Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Shgoratchx!”/”The Hand of the Goral” (spoilers)

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Shgoratchx!”/”The Hand of the Goral” (spoilers)

“Shgoratchx!”: This oddly named comedy episode is by William Keys, whose few TV-writing credits come largely from Gunsmoke and Barnaby Jones, as well as Irwin Allen’s 1978 miniseries The Amazing Captain Nemo, for which he was one of six credited writers. This is one of the season 2 episodes I’ve always remembered most clearly, but not for anything positive. Mainly, I remember it for containing the most offensively sexist scene in the entirety of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. This is the second episode in a row that might require a trigger warning for the way it treats a female character, although this time it’s played as a joke.

A derelict ship is found drifting into the freight lanes, and Crichton wakes up a fatigued Buck to deal with it, taking the opportunity to complain about Buck’s ghastly century characterized by “wars, Women’s Lib, and the Holocaust,” which tells you something about the episode’s gender values. Buck, Hawk, and Crichton board the freighter to find it inhabited by, literally, seven dwarves – comical aliens called Zeerdonians, played by Little Person actors, including six ornately attired generals (Tommy Madden, John Edward Allen, Billy Curtis, Harry Monty, Spencer Russell, and Charles Secor) and their sole subordinate, Private Zedht (Tony Cox), who’s the only one they can give orders to but who never follows them anyway. It’s kind of an amusing idea on the face of it, but it’s disturbingly undermined by the fact that the private is the only black member of the group, so that it comes off as a “lazy black servant” stereotype. On the other hand, Zedht is also portrayed as the only remotely sane or sensible member of the group.

Anyway, it turns out – ridiculously and inexplicably – that the derelict is carrying hundreds of “solar bombs” powerful enough to “radioactivate” the whole quadrant, and in an advanced state of decay, sweating like old dynamite and prone to blow at any moment. So the Searcher has to tow the ship very carefully to a “bomb disposal star,” whatever that is, but the Six Napoleons and the Solitary Slacker keep wandering around pushing buttons and causing trouble, including a surge of acceleration that causes Crichton’s positronic brain to be dented, making Twiki worry about the fate of his “son” (and it’s finally mentioned in passing why Twiki sees Crichton that way). The Zeerdonians also develop an inordinate fascination with Wilma, finding her unlike any female they have back home because — here we go — “she has bumps.” Why they failed to notice any of the other women who are theoretically in the crew before they encountered Wilma on the bridge is unexplained.

When the Zeerdonians short out a power circuit and almost cause the tractor beam to pull the derelict into the Searcher, Buck discovers that the aliens are “naturally grounded” and convinces them (or rather, the private) to help bridge the circuit and fix the problem they caused. Then, on the admiral’s orders, Buck foists the seven little men off on Wilma. She expresses actual fear at this, anxiously pointing out the inordinate interest they’ve taken in her anatomy, but Buck — our hero, ladies and gentlemen — dismisses her concerns without a second thought. This is how men like Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long.

Wilma tries locking the Zeerdonians in the lounge, but they turn out to have another random ability, a telekinetic gift to “off-think” the lock so they can get out and cause more mischief, including playing Asteroids with the literal asteroid belt the ship is passing through for some reason. After Buck and Wilma stop them, Buck leaves Wilma with them again, and she makes the mistake of inquiring about their reproductive methods, which involve their queen laying eggs in groups of seven. Then – oh, I have to apologize for summarizing this, and it made me squirm to watch it. They use their powers to lock Wilma in with them and surround her, declaring they have to “examine” her “for science,” and chant “Off-think” at her until her clothes start to come off.

Remember that Wilma Deering used to be portrayed as the leader of Earth’s entire military. This is what the show has now reduced her to. When I first saw the scene at age 12, I admit, I found the prospect of seeing Erin Gray undressed quite exciting. But when I saw it years later in reruns, with more understanding of rights and consent, I found it disgusting to see what was essentially a sexual assault played for laughs. And I don’t feel any less disgusted now. Though it could’ve been much, much worse. In his interview in Starlog #39, John Mantley boasts about the upcoming story as it was originally scripted: “They get her clothes off and we don’t see what happens to her… Up walks this gnome who is holding a brassiere yelling, ‘What’s this? What’s this?’ And Buck says ‘It looks like a ‘B’ cup to me.'” Good grief!! For once, I’m grateful for network censors, since the aired version has Buck rescue Wilma while she’s still almost fully clothed, then insist that the Zeerdonians fall in line.

It turns out the asteroid damage from the generals’ little stunt has trapped the ship on a collision course with a star, and Crichton’s the only one equipped to fix the damage. Twiki, citing his obligation under the First Law of Robotics to prevent humans from coming to harm, bravely volunteers to have his brain placed inside Crichton’s body to perform the repairs, despite the risk that Crichton’s more advanced and powerful circuits could burn him out. Twiki’s innards look completely different than they did in the previous episode when Buck was repairing him, and his positronic brain looks ridiculously like a human brain spray-painted silver, while Crichton’s brain is a larger, more trapezoidal piece shaped to fit his head, looking like the offspring of a human brain and a styrofoam cooler. Once installed, Twiki speaks robotically in Crichton’s voice (reciting the Three Laws of Robotics and identifying himself as unit TWKE-4, contradicting his designation in “Twiki is Missing” as Ambuquad N22-23-T) and performs the repairs in time to save the ship. Why his personality doesn’t manifest in Crichton’s body is unclear. Once Twiki’s back in his own body, the Zeerdonians use their “on-think” power to reactivate him and then magically fix the dent in Crichton’s brain.

The Zeerdonians then get a grateful sendoff from the crew, along with Hawk, who’s been missing since the early scenes. They say their queen will knight them for their efforts, leading Goodfellow to hope that she also replaces their dog of a ship, because he wouldn’t send a knight out on a dog like that. That one line is funnier than the rest of the episode.

Oh, what a mess. Admittedly, the concept does have its fun moments, and it’s refreshing to see a comedy episode after the season has treated so many ludicrous ideas as ultra-serious drama. The episode came out just a few months before Time Bandits, and I wonder if it was an attempt to capitalize on hype for the upcoming film, although I don’t recall how much hype Time Bandits got. The story is also notable for being first time I ever saw Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and positronic brains referenced in a work of mass-media science fiction, though I already knew them well from Asimov’s prose. (The latter concept would be used later on in Star Trek: The Next Generation for Data and similar androids. I wasn’t at all thrilled when TNG first mentioned positronic brains in “Datalore,” because their inclusion in “Shgoratchx!” seven years earlier had tainted the idea for me. Also, it’s not a concept that really makes any scientific sense; Asimov just coined the term because it sounded vaguely futuristic.)

But the gross sexism of the episode, with Wilma being sexually harassed as a running gag, is simply irredeemable. It’s so unpleasant and distasteful that it overshadows anything positive about the episode.

It certainly doesn’t help that most of the Zeerdonians, especially the lead general Tommy Madden, are quite bad actors, though Tony Cox isn’t bad as the private. Also, in several scenes, they aren’t all effectively miked, so some of their dialogue is hard to hear. It’s not just a function of their height, because there’s one scene where Wilma is inadequately miked as well. I’d expect more from director Vincent McEveety, who was one of Star Trek’s more notable directors. (The title, by the way, is a Zeerdonian interjection that’s never translated or consistently pronounced.)

This is the final episode to feature Alex Hyde-White, and his largest dialogue role. Though he’s credited as Ensign Moore, he’s addressed in dialogue as Lt. Martin, his character name from “The Crystals.” Presumably he was cast in the role after the script was written, and the name was changed in production.

“The Hand of the Goral” is the second episode by Francis Moss, writer of “Mark of the Saurian.” Fortunately, it’s a significant improvement on Moss’s debut.

Buck, Hawk, and Wilma go down to survey the ruins of Vor Deeth, “the Planet of Death,” which was once inhabited by a people called the Goral (rhymes with coral). They find a crash survivor named Reardon (Peter Kastner), whom Wilma takes up to the Searcher for medical treatment. Buck and Hawk explore the ruins and see each other disappear briefly, concerning them enough to send them back to the ship. Once they reunite with Wilma, they find that everyone else is acting badly out of character. Admiral Asimov has become a paranoid Captain Bligh, locking crewmen up for imagined mutinies. Dennis Haysbert’s recurring character, here finally named as Lt. Parsons, is his grinningly cruel enforcer. Crichton is polite and submissive, and Twiki is a bitter grouch who resents being ordered around by humans (which actually wouldn’t have been so out of character for his sarcastic first-season version). Dr. Goodfellow seems his normal eccentric-grandfather self at first, but gets outraged when his workmanship on Crichton is challenged.

Our three leads suspect some force from the planet is affecting the crew and try to get off the ship, but Asimov catches them and has them locked in Buck’s quarters – letting him recognize that the viewport’s in the wrong place, and so is the ship’s orbit. He realizes the ship and all its crew are duplicates of the real thing. (So if the ship was in the wrong orbit, how did Buck and Hawk get there?) They make their escape, and when they’re confronted by Parsons, Buck assails him and demands answers, whereupon he burns up into a pile of ash, proving the duplicate theory. Wilma is terrified by this and begs Buck to hold her, which in season 1 would’ve been a clear sign that she was an impostor too, but at this point it’s hard to tell. Later, though, when the trio are attacked by the impostor crew and both Hawk and Wilma are pinned by debris, Wilma is helpless with terror while Hawk selflessly begs Buck to save Wilma first. Buck chooses to help Hawk instead, and Wilma burns up, a fake after all. Buck says he knew because the real Wilma doesn’t scare easily. At least some trace of her old characterization remains. (As it happens, this is very reminiscent of a scene in Philip Nowlan’s second Anthony Rogers novella “The Airlords of Han,” in which a captive Rogers is shown footage of Wilma being tortured and begging him to surrender if he wants to save her, and he recognizes it as fake because he knows Wilma is too strong to beg like that. Coincidence or reference?)

The guys get away and try to get back to the real Searcher, but it’s caught in a “snare beam” from the planet. So they go back to the surface, where they’re faced by the Hand of the Goral (John Fujioka), a programmed construct of mutable matter-energy who reveals the whole thing has been a test for candidates to take over as his new masters. Apparently nobody’s passed the tests in 10,000 years, and Buck and Hawk have one test left. A member of the real Searcher’s crew, he says, has taken the means of its destruction aboard, and they must find “him” before it’s too late. Folks, the Goral were bloody terrible at riddles. First the Hand figured it would somehow be hard for Buck and Hawk to identify the obviously flawed fake ship and crew, and now he makes it ridiculously easy to figure out that the “crash victim” Reardon is the saboteur. B&H return to the real ship, figuring that the saboteur would target the fusion reactor. But Reardon has changed into Lt. Parsons and tells them he’s already searched the reactor room, which works until they happen to run into the real Parsons in the corridor just after. They go back in to search and make the rookie mistake of splitting up to search for a shapeshifter – but fortunately the Goral constructs are still pretty dumb, since the fake Hawk that Buck encounters almost immediately gives himself away. “Hawk” turns into the Hand, who laments that he’s still stuck alone on Vor Deeth – even though they’ve passed the tests, which should mean they get to stay, although they’ve made it clear they don’t want to. Maybe the Goral should’ve considered testing for actual willingness to stay?

Okay, so there are logic holes in the Goral’s actions, and their challenges aren’t remotely as difficult as advertised. But this is actually a fairly effective episode. It’s finally, finally a good focus on the Hawk-Buck-Wilma triad, even if Wilma’s a fake for most of it – though it treats the real Wilma better in her absence than recent episodes have treated her in her presence. It’s a pretty decent adventure and a better paranoid/impostor thriller than Moss’s previous episode, with the characters getting to use their wits, resourcefulness, and understanding of each other to solve the problems. I wouldn’t call it objectively good, but it’s not bad and there’s nothing actively offensive about it. At this point, mediocrity is a refreshing improvement.

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