PROFESSOR MARSTON and the Blundered Biopic (spoilers)

Last night I finally got around to watching Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, last year’s biopic based on the life story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, his wife and collaborator Elizabeth, and their (reputed) polyamorous partner Olive Byrne. I’ve rarely been so disappointed by a biographical film, although it’s not a genre I’m that much into. I was intrigued by the trailers and the early descriptions, and I liked the idea of the smash-hit Wonder Woman movie being accompanied by a movie that explored the life of Wonder Woman’s creators. Unfortunately, though, the movie badly misrepresents the work of the Marstons, both in science and in comics, in a way that shows a gross failure of research and lack of respect for the legacy of the people the film is supposed to be paying tribute to.

Professor Marston focuses mainly on the development of the trio’s polyamorous love story and exploration of bondage and kink, framed by a sequence of Marston defending Wonder Woman to some sort of public morality league, but the love story is often rather maudlin, as the movie spends so much time focusing on the characters wrestling with guilt and shame about their unconventional feelings and interests that it undermines the portrayal of their eventual embrace of those things and of each other, since they keep backtracking with every setback and have a new argument over the morality of what they’re doing. They’re so constantly shown as unhappy and in conflict that it’s often hard to figure out exactly why they’re in love in the first place. Rebecca Hall gives the best performance of the trio as Elizabeth (Luke Evans as William and Bella Heathcote as Olive are okay but unremarkable), but she also has to play the most neurotic and unlikeable character, and I don’t think Elizabeth is well-served by the film for all its effort to highlight her role as William’s partner in his work.

The first half is set in the late 1920s and focuses on the Marstons meeting Olive and gradually, mutually falling in love while working on the invention of what the film exclusively calls a “lie detector.” This is wrong on multiple levels. First, Marston did not invent the polygraph, the device vernacularly known as a “lie detector.” He developed a blood pressure reader that was later integrated into the polygraph by its actual inventor John Augustus Larson, all of which happened well before the time frame shown in the movie. Marston would go on to popularize the idea that the polygraph was useful as a “lie detector,” but that’s about the extent of his connection to it. It’s also a claim that has never been scientifically verified and is basically pseudoscience. In practice, polygraph readings are one factor taken into account by an interviewer who assesses the subject’s reactions over the course of several hours of observation, and are generally just used to support the conclusions the interviewers draw from their own assessment of the subject (which means that interviewer bias can give false results). Yet the movie embraces a cartoonish, cliched portrayal of the “lie detector” as a magic instrument that gives an infallible, instant true/false result for every single question. It’s simplistic and dumb and it lends an absurd quality to the scenes where the Marstons and Byrne use the device on each other to force each other to admit their feelings, even aside from the ethical quagmire of doing such a thing in the course of scientific research.

The early scenes of the trio getting to know each other are okay, but a lot of the dialogue is just big infodumps about the characters’ backstories, notably Olive Byrne being the niece of feminist icon Margaret Sanger. It’s well enough acted out, but it feels clumsy at times.

The film then races through the trio losing their jobs due to the scandal of their relationship and having multiple children together in their new lives while passing Olive off as a friend of the family, then eventually gets into the creation of Wonder Woman about a dozen years after the first half. The film screws this up as badly as the “lie detector” stuff. It shows Marston creating “Suprema the Wonder Woman” entirely on his own, inspired by a bondage getup that Olive puts on during the trio’s hesitant experimentation with the illegal, underground bondage community, then explaining it to the women with a bunch of crude pencil drawings, then taking it to a skeptical M.C. Gaines (publisher of the future DC Comics) and trying to win him over. In reality, Gaines saw an article by Marston about the educational potential of comics, then sought him out and hired him as an educational consultant. Marston wanted to create a kinder, gentler superhero who used the principles of loving submission that he believed in, but it was Elizabeth who suggested making the character female. So having the movie’s William make that decision on his own and try to sell it to a skeptical Elizabeth is robbing Elizabeth of one of her most important legacies. Also, Wonder Woman’s costume was created by Harry G. Peter, the original artist on the Wonder Woman comics. The movie completely excludes Peter from the narrative, and the substitute origin of Olive’s randomly assembled bondage costume is laughably corny, for all that it’s presented as this solemn, magical moment of epiphany. The film takes the established fact that the bracelets Olive often wore were cited by Marston as an inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets and exaggerates it to give her credit for the entire ensemble.

Oh, another factual inaccuracy resulting from sloppy research: The frame story has Marston and his interrogator discuss Wonder Woman’s lasso that compels people to tell the truth. In fact, under Marston, the lasso compelled obedience. It was just part of the overall bondage/domination fetish element of the comics. It didn’t really start to become a tool for compelling the truth specifically until the Lynda Carter TV series in the ’70s, and it wasn’t formally redefined as “the Lasso of Truth” until the 1987 George Perez reboot. The idea that “Hey, the guy who ‘invented’ the lie detector also gave Wonder Woman a magic lie detector” is an appealing story to modern audiences, but it’s pure myth. This is typical of the laziness of this movie. It uncritically embraces every bit of present-day pop myth and assumption about Marston and Wonder Woman and lie detectors and the rest and makes no effort to correct any of it.

The film does a decent job acknowledging the broad strokes of William Marston’s beliefs in female superiority and the importance of loving submission, but it fumbles in some ways. When the moral-guardian interrogator complains about the “bondage and violence” in the comics, the film’s William doesn’t refute the characterization, even though it goes straight to one of the most crucial parts of the real Marston’s thinking. The justification he offered for the heavy use of bondage in his Wonder Woman comics was that it was a non-violent way to put characters in peril, a more palatable alternative to the gunplay and fisticuffs in other comics. The film’s frame sequence mentions none of this. And the frame has a laughably melodramatic resolution that feels like a spoof of overly melodramatic biopic climaxes, with his fury at the interrogation triggering a collapse and hospitalization that leads to his eventual death. He died of cancer a couple of years later, but the movie tries to suggest that it was the injustice of how he was treated that somehow killed him. Or something. It’s pretty corny, whatever it is.

Even the “where are they now” text at the end of the film is incredibly sloppy with the truth. It says that Marston died in 1947 and Wonder Woman therefore lost her bondage elements and her powers, until Gloria Steinem complained in the early 1970s and her powers were restored. That’s grossly misleading. Yes, in the wake of Marston’s death, Wonder Woman comics lost both their bondage elements and their feminism, with the writing being taken over by the deeply sexist Robert Kanigher and her stories coming to be focused mainly on Wonder Woman’s romantic life and “imaginary story” adventures with her own younger incarnations Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. But she still had her superpowers and her costume throughout the 20-plus years of Kanigher’s run on the comic. The revamp in which Diana Prince lost her powers (which I discussed on this blog back in 2013) came in 1968, two decades after Marston’s death, and was actually a revival of the long-lost feminist element of the character, the idea being that it was more empowering to women to show that Diana could still be a great hero even without a supernatural advantage over men.

In short, Professor Marston bears only the most superficial resemblance to the true story it’s based on, taking a few fragments of fact and blatantly ignoring or distorting others in order to construct an essentially fictitious narrative. There’s nothing wrong with a biopic taking some liberties with the facts in order to symbolically get across the essence of who its subjects were and what they achieved. But too many of this film’s liberties are egregiously dishonest or ill-researched and undermine or misrepresent the true achievements and legacy of the people it depicts. Even as a work of fiction, it’s rather unfocused and pretentious, and often feels as if it’s just tossing around known elements of the Marstons’ life (or of the mythology that’s grown up around them, since the film doesn’t care about the distinction) without having any real point to make about them. I suppose it’s trying to tell a story about people who feel unconventional love and struggle toward acceptance of themselves despite society’s condemnation, but the portrayal and resolution of those struggles often seem superficial, and the attempt to juxtapose them with the badly misrepresented details of the Marstons’ professional accomplishments is clumsy and gets in the way of exploring those themes. Everything about the relationship is filtered through “Hey, look, this is the origin of this or that part of the Wonder Woman comics,” so the fact that the portrayal of the comics’ creative process is so sloppy and unconcerned with reality undermines the relationship parts as well. Ultimately, the pieces just don’t fit together. And it’s frustrating that a movie whose main characters are purportedly driven by the lifelong quest for truth and honesty has so much contempt for the truth.

Biographical films often have trouble working as coherent narratives because real life doesn’t work like a story. But Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has such complete disregard for the real facts of its subjects’ lives and work that it has no such excuse for its shortcomings as a work of fiction. It’s a shame, since I really wanted to like this film.


At long last, Hub!

I’m happy to report that I can finally announce another upcoming fiction project. Analog Science Fiction and Fact has bought, not just one, but three new stories in my “Hub” series of comedy SF tales! That’s right, after five years, Nashira Wing, David LaMacchia, and Rynyan Zynara ad Surynyyyyyy’a are returning to the pages of Analog for a whole trilogy of new adventures. Since the original three stories formed a loose story arc that I collected in the e-book Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy, I decided to write and submit the next three novelettes back-to-back, with an eye toward a second collection. Each story stands on its own, but there are character arcs that evolve through them, as with the first trilogy — though perhaps they’re somewhat more integrated this time.

Nashira, Rynyan, and David – art by Vladimir Bondar

The first story, “Hubpoint of No Return,” is thus a “season premiere” of sorts, introducing new characters and a new status quo for the returning cast. It’s scheduled to appear as the lead story in the May/June 2018 issue of Analog, going on sale at newsstands on April 24 and probably reaching subscribers even sooner. I would’ve announced it earlier, but I wanted to wait until I knew the fate of the other two stories, which took longer than expected.

The second story, “…And He Built a Crooked Hub,” is a four-dimensional bedroom farce involving the Hubcomplex’s tesseract hotel rooms, and by far my zaniest story yet. (Yes, that is a Heinlein nod.) And finally, “Hubstitute Creatures” will wrap things up with an adventure that takes our heroes to the heart of Hub civilization and puts them through some major changes, in more ways than one. These two have yet to be scheduled, as far as I know. Once I find out, I’ll let you know.

In retrospect, it might have made things easier for Analog‘s editor Trevor Quachri if I’d sent the stories one at a time — I thought that submitting them as a set would speed up the process, but if anything, it probably slowed things down by making the decision more complicated. Still, all three stories are finally sold, and it was an immense relief to get the contracts, just when I was really getting worried about my financial situation and desperately needed some good news. I immediately printed out and signed the contracts and hastened to the post office to mail them back ASAP, barely even noticing the below-freezing temperatures. (I walked because it takes my car a long time to warm up and start moving in cold weather, and I was too impatient to wait.)

Money matters aside, I really got invested in these stories, so it’s very satisfying to make the sales. In these new tales, I got to flesh out the Hub universe and delve deeper into the main characters’ personalities and relationships; I got to expand the cast with some fun new characters; I got to amp up both the comedy and the drama to new levels; and I finally got to realize a couple of story ideas I’ve had in mind since the early development of the Hub premise. (Ironically, the first story of the three has the newest concept behind it, though it incorporates a character I created more than a decade ago for a different project.) There’s something really satisfying about getting to develop a cast and a world over the course of an ongoing series, and this is only the second time I’ve been able to do that, the other being Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation. So I’m really glad Analog‘s readers will get to see these stories — and that I’ll be able to release them in collected form once they’ve all seen print in the magazine, though I don’t yet know how long that will take.

Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy


I’ve also got a couple of other Hub-related things on the horizon — one that’s already in the works but not quite finalized yet, and another that’s more tentative but should be really cool if it happens. I’ll announce them when and if they finally come together. So stay tuned. After years of being just a lonely little e-book collection, the Hub lives again!

Looking for work

February 26, 2018 4 comments

As I mentioned a couple of months back, this past year has been a dry spell for my writing career, due to several different projects being unexpectedly and simultaneously subject to massive delays. Since I kept expecting one or more of these projects to pay off much sooner than it has, I didn’t do enough to look for alternative sources of income, and now I’m in a tight spot financially, in need of something to tide me over until things start moving again. So I’ve finally started trying to look for some kind of non-writing job to fill the void, something that will pay off sooner and more regularly than the various writing projects I’m currently pursuing.

The thing is, I’ve been a full-time writer for so long that my job-hunting skills — which were never all that good to begin with — have become rather atrophied. Ideally, I’d like to line up some kind of writing-related work that I could do from home, like perhaps a column for a website or a copyediting job. But I’ve never quite figured out how to look for that kind of work. On the advice of a couple of colleagues, I’ve signed up with the job-search site Indeed, but I’m still figuring out how to make use of it. I’ve also tried applying for a job at the local public library, something I’ve tried to do a number of times in the past without success, but I figure it couldn’t hurt to try again. The most fulfilling non-writing job I’ve ever had was the 3 years I spent as a student shelver at the university library in college. I love working with books — imagine that.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was more unsure of my options and kind of panicking about what to do, I got an e-mail out of the blue inviting me to come interview for a temp job at a business out in the suburbs. At first, it seemed like a job I might be content to do; the long drive and long hours were less than ideal, but I couldn’t afford to settle for ideal. And I was paralyzed by having too many options to consider, so having one clear option to latch onto felt like a lifeline. Still, as the day of the interview approached, I became more and more unhappy at the prospect of the job — not only was it a long way away, but it was the kind of full-time office job that I’ve always wanted to avoid — but the pay that was offered seemed too good to pass up, and I needed something that would pay off quickly, so I saw no choice but to make the tradeoff.

On the day of the interview last week, though, I quickly realized the job had more negatives than I thought. The introductory speech we were given specifically mentioned that they wanted people who could suppress their own opinions and slavishly follow the rules — which didn’t feel right either for me or for the kind of work it was. The person who interviewed me seemed to be just mechanically following a script and didn’t have any useful, non-packaged answers to my questions and concerns. And I discovered that the work wouldn’t begin right away after all; I couldn’t expect to see any money until the start of April. Once I realized that, it resolved the conflict. There was no tradeoff, no difficult choice to make; the job simply didn’t have any positives for me, period. The moment I realized that I’d have to look for something else instead was surprisingly liberating. Before the interview, I’d expected that if I didn’t get the job, I’d be panicked, not knowing what to do next. Instead, I felt incredibly relaxed and relieved once I got out of there, as if I’d dodged a bullet. Which tells me I really would’ve hated that job.

If nothing else, I think that the mental work I did convincing myself to try out for that job despite its drawbacks has helped firm my resolve for further job searching. It’s made me think “I can do better,” and I hope that will turn out to be true.

So if anyone out there needs a columnist, a reviewer, a copyeditor, a transcriber, or the like, I’m available. And of course, I’m still taking donations through PayPal in the meantime. Even if I do find work soon, any help my readers can provide would be of real benefit to me in the short term.

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Minor update to ONLY SUPERHUMAN Historical timeline

Today I had occasion to glance over the Only Superhuman Historical Timeline page here on my site, and I noticed it was a bit outdated in some of the details, as well as containing a significant typo in one entry (with the word “And” and several spaces inserted somehow in the middle of a word). In particular, I referred to the conflict in 2076 as the Belt War, a leftover term from early drafts that didn’t appear in the final text of OS, whereas in “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” (Analog, June 2016) I’d renamed it the Orbit War, since it was as much between Earth and its orbital habitats as between Earth and the Asteroid belt. (The Orbit War name also appears in the historical appendix to my upcoming collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman). I also realized that the description I’d given of the conflict didn’t quite jibe with “Cislunar” or with the background given in the first chapter of OS. So I made some tweaks to the Timeline text to make it more cohesive. (I also updated “Belt War” to “Orbit War” on the Character Profiles page for the novel.)

Only Superhuman MMPB coverIn the course of doing this, I discovered a convergence that had never occurred to me. In Chapter 3 of OS (the first flashback chapter), when Emerald Blair’s father Richard is explaining the backstory of the Earth-Strider tensions to his young daughter, he says at one point that, as a pacifist, he couldn’t fight in “the war or the troubles that followed,” meaning the dissolution of the Strider states into chaos and internecine struggles in the years after the war. It struck me that if that period had actually been known as “the Troubles” (also the term used to refer to the Northern Ireland conflict of the 1960s-90s, a similar era of political/social strife and violence), that would provide a nice explanation for how the superpowered peacekeepers who emerged to save lives and promote order during the period came to be known as the Troubleshooters. I’d always assumed that they’d picked up that nickname before then, and there are lines referring to early Troubleshooters’ involvement in the war, but those lines are in retrospect, spoken years after the fact, so the name could be applied anachronistically. Even if some of these private vigilantes were informally called “troubleshooters” before the actual Troubles in the early 2080s (and before the Troubleshooter Corps’s founding in 2083), it could’ve been the reason the name caught on during and after them. It’s got a nice resonance, and it doesn’t overtly contradict anything in the text, so it works. Indeed, I wonder if I might have had something like this in mind when I wrote the line “the troubles that followed,” but didn’t remember it later on.

In real life, I chose the name “Troubleshooter” because I initially envisioned the characters as an elite class of problem-solvers within a larger Solar Security Bureau, before I realized the premise worked better without a central Solar System government and started over from scratch with OS. But with that backstory gone, the etymology of the name “Troubleshooter” for what were now outright superheroes became a bit more random. I kept it because I wanted to stress that my heroes were primarily problem-solvers, not just fighters. But this new insight gives the name more of an in-universe justification. And it fits neatly, because in OS I used the word “trouble” as a recurring motif in chapter titles and dialogue (including the Green Blaze’s catchphrase, “Looking for trouble? You just found her.”) I’m kind of surprised I didn’t think of it before. Whether I ever get to use it in an actual story remains to be seen, though.

Anyway, this is a reminder to be more careful about curating my website content. When I check the text of my stories to ensure they’re consistent with each other, I don’t always remember I have further material on the site. That material may not be strictly canonical, but I should remember to check it for consistency with new stories. I’m glad I caught this before the release of Among the Wild Cybers, which will hopefully bring some new readers to my site.

I’m writing for the STAR TREK ADVENTURES role-playing game!

February 17, 2018 1 comment

I’m now able to announce another one of the writing projects I’ve been working on over the past few months. I’m writing campaigns/game scenarios for the Star Trek Adventures role-playing game from Modiphius Entertainment. This is a new tabletop RPG that debuted last year, with a lot of the writing being done by fellow Trek prose authors that I know from the Shore Leave convention, including Jim Johnson (who’s the line editor in charge of the writers), Dayton Ward, and Scott Pearson. So last year at Shore Leave, I asked Dayton and Scott if I could get on board, they put me in touch with Jim, and here I am.

Star Trek Adventures has several different game threads. There’s the Living Campaign, which you can sign up to join at the site, and which has ongoing storylines in the Original Series and Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager time frames, written largely by Dayton Ward and Scott Pearson. (EDIT: Rather, I’m told that Dayton & Scott created the basic outline of the Living Campaign, but other writers are doing the regular installments.) There are also a bunch of standalone adventures, which are being written by various different authors, including me, and will be available online as PDF downloads. These are self-contained “episodes” that gaming groups can play in one or two sessions, usable for just about any set of characters. They’re usually set in a specific time frame, but most can be adapted for play in different Trek eras if the players desire.  And of course, Gamemasters can buy the Core Rulebook and use it to create their own campaigns as well. Indeed, we’re encouraged to conclude our standalone campaigns with hooks for possible sequels/continuations that GMs can develop themselves.

I’ve never really gotten into any Star Trek or other role playing games in the past. There was that time a while back when a college friend worked with me on a two-person e-mail game we called Dragon Trek, where I played a Starfleet character who got transported into a Dungeons & Dragons world that she ran as the Dungeon Master. It was her attempt to ease me into gaming by combining our different interests into something we could share, and it was fun for a while, but unfortunately she got too busy with family and parenting, so we never really got past the preliminaries. But the character I created for that game was the basis for the T’Ryssa Chen character I debuted in Star Trek: The Next Generation — Greater Than the Sum about 7 years later.

Aside from that, though, I never really got into gaming, particularly Trek games, since it seemed to me that they often tended to focus far too much on combat and war scenarios, which are not my preferred thing for Star Trek to be about. What drew me to the Star Trek Adventures game is that its focus is less on fighting and more on plot and character development, emulating the structure of Trek TV episodes. Character creation is focused less on physical skills and training (since all Starfleet officers are presumed to be experts to begin with) and more on personal attributes like Control, Insight, Daring, Presence, and Reason, as well as personal values and life experience. For instance, the character creation process even includes a step where you choose a couple of important “Career Events” that give your character backstory and inform their behavior in the here and now. I found that so intriguing that I made a point of developing a campaign that would bring the characters’ backstories into play in the main story. (No, it’s not a time travel campaign.)

The goal of gameplay in STA is not merely to gather loot or gain combat experience points, but to advance character development by challenging the character’s values and achieving personal milestones depending on how those challenges are resolved. There are combat mechanics, but they’re a subset of the larger set of Conflict mechanics that focuses more heavily on Social Conflict, i.e. persuasion, reasoning, deception, negotiation, intimidation, etc. Action is presented more in terms of Tasks and Challenges to overcome, which can be anything from winning a fight to upgrading a ship’s system to making a scientific discovery to convincing a hostile alien to make peace. I think the game’s system does a very neat job of converting Star Trek‘s values and style of storytelling into game mechanics. Just in general, it seems like a pretty versatile system.

For those who are curious about such things, you can read more on the website link in the first paragraph, but the game is based on a 2d20 system, which means that it uses two 20-sided (icosahedral) dice, a staple of tabletop RPGs. It also uses a variable number of 6-sided dice (the more the better) as “Challenge Dice” for determining success in Tasks, Challenges, and Conflicts; Modiphius sells specialized dice with Starfleet delta emblems on them, but you can substitute regular 6-sided dice. I actually have a set of gaming dice including 2 d20s and a bunch of 6-sided dice, among others — it’s actually my sister’s old gaming dice pouch from high school, which she left behind when she went to college and I eventually claimed for myself. (I don’t remember whether I had her permission or not, so I might have technically swiped them, but then, my sister got most of her 6-sided dice by swiping them from the family’s board games, so it evens out.) I used them for the Dragon Trek game, but I haven’t used them since. (I even made a dice roller out of a paper towel roll, but these days it’s a pencil holder on my desk.) I thought it might be necessary to use those dice in the course of creating campaigns for the game, but as it’s turned out, I haven’t needed to. Creating a game is more a matter of following the Core Rulebook to determine what the mechanics and success parameters are for a given Task, so I just need to say what you need to roll to succeed; I don’t need to roll any dice myself. I suppose I could use the dice if I wanted to create a character by random means, but since I’m creating characters to fill specific story functions, it’s better to customize their attributes.

Even with all the help from the Rulebook, it’s been a challenge for me to adjust to a new style of writing. I’m used to coming at a story from the perspective of its main characters, to build plots that are driven by characters’ distinct personalities and objectives and values. Now, though, I have to figure out ways to tell stories in which I don’t even know who the main characters are — stories that can be adapted to any main characters and still work regardless of their personalities and choices. That’s not easy to do. One way is to focus on plot and the problems the characters have to solve, while creating room within the plot for individual character development, or alternative paths the plot can take depending on what the characters choose to do or whether they succeed or fail at a task. Another way is to focus on the personalities of the “guest stars,” the non-player characters I create, and how their values and agendas drive events and compel the Player Characters to respond. That’s kind of the way the original Star Trek and most 1960s-70s television approached things — keeping the lead characters constant from week to week and having most of the character development and growth be driven by the featured guest stars. But that’s less satisfying for me. What I’ve tried to do is to design situations that will challenge the PCs to make difficult moral choices, confront their personal issues, or try to win someone over with arguments based on their own core values, then leave them a lot of room to role-play and debate and work through it all, with their success or failure affecting what happens next in the story. It’s been quite a challenge, figuring out ways to do character-driven storytelling in the absence of specific characters. I hope I’ve managed to pull it off.

However, I have done one campaign so far that’s much more of a big action-adventure epic. I actually tried to do that one first, but it was too complex in its game mechanics, so I got stuck. I ended up writing a couple of others first, getting a handle on how the mechanics worked, and then tackled the big one. That one hasn’t gotten final approval yet, but hopefully it will soon. It should be a pretty fun one.

I’m not yet sure when my first campaigns will go on sale, but I’m told it should be within the next couple of months. I’ll let you know when they become available.

BUCK ROGERS Bonus Review: The 1939 serial (spoilers)

I felt I should wrap up my Buck Rogers survey by watching the original 1939 Buster Crabbe serial, which I got on DVD through interlibrary loan. The serial can be found online, but with the picture stretched out to fit a modern aspect ratio – I’ll never understand how anyone can tolerate watching something that distorted.

The Universal serial was written by Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe, and Dick Calkins, and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind. It opens with Lieutenant Buck Rogers (Crabbe, billed as “Larry (Buster) Crabbe”) and his teen sidekick Buddy Wade (loosely based on the comic strip’s Buddy Deering and played by Jackie Moran, who had played Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the previous year) on a polar expedition in a dirigible that crashes in a blizzard. As a last-ditch measure, the scientist in charge of the expedition orders them over radio to open a canister of his new invention, Nirvano gas, which should induce suspended animation until they can be rescued. But through misfortune, Buck passes out from the gas before he can radio his location, and the dirigible is buried in an avalanche. A montage shows time passing as the years advance onscreen from 1938 to 2450 – not unlike the opening titles of the Gil Gerard series, which was no doubt paying homage.

Buck and Buddy are finally unearthed by a pair of future men who take them to Scientist General Huer, aka Professor Huer, aka Doctor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), who immediately confirms Buck’s story with a history book he just happens to have sitting on his desk, and explains to Buck that, through the “stupidity” of 20th-century men in failing to wipe out crime, the world has now been taken over by “super-racketeers” led by Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). This is highly preferable to the race-war premise of the original Anthony Rogers novellas and the early comic strips, and reflects the era’s preoccupation with organized crime as a leading societal threat (as seen in other serials and radio programs like Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, and Superman). It’s also something of an inversion from the novellas, in which the “gangs” were the good guys.

Kane has been capturing Huer’s men in an attempt to learn the location of the Hidden City, the last bastion of resistance against racketeer rule – probably an inspiration for the Inner City of the 1979 pilot. Huer feels the only hope is to turn to other planets such as Saturn for help, but Kane’s air blockade prevents it. For some reason, nobody in the 25th century has ever considered using decoys to distract Kane’s ships, and for some reason, as soon as Buck suggests it he’s immediately accepted as qualified and entrusted with the mission, even though he’s been awake in the 25th century for mere hours. “Born yesterday” would be an overstatement. But Buck is instantly able to function in the future, even to pilot spaceships with no training whatsoever, and he, Buddy, and Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore, the only woman in the serial) set out for Saturn, but they’re intercepted by Kane’s men and both groups are captured by the Saturnians, who are fooled by Kane’s man Captain Laska (Henry Brandon) into believing that Buck’s group are anarchist revolutionaries against the benevolent Kane. Buck’s trio manages to escape back to Earth, and the Saturnian council sends an emissary, Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn, younger brother of Kung Fu’s Philip Ahn), to confirm Kane’s legitimacy before signing the treaty. Though Tallen is called a prince, he introduces himself as just a soldier and is subordinate to the council.

Back on Earth, even though Buck’s one and only mission so far was a complete failure, he somehow manages to get promoted to colonel in time to volunteer to infiltrate Kane’s palace disguised as a guard, along with Buddy. Though he proposed it as a spy mission, he immediately reveals himself to stop Tallen from signing the treaty, then shows Tallen how Kane has brainwashed his captives into robotlike slaves (by putting big metal hats on them that look like the back half of a downward-pointing rocket), whereupon Tallen switches sides and escapes with Buck. Tallen signs the treaty with the Hidden City instead, but the Saturnians don’t have interplanetary radio capability, so Buck and Wilma take Tallen back to Saturn in a rocket, which is able to get past Kane’s blockade courtesy of an invisibility ray that Huer has conveniently just invented. But Captain Laska beats them to Saturn, captures Tallen, and uses a “filament” from one of Kane’s robot helmets to brainwash the “prince” into denouncing Buck and Wilma as enemies. Somehow, the Saturnian “Council of the Wise” lacks the wisdom to notice Laska obviously prompting the passive Tallen to speak. Buck is forced to abduct the prince and flee, but it soon gets sorted out and the treaty is signed. But Laska is able to organize a revolt of the Saturnians’ primitive servants the Zuggs (who were pretty revolting to begin with, ba-dum­-bum) and rather easily conquers the council.

But Buck only needs one chapter to deal with Laska and his coup, and the treaty with Saturn is finalized. So Buck and Wilma return to Earth with a whole fleet of Saturnian ships behind them – no, sorry, they actually just go back alone and tell Prince Tallen that they’ll call him on the space radio once they have a plan for defeating Kane, something they should’ve probably worked out before they came. Plus, Buck already smashed the space radio when he threw it at some Zuggs in the previous episode. You’d think he’d remember that. But never mind story logic, they have to get back to Earth in time for the next cliffhanger, which leads to them being shot down and captured by Kane’s men. Kane touts Buck’s capture as heralding the imminent end of the war, even though the war’s been going on for generations and Buck’s only been part of it for a few days. (Wilma’s been involved much longer, but Kane doesn’t seem to consider her important.)

Kane uses one of his tailfinned “amnesia helmets” to enslave Buck, his hated archnemesis that he’s meeting for literally the second time. All seems lost, as Huer is convinced Buck and Wilma died in the crash. Buddy convinces Huer to use his “Past-O-Scope” (patent pending) to watch a clip from chapter 2 to prove that Kane would want to take them alive. (Yes, even though these movie serials were typically only 12 chapters long, they still tended to do clip-show installments in later episodes to save money. Since the action was pretty repetitive from week to week anyway, it didn’t make that much difference.) When that doesn’t work, Buddy convinces a captain to air-drop him into Kane’s city so he can save Buck. Wilma frees herself and helps Buddy free Buck, which is the only time in the serial she’s really gotten much to do. They steal one of Kane’s ships to go back to the Hidden City, but fail to check it for stowaways, allowing one of Kane’s men to radio the city’s location to Kane so that it’s vulnerable to attack. Nice one, Buck.

This requires calling Saturn for help at once, but they finally figure out that the space radio’s dead, so Buck has to fly there yet again (they built those sets and they’re darn well gonna use them). He and a stowaway Buddy find that Laska’s escaped and taken Prince Tallen hostage offscreen to force the council to submit to Kane’s blackmail. Buck uses a speech about the evil of kidnappers, plus yet another flashback clip, to convince them to stick with their treaty, then helps them free Tallen and stop Laska. Then it’s back to Earth for the big climax, with the Saturnian fleet remaining wholly offscreen while Buck and Buddy take it upon themselves to go to Kane’s stronghold, free the robot slaves, and capture Kane. Back home, Buck and Buddy are promoted (having actually earned it this time) and Buck thanks Tallen for all the unspecified and unseen help without which they supposedly couldn’t have won, and then Buddy attempts a little matchmaking with Buck and Wilma before the final, chaste fadeout.

As ‘30s sci-fi serials go, I guess Buck Rogers is okay, but it doesn’t really make much use of its premise. It borrows some things from the comics, like the aviator caps nearly everyone wears, and the “degravity belts” that let their wearers waft almost weightlessly to the ground (or jump very high, at least in the novellas), though the ones here only function like parachutes to slow a descent. Otherwise it’s mostly Flash Gordon redux. Once Buck arrives in the future, he almost instantly adapts to its technology and culture and shows knowledge of things he never had an opportunity to learn. His 20th-century origin is almost never a plot point, except at the end when he addresses the Saturnians about Earth’s long history of battling kidnappers and felons. And he nearly instantly ends up as the most important person in the war, despite doing very little to earn that position. The ’79 series had a similar problem with Buck swiftly becoming Dr. Huer’s most important operative, but at least it made an effort to justify why Buck’s anachronistic existence made him a uniquely valuable asset, and routinely stressed his differences from the 25th-century humans around him (less so in season 2, but by then he’d had more time to get acclimated). By contrast, the serial writes Buck as a fully assimilated member of 25th-century society from the final minutes of Chapter 1 onward, which makes me wonder why they even bothered with the origin story rather than starting with Buck already established in the future. After all, the comic strip was a decade old when this serial came out, so the young target audience of the serial and the strips would have seen Buck as a well-established hero of the future anyway.

Buster Crabbe is fairly good as Buck, and Montague Shaw’s Huer reminds me somewhat of Tim O’Connor’s version of the character, which is a positive. Otherwise, the actors don’t make much of an impression. Anthony Warde (a perennial henchman in his one and only lead-villain role) doesn’t make a particularly effective nemesis as Kane, and it’s never really clear what makes his forces “super-racketeers” rather than just a standard evil dictatorship. Also, he’s not much of a “Killer,” since he prefers to enslave his enemies with amnesia helmets rather than living up to his epithet.

The retro-future tech has some cool bits, like the teleport booths used to get to and from Huer’s lab, and the radios whose microphones levitate when in use. Although some bits are overthought, like the sliding doors where you have to turn a big wheel on the wall to open the door, then turn another one to close it again once you’ve gone through. The music, supervised by Charles Previn, is the same stock library used in the Flash Gordon serials, adapted mainly from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride of Frankenstein. The cliffhangers mostly play it fairly straight with the audience, but there’s one case where they cut out the part where the heroes bailed out of the ship before it blew up, and a couple of others where a seemingly massive and fatal explosion of a vehicle turned out to be fairly minor after all, which is kind of a cheat. Although the biggest cheat is when the end of Chapter 9 shows Buddy fleeing from Kane’s forces and being shot down, and then Chapter 10 erases that outright and has him jump to safety before they can even target him.

The serial gets points for casting Korean-American actor Philson Ahn in a heroic, non-stereotyped supporting role for which his ethnicity is a complete non-issue, in stark contrast to the original novellas’ horrific racism. On the other hand, much like season 2 of the TV series, it loses points for marginalizing Wilma Deering and having no other female presence.

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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 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!