Home > Reviews > BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Second Season Overview (spoilers)

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

I came into my rewatch of Buck Rogers season 2 hoping it would be an improvement on the harmlessly banal and insubstantial season 1, though I knew it wouldn’t do nearly as well in its treatment of female characters. At first, with “Time of the Hawk,” it looked as though the season would surpass my wildest hopes. Instead, it mostly turned out to be even worse than I remembered it, a dumb show that took itself far too seriously and thus warranted scorn rather than amusement. It lacked some of the first season’s few virtues, most of all its casual, matter-of-fact feminism. Season 2’s treatment of women (“The Dorian Secret” aside) ranged from neglect and near-total exclusion to outright misogyny, and it handled Wilma Deering quite poorly.

Most of all, season 2 suffered from wasted potential. It started out attempting to tell smart science fiction drama driven by character and ideas (even if the SF ideas were rather fanciful), but it quickly abandoned that in favor of gimmick-based action stories as devoid of substance as season 1 but without the humor and inoffensive charm. It introduced a terrific character in Hawk, marvelously played by Thom Christopher, and badly underused and marginalized him much of the time. That’s perhaps my greatest regret – Hawk could’ve been one of the great SFTV characters if he’d been given more to do. There’s also the fact that it set up a premise and never did anything with it. The Searcher was meant to be probing the galaxy for ancient lost colonies of humanity, but the only time it ever found anything like one was on a routine refueling stop and nobody seemed to care. The only times we saw the crew exploring were in “The Guardian,” “The Satyr,” and “The Hand of the Goral,” and none of those really involved the lost-colonies mission statement. Otherwise, most episodes involved either military/diplomatic missions or rescue operations.

And even though the show spent most of its time out in space, it gave a less cohesive sense of the universe it occupied than season 1 did. It couldn’t seem to decide whether there was a Galactic Council, an Alliance, or a Federation, and it had no recurring aliens or antagonists. It was inconsistent on whether the Searcher used “plasma drive,” stargates, or warp drive. It couldn’t even clearly settle on what its lead characters’ shipboard responsibilities were, and the few recurring background crew members (played by Paul Carr, Dennis Haysbert, and Alex Hyde-White in four episodes each) were interchangeable and seemed to change rank and responsibilities from one episode to the next. It seems the characters in the scripts were written with no continuity between them and the actors were just plugged into whatever role needed to be cast.

The lack of new worldbuilding was compounded by a lack of consistency with the old worldbuilding. In a lot of ways, the second season’s universe didn’t quite mesh with the first season. The human culture of the 25th century was no longer as sterile and computerized, no longer as unfamiliar with Buck’s 20th-century ideas and vernacular. The concept that Earth was governed by AIs and that computers and robots created each other was long forgotten. The date of the nuclear holocaust was moved back by a couple of decades, to mere months after Buck left Earth. Granted, these changes were probably made intentionally and for a purpose. I can imagine that John Mantley and the other season 2 producers wanted to humanize the 25th-century characters more, to make them more accessible to the audience rather than distancing them by having them constantly confused by 20th-century culture. Putting humans back in control of AIs rather than the other way around may have also been intended to make the 25th century seem less forbidding. And the retcon of the Holocaust date in “Testimony of a Traitor” was necessary to make the story happen at all. Since the Holocaust is a key part of Buck’s backstory, it’s understandable why the writers would want to tie him to it more directly. Still, the deliberate discontinuities with season 1 would’ve been easier to swallow if season 2’s worldbuilding had been a worthwhile replacement. Season 1’s world may have had its dystopian elements, but it was a recovering dystopia that was starting to become a better place and had its appealing aspects. Season 2’s abandonment of its distinctive elements, without anything substantial to take their place, just made its universe feel more ill-defined.

So what went wrong this time? How did the season start and end so well but turn out so awful in the middle? The articles available on ByYourCommand.net don’t seem to include any season 2 post-mortems, so I can’t be sure. But I suspect it was the same factors that hobbled season 1 – network suits pushing for simple, lowbrow plots because they lacked faith in the intelligence of the science fiction audience, and Gil Gerard rewriting the scripts to make himself more dominant at others’ expense. In this case, though, there’s the added problem that the new producers were a lot more old-fashioned in their gender values – no, let’s not mince words – a lot more misogynistic than the season 1 producers. Even if the season had managed to maintain the quality of “Time of the Hawk,” that problem would’ve remained.

So here are statistics again:

Best episodes: “Time of the Hawk” and “The Dorian Secret” by a very large margin. Both of them are genuinely good SFTV episodes, far superior to anything else in the entire series. Runners-up: “The Hand of the Goral” and “Testimony of a Traitor” are watchable but flawed, and “Journey to Oasis” and “The Guardians” have impressive moments but don’t work overall. Basically, only the first three and last three episodes are at all worthwhile. The quality of the season follows a pretty symmetrical – and very steep – inverted bell curve.

Worst episodes: “The Satyr” by a significant margin. Also “Shgoratchx!” for its misogyny, though otherwise it wouldn’t be that bad. Probably “Mark of the Saurian” in third-last place.

Best guest stars: Both Mark Lenard as Ambassador Duvoe and Len Birman as Admiral Zite were excellent in “Journey to Oasis.” Ramon Bieri gave a strong showing as Commissioner Bergstrom in “Testimony of a Traitor,” and Stuart Nisbet was an effective bully as Rand in “The Dorian Secret.”

Worst guest stars: Tommy Madden was terrible as General Xenos in “Shgoratchx!” David S. Cass, Sr. was pretty bad as the title role in “The Satyr,” though I blame that more on the writing and character concept. I’m tempted to list Felix Silla and Bob Elyea (?) as Odee-X in “Journey to Oasis,” but Silla doesn’t quite count as a guest star.

Best science fiction concept: I’d have to say the Dorians in “The Dorian Secret,” although only as a “soft” sci-fi idea, a bit of cultural worldbuilding that generates some interesting story points and a final twist reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Otherwise, the closest thing to a decent science-fictional idea is one they cribbed from Isaac Asimov, the use of the Three Laws of Robotics in “Shgoratchx!”

Worst SF concept: Hard to choose. Ancient bird people, mystic healers who can’t heal, removable heads, genetic-experiment space leprechauns, Guardians of cosmic forces, metal-transmuting backward-aging aliens, larval mummy life cycles, satyr viruses, and virtually everything in “Shgoratchx!” Certainly backward-aging aliens are one of my biggest pet peeves, a perennially stupid and nonsensical idea. But I think I’ll give the nod to the satyr virus, both for implausibility and general unpleasantness. Not only is it absurd that an alien virus would happen to turn adult human males into exact duplicates for mythical satyrs, but it also somehow provides them with high-tech energy whips.

Most inspiring moment: Buck’s amazing speech in Hawk’s defense at the climax of “Time of the Hawk.” Easily the best moment in the entire run of the series, if not in Gil Gerard’s entire career.

Most embarrassing moment: The Zeerdonians’ rapey “off-think” assault on Wilma’s clothes in “Shgoratchx!” Once again, the very worst moment of the season is one that diminishes and degrades Wilma.

So that’s my last word on the Gil Gerard Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but I have one more post to go. Next time, a bonus review of the 1939 Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers serial!

  1. Troy May
    April 4, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    May be a bit late to this discourse, but I just finished all 35 episodes of Buck Rogers on bluray & wanted to shout out.

    Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is in my opinion a truly great ride of a vintage sci-fi tv show. Season 1 has loads of campy fun, heaps of lasering guns, and yes, the girls are pretty easy on the eyes, to boot. Despite the level of exploitation–namely Markie Post’s red jumpsuit; Wilma Deering is one of the strongest feminine characters in science fiction tv–one of which I am certain Amanda Tapping once referenced when she was researching her similarly empowering role as Captain Samantha Carter in SG-1.

    The first 24 episodes has Buck being slowly acclimatized to a strange, technically-marvelous yet burned out berg of a plagued Earth. Over the first run, Buck, with his 20th century flair, helps what remains of the human race grow away from their so-called AI savior boxes, who made even the sun rise for them. The idea I surmised with Buck’s 500 year old interjection was do accomplish just this. Maybe the girls were a bit slinky, maybe the lasers and backdrops were a bit b-flicky. But those fight scenes were a treasure to behold. I felt like being back in grade school, watching two odd kids just tear into each other for no reason more than teen angst. It was awesome.

    Season 2 lowers the level on camp and exploitation exponentially, and attempts to become a more serious player on the sci-fi scene. I say “attempts” because it never seems to get off the ground. With only 11 episodes, Season 2 never really got a chance to shine in the new light its producers aligned for it.

    I agree with you about Hawk. Thom’s performance was wonderful as the last Avian of Easter Island. The mismatch of factoids botched from time to time actually made me laugh–which is considered entertaining, too! I forgave all the wrongs each time I saw Buck save a life or Wilma show her soft side–which she did periodically throughout the entire series, I might add.

    I also agree about the Shgoratchx episode being worthy of a fist in the mouth of those (little people + horny bastards =) little horny bastards. It was the only episode I hated.

    With The Dorian Secret though, I think you missed the point entirely. Aside from arguably the most wildly amazing end plot twist, the moral to that FINAL series episode, was not to say “Buck Rogers is a misogynist”, but to remind us that the quick judgment of people is ignorant and wrong, and that we should finally know better by the 25th Century.

    The Dorian girl, Aleefa, was on the run from her boyfriend’s father for supposedly killing his son–when actually she was totally innocent. When the mega-heated/cooled passengers learned they might actually die if a “mystery murderess” was not turned over to the Dorian leadership, they reacted in the worst way possible–by (1) singling out everyone who happened to be an “ess”, and then (2) sacrificing the “unmasked” Dorian, pun intended, to save their own skins.

    This show may just be one of those “love it dearly” or “hate it merely” things. Me, I loved it. My only qualm is I can never watch it as an 8 year old–the show’s target audience, and forever my spirit’s natural disposition.

    • April 4, 2019 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks for the in-depth comments. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the change in the 25th-century culture was an in-story result of Buck’s influence; it’s just that the series writing staff (and probably the NBC suits) shied away from the ruined dystopia of the pilot movie (where “the Hidden City” was the only pocket of civilization left on a politically isolated, resource-starved Earth) in favor of a more optimistic, Trek-like future (where Earth has plenty of thriving cities and is the leading power in an interstellar Federation). And while the quad tribunal in the pilot was kind of ruthless, the rest of the season didn’t portray artificial intelligences as anything malevolent; it just downplayed their ruling role in favor of painting Huer and Theopolis as joint leaders. If anything, I quite liked its non-judgmental portrayal of AIs as equal members of society.

      As far as exploitation goes, the women in season 1 were sexy, sure, but the season overall was a lot less sexist than most contemporary shows, in that the women were portrayed as intelligent, capable equals and weren’t defined purely by sex appeal, aside from Ardala and Dorothy Stratten’s character. Season 2 (and late season 1, to a lesser degree) was far worse in its treatment of female characters, largely shoving them into the background.

      I’m confused by your remarks on “The Dorian Secret.” I think you misunderstood what I wrote about it; if anything, it’s the least misogynistic episode of season 2, as it actually includes multiple female characters in important and varied roles. And I have nothing but praise for Buck’s role in the episode — this and “Time of the Hawk” are his most impressive showings in the entire series, because of the dramatic and meaningful speeches he delivers in the climaxes of both.

  2. June 14, 2019 at 6:32 am

    Buck Rogers in the 25th century is a lot easier to digest when you’ve had a couple of drinks. Plots with enough holes to drive a bus through, ropey special effects, dodgy fights scenes where you can see the actors waiting for their next choreographed move, women in various states of undress, and enough lip-gloss and eyeliner to fill a large department store. It never takes itself too seriously, and Gil Gerard does a fine enough job as a cut-price maverick in the vein of Han Solo. For a young man watching in the late 1970’s this was Saturday night sci-fi heaven.

  3. OL J R
    June 23, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    Personally, I think “Testimony of a Traitor” is pretty much the high point of the entire series, certainly the best episode. Watching Buck truly facing the aftermath of his ordeal, particularly facing the fact that “the best friend I ever knew DIED thinking I bettered him and his country” (the Air Force officer who made the tape evidence showing Buck working with the cabal of generals to start WW3 at the beginning of the episode) was probly one of the most poignant and moving moments of the character and certainly one of Gil Gerard’s best performances… The story was an excellent and rather novel use of the “flashback” concept in a way rarely seen on TV or even movies. I can forgive the slight foibles of reconning or whatever present in the episode because of that.

    Later! OL J R

    • June 23, 2019 at 12:46 pm

      It was a nice try, but the flaws in the story just undermine it too much. Why let the prosecutor conduct the defense examination? Why do it during the trial before you’ve even determined whether the evidence will be exonerative or not? It just made no sense.

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