. All the first season’s producers moved on, save for line producer David O’Connell, who returned only for the first two double-length episodes. Even co-developer Glen Larson was no longer an executive producer. Bruce Lansbury’s replacement as showrunner was, symmetrically, his predecessor as producer on The Wild Wild West, writer/actor/producer John Mantley – better known for showrunning Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won. It may seem odd that a Western producer was put in charge of Buck Rogers, but then, Gene Roddenberry had been largely a Western writer/producer before Star Trek. Westerns were ubiquitous in 1960s TV, and were the primary period and frontier narratives in the medium at the time, so they had a degree of overlap with science fiction. But Mantley did have a little SF experience: he wrote the novel The 27th Day and the Outer Limits episode “Behold Eck!,” and in 1978 he attempted to produce a film adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot with Harlan Ellison writing the screenplay. Apparently he was unjustly shut out of that film after bringing it to Warner Bros. and won a fraud case against their executives eleven years later, well after the movie project collapsed. (Ellison’s screenplay was later published in book form.) Perhaps this history was part of the reason he was pegged to take over Buck Rogers.

As Mantley told Starlog in an October 1980 article where they consistently misspelled his name, he had the same desire as Lansbury to get “back to basics” for the sake of audience identifiability, but he had a totally different, less condescending view of what that meant. Lansbury had taken it to mean avoiding science fiction “concept stories” that might scare off viewers, preferring to do routine action/adventure plots without any real speculative or thematic substance to strain the audience’s feeble little brains. But Mantley saw it more as a matter of making the characters human and relatable, something he didn’t think the first season had achieved. He wanted to embrace science fiction plots in a way the first season had aggressively avoided, but to give the characters more texture and vulnerability. He also wanted to get away from the intelligence/military focus of the first season and open up the storytelling more. Meanwhile, he and Erin Gray both felt that the first season’s Wilma – whom I saw as a natural, effective leader who conveyed relaxed authority and engendered an easy sense of trust in her ability and kindness – was “overbearing,” apparently because that was how people c. 1980 saw a woman who wasn’t soft and submissive all the time. They chose to tone down her leadership qualities and make her a more conventional female supporting player, unfortunately.

The result of these changes was an almost completely new Buck Rogers. Mantley wanted to do a transitional episode explaining the changes, but the network insisted on starting cold with the new format in place. As a result, Tim O’Connor (Dr. Huer) and Eric Server (voice of Dr. Theopolis) were dropped from the show without fanfare. Mel Blanc was replaced as Twiki’s voice by Bob Elyea, who gave the ambuquad a more high-pitched, boyish voice fitting his appearance. Since Elyea was uncredited, I mistakenly assumed at the time that it was the natural voice of Felix Silla, who returned as the body of Twiki. Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, and Silla were the only returning cast members at first, though Blanc would return midway through the season. Even main-title narrator William Conrad was replaced by Hank Simms, with a slightly different version of the narration.

The season 2 premiere, “Time of the Hawk,” was written by veteran TV scribe Norman Hudis. It opens on a hawk-shaped fighter craft flown by Hawk (Thom Christopher), who’s returning home with his mate Koori (BarBara Luna). They are birdlike humanoids with caps of white feathers in place of hair. They arrive home to find their tribe slaughtered by humans, and Hawk swears vengeance on all humans. There’s a strong vibe of a noble, stoic Indian warrior swearing to punish the white man for slaughtering his village. Right off the bat, the former Gunsmoke producer is giving us an overt space Western.

After the main titles, we’re introduced to the starship Searcher, which, as I mentioned before, is a rebuild of the titular “Cruise Ship to the Stars” from season 1, given proportionally larger windows to make it look like a somewhat smaller ship, and emblazoned on the side with the ship’s name and motto “Per Ardua ad Astra” – the motto of Britain’s Royal Air Force, meaning “Through Adversity to the Stars.” The Searcher is shaped kind of like the Discovery from 2001 if you fattened out its middle, a long, boxy cylindrical ship with a spherical bow section and a pair of large rocketlike engine bells at the rear. It’s not a design that really looks that great from multiple angles or cuts an iconic profile the way something like the Enterprise or Galactica does. Its interior sets are kludged together from season 1 set pieces and props – even its bridge, which you’d think they would’ve put more effort into designing. There’s a mess-hall set with faux-wooden walls, a more naturalistic environment than anything we saw in season 1’s sterile, technological cityscapes, but it’s never seen again after the first act of this episode. The Searcher’s crew members are very unattractively costumed, wearing what are essentially sailor suits in white and pale blue, with the skirted female versions looking like Sailor Moon cosplay. Even though they’re from Al Lehman, the same costume designer who did such great work in season 1, they look ridiculous by contrast to the season 1 Directorate uniforms.

Buck is part of the crew and is addressed as Captain Rogers, but he still wears civilian outfits. His specific role in the ship’s hierarchy is never defined, aside from being the guy who heads all the away missions. Wilma now seems to have an ongoing Hepburn-Tracy romantic tension with Buck, and also appears to be second-in-command to the Searcher’s commanding officer Admiral Efram Asimov (Jay Garner), supposedly a descendant of the Good Doctor himself (an homage Mantley made with Isaac Asimov’s permission, since they knew each other from the failed I, Robot film project, if not earlier – though as a kid, unaware of this, I was offended that a cheesy sci-fi TV show dared to invoke the name of one of the greats of science fiction literature). How a colonel is second-in-command to an admiral is left unexplained, as is how the woman who was the leader of Earth’s entire planetary defense force is now a junior officer on a single ship.

The Searcher is apparently just starting out on its mission, but we’re not yet told what it’s meant to be searching for. But we do meet its doddering, avuncular chief scientist Dr. Goodfellow (the utterly charming Wilfrid Hyde-White), whose personality is also based on Isaac Asimov – a genial old man defined by his bottomless enthusiasm for scientific discovery and his irrepressible fondness for bad puns (though fortunately not emulating Asimov’s inveterate womanizing). Even though Goodfellow is the Searcher’s medical doctor, he’s also its science officer and apparently a cutting-edge roboticist, since he’s recently constructed the third new character – the robot Crichton (voice of Jeff David), who’s amazingly brilliant but so arrogant that he refuses to believe an entity of his perfection could’ve been built by a mere human such as Goodfellow, though he hasn’t yet determined who else could’ve done it. This attitude infuriates Admiral Asimov, basically a spaceborne Perry White who’s driven to temper tantrums by Crichton’s arrogance. There’s a continuity error here, since Huer told Buck in the pilot that robotics had long since reached the point where robots and computers designed each other better than humans could. Crichton himself is nonhumanoid and has a fun design built around his personality, including a telescoping neck so he can literally look down on people and arms designed specifically to go akimbo in irritation. (There’s probably no connection to the mechanoid Kryten from Red Dwarf, introduced in 1988. Their names are homophones and they’re both fonts of information for their crewmates, but Kryten is as humble and self-effacing as Crichton is arrogant and egotistical.)

All these character introductions clutter up the first act, but are set aside once the main story gets underway, with Crichton and Twiki absent from most of the 2-hour premiere. The Searcher comes across a derelict spaceship (pointed out by communications officer Dennis Haysbert, his second role on the series and one that will recur) and is alerted to attacks on human shipping by a man or creature called Hawk, an unstoppable ghost bent on destruction. Buck is given authority by the “Galactic Council” to track him down, and Crichton’s sole role in the story is to deduce that he comes from the planet Throm in the Argus system. Buck goes there alone and arrives in the city/bazaar of Neutralia, whose tall-hatted natives maintain a policy of strict neutrality and aid to all ships, bad guys included. (What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were they just born with hearts full of neutrality?) They know of Hawk (who Buck has somehow figured out is a man instead of a creature), but won’t turn him over, for they have no strong feelings one way or the other. The same can’t be said for Flagg (Lance LeGault), a space ruffian who tries to steal Buck’s ship and gets outsmarted because a man from 500 years in the past understands spaceship airlocks better than he does. It’s nice to see Buck fighting with his wits instead of his fists and feet. Buck shakes Flagg down for information on Hawk by threatening to parade him through town in a hula skirt and a dog collar, though how he actually found those in an interstellar bazaar is anyone’s guess. Once set free, Flagg promises a reckoning.

Goodfellow convinces Wilma to take him along to search for Hawk’s nest, spinning a rather nonsensical ancient-astronauts tale about winged bird people who used to live on Easter Island and worshipped Makemake until they left for the stars 10,000 years ago. They find the “nest” in a cave, where they’re felled by a “giant” alien tarantula’s sleep-inducing web and need Buck to rescue them. They then pretty much vanish from the story while Buck finds Koori and takes her with him to lure out Hawk, once she convinces Buck he’ll be too hard to find any other way.

Indeed, Hawk’s Hawk Fighter (okay, he’s a hawk, we get it) soon intercepts Buck’s Starfighter and attempts to force him down. The fighter is not only shaped like a hawk, but has a truly ridiculous-looking control stick shaped like a hawk’s head facing the pilot. Hawk tries to snag Buck’s fighter in his ship’s talons just as Koori has risen from her seat to grab Buck’s blaster, so she gets impaled in the shoulder. Buck surrenders control of his fighter to let Hawk steer them to a controlled crash in the jungle, then convinces a grudging Hawk that they have to work together to get Koori to a doctor in Neutralia. (“If I don’t make it, tell my wife, ‘Hello.’”) Hawk agrees, but refuses to let Buck carry Koori. Once finally convinced to rest, in a fine bit of acting from Thom Christopher, Hawk bitterly tells Buck how his people lived in peace until they were hounded from Earth by humans and their love of killing anything with wings, and how his people then gave up the power of flight out of fear of history repeating itself, leading them to degenerate into their current, more humanoid form. Buck has little luck convincing him that humans have changed.

On reaching Neutralia, a healer waves her hands over Koori and tells them that she can’t save her but can point them to the Lamajuna, a supposed Hindu mystic in the mountains whose powers might be able to help. (“All I know is, my gut says ‘maybe.’”) Rather than asking for, like, an ambulance or a litter or something, they just pick Koori up and start walking again. En route, they’re ambushed by Flagg and his men, who draw on them with swords rather than blasters. Okay, it’s a Western with shades of Kurosawa. Buck tells Hawk to go on with Koori while he faces the circle of men alone, but Hawk decides to stand and fight with Buck, until the Lamajuna (David Opatoshu) uses his Vishnu-given powers to paralyze the thugs temporarily and let Buck and Hawk get away.

The Lamajunadingdong turns out to be pretty useless otherwise, since all he has for Koori are platitudes about how there is no death, only change. He can only keep her spirit tethered long enough to say goodbye to Hawk. Though Hawk is grateful for Buck’s help, he still refuses to surrender and Buck refuses to walk away from his duty, so they have a lengthy, brutal (by 1980 TV standards) hand-to-hand fight to the point of mutual exhaustion, and finally the Lamajuna zaps them both unconscious to be found by Wilma.

Weeks later on the Searcher, Hawk faces the Galactic Court, which he doesn’t recognize and has refused to defend himself to, as they prepare to deliver their death sentence. Buck angrily speaks up and gives a startlingly poignant speech about how the court will be confirming everything Hawk believes about humans if they execute the last member of a species for waging a rightful war against enemies of his people. It’s a revelatory, powerful piece of acting from Gil Gerard. Ultimately, Buck’s argument convinces the court that Hawk’s sentence should be in the hands of the people who know him best, the crew of the Searcher. Buck realizes that Hawk could serve his penance by joining the crew, since they have the same mission. Buck finally explains that the Searcher is on a quest to track down the lost tribes of humanity who fled Earth after the holocaust (shades of Battlestar Galactica’s premise, surprisingly, given that Glen Larson is no longer involved). He and Wilma propose that some of Hawk’s ancient bird people could still be out there as well. Hawk agrees, and the Searcher heads off on its mission without any tacked-on comedy tag scene.

Well. This started out sketchy and had some pretty silly ideas, but despite my wisecracks, it turned out to be a genuinely good episode of television. It was very much a Western, but it was also trying very hard to be Star Trek, and doing a surprisingly good job of it, aside from the weak set and costume designs aboard the Searcher. While it has its silly bits, it’s a quantum leap above anything season 1 achieved or even aspired toward. It’s a smart, dramatic story with intense character conflict and hard-hitting social commentary, and Buck is now much less Han Solo and much more James T. Kirk. Gil Gerard gets to act on a whole other level than he ever got the chance to do in season 1, and he rises to the occasion. Thom Christopher is superb as Hawk – it’s a pretty stock stoic warrior/noble savage role, but he brings a lot of dignity, poise, and weight to it, as well as a strong, resonant voice and a dancer-like physicality. I’m pretty sure that Hawk was my favorite part of season 2 when I watched it in first run. My second-favorite part was Wilfrid Hyde-White being his usual dodderingly adorable self as Dr. Goodfellow. Most of the rest of the cast gets little to do, but that’s a blessing where Twiki is concerned. Bruce Broughton takes over the music and works in a fairly traditional orchestral vein reminiscent of Star Trek or Westerns, rather than the funkier ‘70s sound of the first season’s scores.

Unfortunately, “Time of the Hawk” would turn out to be the exception rather than the rule for season 2. However ambitious Mantley may have been to make a smarter, richer show, he was still working for a network regime that expected very little from science fiction and its audience.

One further note: I realized a while back, even before this rewatch, that Buck Rogers season 2 was the closest thing in real life to the series within the movie Galaxy Quest. Indeed, part of what prompted this rewatch was my desire to verify my perception of the parallels, and if anything, it’s proven them to be even stronger than I’d remembered. Within the film’s reality, the Galaxy Quest series ran from 1979-82, while Buck Rogers ran from 1979-81. Both GQ and BR S2 were Star Trek-like starship adventure series with a macho male lead whose actor tended to hog the spotlight (Taggart/Buck), his stoic alien warrior best friend who’s the last survivor of a slaughtered people (Dr. Lazarus/Hawk), and a somewhat marginalized token female lead/love interest with a vaguely defined shipboard role (Tawny/Wilma). Meanwhile, Laredo, the child prodigy navigator of the Protector, has always strongly reminded me of Gary Coleman’s Hieronymous Fox from Buck season 1. Everyone assumes that Galaxy Quest is just a Star Trek parody, and to a large extent it obviously is; but if it isn’t deliberately based on Buck Rogers as well, then it’s a staggering coincidence, given the sheer number of strong parallels.

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  1. January 25, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    Seems like you are onto something with the GalaxyQuest parallels. Nice observations! I wonder if the GalaxyQuest folks have ever publicly spoken about Buck?

    • January 25, 2018 at 2:53 pm

      For what it’s worth, I see other SFTV parallels in Galaxy Quest besides Trek and Buck. Alexander Dane reminds me of Space: 1999‘s Barry Morse, a distinguished English actor who was embarrassed by his association with a cheesy SFTV show. Tawny Madison’s “repeat what the computer says” job was similar to the role of 1999‘s David Kano. The child-prodigy crew member evokes Lost in Space‘s Will Robinson as well as Gary Coleman’s Buck Rogers character. And the wire-work spaceship effects and puppet monsters suggest Irwin Allen’s shows. There are also things not specific to any one show but common in ’60s and ’70s TV, like the yellowface casting (a guy who looks like Tony Shalhoub playing a character named Chen), or the countdown going to one. I’ve never quite figured out a precedent for the corridor of gratuitous death traps, although there’s something a bit similar coming up in the next Buck episode.

      • January 25, 2018 at 3:04 pm

        You should work this up into a Tor.com article or something… I bet most people, like me, think “Star Trek parody” full stop. This is interesting stuff.

        My best memory of GalaxyQuest is purely a personal one, though. Once it was out on VHS (!), we had some friends over to watch it. I was the only one who had seen it in the theater and had raved about how good it was. After it was over, one of our friends said, “I thought we were just watching this to humor Mike, but it turns out it was really good!” 🙂

      • January 25, 2018 at 9:52 pm

        Fun fact about “Galaxy Quest” (which I learned from watching the special features on the 10th-anniversary special edition DVD): The original spec script by David Howard was called “Captain Starshine” and was originally more of an homage to the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. During the rewrite process it was retooled to be more specifically a spoof of (and homage to) “Star Trek”—but, as you note, the influence of the other shows seems to have made its way into the final film as well.

        I also remember a TV movie (which had the look of being an unsold pilot) that aired in the mid-1990’s called “The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space,” which uses exactly the same concept as “Galaxy Quest” but is more clearly based on the older serials. Ron Perlman and Nichelle Nichols are in it; as I recall, it was actually kind of fun.

        Thanks for these reviews!

      • January 25, 2018 at 10:10 pm

        I remember Captain Zoom. It was actually based on the live TV sci-fi shows of the early ’50s like Captain Video rather than the earlier movie serials, although there was a Flash Gordon series from that era too. It starred Daniel Riordan, who would later play Duras on Star Trek: Enterprise. The heroine was Liz Vassey, later of CSI and The Tick. The music was by the great Shirley Walker, and the main theme sounded very similar to her Superman: The Animated Series theme from the following year. And one of the writers was David A. Goodman, who’d later be a writer/producer on Futurama and Enterprise.

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