Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

There was a period, brief but never the less real, when we paid to see television shows in the theater instead of watching them for free on, you know, television. This started back when some crafty producer would take a couple episodes of a TV show and splice them into a single movie — even if the plots of the two episodes had almost nothing to do with one another. And in 1979, producer Glen A. Larson managed to get not one, but two pilot episodes released as feature films. Granted, these were substantially expensive and ambitious (in their way) pilots, but still. He was asking people to pay money to see something they’d see for free at home. He was able to do that because of Star Wars. And we did it. I did it. The first of them was Battlestar Galactica. The second was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. When I saw them both in the theater I remember liking Battlestar Galactica, but Buck Rogers? Buck Rogers I loved. And years later I still love it. This movie/television pilot is also the reason I discovered Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

At the time the 1979 version came out, I wasn’t a huge Buck Rogers fan. Or rather, I was a huge fan — but only in a vague sense. I was a fan of the idea of Buck Rogers. I’d seen some of the old serials because they played them as part of the Matinee at the Bijoux package I watched many a weekend on PBS, this show where they’d recreate the experience of going to an old time movie theater by playing newsreels, cartoons, a couple serials, and then two black and white features. But I wasn’t any sort of die hard Buck Rogers fan, so there was nothing about Glen Larson’s re-imagining of the character that offended me the way it might have offended older fans who grew up not just with Buck Rogers serials, but also with pulp stories, comic books, toys, and newspaper strips. I was, however, a huge fan of science fiction and Starlog magazine. Starlog really talked up Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and I was thrilled by the onslaught of color pictures showing awesome looking spaceships, ridiculous Edwardian space outfits, dwarf robots, Tiger Man, and of course Erin Gray. By the time ads started showing up in the local newspaper, I was about as excited for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as I was for Star Wars.

Let’s a take a quick aside, if we may, and talk about Starlog. I’ve delved previously into the impact of Heavy Metal magazine on my young mind (and libido), the world of European comic magazines in general, and I’m sure I’ve dropped the title of Dragon magazine a time or two, though I guess we need to fully explore that, if for no other reason than to mention Snarf Quest. Oddly, mentions of Starlog have been rare in past reviews despite the fact that it far and away played the biggest role in my youth in informing me of the films that would become staples of my cinematic diet. Unlike Heavy Metal, there was no pornographic stigma attached to Starlog, so I could buy and read it in full view of my parents. There also was not a social stigma associated with a young kid reading a science fiction film magazine, because we’re talking late 1970s here. Pretty much every kid was a scifi nut thanks to Star Wars and Moonraker. It was one of the first magazines to which I ever subscribed. It formed the foundation for my leisure reading, along with Boys’ Life and some natural science magazine whose name I can’t recall. Pretty sure it had “World” in the title, and like 75% of the covers featured some Amazonian frog or other. And then of course there was Dynamite and Bananas, so I could keep up with what Sean Cassidy and Fonzie were up to while coveting centerfolds of Kristy McNichol.

More than any of them though, Boy’s Life and Starlog meant the world to me. One because I grew up in a rural area and could apply the many skills I learned, be it tying a solid knot or escaping deadly alien tripods that wanted to fasten a mind-controlling skullcap to me (the magazine ran a serialized comic strip adaptation of The White Mountains). The other because I loved science fiction and space — and in a time before the Internet, in a place pretty far removed from just about everything other than cows and snapping turtles, Starlog was pretty much my sole lifeline to all things science fiction. The magazine was originally meant to be a one-off publication about the Star Trek phenomenon, leading up no doubt to the eventual release of the much anticipated and now somewhat infamous Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But it turned out making a magazine about Star Trek meant you were an official Star Trek product and had to pay to be licensed as such. Not having that kind of scratch on them, founders Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs found themselves a loophole. If they made a more general science fiction magazine, then they could write about Star Trek all they wanted without having to pay a licensing fee. And so Starlog, covering the whole world of science fiction film and literature (with occasional futurist lifestyle articles, though most of those would later be spun off into my equally beloved Future Life magazine), came to be.

The first issue of what was then a quarterly publication hit magazine racks in 1976. The first issue I remember owning was from 1977 and featured The Six Million Dollar Man on the cover. Overall, the launch could not possibly have been better timed. A year later, the world was hit with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, followed in quick succession by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and Moonraker. There was also, in the real world, the beginning of the space shuttle era. Science fiction had never been so huge and socially mainstream, and Starlog was perfectly situated to ride the massive wave. My friends and I devoured every issue, and beyond that we frequently bugged our parents to order us stuff from the ads and classified. I mean, what little kid doesn’t need the moon base schematics from Space: 1999 or a portfolio of space art? What really appealed to me about Starlog wasn’t just that it covered these exciting new science fiction blockbusters and television shows; it was also that it covered weird, obscure stuff as well, be it Japanese monster movies or gaudily lit Italian space opera. All of it was done with a wonderfully positive “reaching for the stars” futurist attitude that appealed to a generation of kids who assumed we would be departing the earth and colonizing space within the next decade.

As the 1970s came to a close, science fiction fandom reached a near fever pitch. There was another Star Wars movie coming out. We’d licked our wounds and done our best to forget Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the theaters we had The Black Hole, TRON, and Alien; and on television we were about to get a couple shows that were boasting extravagant budgets that promised to bring the special effects wizardry and excitement of Star Wars to the small screen (more effectively, we hoped, than the Star Wars Holiday Special had) — but not before they brought their big screen inspired small screen efforts to the big screen. Eh? Big screen or small didn’t really matter to me. When we started seeing production and promo photos from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in Starlog, we were as psyched about it as we were for any news about this potential Star Wars sequel called The Empire Strikes Back. Executive producer Glen A. Larson managed a fantastic trick when he used the popularity of Star Wars to fund such expensive television shows, then turned around and used the high budgets of the shows to justify theatrically releasing the pilot episodes as movies.

The Buck Rogers of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was reimagined as a wise-cracking space shuttle pilot (Gil Gerard) from the 1980s who, during a freak cosmic storm, is frozen in a state of suspended animation. Centuries later, his shuttle drifts back into the vicinity of Earth and is retrieved by the gloriously scantily clad Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), who is en route to Earth as a representative of the subtly named Draconian Empire to hatch a mutual defense treaty to help deal with the local space pirates and their Kabuto shaped space helmets. Ardala is quickly enamored with the cosmic throwback, as all men from the past flung into a distant future are witty, winking sex gods. Ardala’s advisor, Kane (Henry Silva!) doesn’t buy Rogers’ story for a minute and suspects the man is a spy. With nothing to go on, though, and with the Princess serving as his protector, Buck is allowed to go free and return to Earth — still more or less unaware that he’s hundreds of years in the future and not just the butt of the world’s most elaborate aerospace prank.

It turns out Earth is in a bad way. Most of the world was destroyed by a nuclear war and ensuing ecological devastation, leaving the bulk of the planet an uninhabitable wasteland. Small pockets of murderous mutants roam some of the ruins, and the remaining humans are confined to protected cities controlled by benevolent hyper-intelligent canteens. Or computers. Something. To make matters worse, the one place it’s fairly safe for Earthlings to go — off the Earth — is choked with pirate activity. Well, they are called pirates, but where most pirates hijack and rob ships, these guys just seem to blow everything up. Anyway, the dire straights have led Earth’s primary leaders, sequestered away in New Chicago and represented by computer brain Dr. Theopolis (voiced by Howard F. Flynn) and human representative and standard issue “older British guy authority figure who is also a bit effeminate,” Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor), to cut a defense deal with the Draconians, who they believe to be more or less benevolent even though they are called Draconians and their representative is a permanently sneering Henry Silva.

Although they can find it in their heart to trust the Draconians, no one in New Chicago seems to trust poor ol’ Buck, least of all Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), in command of the space patrol that picks Buck up and escorts him to the safety of the domed city New Chicago. Between being accused of espionage and confronted with the fact that the future seems to have been dressed by The Jonzun Crew, Buck sinks into a bit of a funk. His only ally is a diminutive wisenheimer of a robot named Twiki, whose primary function is to carry around electronic superbrain Dr. Theopolis. Why the future built their electronic superbrains in little tambourines (seriously, Davy Jones would have had his way with them) with no means of getting around on their own is anyone’s guess. Twiki, who is voiced by legendary cartoon actor Mel Blanc, immediately picks up Buck’s hep 20th Century lingo (as imagined by unhep 20th century writers) and quickly becomes the movie/episode’s odious comic relief.

The only funny thing about Twiki’s constant zingers and one liners in this pilot episode is that absolutely no one acknowledges that he’s said anything — which makes it look like the entire cast is trying just as studiously to ignore Twiki as the viewer probably is. What I think happened is that Twiki was never meant to be a Borscht Belt vaudevillian, but in post-production it was decided to comedy him up a bit. Thus Mel Blanc came in and recorded some one liners and they were looped in after the fact, which is why no one reacts to them. After this first episode, Twiki’s “sassy” jokester personality was kept, so his jokes became an actual part of the dialogue instead of a surreal after-the-fact voiceover that makes it sound like you’re overhearing some dude just off-camera making fun of things.

Anyway, as Buck is batted back and forth between the Earthlings and the Draconians — stopping to make time with Ardala and teach the future how to “get down” on the dance floor — he soon discovers that the space pirates are in fact the Draconians, who have been staging the piracy crisis so they could get their talons into Earth’s defense system and take over, because who wouldn’t want to conquer a burned-out atomic wasteland with almost no natural resources beyond rubble, mutants, and sassy little robots? Naturally no one believes Buck, and if Earth is to be saved, the smirking man from the more vital and awesome past is going to have to teach these future Earth people not be such a bunch of gullible chumps. Many space battles and scenes of Henry Silva being irritated at shenanigans ensue.

As a kid, I had “high” expectations for Buck Rogers (as high as one can expect from a kid who went on to like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata), and they were met. As an adult, I still had high expectations, and I was happy to find that my enjoyment of the “movie” had not diminished over time. It’s goofball fun, though with older eyes I was also a little surprised to pick up on the faint melancholy and darkness that exists under the surface. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a very faint melancholy, but there a few spots where Buck’s realization of his predicament makes for slightly deeper television than the rest of the run time. Most effective is the scene where Buck decides he’s had enough of this uptight, sterile future city and decides to take his chances in the wasteland (with Twiki making he escape with him). On the outskirts of obliterated old Chicago, and before he has to punch out some mutants, he finds the graves of his family. Amid all the hijinks and gettin’ down, it’s an oddly quiet and moving — if obvious — moment. That slight element of darkness was eventually excised when the pilot proved successful and the series was launched.

Most of the show’s other charms are considerably more good natured, and they start pretty much at the very beginning. After a prologue that explains Buck’s unfortunate space shuttle luck, we face to a clear floor lit up with a massive Broadway sign style “Buck Rogers” upon which Gil gerard slumbers while Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley — in various states of shiny silver skimpy space wear — writhe about and toss their luxurious 1980s space hair. The only opening credit sequence I think could possibly give this awesomeness a run for its money is the one from 9 Deaths of the Ninja that has Sho Kosugi kata-ing his way through a bevy of skimpily dressed Ninja modern dance women who slink about and lovingly caress his katana. After that concludes, most everything is a pretty jokey, sexy good time — thanks in large part to Gil Gerard’s easy charisma and Pamela Hensley’s hip-swaying, which is so dramatic that it seems like it should not be able to exist under the laws of known physics.

Apart from the opening credits, the other bit this movie/pilot episode is famous for is the aforementioned “gettin’ down” incident, perhaps the most scandalous moment in the history of the 25th century. Predictably, music in the future had become little more than a loop of Wendy Carlos knock-offs, and dancing consisted of stiff-backed regal types bowing to each other and balancing glass orbs on their hands. But Buck, you see Buck is from the funky times, and he doesn’t care for all this “how do you do, ma’am please fondle my glass ball” stuffiness. So he teaches the keyboardist about rock ‘n’ roll (by snapping and saying “just let yourself go”), then proceeds to teach the future about the Soul Train dance line. And if you’re wondering if Gil Gerard breaks out the “dancin’ white guy pucker,” you damn well he does, just like every white guy who plays the blues has to do “squinting white bluesman overbite.” The future is aghast at the primitive sexuality of Buck’s shufflin’ (“It’s called gettin’ down. Might be from a little before your time”), but Princess Ardala naturally takes to it as quickly as Twiki took to his Jackie Mason routine.

Gerard carries the show well. While this was a massively expensive undertaking by television standards, there were still plenty of places where costs had to be cut, and when budget comes into play, Gil Gerard’s wry wit and smirk step in to see you through the rough patches. Even the corniest jokes more or less work when he’s the one slinging them. As his foil/eventual love interest, Erin Gray plays Wilma icy and remote — exactly what’s needed for Gil to have someone to bounce his charms off of. Err, such as it may be. Anyway, as a wee lad, I knew we were all supposed to be wagging our tongues at Princess Ardala, her almost non-existent sparkly space bikinis and her exotic headwear which was, it looks like, modeled after the hats Fred and Barney wore to their Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo meetings. And I was willing to play along with that. But there was something about Wilma. That pristine white slight uniform, the officious attitude, the good posture — my eight-year-old heart belonged to Wilma and Erin Gray. As the pilot became a series, they played up the sexual tension between Buck and Wilma, and by the second season had decided to take some of the brittle edge off the character. Unfortunately, they also removed most of her cool competence and resourcefulness. But by season two, the show was already on the ropes and had other things to worry about, like a guy with feathers for hair who flew around in a giant bird.

The supporting cast is pretty solid. Just about everyone involved was an old hand at television, and even though many of them probably thought it was ludicrous, they handle the material professionally. Silva in particular gives a good performance as the endlessly put-upon Draconian ambassador who finds himself also having to care for the impish and not-nearly-as-evil Princess Ardala. Unfortunately for the series, Silva was only around for the pilot movie, and the character of Kane had to be recast. The only weak spot is Twiki, whose sudden adeptness at Catskills Resort B-Lister quality jokes becomes a real annoyance. And yes, I liked Twiki when I was a kid, and like everyone else went through a face where I had to start every sentence with “biddy biddy biddy.” His shtick seemed less offensive and more toned down in the subsequent episodes, but in this pilot episode he’s pretty odious.

So we have a pretty good cast doing a pretty good job, anchored by a leading man who has almost as much charisma as he has chest hair (and Gil Gerard has a lot of chest hair). But the selling point of the show was never the cast. It was always the special effects. For most of its history, scifi television has boasted pretty terrible effects. The original Star Trek had some good stuff, but beyond that — well, you know how everyone makes fun of the special effects from the 1970s run of Doctor Who? Well, comparatively speaking, those were actually pretty good. But by 1978 or so, with Star Wars under everyone’s belts, it was obvious that the bar had been raised even for television. So the great sci-fi frenzy began, though the more action oriented form it took caused many fans to roll their eyes. Television producer Glen A. Larson was one of the first out of the gate when he began production on a series called Battlestar Galactica.

By any measure, Galactica was a massive undertaking, far and away the most expensive television show ever produced. Larson’s ambition for the show even saw him snag the services of special effects wizard John Dykstra and his SFX studio, Industrial Light and Magic. Dykstra was fresh off of designing Star Wars, and fortunately for Larson, he brought with him those vast amounts of lessons learned and new techniques. Unfortunately, he also brought with him his overall sense of style — which resulted in 20th Century Fox suing Universal, who was providing the massive bankroll for Galactica. The lawsuits didn’t stop Larson from rolling ahead though, and while the lawyers were still slinging mud (Universal counter-sued 20th Century Fox, claiming R2-D2 was a rip-off of the little robot in Universal’s hippie sci-fi film Silent Running — “let’s all go to space and grow some kale, brother!”), the Galactica crew completed a pilot episode, which was subsequently edited down to feature film running time and released in Canada. When the money started rolling in, Universal knew it was worth fighting the legal battle. And when it turned out that anyone who aired Galactica wasn’t liable under the terms of the contract, ABC ordered a first season.

With as much money as was being spent on each episode of Galactica, it didn’t take long for Larson to start thinking about two things: how to milk that scifi cash cow a little more, and how to do it for cheaper than Galactica. And so we got Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Where Galactica was a relatively lavish affair that spared no expense, Buck Rogers was a little scrappier and cheaper, though still by no means cheap. Larson cut corners by pulling a Roger Corman and reusing special effects scenes that had been shot for Battlestar Galactica. Even the spaceship models were recycled: the shape of the Earth Defense Force’s ships came from rejected initial designs for Galactica’s Viper spacecraft. To differentiate the two shows a little more, he also decided to give Buck Rogers an opulent, campy Edwardian sense of style as opposed to Galactica’s much more militaristic sense of style. And Buck Rogers was intentionally much more a comedy, where as Battlestar — minus a zinger or two from Starbuck — was a comparatively more somber affair. Since it got the Galactica hand-me-downs, Buck Rogers looks pretty good, with cool ships, huge matte paintings, and giant sets. A few of the composite shots are a bit rocky, but for the most part, Buck Rogers looks fantastic — and in fact in this era of shoddy CGI, I think Buck Rogers special effects look better than most modern special effects in television scifi.

The years between 1978-1980 — basically, between the release of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back — were massive years for science fiction. Besides Galactica and Buck Rogers, we got everything from the television series version of Logan’s Run to The Incredible Hulk to Mork and Mindy. They dusted off the Planet of the Apes series from a few years prior and edited the episodes together into “new” “movies.” And PBS bought the rights to air some British science fiction show called Doctor Who. Most of the new shows didn’t last more than a couple seasons, but for those few years television was as spacey as it’s ever been. Like Galactica, the pilot movie of Buck Rogers was released to theaters amid all this scifi madness. And even against heavy hitters like Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, and Moonraker, Buck Rogers held its own and made enough money to convince everyone to make a full series, not to mention a massive number of toys — and that’s how Buck Rogers taught me there was no Santa Claus.

By Christmas 1979, there was nothing I wanted more for Christmas than Buck Rogers stuff. Well, maybe some more Micronauts stuff, especially the Hornetroid. Anyway, my mom and I were out shopping one weekend, either at a toy store called Children’s Palace or another one called Thornbury’s. Both were much beloved by my and most other kids in Louisville, as the former had a front that looked like a giant castle and the latter had a sign featuring a giant animatronic monkey riding a bike. So it must be a pain to buy Christmas gifts for a kid when that kid is with you, and when we were walking out of the store with some bags the contents of which had been shielded from me, one of them ripped open and out tumbled a Buck Rogers fighter ship. My mom covered with some fib or other that must have been good enough for me, and life went on until that Christmas day when I unwrapped one of my gifts from Santa Claus and discovered it was the very same Buck Rogers spaceship my mom had bought. I’m pretty sure the revelation was handled more or less with, “Yeah, there’s no Santa, but don’t tell your sister. Here’s a Hornetroid.” Buck Rogers stuff and a Hornetroid? Santa who?

Sorry if that Santa news was a shock to you, but you had to learn sometime. There’s also no such thing as pandas.

So, as popular as they were, it turned out that neither Buck Rogers nor Battlestar Galactica were sustainable. Although The Empire Strikes Back kept the world crazy for science fiction, Glen A. Larson just couldn’t maintain such massive budgets. In its second year, Battlestar Galactica got kind of weird, what with the Eastern Empire and those strange space angels that turned everyone’s stuff white. It was off the air by 1979, and the attempt to revive it — Galactica 1980 — was doomed from the start on account of being one of the worst shows ever made, except for the episode where a Cylon meets Wolfman Jack, who is dressed as King Henry VIII, and maybe the episode where they paid enough to get Drik Benedict back long enough to explain what happened to Starbuck. Buck Rogers made it a year longer, but subsequent seasons abandoned the whole “protecting the Earth from the evil Draconians” and popped a smaller cast onto a spaceship they used to cruise around the galaxy Star Trek style. This is how they meet Hawk, a guy who really takes his bird motif to the illogical extreme. In 1981, Buck was back in hibernation, never to be revived. But it was fun while it lasted, and even though the series starts to fall apart in the later episodes, the Buck Rogers pilot movie was and remains plenty entertainment.

Release Year: 1979 | Country: United States | Starring: Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, Tim O’Connor, Pamela Hensley, Henry Silva, Duke Butler, Felix Silla, Caroline Smith, John Dewey Carter, Mel Blanc, William Conrad, Tony Epper, Vic Perrin | Screenplay: Glen A. Larson, Leslie Stevens | Director: Daniel Haller | Cinematography: Frank Beascoechea | Music: Stu Phillips | Producer: Richard Caffey, Glen A. Larson