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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)

February 6, 2018 6 comments

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 3 comments

“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)

February 2, 2018 1 comment

“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 8 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)

January 27, 2018 1 comment

“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.

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

January 25, 2018 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what to make of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century? Going into this revisit, I was expecting something cheesy and dumb, and I got that in the pilot and the last few episodes. In between, though, the show we got was competently written and acted, had fairly decent production design and effects and great costumes (by Jean-Pierre Dorleac in the pilot and Al Lehman in the series), was generally watchable aside from certain chronic annoyances (bidi-bidi-bidi) — yet was assertively unchallenging, superficial, and devoid of any ambition beyond weekly ratings. The show strove to avoid anything science-fictional, allegorical, or thought-provoking enough to scare off the average viewer, and so it never really had anything to say beyond “Hope you had a good time, come back next week.” And when viewers didn’t come back enough, the series displayed signs of desperation with ratings-grabbing gimmick episodes focusing on celebrity guests or tying into the Olympics.

This seems to be in keeping with Bruce Lansbury’s overall record as a producer. He joined Mission: Impossible in the late fourth season, beginning with its best episode “Submarine,” and was actually the producer during M:I’s ambitious, daring, formula-challenging fifth season; yet he was also the producer who ushered in its season 6 retooling into a more formulaic, stateside crime-fighting drama. When he took over Wonder Woman 8 episodes into season 2, he stripped away virtually all its comic-book elements and turned it into a formulaic attempt at a Bionic Woman clone. Later on, he’d produce further cozy, formulaic, unchallenging dramas including Knight Rider and his big sister Angela’s Murder, She Wrote. M:I season 5 aside, his career seemed to be defined by a quest for the banal, an ambition to remain unambitious.

But Lansbury shouldn’t be held exclusively to blame. According to the accounts of Alan Brennert and Gil Gerard in Starlog, there was extensive meddling from the NBC executives (and probably Glen Larson as well), forcing rewrites that dumbed down the scripts or simplified the character interactions. Nobody involved in making the first season seemed to enjoy it much or to take pride in the results. Gerard and Brennert both blamed each other for the show’s writing problems (or at least Brennert blamed the rewrites that Gerard separately took credit for), but perhaps they were both misdirecting blame that more properly laid with the higher-ups, since it sounds like they both wanted a smarter, more science-fictional show, although they seemed to differ on how much humor the show could have (with Gerard finding the scripts overly comical and Brennert finding the rewrites overly humorless).

By the way, this article from Starlog #28 (Nov. 1979) gives plot summaries of a number of early scripts, and it’s interesting to see how heavily they were rewritten. A couple were either changed past recognition or never filmed at all.

Internal strife notwithstanding, the cast is a large part of what makes the show watchable. After being nothing more than a (literally) warmed-over Starbuck or Han Solo wannabe in the pilot, Buck became a more thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic, lonely, and guarded character through Gerard’s acting if not often through the writing, and though Buck was written as a stock womanizing ‘70s hero, Gerard always conveyed Buck’s respect and gentlemanly reserve toward the women who threw themselves at him. Tim O’Connor was given little to do beyond being the exposition giver and surrogate father figure who was constantly confused by Buck’s anachronistic banter, but he brought considerable charm and understated authority to the role. As for Erin Gray, the pilot served her poorly (and almost drove her away from the role) by demanding she play Wilma as a cold, mannish harridan, the sexist stereotype of what a strong female authority figure would have to be, until she finally softened under Buck’s manly influence; but in the season proper, at least until the last few episodes, Gray played a more authentic, natural female leader, someone who was calm, ultracompetent, reasoned, strong, dynamic, and simultaneously open, caring, warm, and feminine in a way that was strikingly beautiful but not at all objectifying. As I mentioned before, I believe Erin Gray was one of my first actress crushes as a preteen, and I think her portrayal of Wilma may have been part of the reason I came to find strong, dynamic women so appealing.

And it wasn’t just Wilma. This show may have had no ambition to use science fiction plots for social commentary in the vein of a Twilight Zone, Star Trek, or Alien Nation, but for the bulk of the season, it managed to make a quiet statement about gender and racial equality through its writing and casting. It’s evident that story editor Brennert, at least, was strongly influenced by Star Trek, and the makers of the show did seem to try to live up to its ideal of a future where equality among all humans had long since become taken for granted. In this respect, and in the production design aside from a certain Universal-TV cheapness to the sets, season 1 Buck Rogers managed to create a future I would’ve been comfortable living in, or at least seeing a more thorough exploration of. I liked these people (mostly) and their world, and I wish we could have gotten more and better stories about them.

So let’s see, how about some stats?

Best episodes: “A Dream of Jennifer,” “The Plot to Kill a City,” and “Space Vampire” (aside from the terrible makeup).

Worst episodes: “Space Rockers,” “A Blast for Buck,” and the theatrical cut of the pilot.

Best guest star: I’d go with Michael Ansara, whose compelling presence, strong acting, and magnificent voice elevated what little he had to work with as Kane. I’d also give nods to Trisha Noble as an impressive supervillain in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Judith Chapman as the luminous and sad Lara Tizian in “Olympiad,” and Julie Newmar as the enjoyably campy War Witch in the season finale. Honorable mention to Roddy McDowall just for being Roddy McDowall, even though he was wasted in an unfortunate part.

Worst guest star: No one can out-stink the truckload of spoiled ham delivered by Jack Palance as Kaleel in “Planet of the Slave Girls.” Other low points are the poorly cast villains Nicholas Hormann in “Space Vampire,” Paul Koslo in “A Dream of Jennifer,” and William Smith in “Buck’s Duel to the Death.” I resist listing Gary Coleman among the worst; he’s too obvious a target, he did the best he could for an 11-year-old, and it wasn’t the kid’s fault that NBC boss Fred Silverman thought “supergenius Arnold Drummond in the future” was a good idea.

Best science fiction concept: The “spaceberg” terraforming project in “Twiki is Missing.” There’s very little else to choose from.

Worst science fiction concept: Well, the worst one scientifically is “We haven’t used electricity in 400 years” in “Buck’s Duel to the Death,” while the most disturbing one conceptually is eugenics-based beauty contests with a pale blonde representing ultimate genetic perfection, as established in “Cruise Ship to the Stars.” Dishonorable mention to “Cosmic Whiz Kid”’s flimsy backstory of Hieronymous Fox’s self-invented cryochamber being bought and sold by various aliens over the centuries without anyone ever defrosting him until less than a year before the episode. Why?

Most inspiring moment: Buck’s fascination with scientific discovery in “Flight of the War Witch.”

Most embarrassing moment: Wilma’s degrading and character-assassinating “You made me feel like a woman for the first time in my life” speech in the same episode.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Flight of the War Witch” (spoilers)

“Flight of the War Witch”: The 2-hour season finale (conceived as a TV movie but aired as a 2-parter) is scripted by story editor Robert W. Gilmer and showrunner Bruce Lansbury (as William Mageean) from a story by David Chomsky. It’s the only episode whose title follows the formula Lansbury had originally planned to use (with every episode title being “Flight of/to/from…” something, in the same way Lansbury’s first series Wild Wild West had used “Night of…”) before the network handed down the cruder, duller titles we ended up with. Perhaps by this point, the network had stopped caring.

The finale opens with a strange golden orb descending to the desert outside New Chicago (which looks exactly like Vasquez Rocks out in California!), where it’s discovered by Buck while he’s returning from a vacation with a random anonymous woman. He, Wilma, and Huer go out to investigate it and it extends a smaller orb through its liquid-like surface, a simple but pretty neat visual effect using a liquid pool with the camera angled to make it look vertical. The orb contains a chip giving instructions for how to penetrate a “vortex” (black hole to us primitives) to a new universe, essentially an invitation. Buck jumps at the opportunity to explore a new frontier, and the thirst for discovery that he and Huer express is refreshing to see in this show that’s generally avoided feeling like science fiction.

The large orb returns to its own universe, and we follow it to the world of Pendar, whose council (including Sam Jaffe and Vera Miles) is worried about one of their people who’s been captured by the War Witch Zarina of the Zaad, who’s torturing the man for information about how to penetrate Pendar’s defense shield. The War Witch is none other than Julie Newmar!!, and her torturer Spirot is Sid Haig, fresh from his turn as the villain Dragos in Filmation’s Jason of Star Command. Zarina explains to her victim that “as a transmute,” Spirot can cause cellular disruption in his victims – contradicting “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” which used “transmute” to mean a shapeshifter.

Meanwhile, Princess Ardala’s spy reports the discovery of the orb and she sends him to steal it. There’s a rather unpleasant bit where she learns that Tigerman, her rarely-speaking bodyguard from her previous appearances, has been reassigned and replaced with another silent muscleman, and she… oh, I hate to type this… names him Pantherman because he’s “black [and] beautiful.” Anyway, the spy steals the orb despite Buck trying to stop him, and when Huer’s formal protest is rebuffed, he decides that he and Wilma will go to the Draconian ship themselves.

Before Buck leaves, there are a couple of character-driven scenes that were only added after the airdate for the first half was moved up and the writers needed to replace 8 minutes’ worth of effects scenes they didn’t have time to complete. (Which tells you something about the priorities of the show’s makers.) First, Huer talks to him about their shared love of discovery (turns out Huer was the first human to go through a Stargate, though only across the Sol system) and how Buck has become like family to him. Then he says his farewells to Wilma, who’s been mostly just standing around reacting and looking bored up to now, and… oh, dear… she gets all teary-eyed and tells him how he taught her how to express her feelings and made her “feel like a woman for the first time in my life.” She stops just short of confessing her undying love for him. Ohh, good grief, what sexist twaddle! This show used to recognize that Wilma could be strong and feminine at the same time, and she never seemed out of touch with her emotions except in the dreadful pilot, which also had her express the idea that being a “real woman” meant being something different from a competent military leader, and that Buck had awakened feminine feelings she’d never experienced before. And since the pilot, it’s never portrayed Wilma as being romantically interested in Buck; if anything, she’s consistently reacted with approving amusement to his many romantic liaisons. And that’s another thing – Buck’s always been portrayed as a womanizer, but Gil Gerard’s respectful charm toward his female co-stars has tempered that, and we’ve always gotten to know the women he’s connected with. But here, he’s seen dallying with two different anonymous women in the first half of the episode, and it makes his womanizing feel more shallow and empty. This show has become far more sexist in a startlingly brief time. Although it turns out, according to Starlog’s coverage in their September 1980 issue, that David Chomsky wrote Wilma’s farewell scene at Erin Gray’s request and she was quite happy with it, at least according to him. I wouldn’t have expected that.

Once Buck and Twiki get through the vortex into the new universe, they pass through an energy field around Pendar and observe various weird creatures represented by double-exposed images of a dragonfly, rhinoceros beetle, and various lizards. On landing, they meet Chandar (Kelly Miles), a Pendaran who materializes out of thin air to escort Buck to their council. She asks about Twiki, but the writers seem to forget that Dr. Theopolis is there too. Poor guy. His last episode and he’s more neglected than Wilma. Chandar explains the energy field as the “Life Zone,” in which they trapped alien invaders a thousand years ago to live eternally, since they’re a life-loving people who refuse to kill.

Anyway, Sam Jaffe, “The Keeper,” recites some gibberish about how the Pendarans are energy beings manifesting as humans for Buck’s convenience, like Star Trek’s Organians or maybe the Q, though it’s unclear whether that applies to the Zaads as well, and it never comes up again. He explains that Buck was brought here to fight their war for them, since they can’t stand to kill so they want Buck to kill for them. Yeah, that makes sense. Oh, and they predicted that Ardala would steal the orb and bring the Draconia through herself, and Huer and Wilma are aboard the flagship when she does, on a diplomatic mission to protest said theft. Neither faction is eager to fight for a cause not their own, so the Pendarans say “We can’t force you to help, but you’ll never get home through the vortex unless we tell you how” — which, of course, is forcing them to help. Hypocrites. So Buck agrees to help, then romances Ardala to win her over as well. It’s implied that this time, he finally doesn’t avoid sleeping with her.

So Buck has a plan to sneak aboard Zarina’s ship on a robot supply freighter, but he’s immediately caught, because Ardala decided to have a “woman to woman” talk with Zarina and rat him out. She thinks she and Zarina are kindred spirits and that she’ll help conquer the Pendarans if Zarina helps her strand or kill the Terrans, except for Buck, whom she’ll keep for herself. But Zarina scornfully dismisses Ardala as a petulant child playing petty games, and though Zarina is hardly a sympathetic character, it’s satisfying to see Ardala put in her place, especially by the likes of Julie Newmar. Although it leads to Ardala breaking down in Buck’s arms and finally seeing things a bit more clearly, so they work together, along with the captive Pendaran (who’s Chandar’s fiance), in order to escape.

Back on Pendar, a Zaad infiltration has damaged the defense shield, creating a hole that Zarina’s forces can get through unless Twiki and Theo can fix the computer in time. But Buck has a plan, and he and Ardala coordinate their respective forces (luckily Huer and Wilma brought an escort of several Starfighters with them to the Draconia). The idea is to keep the Zaads busy long enough to fix the shield, but hold off activating it until their mothership is in the shield perimeter, where it will be destroyed. The life-loving Pendarans cheer this plan to kill all their enemies, and it’s never explained why they can’t just trap them in the Phantom, err, Life Zone like they did the other invaders.

Before the battle, Kane gives his warriors a rousing speech, which is marvelous to hear in Michael Ansara’s voice, but Ardala gets tired of his loquacity and orders him to launch the fighters: “I don’t want them to be late for the war.” The Earth and Draconian fighter pilots (including Wilma, who thank goodness gets to do some heroics to make up for that travesty earlier) stand together against their mutual foe and mesh quite well, holding the line until Zarina’s ship reaches the shield and blows up on impact. Then they all celebrate and get to go home, and maybe Earth-Draconian tensions are eased at least for the moment – or that was the thinking at the time, because the second season would retool and we’d never see Ardala or Kane again.

Well, this one had some of the problems characteristic of this last batch of episodes, like the more chauvinistic writing of Wilma. It also feels a bit racist in comparison to previous episodes. Not only do we have that unfortunate “Pantherman” business, but aside from him and Michael Ansara, all the guest actors and extras in this one are white, unlike the usually diverse casting of supporting characters and extras. I don’t know why that should suddenly be the case. The writing is also inconsistent, with ideas cropping up briefly and then being forgotten or contradicted later on, a level of sloppiness I haven’t seen since the feature version of the pilot.

Still, despite all this, it’s a pretty entertaining finale. It’s the only time the first season has really embraced a science fiction plot – ironically, given that it was co-written by Bruce Lansbury, the very showrunner whose mission statement for the series was to keep its stories as “basic” and conventional as in any present-day adventure show. It’s nice to see the characters fired up with the spirit of discovery in the first half, even though it ends up somewhere silly. And this is the most enjoyable of the Draconian episodes; toning down Ardala and Kane’s villainy and playing them as comic foils is probably the best use of a pair of characters that it’s been hard to take quite seriously before. And I always enjoy stories where the heroes and their recurring foes team up against a common threat. As for said threat, Newmar and Haig are perfectly cast, hamming it up marvelously in villain roles straight out of a ‘40s movie serial – totally one-dimensional and corny, but quite fun to watch. Newmar’s black dress and turban with red, spangly stripes coiling through them and a large, red Ming the Merciless collar is something to behold as well. I think the costume design is one of my favorite things about this show.

 

Next time, I’ll offer an overview of the first season.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Space Rockers”/”Buck’s Duel to the Death” (spoilers)

“Space Rockers”: Oh, dear. This is everything you’d expect from the title. Chris Bunch & Allen Cole return with yet another “20th-century trend… in spaaaace!!” plot, and one that’s right out of the stock ‘60s/’70s TV playbook of tone-deaf attempts to depict youth culture.

The titular Space Rockers are Andromeda, a trio who perform synth music in light-up bargain-basement TRON costumes, under the management of the sinister Mangros (Jerry Orbach), who’s working with his henchman Yarat (Richard Moll) to do something to their broadcasts that’s causing young people who hear them to riot, steal, and commit other crimes. A Directorate spy posing as their sound engineer is murdered mid-broadcast to Huer, cut off just as he reports that the music is being used to “veck,” a word that nobody in the room, including Huer, seems to recognize.

After a pair of These Kids Today are brainwashed by Their Heathen Music into stealing a Starfighter that, by an astonishing coincidence, happens to be Buck’s, he chases after them until the music stops and they immediately come to their senses and become good, obedient sitcom teens once again. So Buck, Twiki, and Theo head to the orbital satellite Music World, where the band broadcasts from (since apparently in an age when interstellar travel is a matter of hours thanks to Stargates, live concert tours are nonetheless a thing of the past), in order to investigate.

The members of Andromeda (Nancy Frangione, Jesse D. Goins, Leonard Lightfoot) seem nice enough, bewildered at the black-uniformed youth gangs who follow them despite acting in opposition to everything the band believes in. Buck investigates and finds the agent’s hidden data chip, containing another use of the word “veck,” according to Buck (even though the screen just shows wave patterns when he says it). So Buck calls Huer and asks if he’s ever heard the word “veck,” and Huer informs him that it’s slang for “vector,” one thing used as a carrier for another. Why didn’t this conversation happen when the word was first brought up?

Mangros wants to get rid of Buck in a “subtle” way, so he sends his submissive, Marilyn Monroe-voiced girlfriend Joanna (Judy Landers) to “entertain” Buck in his quarters, then pipes in the music with the evil signal that, according to his earlier villain monologue to Yarat, will cause anyone under 30 to become violent. Joanna is immediately affected and attempts to kill Buck, but Buck is immune, which is a pretty precise cutoff, since Buck is exactly 30 at this point going by “Happy Birthday, Buck.” Of course, Buck stops her, and when she recovers, he tells her to leave the station for her own good. He then learns from Theo that Mangros published a paper on using “ionized particles” transmitted through sound waves (????) to control human behavior. Buck goes to warn Andromeda, and once he convinces them, he inexplicably allows them to confront Mangros about it alone while he helps Joanna get to safety. What?? Buck already knows the man is a murderer, and he just lets them walk into danger!

Naturally, the band gets captured and Mangros plans to fake their concert with recorded video. Buck sends Twiki and Theo to Die Hard through the trash ducts and steal the ionizer thingy, which almost gets them sucked out into space (oh, no, poor Theo! Twiki who?). Buck gets captured and thrown in the closet with the band, kept alive on the flimsy pretext that Mangros plans to arrange a convincing fatal accident for them later, and they rig the band’s instruments into a sonic weapon to blow the door. Buck destroys the ionizer just before Mangros goes onstage and rallies the youth of the galaxy to rise in revolt, but since they’re non-ionized, they just laugh him off the stage. Because of course there’s no way the younger generation in a galaxy where war, slavery, and environmental devastation are rampant would have any legitimate reason to rise up in protest.

Wow. It’s like we had to pay for the show’s best episode, “A Dream of Jennifer,” by following it directly with the worst episode. If “Dream” represented everything Buck Rogers had the potential to be, “Space Rockers” represents everything I was afraid it might be when I approached this revisit. It’s dumb, cheesy, thoughtless, cliched, illogical, and thematically confused. It seems to be trying to have it both ways, telling a stock plot that embodies the conservative older generation’s worst paranoid fears about These Kids Today and Their Heathen Music, while also being sympathetic to the youth and the musicians and making them just dupes of an older villain. Yet it still slopes toward conservatism by assuming that young people have no interest in bucking the system (so to speak) unless they’re tricked or brainwashed into doing so, and that there’s no valid reason to protest the status quo even when it’s as troubled as the one we’ve glimpsed over the course of this season. I’ve seen this same set of tropes used in shows from the late ‘60s – Star Trek’s “The Way to Eden,” Get Smart’s “The Groovy Guru,” Mission: Impossible’s “The Martyr” to an extent (which Bruce Lansbury also produced) – but it’s kind of weird to see it still hanging on in 1980.

The episode also suffers from a dearth of Wilma – who’s there as a fixture in Huer’s office early in the episode but completely disappears once Buck gets to Music World – and an excess of Twiki, on whom Buck actually relies to perform the vital task of retrieving the ionizing device, but which he fails at utterly because Twiki is still useless. Also an excess of Judy Landers, who really didn’t contribute much to the episode, and whose inspid, weak, Monroe-esque babe-in-the-woods character is almost nauseating to watch after a season in which the majority of female characters have been portrayed as strong, smart, and capable, even the oversexualized Ardala.

“Buck’s Duel to the Death” is story editor Robert W. Gilmer’s first credited script for the show. It involves the people of the planet Katar, who live under the tyranny of the malevolent dictator called the Trebor (which is the writer’s first name spelled backward, although the DVD notes spell it “Traybor”). The Trebor is played by William Smith, with a hamminess level of as much as 0.6 Palances. When he kidnaps the daughter of Prime Minister Darius (Keith Andes) to be the next addition to his harem, Darius is too cowed by the Trebor’s deadly powers to do anything until Deputy Minister Neil (Edward Power) reminds him of the legend of the Roshon, a 500-year-old man prophesied to defeat the Trebor. Neil believes that Buck Rogers can be passed off as the Roshon to rally the spirits of the Katarian people enough to get them to stand up against the Trebor at last, and lures Buck to Katar under false pretenses. As usual of late, poor Wilma gets left behind while Twiki remains Buck’s inseparable sidekick.

Buck is resistant when he learns why he’s been brought to Katar, insisting its people need to fight their own battles. So Darius’s elder daughter Vionne (pronounced “Vee-own,” and played by Robert Stack’s daughter Elizabeth Stack) turns on the waterworks to convince him to help save her sister. He convinces the ministers to let him lead a small squad of “your best men” to infiltrate the Trebor’s palace, rescue the harem girls, and capture the Trebor, and somehow “your best men” includes the elderly Darius himself as well as Neil. Well, I guess I can buy that he wanted to save his daughter personally. Buck gets the harem girls out with ridiculous ease – and with an extended shot of the half-dozen or so scantily clad women climbing down a ladder with the camera pointed right at their buns – and then goes after the Trebor. He’s briefly captured but manages to get away with Darius, who stayed behind to help. Oh, and there was a smarmy minister who was obviously a spy for Trebor, but he’s dealt with easily because the Trebor happened to out him as a spy in Buck’s hearing.

Meanwhile, Buck has learned that the Trebor has the superpower to fling electric bolts from his hand, with a buzzing sound effect straight out of a Buster Crabbe serial. He calls home and asks Huer and Wilma to research electricity, which they insist they haven’t used in over 400 years while they’re speaking to a man on a cathode ray tube TV monitor. Seriously? Why do so many people writing about the future assume they’ll stop using the basic principles we use today? We still use fire and textiles millennia after the Stone Age. And electromagnetism is one of the fundamental forces of the universe. What else are they gonna use to store and transmit energy? Gravity? …But I digress.

For some reason, to research a present-day warlord on an alien planet, Wilma goes to visit the oft-mentioned Archives, source of Buck’s various 20th-century relics. For a moment, I thought we were finally going to meet the mysterious Dr. Junius of the Archives, but instead, Junius is out and Wilma has to settle for his wacky assistant Dr. Albert (Robert Lussier). Which makes no sense, since Junius has been unseen up to now, so why not just have Lussier play him? I guess maybe they wanted to keep him an unseen figure as a running gag, like Vera on Cheers, but it’s not like we ever expected to see him before, so if it’s a joke, it doesn’t really land. (Come to think of it, I don’t think it’s ever made clear whether Junius is human or an AI “quad” like Theopolis.) Albert reads Wilma a note from Junius (which she can’t read herself for some reason) providing an extraordinary amount of exposition on the Trebor, who apparently spent some time stranded on a planet inhabited by beings of pure electricity, a planet called… ohh, I can hardly stand to type it… Volton. And somehow, as a result of living among beings of pure electricity, he has electric microcircuits implanted under his skin to let him shoot energy bolts. Which doesn’t follow logically at all – why would beings naturally made of electricity need technology to channel electricity? The whole thing is gibberish, and ultimately it just boils down to the fact that the dude can shoot electricity from his hand, and Buck already knew that.

So Buck knows the Trebor is coming to Darius’s HQ to confront “the Roshon” and take his harem back, and Buck is now ready to step up and adopt the Roshon role for the confrontation. But he uses his 20th-century smarts about electricity and rigs Twiki with a small transformer so he’ll be more than meets the eye. (He could hardly be less.) So when they fight and the Trebor fires electricity at him, Buck grounds himself by holding onto Twiki, and the bolt feeds back to the Trebor and shorts him out, letting Buck take him down hand-to-hand (or rather, foot-to-hand – have I failed to mention how much Buck’s fighting style relies on jumping and kicking?). Afterward, he makes a speech to the people of Katar (which the show didn’t have the budget to actually depict) about how he’s not the Roshon, they are, and they’ve all got to work it out for themselves and be their own heroes and so forth – which is just about as close as this season of the show ever comes to making any sort of philosophical or social commentary, however generic. Oh, and then there’s the side plot where Vionne has fallen in love with Buck and tearfully says goodbye to him when he must ride off into the sunset. And then there’s the obligatory tag scene where Twiki comes in wearing a cowboy getup and oh gods don’t make me finish that sentence.

Well, it wasn’t “Space Rockers,” I’ll give it that. But it’s still pretty cheesy and silly, and has the same problem with its Twiki-to-Wilma ratio. In general, I feel the treatment of women in the show is deteriorating rapidly. We’re getting less screen time for capable, smart, or heroic women and more women being portrayed as helpless victims, even to the point of having a literal harem in this episode.

Note that “Space Rockers” and this one are the fifth and sixth episodes to air following Alan Brennert’s departure as story editor, and Anne Collins’s story consultant gig ended two weeks before that. But the development and writing of a TV script typically takes as much as a couple of months, so if a head writer leaves a show, their imprint will usually be felt on several later scripts, ones that were in outline or early draft phase at the time they left. So I’m guessing we’re now at about the point where stories that were conceived and plotted under Brennert and Collins have given way to stories originated under Gilmer. Now, granted, these are just the story editors; Bruce Lansbury was the showrunner throughout the season. But given how much of the scriptwriting Brennert and Collins did during their tenure, I have a feeling they were largely responsible for setting the show’s tone, and that suspicion is supported by how quickly the show has begun to get dumber and more sexist at around the time their influence on the script development has died out.

Next time, the 2-hour season finale!

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Olympiad”/”A Dream of Jennifer” (spoilers)

January 17, 2018 1 comment

“Olympiad”: This one’s written by the appropriately named Craig Buck, whose other credits include The Incredible Hulk, Magnum P.I., and V: The Final Battle (as Faustus Buck). It’s right in the show’s wheelhouse of a present-day plot dressed up with futuristic trappings, as our Captain Rogers is invited to the 2492 interstellar Olympics (on the flimsy pretext of presenting the 20th-century Olympic flag) and gets involved in the attempted defection of two athletes, space-sled racer Lara (Judith Chapman, Angela from Galactica 1980’s only good episode “The Return of Starbuck”) and vertical high-jumper Jorax (Barney McFadden). They’re in love, and Lara asks Buck for help getting Jorax away from his tyrannical Lozerian masters, Deputy Minister Allerick (Nicolas Coster of Star Trek TNG: “The Offspring”) and his henchman Karl (Paul Mantee of Robinson Crusoe on Mars). Wikipedia says this plot was inspired by a real defection of lovers from behind the Iron Curtain in the 1956 Olympics.

The catch is, Jorax has a bomb implanted in his brain, and Allerick will set it off if he attempts to flee and make the Lozerian Satrap look bad. So Buck has to figure out a way to get them out safely, with help from Twiki, Theopolis, and Wilma, who impersonates a hooker to take advantage of Allerick’s fondness for women in an attempt to steal the detonator (and she uses a knockout-needle ring straight out of Mission: Impossible). It gets a little implausible in the ending, where Buck has to take his Starfighter through the orbital force-field bobsled course to intercept the space sled in which the lovers are attempting to flee before the conveniently slow Zeta waves from Allerick’s detonator can reach the bomb implant. The idea is to tractor-beam the sled and get it to the nearest Stargate before the signal catches up, but the sequence is edited so that it takes barely over one second (albeit an unnaturally elongated TV-style second) to get from the middle of the sled course to the Stargate. I’m not sure Craig Buck understood that Stargates are fixed jump points rather than portals generated by the ships themselves. Buck (Rogers) mentions the sled not having “Stargate capability,” which doesn’t make much sense when we just saw a giant hunk of oxygen ice go through a Stargate last week.

“Olympiad” was no doubt intended as a cross-promotion with NBC’s coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics, which began the week after this episode aired on NBC. That probably explains why the Olympics are virtually the only facet of 20th-century culture that this show’s 25th-century humans still remember. In addition to its Olympic theme, the episode features awkwardly shoehorned cameos by a number of real-life athletes playing their 25th-century equivalents. A fair amount of time is spent on showing off their athletics, albeit updated for the future. As mentioned, bobsledding is now space-sledding through a force-field course. The vertical jump is 20 meters high from a standing start. Boxers zap each other with energy bolts from their fists. There was also a pair of gloved wrestlers fighting without touching each other; I think the gloves were meant to be generating a tractor beam effect, but given what we’ve seen in past episodes, it’s conceivable they were psychokinetic wrestlers, which is actually a more interesting idea so I think I’ll go with that. I mean, if superpowers like psychokinesis are as common as we’ve seen, it naturally follows that people would eventually invent sports based on them.

Conceptual holes aside, it’s a pretty straightforward, harmless Universal adventure-show episode, decently told. Judith Chapman is lovely and effective as Lara, and Coster and Mantee are effectively smarmy, though McFadden leaves little impression. I am getting a little tired of how often the show puts Wilma in the seductress role, which feels incongruous given that it’s generally quite effective at showing her as a strong and capable military leader. But on the plus side, it’s generally portrayed as her own choice to use seduction, just a tool in her kit as an intelligence operative. And the show is relatively good for its time at not objectifying her or its female guest stars (Dorothy Stratten in “Cruise Ship to the Stars” being the exception), though that may be simply because it was seen as a child-friendly family show. Still, I think Erin Gray does a good job of making Wilma an impressive and competent female lead, and I feel the writing doesn’t do enough to let her fulfill her potential, not compared to the kind of writing for female action leads that we have today. But for its time, it wasn’t bad – less Charlie’s Angels and more The Bionic Woman. (Or Bruce Lansbury’s previous series before this one, Wonder Woman, which Lansbury did his best to turn into a Bionic Woman clone.)

“A Dream of Jennifer” is the final Buck Rogers script by former story editor Alan Brennert (as Michael Bryant), and it’s an unusually serious episode. At the “Old Chicago Mall” maintained by the Historical Society (which we barely get a glimpse of), Buck sees a woman (Anne Lockhart, formerly Sheba on Battlestar Galactica) who’s a dead ringer for his old girlfriend Jennifer. She vanishes in the crowd, but that night Buck has, well, a dream of Jennifer, in our first fully dramatized scene set in the 20th century. Apparently he loved her and intended to return to her for good after the Ranger 3 flight that trapped him in time – which is something that you’d think would’ve come up before now, but was only alluded to in passing in the pilot when Buck mentioned “a woman I cared for” among the people he’d lost.

He spots the woman again later on at the central spaceport (where Brennert slips in another public-address Easter egg, a page for Captain Christopher Pike to report to the Veteran’s Affairs Office), but she boards a flight before Buck can reach her, and a very young Dennis Haysbert (unmistakeable from his voice) won’t let him board. But a clerk recognizes him as Captain Rogers and helps him find out that she’s Leila Markeson and went to City-on-the-Sea for a festival – in other words, to New Orleans for future Mardi Gras. Buck gets permission from Dr. Huer to go search for her, and in an atypically dramatic and character-revealing moment, Huer refers to the death of his wife to show his sympathy for Buck.

But it turns out that Leila is working for a group of red-skinned aliens called the Koven, led by Commander Reeve (a stilted and miscast Paul Koslo). She was given “molecular surgery” to look like Jennifer and lure Buck into a trap. She lets him find her and they talk, and of course she’s so moved by his story – and by his general irresistibility to 25th-century women – that she can’t go through with it and tries to warn him. But the Koven catch them anyway, and Reeve tells Buck they need him to blow up an android-crewed freighter being sent to aid rebels against the Koven on Vega 5, claiming that “the Federation” (Brennert really wants to be writing Star Trek) has been given false intelligence and Buck will be doing them a favor. The fact that he’s threatening to murder Leila to force his compliance doesn’t exactly incline Buck to believe his story.

And Buck is right, of course. When he gets to the freighter with Reeve’s second-in-command Nola (Mary Woronov), he discovers none other than Wilma aboard. She and a hand-picked crew have been sent to secretly aid the rebels with a weapons shipment. Nola gets Wilma at gunpoint, but Buck and Wilma make a great team and wordlessly arrange a double play to beat her, then use a “contraterrene” bomb from the weapons shipment to fake the explosion of the freighter for the benefit of the Koven’s long-range sensors. (Earth sent the rebels an antimatter bomb?? That’s deeply disturbing. But I guess writers in 1980 were naive about the downside of supplying foreign resistance fighters with weapons and training that might one day be turned against you.)

Yet Reeve isn’t fooled by Buck’s deception, especially when Buck blows his way in guns blazing to rescue Leila. His men capture Buck and hold him at gunpoint for execution. But Reeve has already told Leila she has no chance of escaping him, due to a tracker permanently implanted during the molecular surgery. So of course, since this is a Very Special Episode, she takes the laser blast meant for Buck and dies poignantly in his arms. Although formula must be maintained, so we fade to three weeks later when Buck has completed the grieving process and is fit for another unfunny comic-relief tag scene.

This is a pretty good one. It was clearly intended to be something special, and relative to the show’s general mediocrity, it succeeds. It’s unusually dramatic and character-driven for this show, and I like it when we get some exploration of Buck’s loneliness as a man who’s lost his entire world. I’m not much of a fan of Anne Lockhart’s acting, but she does okay here, although her scenes are enhanced by a beautiful score by John Cacavas. We get rare insight into Dr. Huer, and Wilma gets to be a solidly competent commanding officer. There’s some pretty good effects work with some new matte paintings and ship miniatures (including a shot where the freighter accelerates with “tachyon drive” with streaks of light very reminiscent of the kind of Star Trek warp drive effect that had been introduced in The Motion Picture months earlier). It would’ve been better with a different actor as Reeve, though. And Buck’s past with Jennifer does feel awkwardly retconned in, but it’s an improvement on the general lack of exploration of Buck’s personal history in the early episodes. There were moments when I felt this episode should have come earlier in the season, when the pain of Buck’s loss would still have been fresh. It was actually written during Brennert’s tenure as story editor, and as Brennert wrote in a July 1981 Starlog commentary, the manner in which his script was rewritten by the producers above him was one of the factors that precipitated his departure from the series. Gil Gerard had told Starlog in November 1980 that he was responsible for the rewrites and for getting Brennert and story consultant Anne Collins fired due to what he considered their bad scripts, although Brennert insists he left voluntarily. They both agree that NBC’s executives at the time were largely to blame for the show’s problems. Still, if the rest of the season represents Gerard’s influence winning out over Brennert’s and Collins’s, I think it proves that Gerard should have stuck to acting.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Ardala Returns”, but “Twiki is Missing” (spoilers)

January 15, 2018 6 comments

“Ardala Returns”: And story editor Alan Brennert departs, replaced for the rest of the season by Robert W. Gilmer, who had no prior TV experience as far as IMDb records, but who would go on from here to – uh-oh – Galactica 1980, but also to shows like Magnum, P.I, Knight Rider, and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The script is by the duo of Chris Bunch & Allen Cole, who were also relative TV novices at this point and would also become Galactica 1980 story editors, after which they would write for numerous shows including The Incredible Hulk, Quincy, M.E., Werewolf, and the animated Defenders of the Earth (meaning they went from Buck Rogers to Flash Gordon).

The premise here is kind of an odd one. Kane (Michael Ansara) has designed a new variety of Draconian Hatchet fighter, which looks just like the old ones but has some unspecified differences that make it impossible for any Draconian pilot to fly without blowing up. (It’s unclear how or if this can be reconciled with “Vegas In Space” establishing that Velosi was the supplier of the Hatchet fighters. With Brennert and story consultant Anne Collins gone, the show’s continuity might no longer remain so tight.) So Ardala (Pamela Hensley) uses a faked 1996 space capsule (complete with a plaque based on the Pioneer 10 plaque, with the nude human figures surprisingly uncensored) as a Trojan Horse to lure Buck (and Twiki) into a trap. Her plan is to use him as the template for Kane’s “Zygots” – synthetic duplicates with “alloy skeletons, vat-grown protoplasm,” and computer brains. Buck is put in a “neural capacitance suit” – modified from what looks like a cheesy ‘50s B-movie spacesuit with a fishbowl helmet, though it might be one of the spacesuits from Battlestar Galactica’s “Fire in Space” – to record his memories and piloting experience. We get stock video footage of fighter planes, representing Buck’s Air Force memories—which I believe is the first time this series has directly depicted any events from Buck’s life on 20th-century Earth, even if it is just stock film.

The prototype Repli-Buck is absurdly cheerful and mangles Buck’s 20th-centuryisms, and he’s sent to Earth with a bomb inside, to detonate when he’s alone with “New Chicago’s three main leaders” – which, oddly, means Huer, Theopolis, and Wilma, even though Huer is only the head of the Earth Defense Directorate and Theo is one member of the Computer Council, with Wilma just a colonel in the defense forces. The security sensors detect the bomb priming, and Wilma rather absurdly disintegrates Repli-Buck one second before the bomb goes off. Not only have EDD sidearms never previously been shown to be capable of Star Trek-style disintegration, but disintegrating a bomb should not make it harmless, since disintegration is basically what an explosion is, and if it’s a nuclear device, then its disintegration should mean a whole bunch of radioactive vapor was just released into the air.

Meanwhile, back on the Draconia, Kane continues picking Buck’s brain (including a fighter simulation in a proto-holodeck – I’m reminded that this is just seven years before Star Trek: TNG) to build three more duplicates of Buck to pilot his fighters. But Ardala, having been rebuffed in her romantic advances to the real thing, has more amorous intentions for her new Real Dolls and has them gather in her quarters (though only one of Gil Gerard’s two doubles looks even slightly like him from the rear). But Buck had Twiki use a low-level shock to scramble his neurons, so one duplicate is highly introverted and another can only talk about flying F-16s. The last is suitably amorous, but Ardala finds herself unwilling to settle for a mechanical substitute and gets all weepy and lonely. She then sends the Bucks to attack Earth, but Real Buck escapes by tricking her into thinking he’s another Zygot (which she falls for way too easily), then helps Wilma shoot down his not-so-better three-fourths. (A similar problem to the above arises when Buck saves New Phoenix from an antimatter bomb by blowing up the fighter carrying it while it’s right over the city. That shouldn’t work!!) Though Wilma has her own fighter-based equivalent of the stock “Which one do I shoot?” evil-twin conundrum, and apparently chooses right by pure luck. And Buck inevitably plays a prank on her and Huer at the end by pretending to be a Zygot again, haw-haw.

It’s ironic that the show’s primary recurring villains, Ardala and Kane, always seem to be saddled with the show’s weakest episodes (even if you include the clip show, since they appeared in archive footage). This is one of the sillier premises they’ve done, it has a fair amount of implausible ideas and plot holes, and it’s an odd fit to the characters; Kane has never been an inventor before. Ardala’s obsessive crush on Buck as the ultimate specimen of manhood, combined with the episode’s assertion that his reaction times are the most superhumanly swift in the galaxy, is kind of embarrassing in how it aggrandizes the lead character. What makes Gerard’s performance work is that he plays Buck as an everyman – certainly not lacking in confidence and courage, but not arrogant or aggressive either. So when the scripts try to play him up as this superhuman Adonis, it feels incongruous.

“Twiki is Missing”: He is? Oh, good. Moving on, then…

Oh, wait. They’re gonna look for him, aren’t they? Rats. Anyway, this episode is by Jaron Summers, who had previously co-written a script for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II revival series, “The Child,” which was eventually filmed as the second-season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation thanks to the 1988 writers’ strike. It opens with, unusually for this show, a pretty smart science-fiction idea. Wilma is escorting a “spaceberg” of frozen oxygen to Earth to help replenish its holocaust-depleted atmosphere, a maneuver that’s been done successfully twice before, but that carries considerable risk of a catastrophic ignition if the berg doesn’t hit its atmospheric window just right. While the idea of a frozen mass of pure molecular oxygen existing in space seems chemically unlikely, the idea of terraforming a planet by using cometary impacts to increase its stock of volatiles and atmospheric gases is pretty solid scientifically, featured in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and in Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Terra Prime.”

The not-so-great part involves a tyrannical mining consortium head named Belzack, hammily acted by John P. Ryan (at a ham level of about 0.4 Palances, I’d say). He mines the universe’s most powerful chemical explosive, blazium, but he’s frustrated by miner inefficiency and revolts cutting into his profits, so his assistant suggests a solution: Twiki. Or as he’s formally known, Ambuquad N22-23-T. (25th-century English in the show is written in a font where some letters are always upper-case and some are always lower-case, so it’s actually written “AMbuQuAd n22-23-t” on the photo.) Supposedly, what makes Twiki such a wiseass is that Buck, with his limited 1980s technological skills, has somehow reprogrammed a 25th-century AI to have unique properties like loyalty and imagination, and Belzack somehow thinks this will make for better mining thralls than ordinary mindless drones. At least two things about that sentence seem backward to me.

So Belzack sends his employee Stella, who’s played by future Sledge Hammer! female lead (and future Mrs. Michael Crichton) Anne-Marie Martin, under her birth name Eddie Benton. Stella tries to buy Twiki from Buck, and when he refuses, she convinces him to let her photograph Twiki’s circuits, which is a ruse to lure him into a trap. Stella is one of a multiethnic trio of women who manifest psychokinetic powers when they join hands and “mind meld” (the term is actually used in the episode). It’s kind of an odd limitation on their powers, given that they clearly aren’t siblings like most superpowered characters who need to use their powers in tandem (see the Wonder Twins on Super Friends – or better yet, don’t, that’s a terrible idea – or the Strucker children on The Gifted). They mind-blast Buck, quadnap Twiki, and load him into a remote-piloted Starfighter, but Buck gives chase and retrieves Twiki, though not before a stock-footage dogfight with the empty fighter once Twiki has ejected.

So Belzack has his Wonder Triplets kidnap Buck this time in order to extort Huer into sending him Twiki. Huer can do nothing, both because of Directorate “no negotiation with blackmailers” policy and because the spaceberg has hit an ion storm and gone dangerously off course. So Twiki goes to Buck’s rescue, somehow managing to board and launch a Starfighter by himself without clearance, even though we see repeatedly in the course of the episode that he can’t even navigate stairs without being carried. (Why design an “ambuquad” who can’t ambulate? Conversely, why design facilities that aren’t accessible to drones in the first place? Aside from Twiki’s limitations, we’ve seen a number of wheeled drones in the show. So shouldn’t there logically be ramps everywhere?) Of course, Belzack captures Twiki, because Twiki is useless. Buck has to convince Stella – who’s confessed her sob story that Belzack is threatening her son’s life to ensure her compliance – to help him escape, not only to save Twiki, but because he’s realized the blazium explosive is just what’s needed to course-correct the spaceberg and save Earth. While he and Twiki are searching for the explosive, Buck is overcome by a sonic security device which Twiki “saves” him from – but Twiki can only “save” Buck by getting the agonized Buck to lift him up high enough to reach the sonic emitter, because Twiki is bloody useless.

(Just to be clear, I don’t actually hate Twiki as much as it sounds. I don’t think he works very well as a character, largely because of his design and the fact that there’s nothing to his personality beyond random wisecracks – which never work that well because the constant “bidi-bidi-bidi”s inserted before his lines ruin their comic timing. I think the show might have a better reputation if not for the cheese factor of Twiki’s constant presence. But I don’t care enough about Twiki to make the emotional investment for hatred. It’s just fun to trash him.)

So Buck is almost caught again, but Stella finally finds the strength to turn on Belzack and helps him and Twiki get away with a chunk of blazium. With help from Huer and Theopolis’s computations, Buck cuts the chunk to size and drops it on the spaceberg, and Wilma fires to detonate it and set the berg back on course, saving the Earth – from its own people for once. Well, I guess it was their turn. Belzack is conveniently overthrown off-camera, and the comic-relief banter ends the episode like clockwork.

I wouldn’t call this an especially strong episode, but it’s better than I expected a Twiki-centric story to be. The spaceberg plot is pretty cool and sciencey, and the stuff with Stella is okay, though the rationale for why Belzack wanted Twiki in the first place is implausible and continuity-challenged. Twiki has never before been implied to be unique; the other ambuquad we’ve met, Tina in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” seemed just as human and emotional as he did. And the pilot established that the whole civilization is governed by a council of AIs like Dr. Theopolis, who are certainly sentient and capable of imagination and problem-solving. So the premise doesn’t really fit the universe, any more than it fits Buck’s character to suddenly make him a genius programmer who’s responsible for Twiki’s personality. (I could buy the idea that he’d encouraged Twiki to develop more of his own innate potential for individuality than most drone owners prefer, like how Star Wars: The Clone Wars portrayed the Anakin Skywalker/R2-D2 relationship. Belzack could have simply misunderstood Twiki’s nature and Buck’s role in it.) Also, Huer explained that Belzack made his fortune by selling the highly useful explosive blazium to buyers throughout the known universe, which raises the question, why didn’t the Earth Defense Directorate already have its own supply of blazium to use on the spaceberg? And could there be a sillier name for an explosive than “blazium?” And why do sci-fi universes that already have antimatter insist on making up chemical explosives that are supposedly more powerful? Nothing’s more powerful than 100% conversion of mass to energy.

Also, just to get annoyingly literal, Twiki is never really missing for any significant portion of the episode. When he’s kidnapped, Theo almost instantly tracks down the fighter he’s in. When he’s ejected into space, Buck loses track of him for slightly longer than a commercial break before the New Tulsa traffic center locates him (somehow drifting near “Alpha Centura,” which is a hell of a long range for New Tulsa’s space radar). Once Buck’s kidnapped, Twiki goes off on his own, but he couldn’t really be considered missing because anyone could’ve guessed exactly where he was going, if they hadn’t been too busy trying to save the Earth.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Happy Birthday, Buck”/”A Blast for Buck” (spoilers)

January 13, 2018 1 comment

“Happy Birthday, Buck” is the TV debut of one of story editor Alan Brennert’s fellow comic book scribes – Martin Pasko, who was writing Marvel’s Star Trek tie-in comic at around this same time, and who would go on to write extensively in animation (including a stint as Batman: The Animated Series’ story editor) and occasionally in live action (including the ‘80s Twilight Zone revival and a Max Headroom episode). It opens with Buck feeling especially melancholy and sick of the 25th century as his birthday approaches, so Wilma and Huer conspire to throw him a surprise party. Huer says it’s Buck’s 534th birthday, which doesn’t quite add up; since it’s stated to be January, we’re in 2492 now, which would mean Buck was born in 1958 and was thus only 29 when he was frozen in 1987, making him 7 years younger than Gil Gerard. Wilma makes plans to invite all Buck’s friends, name-dropping virtually every friendly female guest character in the series so far.

But they need a pretense to get Buck out of his apartment while they set up the party, and fortunately, an excuse for their frivolity is provided by, of all things, a plot to murder Dr. Huer. Not that Huer takes such things seriously, since he feels the Security Directorate is overprotective, but he’s informed of a dead Capellan who’s had half his body turned to silicon and who managed to warn of a plot against Huer before he died. Capellans, in this universe, are mildly telepathic humanoids, and the trait that makes them recognizably Capellan to a casual observer is, get this, curly black hair and thick beards. Which serves as a cheesy disguise for the aspiring murderer, Traeger (Peter MacLean), a former Science Directorate officer who’s been imprisoned on a frontier world for a dozen years and blames his ordeal on the man who sent him to explore it, Dr. Elias Huer. But he picked up a matter-transmutation power from the local environment somehow. (Pasko’s script makes the common SFTV mistake of using the term “molecular transmutation” to describe what’s clearly an atomic-level change, e.g. carbon to silicon.) He intends to kill Huer with it, but he needs help from Cleopatra Jones. Yep, Tamara Dobson appears (just a month after her stint as a regular in season 2 of Filmation’s Jason of Star Command) as Dr. Bayliss, a corrupt psychotherapist who steals secrets from her patients’ minds. He needs her to get Huer’s itinerary for him.

Why? Well, apparently the procedure in a case like this is to send a courier to have Huer’s itinerary programmed into her subconscious so that she can deliver the information to the Security Directorate, where they can extract it without her ever knowing what it was. It seems a very convoluted way to deliver encrypted data, but perhaps vidphone or electronic data transmission is too easy to intercept. Anyway, the courier, Raylyn, is played by the quite lovely Morgan Brittany, and Buck’s interest gives Huer the idea to ask him to escort her, as a distraction so Huer and Wilma can set up the birthday party. (See, I finally got back there.) Which, of course, gets Buck in trouble when Bayliss’s goons come to abduct her. While Wilma is baffling Huer with replicas of 20th-century party favors (and he refuses to be murdered in a party hat if the threat is genuine), Buck tracks down the abductors, learns the plot, gets caught, and escapes in time to chase down Traeger – and gets the surprise party spoiled for him in the process.

An okay episode, fairly lightweight but entertaining. I’m still impressed by the continuity in this show, especially where their running gags are concerned. The replacement plant we saw in Huer’s office last week is glimpsed in the background here, clearly dying. Huer has finally figured out what “piece of cake” means after being baffled by it in earlier episodes. But there are a couple of things that don’t quite work. Raylyn is supposedly a highly experienced courier, yet she totally forgets about the preset code phrase exchange until it’s too late to avoid being kidnapped by the impostor agents. And while Bayliss is justifying herself to Buck, she says that Traeger has left a trail of bodies behind him all his life, then in the very next sentence says he used to be a good man when she knew him before his ordeal. Also, I’m not that impressed by Tamara Dobson’s performance here. I don’t remember her being this clumsy in other roles. And it is a bit odd that the director of Earth’s entire defense establishment has so few responsibilities that he can devote so much of his time to planning a friend’s birthday. All in all, this one’s a pretty frivolous exercise, but a reasonable palate-cleanser after last week’s eerie vampire outing. And at least it’s better than what comes next.

“A Blast for Buck”: Not much to say here – it’s a clip show. In recent decades, series that have needed to do clip shows to save money have put some effort into doing them creatively and making them meaningful stories rather than just throwaway time-wasters; see, for instance, Stargate SG-1’s “Disclosure” or Andromeda’s “The Unconquerable Man.” But “A Blast for Buck” is from an earlier era, when clip shows’ plots were rarely anything more than flimsy excuses to cue up a series of stock-footage montages. And this episode is one of the flimsiest, even though they brought in experienced TV writer Richard Nelson to script it (from a story by John Gaynor, meaning it took two people to slap this together).

So basically: Alarms are going off because some unknown offworld force has focused an energy beam on Huer’s office. It’s a teleport beam that materializes a large yo-yo-shaped object (as Twiki describes it), whose only purpose is to beam a cryptic limerick onto Huer’s screen, in the visual style of a Jeopardy clue. It alludes to Buck and ends with the word “blast,” leading Huer and Wilma to jump to the conclusion that the entire Earth is in danger (a jump so vast it must have required a Stargate), so they stick Buck in a memory probe that puts his memories of his adventures up on a screen (including scenes he wasn’t actually there to witness), ostensibly to try to figure out which of his enemies could be behind this “attack.” Whole episodes are recapped in montages of several minutes each, including everything from “Planet of the Slave Girls” to “Escape from Wedded Bliss,” but in each case, the prospective enemy is discarded as a candidate in one or two sentences, which they could’ve done without bothering with the memory probe. In the context of the story, there’s no good reason to replay the actual memories rather than just going through the candidates verbally.

Finally it turns out that the whole thing was a New Year’s Eve puzzle courtesy of Buck’s boy-genius friend Hieronymous Fox (“Cosmic Whiz Kid”), a fact that was spoiled right off the bat when the opening credits listed Gary Coleman as the sole guest star (even though he only appears on a screen). There’s less than 20 minutes of new material in a 48-minute episode, all taking place on three standing sets with only the regulars. The whole thing is pretty disposable.

It was also apparently aired out of order, since it took place on New Year’s Eve, yet last week’s “Happy Birthday, Buck” was on January 7th. Also, Patty Maloney, who played the female ambuquad Tina in “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” filled in for Felix Silla as Twiki in “Space Vampire” and this episode, but not in “Happy Birthday, Buck,” further suggesting this one was filmed after “Vampire.” I wonder why they delayed it. I doubt it was a production issue, since it’s a clip show with hardly any visual effects, so it can’t have been that time-consuming to finish. One possibility: the holiday-season hiatus was between “Escape from Wedded Bliss” on November 29, 1979 and “Cruise Ship to the Stars” on December 27, so maybe they wanted to have three relatively strong episodes in a row after returning from the break instead of just two.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Cruise Ship to the Stars”/”Space Vampire” (spoilers)

January 11, 2018 5 comments

“Cruise Ship to the Stars” is the second episode in a row by staff writers Alan Brennert and Anne Collins under their respective pseudonyms of Michael Bryant and Corey Appelbaum (story by Brennert, teleplay by both). I wonder, was there some union rule forbidding staff writers from doing too many episodes per season or something? If so, that would’ve been quite different from the modern approach where almost all TV writing is staff-generated rather than freelance. Or it could be that Brennert and Collins took their names off in protest for how their scripts were being rewritten by others. I’m only speculating, though.

Anyway, the titular cruise ship is the Lyran Queen, and it’s the same miniature that would later be remodeled into the Searcher, the hero starship of season 2, in which the show was revamped to be more of a Star Trek clone. Huer and Wilma gently encourage Buck to take an assignment to the cruise ship to protect “Miss Cosmos,” a beauty queen – although Huer and Wilma explain that 25th-century beauty pageants value genetic perfection rather than outward beauty, which is a creepily Aryan idea if you ask me. Apparently her genes are so perfect that thieves are trying to abduct her to obtain her genetic material. Sheesh, guys, just steal her hairbrush, why don’tcha? Anyway, the show finally gets around to reminding the viewers (for the first time since the pilot) why Huer keeps giving these missions to Buck, pointing out that he’d attract less suspicion since he’s not a formal Directorate agent. Yet it does establish that Buck Rogers is a celebrity in his own right, which makes his frequent undercover missions a bit hard to credit.

Miss Cosmos, aka Tara, is played by Dorothy Stratten, midway through her tragically brief period of fame between her discovery as a Playboy model at age 18 and her murder by her abusive husband/manager at age 20. Ironically, the 1981 TV movie dramatizing the story of her life and death would star another Buck Rogers guest actress, Jamie Lee Curtis (“Unchained Woman”), as Stratten. Knowing the details of Stratten’s story makes it kind of hard to watch this, but she’s only briefly featured, not being that much of an actress (though she’s adequate in the two main dialogue scenes she has).

Wilma accompanies Buck in the persona of a New Manhattan heiress wearing a huge amount of priceless jewelry, in order to draw out the thieves (although I didn’t even notice her jewels, since I was too distracted by Erin Gray’s endless legs). Twiki and Theopolis are also along for some reason. Isn’t Theo supposed to be one of the councillors who govern the whole of Earth? Anyway, there’s an annoying subplot where Twiki meets with a fellow “ambuquad” called Tina (Patty Maloney), who – I kid you not – says “Boodi-boodi” in a flirty feminine voice instead of Twiki’s more electronic-sounding “Bidi-bidi.” Twiki’s instantly smitten and goes off with her to make a boodi call. Yes, I went there.

Buck soon encounters a shy, fragile girl named Alison (Kimberly Beck) who’s suffering from blackouts and says her boyfriend Jalor brought her on the cruise for relaxation. But Jalor (Leigh McCloskey, who would play villains in Star Trek Voyager: “Warlord” and Deep Space Nine: “Field of Fire”) is a creepy guy who’s gaslighting Alison, and it turns out that he’s provoking her transformation into a Mr. Hyde-like alter ego, his partner in crime Sabrina, who has superstrength and can fire psionic bolts from her hands. Sabrina is played by Trisha Noble, who would later play Padme’s mother in Star Wars Episode III. (Which means that Buck Rogers gets beaten up by Luke Skywalker’s grandmother.) Here, though, she reminds me physically and vocally of a cross between Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt – quite an effective villainess. The casting director did a pretty good job of finding two actresses of similar height and build, so that it’s plausible when one transforms into the other and is still wearing the same outfit. The transformation effect is a fade-to-red overexposure/dissolve that’s similar in principle to the effect Doctor Who used to transform William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton.

Anyway, after a couple of encounters with Sabrina and her accomplice, and after failing to prevent Miss Cosmos’s abduction, Buck somehow manages to make the intuitive leap that Sabrina is a mutant who can camouflage herself with an alternate form – a “transmute,” as Theo calls it. Maybe he made the connection with Alison’s blackouts, or maybe he recognized that they were wearing the same outfit. He and Wilma arrange to provoke Sabrina’s emergence, with some unexpected help from Alison, who’s gotten tired of being handled by Jalor and lets her anger at him bleed over into Sabrina when she changes. Team Buck then herds Sabrina into a trap with sonic cannons, and once defeated, she turns back into Alison, who manages to remember where Miss Cosmos is being held prisoner – strapped to a very Goldfingery laser that was meant to carve her up for easy smuggling, but that’s conveniently been taking its time to build up power so as not to register on ship’s sensors, allowing Buck to save her in the nick of time. Alison is sent back to Earth so her condition can be cured, and Team Buck enjoys the rest of the cruise, with the implication that Buck’s going to be one with the Cosmos before much longer.

All in all, a pretty typical episode – a somewhat cheesy concept that’s largely a present-day plot dressed up with some futuristic tropes, but executed better (and with less blatant sexism) than it could’ve been given the premise, with some decent scripting and sci-fi ideas, but with annoying comic relief from Twiki. I’m coming to realize that Twiki is probably the main reason for this show’s poor reputation in retrospect. Mel Blanc does what he can with the material, but he really has nothing to do but crack wise and use anachronistic expressions he presumably picked up from Buck, and there’s kind of a discord between the deep, wise-ass baritone voice Blanc uses for Twiki (not far off from his natural voice at that age) and the boyish, wide-eyed character design.

“Space Vampire”: Finally, we get an episode by other writers – the team of Kathleen Barnes & David Wise, who had previously written for Filmation’s Isis, Space Sentinels, and Tarzan, Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla, and an episode of Wonder Woman. (Wise would later develop the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series.) If the title sounds familiar, it’s because Wise was inspired by the novel Space Vampires, later the basis for Tobe Hooper’s 1985 horror film Lifeforce. However, it doesn’t feature a gorgeous female vampire walking around stark naked for half the episode. What we get instead is… well… not so much to look at.

Even with freelance writers, it’s loaded with continuity nods. Buck and Wilma drop Twiki off at Theta Station for repairs while on their way to a vacation on Genesia, Hieronymous Fox’s planet from “Cosmic Whiz Kid.” Wilma is wearing the same halter-and-pants ensemble that Fox’s bodyguard wore, suggesting that it’s a standard Genesian fashion. They’re traveling in a new ship that Buck has bought (same miniature as Ardala’s shuttle from the pilot), and he’s showing Wilma how to operate it, including a reference to the separable rear compartment with its own identical controls. Surely this won’t come up later, will it? (It struck me as odd that Buck would need to teach an experienced fighter pilot like Wilma to operate a civilian ship. This is an artifact of the rewrite process – though Wise and Barnes developed it for Erin Gray, the script was written to Gil Gerard’s insistence that it be a guest actress instead, until Gray put her foot down.)

Before they can ditch Twiki (which they’re clearly eager to do, and who can blame them), a derelict freighter comes through the adjoining Stargate and crashes with the station, embedding itself and exposing the station’s atmosphere to its own. The crew are found dead, and the captain’s log reports that her “paramed” believed it to be a case of EL-7, a highly deadly virus that causes hallucinations. But when she’s the last one left, the captain screams in terror as some unseen force comes for her. The station’s Commander Royko (Christopher Stone) is convinced she was hallucinating with the virus, and orders the station’s Doctor Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) to begin vaccinations, though the supply on hand is inadequate. But Ecbar tells Buck the bodies aren’t quite dead, but rather in some sort of cellular stasis, as if something has drained their life essence. Buck’s reference to vampires is one more bit of Earth heritage forgotten by the 2490s.

Meanwhile, there’s a swirly red energy creature wandering around, looking a lot like the evil pinwheel thingy in Star Trek: “Day of the Dove,” and Wilma is struck with an uncharacteristic sense of anxiety and dread. Buck investigates further and finds evidence that the freighter crew was killed, or rather, soul-sucked, by a mythical alien creature called a Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann). The rest of the episode is a creepy horror movie pastiche as the Vorvon stalks Wilma, Buck plays Van Helsing, and Royko plays the skeptical authority figure who’s convinced the disease is making Buck hallucinate. Wilma ultimately gives herself over to the Vorvon in exchange for sparing the others, but once she’s vamped (in more ways than one), the first thing she does is to go all Brides of Dracula on Buck, who barely gets away. Eventually the Vorvon flees with Wilma, but Buck has arranged things so that his new ship is the one it steals, and he’s booby-trapped it to emerge from the Stargate near a sun. (Which raises all sorts of questions about how Stargates work, since I thought they were point-to-point, with a gate needed at both ends.) Luckily, the sunlight weakens the Vorvon and frees Wilma, who (under Buck’s urging over the radio) remembers all that convenient exposition about how to separate the rear half of the ship and fly away in the nick of time.

This could have been a hell of a good episode. It’s quite effective at creating a moody, eerie horror-movie feel and giving Gil Gerard a chance to play a much more solemn Buck than usual, which he does well. Sure, it’s a vampire movie pastiche in space, but it’s a fairly good one. With one major exception: The Vorvon’s makeup is ridiculous! He looks like a Ferengi Nosferatu with a giant honking unibrow. Seriously – when he smiles maliciously, he looks like Rom from Deep Space Nine grinning goofily. And the bald cap is very poorly blended with the actor’s face. The resemblance to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok from the 1922 Nosferatu was no doubt intentional, but the execution was very poor and it just looks absurd. It’s an awful makeup design that really spoils the scary mood, and the actor underneath doesn’t leave much of an impression either. Also, helpless dread and panic is a really bad look for the normally unflappable Wilma, although at least the episode acknowledges how strange and out of character it is for her. I was hoping she’d turn around and save herself and Buck in the end, but I guess that was too much to expect for 1980.

Back on Earth, Dr. Huer and Theo have a comic-relief subplot, in which Huer despairs at his inability to care for the rubber tree that Buck gave him in an earlier episode’s tag (more continuity!) and ends up replacing it with a totally different plant, which completely fails to fool Buck. It’s a fun bit, and I’m loving the tight continuity, but it kind of clashes with the dark tone of the rest.

Note: This is Anne Collins’s last episode as story consultant.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Cosmic Whiz Kid”/”Escape from Wedded Bliss” (spoilers)

January 9, 2018 1 comment

“Cosmic Whiz Kid”: Oh, boy. This is the infamous episode written (teleplay by Alan Brennert, story by Anne Collins, at the instigation of NBC president Fred Silverman) as a guest vehicle for Gary Coleman, the diminutive, wisecracking child actor who’d become famous from his role in the NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes starting the year before. Here, he plays a character written specifically for him – Hieronymous Fox [sic], a brilliant 11-year-old prodigy from the late 20th century (born 493 years earlier, which would be 1998 or so), who had just invented cryogenics when the nuclear holocaust broke out and froze himself to survive it. (Since he was 10 at the time, that gives us the most precise dating of the holocaust yet – it would’ve been in 2008-9. This will be contradicted in season 2, however.) After the war, Earth was plundered by aliens, who for some reason thought a cherubic boy corpsicle was worth stealing and passing around from owner to owner for 400-odd years until he landed up on Genesia, whose inhabitants thawed him, discovered his genius, and made him their president so he could improve life on their world. (A president elected on the basis of high intelligence. Imagine that.)

Which was going fine until he was kidnapped by Uncle Martin. Yes, Ray Walston is our other classic sitcom star here, playing the villainous Roderick Zale, who has Fox kidnapped to extort ransom from the Genesians, or else sell the boy genius to the highest bidder. Fox takes his abduction in stride because he’s already outthought his abductor, and he demands the royal treatment, knowing what he’s worth alive and well.

Meanwhile, Fox’s bodyguard Dia Cyrton (Melody Rogers) – who’s written as a perfectly competent bodyguard but who inexplicably spends the whole episode in a midriff- and cleavage-baring halter top – implores Dr. Huer for help, and when she’s turned down, she kidnaps Buck to help her, based on his reputation from the prison break in “Unchained Woman” two episodes back. Unknown to her, Huer sends Wilma to free Fox on her own, since Earth can’t openly be seen to intervene with a Genesian matter.

In another continuity calback, Fox is being held on Aldebaran II, the planet from “Plot to Kill a City,” which Buck describes as “the Barbary Coast of space.” (Buck also name-drops Tangie from “Vegas in Space” as someone he had plans with before his abduction.) Buck and Dia find Fox’s location courtesy of Selmar, a telepathic informant played by Earl Boen (both face and voice, even though all his dialogue is in telepathic voiceovers), once he reads the mind of the assassin sent to kill them, Toman (Lester Fletcher) – a deceptively diminutive man who looks like Henry Gibson but who turns out to be a superstrong heavy-gravity worlder. Meanwhile, Fox brainstorms his own escape and runs into Wilma, who’s infiltrated the planet’s administrative center to track Zale through his voice print and who runs afoul of a comic-relief AI boss who holds organic beings in contempt. But Buck and Dia get captured, and since Gary Coleman is the featured guest, he gets to sneak back in the way he got out so he can shut down security for Wilma. Although Buck and Dia manage to free themselves at the same time, and the two 20th-century survivors finally get to meet and spend some time together in the tag scene.

You know, at the time this episode first aired, I was a Diff’rent Strokes viewer – in fact, I was nearly the same age as Gary Coleman – and I probably took his guest spot here in stride. Watching it now, though, I’m hard-pressed to understand why Coleman was such a phenomenon at the time. His sassy attitude and sitcommy mugging as Fox are a little annoying, and his acting is okay for an 11-year-old but nothing spectacular. Fox has a lot of comedic dialogue, but Coleman’s comic timing and delivery are just okay. So I just don’t get it. Honestly, it’s the supporting characters like Toman and Selmar, and Wilma’s cyber-chauvinist boss, who bring the most interest and humor here.

The worldbuilding is also of some interest. It’s nice to see the show maintaining continuity, building on past episodes, and we get the state of the universe fleshed out a bit more. One thing I’m unclear on, though, is the nature of the human-appearing “aliens” we’ve seen in a number of episodes, like the Genesians here or the Zantians and Ruathans last week. I’ve been assuming they were descended from human colonists, but sometimes the writing seems to imply they’re not human at all, but humanoid. And if the holocaust happened in 2008-9, that’s too early to support the idea that Earth established extrasolar colonies that were then cut off when civilization fell. Although an article from Super Star Heroes #11 in January 1980 claims that the “alien” enemies of Earth were intended to be renegade human colonies. Season 2 would later establish that a human diaspora into space occurred after the holocaust, but would treat those humans as “lost tribes” distinct from the various humanlike aliens in the show, muddying the issue further.

As a matter of fact, the idea of humanoid aliens being lost human colonies was the basis of my own worldbuilding in my SF universe in its early stages, after I decided humanoid aliens were implausible and tried to come up with an alternate origin for them. That would’ve been somewhere around 1981-2, I think, so I may have been more influenced by Buck Rogers than I’ve realized. Although I eventually gave up on the idea in favor of populating my universe with nonhumanoid aliens, once I embraced the potential of prose SF to do things impossible on a film or TV budget.

“Escape from Wedded Bliss”: The second Ardala/Kane episode is again from Anne Collins and Alan Brennert, for some reason under the pseudonyms Corey Appelbaum and Michael Bryant this time. It opens with yet another plot to destroy the entire Earth, as the Draconians unleash a strange, pyramidal crystalline weapon of alien origin – a mining device the Draconians stole on an expedition to the Galactic center and repurposed as a weapon, which sounds like it might’ve been a more interesting story than this one. Emperor Draco has ordered his daughter Ardala to annihilate Earth, but Ardala has other ideas – namely, to use the threat of the weapon to blackmail the Earth Federation into turning Buck Rogers over to be her consort. (“Talk about a shotgun wedding,” as Buck says later in the episode.)

There’s some weird runaround before we get there, though. First, Huer gathers the leaders of the Earth Federation to entertain Ardala and hear her demands. Bizarrely, it seems the only 20th-century entertainment form to have survived 500 years, other than blackjack, is… roller disco. Yes. I said that. A quartet of “disco skating” performers puts on an interminable show before we finally get around to Ardala’s demands. Also, the Earth Federation leaders are depressingly monoracial, all white except for one token Asian man. That’s actually surprising, since the show has previously been pretty good for its era at diverse casting of both guest stars and extras. But then, it’s also been relatively good at not being sexist or objectifying its female characters, with some exceptions, and Ardala’s aversion to non-bikini-based attire blows that out the airlock. We’re talking about a woman who dresses more modestly for an intimate seduction of her intended mate than she does for a formal state dinner.

Anyway, Buck seems to flee into the wilderness on a vintage motorcycle (courtesy of “Doctor Junius of the Archives,” Buck’s oft-mentioned but never-seen supplier of surviving 20th-century entertainment and relics), but it turns out he’s searching for Garedon (rhymes with “harridan,” and played by Alfred Ryder), an old, senile Draconian defector who, we now learn out of nowhere, came to Buck for sanctuary some months before and has been living as a hermit in the wastes beyond New Chicago, with Buck bringing him supplies. His plan is to learn what Garedon knows of the layout of the Draconian flagship so he can find the pyramid weapon’s controls and destroy it, once he’s turned over to Ardala.

Once Buck finally gets on board, the Draconians conveniently fail to detect the spy devices he’s brought aboard, including a hypo which he uses, for the second time, to drug Ardala in order to avoid sleeping with her. This is getting to be a habit. Although it’s a relief, since Buck is here under duress so Ardala would’ve essentially been raping him if they’d gone through with it, though the episode certainly doesn’t play it that way. Anyway, Ardala seems to be building up a resistance, since she wakes up early and has Kane (now recast as Michael Ansara) capture Buck. Which means Buck has to go through with “Phase 2” of the wedding ritual, i.e. fighting Ardala’s burly bodyguard Tigerman. This Tigerman is played by H.B. Haggerty, the same actor who played the second Tigerman in the pilot, the one whom Buck fought in the hangar bay. Which is a continuity hole, because Buck blew him up shortly before the whole ship he was on blew up. (Some sources report that this bit was cut from the series version of the pilot movie to allow Tigerman to return, much like Baltar’s death in the Battlestar Galactica feature film pilot. But it is on the version of “Awakening” included on the DVD set, just with a couple of the more violent moments edited out.) Anyway, they have a gladiatorial contest which ain’t no “Amok Time,” and Buck refuses to kill Tigey when he wins. Which means, to make a long story short, that after Buck escapes the wedding, blows up the weapon, and gets caught, Tigerman repays his life debt by helping him get away. Ardala and Kane are oddly okay with just standing back and letting this happen, with Ardala saying there will be another time.

The return of the series’ primary villains was no doubt meant to be a big event, but it’s one of the weakest episodes yet, padded and meandering and trashy and awkwardly plotted. Its main asset, unsurprisingly, is Michael Ansara, who makes Kane come off as a more thoughtful, measured antagonist than Henry Silva did. Also, the people doing Pamela Hensley’s hair, makeup, and lighting did a better job than in the pilot, because she looks terrific. And I suppose she does a reasonable job playing the petulant, spoiled, and hedonistic princess, though I have a little trouble buying into her belief that Buck Rogers is “the most genetically perfect and physically attractive human male in the universe.” (Also, are Draconians human? Ardala says her mate is required to be a human male, which would seem to argue that the various “alien” humanoid populations we’ve seen around the Buck Rogers galaxy are human colonies after all, or else humans were seeded on multiple worlds as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, say.)

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Unchained Woman”/”Planet of the Amazon Women” (spoilers)

January 7, 2018 1 comment

“Unchained Woman” is another title that sounds kinkier than the actual episode. Said woman is Jen Burton, played by a young and doe-eyed Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh off of Halloween. Buck is sent to infiltrate a harsh, android-run prison on desert planet Zeta Minor, in order to break Jen out so she can testify against the pirate leader Pantera, her boyfriend whom she took a murder rap to protect. The Zetan government refuses to extradite her to Earth to give her testimony, necessitating more drastic measures. Jen’s a reluctant rescuee, unwilling to testify against Pantera, but she bonds with Buck as they face the perils of the desert – and the damaged but relentless prison-guard android (the aptly named Walter Hunter) who pursues them throughout the episode. Forget Halloween, this episode anticipates The Terminator by five years.

Anyway, Wilma gets captured by Pantera (Michael DeLano) on the way to rendezvous with Buck, but she manages to escape through her own resourcefulness and Buck’s judo lessons. Back on Earth, Dr. Huer discusses the Pantera matter with an old friend, Ambassador Warwick, who’s Earth’s representative to Zeta and is suspiciously squirrely about the extradition matter. Warwick is played by veteran actor Robert Cornthwaite, who was in The Thing From Another World and The War of the Worlds in the ‘50s, and who played Allan A. Dale in the Archer episodes of Batman, where he was a corrupt official secretly working for the villain. He’s the same here, for Warwick, a once-ambitious man frustrated by the low station he’s ended up in, is working with Pantera, using his diplomatic position to provide cover for his piracy. When Theopolis and Twiki unearth the evidence and tell Huer, the doctor is regrettably unsurprised, and insists on confronting his old friend alone. It’s a nice bit of drama for Tim O’Connor to play.

Back on Zeta, Pantera’s latest moll helps Jen escape from Buck, but her happy reunion with her lover is dashed when he reveals he only used her and now intends to kill her, taking her to his ship to throw her out the airlock once they’re out in space. Buck and Wilma find the baddies and try to rescue Jen, but Pantera gets the drop on them – until the proto-Terminator shows up and causes havoc. They finally stop the guard android and leave the planet, and Buck assures Jen she can safely keep the prison tracking bracelet the android homed in on as a souvenir, since there’s no way he can follow. Back on the planet, the android’s hand twitches…

It suddenly strikes me that Buck Rogers has settled into being basically The Six Million Dollar Man in reverse. It’s a show about a charming, wisecracking Air Force pilot who does clandestine work for a government intelligence and law enforcement agency, but in this case, he’s the normal human being and it’s the people around him who have superpowers or other unusual attributes. The thing that makes him exceptional is that he’s the only normal 20th-century guy in the future setting, and somehow that’s always an advantage, never a drawback. But the show has not done an adequate job explaining why Buck is motivated to do this, or how he’s become their top man so quickly. It’s just something he does because it’s the formula for this kind of ‘70s adventure show.

And “Unchained Woman” is yet another crime/spy story that could’ve pretty much been done in a present-day show, with the only real genre element being the android guard – who really does come off as a forerunner to the Terminator, albeit far less visually impressive in both casting and prosthetic effects. Maybe he was meant to evoke the kind of relentless horror-movie killer that Jamie Lee Curtis had faced the year before in her breakout film role. It’s pretty effective, but it makes me wish the storylines were more science fiction-based overall and not such generic TV plots.

“Planet of the Amazon Women”: As usual, this one isn’t as lurid and trashy as its title suggests, though it comes a bit closer than most. It’s by Star Trek scribe D.C. Fontana under her Michael Richards pseudonym, along with a writer named Richard Fontana (as Clayton Richards), though I’m not sure how they’re related (I’m guessing siblings or cousins, since Fontana was her maiden name and Richard was only 12 years her junior according to IMDb).

While Earth is in delicate negotiations to avoid war with an alien world called Ruatha – which has occupied the planet that’s the only known source of a vital mineral, barberite – Buck is lured to the planet Zantia by a distress call from a pair of sisters who insist on taking him home to show their gratitude. But their come-ons are a little too strong and Buck catches on that they’re trying to drug him, so he’s taken by force by the women and their employer Thorne (Jay Robinson). Turns out he and several other captive men are being auctioned off as slaves, specifically as mates for the planet’s man-hungry women. (The displays in the auction room that show off the bid prices have a familiar shape – at first I thought they were the basis for the body of the robot Crichton in season 2. But it turns out they’re just broadly similar, perhaps designed by the same artist. The props would be reused in one or two later episodes, though.)

Buck is bought by the planet’s prime minister (Anne Jeffreys) as a mate for her unwilling daughter Ariela (Ann Dusenberry), who explains to Buck that her mother instituted this policy after the Ruathans killed or captured most of Zantia’s men in a war. The PM feels that Zantia would be quickly conquered if it let on that it were nearly manless, so they hide the fact and lure in men to take as slaves rather than just advertising for men. Buck, to his credit, wonders why the women couldn’t defend the planet themselves, but apparently they were a less egalitarian society than Earth and the women depended too much on the men to do the fighting. (I’m glad this show didn’t go the route of having Buck be a 20th-century chauvinist who had trouble adjusting to the future’s egalitarianism, although he does sometimes come off a little too idealized.)

But Ariela has a plan to kidnap the Ruathan ambassador (another blinky-light-box AI “quad” like Theopolis) and force him to give their men back, and Buck goes along and escapes with her in his Starfighter. But Wilma has come to rescue him, and when she learns about his and Ariela’s plan, she convinces the PM to let her go after them and stop them, since their plan would lead to a war with Earth that would hurt Zantia as well. So it gets kind of complicated as Wilma and Buck end up on opposite sides while Buck tries to forcibly board the Ruathan shuttle. But Buck convinces Wilma to trust him and let him board. He’s actually here to negotiate rather than kidnap, since he has an ace in the hole, one that seems lifted from Star Trek: “Elaan of Troyius” (which also featured Jay Robinson, but did not involve Fontana). Turns out barberite is a common mineral on Zantia, so Buck and Wilma convince Huer to give up their claim to the disputed planet if the Ruathans will let the Zantian men go home, as well as letting the miners on the disputed planet leave. The plan works, and the fact that they negotiated in bad faith by not telling the Ruathans about Zantia’s mineral wealth – which I’d think would probably lead to the very war they were trying to avoid – is never addressed.

A story like this could’ve been a sexist mess, but as it turns out, it barely touches on the gender issues it raises. It’s ultimately more about the convoluted politics between Zantia, Ruatha, and Earth, and it gets kind of hard to follow it all. Ultimately it’s all kind of unfocused and cluttered, and the frequent intrusions of comic-relief lines from Twiki are more annoying than usual. (The funniest lines of the episode actually comes from Dr. Theopolis. Sometimes dry wit is the best.) But at least it’s an attempt to tell a science fiction story of sorts, a “what if” scenario about how a human colony world adapted to the loss of its male population, rather than just a routine crime, spy, or war story in a future setting. Not an especially good attempt, but at least it’s something.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “The Plot to Kill a City”/”Return of the Fighting 69th” (spoilers)

January 5, 2018 1 comment

“The Plot to Kill a City, Parts 1 & 2”: This 2-parter by the show’s story editor, comics/TV/prose SF writer Alan Brennert (author of the classic Batman story “To Kill a Legend” in Detective Comics #500, and also a future story editor for the revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits), opens with Buck undercover to capture a thug named Raphael Argus, who’s known for frequently changing his appearance, allowing Buck to adopt his identity to infiltrate the Legion of Death, a notorious band of interstellar mercenaries seeking revenge for the Earth Defense Directorate’s recent killing of one of their members.

Brennert’s comics background shows in the composition of the Legion, most of whose members have various superpowers. Quince (John Quade) is a telekinetic. Sherese (Nancy DeCarl) is an empath who’s very suspicious and paranoid. Varek (Anthony James) is from a human colony that destroyed itself in nuclear war, leaving its survivors as deformed mutants with the ability to turn intangible and phase through walls. And the leader, Kellogg… well, he’s the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). He’s also the master strategist of the group.

Since the sensitivity of the mission means that Buck can’t tell the authorities who he really is, he gets pulled over in Argus’s ship by the space cops before he even reaches the Stargate for Aldebaran II, the wretched hive of scum and villainy where the Legion is meeting. Weirdly, when caught in the cops’ tractor beam, Argus’s amorous computer says their stardrive is shutting down and they’re dropping to sublight. Hold on, weren’t Stargates the method of FTL travel here? Anyway, Buck escapes with help from a fellow prisoner called Barney – played by a young and welcome James Sloyan, and based on a character named Black Barney from the Buck Rogers comic strip – who seems jazzed to meet the infamous Raphael Argus and helps him escape. Meanwhile, since Buck is delayed, Wilma dons a slutty disguise and lures the womanizing Quince to her room, using the same euphoric truth drug from last week to interrogate him.

Once Buck arrives, the Legion tests him out, first by attacking him, second by introducing him to Joella (Markie Post), an old flame of Argus, who instantly recognizes him as not Argus (Aren’tgus?) but plays along with his deception for her own reasons. Buck also bonds with Varek over the fact that both their worlds blew up in holocausts. Varek is a sympathetic character, but he feels he deserves to be bossed around by Kellogg because of his people’s crimes.

At the meeting the next day, Kellogg reveals that his plan is to destroy New Chicago. But Sherese senses Wilma listening before he can go into details, and Buck goes off to “chase” her, along with another Legion member. She does fine in escaping until she’s unfortunately saddled with the ‘70s TV female requirement of tripping over the first convenient obstacle, and Buck has to stun the other guy, then have Wilma take him captive and go back and report that Wilma killed the other guy before “Argus” killed her. Kellogg spells out his plan to detonate New Chicago’s matter-antimatter reactor, which is called a contraterrene reactor – an old term for antimatter coined by physicist Vladimir Rojansky in 1935 and popularized by SF author Jack Williamson in the 1940s. Knowing the plan now, Buck gathers up Joella and tries to escape to the ship – but the Legion has been tipped off that “Argus” is a fraud by Barney, who met Argus before and knows this isn’t him. And that’s the end of Part 1.

In Part 2, Buck gets out of trouble by using a fallback identity Huer arranged for him, an assassin named Whist. Kellogg contacts his agent in New Chicago to confirm the Whist identity, which checks out. But the agent then bugs Huer’s office to confirm he’s clueless about the Legion’s plot, and thus he finds out that “Whist” is actually Buck Rogers, a fact he transmits to Kellogg. Huer and Wilma subsequently arrest the agent, aware that he accessed the Whist identity. Now, logically, if they were monitoring the computer to tell them when the Whist file was accessed, wouldn’t it also have told them who’d done it, so they could’ve stopped him before he blew Buck’s cover? Worse, Huer says the only reason they knew the man had done it was because Theopolis had already pegged him as the Legion spy! So how was he allowed to get away with warning Kellogg? It’s either sloppy security or sloppy writing.

Anyway, Joelle helps Buck get away from the Legion at the spaceport. (Writer Brennert inserts some DC Comics nods into the PA announcements – “Dr. Adam Strange of Alpha Centauri” and a flight leaving for Thanagar.) He’s soon cornered by Varek – who fakes killing him and lets him get away because he doesn’t want Earth to suffer the same fate as his bombed-out planet (well, not again, anyway). Buck and Joelle intimidate Barney into giving him the Starfighter he bought with his thirty pieces of silver earned for selling out Buck, a fair enough exchange. Back on Earth, the Legion blackmails Selvan (James McEachin), an engineer who works at the CT reactor, into giving them access by threatening his family (though Varek bonds with his children while the others are talking to Selvan). Luckily for them, Selvan assumes they’re technology thieves and doesn’t consider that there might be a more apocalyptic reason to break into an antimatter power station. A mix of Selvan’s knowledge, Kellogg’s gadgetry, Quince’s telekinesis, Varek’s phasing, and Sherese’s empathic lie detection lets them get through the “nineteen or twenty” security barriers, actually more like five.

Once Selvan figures out that Kellogg is rigging the plant to blow, he fights back, and when ordered to kill Selvan, Varek refuses and finally turns on his master. Both men are felled for their troubles, though the “Legion of Death” members inexplicably use the stun setting, so that they’re able to recover when Huer arrives and work to shut down the reactor while Buck and Wilma chase after the escaping Legionnaires, dogfight with them, and blow up Quince and Kellogg while Sherese escapes off-camera. Since some antiparticles have already escaped containment and the main console is destroyed, Varek is the only one who can get inside the reactor chamber and restore the decaying magnetic bottles while remaining phased to avoid annihilation. (We saw before that he can selectively solidify different parts of his body – he put his arm through a wall to grab Buck around the throat.) Buck and Wilma get back from outer space just in time to see him succeed. And somehow, all of this takes place in just five minutes! A longer countdown, 20 or 30 minutes, would’ve made more sense, just to accommodate the moving around between the plant and outer space. (Although the elapsed screen time is about 5:45.) Varek is almost killed by stray antiparticles but manages to phase to safety, and Wilma promises to help heal his injuries. Cue unfunny comedy tag scene with Huer and Wilma forced to endure Buck’s attempt at reinventing wine and Twiki flirting with Joella (successfully, somehow), and we’re out.

While this one does have some pretty sizeable plot holes, it’s not bad. It’s still a plot that could’ve been done in a present-day show – stopping terrorists from blowing up a power plant – dressed up with sci-fi trappings like Buck’s gadgets and the Legion’s superpowers. But Brennert depicts antimatter fairly credibly, and even works a nice vintage science fiction homage with the use of the word “contraterrene.” And the strongest conjectural element, I suppose, is how Varek’s personality and actions are shaped by the holocaust his people endured. It’s also the strongest character element in the story, and the closest this season ever comes under Bruce Lansbury’s “keep it basic” guidance to making any sort of social commentary through science-fiction allegory. All in all, I’m not sure this needed to be a 2-parter – there’s a lot of padding and peripheral action that’s largely just taking up time – but there are some decent ideas at the core.

“Return of the Fighting 69th”: We go from a 2-parter about a “Plot to Kill a City” one week to a 1-parter about a plot to kill everyone on Earth the next. That escalated quickly. And it’s a bit of  a pacing problem for the series. It might’ve been wiser to put some space between these two episodes.

This one is written by David Bennett Carren, the debut SFTV credit of a writer who would work extensively in SF and animated TV, including a story editor gig on season 4 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The villains in this one are fairly petty for a scheme of planetary genocide – gunrunners Corliss and Trent (Robert Quarry and Elizabeth Allen), who seek revenge on Wilma Deering for the extensive burns and injuries they suffered when she shot them down three years earlier – injuries they declined to have treated on Earth because their freedom and revenge meant more to them. They pursue this revenge by raiding a recently unearthed stockpile of 20th-century weapons near Washington, DC, including enough nerve gas bombs to poison the planet’s entire atmosphere (which seems quite unlikely, but whatever).

When two rookies under Buck and Wilma’s command (seriously, how did a relic from the distant past get to be Earth’s top pilot so quickly?) get destroyed trying to get through the standard, absurdly dense sci-fi asteroid field that Corliss and Trent are hiding in, Huer orders Wilma to reactivate Noah Cooper (Peter Graves), the only person who can get through the asteroids. Cooper is Wilma’s old flight instructor and beloved family friend, whom she forced to retire the previous year along with his entire squadron, the 69th Squadron of the Earth Space Marines (gee, throw in Air and you’d have everything covered). This leads to some tensions when she and Buck go to recruit them. (Buck passes up the opportunity to mention that he’s far older than any of them.) Their grounding was on the, err, grounds that they were too old to meet the physical requirements, but Buck gets Wilma to realize she was biased by her love for Cooper and his squadron and her unwillingness to risk seeing them get hurt.

Cooper insists on reactivating his whole team and modifying some vintage bombers for the mission. He gets the squadron through the asteroids okay, but Buck and Wilma are shot down and taken captive, making Cooper hesitant to bomb the enemy base with them inside. This gives Corliss and Trent time to gloat and threaten, while Buck bonds with Trent’s deaf slave girl Alicia (Katherine Wiberg) by pulling out yet another 20th-century skill that’s been rendered nigh-obsolete by 25th-century science, namely sign language. She helps them escape from their cell, albeit in a way that requires Wilma to seduce the guards first, because of course. They’re almost recaptured, but Buck’s familiarity with obsolete weapons nobody else recognizes as weapons gives him the edge, and they escape just before Cooper blows the joint. There are some tense moments when Cooper’s ship appears to be lost in the explosion, but he turns up intact, and Buck finds Alicia’s parents, and it’s a happy ending all around as usual.

Once more, we get a standard, “basic” 20th-century plot dressed up with sci-fi trappings – in this case, a spaced-up riff on a war story. Indeed, all three of the male actors playing members of the 69th were actual WWII-era veterans – Peter Graves and Woody Strode were in the Army Air Corps and Eddie Firestone was in the Marine Reserves. (Which may have been part of the inspiration for the story, or at least the casting.) It makes for a perfectly serviceable, decent ‘70s TV episode, but it’s not particularly imaginative or innovative either. It’s just okay. Lansbury wanted the show to be “basic” and unthreatening to the average viewer, which means it’s watchable but nothing special. But at least that makes for a better show than I feared it would be, both from my memories and from rewatching the pilot.

One part of this one I liked was Johnny Harris’s score. Appropriately, the leitmotif used for the 69th’s bombers in this Buck Rogers episode reminded me of one of Ray Ellis & Norm Prescott’s music cues for Filmation’s Flash Gordon animated film and series from the same year.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Reviews: “Planet of the Slave Girls”/”Vegas in Space” (spoilers)

The Buck Rogers series proper has less direct involvement from executive producer Glen Larson than Battlestar Galactica did, which is probably to its advantage. Neither he nor his pilot co-writer Leslie Stevens did any writing for it post-pilot. Bruce Lansbury, formerly of The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, and Wonder Woman, took over as supervising producer and showrunner for the series. His approach, according to an interview in the June 1980 Starlog, was to avoid telling “concept stories” like Star Trek did, on the theory that those alienated the average viewer. Instead, he wanted to “ignore the sci-fi nature of the show” and “look for a way to tell stories that are currently being told on other kinds of shows – basic melodrama, action-adventure, and humor.” This was a highly unambitious approach on Lansbury’s part, and as we go, we’ll see how that desire to keep it “basic” played out. Lansbury also largely dropped the pilot’s dystopian portrayal of Earth as a sparsely inhabited wasteland sheltering within a planetary shield, instead showing a more prosperous humanity that was a prominent interstellar power.

The second, also movie-length episode, written by the show’s story consultant Anne Collins, is pulpily and misleadingly titled “Planet of the Slave Girls.” (The working title was “Flight to Sorceror’s Mountain.” According to story editor Alan Brennert, Bruce Lansbury wanted all the episode titles to be “Flight of/to/from” something, in the same way that all Wild Wild West titles had been “Night of…”, but NBC’s executives handed down the more simplistic and/or garish titles the show used instead.) It starts with Wilma Deering introducing Buck (and the viewers) to the Stargates, the show’s method of FTL interstellar travel devised by Brennert – essentially a jump gate technology like that later used in Babylon 5, or for that matter the space-based gates in Stargate Atlantis, except this kind of Stargate is just an array of four animated starbursts that form a diamond-shaped area of squiggly light between them when a ship passes through. Buck and Wilma gate into a training exercise in which an Earth training flight comes under attack from pirates (using stock footage of the Draconian fighters from the pilot), and the flight leader Duke Danton (David Groh), an old flame of Wilma’s, is resentful of Buck intervening to save the pilot, and subsequently of Wilma’s evident closeness to Buck. They later clash when Buck tries to teach 20th-century combat strategy to the 25th-century pilots, using football metaphors that Buck and Duke end up demonstrating on each other physically, in much the way you’d expect from guys named Buck and Duke.

The rescued pilot, Regis Saroyan (Michael Mullins), is one of many Earth pilots to fall ill recently, weaking Earth’s defenses. (It’s mentioned that this has happened in several of Earth’s cities, promptly retconning the pilot’s assertion that Earth was a wasteland aside from “the Inner City,” which is now simply called New Chicago.) It turns out to be the result of poisoned “food discs” shipped from the planet Vistula, so Buck, Wilma, and Danton go there to investigate on the pretense of returning Regis home to his father, the Earth-born governor of Vistula, played by the incomparable but wasted Roddy McDowall. Governor Saroyan turns out to be enslaving the Vistulan workers, who are sold to him by Kaleel, a Vistulan cult leader who’s outrageously overacted by Jack Palance, and who has plans to overthrow Earth. This is presented as evil, even though the Earth people seem perfectly happy with the idea of slavery, with Buck and Regis being the only objectors. The Vistulans are played by white actors with some extras of color, but they’re coded as Arabs, desert nomads who dress in burnooses and keffiyehs and who follow a fanatical leader. Yeah, that stereotype goes way back.

Later, Buck meets Ryma (Brianne Leary), the one and only slave girl who plays a role in “Planet of the Slave Girls,” and actually a resistance leader who tips him off to the plant where the food supply is being poisoned. While Buck (and his stunt double who looks nothing like him) is off fighting the plant’s guards, Wilma and Ryma get captured and taken to Kaleel’s mountain redoubt. Buck and Duke follow and get shot down, and they bond while fighting off desert nomads, while Wilma escapes her captors and disguises herself in skimpy slave girl rags. The boys discover that Kaleel is readying a fleet to attack Earth, so Duke flies off to warn Earth while Buck infiltrates the mountain and gets captured. He, Wilma, and Ryma are stuck in a lava-pit deathtrap that’s poorly enough designed to allow them to escape, while Duke gets the handful of remaining pilots to join him in a raid on Kaleel’s fleet. Said pilots include Twiki and Theopolis, as well as Colonel Gordon, an old veteran coming out of retirement for one last mission. Gordon is a nice bit of homage, since he’s played by Buster Crabbe, the legendary star of the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials. Practically every line he has in the episode is a winking in-joke about that fact.

Incidentally, Twiki becoming a fighter pilot raises all sorts of questions. In the pilot, it was implied that “drones” were common enough that some random stranger who might be a spy was still able to get his own personal drone. So why doesn’t Earth already have a whole legion of robot fighter pilots? Or just put AI brains in the fighters themselves? Then again, given that AIs are considered sentient and that “quads” like Theo apparently run the society, maybe they don’t want to risk their own kind in battle. Which makes you wonder about their opinion of humans.

Anyway, Buck and Wilma steal the last two enemy fighters conveniently left lying around, and Buck proves his identity to Duke by referring to a conversation about football they had offscreen (would’ve been a better callback if it had been onscreen), and then they use Buck’s “quarterback” strategy from his earlier lecture to take out the enemy squadron leader and win the day. And Governor Roddy McDowall is mortified that he allowed Kaleel, the guy he bought the slaves from, to lead him astray, and his son and Ryma agree to work with him to make things better. So lemme get this straight – the true villain behind the slavery was the guy who sold the slaves, and the guy who bought and owned the slaves and ruthlessly punished them for the slightest transgression was the real victim? Uh-huh.

Aside from the horrifically clumsy approach to human rights and the horrific scenery-chewing by Jack Palance, and the waste of both Roddy McDowall and Buster Crabbe, this is a definite improvement on the pilot. It’s still silly and cheap (stock footage of the fighter launch tubes from the Draconian ship is repurposed as both the Earth and Vistula launch facilities, and will continue to be reused generically for most of the series), and it suffers from an excess of villains, but it’s at least a somewhat coherent story, and the execution doesn’t feel quite so lazy and uncaring, with better acting and better sets. There’s a nice little subplot about an Earth scientist and his computer partner searching for a cure – they bicker incessantly, but when a Vistulan agent sabotages the computer, the human scientist laments it as cold-blooded murder, and is moved when Twiki and Theo manage to bring him back to life later on. It’s also a lot less sexist than the title implied it might be; both Wilma and Ryma are allowed to be somewhat effective leaders and fighters, up to a point (Wilma needed Buck to teach her the lost art of judo, and both women relied on him to rescue them from the lava pit), and there are capable supporting women on both Duke’s fighter team and Kaleel’s band of villains. I like the music too. Though Galactica’s Stu Phillips scored the pilot, this episode is scored by Johnny Harris (fresh off of season 3 of Wonder Woman) and has a nice funky ‘70s sound – which, admittedly, is a bit incongruous for a show about a pilot from 1987 living in 2491.

“Vegas in Space” is the first regular-length episode and the second in a row by Anne Collins, who’d previously written for Hawaii Five-O and Wonder Woman, and would later write several episodes of Robert Urich’s Vega$. It’s actually the most solidly written episode yet, though it feels like Collins took a story pitch for a contemporary crime drama and reworked it for Buck Rogers.

Cesar Romero plays Armat, an infamous but untouchable Earth crime lord who’s willing to confess and turn himself in if the Earth Defense Directorate (the organization Huer runs and Buck and Wilma work for) will help him rescue a kidnapped employee, Felina (Ana Alicia), who inadvertently saw secret data that his rival Velosi (Richard Lynch) wants to extract from her brain and use against Armat. Huer is reluctant until he offers information on how to defeat the Draconians’ Hatchet fighters. Remember how the pilot established that the Starfighters’ computers were useless against the Hatchet fighters so Buck had to target them manually, but this was never explained or followed up on? Well, to my surprise, this episode plugs that plot hole by establishing the Hatchets’ resistance to computer targeting as an ongoing mystery stymieing Earth’s forces, and gives Buck and Wilma a debate about the merits of computer targeting versus human intuition.

Oddly, though, Wilma is missing for most of the episode, replaced by a Directorate major named Marla Landers (Juanin Clay), who recruits Buck to join her in infiltrating Velosi’s orbiting casino city, Sinaloa, because of his proficiency at “Ten and Eleven,” the game we know as Blackjack. Apparently Erin Gray initially hesitated to return as a series regular, due to the coldness of the pilot version of Wilma (according to a December 1979 Starlog interview), and Clay was slated to replace her. I found a later Starlog article stating that “the fifth hour,” which I guess would be this episode, was the first regular series episode to be filmed. My best guess is that Clay shot the bulk of the episode playing Wilma Deering, but when Gray finally signed for the series, they shot new framing scenes with Wilma introducing Clay to Buck as Marla Landers, a close enough name to “Wilma Deering” that it could easily be dubbed into the rest of the episode.

Anyway, Buck and Wilmaaaa… arla infiltrate the casino city, and Buck wows them at the gaming table by card counting, which is a lost art in the 25th century because everyone has become dependent on computers. Marla complains to Velosi about the “cheating” player, in order to attract the attention of a thug (The Rockford Files’s James Luisi) so Buck can overpower him and give him a truth drug to find out where Velina is held. Meanwhile, Marla has to fend off Velosi’s romantic advances, but she’s saved by the arrival of Dr. No himself, Joseph Wiseman, who had a cameo in the feature cut of the pilot as Emperor Draco but who now plays Morphus, the expert who will extract Felina’s memories in a manner that she won’t survive.

But Buck and Marla manage to steal Velosi’s master key so Buck can save her. They break out as planned – along with Tangie (Pamela Shoop), an indentured and scantily attired casino employee who convinces Buck to buy her freedom with his winnings. Then they have to fight off some Hatchet fighters – apparently Velosi was their supplier all along – and Marla has to carry the payoff of the Buck-Wilma debate from earlier by taking on the fighters manually. Then there’s a closing scene where Armat comes clean about being Felina’s father, which she doesn’t want to believe – something he tells her is probably for the best, for her own safety.

This is actually a decently written episode with some nice character bits. Buck is written more dimensionally, with some all-too-brief exploration of his feelings about being 500 years removed from the people he cared for, but also with a pretty fun interplay between him and Luisi’s casino guard. It isn’t much of a science fiction story, just a crime story that with a few minor changes could’ve been set in 1979 Vegas or Atlantic City, which is in keeping with Lansbury’s desire to avoid science-fiction “concept stories.” Still, it’s frankly better-written and more intelligent than I expected from this show, and it lets Gil Gerard play a more well-rounded, substantial character than he did in the first two movie-length episodes. And it actually makes the effort to fix up a plot hole from the pilot about the fighters, which is an impressive bit of continuity. Maybe there’s some modest hope for this show yet.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979) Reviews: “Awakening”/feature film (spoilers)

After I did my Battlestar Galactica reviews several years back, I always intended to revisit the other major Glen Larson-produced space opera from the same period, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which ran from 1979-81 and whose first season starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Col. Wilma Deering, Tim O’Connor as Dr. Huer, and Felix Silla and Mel Blanc as (respectively) the body and voice of Twiki, Buck’s robot sidekick. I had to drop my Netflix DVD service due to lack of funds before I got around to those discs, but recently I finally decided to check my library for them, and so I’ve finally been able to do a rewatch. Along the way, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of magazine article scans from the period on the fan site ByYourCommand.net, providing a wealth of production insights that have helped me enhance my commentary.

The character of Anthony Rogers debuted in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, in the 1928 novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Nowlan and its 1929 sequel “The Airlords of Han.” Rogers was a World War I veteran who was trapped in suspended animation by mine gas and woke up five centuries later in a post-apocalyptic United States that had long since been conquered by an enemy interchangeably referred to as “Hans” and “Mongolians,” even though the Han Chinese and Mongols are entirely different nations/ethnicities. “Tony” Rogers fell in love with resistance fighter Wilma Deering, and together they used a mix of Rogers’s WWI combat skills and 25th-century technology to fight for the liberation of the United States. The stories are typical of the preferences of Amazing’s editor Hugo Gernsback, focused more on the details of futuristic technology and language than on characterization. They’re pretty feminist for their era, portraying Wilma and the other “girls” of her era as strong, skilled fighters. However, they’re also deeply and horrifyingly racist. The whole duology is essentially one long white-supremacist tract about the need to defend the noble White Race (it actually uses the capitalized phrase and equates it with Americans) and “blast the Yellow Blight from the face of the Earth,” going on at great length about the moral degeneracy of the Han and how they don’t love their children as we do. In “Airlords,” Nowlan’s heroes freely use nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to exterminate the entire Han race from existence. It’s such a brutally racist, genocidal fantasy that I think it must have gotten complaints, because there’s a clumsily tacked-on retcon at the end of “Airlords” saying that the Han turned out after the fact to have been part-alien, so all the actual human races can get along as equals now that the alien taint has been expunged.

The first novella was soon adapted into a comic strip by syndicator John F. Dille, writer Nowlan, and artist Dick Calkins, who renamed its lead character Buck Rogers and added more characters including scientist Dr. Huer, the villainous defector Killer Kane, and his femme fatale girlfriend Ardala Valmar. The comic strip debuted at the start of 1929, initially adapting the same “war against the Mongols” premise as the novellas and employing the standard Asian stereotypes and caricatures in use at the time, but after the first year of the strip, the war was resolved peacefully by revealing that the benevolent Mongol Emperor was unaware of the atrocities his Viceroy was committing in America. After Buck and Wilma defeated the Viceroy, the Mongol angle was permanently, mercifully dropped and Buck became a planet-hopping hero taking on foes like the Tiger Men of Mars. Buck Rogers was the first space hero in American comics and radio, anticipating Flash Gordon by four years, though Flash made it to the movie screen first in 1936, in the form of Buster Crabbe.

Universal produced the three Flash Gordon serials and the 1939 Buck Rogers serial also starring Crabbe, and they held onto the rights to both characters for the following four decades. After the failure of an initial 1977 TV series pitch developed by David Gerrold (rejected because it was more science-fictional than Universal felt audiences were ready for), they hired Glen Larson and Leslie Stevens (the former Outer Limits producer who probably contributed a lot more to the creation of Battlestar Galactica than is generally recognized) to make a TV pilot in 1979, the 50th anniversary of the comic strip. The original plan was to do a 6-hour miniseries, but Larson decided the first 2 hours were worth releasing as a theatrical feature, as he had done before with Battlestar Galactica’s pilot. Thus, scenes were added, cut, and reshot for the theatrical version.

The feature film Buck Rogers in the 25th Century opens with William “Buck” Rogers (not Anthony, although that’s later established as his middle name) as an astronaut who, according to William Conrad’s opening narration, is thrown into a 500-year orbit and placed in suspended animation by a freak accident. (Perhaps they were influenced by Planet of the Apes? As it happens, Gene Roddenberry’s earlier Genesis II pilot was rather reminiscent of the original Nowlan story, with Dylan Hunt trapped underground in cryogenic suspension to awaken in a post-apocalyptic world.) The narration sets up the main title sequence as a hibernation dream of Buck’s, though it’s bizarre, like a cheap knockoff of a James Bond title sequence. While the insipid title song “Suspension” is badly sung by Kipp Lennon (no relation to John, but a sibling of the ‘50s/’60s singing group the Lennon Sisters), several women in skimpy silver outfits lounge and pose atop a huge BUCK ROGERS logo on the floor, staring “seductively” at the camera while Gil Gerard’s Buck lies there “asleep” on top of his own name. These women include Pamela Hensley (Princess Ardala) and Erin Gray (Wilma Deering), even though this is supposedly Buck’s dream and he hasn’t met them yet. The rest are just random models, one of whom is wearing oversized round eyeglasses for some reason. It’s insane and inept. The TV version, “Awakening” (which is oddly included only as a low-quality, unrestored bonus feature on the final disk of the second season’s DVD set), mercifully omits this absurd opening in favor of the standard main title sequence and its strictly instrumental arrangement of “Suspension.” (I always liked the more driving, dramatic music under the opening narration and Buck’s “flight through time” much more than the “Suspension” arrangement over the cast credits.)

The first conscious characters we meet, aside from some random fighter pilots, are Princess Ardala of Draconia and her second-in-command Kane (Henry Silva), a defector from Earth. They intercept Buck’s shuttle, almost blast him before realizing there’s something odd about his ship, and revive him out of curiosity, all while en route to Earth for a diplomatic mission that’s secretly a plot to conquer Earth. Buck spends this whole time either woozy from his 500-year nap or stoned on pain medicine, so there’s not much established about his personality except that he cracks wise a lot. Kane sends him on his way to Earth, assuming that if they escort him safely through Earth’s defense shield rather than letting him fry, it proves he’s a spy. This plot point will have no further relevance and is just an excuse to get Buck on his way to Earth.

It’s worth noting that this version of Ardala is virtually nothing like Ardala Valmar from the comic strips and radio series, a Terran femme fatale and “adventuress” and the girlfriend of chief villain Killer Kane. I never realized it until this rewatch, but what the TV series did was to turn Ardala into a virtual clone of Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura – the sexpot daughter of an evil alien monarch menacing Earth (though Emperor Draco never appears except as a hologram in the theatrical edition), smitten by the stalwart Earthman hero, and partial to wearing ornate, bikini-like attire. The one respect in which this Ardala differs from Aura is that she remains a villain throughout. I would have thought they were imitating Ornella Muti’s Aura in Dino De Laurentiis’s Flash Gordon, but this pilot was written and shot in 1978, before De Laurentiis’s film even had its final script or cast. So I wonder what inspired the producers to turn Ardala into a near-exact copy of Aura. Maybe they felt it would make her a more impressive foil and love interest for Buck. Or maybe they just confused the two characters.

The Earth defense forces are confused by Buck’s transmissions to “Mission Control” and send up a squadron led by Wilma Deering, but in contrast to Kane’s expectations, they lead him through the safe path in the defense shield rather than letting him burn. He’s escorted to the Inner City, the only remaining outpost of civilization on Earth, which by a huge coincidence was formerly Buck’s hometown of Chicago. The Syd Dutton matte paintings representing the Inner City are the only good visual effects in the movie. While its spaceship effects are visually and stylistically similar to John Dykstra’s Galactica work (and its Starfighters are a rejected Ralph McQuarrie design concept for BSG’s Vipers), they’re made with less budget and/or skill and don’t look nearly as good. (They’re done by the same company that did Galactica post-pilot, though – Universal’s in-house FX outfit called Hartland, which Dykstra set up before moving to Paramount for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I suppose maybe they had less time and budget to work on this one, because the FX are much better in the series proper.) But the Inner City sets are awful – mostly just an empty room whose walls are made of vacuformed pieces that look like Rubbermaid drawers. While in this 2-dollar set, Buck is briefly introduced to Dr. Huer, but the main characters he interacts with are Dr. Theopolis, a sentient AI or “quad” in the form of a circular box with flashing lights, and Twiki, the robot “drone” (or “ambuquad”) who carries Theopolis around like a giant medallion around his neck. Twiki (pronounced “Tweaky”) ws designed to look like a small boy with a bowl haircut, basically a mechanical version of Boxey from Galactica, but his large staring eyes and gaping mouth are a bit nightmarish and his head shape has been not unfairly compared to male genitalia. At first, Twiki only made low-pitched “Bidi-bidi-bidi” noises – sort of an electronic version of Porky Pig’s stutter – which Theopolis translated, but this was quite awkward and too similar to C-3PO and R2-D2, so Mel Blanc was given more actual dialogue to speak as Twiki as the movie progressed, in a deep wise-guy baritone that clashed oddly with Twiki’s wide-eyed moppet appearance. However, they kept the irritating “Bidi-bidi-bidi” at the start of his every line. (Amusingly, his first recognizable word was “L’chaim” when serving Buck a drink.) Inside the fiberglass Twiki costume was Felix Silla, an actor/stuntman best known as Cousin Itt on The Addams Family. Theopolis was voiced by Howard F. Flynn in the pilot, using a very HAL 9000-like voice (apparently they actually tried to get HAL’s voice actor Douglas Rain to do it), but the aptly named Eric Server would play Theopolis in the series.

Anyway, “Theo” and Wilma explain to Buck that Earth was ravaged by nuclear holocaust not long after he left, and that Earth has struggled to survive ever since, dependent on trade with other worlds for food and resources. Ardala is nominally coming in an unarmed flagship to solidify a defense pact with Earth against the pirates that have besieged its shipping, although Buck is suspicious about the carbon scoring on his shuttle’s hull. Meanwhile, in “Awakening” but not in the theatrical version, there’s a pair of scenes in the apartment assigned to Buck, one where Theo shows him its various futuristic features (presumably to lay pipe for future episodes, although the demonstrated features will rarely be used) and one where he expresses his frustration and rage at being cut off from his own time, in order to convince Theo to let him go out into “Anarchia,” the wasteland beyond the city dome, so that he can confront the reality of what’s happened. Buck then goes out into the ruins of Chicago with Twiki and Theo and finds the grave of his family, then gets into a fight with the mutants of the wasteland before being rescued by Wilma.

The post-apocalyptic element of the story is subsequently abandoned in favor of the Draconia story. Huer finds the homing beacon Kane planted on Buck’s ship to reveal the path through Earth’s defense field, and Buck is put on trial for espionage by the computer council (more quads like Theo) and sentenced to death, “to be carried out immediately.” However, apparently “immediately” means something different in 2491, since there’s enough time for Wilma to convince Huer to convince the council to suspend Buck’s sentence in order to let him visit the Draconian ship and help search it for weapons. We see this happen in “Awakening,” but the theatrical cut skips right from Buck’s death sentence to Wilma making her offer to Buck, making for a rather sizeable plot hole. On the Draconia, Ardala denies having met Buck before, then they almost immediately go out into battle against the “pirates” that Kane and Ardala have sent against their own ship to sell their story. These pirates are really Draconian “Hatchet fighters” softening Earth up to make it receptive to this alliance. The Starfighters’ combat computers prove useless against the Hatchet fighters, for reasons that are never explained, and Buck’s 20th-century Air Force fighter skills single-handedly save him and Wilma, though only after all the other fighter pilots are incidentally killed off. And then Buck and Wilma go back to Earth, completely forgetting their mission to search the Draconian flagship. Wilma starts to warm to him, and his death sentence is postponed until a retrial can be scheduled – another bit that I think was skipped over in the theatrical cut, making it feel like Buck’s trial was just forgotten.

But then, at a reception for Ardala, Buck livens up the courtly dancing by convincing the musician to play “rock” (which the musician has never heard of but picks up effortlessly despite Buck’s virtually nonexistent explanation of what it’s like), then seduces Ardala into making him think he’s defecting to become her consort, so he can get up to her ship and search it. This convinces Wilma he’s a spy after all. He gets Twiki to get him some potent headache pills before his “defection,” so he can lace Ardala’s drink and knock her out in order go search the ship – a rare case of a man giving a woman a roofie to avoid having sex with her. He also has to outfight her mute guard Tigerman, loosely based on the Tiger Men of Mars from the comics, to get away.

Twiki and Theo have snuck after Buck to see if he was a spy, but they learn he’s on their side when he uses a Draconian soldier disguise (with a samurai kabuto-style helmet, an echo of the Yellow Peril elements of the original novella and comic) to plant bombs in the tails of all the fighters, so they blow up when leaving the launch bay. The total lack of security in the hangar, allowing a single saboteur to wipe out the entire fighter squadron, is never explained. There is a second fight with Tigerman, but it was added for the feature version and they couldn’t get the first actor back, so there are two different Tigermen without explanation. Buck kills Tigerman with a bomb in his waistband, though the TV version omits the crotch kick that gives Buck the opening.

Wilma then braves the exploding ship to rescue the robots (and Buck, once Theo tells her he isn’t a traitor), Ardala and Kane escape in a shuttle before it blows, and the theatrical version ends with Wilma promising to be more of a “real woman” to Buck in the future, though Buck still seems more smitten with Ardala.

But “Awakening” skips Wilma’s “real woman” speech in favor of a lengthy final scene that sets the stage for the series to follow. With help from Twiki and “Dr. Junius from the Archives,” Buck has equipped his apartment with 20th-century furnishings, either genuine antiques or Twiki-made reconstructions. Huer and Wilma arrive to offer him an opportunity to work for them. Huer explains that every 25th-century Terran is thoroughly recorded and indexed from birth, known even by their enemies, but Buck is unique as an unknown quantity, a man with no digital footprint (in modern terms), and thus could help them with sensitive missions. Buck resists making formal commitments or putting down ties, but Huer predicts that some missions are bound to pique his interest enough that he’ll help out informally.

I really don’t understand why the DVD set’s makers chose to make the theatrical cut of the pilot the primary version and relegate “Awakening” to the bonus features on the very last disc of a different season set. It would’ve made more sense the other way around. The theatrical cut omits at least five scenes that are important to establishing the core characters and the foundations of the series to follow, as well as some important plot points within the story itself. Certain things in later episodes didn’t make sense to me until I belatedly saw the full pilot, particularly the basic question of just why the heck Dr. Huer kept recruiting Buck for so many missions. And the theatrical cut is a greatly inferior story as well, with a more superficial hero and a more incoherent narrative. If I’d seen the TV version first, I would’ve had a better first impression of the set. I also wouldn’t have had to rewrite this review, and several upcoming ones, quite so heavily.

But “Awakening” still has its problems with story logic and coherence, with a number of important plot elements being given the once-over and largely forgotten when the next bit comes along. The acting is mediocre; Gerard is largely one-note (again, more so in the movie cut) and Gray, though quite lovely (and one of my earliest actress crushes as a pre-teen, as I recall), is strident and stilted as Wilma in her initial, colder mode. O’Connor is given relatively little to do, while Theopolis and Twiki are given too much. Hensley’s wardrobe (or lack thereof) leaves more of an impression than her acting, though she’d do better in later episodes. Henry Silva is okay as Kane, but not as good as Michael Ansara, who would take over the role in the series proper. The best work comes from matte painter Syd Dutton and costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac, who comes up with good-looking future fashions and military uniforms for the Terrans and nice skimpy outfits for Ardala. (I do remember finding her bikini-like costuming quite impressive when I was 11-12. It’s still pretty impressive today.)

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