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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 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!

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Testimony of a Traitor”/”The Dorian Secret” (spoilers)

February 4, 2018 1 comment

“Testimony of a Traitor” is a formula-breaking Very Special Episode by Stephen McPherson. The Searcher is called back to Earth by War Crimes Commissioner Bergstrom (Ramon Bieri), who orders Buck arrested for treason, offering evidence of a recently unearthed videotape (in Beta format!) showing a January 1987 meeting in which traitors within the US military recruit space hero Buck to obtain launch codes from the President so that they can launch a pre-emptive first strike. In the video, Buck is a willing party to their conspiracy, and the Ranger 3 flight is his reward for doing their bidding. The video is hosted by Buck’s never-before-mentioned best friend Peterson (John O’Connell), recording hours after the onset of the nuclear Holocaust on November 22, 1987, six months after Buck was lost in space. This conflicts with the timeline established in “Cosmic Whiz Kid” last season, which dated the Holocaust around 2008-9.

Buck has no memory of any of these events, but his memories of 1987 are somewhat scrambled due to his 500-year freezer burn (even though they never seemed to be before now), so he can’t be sure he isn’t guilty, and the worst part is that his best friend died believing him a traitor. Dr. Goodfellow proposes using the same optical engrammatic imager (or whatever) technology that was used in “The Crystals” to retrieve Laura’s memories, supposedly a foolproof technology for recovering suppressed memory. Oddly, though, instead of performing the procedure in full before they present the case for the defense, they wait to do it until the trial reconvenes, not even knowing whether the evidence will help or hurt their case. Even more oddly, the prosecutor, Bergstrom, conducts the questioning for what’s supposed to be the defense case. As it happens, Buck’s memories seem to confirm his guilt, as he’s shown breaking into a military base to take spy photos of the launch codes. It’s all over but the sentencing.

However, Buck gets vivid memory flashes of Mount Rushmore, a place he doesn’t remember ever visiting – and, conveniently, one of the only surviving pre-Holocaust landmarks. Hawk, convinced that these memories are key to unlocking the truth, helps Buck and Wilma escape to Mt. Rushmore, where a helpful tour guide shows them the presidential bunker installed there in 1986 as a defense against the bombs. It triggers Buck’s memories enough that, when he’s taken back to the Searcher, he’s able to plead for one more OEI session to recover memories from before the January meeting – memories showing that US President (Walter Brooke) personally recruited Buck to infiltrate the conspiracy and identify all its members, having him hypnotically programmed to believe he was a genuine conspirator, then wiping his memory of the whole thing once the conspiracy had been exposed. Peterson hadn’t realized that the videotape of the conspirators’ meeting was recorded by Air Force Intelligence as part of the sting operation to expose the traitors. Buck is innocent, and Bergstrom apologizes for his overzealous prosecution.

This one starts out fairly interesting, but it kind of fizzles out, and it sounds kind of silly now that I re-read my summary. The contrivance of having Buck try to figure out the truth during the trial proceedings is clumsy, and the coincidence of Buck being a key figure in events prior to the Holocaust is implausible, even if it turns out that the plot he exposed was not the actual trigger of the war. Although I suppose that Buck’s participation in intelligence work back in the 20th century fits somewhat with his recruitment by Dr. Huer to do intelligence work on Earth’s behalf after his revival. Otherwise, though, the episode fits poorly with first-season continuity. On top of issues previously mentioned, the return to Earth makes one wonder why Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis don’t show up for the treason trial of one of their best agents and best friends. I also feel there’s a missed opportunity – I would’ve liked to see Hawk serve as Buck’s defense counsel, to make an eloquent speech in his defense to repay Buck for his eloquent speech in Hawk’s defense in “Time of the Hawk.”

“The Dorian Secret”: Stephen McPherson returns to write the final episode of the series, with Jack Arnold returning to direct. Since the show was cancelled midseason, it’s merely a routine episode with nothing finale-ish about it. Although, in a lot of ways, it’s one of the least routine episodes of the entire series.

While Buck and Hawk are at a space station evacuating some disaster refugees to the Searcher for resettlement, a masked woman, Asteria (Devon Ericson), is chased through the station by a group of similarly masked soldiers. She loses her mask in the struggle and convinces Buck to let her join the refugees. But once safe aboard the Searcher, she refuses to explain to Buck why she was being chased, and he respects her privacy. He recognizes the pursuers as Dorians, mutants from Cygnius [sic] who have a strict tradition of wearing masks in public and never revealing their faces to one another.

Asteria and the refugees are placed in an airliner-like passenger cabin for the trip, and we’re introduced to the various personalities in the group much like in an airplane disaster movie, while Wilma plays flight attendant (again, keep in mind that she used to be the head of the entire Earth military). There’s even a pregnant woman and her husband in the group. Instead of a disaster, though, the Searcher is caught in a tractor field by a Dorian vessel, whose commander Koldar (Walker Edmiston, a voice artist with numerous Star Trek and Mission: Impossible voiceover roles to his name) insists that Asteria be turned over for the murder of his son. To extort cooperation, he uses a beam that alternately heats and chills the Searcher’s interior to a dangerous degree. Buck and Asimov have no desire to bow to this piracy and terrorism, but the passengers are another matter. A hothead named Rand (Stuart Nisbet), who’s basically Juror #3 from 12 Angry Men, tries to rally the passengers into figuring out which woman among them is the Dorian and turning her over for execution. Other passengers stand up to him, notably the stalwart Saurus (Denny Miller), but as the temperature keeps switching from frigid to sweltering, others begin to be swayed by Rand’s bullying bluster.

Hawk manages to get Asteria away from the group long enough for her to tell her story to Buck: She went to the mountains for a rendezvous with Koldar’s son, only to find him wounded from a fall and teetering on the brink of a ledge, which she failed to save him from falling over. Buck convinces Koldar to let him come aboard to view the Dorians’ evidence against her, which he’s shown by Koldar’s younger son Demeter (William Kirby Cullen). It’s footage from an aerial patrol craft, showing what’s either Asteria pushing Koldar’s son off the cliff or trying and failing to catch him. Demeter’s encouraged response when Buck points out the alternative interpretation makes Buck suspect he knows Asteria’s innocent. But Demeter is too intimidated by his father to stand up to him.

On the Searcher, the passengers begin to panic, and magician Chronos (Eldon Quick) has the idea to use the Dorians’ reflexive aversion to mirrors to out Asteria. Saurus tries and fails to stop them from shoving Asteria through the airlock into the Dorian ship (by a contrived coincidence, that airlock is right in their cabin), and Hawk and Wilma arrive just too late. When Buck is brought to Koldar’s bridge to make his case, he finds Asteria already in custody and about to be sentenced. Buck gambles and makes a big speech convincing Koldar to execute her right there and then, hoping to goad Demeter into speaking out. The passengers on Searcher are also watching and are shocked by what they’ve done. At the last moment, Demeter confesses that he’s responsible for his brother’s death; it was an argument between them that caused the injury that later killed him, and Demeter might have realized his injured brother was still alive and gotten him help if not for his people’s custom of wearing masks. He rips off his mask and storms off, and Koldar begins to wonder if it’s time to reassess their custom. Buck asks just what secret the Dorians are hiding under the masks, and the answer is a final, Twilight Zone-y twist that I won’t spoil. Back on the ship, Rand is still convinced he was right, and Buck gives the passengers a speech about learning from the past and not repeating its mistakes on their new planet.

Why keep that final twist secret when I’ve spoiled the endings of earlier episodes? Because I don’t want to encourage anyone to watch those episodes, but this one is another matter. This is easily the best episode since “Time of the Hawk,” a tense, dramatic story driven by ethical debate and commentary on human foibles, and giving Gil Gerard and a number of character actors a chance to make big, theatrical speeches. It also features worldbuilding about an alien society based on something less silly than mummies or satyrs or cosmic guardians or removable heads, although the surprise twist of the true nature of the Dorians’ “mutation” raises a ton of questions. It’s even a bit of a callback to the first season’s concepts, specifically the masked mutant Varek in “The Plot to Kill a City.” Also, while Wilma isn’t given that much to do, “The Dorian Secret” is the only episode this season with more than two significant female guest characters, since there need to be multiple women among the refugees to create doubt about which one is the Dorian. In addition to Asteria, there’s the pregnant woman, a stubborn blond woman who talks back to Rand, and a pair of women traveling together and showing affection for each other – perhaps they’re meant to be sisters or friends, but to modern eyes they look a lot like a lesbian couple, which would be a hell of a thing to slip under the radar in 1981.

Perhaps it’s a good thing the series ended with this episode, allowing a mostly very weak season to end on almost as high a note as where it began. On the other hand, the strength of the last two or three episodes might mean the show was starting to find itself again and would’ve continued to improve. For better or worse, we’ll never know.

Next time, my season overview!

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.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “The Crystals”/”The Satyr” (spoilers)

“The Crystals” is the second episode by Land of the Giants scribes Bob & Esther Mitchell (the first was “Journey to Oasis”), and it features the return of Mel Blanc as Twiki’s voice. Buck, Hawk, and Wilma descend to volcanic/jungle planet Phibocetes (fie-bow-see-teez) to search for dilith – err, thurbidian crystals to refuel the Searcher, which has randomly run out of them and apparently is unable to call galactic AAA for a tow. They find some crystals next to a strange mummy creature buried in volcanic ash, and take them both aboard their shuttle (a new Searcher shuttle mockup/miniature replacing the Galactica shuttle used earlier in the season), but the mummy comes to life, breaks out, and takes the crystals. Hawk and Wilma go back to report and investigate the evidence, and Buck stays behind alone to set up the mining camp overnight. He runs into a blonde beauty (Amanda Wyss) who has no memory or identity and is eager to please him and happy to accept whatever he says as the truth – every “Men’s Rights” type’s ideal woman. Buck names her Laura rather than go with her initial “My name will be Buckrogers too” plan.

On the others’ return (with an all-male mining crew, but at least there’s some ethnic diversity to it), they try to figure out who Laura is, going on Buck’s theory that she’s an amnesiac survivor of a crashed ship, while the Searcher crew mines the crystals. (I just noticed that the name Searcher on the ship’s equipment is written in much the same font that would later be used for the title logo of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) But they get attacked by the mummy creature, which steals the crystals. On the ship, Goodfellow puts Crichton on the task of researching the archives for historical data on Phibocetes, and Twiki complains about Crichton not being a properly obedient “son.” This isn’t explained in the episode, but is a reference to an unmentioned bit of backstory in which Goodfellow and Twiki built Crichton together, so that Twiki considers himself basically Crichton’s mother.

Speaking of parentage, Crichty eventually reports that the archives reveal that the planet’s humanoid inhabitants started out looking like Laura and then degenerated into the mummies, perhaps due to some sort of virus. Laura is very distraught on learning this and rants about how she’d rather die than lose Buckrogers, though Buck convinces her to trust him that everything will be all right. Turns out Crichters made a mistake and reversed the order of the images. Phibocetes was settled by human genetic engineers who replaced pregnancy and childhood with the mummy stage, activated by light through thurbidian crystals to evolve toward the human form with preprogrammed genetic memory. (Seriously, huh?) The colony was Pompeiied by a volcanic eruption, but now the dormant, larval “mummies” buried under the ash are reviving and Laura is the first to reach maturity. Buck gets into a fight with the mummy just in time to tear its outer layers off and reveal the human inside, and the sight awakens Laura’s memory of her true nature, so she’s no longer obsessed with Buckrogers. The crew gathers up their crystals and go off on their merry way while Laura and her new man friend prepare to shepherd their dormant race back into existence.

Okay, for once, we have an episode that isn’t worse than the preceding one, but it’s not that much better. It’s another goofy sci-fi idea without any real message or theme to it, unless it’s something about not judging by appearances. It’s also the second episode in a row where a humanoid breed’s life cycle has been the reverse of what we were led to assume, which made it pretty easy to guess the truth. But it’s a pretty harmless exercise, just hard to swallow in some ways. One thing that bugs me: This is the first episode – indeed, the only one – in which the Searcher actually finds one of the lost human “tribes” it’s looking for, and nobody’s all that interested. Perhaps because everything about the planet is already recorded in the archives anyway, just misplaced. Man, these archives Crichton keeps searching through must be incredibly poorly indexed, or else incredibly massive. The fact that it keeps taking this supergenius robot hours or days to dredge up any plot-relevant information from the archives is one of the most dated things about the show. As a search engine, he’s strictly impulse.

Twiki’s unexplained transition from Bob Elyea’s boyish tenor back to Mel Blanc’s gruff baritone and bidi-bidis is a bit jarring, but it’s nice to hear Blanc’s voice paired with Twiki’s season 2-style dialogue, which is more substantial and less annoying than just a series of random anachronisms and heckles. Blanc would continue in the role for the remainder of the series.

“The Satyr” is the second episode by Paul & Margaret Schneider (“The Guardians”), and like their first, it treats fantasy ideas as sci-fi — in this case featuring a literal satyr, Pangor (David S. Cass, Sr.), terrorizing a colonist named Cyra Samos (Anne E. Curry) and her young boy Delph (Robert Lane). I feel like I have to issue a trigger warning, for while he storms into their farmhouse nominally looking for wine and food, there’s a disturbing vibe of a drunk, abusive husband coming home to assault his wife. We know what satyrs are known for in myth, and it’s not just drinking.

Buck and Twiki head down to the planet in question, a lost Earth colony called Arcadus – although one that was lost only 6-7 years earlier, having been founded in the 2470s by a famous colonizer named Jason Samos, rather than one of the centuries-old lost colonies the Searcher is supposed to be looking for. Wilma and Hawk are marginalized by some makework asteroid survey so Gil Gerard can hog all the attention again. Buck does your standard TV-Western plot where he bonds with the frontier widow and her deeply impressed son, but Cyra rejects his offer to leave with him, insisting she can’t abandon her husband’s home like the rest of the colonists did (though their ship was lost, hence the colony’s fate being unknown). Her attitude – and the bruises Buck sees on her neck – only reinforce the impression of Cyra as an abused wife, and it’s easy to guess that “Pangor” is actually a mutated Jason Samos, though she doesn’t admit that until after Buck fights with him and apparently drowns him to death, though not before getting bitten by the satyr.

It’s just as easy to guess that this leads to Buck turning into a satyr himself, and what you’d think was that we’d get a story where Wilma and Hawk have to find the satyrized Buck and save him from his own toxic masculinity run amok. But Wilma and Hawk only get a few token scenes, and Buck is such a superman that he manages to maintain control and devise a plan to kill the other satyrs even while turning into one himself. Pangor turns up alive, his memories as Jason Samos reawakened, and manages to say goodbye to his wife before sacrificing himself to detonate Buck’s booby trap. Back on the ship, Buck is cured by advanced medicine, since his transformation was early enough to be reversed. (Too bad for those other disease victims that just got written off as monsters and killed.) The Samoses are resettling on a new planet and Buck and Wilma resume their flirtatious banter, the end.

Ugh. This was unpleasant and dumb. At least the first season had a sense of humor about its somewhat goofy stories and sci-fi gimmicks, and didn’t take itself too seriously. The second season has even goofier, more ludicrous ideas, but it plays them with ponderous seriousness and a dramatic intensity that clashes with their lack of thematic or character substance. The first season knew how lightweight it was, but the second season doesn’t. It makes it much less enjoyable to watch. There’s also an excessively masculine focus this season, with female guests fewer in number and tending to be in more traditional roles, and building an episode around literal satyrs terrorizing a lone, passive woman took that to a distasteful extreme. I can think of several reasons to recommend skipping this episode. The one good thing I can say about it is that, as the first season 2 episode to heavily feature Twiki, it’s a lot less annoying than it could’ve been, since Twiki is now being written as actually having useful things to say rather than just wisecracks. If he’d been written this way in season 1, he would’ve been a lot less of a drag on the show.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Mark of the Saurian”/”The Golden Man” (spoilers)

January 29, 2018 7 comments

“Mark of the Saurian” is the debut teleplay of Francis Moss, who would go on to write prolifically for animated TV shows including She-Ra, Dennis the Menace, Defenders of the Earth, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It begins by establishing the powerful Delta Quadrant Defense Station (same miniature used in season 1’s “Space Vampire”) as the key to the recent victory of the “Alliance” (which seems to have replaced last season’s equally nebulous “Federation”) over the enemy Saurians. But we see the station’s communications officer killed and replaced by a reptilian alien wearing a holographic disguise.

On the Searcher, Buck is bedridden with Cygnus fever, which his 20th-century metabolism isn’t immune to. Hawk goes off on patrol early to avoid the pomp and ceremony of the arrival of five Earth ambassadors going to finalize the Saurians’ surrender, including Ambassador Cabot (Linden Chiles) and Dr. Moray (Vernon Weddle), who’s somehow both a diplomat and a medical doctor. Buck watches on the monitor from sickbay and notices a green glow around the new arrivals. On learning that his nurse can’t see it, he staggers down to the flight deck and sees it in person. He keeps insisting something’s off about the ambassadors, but everyone else assumes he’s hallucinating, even when a burst of pain enables him to see the lizard person under Moray’s disguise. Moray and the others are all Saurian spies planning to infiltrate the Delta Defense Station.

But Moray uses a blood sample from Buck to engineer a fix for the spies’ holoemitters, while the others sabotage the Searcher to trap it on course into Delta’s exclusion zone. Buck seems “cured” of his hallucinations, but Wilma recognizes his description as matching a Saurian, a race he’s never seen before and thus can’t have hallucinated. Since Wilma figured this out, one would assume she would be the one to begin piecing together what’s going on… but in the next scene, she stands by passively and disbelievingly as Buck causes himself pain to try to see through Moray’s disguise, unsuccessfully.

So Buck is taken back to sickbay for his own safety, though he’s asked for Hawk to come back early from patrol. He then watches on his room’s screen while Ambassador Cabot helps Admiral Asimov convince the station’s head (Stacy Keach, Sr.) to disable the quadrant defenses and allow the ship to dock. Buck sees that the station’s comm officer still has the green glow, since he hasn’t recalibrated his emitter for Buck. So this man who’s been deemed dangerously delusional is able to waltz out of sickbay carrying the blaster that happened to be hanging in its holster by the door, then move unchallenged all the way to the bridge, where he holds everyone hostage to prove his theory. Hawk shows up just in time to back him up, and Buck turns down the thermostat to force the evil lizard men into hibernation, and once again the day is saved, early enough that the rest of the episode is padded out with a lengthy tag involving Crichton and Twiki debating the efficacy of bringing dead flowers to a sick human.

This feels like a first-season episode. It’s the first story this year that doesn’t make any attempt at theme, allegory, or commentary, just a simple good-vs.-evil gimmick story with one-note villains. It also seems to abandon John Mantley’s desire for a more vulnerable, imperfect Buck and return to his first-season characterization as the one guy who could solve the problem. I wonder if Gil Gerard was up to his old rewriting tricks again, because there are two parts here that make it seem like someone else is going to help and then they don’t. First it seemed like Wilma was figuring out the problem, but then she became passive while Buck did so. And they made such a point of Hawk leaving before the ambassadors arrived that I was sure they were setting up a plot beat of Hawk’s alien senses seeing through the disguises so that he could prove Buck right; but instead he just showed up at the climax to run interference for Buck’s grandstand play. It feels like the script was sloppily rewritten to give Wilma’s and Hawk’s contributions to Buck instead. (There’s also an odd bit where Wilma won’t let Cabot kiss her hand and Asimov berates her for giving offense, but her reasons for pulling away are never addressed. Maybe she was supposed to sense something off about Cabot, but it was lost in a rewrite.)

The episode does manage to pull off a bit of a Twilight Zone or horror movie feel in its first half – “I’m the only one who sees the monsters, but everyone else thinks I’m crazy!” But it stalls out just when it should get to the point where others start to believe the hero and join the fight, and it all kind of fizzles out. It’s also hurt by the show’s perennially poor alien makeup, although the Saurians’ rigid masks are infrequently seen due to the disguise gimmick.

Also, I realized something. Mantley told Starlog that he wanted to get away from season 1’s constant focus on interstellar war and spy missions and focus on the wider range of story subjects that a starship exploration show could offer. But so far, three out of four plots in season 2 have been driven in one way or another by warfare between humans and aliens. Only “The Guardians” has shown the Searcher doing any kind of searching or exploring.

Incidentally, Admiral Asimov finally defines Wilma’s role aboard the ship, introducing her to Cabot as “one of our executive officers.” It’s an elevated title, but a lot of the time, the writers seem to be treating her as little more than a communications officer, or just the token female in the crew. Although “Mark of the Saurian” is the first and only episode this season to give a prominent role to any Searcher crewwoman other than Wilma – namely Kim Hamilton as Nurse Paulton, who’s also the only black character in the episode. There’s also a bit role played by Andrea Pike as a random crew member with a single line, “Captain Rogers, do you need help?” Out of the entire season, they’re the only female Searcher personnel with credited roles or dialogue other than Wilma and a woman Buck was briefly flirting with in “Time of the Hawk” (and whose only line was “Yes, Colonel”). It’s quite a regression from season 1, which routinely featured capable, professional female characters in many walks of life.

“The Golden Man” is written by the second season’s supervising producer Calvin Clements, Jr. (who would go on to produce series including Airwolf, Dallas, MacGyver, and Walker, Texas Ranger) and its executive story consultant Stephen McPherson (whose most notable credit beyond Buck is as story editor on the short-lived Ben Vereen/Jeff Goldblum detective series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe from 1980).

The episode opens with the Searcher, a ship supposedly questing into the unknown reaches of deepest space, entering the “Alpha Centauri asteroid belt” (as in literally the nearest star system to Earth’s own) to answer a distress signal. They bring aboard a stasis pod holding a boy whose skin, hair, and clothes are all gold. Named Velis (David Hollander), he speaks with a maturity and precision beyond his age and asks for help locating another of his kind, Relcos, whose pod may have crashed on nearby Iris 7. But the Searcher, rather bizarrely, plows headlong into an asteroid as if nobody was bothering to steer the thing. Admiral Asimov is pinned under a fallen beam too heavy for four men to lift, until Velis touches it and makes it lighter, explaining that his people have the power to transmute the properties of metal.

The crew tries to unstick the ship from the asteroid, with Asimov ordering “reverse tractor beams” and Hawk contrarily calling them “reverse thruster beams” in reply, two or three times in a row. Hard to say which actor was misreading the script. But the ship is wedged in too tight to free it at its current mass. Velis says he’s too weak to make the whole ship lighter, but Relcos is big enough to do it. Buck takes Velis down to the planet to search. They have a deadline, since there’s a deadly magnetic storm closing in on the ship.

On Planet Universal Backlot, a crowd of scruffy villagers has captured the golden man Relcos (Russell Wiggins), who inadvertently changes the metal pitchforks and daggers thrust at him into jade, silver, and the like, which provokes various offscreen voiceover artists to exposit stiltedly about how amazed and excited they are at what he can do for them. But he turns the bars of his cage to glass and escapes. Soon Buck and Velis show up and are captured by the mob, placed in a prison where they’re confronted by colony leader Graf (Anthony James, who was the sympathetic Varek in “The Plot to Kill a City” last season). Graf wants the golden boy to lighten a crashed ship so the inmates can use it to escape. Velis is too small to do it, so Graf sends searchers out to find the big one. Meanwhile, Relcos has been found by a kindly farm boy and turns out to be frightened and childlike in his behavior. At this point, I groaned, realizing that this was one of those episodes where it turns out the aliens age backward.

Anyway, Hawk goes down to the planet disguised (by a robe) as a penal investigator and demanding that the visitors be brought to him safely. He tracks down an escaped Buck and Velis on his own, and eventually they find Relcos in the crowd’s custody and get him away, with Velis prompting Relcos to use his powers to fuse the city gate shut so they can escape. Up on the ship, Relcos uses his powers to lighten the Searcher enough to break free of the asteroid, with no mention of whether the change is permanent. (If it were, it’d make the ship a lot easier to accelerate, but probably more fragile.) The boy-sized Velis finally explains that the man-sized Relcos is his 5-year-old son. Ouch, I feel sorry for his wife! How would that even work? This is why I hate stories about backward-aging aliens.

So, yeah, this is a pretty silly one, another dumb sci-fi gimmick and another episode that’s just adventure with no theme or message or character exploration. I’m starting to suspect that John Mantley’s ambitions for a smarter show were quickly squashed by network suits wanting mindless action. There’s been a pretty consistent downward trend in quality all season, with each episode worse than the one before, and we’ve gone very quickly from a season premiere that reached Star Trek-level quality to a fifth episode that feels more like Lost in Space. At this rate, we’ll be hitting Galactica 1980 levels before long, so I pray there’s an upswing coming.

This is a good showing for Hawk, though, since he gets to be clever and resourceful and use his wits to try to get Buck out of a jam, even if it doesn’t quite pay off. I like it that the character who was introduced as a fierce alien warrior is turning out to be so thoughtful, witty, and quick to resort to brains over brawn, and characterized more by shrewd humor than aggression. Buck is his usual stalwart-hero self, but that’s starting to feel a bit one-note by this point. Wilma is underutilized, doing little more than relaying information from her bridge console. The other main Searcher characters have their usual bits and not much more, and Paul Carr leaves little impression in his final appearance as Devlin. On the plus side, Twiki is only briefly glimpsed in the teaser and has no lines whatsoever, a first for the series – although his current voice actor Bob Elyea has a minor on-camera role as an Iris 7 villager whose mother (the only speaking woman in the episode besides Wilma) tries to paint him gold to collect Graf’s reward for Relcos.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Journey to Oasis”/”The Guardians” (spoilers)

“Journey to Oasis” is another 2-hour episode, written by Bob & Esther Mitchell, who wrote a dozen episodes of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants. It opens with a curly-haired Mark Lenard as Ambassador Duvoe of Zykaria, a civilization on the brink of war with Earth. The arrogant nobleman Duvoe is en route to a peace conference to try to head off the war, but he’s concerned about preventing the prejudiced humans from discovering the Zykarians’ major difference, namely that they’re symbiotic life forms whose heads can separate from their bodies. (Much the same idea as in David Gerrold’s Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “BEM” from 1974, but with fewer separable parts.) It’s hard to see what evolutionary purpose this could serve, since his head can’t move under its own power, needing an aide to detach and replace the head. Could it be that it allows a brain to swap out for a new body if the old one dies or is injured? How many spare bodies are available? Do noble heads hoard extra bodies while poor heads are forced to go bodiless or timeshare?

The episode doesn’t address this, instead having Duvoe reminisce about an enchanting human woman he fell for despite himself when they met 7 years ago. Naturally, this woman turns out to be Wilma Deering, and they’re reunited when the Searcher arrives to escort Duvoe to the peace talks on Oasis, the one civilized settlement on planet R-4, a galactic dumping ground for failed genetic experiments – basically the Island of Misfit Toys writ large (more of this show’s creepily cavalier approach to the idea of eugenics). While flying over the wasteland, a recycled Battlestar Galactica shuttle containing Buck, Hawk, Wilma, Dr. Goodfellow, and Duvoe is caught in a magnetic storm and drained of power, crashing next to Vasquez Rocks (every planet in the universe has a Vasquez Rocks). The shuttle sinks under the sands once the passengers get off, so the Searcher will have no way to find them, and Buck and the imperious Duvoe butt heads – heh – over the best way to survive and reach Oasis. Ironically, the Searcher can’t search for them, because all its surviving atmospheric craft are fighters whose deployment would break the peace – an odd limitation for a research vessel.

As they wander through the desert (or rather, around various parts of Vasquez Rocks and a studio set), they’re tracked by the mutants of the wasteland, while Dr. Goodfellow keeps trying to wander off to satisfy his scientific curiosity about them. This leads to him getting trapped in a pit under a big rock by a pair of mutants. But the team is helped out by a blue, gnome-like creature called Odee-X (Felix Silla, with what I think is Bob Elyea doing his voice), who emits telekinetic rays from his eyes. Apparently he’s an old genetic experiment created around Saturn 400 years before, the Ocular Dynamics Experiment, though how that fits into the timeline of Earth suffering a holocaust nearly 500 years before is unclear. Odee-X feels like something out of a Lost in Space episode, a cheesy-looking space leprechaun who talks in boasts and riddles.

Things up in space are more serious, as Admiral Asimov and his Zykarian counterpart Admiral Zite (Len Birman) deal with the inexplicable disappearance of the shuttle and their mutual suspicion of foul play. Birman effectively plays Zite as a thoughtful leader reluctant to go to war but goaded on by his intelligence officer Rolla (Michael Stroka), while the equally reluctant Asimov relies for counsel on his junior officer Lt. Devlin (Paul Carr), a new recurring character who’s basically there to be a sounding board for the admiral. We also get the first appearance of Wilfrid Hyde-White’s son Alex Hyde-White, who would also recur as a minor crew member. (Alex Hyde-White’s notable roles include Reed Richards in the unreleased 1994 Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie and Henry Jones Sr. from the neck down in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Anyway, Asimov’s reassurances fall on deaf ears, since the only conclusion the Zykarians can reach is that the shuttle landed in an underground hangar and that their ambassador has been abducted. Zite calls in battlecruisers to stand ready to fire if Duvoe doesn’t arrive in time for the conference. It gets to the point that Asimov orders Devlin to rig the Searcher to explode and take out the enemy ships if it comes to that.

Wilma and Duvoe exchange lots of heartfelt talk (romantically scored by John Cacavas) until they’re attacked and strangled by mutant lichen, and after they’re rescued, Duvoe wanders off to remove his head and massage his neck. He’s found by Buck before he gets himself back together, but Buck keeps his secret, feeling it’s a matter between him and Wilma. Still, Wilma senses he’s uneasy about something and is troubled that the two men can’t seem to get along. Meanwhile, Hawk gets his own subplot chasing after Odee-X, whom he inexplicably likes and gets further riddles from, mostly involving the threats they’ll face in the Cave of Winds. Deciphering those riddles helps them get through the inexplicable and contrived traps and ultimately destroy the cave’s guardian, though we’re supposed to believe that it’s hard for our heroes to figure out that “Give him the point of your argument, straight” actually means “Stab the guy in the heart.” Come on, did they really need to solve a riddle before trying that?

Finally we reach the moment I’ve always remembered most vividly from seeing this episode in childhood. The spires of Oasis loom before the heroes but they’re confronted by the wasteland mutants, who have been established as worshipping shrines of severed heads. A last riddle from Odee-X gives Duvoe the idea to scare them off by raising his head off his neck and pretending to be an angry god, shocking Wilma with the revelation of his secret. It’s supposed to be a big dramatic climax, but come on, it’s a guy holding his detached head up in the air, so it looks kind of goofy.

Later, though, after the peace conference is successful and Duvoe makes his farewells, Wilma assures him that she was only briefly shocked, not condemning, and that there’s still a chance for them in the future. Duvoe and Buck part as friends as well.

This was a letdown after “Time of the Hawk.” That episode had some silly sci-fi elements, but they were outweighed by the strength of the drama. “Journey to Oasis” shifts the balance the other way. It makes a respectable attempt to tell an allegorical story about how intolerance and mistrust can lead to unnecessary war, and the shipboard drama between the admirals is effective, although it’s a bad sign when the guest admiral gives a more impressive performance than the series-regular admiral – plus it’s disappointing that Asimov doesn’t find a better response to the crisis than setting the self-destruct. But the stuff on the planet with the mutants and Odee-X and the magic cavern just gets more and more silly and Irwin Allenesque as it goes, and a lot of it feels like unnecessary padding, random obstacles that serve no plot or character purpose beyond taking up time. This could’ve been a solid 1-parter without all that nonsense.

Although having the Zykarians’ shocking difference be removable heads is a somewhat silly choice that undermines the seriousness of the ideas the Mitchells were trying to explore. The Wilma/Duvoe story reminds me of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Host,” with Dr. Crusher falling in love with a Trill ambassador who turns out to be just the host body for a symbiotic slug (something commonly known about the Trill today, but treated at the time as a long-hidden secret). Something like that would’ve been a better choice than an Amazing Screw-Off Head. Although I will say “Journey to Oasis” surpasses “The Host” in its ending, at least, because Wilma is actually able to accept the ambassador’s alienness and remain open to a future relationship.

One point in this episode’s favor is that its story is set up so that Wilma spends the entire 2-parter in her snazzy Jean-Pierre Dorleac-designed military dress uniform from season 1 rather than her ridiculous sailor-suit Searcher getup. Also, Twiki remains agreeably marginalized. Rather than hanging out with Buck all the time, he’s set up here as the Laurel to Crichton’s Hardy, and as a general sort of steward or yeoman to the admiral.

By the way, the new backstory of young Wilma’s love affair with Duvoe seven years before overwrites the assertions in “Awakening” and “Flight of the War Witch” that Wilma had always been a cold, unfeeling officer until Buck had awakened new emotions in her. I can’t say I mind that at all. Still, Wilma is written in a more conventionally “feminine” way here than she was last season, involved primarily as half of a romantic subplot and screaming in un-colonel-like terror at her first sight of the mutants’ severed-head shrine. It’s not a good sign for her future characterization. Nor is the fact that Wilma is the only female character in this entire 2-parter, aside from some background extras on the Searcher.

“The Guardians” is a surreal episode by Paul Schneider & Margaret Schneider, the former of whom created the Romulans and Trelane for Star Trek. It’s notable for being directed by Jack Arnold, director of classic ‘50s sci-fi films such as It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, and The Incredible Shrinking Man – and by far the most prolific director of Gilligan’s Island episodes.

While surveying an uncharted planet, Buck and Hawk come across a dying old man (Harry Townes) who says he’s been waiting 500 years for Buck to arrive and accept the task of delivering a glowing jade box marked with arcane symbols (a prop I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on some other show). He says it’s for his successor, but dies without telling Buck where to go.

That night, Buck touches the box in his sleep and is whisked back in time to 1987, on furlough to visit his mother (Rosemary DeCamp) shortly before his Ranger 3 flight. She worries about the risks of the flight, but he cockily assures her nothing can go wrong. After that (and presumably after his previous flashback dream in last season’s “A Dream of Jennifer”), we finally get to see Buck’s flight dramatized directly, when before it was only summarized in images and narration. And it reveals something new: The accident wasn’t just a random mishap, but Buck’s own fault, because his pride led him to take a reckless risk with untested boosters. I’d say this is part of John Mantley’s desire to make Buck a more human, flawed character this season, but the revelation doesn’t really get much followup. The flashback continues until it catches up with the stock footage of frozen Buck from the pilot, whereupon Hawk awakens Buck and the latter finds that a flower he took with him on the flight, a memento of his mother, is in his hand in the here and now. It wasn’t a dream – he was actually there, back in time.

Back on the Searcher, Buck has brought the box aboard for analysis, though he honors the dying man’s request to keep it unopened. Dr. Goodfellow has studied the old man’s scrolls and spins some rubbish about the legendary cosmic Guardians of the fundamental forces of creation, including time. He believes the old man was a Guardian and the box is connected to time. Soon, the members of the crew begin to have disturbing visions of their own, and the ship is dragged inexplicably off course toward the “edge of the universe.” Admiral Asimov smugly ignores the warnings against opening the box and gets a vision of his crew starving to death. Hawk takes the box back to his quarters and uses its powers to summon Koori back from the dead, but they have a brief reunion before she convinces him it’ll never work out. The bridge crew discovers that they’ve been lost for 8 months relative to the outside universe, and Paul Carr’s Lt. Devlin learns that his fiancee, whom he was going to marry on reaching Lambda Colony in 2 days, was killed 6 months ago while searching for the missing Searcher. An enraged Devlin tries to jettison the box into space, and Wilma, who’d had a vision of herself as a blind woman, wrestles with him, causing the box to open and emit a flash that blinds her. Asimov does then jettison the box, only to find it sitting on his chair when he returns to the bridge. Buck realizes they have no choice but to let it take them to its intended destination. He and Goodfellow also realize that the box isn’t evil, just showing them the consequences of their own sins – Buck’s pride, Wilma’s anger, Asimov’s gluttony, etc.

Once they reach a “Terra-class star system” and go down to its studio-backlot settlement, they find a lame shepherd boy (Shawn Stevens) who’s friendly to them but can’t help them find the Guardian. The earth randomly opens up and the boy falls into a chasm, and when Buck endangers himself trying to reach him, the boy lets go and sacrifices himself to protect Buck, a total stranger. Apparently this was Buck’s role in the whole affair, for the Guardians (led by Vic Perrin) materialize and tell them that these events have revealed to them the new Guardian, the shepherd boy, who’s now resurrected as one of them and declares that everything will be put to rights. Wilma’s sight is restored, and back on the ship, they find they’re back where and when they belong, at Lambda Colony right on schedule for Devlin’s wedding.

Okay, this was weird. I wasn’t a fan of season 1’s aggressive avoidance of science fiction stories, but season 2 seems to have a hard time telling SF from fantasy. This is a pseudo-Biblical morality play through and through, as mystical as anything on Battlestar Galactica or season 1 of Space: 1999. It makes an effort to be more character-driven and idea-driven than season 1, but the only substantial character insights we get are into Buck and the minor player Devlin, with Hawk, Wilma, and Asimov getting more cursory arcs, and even the revelations about Buck are soon forgotten in favor of more weirdness. The futurism is iffy as well. Wilma’s vision of herself as a permanently blind woman with a cane and sunglasses doesn’t make sense in context with the first season, which established that nearly all forms of disability could be cured by advanced surgery.

Once again, Wilma is the only female Searcher crewmember to have any dialogue. The only other women in the episode are Buck’s mother and Koori.

Between “Time of the Hawk” and these episodes, it’s clear that early season 2 has far more ambition than season 1 — though it could hardly have less. But its ability to live up to its ambitions is iffy. It’s trying to be about something, but what it’s about is often pretty silly. Unfortunately, “The Guardians” is the last episode for a while that has even such flawed ambition.