When I Was A Child, I Spake As A Child: Detour for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century


1979

Director:  Daniel Haller

Cast:  Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, Pamela Hensley, Tim O’Conner, Felix Silla, Mel Blanc (voice only), Duke Butler, Henry Silva

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class G (a medium yellow star, much like our own sun, 5/7).  An ambitious attempt at witty, arch dialogue steeped in late seventies culture and set in one of the most venerable science fiction universes in existence, this one falls flat on its face to my adult mindset, but it was a tremendous amount of fun.

Fan trailer (not the theatrical trailer):

And the series introduction (from season 2), which is something of a classic:

Introduction

Folks, this baby has a serious science fiction pedigree.

In 1928, Philip Francis Nowlan wrote a novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D., which appeared in the pages of Amazing Stories and detailed the adventures of Tony Rogers, a veteran who wakes in the year 2419 to find America conquered by the Han.  In 1929, his follow-up novella, The Air Lords of Han, completed the story he’d begun and symbolically freed the United States from its foreign overlords.  While not politically correct today—the two novellas embody the thinking behind “the Yellow Peril“—they were great fun, and promoted ideas of sexual equality and technological development.  And to be fair, the Han turned out to be the product of alien miscegenation, though that emerges in the last pages of the second novella.  Both can be downloaded for free from the pages of Project Gutenberg.

Nowlan freed the imaginations of a generation; the two stories proved to be so popular that they spawned the first science fiction comic strip, Buck Rogers, in 1929.  The comic strip ran for thirty-seven years, ending in 1967 and experiencing a brief four-year revival in 1979 (the same year as this movie).

The character also appeared in a 1932 radio program—the first science fiction radio program, in fact—which ran until 1947.  The 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago featured a ten minute film strip called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars.  In 1939, Universal Pictures produced a twelve-part serial starring Buster Crabbe (who appears in a cameo in the first two-part episode of the 1979 series) which would be edited into three separate feature-film versions (in 1953, as Planet Outlaws, in 1965 for television as Destination Saturn and finally in the ’70s as Buck Rogers).  Buck also came to the ABC television network for a year or so in 1950 in the form of a thirty-minute long, live broadcast television series, of which there are no surviving prints.

In its own way, Buck Rogers may be a bigger cultural phenomenon than any of the other existing franchises in the science fiction world.  Only Flash Gordon comes close to it in terms of longevity (Buck Rogers is the original and Flash Gordon something of an imitator).  So in 1977, when Star Wars revolutionized theatrical story-telling, helped to change movie-goers’ expectations, demonstrated the power of special effects, and revived the space opera, it was perhaps inevitable that Buck—who is no longer protected by copyright, apparently—would be back.

After all, that’s a big market to ignore.

Enter Glen Larson, a relatively successful American television producer in the wake of his Battlestar Galactica (a television show cancelled after one season due to declining ratings and increasing cost over-runs).  As part of the marketing efforts, the two-hour long pilot would be edited into theatrical form and released in the United States, much like Battlestar Galactica itself.  And that’s how you and I got to be here, talking about Buck Rogers.

The movie, or the pilot if you prefer, keeps a lot of the elements of the original concepts, but re-imagines them for a 1970s audience.  Also unlike its immediate predecessors, this is definitely a light-hearted romp intended to be fun, and it fairly oozes sexiness.  It’s not entirely successful in the witty banter department, and some of the comic elements fall a little flat, but it’s easy to see what the show was going for…

A final word before we get to the good stuff:  it’s impossible to evaluate this film as a movie on its own, because the series was so iconic, and people remember it so well.  I’ll do my best to keep the movie in my sights, and not hare off on tangents related to the series.

Short summary:  Boy takes a five hundred year nap.  Boy meets Bad Girl.  Bad Girl decides to use Boy to conquer Earth.  Boy meets Good Girl.  Good Girl is convinced that Boy is a plant.  Boy has trouble adjusting to life in the future.  Good Girl’s side tries Boy as a traitor and convicts him.  Boy escapes and runs to Bad Girl’s ship, planning to fix her good.  Bad Girl tries to seduce Boy.  Boy escapes Bad Girl.  Boy destroys Bad Girl’s heavily armed fighters, while Good Girl leads an attack on Bad Girl’s space ship.  Buck escapes.  The day is saved!

Setup:  Buck Rogers, an astronaut, commands Ranger 3, a shuttle-like starship which suffers a malfunction in its life support system, freezing Buck Rogers for 504 years.  He is discovered by Princess Ardala’s Draconian flagship, taken aboard, and drugged.  The princess and her right hand, Kane, elect to place a tracking beacon on Ranger 3 and program its autopilot to return to Earth.  They hope that Earth’s Defense Directorate will take Ranger 3 through the secret passage past the Earth’s force field, thereby enabling the Draconian Empire to conquer a beleaguered Earth.  The plan works, up to a point, but the tracking beacon is discovered and the Defense Directorate concludes that Buck Rogers is a traitor….

Impressions

I really, really wanted to like this movie.  A lot of people did—it did well enough on broadcast and on theatrical release to get a green light for the series.  And I have very fond memories of the show as well.

How unfortunate, then, that those memories and impressions are based on the mind and experiences of a fairly sheltered twelve year old boy.

From this, you might gather that the movie did not hold up very well, and you’d be right.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s enjoyable, in its way, and fine children’s television (though with an overtly sexy quality which, as a parent, I might well have wanted my children to avoid, but then a lot of ’70s TV had a similar quality).  But it’s not high art, and it’s not especially well-done.

Let’s start with the special effects.  They actually aged rather well in some ways, even though a lot of them were based on re-tooled Battlestar Galactica ideas and props.  The Earth Defense Directorate’s starfighters, for example, were the first model developed for Battlestar Galactica‘s vipers, and that series’ landrams and distinctive laser bolts—sound and all—show up here.  It’s rather obvious that some money went into the show, and the effects—almost certainly scale models combined with animation, and perhaps some green screen work—hold up rather well, all things considered.

The computer-generated images, on the other hand—prevalent in displays intended to mimic radar or tactical screens—are remarkably primitive.  They don’t even look as good as an actual radar screen, though they probably were state of the art at the time.  The fact that the action on the computer screens doesn’t always match the “real” action which the movie showed in its full blazing glory was something of a problem.

As for the rest of the movie’s look…no ifs, ands or buts, this is science fiction as envisioned in the disco era, and it’s heavily laden with sex appeal (for both genders).  The hair styles, the in-story music, the clothing—all is filtered through the age of disco.  Tight spandex in flashy colors predominates.  Erin Gray, who played Wilma Deering, has commented that one reason that Wilma seldom sat was because the spandex suit was so very tight.  One commentator referred to Gil Gerard’s outfit as “polish sausage” (I couldn’t have made that up if I’d tried).  And Pamela Hensley’s Princess Ardala has a definite look and style all her own….

Musically the film is rather forgettable.  The stirring opening sequence of the series—perhaps one of the best in television history, which still has the capacity to evoke a thrill—is yet to be.  Instead, the Buck Rogers theme song is softened, sounding rather like seventies soft pop, with uneven vocals, played over images of beautiful woman in revealing costumes lounging about on giant lighted letters spelling out “Buck Rogers.”  No, I’m not kidding.  You really have to see it to believe it, and unfortunately the only video I could find was a web cam capture.  Still, here it is:

The acting is uneven, at best.  Gil Gerard, as Buck Rogers, displays a boyish charm and a ready smile.  Gerard shines as a drugged astronaut, and he projects confidence and competence as well as any actor out there.  He dishes out the cheesy lines with a ready smile and a sense of insouciance that almost works; about the only place he truly fails is in the witty banter and maudlin “I’m five hundred years out of my own time” elements.  Unfortunately, those are the most important aspects of the character….

Erin Gray’s character, Wilma Deering, in the movie/pilot is quite a bit different from the character you may remember from the series.  She’s not vivacious and half in love with Buck; she’s cold, arrogant and not very competent.  That’s a factor of the writing; the sparkling, merry and beautiful warrior woman is in there, peeking out, but we get only glimpses of her in the pilot.  Gray does a competent, if not stellar, job, basically ham-strung by the script.

That changes for the series, of course, and the following clip captures the chemistry of the two leads, and shows off some of the good, and the bad, the series incorporated:

Pamela Hensley, who plays Princess Ardala, is perhaps the standout actor.  She never shows a trace of self-consciousness, even as she struts around in a sequin-bedecked bikini with the most bling-encrusted viking-inspired hat ever to grace the imagination of the maddest hatter ever born.  Ardala is sly, confident, manipulative, and sneaky, and Hensley, a strikingly attractive woman, brings all of this off with a grace which makes me wonder why she didn’t go on to become a huge star (her last major role was as the titular character’s lawyer buddy in Matt Houston).

By the way, the two characters, Wilma Deering and Princess Ardala, do not care for one another:

The narrative itself is remarkably cheesy and inept.  Buck succeeds as a fighter pilot because he turns off the combat computers and goes it with plain old American ingenuity and know-how (“use the Force, Luke”).  He almost single-handedly turns a losing situation around by shoving bombs up fighter tailpipes while sneaking around on the Princess’ “Draconian Flagship,” thereby destroying the ship’s entire offensive capability, all the while being caught by only one of the ship’s personnel, Tiger-Man—who he kills by stuffing yet another bomb into his belt and kicking him off-screen.  And what’s he doing in an Earth Defense Directorate uniform at the reception for Princess Ardala?  In fact, what’s he doing at the reception at all?  It’s silly, it’s hokey, and it’s stupid.

There are some other strange or simply incomplete things going on in the movie and then in the series.  Dr. Huer, the elderly gentleman who may or may not be one of Earth’s rulers, runs the Earth Defense Directorate.  He also may be Earth’s ambassador.  On the other hand, it’s the Computer Council that apparently rules the planet, but they also function as Buck’s jury in his treason trial.  How the two fit together is a complete mystery.  And don’t get me started on Dr. Theopolis, who spends much of the movie as Buck’s greatest defender—even pointing out how handsome Buck is.  There are undertones of love at first sight at work there, and that was actually a little disturbing—not the gender issue, since computers don’t have genders, but the idea of a computer forming such a quick and irrational attachment.  Much of the movie feels like it was just thrown up on the screen without serious regard for how everything actually fit together, or what the real background was.

On the other hand…it’s great fun.  I think that may be one of the reasons the movie worked as entertainment.  It’s not supposed to be taken seriously, and it’s all about great visuals, sexy people, cool effects, and adventure.  And in that sense, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century does deliver.  It delivers best for children, who might be entertained by Twiki the robot, as opposed to being irritated—Twiki is in some ways the spiritual predecessor to Jar Jar Binks.  In fact the series which flowed out of the pilot became quite a bit lighter in the first season, though that trend reversed in the second season, as Gil Gerard himself agitated for a more serious tone almost from the beginning.

Wrap-up

I won’t say that seeing the movie as an adult destroyed part of my childhood, but it did bring into startling focus how little judgement and taste I had as a twelve year old.  As I say, this movie is great fun, but it’s also pure schlock.  Take a trip down memory lane, by all means, and watch this again, but don’t expect too much from it!

The sheer unadulterated mass of fan commentary, web sites, Youtube clips and everything else Buck Rogers out there on the web make it clear that a lot of people remember this movie/series very fondly.  I couldn’t give a better endorsement for the series’ impact if I’d tried, so obviously it had something going for it.

It had so much going for it that the “remake” rumors have swirled for the last two years or so.  IMDB lists the movie as “in development,” and MovieInsider.com states that it will be directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, with a slew of producers lined up and at work.  If it pans out, it could be good fun!

I leave you with a fascinating segment from British Television’s Channel 4, which captures a lot of the fun and the good things about the show, and which helped me to sort out my mixed feelings….

And lastly, just for kicks, some video which makes it clear why America loved Erin Gray so much:

Some other takes on the show:

The upcoming movie (from CinemaBlend):

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