Appellate Judge Michael Stailey says it's pretty bad when a Commodore 64 computer game is better than a TV series of the same material.
500 years into the future…One hero…An entire universe.
Far beyond the world I've known, Far beyond my time.
Long before this life of mine, Long before this time.
Far beyond the world I've known, Far beyond my time.
Facts of the Case
In the year 1987, at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA launched the last of America's deep space probes. The payload, perched on the nose cone of the massive rocket, was a one-man exploration vessel, Ranger 3. Aboard this compact starship, a lone astronaut, Captain William "Buck" Rogers, was to experience cosmic forces beyond all comprehension—an awesome brush with death.
In the wink of an eye, his life-support systems were frozen…by temperatures beyond imagination. Ranger 3 was blow out of its planned trajectory…into an orbit a thousand times more vast, an orbit that was to return the ship full-circle to its point of origin—its Mother Earth—not in five months, but in 500 years.
In the funkadelic era between the flower power '60s and the electronic '80s, there lived a renaissance man by the name of Glen Larson. Recording artist, composer, writer, director, and producer, Larson is responsible for the creation and development of some of television's most memorable series—The Fugitive, McCloud, Quincy, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Battlestar Galactica, Magnum PI, The Fall Guy, and Knight Rider.
With the box office success of George Lucas's original Star Wars in 1977, the fan interest generated by Larson's own Battlestar Galactica, and the rapidly approaching relaunch of the Star Trek franchise, the demand for science fiction properties in Hollywood was at an all-time high. Any writer with a credible concept for film or television was sitting on a potential gold mine. Larson, an accomplished storyteller and a successful producer, went back to the classics for what would become yet another fan favorite series.
Philip Francis Nowlan's short story "Armaggedon-2419 A.D."—in which Anthony "Buck" Rogers, Wilma Deering, her brother Buddy, and Dr. Huer did battle with the nefarious Killer Kane and the dangerously beautiful Ardala—made its debut in a 1928 edition of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. Here, former WWI Air Force pilot Rogers was trapped in a mine cave-in and preserved by natural gasses for nearly 500 years until awakening to a whole new world. One year later, Nowlan's story would make the jump from novella to comic strip—"Buck Rogers in the 25th Century"—a project he would continue to write until shortly before his death in 1940. In 1932, the growing popularity of the strip and its hero led to the debut of a radio serial, heard by hundreds of thousands of captivated listeners four times a week for nearly 15 years. By 1939, these now famous characters had jumped from radio to movie screens, courtesy of Flash Gordon star Larry "Buster" Crabbe. The 12-part, 209 minute serial was an instant hit with audiences, many of who mistook it as yet another Flash Gordon adventure. In 1950, with the radio and film serial long since over, but the comic strip still going strong, the American Broadcasting Company went into production on a new television series. The 30-minute adventure, which found Buck and Wilma battling evil forces from a hidden base behind Niagara Falls, ran Saturday evenings for nine months. Unfortunately, its success never matched the franchise's previous incarnations. As the public's fascination with science fiction began to wane, the comic strip closed up shop in 1967 and the Buck Rogers era appeared to have run its course. But in Hollywood, classic characters and great stories never die. They simply await reincarnation.
With Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Larson brings Buck's origins into the near future of the 1980s, making him a NASA astronaut and infusing his character with modern roguish sensibilities. In this version of the 25th century, instead of Earth being oppressively ruled by Kane (Henry Silva, Michael Ansara) and his army of super criminals, it is rebuilding from the aftermath of a global nuclear holocaust. In order to survive, they must open and maintain trading channels with other planets. Here, Kane is the chief enforcer for the Draconian empire, under the orders of King Draco and his emissary daughter, Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). The Draconians are planning an attack on Earth, laying the groundwork for the invasion by disrupting the trading lanes with pirate attacks, while negotiating a bogus peace treaty.
Riding high off the cult-like success Battlestar Galactica—one of the first television series designed and produced to a cinematic scale—Larson was fully prepared to raise the sci-fi bar once again. The pilot episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was produced as a feature-length film and released theatrically on March 30, 1979, a full six months before its series premier on NBC. The gamble paid off in a big way, with an audience ready and waiting to see what adventures lie ahead for Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray), and Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc and Bob Elyea). But auspicious beginnings are not always reliable predictors of sustained success.
Buck, as portrayed by the charismatic Gil Gerard, is the classic male archetype of the time: a funny, charming, unassumingly intelligent, insightful, strong, ruggedly handsome, good old boy; a born leader who can improvise a solution to any crisis on a moment's notice. Think James T. Kirk, Thomas Magnum, Remington Steele, David Addison, and Matt Houston all rolled into one. Throw in an open shirt revealing lots of chest hair and you have an instant prime-time heartthrob. But one star does not a hit show make.
Without Gil, the series would not have lasted more than six episodes. Let's face it: the performances are weak, the plots are thin, the dialogue is stilted, the fight sequences are ridiculous (to make matters worse, the stunt guy looks absolutely nothing like Gil), and the production values are bargain basement (as evidenced by the Maytag supplied starship hangar bay or those moments where the bluescreen remains raw and intact). And yet for some strange reason I sat there mesmerized for most of the first season. Could it be nothing more than nostalgia? I mean, I do have vivid memories of many early episodes, and a strong recollection of Hawk, who isn't introduced until Season Two. Or is it a morbid fascination with watching a series rapidly crash and burn? I'm not sure. It could be a bit of both.
How can a series so fondly recalled prove to be such a second rate experience? It happens quite often with these older shows. Watching entire seasons of 22 or more episodes back to back to back, the flaws become evident all too quickly. With Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, we have 32 episodes, comprising the entire series run: 21 in Season One and 11 in Season Two. It's a series that started strong, but failed to find its footing.
Three things killed the show:
The shift in dynamic from ensemble action series to "The Adventures of Buck and Twiki"
Even with that obvious charisma, Gil's performance was enhanced when operating within an ensemble. Here Buck was a fish out of water—a middle-American '80s boy lost in Kubrick-esque world where humans were little more than timid children disarmed by the colossal mistakes of their ancestors, now governed by a committee of face clock artificial intelligence. This disparity, the impetus of Nowlan's original tales, gave the show its heart and purpose. But the writers grew tired of the setup and moved the series beyond its origins with Buck spending more and more time away from New Chicago, the Defense Directorate, Dr. Theopolis, Dr. Huer, and Wilma. Unfortunately, the result was such awful episodes as "Twiki is Missing," "Olympiad," and "Space Rockers." The verbal sparring between Buck and an independent, strong-willed Wilma gave those early episodes a backbone. But her character quickly devolved into this shy, demure, hair care product spokesmodel, leaving Buck with little choice but to go off and hunt for guest stars to spar with.
The format change for Season Two
While the introduction of Hawk (Thom Christopher) granted the series a new dramatic edge, taking Buck, Wilma, and Twiki off Earth and shipping them out as members of McHale's Navy in Space was nothing short of bizarre. The supposed mission of the Starship Searcher was to locate The Lost Tribes of Earth, something they never spent much time doing. Instead, we see Buck on security detail, being mind-controlled by alien artifacts, mixing it up with gold skinned men and boys, turned into a goat man, mixing it up with an angry battalion of little people, mind-altering aliens, and subjected to a court martial all too similar to that of the Star Trek episode "The Cage." Add to this a new supporting cast that would make any sane person want to abandon ship—a robot programmed with the intelligence of Spock and the personality of Dr. Frasier Crane (voiced by Jeff David), an admiral (Jay Garner) in need of anger management lessons, and a ship's doctor (Wilfrid Hyde White, My Fair Lady) who needs his credentials revoked. Season Two comes across as the first prime-time action adventure to incorporate the comedic stylings of Ruth Buzzi and Jim Nabor's The Lost Saucer or Bob Denver and Chuck McCann's Far Out Space Nuts. It's no wonder the plug was pulled at mid-season. I'm surprised it made it that far. I do have to give the production team credit, though. The final few episodes showed the merest glimpse of direction and improvement, but by this time it was far too late. Even the overt foreplay between Buck and Wilma, heightened by Erin Gray's increasingly flesh-bearing wardrobe, could not retain enough of an audience to stay airborne.
An unhappy camper
The prime culprit of the series's demise may have been evident prior to the start of Season Two, in the form of Gil Gerard's increasing boredom. There are times he appears to be acting under duress. In these episodes, gone is the fire in his eyes that is so apparent early on. It's almost as if he knew the ship was sinking and there was little he could do to prevent it. No actor wants to be involved in a project like that. There are rumors that Gil preferred the direction the series took in Season Two, but these episodes are weak and present little more than a show desperately struggling to rediscover its purpose.
Unfortunately, since this release is devoid of any bonus material, we are unable to discern the real story behind the rise and fall of Buck Rogers from Glen Larson and his creative team. It's a shame really, as I believe this is one story many fans would love to hear.
Despite an inability to sustain its initial success, the show was not without its memorable moments:
• Princess Ardala
• Familiar Faces
Sadly, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century never lived up to its theatrical pilot. Despite its now dated production design, here was a concept that showed a great deal of promise, could have proven to be a tremendous star-making vehicle for Gil Gerard. Both wasted opportunities.
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame format, on five flip discs (ugh), the transfer is dull, dingy, and dirty. Universal has done nothing more than take the source prints out of a box in their basement and slap them onto DVD. The 2.0 audio track is acceptable for dialogue, but don't expect anything at all in the way of directional effects. Even the underscore sounds like it needs a good scrubbing. My thinking is this: If you're going to go to the trouble of releasing a cult classic sci-fi series, in its entirety, to a fan base with more than a passing interest in owning it, why not go full out and create a product worthy of its contemporaries and successors—Star Trek, Babylon 5, anyone, Bueller?
I hate to say it, but as a fan of the series, you're better off saving your money and watching the show on the Sci-Fi Network. There is nothing here that warrants an investment of $89.99.
This court reprimands Universal and any studio that releases sub-standard product. TV box sets are big-ticket items with a built-in fan demand. Why alienate your consumer base and shoot yourself in the foot? The project manager on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is hereby sentenced to a one year remedial college course on product development and sales. Learn from your mistakes and everyone wins. This court is adjourned.
Be-dee-be-dee-be-dee. Too bad it sucks, Buck.
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